The more time passes, the better Bram Stoker’s Dracula looks. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation of the foundational horror novel has always been a sexy, kinetic nightmare, but in an age when audiences worship at the altar of “believability” and CGI and LED Volume stages consume the visual language of film, the practical wizardry and expressionistic depth of the film makes it shine even brighter. It’s been three decades, and we’re still finding things to appreciate in its phantasmagorical wonder.
And yet, despite the continued, even growing, love for the film, I always feel that one particular element is too often left out of the conversation. We talk about the costumes, and the practical effects, and the transformative creature makeup that made Gary Oldman’s ferocious performance all the more terrifying. We talk about a lot of things, but at least anecdotally, it always feels like we never give quite enough love to Anthony Hopkins’ fearless turn as Professor Abraham Van Helsing. In a film full of memorable performances, it’s quite possibly the most important, the counterweight to Dracula’s own madness and a truly great piece of work from one of our finest actors.
By the very nature of the story, Dracula and Van Helsing are set up as opposites, two forces at war with another, the great prince from the wild unknown of Eastern Europe and the dogged scientist from the West, each striving to bring the other down. Dracula is a story laced with many metaphors, but one of its most potent is Dracula as aristocrat, literally drinking the blood of those he finds beneath him, sucking the masses dry as he buys up chunks of London real estate and prepares a new path to conquest after years of solitude. Within that metaphorical space, Van Helsing is then set up as the one of the avatars of the Industrial Revolution, of progress driven by machines and science that will wash away the old ways, Dracula’s ways, of doing things. It’s no accident that when we first meet him, he’s delivering a lecture on blood diseases. He is not dismissive of superstitions or even the outright supernatural. He is in fact determined to investigate them more deeply.
It’s this instinct, this desire to know and understand even the darkest corners of the universe, that sets Van Helsing apart from even his fellow vampire hunters, who spend much of the film scoffing at his claims of monsters in the dark, clinging to the light of Western medicine and logic for answers they still can’t seem to find. It’s also that same instinct that drives much of Hopkins’ performances, and allows him to push Van Helsing into some truly unexpected places.
Whether we’re talking about Edward Van Sloan in Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation, or Peter Cushing in the more lurid Hammer years of Dracula’s pop culture life, we often think of Van Helsing as bookish, detached and even, in some ways, downright prudish when faced with Dracula’s animalistic impulses of pure desire. We see him as the cold to Dracula’s heat, the logic to Dracula’s savagery, and while that works well enough as a dramatic counterweight, what Hopkins does with the character imbues Van Helsing with a fire all his own.
When Van Helsing first begins to reveal his suspicions about Dracula’s presence in London, outside the Westenra manor while poor Lucy’s (Sadie Frost) suitors look on, he proves to them that they need to open their minds by, essentially, teleporting himself across the back garden. Whether it’s a magic trick or real magic, it’s enough to get the point across, and Hopkins portrays the moment with a kind of cool fire that goes beyond scientific thinking and into something more passionate. He follows that moment up with one in which he dry humps one of the suitors like a madman, shouting that Lucy has become “The Devil’s Concubine,” then demanding someone take him to dinner. A little while later, while talking with Jonathan (Keanu Reeves) and Mina Harker (Winona Ryder), he explains matter-of-factly that he “cut off [Lucy’s] head and drove a stake through her heart and burned it, and then she found peace,” not caring that he’s saying all of this to Lucy’s grieving friends in the middle of a meal in a crowded pub. In perhaps his best moment in the entire film, he stares down Dracula’s brides while protecting Mina in a circle of fire, then follows them into their crypt and beheads them as well.
Hopkins, as he’s said in interviews more than once, is a great fan of the “psychological gesture” in acting, a little visual tic that will help the audience understand what a character is thinking. In these moments and in many more throughout Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he deploys those gestures with care and power, whether he’s scratching his head like a doctor with a crummy bedside manor, or sniffing Mina to confirm his suspicions that she’s been in Dracula’s presence. It all adds to the sense that this is a determined, tireless investigator after the ultimate prey, but all the shouting, and the laughing, and the teleporting and dry humping, amount to something else too.
For every moment in which Gary Oldman does something otherworldly in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hopkins is there to do something strange and unnerving as Van Helsing. His affectations may be smaller, unaided by prosthetics and visual effects to convey magical powers, but they’re always there, and they create the sense that, while Van Helsing is human, he’s not entirely connected to the material realm in the same way the other human characters are. A part of him is long gone into the aether, where he’s determined that Dracula is his mortal enemy, and that his ultimate fate must be to face the vampire—come what may. It’s that aspect of his performance, and Hopkins’ absolutely unhinged devotion to it, that makes his Van Helsing the best (with apologies to Peter Cushing) ever put on film, and allows him to stand firmly alongside every other bold choice in Coppola’s film, not just fitting in, but standing out.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.