Wojciech Kilar’s Timeless Score for ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’
This score is something truly special.
Welcome to Terror on the Turntable! In this monthly column, join Rachel Reeves as she explores the powerful and unholy alliance that exists between horror films and their scores. Covering only scores that have been released on vinyl, it’s a conversation about the intersection of music theory, composer style, film history, and the art of deep listening. So, light the candles, put on your headphones, and get ready to drop that needle. The sacred ritual of listening to music on wax is about to begin. For this installment, Rachel dives into Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the timeless beauty of Wojciech Kilar’s score.
It’s no accident that the symbolic color of love is red. It is also no coincidence that danger is often associated with red, too. Linked to the heart both physically and metaphorically, love is an emotion that flows through the body like blood through veins. Saturating every cell, every pore, and every extremity, love has the power to overtake the body with absolute bliss…or dangerous, unmitigated despair. Powerfully potent in this ability to evoke strong visceral images and dichotomous range, love has understandably held a long, special relationship with the horror genre.
Within both literature and cinema, horror’s unique ability to plumb the depths of love and its diverse range of potential has resulted in some truly dark and compelling stories. One such story is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Seeking justice for the iconic character and the 1897 novel in which he first appeared, Coppola visualized a film with an unprecedented cinematic portrayal. Not only did he aim to leave the more reductive (and classic) presentation of Dracula on the shelf, but he sought to do so while simultaneously paying tribute to cinema’s rich dramatic and creative history. Despite many factors contributing to Coppola’s ultimate success with the film, few sealed the deal as effectively as the costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka and the score composed by Wojciech Kilar.
Before diving into the lush, intoxicating world of Kilar’s music, it’s important to understand how Bram Stoker’s Dracula came to be. Based on a script written by James V. Hart, the story was first brought to Coppola’s attention by none other than Winona Ryder. Having previously put Coppola in a bit of a casting jam due to her dropping out of The Godfather: Pt. III last minute, Ryder owed the famed director a bit of a favor. I mean, just imagine calling up Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather, The Godfather: Pt. II, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, and The Outsiders, and saying, “I’m really sorry, but I have to back out of that role you gave me.” Well, that’s exactly what Winona Ryder did. Or to be more specific, that’s exactly what her then-boyfriend Johnny Depp did on her behalf.
While Ryder did have valid reasons for pulling out of Coppola’s third installment in his acclaimed Godfather trilogy, she understandably felt the need to make up for it. After coming across Hart’s more compassionate and complex portrayal of horror’s premiere blood-sucker, Ryder felt Coppola was the one who could truly bring this more nuanced Dracula to life. Thankfully, Coppola agreed. He saw Hart’s script as an opportunity to explore the more operatic love story residing at the heart of Dracula, as well as a chance to write a cinematic love letter to the art of filmmaking. And to do so, he assembled a starstudded cast that included Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Cary Elwes, and Tom Waits.
Rather than utilizing modern visual effect technology, Coppola opted to return to the roots of cinematic illusion. After firing the first visual effects team who seemingly could not get on board with this approach, Coppola hired his own son, Roman Coppola to help bring his vision to life. Well-versed in historical techniques, the father-son duo created a plan to execute a myriad of in-camera effects and bygone approaches to cinematic illusion. Not only would this deliberate stylistic choice help set the tone for the film, but the use of techniques like rear projection, double exposure, reverse motion, miniatures, and forced perspective also convey the odd aura and occurrences that surround Dracula and take place within his presence. More than simply relaying a story, Coppola and his team set out to build a grandiose world as timeless as Dracula himself.
As part of this equation, Coppola knew that the film would need a strong score to support the powerful visuals unfolding on-screen. Seeking a composer with Eastern European roots to bring out Dracula’s historic backstory, Coppola soon came across Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. An acclaimed and accomplished composer in Europe, Kilar had been professionally composing classical works for both the stage and screen since completing his studies with the iconic French music teacher Nadia Boulanger in 1960. Despite years of success working with some of the most famed filmmakers in Poland, France, and Europe, Kilar had never quite nabbed the attention of American filmmakers. That is until Coppola decided to call him at 3 am.
“He said he was making this Dracula film and asked me if I wouldn’t like to write music for it. I took this offer as a great compliment because my all-time favorite film is The Godfather. I adore that film, and I have always adored it, from the moment I first saw it. I told him, ‘When I think cinema, I think Coppola,’ and when he asked me to do the music, I replied that this was an offer no one could refuse!” – Wojciech Kilar
Classically trained in both piano and composition, Kilar’s affinity for full-bodied, traditional orchestration beautifully fit the tonal world Coppola was constructing. Fully trusting and relinquishing creative musical control to Kilar, Coppola told the composer, “Listen, I’m a director, I made the film. You’re a composer, you’ve seen the film, do what you want.” By placing this remarkable amount of trust in Kilar and his creative process, Coppola allowed Kilar to connect with the characters in his own personal way. After recovering from an unfortunate heart attack, Kilar got to work. Free from any limitations or expectations, Kilar’s masterful affinity for crafting poignant, enveloping melodies flourished and offered important character subtext and persuasive layers of emotional undertone.
As proof of this concept, one needn’t look much further than Kilar’s fantastic opening piece, “Dracula-The Beginning.” While the narrative stage is set through dramatic scenes of Dracula’s early days as Vlad III of Wallachia (played to perfection by Gary Oldman), strong, low pulses are accompanied by low and lilting strings delivering Dracula’s Theme. Rich and regal in their execution, this deliberate instrumentation imparts an atmosphere of status and composure with an appropriate regional sound. As layers and textures build, the horrors of war can be felt through blasts of brass and rolling percussion.
Seamlessly transitioning along with Vlad’s return home, the tragic discovery of his fiancée Elisabeta’s (Winona Ryder) suicide under false pretenses marks a notable tonal shift. A chorus of whispers and lone soprano embody the love so tragically lost. Underneath the soaring, sad vocal solo a low crescendo mirrors the frustration and anger Vlad experiences. Not only has he lost his one true love, but the church’s refusal to give her a proper burial further propels Vlad into denouncing his faith, the church, and the power of death itself. Definitively punctuated by terrifying bursts of sound, Vlad III ceases to exist and a new dark being becomes awoken along with the film’s title card.
Clocking in at nearly seven minutes long, this opening sequence highlights the dexterity with which Kilar manipulates and highlights the high emotions running throughout the film. Carefully utilizing each and every performer in the 100-piece Los Angeles orchestra and 50-person choir he had at his disposal (conducted by Anton Coppola), the weight and skill of the talent behind the scenes provide a truly immersive sonic experience. Much like the film itself, Kilar’s “old school” approach to instrumentation and orchestration imbues the score with a wonderfully timeless feel. Sonically connecting Dracula’s past with his present, this use of traditional instruments blurs the lines of time and allows the story to transcend such arbitrary constructs.
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Along with Dracula’s Theme, Kilar creates a myriad of other themes that he implements and weaves throughout the film, connecting narrative threads and characters. For Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) there is the Hunter’s Theme with its militaristic rhythm and repetition. More than a hobby, vanquishing vampires is a duty for Van Helsing which becomes conveyed through his music. For Lucy (Sadie Frost) and her theme, a dreamy harp, chimes, and ethereal celesta encapsulate the privileged world of fantasy and delight that she so naively exists in. Even Dracula’s undead brides get their own melodic moments complete with seductive strings and mysterious melodies. Despite each individual melody unfolding with its own particular brand of beauty and effectiveness, none can quite compare to the Love Theme.
Although Kilar drops hints of the Love Theme throughout, it is at its most formidable in the track, “Mina/Dracula”. Sneaking in with Dracula’s quintessential low strings, the melody which starts out dark in feeling soon transforms into something else entirely. With a solo oboe giving way to a solo flute, careful waves of seething strings swirl around the intimate love scene taking place between Dracula and Mina (Ryder)—much like the smoke Dracula rides in on.
Achingly romantic and tinged with sadness, Kilar’s heartbreakingly beautiful music makes Oldman’s delivery of the line “I have crossed oceans of time to find you” not only emotionally devastating but believable. As the pair drinks of each other’s blood, their tragic fate and most certain dark destiny hang in the air like so many words left unsaid, caught on the soundwaves of lovingly caressed strings. This is the Dracula Coppola and crew were aiming to portray and Kilar’s music supports that vision at every conceivable turn.
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Truly stunning from top to bottom, there’s not a single moment of Kilar’s score that isn’t worth indulging in. Quiet where it needs to be, bombastic and terrifying in just the right places, excruciatingly beautiful and often so affecting it hurts, every single track and cue stands as a piece of art. That said, it’s no surprise that Bram Stoker’s Dracula became the score that drew international attention to Kilar’s undeniable skill. As his first American film score, Kilar arrived on the scene holding no punches and both critics and audiences alike took notice.
Winning multiple awards (including a Fangoria Chainsaw Award), Kilar’s sensitive and thoughtful approach breathed fresh new life into one of horror’s most beloved books and most reproduced characters. An exquisite example of true artistry and what can happen when a director places full creative trust in a composer, Kilar’s music will undoubtedly send chills radiating down your spine one minute, only to reach up and squeeze your heart the next. Much like Dracula himself, Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one for the ages and a score whose value and merit will never truly die.
Due to the film’s gigantic success, it comes as no surprise that Kilar’s score was quickly released on CD, cassette, and vinyl around the globe. However, those original 1992 releases from Columbia contained only the tracks that were present in the film (including an Annie Lennox song that played over the end credits). Due to necessary edits and various filmmaking issues, Kilar’s score was condensed and cherry-picked from the massive amount of music that he initially provided. It wouldn’t be until 2018 when La-La Land Records released an expanded 3xCD set that contained Kilar’s full musical contributions.
Then, in 2020 and 2021, both Music on Vinyl and Death Waltz Recording Company released their own vinyl versions. While both are 180 gram quality releases that contain the same material, the Death Waltz release is hard one to pass up due to being remastered and released with stunning new artwork, “Blood is Life” colored vinyl, and new liner notes from writer Charlie Brigden. Though currently out of print, copies are available via Discogs and maybe, if you’re lucky, a record store near you.