as reviewed by Dan.
Format Reviewed: Blu-ray/Sony Pictures (2007).
Director Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s now-legendary tale of the ultimate creature of the night - Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) - is a hugely refreshing experience. At a time when post-modernism, irony and the transposition of story and setting have all become increasingly frequent, Coppola’s Dracula bucks the trend marvellously by being, from the moment of its inception, almost doggedly traditionalist in its execution. It is an unapologetically gothic take on the most gothic of fables, with a sincere desire to emulate the classic tone of a monster horror movie. Yet this is not a horror film per se: it is a costumed melodrama, anchored to the passion and desire of a love story.
Bram Stoker’s original novel is undoubtedly one of the great works of historically-influenced fiction, and the characters it brings to life are unforgettable, and have for over a century created entire industries, and made many people obscenely wealthy (not Stoker himself of course; he died prematurely and penniless, without even enough money to pay for his own coffin). Structurally, the novel is an epistolary - in this case letters attributed to the various characters - which lends itself to intrigue and discovery, and propels the plot in a fascinating manner, but it limits the scope for narrative development in favour of attempted realism. The Dracula of the novel is an illusory figure, conceived as the embodiment of pure evil. Coppola, working alongside screenwriter James V. Hart, sought to texturise the Count - and breed emotional heft into his own film - by making Dracula a fallen figure, born of the explicit tragedy of true love lost.
Don’t misunderstand: Coppola’s Dracula, for all his lovelorn musings and instances of melancholia, remains a malevolent entity, capable of the deepest sin and is downright vicious in his actions. The ‘snack’ he brings to sate his three brides - one of whom is played by none other than the delectable Monica Bellucci - is the culmination of a violently sexual sequence involving Keanu Reeves’ Jonathan Harker, and is disturbing in the extreme. It is performed with the utmost gusto by all involved (and that includes Reeves, who is entirely convincing in the scenes involving undead fellatio). It is the moment we see (through Harker’s eyes) that the devilry at work in Dracula’s Castle is both ancient and insatiable. This very deliberate design is further enhanced by the work of Polish composer, Wojciech Kilar. His magnificent score is a highlight of this film: at once haunting, dramatic, powerful and sensual. Like all the best examples of the form, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is both enhanced and celebrated by its musical vocabulary, climaxing with Annie Lennox’s vaunted closing credits song: ‘Love Song for a Vampire’.
Coppola sought to lend his film a ‘dawn of the century’ aesthetic; reminiscent once again of gothic horror from the golden years of Hollywood. The film is shot almost entirely on sets, and is purposely free of CG, to better reflect (and honour) the period setting of the story. From a costume standpoint, it is lavish to the point of extravagant. Truly, the look of these characters remains with you long after the film has concluded. The various gowns and dresses worn by the ladies of the film are particularly opulent, but fittingly, it is Dracula who embodies the apex of this intent. From the sinewy ‘Dragon armour’ of the film’s introduction to the shimmering red gown of the aged Count, right through to the more gentlemanly garb adorning his younger self, Dracula is a sartorial feast. From a technical standpoint, Coppola deliberately seeks to restrain himself. Some of the film’s more adventurous techniques are used as transitions; adding wisps of impressionistic menace to the simple reading of letters (in something of a nod to the novel’s aforementioned structural style). Beyond this, Coppola primarily uses his lens to both focus on and accentuate the actors he entrusted to realise his vision.
In a film as vivid as this, full-blooded commitment is an absolute prerequisite. The enduringly brilliant Gary Oldman gives a performance of total passion and elegance, that touches on the sinister, depraved and downright demonic, before finding sympathy and finally, absolution. He is at once charming and vile; charismatic and loathsome. It is a full-throated yet multi-faceted roar, upon which the whole film is predicated. In the face of such a consummate showing, it requires a certain heft to avoid being blown away. To wit, Anthony Hopkins is pleasingly eccentric in his portrayal of Abraham Van Helsing, lending the professor an almost schizophrenic energy, as well as affording moments of gentle comic relief. Winona Ryder, who at the time was still expected to become the ‘next big thing’ in Hollywood, gives a stilted but essentially creditable performance as Mina Murray, the love interest of Dracula and of course, Jonathan Harker.
Sadly, one of the primary reasons people recall this film - and then usually subject it to ridicule - is the unfortunate performance of Keanu Reeves. Francis Ford Coppola made no bones about why he casted someone so ill-equipped to play the role of Harker: he didn’t care for the character (considering him to be little more than a cypher), and both he and the studio knew that engaging in a bit of demagoguery might get some extra faces through the door. He was likely correct, but in a scenario not dissimilar to The Godfather Part III (1990), he inflicted upon his own film a glaring black eye. Reeves does at least possess the grace to accept his fate, and as mentioned previously, when not required to actually speak he is endurable. Alas, when forced to try and ‘act’ his performance is objectively woeful, and his accent work is legendarily laughable. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in the scenes in Dracula’s castle, Gary Oldman - himself under layers of makeup and wearing a costume complete with its own postcode - is essentially acting to and with himself. That these exchanges are both intriguing and eminently watchable is a testament to the genius of one actor, and the perfect summation of another’s near-total folly.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by capable, well-dressed performances. Richard E. Grant succeeds in making something out of relatively little, as does Cary Elwes, who brings some semblance of tragedy to one of the film’s darkest scenes. Special mention must go to Tom Waits as the deranged Renfield. He is a delight as he wallows in his lunacy, and is genuinely heartbreaking whilst on the cusp of his own demise. Finally, Sadie Frost is enjoyable as Mina’s best friend, and the object of Dracula’s (purely carnal) desires, Lucy Westenra. Hers is a broad-strokes performance that is nonetheless sultry and appropriately fiery, and when one considers she had to be coached every step of the way during principle photography, it’s a decent turn, that serves its stated purpose.
The true value of Coppola’s take on Dracula can be measured in the sheer volume of atrocious vampire-based motion pictures; many of which are still actively polluting our more recent memories. Bram Stoker imbued his novel with a sense of class and integrity, and the virtues of mystery, terror and drama. It is a serious and powerful story, which when viewed through the prism of one of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century, becomes all the more tragic, romantic and satisfying. It is driven by a titular performance of staggering dedication, and visually achieved in a style that is both crisper than autumn’s first morning, and more potent than the hurricane that rocks the S.S. Demeter. Francis Ford Coppola’s film is undoubtedly Hollywood’s most worthy interpretation of this celebrated story, and stands as a willing riposte to the shifting of whims, and the faddish reinterpretations of a timeless legend. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is affirmably faithful in its design, melodramatic in its execution and honest in its accomplishments. It is an always-visceral gothic love story, wrapped in the sumptuous sheen of cinematic tradition.