Updated: Jan 18
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 texturize 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.
Annie Lennox’s haunting theme ‘Love Song for a Vampire’ accompanies the end credits of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. It complements the aesthetic of the film rather well, lamenting lost love, and creating melancholic melody from the loneliness and hopelessness of the title character. It gives an overdue poignancy to a film that longs to drive home the emotional stakes far more often than it actually does. The film aims to break hearts in more ways than just impaling us with the business end of sharp implements. In a story that is as old and well-told as that of cinema itself, Coppola revs up the romantic tragedy amongst the gothic horror.
From Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee, via Frank Langella and Leslie Nielsen, the character has been endlessly reinvented, reimagined and mercilessly sent up. Gary Oldman feasts on the gothic, candlelit scenery as the intense, melodramatic title character, with menace and foreboding accompanying him at every gloomy turn. Lavish costumes abound, and there is much use of shadows cast on walls, reaching out ominously, dancing in the background, acting independently as characters themselves. Such shots are notably reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (itself, a thinly veiled adaptation of the Dracula story). Dracula himself is much like a Lucifer figure, renouncing his once devoted faith in God and vowing to rise from the grave to avenge the death of his loved one, mustering all the powers of darkness. He has condemned himself to eternal torment. He manifests in a variety of ghoulish ways, borrowed from the Freddy Krueger/Hellraiser make-up box.
Coppola assembles quite a formidable cast, though Keanu Reeves is rather drab and lifeless as Jonathan Harker, having been cast following the studio’s request for a ‘heart-throb’. Though he may indeed fit that particular bill, perhaps Tom Cruise wasn't available, and the likes of Gary Oldman run rings around Reeves when it comes to selling the all-important dramatic moments. To his credit though, Reeves seems to realise this, and so doesn't even try to keep up. Unfortunately, I also cannot take Cary Elwes seriously (too many viewings of his spot-on deadpan roles in the parodic Hot Shots! (1991) series, perhaps). Though he does do a fine line in hopeless buffoonery with a magnificent moustache. Winona Ryder fares a little better as both the title character’s lost love, Elisabeta (an invention of the film), and Jonathan Harker's bride-to-be, Mina Murray. Both Reeves and Ryder often give the impression that they are painfully aware they are being filmed, which is terribly distracting and somewhat of a problem. In 1992, however, there was really only one man who could take on Dracula as played by Gary Oldman. Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his iconic turn silencing the lambs, wins the film as the brilliantly sharp – but also amusingly blunt – Van Helsing. Don’t look to him for words of comfort or reassurance. (“Yeah, she was in great pain! Then we cut off her head, and drove a stake through her heart, and burned it, and then she found peace.”)
Operatic, tragic romance is the ultimate agenda of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and thus we return at regular intervals to Mina Murray, wooed by both Harker and Dracula, and who bears a distinct resemblance to Count Dracula’s love from 400 years before, Elisabeta. Mina is pursued both literally and romantically by Dracula, and feels as if she has known him before, recalling experiences of a ‘land beyond a great, vast forest’ (a translation of the word ‘Transylvania’ incidentally), his voice familiar as if from a dream she cannot place. In fact, dreams feature significantly in the narrative. Dracula is presented as a seemingly omnipresent figure, hypnotically lulling victims into dream scenarios which soon transform into nightmares.
Coppola makes compelling use of a variety of filming techniques, particularly an eerie stop-frame style to present Dracula’s point-of-view, otherworldly moments filmed backwards and a short, jittery sequence shot as if through the lens of an early film camera. Though erratically effective, it is the work of a filmmaker throwing in a few tricks just because he can. This incarnation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula exists to be an exercise in excess and style over substance and coherent storytelling. Wojciech Kilar’s beautifully subtle score, however, augments the story superbly, telling its own darkly romantic tale through flowing melodies led by the string section, sparse chords and insistent rumblings from the cello and double bass. They work as standalone pieces in their own right which, along with the evocative tones of Annie Lennox, add a certain amount of welcome subtlety to an otherwise fairly verbose film.