Janus Film Review Presents: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

as reviewed by Tom.

Format Reviewed: DVD/Sony Pictures (2011).

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! 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.

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