AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula
PLOT: Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.
COMMENTS: Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times. The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky. Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic. The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci). The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease. Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures. The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.
What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting. The good is Gary Oldman as the undead nobleman with a grudge against God. Oldman’s Drac may not be a primal force of nature like the mysterious Max Schreck, or an instant icon of suaveness like Bela Lugosi, but his performance ranks ahead of the very capable Christopher Lee, and puts all others who’ve assayed the Count to shame. In a technical acting sense, Oldman’s performance may be the best of all; no other screen Dracula has been asked to display such range, moving from old to young, and from a demonic torturer to a romantic fool. Wonderfully weird musician/actor Tom Waits also scores a hit with his throaty Renfield. Audiences tend to split on Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing, who acts like a distracted nutty professor and supplies most of the film’s comic relief; I enjoyed his performance, which was hammy but projected competence at key moments, but some find it undignified and distracting.
The bad, notoriously, is Keanu Reeves’ Johnathan Harker. It was Reeves’ first major role after the Bill & Ted movies (a comic role in which he was actually pretty good). This performance cemented Reeves’ reputation as a wooden pretty boy, and he’s done nothing since to dispel that notion. Harker, Dracula’s first victim, is a crucial role; it’s through his fearful eyes that we first witness the vampire’s almost godlike power, and it’s difficult to understand why anyone would cast an actor who is incapable of projecting great fear or wonder for the part, no matter how hot a commodity with teenage girls he may have been at the time. Winona Ryder, as Mina, fares only a little better. Ryder is usually a fine actress, but here she struggles with the British accent and with her own notions of Victorian primness, resulting in a forced performance that looks like a self-conscious American trying her hardest to fit into a cast of Brits in a Masterpiece Theater production of “Pride and Prejudice.”
Perhaps for cynical populist reasons, Coppola remakes the horror story as a love story between Dracula and his reincarnated bride. The focus on this romantic subtext is likely to create a male/female split. The plot makes Dracula into a tormented lover who’s only kills because of a broken heart. Speaking as a man, I’ve got a problem with being asked to root for a guy who once ate lunch in a forest made from thousands of writing bodies of his impaled enemies and who steals little babies to feed to his three vampire whores. But, if he’s got wild untamed hair and dreamy eyes and can pull off pillow talk like “I have crossed oceans of time to find you,” I guess some chicks will follow their buckling knees instead of their outraged consciences. After all, Mina’s love can, and does, redeem this bad boy in the end.
While I’m quibbling, I may as well point out another weakness of the film, one that’s a feature of every “Dracula” adaptation: the early scenes in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle, where the Count is omnipotent and mysterious, are far more transfixing than anything that happens afterward. Coppola did not come up with a way around this difficulty, but neither did anyone else, so perhaps we can give him a pass. In the big picture, all the complaints about Dracula—Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, the uneasy romantic sympathy for the Count, Keanu Reeves—are quibbles, things that hold the movie back from being the ultimate modern Dracula tale, but can’t stop it from being an intoxicating adventure in style and atmosphere. It’s excessive, grandiose, and maybe even a little weird; the point is, Dracula is alive, even if its central character isn’t.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Coppola has eschewed state-of-the-art special effects in favor of a panoply of archaic film-school tricks — reversing the film, multiple exposures, playing with the shutter speed — that give his Dracula a stylized, almost hyper-real clarity and a wonderfully singular weirdness.”–Mark Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)