With a new cinematic take on the way, Oscar remembers Francis Ford Coppola’s ode to the Count.
Who made it?: Francis Ford Coppola (Director/Co-Producer), James V. Hart (Writer), Fred Fuchs, Charles Mulvehill (Co-Producers), American Zoetrope/Columbia Pictures/Osiris Films.
Who’s in it?: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits.
Tagline: “Love Never Dies.”
IMDb rating: 7.5/10.
The boldly-titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of Francis Ford Coppola’s more divisive films; an elegantly-designed Gothic horror tale that humanises the frightful Dracula and overcomes a few flaws with notable performances and an overwhelming atmosphere. Thanks to an eerie and operatic style and some strong turns, its a solid interpretation of Bram Stoker’s novel, despite being frustratingly far from perfection.
In 1462, Prince Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman) of the Transylvanian Order of the Dragon sets forth to battle the Turks in defence of the church. He returns home to find that his love Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has committed suicide after learning false news of his battlefield death, damning her soul in the eyes of the church. Driven mad with grief and believing God has betrayed him, Prince Vlad desecrates his chapel and renounces God, vowing unto the powers of Hell to avenge his beloved’s death. In a fit of rage, he stabs the cross with his sword and drinks the blood that pours out, thus becoming a vampire.
In 1897, young English clerk Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent to Transylvania to seal the the purchases of London property by Count Dracula, leaving his fiancee Mina Murray (Ryder) at her friend Lucy’s (Sadie Frost) home. He arrives at the Count’s castle and concludes his business with Dracula, who in turn discovers a photo of Mina and recognises her as his lost love reborn. Harker is held hostage by the Count’s three vampire brides, allowing Dracula to sail for London. He arrives disguised as the handsome Prince Vlad, and begins seducing Mina, and she in turn feels torn between the Prince’s charms and her engagement to Harker. Shortly after Dracula’s arrival, Lucy’s circle of male friends call in the strange Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), who appears in pursuit of the vampire. One night, Dracula drinks the blood of Lucy, ultimately claiming her life, and drawing Van Helsing, a vengeful Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) and two other accomplices to end Dracula’s flight of terror, before Mina is completely taken in by his outward charm.
Oldman is in top form as Dracula, playing him up as a tortured soul who has fallen into darkness and devilry. Yet he has a sense of humanity and a desire for love, ultimately turning in the very best performance of the movie. Hopkins as Professor Van Helsing has been called hammy and eccentric on many occasions, and I say: so what? If one spends his whole life hunting and combating supernatural foes and ailments, he will be a touch mad and aloof. Hopkins is a joy to watch. Ryder is suitably elegant and well-mannered as Mina, and conveys the tender moments with Oldman very nicely. Frost as Lucy is overtly slutty and even over-the-top at times, but is a good foil to Ryder’s modesty. Tom Waits as Renfield is suitably insane and creepy, sometimes more than Dracula himself. The supporting cast of Elwes, Richard E. Grant and Billy Campbell turn in good performances alongside Hopkins as vampire hunters. Alas, old Keanu is the one actor everyone cites as this movie’s downfall for his hopeless attempts at a British accent and stiff expressions. I will admit, almost anyone other than Reeves would have been more suitable, and by the third act he’s hopelessly wooden. Reeves gives the impression of being overly pompous. He’s trying but his role all amounts to little more than eye candy.
I admire Coppola’s efforts to break away from the old stereotypes associated with Dracula; Oldman makes his Count more romantic, visceral and human, and thus more terrifying while not trying to mimic the performances of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. Coppola also brings in the newspaper clippings and journal entries from the Stoker novel to drive the plot forward. The costumes capture the late Victorian era, especially the opulent dresses of Mina and Lucy, which come with a lot of strange, elaborate designs inspired by nature, giving them an almost creepy veneer. Dracula’s varied attire includes a blood-red suit of armour resembling flayed flesh, the famous aristocrat’s gown and bizarre hairstyle, and the disguises as Prince Vlad. The classic images of Gothic horror including stone churches, castles in the fog, wolves in wintry woods, and graveyards are brought out by the crisp cinematography.
The use of traditional effects over CGI keeps the movie from being dated, as well as a sign of Coppola’s reverence to old Hollywood tricks. Another very impressive technical achievement is the makeup effects on Oldman as the older Dracula, his werewolf incarnation, and in his bat form. With every variation, I was stunned at how detailed and realistic each version was, making the supernatural more believeable. The visual effects never feel like an illusion but an organic presence, using forced perspective and detailed matte paintings. The score by Wojciech Kilar captures the horror, romance and even the thrills of the story, particularly excelling in the low, brooding motifs for Dracula.
I have a few complaints, however. The direction is occasionally unfocused and almost schizophrenic, and sometimes a scene might be intercut with a few shots from another, or be edited in a somewhat jumpy fashion. Every now and then, a strange occurrence happens in a scene that lacks narrative reason or context, like Lucy’s fan service scene in the rain. Despite being a faithful adaptation of the overall plotline of Stoker’s novel, it’s apparent that the romance between Mina and Dracula is a new addition to the story, extrapolating on the novel’s themes of love, lust, sexuality, and repulsion of the stiff Victorian mannerisms personified by Harker. It does make sense that Vlad becomes Dracula in the film, feeding into Stoker’s inspiration for the titular character in Vlad the Impaler, seeing how his bloodthirsty nature and passion for his beloved kept him going for hundreds of years.
Once again, the conceit of putting the author’s name in the title only goes so far. While many of Stoker’s themes and narrative beats are carried through, the movie still brings in a lot of invented elements that don’t gel with the novel especially well. There is a strongly sensual element which Coppola exploits in the scenes between Oldman and Ryder. Such additions are not necessarily a bad thing, but it does distance the story from its title.
Ultimately, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a beautifully-designed Gothic horror with an undercurrent of tragedy. It is a compelling and well-written film that manages to attain emotional resonance. If you can overlook Reeves’ wooden performance in favour of the world-class thesping of Oldman and Hopkins, this is a worthy addition to the Dracula legend.
Coppola gets the movie off to a truly incredible start.
- Gary Oldman was quite drunk the night they filmed the scene where he had to lick blood from Keanu Reeves’ straight razor. The scene was filmed far beyond midnight, which added to the spirit of the scene and helped put the cast “in the proper mood.”
- Oldman and Winona Ryder did not get along well at all during filming. The rest of the cast was shocked because the two actors had been friendly during rehearsals, then came back from a break in the schedule seemingly hating each other, with no indication given (then or later) as to what had happened.
Director Francis Ford Coppola notes on the DVD commentary that although the three actors playing Dracula’s brides had agreed to appear nude in the film, everybody on the set was too timid to ask them to take off their clothes before filming their scenes. Coppola asked his son Roman Coppola to ask them, but Roman didn’t want to do it, either, and asked another crew member to do it.
Reeves said years after the movie came out that he wasn’t happy with his work in it, stating he had been exhausted from making several films right on the heels of signing on as Jonathan Harker, and that he tried to raise his energy for the role “but I just didn’t have anything left to give.”