Anyone familiar with Francis Ford Coppola’s work will know that his 70s films, despite their frequently violent subject matter, were often characterized by marvelous restraint. This makes his career progression in later decades all the more fascinating. For example, after a decade of commercial failures Coppola emerged from the 1980s with two pieces of cinematic lunacy: The Godfather: Part III and especially his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Huge, operatic, lush and perhaps somewhat grotesque, Coppola’s Dracula is a powerful testament to the art of moviemaking. However, it is also defined by a narrative so incoherent that it would make Tim Burton proud. Even more striking is that everything, from the costuming to the performances, seems to be governed by one maxim: less is not more. While this is sometimes to the film’s detriment, it still fuels this take on the Dracula legend, rendering it a unique entry in the annals of vampire fiction.
To some extent, Coppola’s adaptation of Stoker’s classic begins and ends with Gary Oldman. A powerful, daring actor, Oldman dominates the proceedings of the story, turning in one of the sexiest versions of the Count but also arguably one of the most cruel.
He is first seen in the film’s opening moments, which depicts how Dracula becomes the smoldering, undead sexpot we all know and love. Playing Vlad Dracula (also known as Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Trepes) Oldman’s character is shown in a relatively positive light. He is still a violent thug of course but also brave and passionately devoted to his young, tearful wife Elisabeta.
After an artful, albeit hilarious depiction of Dracula’s famed repelling of the Ottoman Turks, the warrior returns home to find that his beloved bride has committed suicide after receiving news that he had fallen in battle. Believing that she is now damned to the eternal hellfire for her suicidal actions, Dracula denounces God, stabbing a massive cross in a church which begins to leak gallons upon gallons of blood.
This perplexing opening serves as an indicator for everything that both flies and fails in Coppola’s Dracula. Obviously designed to serve as an origin story, this scene succeeds at conveying the film’s frenzied tone. But in terms of showing how this character originated, it flops miserably. It hurls viewers into a tornado of narrative incoherence, strange emotion and Oldman’s psychotic warbling.
Things become slightly more lucid during the main storyline, where we are introduced to the various players that typically populate the Dracula tale. We quickly meet Jonathan Harker, embodied here in the distressing form of Keanu Reeves. There is also Winona Ryder, who plays Mina (and Elisabeta in the prologue) and who was allegedly responsible for inspiring Coppola to take on the project in the first place. Finally, there is Anthony Hopkins, who chose to play Abraham Van Helsing as his follow-up to The Silence of the Lambs.
Despite this considerable star power, the cast is largely at the mercy of the film’s titular vampire and Coppola’s filmmaking proclivities. The director, although far from his towering hey-day in the swinging 60s and 70s, still deserves mention for the film’s compelling vision. Coppola seems intent throughout Dracula to employ almost every trick in his filmmaking bag, with the merciful exception of computer generated imagery. According to the film’s production notes, Coppola relied solely on in-camera effects and other techniques already considered antiquated by the standards of the early-90s.
The results are definitely powerful, creating a world lusher than any of the more recent Dracula tales. The use of practical effects looms over certain scenes, such as shots of rats walking on the ceiling (achieved through double exposure) and the winding, precarious mountain route to Dracula’s castle, which was achieved through matte paintings. It is also felt in the supremely accomplished use of makeup, which won the film one of its three Academy Awards.
With such dramatic aesthetics, it’s unsurprising that the film’s writing and acting does occasionally feel subsidiary. Reeves’ Harker, for instance, is placed center stage during the story’s first section, but the actor is obviously so far out of his depth that it’s embarrassing. Now, Jonathan has never been a particularly rich character, often times coming off like a feckless boy toy, incapable of matching Dracula’s fiendish charisma. He has probably never been more powerfully vacant than he is here. Reeves doesn’t just project one of cinema’s all time worst accents (a wispy, faux-posh and slightly effeminate nightmare), but seems to be less a human being and more a blinking object. This is unfortunate. Reeves’ minimalism has been used to spectacular effect before (most recently in the insanely good John Wick), but here he leaves everyone and everything cold, almost as if he’s the undead one.
The character of Mina, who in Stoker’s original text possessed some noticeable gravitas, is reduced in the film to a doe-eyed tool of questionable sanity. Ryder’s performance lacks any real sense of authority. There is none of the fatalistic resolve evident in something like Isabelle Adjani’s take on the character in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Hell, Ryder’s leading lady seems barely able to control her own mental and physical faculties much less take down the Prince of Darkness.
It’s also altogether unclear if Mina even has the desire to do this. Despite posturing as a more “faithful” adaptation of Stoker’s novel, the film takes enormous liberties with the characterization of its female lead. Positioning her as the literal reincarnation of Dracula’s Elisabeta, the story’s second half becomes dominated by Dracula’s headlong quest to reclaim his fallen bride. While this gives way to scenes of intense romanticism between the pair, it makes its claims of being faithful to Stoker’s text completely befuddling.
The biggest example of this is Dracula’s sadistic attack upon poor Lucy Westenera, Mina’s best friend. Played by Sadie Frost, this character seems to live only to suffer. Not only is the character sexually assaulted by the blood sucker, but she experiences a slow, horrific descent into vampirism. This clouds the motivations of Oldman’s Dracula. The character seems at one moment intent on simply romancing Mina and flying under the radar and wreaking havoc the next simply because he’s Dracula. In fact, much of the film’s character development is generally garbled by James V. Hart’s screenplay. An example of this is Mina, who bounces back and forth like a delicate pinball between lucidity and psychosis.
Even with this incoherence, this particular version of Dracula contains so many small delights, so many interesting things to look at and so many moments of genuine bravado, that it remains compelling throughout. It’s hard not to like a movie that features Tom Waits in a bit part as Renfield and Anthony Hopkins screaming about how someone is the “devil’s concubine.” It’s hard to discount a film that contains a Gary Oldman performance like this one. Not only is it a massive performance, which blows everything else off the screen but it is also a complex one. Oldman’s Dracula shows remarkable cruelty throughout the film (especially to characters like Jonathan and Lucy). However, he also is capable of a level of sensitivity that is strange and even moving.
Finally, it’s difficult to not appreciate the work of Coppola. After spending the 80s on a number of respectable albeit safe efforts (Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, Tucker: A Man and his Dream), his Dracula again showcases the boundless ambition that made him the biggest director of the 70s. Dracula is a return to the type of “dark night of the soul” narratives that defined his early filmography. And despite its many flaws, it is a piece of Gothic horror that does, in the end, deliver.