Coppola’s Dracula is Indeed Bram’s
By Kristin Battestella
You know the story I’m sure. Bela Lugosi, the widow’s peak, creatures of the night! Even Leslie Nielson’s spoof Dracula: Dead and Loving It shares those cliché vampire stereotypes. In a hundred years of films, only one Dracula film affirms to the spirit of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. In 1991 director and producer Francis Ford Coppola threw out the widow’s peak and presented the ambitious Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Gary Oldman (Batman Begins, Air Force One) stars as Dracula, the lovelorn count from Transylvania. After his first lawyer Renfield (Tom Waits) returns to England raving with madness, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is dispatched to the Count. Dracula grows obsessed with Harker’s betrothed Mina (Winona Ryder, Beetlejuice), and after arriving in London, Dracula preys upon Mina’s friend Lucy Westerna (Sadie Frost, An Ideal Husband). Lucy’s suitors Lord Arthur (Cary Elwes), Quincy P. Morris (Billy Campbell) and Dr. Steward (Richard E. Grant) are helpless against her ailments. Suspecting something unnatural, Dr. Steward contacts his mentor, Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins).
You’ll notice there’s a lot more characters than your garden variety Dracula picture. Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart adhere as closely to Stoker’s novel as possible. Previous legal issues with the Stoker estate and stage productions forced dramatic changes and character combinations. Of the many actors, only Keanu Reeves seems out of place. Not far enough removed from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Reeves’ Tiger Beat persona did however appeal to teenage girls not likely to chance a period piece.
Despite her previous issues with Coppola, Ryder holds her own with Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins. Today’s actors don’t really look the part when making costume pictures. Hopkins, of course, fits in with perfection, as does The Princess Bride veteran Cary Elwes. I can go one about the entire cast-there is something to be said when an entire production clicks together; Fine direction, acting, story, and sets.
Naturally, Coppola had sound source material. If you don’t like Stoker’s gothic, yet erotic and horrific Victorian novel, this film version is not for you. Some lines and scenes are word for word out of the book, and Coppola pays homage to the writing styles of the book by actually showing the characters typing, dictating, or composing the letters that tell the story. Outside of the love story bookends created by Coppola, I don’t think any motion picture has ever been so faithful to its book or origin- except for staple productions of A Christmas Carol.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has its fair share of blood- blood and sultry vampire brides. While the film is not in itself all that scary, the ideas presented are dangerous and somewhat frightening. Coppola captures Stoker’s original intentions in the character of Van Helsing. Hopkins strikes the perfect balance between kinky eccentric and fearsome vampire undead hunter. His narrations on sex, blood, vampirism, and other beastly incarnations remind us that Stoker’s original tale wasn’t to glorify Dracula-unlike modern takes on vampires in film and literature.
Not only do Oscar winning costumes and sets show off Dracula, impressive effects also highlight Coppola’s production. Misty ships, werewolf transformations, and all those slithery Dracula moves fit seamlessly with the spooky subject matter. All the gruesome scenes and decapitations are on DVD-forget watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula on basic TV. Too much is edited from the film to be appreciated.
Lighting effects and music cues spotlight Dracula’s attention to detail. Dracula’s castle is perfectly shadowed with candlelight, and the gaslights and early technical wonders of London add to the period atmosphere. Likewise the film’s score ups the creepy ante. The haunting work by Wojciech Kilar (The Pianist) enters every scene at the right moment. When the audience hears Dracula’s particular theme, we know something naughty is about to happen. When I heard the closing song in its entirety on the DVD, I knew it was Annie Lennox. As with her Oscar winning vocal performance for Return of the King, Lennox’s unique vibrato tops Dracula.
Of course, Dracula’s length and pacing are its only strikes. The slow pace and more talking less action sequences make the picture seem longer than its two hours and fifteen minutes. The finish however, is fast paced, and Coppola resolves his time traveling love triangle bookends-his only deviation from Stoker’s work.
Not a family film by any means or for the eyes of the squeamish or prudish, Bram Stoker’s Dracula also might not be enjoyed by the traditional period piece audience. Although there is no outright sex in the film, Coppola’s illusions to the vampire bite as penetration, heavy petting and nudity from the vampire brides, a touch of homoerotic undertones, and one count of potential bestiality rape might be too much for fans of films like The Remains of the Day. Quirky Ryder fans will no doubt eat up Dracula, as will Hopkins and Oldman fans. Horror enthusiasts, romance lovers, and proprietors of all things goth can enjoy Dracula with each viewing. Several editions of the DVD are available-from affordable older copies to new anniversary editions with features. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a must have in any budding horror fan’s library. You can’t be a definitive Dracula fan without it.