On Friday, November 13, 1992, a little film called Bram Stoker’s Dracula opened, and as I recall, that evening presented the only “packed house” that I’ve ever attended. At the time, director Francis Ford Coppola was coming down from The Godfather trilogy and, having exhausted the financial resources needed to maintain comfort in genre films, he set out to razzle-dazzle a mainstream audience. Coppola’s goal was to seduce the largest demographic possible, and he chose to refashion the Dracula legend, which had already seen several incarnations, based on the 1927 stage adaptation, on television and theater screens. Not surprisingly, Coppola decided to do things differently by extracting his Dracula from the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker, who reportedly created the story from a series of his own nightmares. The screenplay, written by James V. Hart, reflects a dreamscape that is at once full of gloss and goriness, along with clashing visuals and concepts that, interpreted by Coppola, are lovely to look at but leave little lasting impact. Bram Stoker’s Dracula found much acceptance from Hollywood and was rewarded with three Oscars in 1993 for Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup. With all of this lofty grandeur, one would think that fine acting would necessarily run throughout the film itself, but apparently, Coppola was so busy managing all the visual hoo-ha and inserting random boob shots that he forgot to pay attention to the performances. This omission is perhaps best illustrated during the precredit sequence when (not-yet-Dracula) Vlad The Impaler (Gary Oldman) returns from battle and drops to his knees next to his very dead wife, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder), who visibly flinches. Oh wait, that can’t possibly be correct — lemme check ; nope, no Oscars were given to any of the actors or actresses in the film.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which got the Collector’s Edition release on DVD last week, is a mammoth Hollywood epic; everything done is also overdone. So, we have multiple narrations and unanswered questions that litter the film like the corpses of Dracula’s victims. Fortunately, the frenetic pace of the film doesn’t allow for dwelling upon these points, for Coppola just asks us to blindly accept what he presents and follow him to the next scene. This terminal velocity, despite its gore and sexual explicitness, prevents Bram Stoker’s Dracula from truly falling within the horror genre, for Coppola never allows the notion of suspense to clutter his already full frames. Instead, the film encompasses the hybrid epic gothic-romance spawned with the tagline, “Love Never Dies.” It’s a kinder, gentler version of the Dracula, and this deviation was significant in that it humanized the story’s blood-sucking, murderous villain. And while Coppola sticks to the basic plotline of the Stoker novel, the motivations of Dracula’s evil doings do not make the trip from the source material. Instead of committing evil for sheer hell of it, Dracula now does evil deeds to nurture his broken heart, which I guess is something that mainstream audiences can identify with.
The dizzying chronology of the entire film is far too expansive to detail in such a small space, but the basic plot is easily digestible. Before the opening credits roll and Bram Stoker’s story kicks in, Hart’s screenplay provides an opening sequence set in 1462 amidst historical inaccuracies but grounded in folklore. A knight in the order of the Dragon, Vlad Dracula, sets off to defend Christianity against the Turks. When he triumphantly returns and undoubtedly wants to sex the wife up, Vlad finds that his wife has killed herself after receiving a false message of his death. When Vlad learns that Elisabeta, as a suicide, cannot have a Christian burial, he goes batshit crazy (in a very literal sense). So Vlad The Impaler gets all down with his bad self, curses God (and himself), and stabs the sacred cross, which, naturally, begins to bleed. He vows to return from the grave to avenge her death, and thus, the first vampire is born from both rebellion against dogmatic religion and unwavering love. It’s never clear just how or why Dracula’s vampirism results from this outrage, but causality isn’t as important to Coppola as style. Somehow, these actions simply transform Vlad into Dracula, and we are at the mercy of Coppola to explain the reasons why, which he chooses not to do.
After the opening credits, the film advances to 1897, and we find that Count Dracula is a swinging single living in Transylvania but interested in buying up real estate in London. A young attorney, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), shows up in Transylvania to assist Dracula’s real estate transactions, and we see that the last attorney on this job, Renfield (Tom Waits), inexplicably returned in a most insane condition. Despite a series of odd happenings, Harker resolves to hold on to his sanity, but when Dracula catches a glimpse of Harker’s fiancé, Mina (Winona Ryder), the Count tearfully recognizes her as his reincarnated wife. After leaving Harker in the seductive, blood-draining clutches of the Brides of Dracula (including a half-naked Monica Bellucci), Dracula travels to Victorian London to reclaim his long-lost love. Meanwhile, Mina has been keeping company with her best friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost), whose largest obstacle seems to be choosing which of her three fabulously wealthy suitors to marry. When Dracula arrives, he is distracted, hungry, and in wolf’s clothing, and so he feeds upon a sleepwalking Lucy while simultaneously fucking her in a garden. The frenzied sexuality of this particular incarnation of Dracula not only supports Coppola’s preference for climaxes over coherence, but shows how far he strays from the source material.
Soon, Lucy begins to “wolf out” and the local doctor calls in Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), who administers all sorts of funky blood transfusions while Dracula transforms himself into his younger self and courts Mina. Contrasting scenes of goriness continue while Dracula flamboyantly prances around and convinces Mina to remember her past life before his inevitable showdown with the vampire-sniffing Van Helsing.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an entertaining film, so long as one doesn’t require conclusive meaning along with their vampire epics. The players manage to look pretty without providing much substance. One exception is Gary Oldman’s transformations within the Dracula character, who repeatedly morphs from young lover to creepy, decrepit vampire to wolf to demon. Throughout all of these aliases, Oldman infuses Dracula with a mournful, yearning spirit. Sadie Frost is also quite endearing as the 19th century tart, and Anthony Hopkins does well enough as the eccentric Van Helsing. Keanu Reeves is, of course, awful as Jonathan Harker, but Coppola probably hired him for box-office draw of teenage admirers rather than his mad thespian skills. Hell, at one point, Keanu utters the words, “I have offended you with my ignorance, and I am sorry.” After 15 years, I just might find it in my little black heart to forgive him.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found “wolfing it” at agentbedhead.com.Love Bites. Suck It Up.
Film | October 9, 2007 | Comments ()