Title: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Gary Oldman, Wynona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits, Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell
Dracula has been brought to cinematic life on more occasions than any other character. I mean sure there’s tons of James Bond movies, Frankenstein movies and Godzilla has its fare share of films (going on 28 as I write this)…but even more films have used the character of Dracula in one form or another. So it truly is one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history, period. So naturally, the question inevitably arises: which of these adaptations is the best one? You ask me, my favorite, bar none is Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the character. It’s just so epic, so classy, so operatic, such a well rounded production. But once upon a time, producers and critics thought the film would end up being a major flop. They even went as far as calling it “Vampire of the Vanities” in allusion to that other major box office flop Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), some deemed it too weird and violent for mass audiences. Test screenings led to Coppola editing about 25 minutes of gory bits; of course Coppola must have been shaking in his boots, I mean, another flop? Even worse is the fact that Coppola was hoping that this film would save American Zoetrope, his film studio, which was in bankruptcy. Was Bram Stoker’s Dracula destined to become yet another flop in Francis Ford Coppola’s career?
"I...am...Dracula. I bid you welcome"
All the negative pre-release buzz for Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not without merits. True, Francis Ford Coppola is one of the greatest American directors who ever walked the face of the earth, but Coppola is also no stranger to box office disasters. For example, One from the Heart (1982) lost a lot of money as did Tetro (2009) and these are not the only turkeys in his resume. Thing is that even though some of Coppola’s films don’t exactly ignite the box office, you can’t deny their artistic merits. I mean, I look at films like Tetro and Youth Without Youth (2007) and I am mesmerized by them, I love every second of both of these films, but I also realize they are not for everyone. I recognize how incredibly ‘artsy fartsy’ they are and how they can in no way be considered “commercially viable” films, but damn, aren’t they beautiful films when you really look at them? Same goes for many of Coppola’s films, and that’s probably what producers and critics feared would happen with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, they feared it would be another expensive, beautiful and artful flop. At the end of the day, awesomeness prevailed and so the film went on to make a hefty profit worldwide, saving Coppola and his studio in the process. I guess you can’t really compete with quality. A good film is a good film, and audiences recognized that in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Amongst the ever increasing amount of Dracula films, Coppola’s take on the character still stands at #1 for me for various reasons. The first reason is that it’s such a great production, I mean; here we have the cream of the crop in every single department. It’s not surprising that the resulting film is such an artistic tour de force; Coppola gathered amazing talent to bring his vision to life. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was such an exquisite film that it marked one of the very few occassions in which a horror film actually got some recognition by the Academy, the only other one I can remember was Silence of the Lambs (1991). Bram Stoker’s Dracula ended up winning three academy awards in the areas in which it excels the most: costume design, sound editing and make- up effects; but If you ask me I would have also given them the Oscar for art direction, because it excels on this as well, the sets are wow, beautiful, epic, like the old Universal Horror Films where everything was huge! One look at this film and you can tell it was done with great care and interest in making something that we’d never been seen before. Coppola managed to evoke a feeling of other worldliness, there’s always something not right, just a little off, as if the natural rules of physics did not apply. Coppola wanted the film to be bathed in a strange, surreal vibe every time a vampire appears. This is why, when we are in Dracula’s castle, characters walk on walls, shadows seem to have a life of their own and water drops fall upwards instead of down.
And the cast, well, for me it’s beyond amazing save for the one weak link known as Keanu Reeves. On his behalf I will say that Keanu was worn down when he made Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he’d just made three films in a row! Those films were Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Point Break (1991)! Nowadays Keanu recognizes his fault and excuses himself for his poor performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; he admitted “I just didn’t have anything left to give”. But getting past that whole Keanu Reeves thing, the rest of the cast does an amazing job in my book. Gary Oldman is fantastic as Count Dracula. Some people don’t seem to enjoy his performance for whatever the reason; probably because the film is a bit on the theatrical side. Some of the performances might feel a bit over the top or overtly melodramatic to some viewers, but to be honest, it’s what I like about this version of Dracula. Characters seem to feel more intensely, love without control, and in my book, this makes all the perfect sense in the world because when we really look at it, this is a passionate love story. This is a movie that speaks of the kind of passion that will blind us and make us go crazy with lust and desire, so lines like “take me away from all this DEATH!” and “The blood is the life!” are spoken with the appropriate amount of intensity in my book. Mina and Dracula really feel for each other, their love is not an ordinary love; this is a love that transcends both time and death! The rest of the cast is astoundingly good, of special note is Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, who plays the character diametrically opposed to Oldman’s Dracula. This Van Helsing loves food, life, singing, dancing! He is full of life, as opposed to Dracula who represents death and decay.
I love how the film serves as an allegory for the sexual politics between male and female. For example, Mina and Lucy are characters that are in the prime of their youth; looking forward to getting married and exploring their sexuality by reading the Kamasutra. Both young girls are curious about sex and its many possibilities, there’s even a hint of bisexuality in them when they share a secret kiss. So when an experienced dog like Dracula comes along and shows them how it’s done, they experience this sexual awakening and suddenly it’s a whole new world for both Mina and Lucy. Dracula has always been a character that’s representative of mans sexual impulses and this film is no exception. On this film Dracula satisfies his purely physical desires with Lucy, but it’s with Mina that he finds true love. So the film points this out to us, the difference between a physical relationship, based solely on sexual pleasure and a relationship that has its foundations on love.
One of the things I love the most about this film is how Coppola approached the production, the whole mentality behind making it. Coppola wanted to hearken back to the old days of filmmaking, actually, Coppola originally wanted to make this film with impressionistic sets, using a lot of lights and shadows, similar to what had been done in German Expressionistic cinema with films like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), of course the studio denied it, but he still went about making this film in the same way movies where made back in the old days, when cinema was just getting started. He wanted to use modern special effects techniques as little as possible.
Coppola was given a special effects team which he ended up firing after they didn’t agree with his approach. He ended up using his son, Roman Coppola for the visual effects of the film which consisted in the usage of miniatures, matte paintings, forced perspective, mirrors…techniques as old as filmmaking itself. To be honest, the film looks way better than any of the CGI we see so often in today’s films. The miniature work is incredibly well done, so much so you probably won’t even realize when they are being used. On the makeup effects department, well, I have to give Kudos to the ones responsible; the makeup effects work is superb here as well! Same as in most Dracula films, the Count takes various forms, but my favorite has always been this giant vampire bat; the way this creature looks in the film always knocks my socks off, it’s one of my favorite cinematic monsters ever, top that amazing makeup effects work with Oldman’s performance and great sound effects and you’ve got yourself one amazing scene. But then again, the film is filled with many show stopping moments that I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that Coppola’s Dracula is an amazing feat of filmmaking. It takes Dracula out of the campiness of the old Hammer movies and puts him right in the middle of a class-a big budget production, and I savored every last bit of this bloody good time. This is a highly regarded film in my book, perfect for a night of old fashion, passionate horror.
Rating: 5 out of 5