Look at that title. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of all the cinematic interpretations of the classic horror tale, only this one has the original author’s name in the title. It’s a nice touch, and easily differentiates the film from all the others. But, if a viewer is like me, they will wonder if such a title isn’t a tiny bit disingenuous. When I think of this film, I think of it as Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. His vision, and his touch, both deft and clumsy, is so evident throughout that he has made the material his own. Mr. Stoker didn’t need to have his name attached (except for legal reasons, apparently).
It has been a long time since I read the novel, so I can’t speak to this film’s faithfulness to the source material, compared to all the others. But the usual suspects make their appearances, here. There’s Jonathan and Mina Harker (Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder), Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), Lucy (Sadie Frost), Renfield (Tom Waits), and all the rest. The big fellow himself, the title demon, is played by Gary Oldman this time around.
The story is very familiar. Count Dracula is sick of living in the Carpathians. His reputation isn’t the best (self-inflicted wounds, mind you), and he’s looking for a fresh start. Jonathan Harker is a real estate agent with a desperate amount of ambition, and travels to Transylvania to seal the deal. Thus sets in motion a series of events where Dracula finds himself in London, preying on everyone Jonathan holds near and dear. It’s such a well-known story, and such an iconic character (Dracula is at least two actors’ signature roles) that if a filmmaker is going to rehash it, they had better bring something unique to the project. Coppola managed to do just that.
His Dracula is all about style. The tale whipsaws back and forth through a dreamlike reality seemingly designed to confuse the poor inhabitants of that world. The visual style of the film is lovingly realized. It conveys to the audience the fantastical nature of the story, but at the same time contains a more menacing element. Perhaps this world Harker and the others occupy would be no different from late 19th century England were it not for the pernicious presence of evil. Perhaps it is Dracula himself who creates such an environment, like a vapor released from his pores, infecting everyone he comes into contact with. Surely, if these characters were not hypnotized in some fashion, the dread demon would have no power to approach them, much less feed on and murder them.
Besides the visual power, the film is very sexual. At heart, the original novel is about sex. It always has been. Dracula feels the need to seduce as he feeds. There are two types of hunger the monster needs to sate. No other interpretation has gone so far in making Dracula’s sexuality so overt. It could have been an absolute disaster if handled poorly, and there were times when the sexuality walked hand in hand with the absurd, but it managed to maintain enough maturity to hold off sniggering from this viewer. Much of the film carries with it a subtext of rejection of society’s sexual mores. Mina Harker loves her husband, but Dracula interrupts the steady progression of her life and shows her that she is, in fact, repressed. The collective rules of conduct carried on by Victorian England could have the effect of locking a person into a lifetime of unhappiness if interpreted rigidly. Dracula was an attack on the society in which it took place, and sex was the weapon.
The film has such visual power, and is executed so well, that only one factor could have failed it, and that is the cast. I look at Coppola’s choices in the cast, and I see a stark line between brilliance and folly. Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula is one for the ages, not just better than any other Dracula, but an incredible performance in its own right. The movie is worth seeing just for him. Unfortunately, he shared much screen time with Ryder and Reeves. I have rarely seen a single part so miscast in a film, much less two parts. Reeves is so bad he’s laughable. I’m sure he tried his best, but his surfer dude interpretation of an English gentleman is vacant and hollow-eyed. He embarrassed himself. Ryder, on the other hand, was merely outmatched by the material. Reeves should never have been considered for the role, while Ryder seemed to be found lacking after the fact. All intelligence was removed from the two protagonists by their performers, to the point the characters seem like simpletons. And it gets worse. Because they suck up so much screen time, their performances mar the overall quality of the film, turning it from a singular achievement in film to something mediocre. It’s also a reflection on Coppola, who, at that point in his career, did not need another project consumed by its own bullshit. But, it shouldn’t have taken more than a week of Ryder and Reeves on set to know a terrible mistake had been made. Once upon a time, Coppola shitcanned Harvey Keitel because he wasn’t working out in Apocalypse Now. A little of the same courage was needed in this film.