Bram Stoker’s Dracula

(Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1992)


Long ago, a young and green Francis Ford Coppola directed his first feature film – a rather tacky and laughable horror movie sometimes called The Haunted and the Hunted (aka Dementia 13, 1963). After many adventures in many other genres, Coppola tackles horror again in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And even if his budget is enormous, his cast stellar and his special effects lavish, Coppola is still dealing with the same classic themes of the haunted and the hunted.

The clumsy title given to this extravagant version of the Dracula myth signals its particular hook. It is not the Dracula story as filtered through a thousand exploitative retellings and camp parodies, but a faithful return to Bram Stoker’s original novel. This will not mean much to many viewers, but in effect the dramatic power of the script (by James V. Hart) has been heightened considerably by the inclusion of what writers call Count Dracula’s backstory – the gory details which explain how and why he came to be the character we know.

After all these decades of horror movies sophisticated and gross, camp and profound, it was perhaps a little naive of Coppola to imagine that he could pluck Stoker’s original tale from the past and pristinely deliver its one, true telling. Jaded moviegoers may well find its moments of terror rather tame, and its high romanticism fairly contrived.

But this Dracula invites our imaginative immersion. It hurls us right from the first frame into a maelstrom of mass murder, satanic pledges and romances torn asunder. Coppola aims for a style that gamely blends Victorian theatrical pantomime with German expressionist art – topped with eyepopping, cartoon-like compositions straight out of Zentropa (1991), or the Marvel comics of the 1960s (in fact Jim Steranko, famed artist for Marvel Comics, is credited as Project Conceptualist). It is the ultimate triumph of manner over content – plot follows style in a frenetic, sometimes barely comprehensible chaos of multiple narrators, impossible point-of-view shots and contorted special effects.

Film industry legend has it that, on the set, Coppola prefers to direct from inside a hi-tech caravan, gazing at live video monitors. This might explain the enormous variation in acting styles on display – only some of which are in sync with the overall filmic style. Gary Oldman as Dracula tackles an enormously difficult and demanding part with total conviction. Winona Ryder burns with sublimely lustful passion, and Anthony Hopkins delivers the subtle touches of comic relief with aplomb. Others, however – such as Tom Waits as a ranting, imprisoned madman and Keanu Reeves’ pallid gentleman struggling with his British accent – are an unfortunate let-down.

The best aspect of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is that Coppola has not shied away from, or tried to clean up, the horrific elements of the tale. He is not ashamed to be making an arty film about vampires, ghosts, blood and decapitation. Coppola offers a generous, gracious tribute to a low art form, and a vulgar popular genre – energetically imbuing the horror movie with the operatic passion it has always harboured. In its most delirious moments, it comes as close to pure, experimental cinema as Hollywood ever gets – as if possessed by a salutary madness. If only every Hollywood blockbuster could be this unguarded and grand.

MORE Coppola: Apocalypse Now Redux, Rumble Fish, The Godfather, Gardens of Stone

© Adrian Martin December 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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