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Bram Stoker's Dracula
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes, Sadie Frost, Richard E. Grant

Written By: James V. Hart, Bram Stoker (original novel) Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola

The Short Version

This is easily the most lavish Dracula ever filmed.

And beautiful; “voluptuous,” even.

It also serves as a line of demarcation for Dracula turning from villain to odd tragic hero.

It’s the closest anyone has come so far, but it still isn’t actually Stoker’s novel.

Though not without flaws, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is excellent, and one of my personal favorite vampire films.

The Long Version

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Dracula says, “I never drink… wine.”  But here, he does drink… Absinthe.  Just remember, “The green fairy who lives in the Absinthe wants your soul.”

“Ja, she was in great pain.  Then we cut off her head and drove a stake through her heart and burned it and then she found peace.”

In 1897, Bram Stoker published a novel called “Dracula.”  Since that time, the character of Dracula has been approached on film well over a hundred times in one form or another, but never with full faith to Stoker’s original work.  Director Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart decided to give it a go in the early 90s with the intention of finally accomplishing that feat… and they still didn’t do it.  While it is true that they have come closer than any others before them, and at this point, it seems, closer than anyone else is ever likely to, that fact that this movie has its own novelization with James V. Hart’s and Fred Saberhagen’s names on the byline should tell you everything you need to know.

Not that this is a damnation, mind.  It’s just a note about the accuracy of the film’s title.  (A title which, to be fair, was also decided upon to avoid lawsuits from Universal.)

The place where this movie chooses to deviate from Stoker’s story is representative of an idea that had started to creep into the popular mindset with the rise of the modern Goth subculture, and it makes its first major mainstream appearance here.  In this film, Dracula transcends the role of monster and enters the realm of tragic hero.  No longer is his focus on Mina and pals the result of either coincidence or some twisted sense of evil or revenge.  Instead, here he is convinced that she is the reincarnation of his long-dead wife, for whose love he turned into a vampire to begin with.  (This backstory is accomplished by neatly rewriting some history, combining a few real stories of Vlad the Impaler with a few timeline adjustments and fictionalizations and using those as a prologue to the events of the Stoker-based story.)  His journey to London, therefore, even if initially conceived in menace, takes on the new air of attempting to reclaim his lost love by whatever means necessary, even if that means… traditional dating.  Even though she’s already engaged.  In any case, our straight-up monster story now takes on the dual role of becoming a redemption story.

How one ultimately feels about the film is likely to hinge upon how one feels about this alteration.  Because frankly, there’s little else to complain about here that doesn’t fall under the heading of “minor quibble.” 

Without any question whatsoever, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the most beautiful, lavishly filmed Dracula movie ever made.  All of the greatest elements from earlier telling have found their way here, from the brilliant shadows of the vampire that are one of the redeeming features of Nosferatu, to the reverential delivery of Bela Lugosi’s most famous lines from 1931’s Dracula, to Christopher Lee’s red eyes from the Hammer films (not to mention the vividly red blood from those films, as well), and more.  To these, Coppola and crew have added their own touches, and what’s most amazing about those is that with the exception of exactly one item – the blue flames that appear in Transylvania on two occasions – there is not a single special effect in this film that could not have been accomplished in the 1930s.  Not one green screen effect.  No computer effects.  With that single small exception, for perhaps the last time in major studio history, everything you see is done in camera with techniques such as double exposure, rear projection backdrops, tricks of the light, and so on.  It’s brilliant, and beautiful, and an amazing last gasp at what is essentially a dead or dying art in big Hollywood.  The love of that art that has to go into making these effects translates wonderfully onto the screen, and enriches the final product all the more.

These beautiful visuals are enhanced by what I consider to be some of the finest editing of any film of any genre that I have ever seen.  Whether frames are blended together or set on either side of a jump cut, the effect is always fantastic.  For an example of the former, look to the transitions involving the initial train sequence or the Absinthe sequence around halfway into the movie.  For an example of the latter, one of my favorite edits of all time has to be the jump cut from a post-decapitation flying head to a very rare hunk of beef being served at a dinner table.  That’s just bloody brilliant.  (Literally!)

All of this is further enhanced by a lavish color palette that puts the legendary colors of Hammer to shame (though to be fair, Coppola has a much bigger budget than they ever did), along with some of the most wonderfully elaborate costume designs you will ever see.  Coppola remarked that “the costumes are the sets,” and he meant it.  Whether or not you actually put stock in the Oscars as a gauge, there is no question that Costume Designer Eiko Ishioka deserved the one that she got for her work here.  Whether it’s relatively straight-up period material or fantastic robes for Dracula based on classic paintings, nothing anyone wears in this movie can be considered off-the-rack.  Few non sci-fi movies ever truly distinguish themselves in the realm of costume design; Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a major exception.  (A bit of sidelong trivia, by the way: many people remark about the purple tinted “granny glasses” worn by the youthful-looking Dracula in London, and consider them to be cool but out of place.  In fact, such glasses were common at the time… for syphilis sufferers who had developed a sensitivity to bright light.  And yet Mina goes for him anyway…)

All in all, when considering the overall production and effects design that make up the “look and feel” of Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula, I can honestly say that this movie lives up to one of my most outstanding memories of reading Stoker’s novel.  In the book, Stoker is very fond of using the word “voluptuous” as an adjective.  Watching this movie… yeah, that’s about right.

One is also treated to some magnificent character interpretations in this film, along with, for the first time, really, an accurate accounting of all the major characters.  (For example, no one else includes the American, Quincey, in their films, and yet he’s the ultimate hero of the book.)  For me, there are three major standouts.

The first is, of course, Gary Oldman, who seems to accept roles based on how difficult they’re going to be to play, with only the hardest ones being accepted.  In theory, he has big shoes to fill – he knows everyone will compare him to Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, at the very least – but Oldman is smart enough not to try.  Yes, he delivers the three lines best remembered from Lugosi with reverence, but he doesn’t try to imitate the old master; rather, he makes those lines his own, and indeed makes the entire role his own.  He has the added luxury of playing a completely new interpretation of the character as combined monster and hero, to be sure, but that doesn’t make things a cakewalk by any stretch.  Whether he’s old Dracula, young Dracula, or Dracula-as-beast (one complaint I do have is that Dracula spends too much camera time as beast, but that falls under “minor quibble”), Oldman nails every aspect of the role, and even though he’s only got one film to do it in instead of several, when all is said and done, he cements his place among the best actors ever to play the role.  (I admit that I’m still a Lugosi guy.)

Similarly, Anthony Hopkins steps into the role of Van Helsing and makes it his own, coming in second only to Peter Cushing with his portrayal.  This Van Helsing is mischievous and naughty and playful, with much of that characterization coming from Hopkins himself.  He brings humor to the film without ever turning to farce, and indeed can deliver a line that is funny while still conveying a sense of ultimate gravity.  It’s obvious that he had fun here, and that fun translates into art.

Also standing out is Sadie Frost as a lasciviously naughty Lucy (who doesn’t switch names with Mina for once).  She brings a different aspect of playfulness to the movie, along with conveying the essential lust present not only in popular vampire lore but also, most importantly, in Stoker’s own work.  (“Voluptuous.”)  Most impressively, though, she manages to play the spoiled rich girl without ever becoming annoying in the process, which is an amazing feat in any film, especially if it’s a horror flick.

Stepping back into minor quibbles, the quality of Winona Ryder’s portrayal of Mina depends largely on how late into the movie one gets.  The closer to the beginning, the better it is.  Just before we get to the otherwise amazing confrontation scene in Dr. Seward’s quarters, things start to go downhill.  The character of Mina takes on an essential change once she learns who Dracula really is and gives herself to him anyway, and frankly, Ryder plays better vampire bait than she does a vampire-to-be.  Still, though, with everything else going on around her, it’s easy not to notice.

Meanwhile, popular though it may be to bash Keanu Reeves – and he even did it to himself with regard to this role after the fact – I’m willing to give him a pass here.  Why?  I do it for two reasons.  One, the role of Jonathan Harker is the most thankless top-five-billing part in all of horror.  It’s like getting the booby prize or being named “Miss Congeniality” at a beauty contest; nothing good can ever come of it.  Harker is always a sap and often a fifth wheel, and the character is written as both again here.  Realistically, there’s almost nothing he can do with it except hope for a lot of retakes for the scenes where he’s assaulted by Dracula’s topless brides.  (You may recognize one of them, by the way, as Monica Belluci.)  With that said, my second pass comes from the fact that really, compared to those who have gone before him, he doesn’t do all that bad a job.  Those others all pretty much surrendered immediately to the role’s futility; Reeves at least gives it a go.

And really, at the end of the day, that’s all he needs to do.  The beauty that is the rest of the film washes away any of his perceived sins.  Even if you’re not sold on turning the story of Mina and Dracula into a twisted romance – and I’m not sure I am – it still doesn’t matter.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula is just too sensually stunning to walk away from as anything but impressed.

Bottom line, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whatever its flaws may be, is easily the most lavish, beautifully filmed Dracula movie ever made, and one of my personal favorite vampire movies of all time.  If you’re a vampire fan, you need to own this, and when you’re done watching the movie, don’t forget to check out the extras you’ll find on more recent editions; they’re quite interesting, too.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011

More From The Bar! | Horror of Dracula | The Lost Boys | Vampyres |

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