Director: Francis Ford Coppola
By Roderick Heath
Bram Stoker’s most famous creation has retained his culturally iconic status largely because of the many fascinatingly varied cinematic takes on the sanguinary Count. His story invites inventive interpretation, with underpinnings that are intrinsically mythic and psychologically primal, yet parsed by modern processes of rational investigation and juxtaposed realism. It’s also expressively bound up with the transformations just beginning to afflict Western society when Stoker published the work. These different tensions within the tale need only be tweaked slightly in any direction to change it comprehensively. Look at the films, and the artistic and cultural traditions therein, evolved from this work. F. W. Murnau offered a Germanic, Death-and-the-Maiden take in his expressionistic Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1921). Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) conjured a high-gothic, dreamlike world that belittled the neurotic repression of its heroes and offered the suavest of vampire overlords. Terence Fisher’s rip-roaring, ironically realistic Dracula (1958) stripped things down to basics and portrayed invasive sexuality afflicting the uptight bourgeoisie. Werner Herzog’s epic recasting of Murnau’s template with Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), delved even deeper to create a medieval-flavoured folk myth. Various interesting TV takes in the 1970s tried to stick close to the novel and draw out its literary intricacy, whilst John Badham’s 1979 version offered Frank Langella as a romance-novel antihero. Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) was a blend of dance and illustrative fantasia.
All of these versions have fans and several have a claim to greatness. Francis Ford Coppola took his chances in the early ’90s, and it paid off for him, at least in the short-term. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was his last popular hit to date, and it’s still held in fond regard by a lot of younger movie fans, largely because of the magical nexus of Gen-X icon Winona Ryder and a swooning version of the tale perfect for the burgeoning teen Goth subculture. Coppola had begun his directorial career with horror films, including his uncredited work on The Terror and his mainstream debut, Dementia 13 (1963), under the aegis of Roger Corman, so he knew his way around the genre. Being a young horror fan and movie buff at the time, the promise of Coppola making a Dracula film was exciting to the deepest parts of my anatomy. And yet the result was a disappointment so severe that I’ve never quite shaken it off in estimating my opinion of Coppola. I’ve only returned to it again a couple of times in the nearly two decades that have passed since its release. I generally feel Coppola’s post-Apocalypse Now work is badly underappreciated, particularly One from the Heart (1981), Rumblefish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984), and The Godfather Part III (1990). And yet Bram Stoker’s Dracula is definite proof of many of the worst things said about Coppola in those waning days: that he was only interested in style, and that his care with the human element was gone.
The initial selling point of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (hence the title) is the nominal notion that it’s a more accurate adaptation of Stoker than usual. It does restore many elements from the novel, from some of Stoker’s surprisingly potent horror, like Dracula’s feeding a child to his coterie of vampire femmes, to supporting characters like the gallant American Quincey Morris. And yet the possessive title starts to seem more than a bit laughable, because Coppola’s and screenwriter James V. Hart’s own digressions, though different from Murnau’s, are just as great. Conceptually, Coppola’s version is epic, and that is this film’s most resilient quality. Other versions reduce Dracula to a kind of rogue seducer and rodent-like survivor, but Coppola aims to flesh out Stoker’s hinted, if never quite fulfilled, portrait of Dracula as a titan with control over men and elements, a fallen king who only needs a foothold to commence an unparalleled reign of terror. Like other more recent versions, Bram Stoker’s Dracula conflates the historical inspiration for Stoker’s story by commencing with a stylised flashback to Vlad III “The Impaler” (Gary Oldman) fighting for the survival of Christianity against the Turks.
Vlad wins, only for his beloved wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) to commit suicide after a false message declaring his death is shot by arrow into the castle by his enemies. Returning home to her body, Vlad is enraged when the officiating priest (Anthony Hopkins) won’t give the sacrament of extreme unction to a suicide, and he declares a vow against God, stabbing the crucifix in his castle’s abbey and drinking the blood that pours forth from it. Four centuries later, young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is commissioned by his boss to replace his predecessor, the now mad and incarcerated Renfield (Tom Waits), to travel to Transylvania and arrange for the decrepit, bizarre Count Dracula to move to London. Of course, after sealing the deal with the Count, Harker is left stranded in Dracula’s castle at the mercy of his vampire brides. Dracula hits the shores of England and quickly sets sights on Harker’s young fiancée Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (Ryder again) and her saucier friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). Lucy’s triumvirate of suitors, Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and Morris (Bill Campbell), dismayed at Lucy’s afflicted state, call in Seward’s mentor on obscure illnesses and arcane things, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Hopkins again) to advise. He quickly diagnoses vampirism. The cure? More stake in her diet.
Whilst what follows traces the outlines of Stoker’s tale, Coppola’s wild cinematic flourishes quickly swing far away from the oneiric, creeping menace of the novel. So, too, does Hart’s addition of a new element—Mina is not just another target for Dracula’s attentions, but the reincarnation of Elisabeta, for whom Dracula hungers like the world’s oldest lovesick teenager. This notion essentially cuts against the grain of Stoker’s story, which is about rapacious, eruptive sexuality, and the way it subordinates conscious social constructs, not transcendent amorous attachment. Meanwhile, Coppola attempted to prove on multiple levels how hip he was, stirring the pot with relentless visual artifice, film references, MTV crowd casting, and subtext-ransacking figurations. Coppola set out not merely to make an effective horror movie, but to make every horror movie. His film contains direct visual quotes from Nosferatu, both Browning’s and Fisher’s Dracula, as well as The Cat and the Canary (1927), Faust (1926), Vampyr (1931), White Zombie (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), La Belle et la Bête (1946), Wolfen (1981), The Exorcist (1973), and The Shining (1980). The new central story motif comes from Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932). The kinkier elements take clear licence from the ’70s semi-underground horror of Jean Rollin and Jésus Franco, and the deliberately po-faced mixture of mockery and erotic exploration in early scenes between Mina and Lucy resemble Ken Russell’s similarly artificial, anarchic take on Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1987).
But Russell’s film, less refined and expensive, is nonetheless rather better, largely because it was a pure product of Russell’s unique sensibility, whereas Coppola here is mixing and matching like a half-interested DJ. There are signs he felt an essential empathy for Dracula as a tragic villain not so far from Michael Corleone and Colonel Kurtz, but the way this is handled saps the story’s intensity and excitement. White Worm also had a strongly focused lead performance by Amanda Donohoe as a Tory bitch-goddess, whereas here Oldman as Dracula seems completely at a loss in presenting a singular characterisation when the story and style seem set on sabotaging him. The seriously fragmented impression he leaves is exacerbated by Coppola’s giddy presentations of his various guises. Dracula is, successively, a flowing-locked cavalier, a withered, ludicrously attired old drag queen, an Oscar Wilde-ish dandy, and various forms of monster. Coppola embellishes on the way Dracula ages in reverse in the novel, but he neglects to give connections and explanations for a lot of his changing guises, and Oldman’s characterisation changes with each, offering grossly hammy flourishes, particularly in the first third. Coppola makes the Count and his environment so archly bizarre it’s a wonder Harker doesn’t run off screaming at first sight, and the film’s early portions offered a wealth of material to satirists, from Dracula’s independently gesturing shadow to his amusing hairdo, which the likes of Mel Brooks and The Simpsons have since made a meal of. Within moments of arriving, Dracula is waving a sword at Harker and ranting, lapping Harker’s blood off his razor blade, and delivering the famous “children of the night” with overblown camp relish. Indeed, whilst Coppola’s editing, special effects, and camerawork are all remarkably energetic, on closer inspection, it’s hard to miss how flatly and poorly directed most of the interpersonal scenes are. Then again, there’s only so much anyone can do with dialogue like this:
Mina: Can a man and a woman really do that?
Lucy: I did only last night!
Mina: Fibber! No you did not!
Lucy: Yes I did…well only in my dreams. Jonathan measures up, doesn’t he?
What is this, Carry On Dracula? Coppola aims straightforwardly to explicate the coded sexual elements in the novel. Dracula’s brides are pure carnal fantasy, sucking Harker’s blood and bodily appendages. Lucy, rather more the flirt in the book than the prim Mina, is here completely reconfigured into a budding tart happy to toy with her three suitors whilst pining for sexual acrobatics, giggling and wondering with Mina over the ancient erotic Oriental illustrations in Richard Burton’s translation of Arabian Nights. How exactly two well-brought-up young ladies got hold of such outré material isn’t made explicit, but it is a cunning introduction to the peculiar way the Victorians vicariously partook of erotica through the mystique of the historic and the Orient. When Dracula arrives on English shores in wolf form, he makes directly for Lucy’s house and bangs her in werewolf form in her garden, after she and Mina have been dancing in the rain and kissing in overripe ecstatics. Theoretically, this should be tremendously cogent and subversive in the fashion of some of the originators of the erotic horror style, but instead it mostly comes across as try-hard. A real problem is that Coppola goes to no effort at all to invoke a proper sense of repression and reaction, as Fisher, in particular, realised so beautifully. Coppola’s all-encompassing stylisation, which at many points starts to resemble a Dracula-themed video clip, numbs the narrative imperatives. Seward and Van Helsing are reduced to druggie weirdoes as crazy as anyone they treat. Seward is even seen injecting morphine, and his asylum suggests Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade crossbred with the pastiche of Terry Gilliam.
Like Basic Instinct, with which it shared a high-water mark in mainstream Hollywood’s embrace of the adult in 1992, there’s something amazingly asexual about the sexiness on screen, with Frost’s Lucy lolling on a bed with her boobs constantly falling out leaving a desultory flavour. Amongst Coppola’s fragments of visual rhapsody, bobbing corpuscles are a frequent motif, perhaps underlining why some thought of the film as a metaphor for AIDS, especially with the tale as sexed-up as this. Most crucially, placing a sentimentalised love story at the story’s heart basically smothers the erotic anarchism in the cradle. The clear dichotomy here, between Dracula’s predatory intentions and exploitation of Lucy’s desires to make her a ready victim, and his wanting to win over Mina through more traditional romantic means, is silly on several levels. After a meet-cute on the street, he’s giving Mina candlelit dinners, encouraging her to cuddle a white wolf, and swapping heavy sighs. This mocks the film’s own provocations by reducing the matters at stake to a lust-vs-love dynamic. When the time comes for the text’s key moment of Mina drinking Dracula’s blood from his chest, which is supposed to possess a queasy mixture of coercion and forbidden indulgence, Dracula gets all conscientious: “No, I do not vant dis!” he declares, against the grain of everything the character stands for, only for Mina to insistently drink, with Oldman contorting as if receiving the world’s greatest blow job. Secondly, there’s no subsequent substance, hysteria, or passion to the tug-of-war between Dracula and Harker for Mina’s affection, as Coppola rushes through the latter stages of the story, and never achieves the kind of poetic dissent Rollin’s films could muster.
The final impression, which left me so seriously irritated all those years ago and for reasons that have since become all too clear, is of a film that’s identifiable as a significant step on the route to the tedious Twilight-isation of the vampire mystique. Another thing that’s hard to get around is the fact that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is barely effective as a horror movie. Corny gore and make-up effects are aplenty, but there’s no coherence of mood or eeriness to the proceedings. Apocalypse Now sports a far firmer sense of dread and building metaphysical menace. Instead, Coppola trucks in some of his visual fixations, like cross-cutting between action and a religious ceremony, with lingering views of classical ceilings and religious icons, and bleeding crosses that heal, suggesting a Catholic-porn edition of the story. That the film is visually impressive and occasionally awesome is easy to concede. Coppola builds certain sequences to crescendos, and there are some excellent set-pieces that display Coppola’s sense of sheer cinematic movement, particularly a quality piece of swashbuckling when the heroes battle Dracula’s Magyar serfs. Coppola takes the epoch in which the story is set as an excuse to explore the evolution of cinema itself, from magic-lantern shows through to the flicker of the nickelodeon, one of which Dracula and Mina visit, to the stylised expressionism of Murnau and Lang, the lush artifice of the Hollywood back lot, and on to the most advanced swirl of technical effects.
And yet the effect, whilst bracing for movie buffs, leaves the movie perched uneasily between mainstream storytelling prerogatives and the world’s most elaborate student film. In this regard, it strongly resembles Coppola’s fellow haute-cineaste Martin Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear from the year before, and likewise is a good candidate for Coppola’s worst film. So many moments are conceptually arresting, and yet fumbled in execution and in relation to the overall drama. There’s a suggestion throughout, especially when Coppola cuts from Lucy’s beheading to a rare roast beef being carved, that he wouldn’t have minded turning it all into a Monty Python-esque spoof, and Hopkins’ Van Helsing certainly seems pitched on that level. He suggests a savant, introduced stating that “civilisation and syphilisation have evolved together,” detached from regular humanity. “Yes she was in great pain, and then we cut off her head and drove a stake through her heart and burned it, and then she found peace,” he airily declares when Mina asks how she died. His moral determination is seen as based in his own erotic divorcement, and is himself momentarily tempted, when Mina kisses him in the throes of vampiric urges. But again, there’s not enough firm engagement with this notion to make it seem more than another failed aspect, and Hopkins’ simultaneously hammy and distracted performance doesn’t help.
By the conclusion, the number of things Bram Stoker’s Dracula is trying to be has piled up like a mass car wreck: revision, send-up, ardent romance, film studies class, homage, spooky tale, action flick, disease parable, soft-core porn. But the aspect of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that finally wounds it beyond repair is the endemic woeful acting, from Reeves at his most wooden in impersonating an English gentleman to Hopkins, Ryder, Elwes, and Oldman all offering uncharacteristically poor work. Reeves’ worst moment is his one attempt to get emotional, screaming in terror when he sees Dracula giving over the baby to the brides. I would go easiest on Ryder, who was still making the shift from teen starlet to leading lady, and she acquits herself with flat competence until that scene with Van Helsing, where she suggests less a moral woman giving in to demonic impulses than an interpretive dance student giving in to her inner tart. It is worth noting a brief appearance by future star Monica Bellucci as one of Dracula’s brides, and a cameo by Jay Robinson, once famous for playing Caligula in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, as Harker’s boss. But the actor who comes off best is Waits as Renfield, essaying physically one of the grotesques Waits usually conveys vocally in his music: he wields exactly the right stylised blend of mordant humour and perverse ferocity. Likewise, Wojciech Kilar’s terrific music score and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography lend the film much more authoritative heft than it actually deserves. It wasn’t, however, a complete waste of time for Coppola, for some of his motifs and effects crop up again, infinitely more controlled, in his extraordinary return to mythological filmmaking, Youth Without Youth (2007).