Bram Stoker’s Dracula

According to legend, Bram Stoker got his initial inspiration for Dracula after waking from a nightmare induced by eating some bad shellfish. Francis Ford Coppola might have had the same dish before cooking up Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a blur of a movie with the puzzling logic of dreams. Coppola’s approach takes some getting used to: Parts of the movie could be titled My Own Private Transylvania, with surreal images bumping together; some moments (a woman raped by a snarling wolfman incarnation of Dracula) are borderline stupid. Yet it hangs together, this feverish mish-mash, and if it occasionally stumbles while trying for grandeur, at least it tries.

Unlike the book, the film opens under the red skies of 15th-century Transylvania, where the noble Prince Vlad Dracul the Impaler (Gary Oldman) shoves spears into Turks on the battlefield, leaving their impaled bodies wriggling by the road in the name of Christ. (Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart take a decidedly generous view of Vlad, on whom Stoker is widely — some say erroneously — believed to have based Dracula, and who is considered one of the most vicious rulers in history.) Returning home, Vlad finds his wife dead, a suicide: She’d received false word that he died in battle. What’s more, because she took her own life, her soul is damned. “I renounce God!” shrieks Vlad as gouts of blood pour forth from a giant cross. Eager to join his beloved in hell, Vlad catches some blood in a chalice, gulps it down, and begins his reign as Dracula, Prince of Darkness.

After this entertainingly melodramatic prologue (with its echoes of Excalibur, Kurosawa, and so on), Coppola gets around to the events of the book. Four centuries later, the aged Dracula shuffles through his ornate and crumbling castle, his face pale and creased with wrinkles, his long, spidery fingers reaching, reaching. Wearing a wig that makes his head resemble a large valentine, Gary Oldman has a grand time camping it up through layers of prosthetics. He puts on a creaky, preposterously theatrical Romanian accent; if bats could talk, they’d sound like Oldman’s Dracula. When the young real-estate agent Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) arrives at Castle Dracula to finalize a deal with the Count, the old vampire offers him a cheery yet ominous greeting: “Enter freely and of your own veel. And leef some of da hoppiness you breeng.”

The young, callow Harker isn’t up to dealing with Dracula, and neither is the young, callow Reeves, who gives an embarrassing performance. Reeves carries too much contemporary baggage to be credible in a 19th-century milieu, and his English accent is about as persuasive as Kevin Costner’s in Robin Hood. Luckily, we don’t see much of him, though he keeps a straight face in the film’s loopiest scene. When Dracula’s trio of voluptuous brides descend on Harker, they bare their fangs and begin sucking every inch of his upper body. As if anticipating our own wayward thoughts about where this is going, Coppola has one of the brides move her mouth somewhere south of Harker’s belt buckle. (He responds like a proper, horrified, and suddenly quite interested Victorian gentleman.) It’s one of many moments that teeter between the queasy, the erotic, and the hilarious.

Taking the prologue a step further, Coppola turns Harker’s fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder) into a reincarnation of Dracula’s lost love. Hence Dracula’s obsession with Mina, and hers with him. Following Mina to London, Dracula, now youthful and handsome, seduces her in a peep-show joint (a bizarre scene — the flowering of evil at the birth of cinema). Oldman and Ryder manage some heat in their S & M couplings; for a few scenes, the movie becomes about a kinky couple that’s into biting. But this smooth, dashing Dracula is a bit dull compared with the elderly, cackling Count; Oldman, in the movie’s first section, has stolen his own thunder. Whenever Coppola cuts to the bug-eating Renfield (Tom Waits, growling impressively) or to the dedicated, slightly demented vamp-slayer Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins, chewing the scenery and spitting it out), the audience is so starved for over-the-top acting that it perks up immediately.

Coppola, however, never stops putting on his own showboat performance. His Dracula isn’t like anything else around. He presents the material with a certain heaviosity, as if this weren’t just a vampire movie but the vampire movie. Going for the gold medal in sepulchral gloom, he lays on the darkness, the pea-soup fog. The characters step into suffocating shadows, never to emerge again. The atmosphere of evil spreads like a stain across the frozen countryside. The white, white faces of the vampire women — including Mina’s doomed friend Lucy (the touching Sadie Frost) — hover in the dark, grinning. When Dracula first sees a picture of Mina, his shadow demonstrates what he’d like to do to his rival Harker, while he himself stands still.

All of which makes for a movie of considerable visual fascination, and I’d like to see Bram Stoker’s Dracula one or two more times, despite minor misgivings; it strikes me as the sort of intoxicating spectacle that improves upon repeated viewings, like Brazil or Blade Runner. Flaws and all, Coppola has pulled off a genuine achievement here: He’s redefined the way we think of Dracula visually. And I’ve figured out why the movie looks so dark and jumbled: This is the way a vampire, in his blood fever, might see the world. If you want the Dracula story straight, with no frills or sketchily drawn characters, read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you want dazzling images and the thrill of watching a major director push the envelope of fantasy film, see Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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