Whenever someone is promoting a film as either “getting back to the spirit of the original” or “the most faithful adaptation of the novel,” you know you’re going to be in trouble. They never recapture “the spirit of the original” even when the spirit of the original wasn’t that hot to begin with, and the more they crow about how faithful their adaptation is, the less likely it will be to stick to the source material.
Looking back, the transgressions of Francis Ford Coppola’s bloated mess of a gothic horror film seem harmless, almost quaint, when compared to more recent “literary adaptations” like I, Robot, which take a page from the Matt Helm book by stealing a book’s title and jettisoning the content. Thus we enter the realm not of, “adapted from” or “based on” or even “inspired by,” but of “suggested by.” What does that even mean? Unfortunately, not sticking to Bram Stoker’s original novel as much as they bragged they would is hardly the worst thing about Coppola’s film.
This one I saw in the theaters and immediately hated for a number of reasons, though the to most potent reasons were named Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder. There were other things to hate about the movie, but none stood out as dramatically as those two, shall we say, rather limited thespians attempting to act, overact, and maintain British accents. However, I’m always game to give something a second chance, and some twelve years after my initial distaste, I figured why not go back and revisit the film, see if maybe I just didn’t get it at the time, if maybe my tastes had changed and suddenly the film would be a revelation. Well, it was a revelation all right. What I discovered is that the film is as bad as I originally thought, but also that I liked it a whole lot more.
You should know the story, more or less, by now. You have the Transylvanian count who likes the blood. You have the confused Johnathan Harker. You have Lucy and Mina and crazy old Dr. Van Helsing with his ideas about vampires and the living dead. From film to film, they all assemble themselves in more or less the same story told in different ways. Before this film, the last big budget version of Dracula’s story was the ridiculous but not altogether awful version starring Frank Langella and directed by that guy who made Saturday Night Fever. Maybe something else came in between, but it wasn’t nearly as memorable. And Dracula 3000 doesn’t count. The Langella Dracula bordered on camp, but apparently Francis Ford Coppola was sitting around drinking a batch of his own wine and thought, “I could make this movie even more overblown, campy, and full of itself!” Years later, he made good on his drunken promise to himself. I don’t know if that’s the actual chain of events, but at least it gives him an excuse. It’s not like Coppola was a stranger to self-indulgence. Apocalypse Now was the very picture of self-absorbed mania, but it still managed to be a great film with some bad parts that were never the less utterly captivating regardless. Most of Coppola’s movies are bloated and self-absorbed, and at his best, he knows how to turn that into a compelling film, both visually and narratively (is “narritively” even a word?).
Coppola had two things going for him when he set out to make his own version of Dracula. First, none of the other films had ever stuck to Stoker’s original story all that closely, and there was still much to the tale that had been left out. Second, no one had ever integrated the historical accounts of Vlad Tepes, the Romanian warlord upon whom Stoker based some of his character, into the actual Dracula mythos. Those elements alone would be enough to make Coppola’s version different from any others while still being recognizably the same old story we’d grown to love hearing over and over again from different storytellers.
So he casts Gary Oldman as Dracula. Okay, I’ll give him that. He’s not Christopher Lee, he’s no Jack Palance, but we know he can act and perhaps even lend the character the blend of animalistic sexuality, fierceness, and charisma he needs. And Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing? No problem there. And then as the lovers fated to have their lives complicated by the living dead we have…Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder? Seriously? Okay, well, what the heck? I’ll give anyone a chance. I’m sure worse actors have risen to the occasion when they had a good director pushing them to perform above and beyond their previous examples of acting. Like Sophia Coppola in Godfather III. No wait…
The film begins with Vlad the Impaler, which is not, I don’t think, what his friends called him. Or maybe it is. If I had earned the nickname “The Impaler,” I would insist that everyone call me that, all the time. Unless I’d earned that nickname working in gay porn, in which case I’d restrict its use to a select few friends and associates. After heroically defending his country from invading Turks and Hungarians and impaling them on the border so someone could make that famous woodcut of him having lunch surrounded by impaled enemies, he returns home to find his one true love dead. Peeved at Heaven, he renounces God and swears that he will live forever just to spite the Big Guy. And then, he does just that.
After that preamble, we’re down to business as usual with Johnathan Harker visiting Dracula in Transylvania, only to discover that the count is more than the Englanders suspected. Dracula heads to England intent on seducing Harker’s wife, who seems to be the reincarnation of Dracula’s old love. This, of course, would be Winona Ryder. It’s hard to judge who’s worse between her and Reeves. Both are in way over their heads. Reeves is awful, but I think the tip of the hat has to go to Ryder, who is so utterly ineffectual in her role that she almost makes it a parody. Scenes of her unleashing her wanton desire are hysterically tepid, and where as the woman playing Lucy has to show her breasts in just about every scene, when Winona’s Mina starts freaking out, all she has to do is tepidly undo one button and make the most hilarious “sexy growling face” I think I’ve ever seen. Together, Reeves and Ryder turn in performances that would sink any movie that wasn’t smart enough to surround them with so much operatic gothic excess that you’re willing to let them slide simply because everything around them is so beautifully overblown and overstated.
Coppola turns the art design up to eleven, and every scene is heaving with preposterously lavish spectacle. They weren’t just satisfied with a gothic film. It had to be a GOTHIC!!!! film. Everything is over-designed and over-stylized, making the old Hammer films I so cherish seem subtle and humble and perfectly sensible. Coppola’s film boils over with bombast and screams at you with every visual. And what’s with Vlad the Impaler’s armor? What the hell is that stuff? Did he make that out of giant beetles? As over-indulgent as the art design is, it’s also the film’s saving grace. The narrative is not constructed so as to be compelling, there are no scares, and the acting is wildly uneven. But as long as you can lose yourself in the film’s artistic excess, kind of like Apocalypse Now, then you can drift with it and see things through to the end.
So yeah. Ryder and Reeves are stupendously miscast and unable to rise to the occasion. We expect that of them. That’s what they’re known for, and anyone who casts them expecting anything to the contrary is just fooling themselves. If their respective reputations as horrible performers persist to this day, it’s thanks in no small part to their appearance in this film. Up until Dracula, each actor had the good sense to stay well within the limitations of their skill. Keanu was the lovable stoner from Bill and Ted and Parenthood and the surf noir Zen masterpiece Point Break. Winona was the irritating crybaby 1990s answer to Molly Ringwald in crap like Reality Bites. But it must have been stifling. Every artist, every decent person, craves a challenge from time to time, something that pushes them to the next creative level. So you can’t blame them, I suppose, for trying. And as for Coppola casting them — well, every director wants to be the one to take credit for seeing the Academy Award winning potential in the star of B.A.P.S. or any other poorly thought-of actor. It just didn’t work out for any of them. Winona looks like a confused teen romance lead who wandered into a grown-up movie and thinks the paramount of expressing sexual liberation is to squint and bite your lower lip. Keanu, bless him, tries hard. I think he always tries hard, and I respect him for that. He’s just not very good, and he’s not getting any better. You’d think he’d pick something up along the way. Still, better to try and fail I suppose.
But that’s nothing you couldn’t see coming. We expect good things from Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman, on the other hand. At the very least, they have it in them to go as over-the-top as the film around them and still come off as having turned in a relatively good performance. As Van Helsing, Hopkins howls and hollers and humps someone’s leg, playing the vampire-hunting doctor as half-mad and a little too bloodthirsty and comical for my taste. His manic “bride of Satan” speech complete with goofball laughter and leg humping is simply absurd, though I understand the post-modern desire to cast Van Helsing as some deranged lunatic (I don’t agree with it, though — give me Cushing’s mannered man of reason and science any day). Everyone’s doing it, or at least they were until he became a studly Indiana Jones type adventurer with the power to make a silly looking CGI replica of himself swing across computer-generated ravines seconds before the horse-drawn carriage in which he was riding explodes in a fiery ball of flame.
Other than that one scene, though, Hopkins’ Van Helsing is not bad. He hams it up too much and is nowhere near the league of Peter Cushing, but for the most part, he’s as good as we expect Anthony Hopkins to be when he’s overacting and having a bit of a laugh. Oldman’s performance I’m less enthusiastic about. He has flashes of quality rage, and he’s suitably creepy when he’s in old man Dracula mode, but once he transforms into the younger version of himself, he seems to leave behind any sense of charisma or animal magnetism that might make his character believable. Instead, he just mumbles his way through his scenes and we’re expected to buy his charm and menace simply because we’re told it’s there, not because Oldman ever makes it manifest on screen. And then there’s the wailing “crying monster in a circle of candles” scene that seems to have been injected purely as fan service for goth kids who write bad poetry about sad vampires weeping as they stare at a dying rose in the cemetery. This is the guy who lined his borders with the heads of his enemies? This is the guy who got so pissed off that he tells God to fuck off and then goes and lives forever? Crying in a circle of flowers? With his mascara running?
Although Coppola does stick to much of Stoker’s story, at least more so than previous film versions, this weepy-eyed, tear-streaked abomination to God’s creation seems way out of character. Oldman fails to channel the debonair magnetism of Bela Lugosi or the savage raw power of Christopher Lee, and in the end his Dracula is rather limp and unengaging. He might even be more of a bellyachin’ wimp than Paul Naschy in Dracula’s True Love, and believe me, that was a wimpy vampire.
The supporting cast is pretty disposable but perfectly competent. Sadie Frost as Lucie writhes wildly and rip sher blouse open in every scene, and we thank her for that. She exudes the sexual frenzy that Winona Ryder fails so ludicrously at portraying. Tom Waits is good in what amounts to an extended cameo as everyone’s favorite Dracula character, the bug-chomping Renfield. Cary Elwes plays the testy British society man for about the thousandth time in his career. Bill Campbell and Richard Grant are competent as the rowdy American and Dr. Seward respectively. Nothing to complain about from any of those stalwarts, all of whom perform with workmanlike competency.
Dracula, which was called Bram Stoker’s Dracula not so much because it was the most faithful retelling, but instead because someone else owned the rights to just calling a film Dracula, puts the love triangle of Mina-Johnathan-Dracula in the forefront, then proceeds to undercut it by having two awful actors trying to carry part of it while the film around them indulges itself endlessly with sumptuous visuals and stylization. As such, the story itself becomes very uninteresting, as if the film itself loses interest and simply wants to hurry along to the next scene full of flickering candles, graveyards, and flowing nightgowns. It takes full advantage of relaxed moral standards by having Dracula’s brides topless and biting Keanu Reeves’ crotch. And no matter how bad a movie may be, nude Monica Belucci results in an automatic additional star from me. Seriously — if you were Dracula, and you had naked Monica Bellucci waiting for you back at your castle, wuld you really turn into a blubbering gargoyle in a circle of candles over the fact that Winona Ryder didn’t love you?
Similarly, Lucy can’t go five seconds in a scene without having her boobs pop out. When she and Winona Ryder’s Mina share a thoroughly gratuitous rain-soaked kiss, it’s oddly unarousing thanks to Winona’s ability to convey no sexuality at all, no matter how much she droops her bottom lip and touches her sternum. Sexuality has always been a part of the Dracula story and of vampire myths in general (at least after the time vampires were just considered brutish peasant thugs return from the grave to eat people), and like everything else, this movie seizes on that and cranks it up to nearly absurd levels.
It’s a mess. I wouldn’t call it terrible, but I would stop well short of calling it good. However, these subjective judgments ultimately mean nothing, because the film endears itself to me simply because it’s so willing to go so overboard in almost every aspect. It’s brash, supremely operatic, terribly overwrought, and easy to get absorbed into. If it’s a mess, it’s a beautiful mess. At times, this film almost feels like a parody, and I’m pretty sure that’s intentional. I mean, naked vampire brides biting Keanu Reeves in the crotch? Van Helsing humping someone’s leg? Winona Ryder trying to act sensual, or trying to act at all? Stylistically, the film is just as inconsistent with its mood. Certain fancies, like the old-fashioned wipes or the tendency to superimpose Dracula’s eyes on the blood-red sky behind the characters scream parody as much as homage to the classical style of filmmaking, but other times the film seems to take itself overly seriously. The Hammer films succeed because they handle the fantastical material with the utmost sincerity. Coppola seems unwilling to commit to his story. He just can’t resist the tendency of films from the 1990s on to poke fun at and undermine themselves. His final product is always beautiful, sometimes overwhelming, occasionally romantic, never scary, and potentially campy. In a sense, it’s one of the biggest, most lavish B-movies ever made.