Sunday, October 5, 2014

Film Review: Bram Stoker's Dracula

"Bram Stoker's Dracula"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Francis Ford Coppola sinks his teeth into the vampire legend with "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992).

When Francis Ford Coppola released "Bram Stoker's Dracula" late in 1992, the buzz surrounding the picture was Coppola's adaptation was going to be much more faithful to the original novel. Most movie fans are familiar with the 1931 film version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. If that is your only reference source to Stoker's Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola's version is going to feel wrong to you. It will be an almost completely different movie.

Hence why Coppola, rather smartly, in my opinion, chose to title this movie, "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and not just "Dracula" or "Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula" this is Bram Stoker's story. Because when people watch this movie who have only seen the 1931 movie, they are going to ask themselves, "what did Coppola do to this story"? Coppola wanted the audience to immediately understand this is not his story. This is Stoker's material. Still, despite this effort on Coppola's part, there are those who claim the movie is not a faithful adaptation and the title is misleading. I have never read Stoker's novel so I can't comment on this, however, my review is for the movie not the novel. Whether or not this movie is faithful to Stoker's story, is quite frankly, immaterial to me.

In this version of "Dracula", a young man named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is a solicitor sent to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) who has purchased property in London including Carfax Abby.

Coppola's Dracula is not a man who does not age and has found eternal youth. The Dracula that meets Harker is a distinguished, wrinkled gentleman. He has a bee-hive hairdo and doesn't walk around with a black cape. His cape is red. This may upset "traditionalist" who will feel Coppola has tarnished the iconic image we all have of the famed vampire.

Harker was a replacement for R.M. Renfield (Tom Waits), who has gone insane after his visit to Transylvania. Renfield, now locked in a sanitarium run by Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant), preaches about "his master" returning and how he will be granted eternal life. The character resembles someone standing on a street corner who shouts about the coming of Jesus and warns us of the impending doom that will follow if we do not accept Jesus in our hearts. So too Renfield warns us of the coming of Dracula.

What Harker does not know is this was all a rouse prepared by Dracula in order to draw himself closer and closer to Harker's fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder), whom Dracula believes is the reincarnation of his wife, Elisabeta. It is because of Elisabeta Dracula has become the undead.

Dracula was once a member of the Order of the Dragon and went into battle against the Turks, who were waging a war against Christendom and about to invade Romania. Dracula bravely fought off the Turks with his men but the Turks delivered news to Elisabeta that her husband was killed in battle. Elisabeta, believing the word of the Turks, committed suicide, not wanting to face the world without her beloved. When Dracula learns of her fate, he rejects God and vows he will return from his own grave to avenge her death. Now, four centuries later, he believes he has found her spirit in Mina.

This element of Dracula is new to the traditional story we all know from movies, though, whether or not it appeared in the book I don't know, however, it is based on fact. There was a man known as Vlad Tepes, who was a member of the Order of the Dragon. He did impale his enemies on spikes (this is shown in the movie) and fought against the Ottoman Empire. He served as the basis for the Dracula (Vlad was a member of the House of Draculesti) character in Stoker's novel.

When Dracula arrives in London his appearance takes on many forms. One of them is as a much younger man who catches the eye of Mina, when he arranges for them to meet on a crowded street. At first she is put off by his advances but later is drawn to him. Are they kindred spirits? Does she know who she really is?

As in other adaptations; Dracula turns Mina's friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost) into a vampire by biting her on the neck and haunting her in dreams. Lucy's husband, Sir. Arthur Holwood (Cary Elwes) and Dr. Seward are mystified by Lucy's condition. Feeling he is unable to help, Seward sends for the assistance of his old teacher and mentor, Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins).

Watching Coppola's film one of the first things you will notice is the sexual, erotic nature of the movie. This was missing from the 1931 version because of the time period it was released, though, there has always been a sexual nature to this story. Dracula is usually presented as a suave man in public. He seduces his victims, who are always women. The mere image of a man biting a woman on her neck, getting that close to her, caressing her, is sexual and can't be neither ignored or denied.

In this story Mina has her sexual desire awaken because of Dracula. In the first scene with Mina, we see a woman in a struggle. She wants to be a prim and proper lady yet is curious about sex. She sees a copy of the novel "Arabian Nights" on a desk and at first glance denounces the sexual photos she sees in the book yet cannot help herself from staring at them once or twice more.

This is a contrast to her friend Lucy, who says she is "pure" yet is more playful and flirtatious around men. She is able to get all of their attention at parties, yet, as she comments, never receives a marriage proposal.

I find I am very conflicted about this movie. There is much to admire about it yet at the same time there is an equal amount to reject.

What works best about the movie is the visuals. Technically the movie is well made and is the work of an absolute craftsman. The cinematography resembles a fevered dream. It creates a torturous atmosphere. The movie has a voyeuristic and predatorial quality to it. One of the reoccurring images in the film is eyes. Someone is always watching these characters, hunting them down like prey. Once Dracula arrives in London he is able to disguise himself as a wolf, a perfect symbol for a predator.

The costume design (which won an Academy Award) and production designs (which were nominated) are lavish and really help distinguish the film by creating a proper time setting.

I also admire the musical score by Wojciech Kilar which is tender, romantic, threatening and sensual all at once.

Gary Oldman's portrayal of Dracula is able to play homage to Bela Lugosi, delivering famous lines such as "I never" and after hearing wolves howl, "Listen to them; the children of the night. What sweet music they make" all while doing a Hungarian accent but also separate himself.  To me the performance is not a caricature. Oldman is able to make the character his own by bringing in new elements and a different interpretation of the character. You cannot make justified comparisons to what Oldman is doing and what Lugosi did. Oldman is one of the few actors that has really distinguished himself in the role. Some have called the performance campy and over the top. But, what are they comparing it to? Why do these people feel they know how a vampire should act? Is there something these individuals would like the rest of us to know about them? Oldman should have been nominated for an Academy Award.

For as good as Oldman is in the role, the rest of the cast fails. And that leads to one of the problems with the movie. Oldman is memorable. When you think of this movie, you will also think of Oldman's performance. But none of the other actors are able to do much with their characters. Each and every one of them is unable to flesh out these people. Anthony Hopkins as Prof. Helsing, merely saw the character as an opportunity to go over the top. Does Prof. Helsing seem like a professor to you? Does he resemble a human being at all? He shouts and screams but almost has no personality.

Winona Ryder has traits which make her a character but the movie doesn't complete her. It doesn't make her an activate person. She is a victim of the plot not a participant. And the same can be said of Keanu Reeves. In fact, much worse has been said about his performance. Where did that accent come from for example. Why was he chosen for this role? All I can think of was for commercial appeal. Prior to this movie Reeves was in the popular "Bill & Ted" movies and "My Own Private Idaho" (1991). After roughly the first 45 minutes of the movie, which I actually enjoyed most, he practically disappears.

The problem however also lies in the screenplay by James V. Hart. Not only did he not give the actors enough to work with he also wrote a screenplay which lacks logic and doesn't define character motivation clearly enough. The biggest example being, once Dracula arrives in London, why does he make Lucy his first victim? Here is a "thing" that has waited four centuries to meet the reincarnated spirit of his wife. She has been his motivation. It is because of her he has been damned to lead the life of a vampire. Now, he finally has his chance to reunite with her, traveling from Transylvania to England and wouldn't you know it, he goes after her best friend instead! Does that make any sense?


In another scene Dracula and Mina are alone together and Dracula confesses, he cannot turn her into a vampire. He loves her too much to condemn her to the life of the undead. If that is true, then that is the end of the picture. But the movie doesn't end there. It goes on for another 30-40 minutes.


Once I felt the characters were not being clearly defined I began to lose interest in the story. And for as much as I enjoyed the visuals they needed a story to support them. Otherwise it becomes a case of style over substance.

"Bram Stoker's Dracula" came along at a good time for Coppola. The 1980s weren't too friendly to him. He went into bankruptcy and had a series of box-office bombs, though now, years later, some of the movies have been re-discovered. By the time this movie was made, Coppola had released "The Godfather Part III" (1990) completing the "Godfather Trilogy". The movie was nominated for a best picture Academy Award and Coppola was nominated as best director and it did very well at the box-office. So now, Coppola was following a hit film and not just any hit film. We are taking about "The Godfather" after all. So, there was some interest in what Coppola would do next. Unfortunately, nothing Coppola did after this movie matched it in popularity, even though in my opinion, some of the movies that followed were better movies.

This movie opened to positive reviews, grossed more than $200 million world-wide and was nominated for four Academy Awards and four BAFTA Awards.

In the end the movie could have used a re-write to add more logic to its story and give certain characters more motivation. This movie had the potential not just to be a "good movie" but a masterpiece, one of the great additions to the vampire genre. It does so many things which the viewer can admire that it makes it all the more disappointing that it fails. Still, I suppose even a failure can be admired for at least it tried. It attempted to do something great.