I COULDN’T HELP MYSELF.
There really is something to be said about a horror film that not only broke the box office but saved a studio from going under as well as launching several fledgling acting careers. Francis Ford Coppola set out to release a film based off Bram Stoker’s novel which turned into a dazzling and sexy magic show. Back in 1992, one year before ‘Jurassic Park’ CGI as we know it was still in it’s infancy and film makers still relied on human ingenuity to create something awesome. Given Coppola is one of the old school film makers who grew up in an artistically inclined family, his vision of Dracula is still considered to be one of the best versions ever. Is it, though?
I generally agree with the positive consensus of this film- it really is an exercise in visual artistry with a flair for story-telling accompanied by lavish costumes, a grand orchestral score and a sweeping feel to it. It’s what I consider to be an enchantment style film. It may not please all tastes, but there is no denying it’s eye-popping. Coppola obviously took great measures to see the world of Dracula to be successfully and memorably translated on screen and even now, it still looks and sounds amazing. The opening ‘puppet show’ of Vlad Dracul owning the Turks to this day still looks magical, and you don’t even see any gory details. It should be worth noting that in addition to a gifted selection of creative artists, Coppola’s son Roman had an active role in bringing many of the visual wonders to life in this movie. Neopotism isn’t always a bad thing. People say that too much attention went to the visuals, but I disagree, as you shall see…
Uh, what was I saying? Oh, that’s right.
In addition to the inanimate visual splendor, we also get some rather compelling performances. It goes without saying that Gary Oldman as Dracula himself is a standout- we all know how great an actor he can be, and although this was relatively early in his mainstream career, we see the genesis of a gifted actor who can do wonders with what could have been a one dimensional part. He can be disturbing, eerie, off-putting and vindictive, but at the same time he can be sensual, emotional and erotic. Winona Ryder once said that during a take of Mina hearing Dracula off-screen, Oldman was saying some rather sexually explicit things to her that she just couldn’t get out of her head even to this day. Lucky cow.
The other thespian who goes toe to toe with Oldman is Anthony Hopkins as the fox-crazy Van Helsing. While the role of Renfield is played with surprising depth and sensitivity by chimney-voiced musician Tom Waites, Hopkins makes Van Helsing almost certifiable were it not for the fact he is respected for his boarder psychosis. Toward the end of the film when he and his cadre of Victorian vampire hunters are tracking the Count down, Mina accurately observes that he admires Dracula, and wouldn’t you know it? While he doesn’t say upfront he does, he doesn’t deny it either. Hopkins’ Van Helsing isn’t Peter Cushing, Edward Van Sloan or any other actor that comes to mind when it comes to that role- he truly is a unique intereptation. Some people find him totally over the top, but really, when it comes to Dracula was is over the top? When you take into account the shape shifting, blood drinking, woman-stealing, disease-spreading character of Dracula, what harm can an equally insane adversary pose to the overall picture?
Another actor I must mention was Sadie Frost as the… shall we say, liberal Lucy Westenra. While at heart Lucy is a good person, her ways are quite overt when it comes to the affairs of love and lust. While some may argue Frost’s portrayal is a little too sexual, remember, this is Coppola giving his own take on a tale that has already seen so many transformations. A lot of this movie it concerned with the inevitable connection between sex (or death as the case might be with vampires) and death (or life in terms of how alive sex makes you feel). When it comes to memorable, Frost has this character in the bag- she can be so sweet and charming but at the same time sexually aggressive, and this is before she is transformed. Dare I say it, but when you see her in the same scene as Winona Ryder, you kinda forget Ryder is there because of how magnetic and vivacious she is.
In saying that, and you know this was coming, the weakest link in this entire cast was Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, Mina’s impotent husband to be. I know Coppola was angling to get the teenage girls into the theater with this stunt casting, but in this case, it just doesn’t work. Seeing him fumble through his dialogue trying to adopt an upper-crust English accent makes you shake your head and think “Why, Francis, why?” In my eyes, I think the women were more than spoiled when Oldman’s Dracula sauntered across the screen, I know I was. The only time which Reeves seriously emoted was when he was being raped by Dracula’s Brides (yes, he is being raped). It’s a shame that Coppola felt that particular pressure to fold underneath the studios’ wishes with that casting.
Note: I personally can’t fault Reeves as a person, he’s actually meant to be a really nice, humble guy, I love you Keanu, I just don’t like it when you push yourself too far without direction.
Now, I am a fan of Winona Ryder as an actress, I’ve enjoyed quite a few of the movies she has made, but here… I dunno, her career was a fledgling, I understand that, but I didn’t buy her ultimately as Dracula’s One True Love. Oh, she tries, she tries as hard as she can, and we can see it in her performance, but I think it was because of her slight inexperience (and her somewhat mangled English accent) that didn’t sway me that this was the woman Dracula would cross oceans of time to be reunited with. As I said, during her scenes with Sadie Frost, the audience naturally gravitated toward Frost’s character more than Mina’s because of her fire. While Mina is meant to be the opposite to Lucy in terms of behavior, bearing and class, she should still have had that unmistakable passion within her that would attract Dracula.
I also feel compelled to bring up the ornate and lavish costumes that complement their surroundings and the actors who wear them. Eiko Ishioka’s costumes are more works of art than functioning and realistic clothing, but by gum they are glorious. Dracula goes through quite a few wardrobe changes, each of them suitably bizarre, but they match what the character is all about. You would think you are surveying an upper-end Eastern-European-Asian art exhibition because of how detailed and cross-continental they look. Another artistic wonder is the music score by Wojciech Kiljar, I’m shocked and almost appalled this score did not earn an Oscar nomination or a win for that matter because it truly encompasses what we witness on screen. I have a copy of the CD itself and it’s perhaps one of the most played in my collection. It weaves it’s Gothic siren song throughout every nook and cranny of your ears and imagination. It truly is a gorgeous and artful score, a personal favourite of mine is‘Vampire Hunters’- just you try listening to it and not feel the mounting tension of tracking down a supernatural fiend.
In closing, I should say that perhaps the biggest flaw is the dreary performance of Reeves as well as the audience’s own refusal to fully embrace this glorified carnival show (I use that term with all good intention and admiration).
It truly does depend on how you like your Dracula and how much you are willing to permit yourself to enjoy a done-over tale. This movie really could have been a massive disaster, but even now, it has many fans and it constantly gains more. It’s really too early to say that this film will truly last the test of time, but it is first and foremost out to entertain those who are willing to give themselves over. They really don’t make Dracula like this any more, despite the countless imitators and I feel it should be admired and appreciated for the things it strove fiercely to accomplish rather than simply being called a blockbuster three ring circus filled with clowns and no ringmaster. This film is more than that, and I hope if you haven’t seen it yet, or if you are reconsidering to see it again you will be able to see a little more of the awesome than the suck.
A lot of time, effort and suffering was put into making this film and for the most part, it was a massive gamble that paid off in spades. Love never dies, neither does a damn fine pimp suit.
STOP IT BEA.