Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Dracula: Gary Oldman
Whatever happened to Francis Ford Coppola? It beggars the imagination that the director who made five masterpieces in ten years (Patton, The Conversation, Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now) also made this chemical fire of a film. Even the uneven Eighties Coppola was better than this, at least sometimes (The Outsiders, Tucker). Watching it again for this project I realized that what Coppola had made was a live-action cartoon of Dracula: Lucy’s (Sadie Frost) vomited blood spraying in Van Helsing’s face, Dracula’s stalking/meet-cute of Mina (Winona Ryder) in London, the ludicrous muscle-armor, the rare roast beef, perhaps even Keanu Reeves’ “Whoa, I am totally British” accent as Harker — all these things are just bits, like Daffy Duck getting his bill blown off before resuming the story unharmed. They are, however, bits that don’t work at all. And sadly, they outweigh the bits that do. Coppola’s insistence on using only in-camera and practical effects (all developed before 1931) gives the film a dreamlike atmosphere in its best moments, a great gunfight in the final chase features a properly Texan Quincey (Billy Campbell) using his Winchester to deadly effect, Eiko Ishioka’s costumes are ridiculous as clothing but wonderful as expressionist artifacts, Monica Bellucci is the best of Brides. Some bits might have worked or partially worked but wound up overplayed or overused or just crowded into each other: the ceaseless homages to every other Dracula movie, the wolf-o-vision, Tom Waits’ full-throated Renfield, Anthony Hopkins’ authentically bipolar Van Helsing (“King Laugh”), the zoomy independent shadow as Dracula’s id.
And worst of all, the ultimate travesty of a Mina in love with — not mesmerized by (as in the movies by and large), much less raped by (as in the novel), but in pure, redemptive, fulfilling love with — Dracula. For this above all reasons, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is famously no such thing despite giving us the London Zoo wolf, the full Crew of Light, Van Helsing holding off the Brides with a charmed circle, and a daywalking Dracula. Which brings us to Gary Oldman. As I’ve said before, in the final analysis Dracula films stand or fall on their Dracula. Oldman is a superb actor, but his “menacing” Dracula is too campy (Fifth Element) or too psychotic (The Professional) and his proto-hipster, curly-locked “Prince Vlad” is no Cary Elwes. More to the point, when the whole cinematic world is clearly psycho, a psycho Dracula just doesn’t stand out. He doesn’t threaten the green-lit, peacock-spangled, model-train, ruff-bedecked, morphine-shooting, Richard-Burton-porno “Victorian” world of the film any more than Tom threatens Jerry.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Lushly draped in seventy pounds of Gustav-Klimt-inspired robes (and in your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order razor-lickin’ good hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!