Films / Horror

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola has made some of the greatest movies of all time, and remains one of the world’s most influential filmmakers. The Conversation, The Godfather and it’s sequel, and Apocalypse Now were all seminal, cinema-altering movies which went some way to defining the American New Wave. Sadly, Coppola never really adapted once the Hollywood Renaissance subsided – it could be argued that he went mad, on some creative and emotional level, after Apocalypse Now – and so his later movies never quite made the same impact as those he made in the 70s. His 80s films are a mixed and awkward bag, his return to The Godfather series didn’t set the critics on fire, and Jack, well, was frankly terrible. Sandwiched somewhere between this however was a very strange movie indeed – 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a very odd take on the infamous horror novel. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s later filmography, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a mixed bag – containing elements of outright masterpiece and elements of utter mess – but it remains one of the strangest studio horror movies to have ever been released. bram stoker's draculaEveryone knows the plot to Dracula, though there’s a couple of additions here. We begin with a prologue, 1462, Count Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman), overcome with grief over his Queen’s suicide, sells his soul and becomes a monster. Centuries later, in 1892, newly qualified estate agent Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to Transylvania to meet the Count at his castle, Dracula having cast his eyes over some prime London real estate. Back home in the UK, Jonathan’s bookish wife Mina (Winona Ryder) waits on his return, alongside her sexually active best-friend Lucy (Sadie Frost). Eventually the Count reaches English soil, sets his sights on Lucy’s neck before becoming infatuated with Mina (who resembles his dead queen), and renowned doctor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) is brought in to stop the undead menace before it’s too late.bram stoker's draculaBram Stoker’s Dracula is an odd movie. Stylistically, it throws back to old Hollywood – everything is shot on sets, and it’s very sumptuous and colourful, with great cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. Coppola asked that the design be the focus of the film, and more budget was put towards the costumes than usual. The costumes – which are especially extravagant and bold – are a great insight into the tone of the movie. They’re big, over-the-top, but also off-kilter and somewhat nightmarish, as if pulled from a garish Victorian circus. The makeup used on Gary Oldman is especially effective, with a lot of great designs, ranging from old and unsettling at the start, to semi-werewolf monster, hideous naked bat creature and sexy smooth young man, with several variations in between. Similar to Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, Dracula seems to change form based on numerous external and internal factors, and though the movie does play up his sex appeal, it’s quick to play up his monstrous qualities too. The music – roaring, terrifying, is impressive and adds to the operatic and theatrical tone. This is lavish looking, expensive and rich movie, the style fitting into the themes of lust and desire which run through the narrative.bram4Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a weird movie to watch, and very out-there for a studio produced, commercially viable Dracula flick; this is perhaps the strangest film relating to the infamous vampire, as Coppola fills his movie with hundreds of odd technical and editing tricks. Most of these are done with traditional special effects, which is impressive and ties back into the old Hollywood approach. Some of these tricks are absolutely stunning – there’s great use of frames being reversed or flipped to create fragmented and inhuman movement, shadows end up in places they physically couldn’t, and there’s clever use of forced perceptive, which is often instigated to make Dracula appear further away than he actually is. The elongating arm near the start is especially impressive. Across the board, the editing and visual special effects range from sublime, to silly, to terrible (the green mist) but for the most part, are very strong, and the collective effect gives the movie a very off-centre and surreal tone. The editing tricks often challenge the audience’s visual perceptions, which works wonderfully for the Dracula character. Notice the scene where Mina is kissing Dracula and the men walk in, seeing her kissing nothing but air. The movie holds on this, the idea that Dracula is invisible to the men, and then Dracula, in disgusting bat form, jumps down from the ceiling. This happens in a beat, and logically it makes no sense, but gives the impression that Dracula is everywhere at once, and really does heighten and highlight his supernatural abilities. Rarely have vampires felt this magical and other-worldly.bram11There’s a dreamlike atmosphere to the whole movie, Coppola describing the experience as an ‘erotic nightmare’ and it’s almost Lynchian at times. The scene with Lucy sleepwalking in the fog sums up the entire movie, with its heavy, dreamy use of slow-motion, wind-machines and flowing dresses, stormy weather, sexy women, and monstrous sex demon in the darkness. In terms of adaptation, however, this is a bit all over the place. For starters, the title is misleading, promising a more direct take on Bram Stoker’s material. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula would have been accurate. Coppola retains the novel’s narrative essentially, but breaks the movie into a succession of operatic climaxes, which again, plays into the dreamlike atmosphere, but means that the movie is considerably more garish than Stoker’s novel.sadie frostGenerally however, the movie adapts themes which were present in the original work – it just blows them up. Stoker’s novel, as discussed in many Undergraduate English Literature Orientalism modules, was concerned with the threat of the foreign ‘other’ on British society, particularly the threat upon sexuality and ‘properness’ – hence Lucy, who works like the ‘whore’ archetype in modern slashers. Coppola’s movie makes these themes – which are pretty subtle in the novel – into the central focus, and so the elements of sex and lust which a young reader would miss in the text are splashed across the screen here and made obvious. Coppola keeps the energy up and the tone is always leaning towards excess; there’s no subtly to anything here, which gives the movie a love it or hate it quality; it’s certainly high camp, and if approached in that way, very enjoyable.bram3In this sense, the movie works as an adaptation, in that it retains thematic elements from the novel, though the tone is wildly different. However, some of the added plot points don’t work. The prologue, which shows us how Dracula became Dracula, isn’t needed and worse, the on set-filming makes the big battles here look cheap and false. The reincarnation/love story between Mina and Dracula is silly and hurts the movie too; you can kind of get away with it by suggesting that Dracula only sees his Queen in Mina, and that she only falls for him because of his magical charm, but the movie definitely has a more literal approach in mind and it’s not even that it pushes credibility (the movie is already out there) it just that it doesn’t add anything to the narrative. Certain other story parts are seemingly dropped at random – Renfield goes nowhere, Van Helsing teleports at one point, and just why does Dracula need property in specific London locations? The movie never explains. bram9The quality of the cast varies dramatically too. Gary Oldman is a seminal, chameleon of an actor and he absolutely throws himself into a very demanding role here. He not only has to switch between scary and sexy throughout the entire run (both of which he does very convincingly), but he has to contend with layers of make-up, acting beneath various complex bat-masks and wolf-faces. He’s at times creepy and disturbing, other times, sexy and charming – and plays up a nice Bela Lugosi accent without coming across as too silly. Winona Ryder is a great little actress who was unstoppable at this time in her career – early 90s Ryder was her at her strongest, and she’s sweet and likeable here, with occasional glimpses at a sexier, darker edge as she gets closer to Dracula. The rest of the cast – Lucy’s suitors, Dracula’s brides – are great too.bram7Anthony Hopkins is a bit hard to read as Van Helsing – he plays it semi-mad and heavy on the eccentric, which at times just makes him come across as a lunatic who shouldn’t be in charge of anything. It’s hard to decide whether he was miscast or if Hopkins just misread the role, but the performance isn’t one of the actor’s best. Then of course, we get Keanu Reeves, and what to say here? On the plus side, and really reaching, he looks physically attractive and visually pairs well with Ryder. He is however, terribly miscast and plays Jonathan like a stoned American in a school-play. Seriously, his English accent is atrocious, and his line-reading is so bad at times that you almost feel he’s taking the piss. It makes some of his scenes very hard to stomach.bram8You’ll either love this or hate it. The aesthetic is extremely camp and loud – there’s a tone to the movie which some will find off-putting. However, some will love the atmosphere, design and mood – as a visual and sensual feast, this is almost a masterpiece. Yes, parts of the plot are stupid, some of the acting is terrible, and the effects and editing can be distracting. But flipping that around, individual scenes are crazy and unlike most else in mainstream horror, some of the acting is brilliant, and some of the effects and editing are sublime. So it’s a mixed bag, but generally, the ambition and talent on display here pushes Bram Stoker’s Dracula into the brighter side of the cinema scale. It’s certainly never boring, and though far, far from Coppola at his best, it’s one of his most unusual and most entertaining final movies.

4/5

 
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