Wednesday, 3 October 2007
BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins
I love “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. It’s a gothic near-masterpiece, which goes back to Bram Stoker’s original material and builds the film back up directly from his novel. It’s therefore a non-vampire vampire film – a fresh start, unencumbered with genre expectations. Coppola has made the film into a Wagner-esque operatic epic love story spanning continents and centuries.
The opening, wonderfully grand, sets the tone for the film – Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s dark and brooding chords punctuate an intense pre-credit sequence. Coppola establishes the tragic death of Dracula’s wife, Elizabeta, his renunciation of God and his rebirth as the undead vampyre avenger. We then see the familiar story in turn-of-the-century London as Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) receives his assignment to travel to Transylvania to visit the enigmatic Dracula (Gary Oldman) and close a deal on a series of land purchases in London. When Dracula notices that Harker’s fiancé Mina (Winona Ryder) looks exactly like his long lost wife, he decides to travel to London to find Mina. Harker, imprisoned in Dracula’s castle, is then put through a series of menacing ordeals, in hopes of breaking his mind like his former liaison –Renfield (Tom Waits).
After the lengthy journey Dracula does meet with Mina. The second act becomes a passionate courtship between the two. Mina feels the powerful attraction of the vampire blood-lust and so is drawn to Dracula. Harker does escape from Dracula’s castle and manages to travel back to London. With the help of Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and his team of vampire fighters Harker faces off against Dracula one last time to save Mina from becoming one of the undead.
“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” has a rare cinematic exuberance which can easily be mistaken as overdramatic or unrealistic. Coppola has purposefully created a ‘stagy’ feel to his interpretation. Unlike Werner Herzog’s Dracula (“Nosferatu”) which was more ‘on location’, Coppola’s world is manufactured and heightened in all meanings of the word. The acting is big, the music is big, the sets and costumes are big. This tone has much in common with John Boorman’s “Excalibur”, another film, which has been ridiculed for its over-dramatics. Watch these two films back-to-back and you’ll find many similarities.
Gary Oldman is fantastic as “Dracula”. Coppola gives him two distinctive looks – his older “Transylvanian” look and his suave modern Londoner look. He woos Mina with his charming modern attire, but I prefer the angry and vengeful Dracula. There’s no black cape, or widow’s peak. Dracula famous outfits were created by Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka and gives us a Kibuke version of Dracula. It works because the audience is immediately taken outside all other versions of the story including both German “Nosferatu” versions.
The special effects are perhaps the most talked about aspects of the film. Coppola, with his son Roman and effects legend Michael Lantieri, uses classical film techniques to create the unique effects – optical matting, reverse shooting, lighting transitions. But everything looks fantastic and completely modern. I only wish more filmmakers would go old-school and give us a break from CGI (note: Darren Aronofsky also created all his effects optically and organically for “The Fountain”). One of Coppola’s trademarks is his wonderful dissolves and transitions. Harker’s first traveling sequence is the first of many complex transition sequences that breath life into tired old establishing, time-condensing montages.
Despite the praise, the film is not quite a masterpiece. The second act – the love story with Mina and Dracula – starts to lag at the midway point, but thanks to Anthony Hopkins the picture is saved. Hopkins delivers a wonderful scene-chewing performance as Van Helsing. The appearance of he and his vampire posse injects fresh new life into the second act.
This non-musical opera-version of Dracula is a classic. In fact, over the next few years he’ll return to this style of gothic reinvention by remaking “Frankenstein” with Kenneth Branagh and “Sleepy Hollow” with Tim Burton. But his “Dracula” remains the best of the bunch, and clearly his best film of the 1990’s. Enjoy.
Here’s an old trailer from 1992: