Dracula (Bram Stoker's)

Zero-gravity rats, true, but no levitating laser-sex
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1992
Director: 
Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: 
Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu reeves
The Setup: 
Francis Ford Coppola brings his wacked-out style to a retelling of Dracula.
Discussion: 

I don't know why it suddenly seemed imperative to me to watch this, but it did. I remember being fairly excited about this movie when it came out, since, given the title, it promised greater adherence to Stoker's novel than previous adaptations--and then the all that out the window in the first few minutes. My first viewing of it, in the theater, was filled with long minutes of "What IS this???" and I actually watched it at least once more, thinking it couldn't have been THAT bad, could it? Turns out that upon this viewing I was able to get much more into its insane visual design and ten-miles-over-the-top style, although it steadfastly remains a piece of shit and more than earns the abbreviation of "BS Dracula."

Okay! So it's 1462 and we meet Gary Oldman as Vlad, who rides out in his ribbed red armor (recycled for The Cell) to repel the Muslim invaders from his home of Romania. Surely you recall all this from the novel, right? He goes out and we have some silhouettes fighting against a red background and we note that Vlad's preferred method of killing others is to impale them, earning him the nickname "Vlad the Impaler." This is supposed to provide some sort of real-world historical context and give tie-in articles and History channel specials something to talk about. Meanwhile, waiting at home is Winona Ryder as Elizabeth, who gets news from those nasty, lying Muslims that Vlad is dead, so she doesn't wait for confirmation, she offs herself. Then Vlad comes home, finds his woman is a waterlogged corpse, and renounces God, stabbing this big crucifix, which starts to gush blood. Vlad drinks the blood and... somehow this makes him into Dracula? That makes sense somehow? And for some reason his name gets changed from Vlad to Dracula? And both he and Elizabeth are rather impulsive people, aren't they? None of this would have happened if they could just take a breather and let cooler heads prevail, right?

Then: TITLE! One thing you might have noticed in that first scene is that this is HIGH CAMP, and you think it might actually start to slow down... but actually the rest of the movie just catches up with it. We now meet Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, who Coppola later admitted he cast only to bring the young ones in the door, and may not have made the best choice. Poor Keanu is asked to speak with a British accent, which, to employ understatement, is not convincing. And a little jarring. He gets assigned to travel to Romania to Dracula's Castle to arrange for the count to come to London (do we ever really learn why? Just to bug people, I suppose?). Jonathan says goodbye to his fiancée Mina and--Holy shit, she looks EXACTLY like Dracula's soggy bride from back in the day!!--and we see Jonathan riding the train with these expressionistic RED backgrounds outside, some including Dracula's blue eyes glowering from the sky. This movie goes massively over the top with these expressionistic touches, and this viewing was the first time I didn't just dismiss them as silly or ridiculous and tried to get into the whole operatic, elevated mood (still didn't work). I did respect the whole thing a bit more, however, when I learned that Coppola refused to use CGI and other newfangled methods, and tried to accomplish as many effects in-camera as possible--that is, by using projections and forced perspectives and models and other stuff, so that the effect is created right during filming, and nothing need be done later. Kind of awesome, right? Unfortunately, it still doesn't result in a good movie.

Anyway, so the one coach will only take Jonathan so far, and then Dracula's coach shows up, complete with driver in this insane bird-like black armor. The costume designer on this movie was obviously given a blank check and told to go for it. By now you may be just watching out for all the little special effects, and you'll see the driver's arm stretch out impossibly far to grab Jonathan, then Keanu kind of levitate into the coach. You'll notice that Dracula's castle looks like a man sitting on a throne. Then Dracula himself shows up in a red kimono with these two huge bumps of white hair and a long white braid down his back, and speaking in this exaggerated accent, and you might have the next of many moments where you say "Are they serious?"

You'll notice that Dracula's shadow doesn't match his movements, and sometimes acts independently of him, in some cases making movements that provide editorial commentary, which struck me as too silly to believe. You'll soon find out that in Dracula's castle, water drips upward, which is not even to mention the zero-gravity rats. I read in the trivia that Coppola did these things on the logic that around someone as powerful as the Big D, the laws of physics get bent. Well, they should have told us, because as you're watching it, they just come off as weeeiiirrrddd things to keep the audience amused. Then Dracula sees a picture of Mina and is like "Oh yeah, I'm gonna tap me some of THAT," and makes plans to lock Jonathan up where he is and head over to London to steal his lady.

Soon Jonathan sees Dracula climbing like Spider-Man on the walls outside the castle, and realizes something's a bit strange here. He wanders around the castle, where he soon encounters everyone's favorite three vampire women, who come up right between his legs and suck blood right out of the Harker family jewels. We also see one of Keanu's nipples spurting blood, which is not an image I think I really needed to drop into my unconscious. Now you wouldn't know it, and even knowing it I didn't recognize her, but one of these women in Monica Belluci! Poor Monica. Anyway, soon Dracula leaves Jonathan locked away and heads to London.

We fast-forward through the voyage of the Demeter, one of my favorite mini-episodes of the novel, and before you know it (though even watching it, one had trouble discerning what happened) Dracula lands in London. He sniffs out Mina's location, where he is distracted by her lovely friend Lucy. She wanders out into the garden under his spell, followed by Mina, who finds her friend getting fucked--and I do mean FUCKED--by a big wolf! Ummm, that's disturbing. So Lucy starts getting all sick and takes to her bed.

Then, sudden voice-over that tells us, guess what? Vampires can walk by day. No problem. Forget all that sunlight stuff. No big deal. So now Dracula is all young, because he drank enough blood, and he's walking the streets of London dressed like a dandy, with tall grey tophat, long hair, silly mustache, and these distracting blue glasses worn low on his nose. He looks like he's following Phish around the country on tour. I recall at the time thinking WHY would they dress Dracula like that--isn't he supposed to be ATTRACTIVE? But the goth girl at the store I worked at during that time thought he came off as soooooo dreamy, so I guess it's a girl thing. Anyway, he meets Mina, and soon charms her, and then she's hanging out in darkened cinemas with him and gasping and panting at his touch, until you're like--Ummm, aren't you ENGAGED? And isn't it improper for a lady to walk out with a man other than her husband? Or is this a DIFFERENT Victorian England? She continues hanging out with him, while Lucy lays ailing at home. Meantime Mina is having visions of the poor Count's past and realizing that she knew him in another time, another place.

So unless I'm mistaken, this movie is the origin of what has become a staple of Dracula films, which is that Mina is the reincarnation of Dracula's long-lost love. Well, actually that's not true, because I can now remember earlier films, including Love at a First Bite and Blacula, where this trope is already in place. I suppose it's to make the whole thing more romantic and cinematic, since Mina remaining completely faithful to Jonathan, as she is in the novel, does not spell hot vampire sex.

So also present are a trio of young actors, including Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes and Bill Campbell, who end up as Van Helsing's vampire ass-kicking team, and hang around in the movie quite a bit without ever really seeming like they have anything to do. Most amusing is Campbell as the rootin'-tootinest cowboy ever to take on a vampire, always incongruously appearing duded up in long leather dusters with fringe, and saying "Yes, Ma'am" and suchlike. The role requires little more than that Campbell convey the intent sincerity (and intellect) of a Golden Retriever, which can be charming from beneath a big mustache and cowboy hat, although ultimately he makes the movie seem like one of those where figures from disparate historical periods are brought together via a time machine or something. Also receiving a great deal of screen time for a character that ultimately has absolutely nothing to do in this story is Tom Waits as Renfield. He is called upon to perform the film's most ridiculous scenes, and even though he presumably chose to be in this film, one can't help but pity the appalling assault on his dignity.

SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, hey, remember Jonathan? Well, he somehow frees himself from those slithering succubi and makes his way to some nice nuns. He sends a text to Mina that he wants to surprise her with a fabulous Transyvanian destination wedding, and she goes. This film makes it out that travel to Transylvania during the late 1800s was as simple as hopping JetBlue down to Fort Lauderdale. First bag free! Anyway, she breaks it off with Dracula before leaving, and marries Jonathan, who now has gray hair--so she must REALLY love him--and escorts him back.

Meanwhile Anthony Hopkins shows up as Van Helsing, voraciously devouring scenery and vigorously overtopping "over the top" at every turn. There are hints that he somehow has mystical powers of his own or whatnot, but that is soon discarded. Anyway, Lucy dies, and the vampire-huntin' posse has to go chop off her head, and go down into her giant mausoleum. Fans of the novel might be disappointed that we're going to skip through the whole Bloofer Lady part, one of my favorite little episodes that could be turned into a nice little movie of its own, but Lucy does show up with a little child for a snack, so that kind of refers to it. Anyway, she's soon dispatched with a funny juxtaposition that shows her decapitated head flying, then a huge roast landing on a table.

Anyway, so now the vampire-huntin' posse is going to Dracula's hiding spots to destroy his boxes of Transylvanian earth, while the man himself goes to Mina's room and comes right up under her sheets. First she beats against his chest for killing her best friend, then changes tack and calls him "my love and my life," and begs him to make her a vampire and take her with him. Sweetie, I know Keanu is super-duper boring, but you are a MARRIED WOMAN! These kids today have no respect for the sanctity of marriage. ...And this screenwriter doesn't think it affects our view of Mina that she's a no-good, dirty-dealin', two-timing tart. Mina begs Dracula to "take me away from all this death!" which makes for a dramatic line and a good moment for the trailer, but... umm... is becoming a vampire and marrying the King of the Undead really going to be a death-free existence? Methinks this Mina of ours has been reading too many romance magazines, and is really rather a dumb bunny. So Dracula is like "No! I can't! Well, okay," and let's Mina suck blood from his nipples (let's just drop that whole blood-from-the-nipples thing, okay?) and she's half transformed when--My Husband!

That's right, VH and the vampire-killin' cru show up mid-suck, and Dracula is trapped--or IS he? Now sit down and grab your inhaler, because I'm going to say something POSITIVE about this movie. There's a really good effect when Dracula, in a sort of bat-demon form, backs against a wall, then transforms to a mass of rats. It's one of those fairly simple, no-CGI effects and it works like a charm! Especially since all those man-into-rats type transformations are hard to pull off. Nice one, guys! 10 points back!

So Dracula realizes it's time to move back home--sometimes new neighborhoods can be so inhospitable!--but he takes the sea, while VH & the VKC hop JetBlue to Transylvania, which means they'll beat him there. And they bring Mina for some reason?! Umm, isn't she in a weakened condition? Oh, but it seems that Dracula has implanted a GPS tracer in Mina, and is tracking her movements via a special iPad app, all from the safety of his coffin. Then JetBlue has a delay at their layover in Estonia, and it turns out VH & the VKC are racing the Count's carriage, guarded by a posse of fierce gypsies, along the snowy mountain pass, allowing our Cowboy buddy to really be in his element and cock his rifle with a showy twirl, yeee-hawww! They are racing the sunset because, even though sunlight didn't matter before, now it does. Okay? Okay.

So no sooner does the sun dip beneath the horizon when Dracula pops up like some really pissed-off jack-in-the-box. Meanwhile, Mina is turning a vampiric and doing her herky-jerky dance. There's a big fight, Dracula gets his throat slashed, and Mina decides to take him inside and finish the job herself. They have a little moment alone, during which she kisses his bloody mouth (ewwww), says toodle-oo, and chops his head off. Then, in perhaps the best moment of the movie, she looks up and sees a ceiling fresco with her and Dracula locked in eternal embrace. The end!
< < < SPOILERS END

Well, I liked it more this time than I ever have before, but that is going in with the expectation that it's a total piece of garbage. You have to respect that it goes whole-hog for this over-the-top style in which everything is turned up to eleven, but... if only it worked better. It seems to be aiming for this overheated swoon, but the mood somehow just doesn't catch fire. Instead it's somehow just a bit alienating and you keep waiting for it to settle down. This isn't helped by it being called "Bram Stoker's Dracula," so if you've read the novel, you're further alienated by the vast changes this movie has made. Not that they couldn't, or shouldn't change the novel--it has a very meandering, uncinematic structure, and if you've read anything else by Bram Stoker, you know that this guy is not a literary genius of the first order--but then just don't call it Bram Stoker's, okay?

Further dulling matters is the thudding lack of chemistry between Ryder and Oldman. IMDb trivia tells us that Ryder recommended Oldman for the role, and they were getting along swimmingly, then they went off to rehearse and when they came back, before shooting started, they hated each other and could not abide each other for the remainder of the shoot. Hmmm, I wonder what happened? Ryder is a charming but somewhat limited actress, and Oldman has never exactly been sex on legs, made worse by his long hair and Victorian hippie garb and silly accent, and we never get caught up in what is supposed to be their love across time. Not to mention that the actual story is about Mina's faithfulness, so to see her regarding her husband as a dull-but-safe alternative... well, I won't say it's wrong, but if you're going to change it, you have to develop it better. Then there's the whole subplot about Lucy that, even in the novel, seems like one of those meandering distractions, and the three dudes that keep hanging around with no real purpose and nothing to do, made worse by one of them being a gun-slingin' cowboy straight from the Wild West, and there's Renfield who gets a lot of coverage but ultimately nothing to do, Keanu Reeves who, ummm, you know, Keanu Reeves, and Anthony Hopkins, who shoots fifteen miles over the top, and thus seems to be the only one in on the joke. And it all just keeps going on and on while steadfastly refusing to cohere.

But, I am happy to say, there are two other, actually quite good, Dracula movies out there. The 70s Dracula with Frank Langella is the best straightforward telling of the tale [although it does have its own serious deviations from the novel], which respects the evocative mood of the Bela Legosi film while giving it all a more fleshed-out telling, and is the only one I know of in which Dracula's hypnotic power seems effective. You also get levitating laser-sex, which I think almost any movie could be enlivened by. There's also Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, which nails the mood as created by the novel, creating numerous gorgeous and evocative visuals that make you say "this is EXACTLY how I envisioned the novel," but that one is a remake of the classic film of the same name, and thus only really covers the first half of the novel. Which is smart, as really to do justice to the novel, you either need a miniseries or to seriously slash the narrative.

Still, one has to admire winged-out flights of fancy that don't entirely work but at least show you something different, like Excalibur or Flash Gordon, and this movie could be seen in that context. Although unlike those two, with this one you're fine not seeing it in that context, or really not seeing it at all.

Should you watch it: 

I'm not saying you shouldn't, but I'm definitely not saying you should.