Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the Dracula legend is a bloody visual feast. Both the most extravagant screen telling of the oft-filmed story and the one most faithful to its literary source, this rendition sets grand romantic goals for itself that aren’t fulfilled emotionally, and it is gory without being at all scary. The Dracula name, such as it is, and a mighty promotional push by Columbia for its Friday the 13th opening should generate some strong early frame numbers, but pic’s extreme adult nature will significantly limit potential with younger auds, and reaction is bound to be decidedly mixed.
Achieving title card billing like Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel, Bram Stoker finally warrants it since James V. Hart is the first screenwriter to have had the bright idea to fundamentally follow the quite wonderful 1897 novel.
The considerably different 1927 Hamilton Deane-John L.Balderston stage play is the basis for the best known Dracula films, notably the 1931 Bela Lugosi version.
Hart sets epic parameters for his script, with a prologue that introduces Dracula’s historical origins as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century Romanian king who fought off the Turkish invaders of Middle Europe.
As dramatically sketched here, the ruler’s inamorata, Elisabeta, killed herself upon receiving false news of his death in battle, whereupon the monarch furiously renounced God and began his centuries-long devotion to evil and blood.
In casting Winona Ryder as both Elisabeta and Mina Murray, the overarching story becomes Dracula’s quest to recapture his great love.
Unfortunately, the familiarity of the plotting, Coppola’s coldly magisterial style and Gary Oldman’s plain appearance mean this strategy works in theory only.
But it does set a serious tone, and the director, in his first outing in the horror genre since his 1963 first feature, “Dementia 13,” manages to steer a relatively steady course that embraces dramatic conviction as well as enough humor to send up the vampire conventions. He also invests it with a primal sexuality and animalism quite consistent with the book. Sent to Dracula’s Transylvanian castle to advise the count about London real estate, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) ends upbeing held prisoner there and being feasted upon by his host’s three luscious concubines. Dracula, meanwhile, is plotting his unique conquest of Britain, which involves transporting a quantity of coffins filled with fertile Transylvanian earth and infecting the local populace via incarnations as wolf, bat and fog.
Mina awaits the return of her fiance Harker in the company of her best friend , Lucy (Sadie Frost), a popular young lady with three suitors whom Dracula soon seduces into the world of the undead. In a desperate attempt to save her life, one of her suitors, Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), calls upon the eminent Dutch doctor and metaphysician Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and they, along with Lucy’s fiance Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) and footloose Yank Quincey Morris (Bill Campbell), team to foil Dracula as he sets his sights on the beautiful Mina.
Shot almost entirely on sound stages, film has the feel of an old-fashioned, 1930s, studio-enclosed production made with the benefit of 1990s technology. From the striking, blood-drenched prologue onward, the viewer is constantly made aware of cinema artifice in its grandest manifestations. Detractors may compare this to “One From The Heart,” but the mechanics are really quite impressive and provide plenty to marvel at.
Thomas Sanders’ production design, Michael Ballhaus’ lensing, Michele Burke’s makeup and, especially, Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka’s amazing costumes create a dark world of heightened irreality within a context that is both Gothic and Victorian.
Using a Romanian accent, Oldman comes up with a few unintelligible line readings, but enacts Dracula with wit, sophistication and proper seriousness. The problem may be, however, that Oldman is a fine character actor who lacks the charisma and insinuating personality that would put across Coppola’s conception of a highly sexualized vampire. Despite a handful of wild scenes, this aspect of the film never catches fire.
Other performances range from a bit stiff (the young male contingent) to playfully energetic (Hopkins) to compelling (Tom Waits as the insect-eating lunatic Renfield). Ryder has just the right combination of intelligence and enticing looks as Mina, while saucy English newcomer Frost seems a shade too erotically aware for a young upper class lady of the period.
Coppola doesn’t push it, but underlying everything here, as perhaps it must with any serious vampire story today, is an AIDS subtext involving sex, infected blood and the plague. Overall, this Dracula could have been less heavy and more deliciously evil than it is, but it does offer a sumptuous engorgement of the senses.