In 1897, an Irish writer named Bram Stoker introduced to the world
a horrific and hypnotic count named Dracula, whose nails were
long and "cut to a sharp point," and who had "peculiarly
sharp white teeth."
His book, Dracula was not the first work of English literature to detail the life and times of vampires: At least three others appeared prior to his. But Stoker's novel of Jonathan and Mina Harker, their stalwart friends and the wise Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, has become the definitive account of the haunted blood sucker.
It was an erotically romantic and gothic tale of moral and philosophical conflicts. It also was scary and frightening with its marvelous details of a man-creature who could slither down the side of a castle wall like a well oiled lizard. Today, it remains super high camp.
In crafting his own take on the infamous count, Francis Ford Coppola has stayed fairly close to Stoker's book, and the end result is the estimated $42 million Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Coppola attempts to combine horror, romance, philosophy, humor, adventure and eroticism into one big stylish brew. But what he churns out is vastly unappetizing.
Yes, the movie is lovingly shot with beautiful cinematography, lavish, elegant costuming, lush sets and excellent performances from Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, and Winona Ryder.
But it's too long on style and illusionary effects and very short on substance. It also is hampered by Keanu Reeves, miscast in the pivotal role of Jonathan Harker. Reeves, whose British accent is almost as bad as Kevin Costner's in Robin Hood, gives a wooden and embarrassing performance and serves only as a distraction from what could have been a wonderful journey.
Reeves clearly is out of his league:
First, there's Oldman, fast emerging as the consummate character actor of the 1990's, doing superb business as Count Dracula. We first meet him as the young, virile nobleman who attacks God and church when his young bride is slaughtered. Then he appears as the ancient vampire, done up in the flowing, crimson robes, long white hair twirled about his head. Later, he metamorphoses into a scaly, taloned creature of the night.
Oldman is just marvelous with a precise menace and courtly air. He can be forgiven when he delivers a line in much the same way as Bela Lugosi did in Tod Browning's Dracula, the campy by stilted 1931 horror movie: "I do not drink vine."
Ditto, "Listen to them - the children of the night. What music they make!" It is a line taken from the Stoker novel and is so wickedly delicious.
Then there's Hopkins as Dr. Van Helsing, the vampire expert. Hopkins scampers about with a certain insouciance; firing off the script's best comedic lines and making even the silliest dialogue sound scholarly. He's indeed an actor's actor, an artist who can adeptly shape and deliver and character and situation. Ryder is properly fragile as the object of Dracula's desire, the reincarnation of his lost love and the human who can lead him to salvation. She is an exceptional young actress who has yet to reach her peak.
There's also good support from Tom Waits as the deranged Renfield and Sadie Frost as the voluptuous victim Lucy Westenra. There's lots of violence and blood in Coppola's film, but few truly scary moments. Then again, the Lugosi version was not a fright fest.
True vampire horror can be found in F.W. Murnau and Heinrich Galeen's classic 1921 Nosferatu with it's eerie shadows and silhouettes of a hovering, nightmarish Count Orlock. In later years, both Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee have provided frightening interpretations.
Michael Ballhaus, who has worked with such directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese and John Sayles, provides excellent photography in Bram Stoker's Dracula. And designer Eiko Ishioka, who worked on the Broadway production of M. Butterfly and designed the Japanese poster for Apocalypse Now, created an extraordinary array of costumes and fantasy clothes.
Greg Cannom is to be commended for his aging make-up of Oldman, and there are nice visual effects by Roman Coppola.
With it's opulent look and campy subject, Bram Stoker's Dracula will likely find a devoted audience. But it is a film that does not measure up to Coppola's masterpieces, Apocalypse Now and The Godfather.