Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)

Have you ever watched a film for the first time, slightly excited for it due to its credentials? For example, a big screen adaptation of one of your favorite novels by a director you respect with actors you admire? Did you sit down and watch it, only to find yourself completely puzzled by what flashes across the screen the entire two hours you give to it? Did you find yourself ready to call it the biggest disappointment ever? Or possibly call it the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen? Or, hell, did you find yourself completely baffled and confused by it? Wanting to take the DVD out of the player and literally chuck it at the wall? That was my first reaction to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an absolutely preposterous film that just so happens to be one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now, we all have our guilty pleasures. Those films that we know are awful but can’t help but love. I know that I Know Who Killed Me is an awful film, filled to the brim with problems in both narrative and, well, just about everything else. But the film is one I enjoy to watch, getting great kicks from its stupidity due to the almost coincidental way the film mixes giallo horror with grindhouse insanity. I also enjoy something like Glen or Glenda, one of the many bottom-of-the-barrel flicks from Ed Wood. Why do I? Because I get a kick out of its slap-happy nature, and I feel that through it’s lunacy it still grasps onto being a very personal work from a loony “filmmaker”. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is far from being in the same category as these types of “gulty pleasures”, however. While I can freely admit I find it a highly flawed and downright stupid film, I can’t help but pass it off as some kind of highly original and downright brilliant catastrophe.

Francis Ford Coppola, the same motherfucker that brought us brilliant stuff like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, directed his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire story with the outrageous energy of a little boy playing with Hot Wheels. Every time one of the Coppola’s visual flourishes for his retelling pop on the screen, we are immediately awed and followed by a perplexed feeling of “is that even necessary?” Yeah, it’s engagingly beautiful to see a sexy woman walking in slow motion through a rain storm in a labyrinth as her vibrant red dress flows in the wind. But, is it really what we need in the story at this moment? Well, of course we need it, Coppola assures us; following this scene up with a sex scene between the girl and a bloodthirsty Dracula that has morphed into the appearance of a wolf.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the pinnacle style-over-substance picture. (On the DVD commentary, director Coppola even takes note how there is so much things going on that he can barely keep up with describing how they did them.) Unlike most films that get this label, it manages to somehow adapt a peculiar scent – it invokes a feeling that is quite difficult to describe. Every layer upon layer of eye candy piled up for our (and Coppola’s) amusement eventually reaches a whimsical level. It’s different from other films that have this flaw in that, while the style suffocates the narrative, that very same style still brings forth its own odd brand of substance. Thus seeing a rat walking upside down on a ceiling, a wolf passionately having sex with an enchanted beauty, a pack of naked female vampires feeding on a newborn baby, or a completely plagiarized moment from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu all feel more in-tune with one another. Every visual placement seems to comment on the vampire pathos that Stoker originally started. So, in this humble review’s opinion, while most seem propelled to find Coppola’s titling of the film as being Bram Stoker’s story annoying and unnecessary, I find myself applauding it. Every little sexualized and blood-crazed mythology that came from the original Dracula novel can be found here, working in its own macabre way in an array of melancholic, disturbing, and even sometimes downright unintentionally hilarious imagery.

In what may be his finest performance to date, and probably the finest he will ever give, Gary Oldman is so commanding in the title role of the infamous Count, reminding us all how chameleonic he can be. He gnaws at every one of his scenes with a fierce intensity, so much at times that it feels like he’s about to bring the whole picture down, heavy-handed direction and all, with the simple gesture of something like, say, licking blood from a razor. Earlier in the film, under pounds of makeup effects, Oldman still brings this stark bleakness to the front burner. There is so much in those particular scenes to admire as is, as Oldman goes bravely into hysterics as he crosses the paths of dark humor and over-the-top theatrics in order to develop his character as a tragic being. Later in the film, when Dracula moves to London, he is once again young, and thus Oldman acts without makeup and yet, still, projects all that he has already set forth for the character. Now, Coppola has dressed the Count in a campy top hat and a pair of memorable sunglasses. Oldman keeps it all going consistent as Coppola keeps everything going for his masturbatory pleasure.

And if that iconic image of Oldman as the Count, dressed in that flashy outfit, pursuing a naïve Winona Ryder on the daylight-bleached streets of London doesn’t best capture Coppola’s aesthetic with the material, then I can’t really think what else could. The director isn’t worried about logic in the vampire legends, he isn’t worried about the complexities of the characters and he isn’t worried how well the actors play them (even if Oldman reaches masterclass status with his work). As he proves even further after this scene, where Dracula is close to biting the supple neck of Mina (Ryder), that all he’s cared about is the red of his eyes. The blood. The sex. The blood and the sex. That’s what the vampire is all about, right?

As the film reaches its final moments, it finds itself coming to terms with its chaotic behavior, and finds itself following up an extended sequence of cartoonish violence (in which Anthony Hopkins camps up a flood of sequences involving a hungry-for-her-love Ryder and the vampire brides of Dracula’s castle) with a final moment in which beauty kills the beast. (A motif Coppola makes throughout the picture, in that he makes constant nod to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.) After decapitating Dracula, and thus bringing the tragic love story of the narrative to its finish line, Mina looks toward the ceiling where there lives a large, haunting mural of Dracula and his long lost love (also played by Ryder). In that final shot of the film, Coppola bites us in the throat, showing us the Gothic artistry that plays up the emotional response the film rubs off.

So, even after finding Bram Stoker’s Dracula a large disappointment after hyping myself up for it, I find myself loving it to death. Yes, it still confuses me. Yes, it still baffles me. Yes, it still angers me. And yes, it still kind of gets on my nerves (Keanu Reeves’ performance is one for the worst-of-all-time books). But it’s also a hypnotic experience. Even after watching it and reacting so strongly to it, after some time I will feel the urge to kick back and watch it again, only to react to it the same way I did with every previous view. The beauty of the film exists in its excess, and its excess delivers an unbelievably entertaining piece of camp that shapes itself as a violently sexualized reflection of a cinematic and literary icon.

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~ by jerkwoddjh on April 26, 2011.

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