Sunday, January 09, 2011

Bram Stoker's Dracula


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/8/05 w/ Additional Edits.


The story of Count Dracula by Bram Stoker has been a very popular story among horror fans. Cinematic versions were done since 1922's Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau and since then, there have been many versions. Some were good and some were bad. In 1992, another film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula came to the silver screen as the vampire was introduced to a new generation of fans simply entitled Bram Stoker's Dracula. Taking the adaptation for the new Dracula film at that time was Francis Ford Coppola, who was reeling from the disappointment of The Godfather Part III. Taking on this project to help score some box office points, Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart not only wanted to make a faithful adaptation to Stoker's vision but also bring new ideas to the story.

Coppola's version of the Dracula story is a return to the old-school horror film days when Coppola worked with Roger Corman. Using dabbles of gore and blood, Coppola's approach to Dracula isn't simply just a horror story but a love story that is the centerpiece of the film. Taking a sexuality that is complex, Coppola gives Dracula vulnerability and depth that some directors have missed. With a cast that includes Gary Oldman in the title role along with Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Sadie Frost, Cary Elwes, Bill Campbell, Monica Bellucci, and Coppola associate Tom Waits. Francis Ford Coppola's version of Bram Stoker's Dracula is a brilliant, sexy, and mystifying film that has all the works of a great vampire film.

It's 1897 as a young British real estates dealer named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent to Transylvania to conduct with a mysterious man named Dracula. Harker takes over the business dealings after one of his former co-workers named Renfield (Tom Waits) was sent to a mental hospital after a mental breakdown. Before he leaves for Transylvania, Harker bids farewell to his fiancee Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) as he vows to marry her once he returns. With Mina staying at the home of best friend Lucy (Sadie Frost), Harker sets aboard from England to the mountains of Transylvania in Romania. Harker arrives through a mysterious transport as he meets Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) who has aged and seeks interest in buying land in England. Intrigued by his interest in the property, Harker asks about the painting of Vlad Dracul who was an ancestor of Dracula. Then during the payment, Dracula finds a picture of Mina who eerily resembles an old bride of Dracul named Elisabeta.

Dracula asks Harker to stay for a month by sending three letters to his superiors, families, and Mina as Harker does as Dracula wishes only to be seduced by his brides (Monica Bellucci, Michela Bercu, and Florina Kendrick). Harker is trapped as Dracula leaves for England through boxes of earth and onboard a ship. Meanwhile in England, Mina receives eerie letters from Jonathan  while she watches Lucy being courted by several suitors including a Texan named Quincy P. Morris (Bill Campbell), Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant). The last of which has been studying the case of Renfield's odd behavior. On the night of Dracula's arrival, Dracula becomes a wolf as he lets animals on the loose. Lucy begins to sleepwalk as she is seduced by Dracula's power as Mina runs after her to find Lucy bitten by a wolf. The wolf sees Mina as Dracula becomes tormented by his memories of his bride's death that led him to renounce God back in the 15th Century.

Fully developed as a normal man who can walk around sunlight, Dracula quietly encounters Mina asking her about the town. Mina at first tries to sway him but only to realize that Dracula is just a foreigner trying to discover the town. With a white wolf loose from the zoo, Dracula saves Mina from the wolf. Mina finds comfort in Dracula as Lucy becomes ill from the bite she suffered.  Dr. Seward tries to find out what's wrong as he seeks counsel from his former mentor Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). With Dracula using Lucy for feeding, Van Helsing arrives as he and Dr. Seward try to save Lucy. Mina meets Dracula again for dinner as she learned about the bride Elisabeta and Dracula’s pain as the two begin to fall in love. Then when news that Jonathan has escaped, Mina plans to keep her affair with Dracula secret as Dracula becomes anguished of Jonathan's escape. Mina sees Lucy one final time as she gave Mina her ring as a wedding present while trying to deal with her growing, erratic behavior. 

After the bites on Lucy's neck were from Dracula, Van Helsing learns about Dracula's history as Count Vlad Dracul who slaughtered an army of Muslim Turks for a Christian church in Romania. After a group of Turks sent false news to Elisabeta about Dracul’s death, she kills herself where Dracul learns of her death as he renounces god and becomes a vampire. Angered by Jonathan and Mina's wedding, Dracula vents his anger by wreaking havoc on his foes as Van Helsing defends himself against Dracula.  With an ill Jonathan returning home, Van Helsing makes plans to attack Dracula while Mina meets Renfield where she learns she has a chance to be given eternal life from Dracula.  Dracula then meets Mina only to be saved by Van Helsing despite Mina's sudden connection with the monster.  With Jonathan, Van Helsing, and other men going to Transylvania to battle Dracula, Mina is suddenly caught in the middle.

While some horror fans might be put off by the approach of Coppola's version to the Dracula story, they will at least be happy that Coppola did fully utilize enough gore and blood for any fan of vampire films. While the film isn't scary, Coppola's approach to the story is more faithful to the novel by Bram Stoker though some did felt he didn't go far enough to the taboo of Dracula's behavior. Instead, Dracula is served as an anti-hero driven by his love and anguish. That approach works in giving the title character an emotional depth that hadn't been seen in many Dracula movies. In many ways, both the script and Coppola's fast-paced, eye-wielding directing works on many levels.

Helping Coppola with the fast, jerky camera shots and movements is cinematographer Michael Ballhaus who truly captures the late-19th Century Gothic tone with flashes of black, grayish colors and blueish filters that is enigmatic and chilling. Ballhaus also uses great shots in its sunlight sequences including a monochrome graininess to the cinematograph camera shots used on Dracula's arrival as a full-fledged human. Helping Ballhaus with the visuals is the Oscar-award winning team of production designer Thomas Sander, art director Andrew Precht, and set designer Garry Lewis for their great, detailing look of the late 19th Century period of houses and props. Also helping out in the visuals is Francis' son Roman Coppola who serves as a visual effects director and second unit director who brings in great, blueish visual effects that are chilling in its look while giving a great effect that isn't fake or superficial.

While the film runs at over two hours, editors Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith do a great job in giving the film a kinetic, nicely-paced energy that gives viewpoints to many of the film's central characters and their struggles in their sequences along with the sound work of Tom C. McCarthy and David E. Stone. McCarthy along with a team of makeup people bring in great look to the vampire characters in the film especially with Oldman’s aged look of Dracula with great, reddish colors from costume designer Eiko Ishioka who uses brilliant detail on the costumes, notably the long red cloak of the aged Dracula. The music by Wojciech Kilar brings suspense to the film as well as a romantic quality in scenes involving Oldman and Ryder while some tracks includes vocals by Diamanda Galas and a vocal track from Annie Lennox in the final credits. Overall, this film is a technical achievement thanks to Francis Ford Coppola's masterful direction.

While the film has a nice cast with nice, small performances from Monica Bellucci as one of the brides and nice in-fringe characters performances from the eloquent Cary Elwes as the snobbish Lord Holmwood and Bill Campbell as the funny Texan Quincey P. Morris. The rest of the supporting cast really shine with the exception of Keanu Reeves. While Reeves is not a bad actor, he's just mediocre as he struggled to maintain a straightforward British accent though he does do well when he doesn’t speak or whenever he’s playing a foil for Oldman. Sadie Frost's character of Lucy doesn't have much development or depth in her character but Frost makes up for it with her playful, sexy charm while as she becomes a vampire, she shines through her madness and does a great job in puking out blood. Richard E. Grant is amazing as the morphine-addicted Dr. Seward with his calm but crazed performance while he has great moments with Anthony Hopkins and Tom Waits. Tom Waits is a huge standout as the insane Dr. Renfield and the man should be commended for giving a crazed performance, especially eating real-live bugs.

Sir Anthony Hopkins delivers a maddening, over-the-top performance as Dr. Van Helsing with his psychotic state of mind and a sense of humor that clearly isn't for everyone. Hopkins really steals the show among those in his supporting cast by bringing both madness and humor into his complex turn as Van Helsing, especially since Hopkins does dual parts as a priest in the film's opening sequence. Winona Ryder is wonderful as the ingenue of Mina with her restrained innocence and class that develops into something that is more grandeur where she goes into a state of craziness and obsessed love. Ryder delivers not just one of her best performances but she carries the film with grace and class while having some great scenes with Gary Oldman.

Gary Oldman is the best performance of the entire cast and he clearly is truly one of cinema's most gifted and versatile actors. From playing a punk rocker to a classical composer, a corrupt cop to most recently, a loveable convict. Oldman gives a tortured, demented approach to Dracula that makes more than just an anti-hero tortured by love but a protagonist who is very complex despite his motivations. Oldman doesn't just carry great scenes with Ryder that shows his depth but also a humanity in Dracula, even as an old man with white makeup, a Victorian wig, and a cool red cape. Oldman even steals the show from veteran Anthony Hopkins in their brief confrontation scenes as he plays a vampire in a way that is both terrifying and with a sense of love.

While Bram Stoker's Dracula isn't a great horror film or anywhere near the brilliance of Francis Ford Coppola's film work of the 1970s. It is still a very entertaining vampire films thanks to Coppola's eye-wielding direction and the anguished performance of Gary Oldman. For Coppola, Bram Stoker's Dracula is his most accomplished and watchable film since 1986's Peggy Sue Got Married. While Coppola deserves credit, equal credit should go to screenwriter James V. Hart for faithfully capturing Bram Stoker's book but also Coppola's film crew and the film’s cast that includes great performances from Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Richard E. Grant, Sadie Frost, and Tom Waits. For a vampire film that has a nice dose of sex and gore, Bram Stoker's Dracula fulfills that for any fan of vampire films.

Francis Ford Coppola Films: Dementia 13 - (You're A Big Boy Now) - (Finian's Rainbow) - (The Rain People) - The Godfather - The Conversation - The Godfather Part II - Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux - One from the Heart - (The Outsiders) - Rumble Fish - (The Cotton Club) - (Peggy Sue Got Married) - (Garden of Stone) - (Tucker: The Man & His Dream) - New York Stories - The Godfather Part III - (Jack) - (The Rainmaker) - (Youth Without Youth) - (Tetro) - (Twixt Now & Sunrise)

(C) thevoid99 2011

5 comments:

Lyz said...

I actually just published an article on this film, pertaining to adaptation theory. Barring Reeves' accent, I think his performance actually fits the character of Jonathan Harker. I found the visuals, though beautiful at times, to be over-the-top. Coppola had everything but the kitchen sink thrown in there.

thevoid99 said...

It's not a perfect film but I do think it's quite entertaining. I think in some ways, it's meant to be over-the-top but I liked it.

Thanks for commenting.

Lyz said...

Most entertaining part: the rats after he turns Mina. Love it, so hilarious!

CS said...

While I loved Oldman's performance, this is my least favourite of the numerous Dracula films. The film never quite flowed well in my opinion. I think this is due to the fact that each cast member seems to be acting in a different film. Oldman was the only truly consistent performance from start to finish.

thevoid99 said...

@CS You have some ideas about the different acting styles though I think it was Coppola's intention. Yet, it was Gary Oldman that really was the star of the film. I really think a lesser actor would've made the film less engaging and entertaining. Yet, it's the reason why I love Gary Oldman. And I bet if you haven't seen Werner Herzog's Nosferatu or his commentary. He wasn't a fan of Coppola's film either.