Undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, Francis Ford Coppola, despite regularly touching on the horrors that man inflicts on man, had never directed an actual horror film. Oh, he’d directed the horrific all right – the hallucinogenic, journey up the river in Apocalypse Now is almost a literal excursion to Hell of earth and the excessive acts of violence that ravage the various players in The Godfather (Sonny Corleone getting reduced to pulp by machine gun fire in particular) are as visceral as any slasher movie that’s ever existed – but he’d never tackled actual horror before… That was until Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Arguably the horror novel – although Mary Shelly fans may contest that – Bram Stoker’s absurdly famous tale had been adapted over and over again with iconic results with Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee’s versions of the eponymous Count springing instantly to mind but Coppola claimed that his version would be the true adaptation as it would adhere closer to the source material than no other adaptation had done before.
A ballsy claim, even for the man who made The Godfather Part 2, because Stoker’s novel isn’t exactly the most linear story around as it’s entirely formed of diary excerpts, letters, log entries and newspaper reports (hence other adaptations streamlining the prose), but if anyone could wrestle it to the screen, fully formed, Coppola could.
Young real estate agent Jonathan Harker is bound to Transyvania to finalise a deal with the eccentric Count Dracula to purchase 10 houses all around London, but not before bidding farewell to his devoted fiance Mina. It’s a journey that’s got him fairly rattled as his predecessor returned a gibberish wreck and is currently gobbling down insects in the nearest insane asylum, but things get even weirder once he arrives at his destination.
His host, bone white and hairy palmed, has an unnerving habit scampering up walls or having his shadow wander off mid conversation, not to mention he casts no reflection and seems to ingest blood, but Jonathan’s epic stiff upper lip doesn’t allow him to react until it’s too late and he finds himself a prisoner in Castle Dracula and all it’s horrors. Meanwhile, back in Blighty, Mina is gradually growing more uneasy for her husband (as would you be if you’re husband to be was getting noshed on by a trio of scantily clad, vampire nymphs) but things go from bad to worse when the Count arrives in London, young and refreshed and feeds on her flakey friend Lucy in the form of an upsettingly randy wolf man. While Lucy’s suitors panic about her ailing health, German specialist and full time barking loon, Doctor Van Helsing, is called in to assist and announces that this is all the work of a blood drinking, shape shifting creature known as a Vampire and that he’s been hunting it most of his life. Meanwhile, Jonathan has managed to escape his erotica-tinged prison and made it back home but as our heroes amass to stop the charismatic Count, his true aim is revealed and it seems that Mina is a reincarnation of his lost love and he will stop at nothing to get her back.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an odd beast to pin down as it’s a production comprised of so many storytelling flaws and inconsistent performances, you wonder if anyone involved was actually on the same pages to what film they where actually trying to make – and yet, as a visual feast, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is frequently stunning and stands as a legitimate cinematic achievement during the horror starved days of the early 90’s.
So let’s hold up our crucifix in order to ward off up the bad shit first, because believe me, there’s a lot to unpack here and we’ll start with the plot itself. If it achieves it’s lofty aim of boasting that it’s the closest adaptation of Stoker’s work to exist, it’s only because it’s as disjointed as a dislocated elbow and incredibly episodic, with all the story threads linking up as smoothly as a high speed, multi car pile up on the freeway. At numerous points the plot even loses all cohesiveness entirely with Dracula’s arrival signified by the film having a full on panic attack with frantic editing, screaming actors and nausea inducing camera work that swoops all over the place like a demented budgie; but as chaotic as the tone of the movie often is, it’s nothing compared to the performances, which end up being as frequently mismatched as a Rhino on Tinder and in many cases are simply miscast.
Step forward and take a bow Mr. Keanu Reeves who should be the first name on your rolodex when it comes to breezy comedy or genre changing action, but when it comes to the tricky task of handling an english accent commits atrocities everytime he opens his mouth (his line reading of “I know where the bastard sleeps, at Carfax Abbey!” still strides through my nightmares like linguistically ignorant sleep paralysis demon) and he’s back up by a similarly wobbly attempt by Winona Ryder – but both manage to still look adorable, so…
This then brings us to Anthony Hopkins who seems to be of the opinion that every film he’s in should display the same restraint as a shouty, homeless man on the bus and plainly couldn’t care less about putting in a coherent body of work here any more than Coppola does and chooses to rampage through the film, attacking everyone with his ludicrous German accent. Both director and legendary Welsh nutcase obviously are treating the material as filmed theatre, going as big and booming as they both can, something that’s only magnified by the fact that is actually a damn film and has the searing psychlogical effect of having Brian Blessed scream at you while you try to parallel park.
Thankfully, despite (or even because of this), Coppola manages to turn in a film genuinely unlike any you’ve seen before. As everything in this film is vehemently turned up to 11, that means we get sumptuous sets and costume design that manage to give the huge performances awesome sort of frame of reference while the director throws every filmmaking trick in the book to cram every frame with detail and ingenious in-camera trickery as it’s awesome score booms in the background. Ultimately, what holds this chaotic feast together is a white hot Gary Oldman who has to act big and do a heavy accent and reimagine a classic role AND do it while often utterly caked in latex as either a spindly-fingered old man, an upsettingly swole werewolf or a legitimately awesome bat creature and all the while taking the mantle of both villain and romantic lead usually within the same scene.
Messy as an arterial spray but equally as vibrant, Bram Stoker’s Dracula will be different things to different people; some will undoubtedly see a flawed, frantic masterpiece while other will simply write it off as a deranged, gore streaked pantomine but the truly strange aspect is they’re both right and both wrong… While not a great film in the traditional sense, it is nevertheless great film making and should be recognized as such – assuming you can withstand accents so wonky, every vowel feels like a stake through the heart…