Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by James V. Hart (based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker's Bram Stoker, Bram Stoker)
Director Francis Ford Coppola assures us in his commentary for Bram Stoker's Dracula that he definitely read the entirety of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula; he assures us that his cast did, too. He doesn't expressly say that the manner in which they read it—spending the better part of a week reading it aloud to one another—had a reason beyond letting his cast getting to know their characters in their characters' own words. But he doesn't disabuse you of suspecting that it was to keep them honest, for Coppola admits that Dracula is a chore. Coppola uses the euphemism "dense" to describe the book's back three-quarters, though it's more like the opposite of dense. Some of this is undoubtedly because Stoker decided upon an epistolary form for his novel, though this was more than a century after such things were the fashion, and almost a century since epistolary parodies had already made jokes out of things that Stoker simply does straight, such as having characters, under immense stress and running out of time, nevertheless continue to jot down their impressions of a vampire coming to kill them, or how their mother died in their arms twenty minutes prior, or whatever; likewise does Stoker somehow manage to get his characters to recreate long, precisely-detailed conversations they'd had hours earlier, in what might well be called "novelistic dialogue." It reaches a point that you grumble, and wonder why if Stoker wanted to write a regular book, he didn't do so.
But even past that device's weaknesses—paradoxes of a form intended to impart a greater sense of realism by using "diegetic" documentation, but which still needs to, you know, tell its story—it's so inefficient, and at some point we just have to start blaming Stoker's plotting. (It's down to Stoker's stilted approach to adventure, for instance, that the book just keeps shuttling characters back and forth to a vampire's crypt, no fewer than three times, before finally re-killing her.) Yet his chosen form compounds the problems: only an epistolary novel must constantly reference its own writing. I will also gravely admit that anytime Stoker does "non-standard dialect" I scanned down till I found a new block of correctly-spelled words, while asking myself, "so this phonetic rendition of sub-Dick Van Dyke Cockney is how these people elected to record the conversations they'd had?" But nothing is more objectively tedious than the diary entries that discuss the correlation of the information in other characters' diary entries. Some of this, to be charitable, would play better for an audience with much different ideas about vampires. But Carmilla was already twenty-five years old—The Vampyre significantly moreso—and this "mystery" is resolved, at the latest, 330 pages into 500.
By 1992, Stoker's novel had been frequently adapted, and always inaccurately—though the essential element of a Dracula, I think, is "does the vampire contemplate a real estate transaction?" (1922's Nosferatu satisfies this test; 1958's Dracula doesn't)—but Bram Stoker's Dracula, living up to its name, assuredly was and assuredly shall ever remain the most faithful of Dracula's adaptations, just by including all the main characters and most of the significant plot points. And then it never feels faithful anyway: the big thing, of course, is that it adds one huge new element, never imagined by the book; it's also because it would be difficult and counterproductive to make an epistolary movie, so to the extent this movie tries, it's by throwing snippets of narration into the mix, plus (sometimes) stating via onscreen text, and with no great usefulness, what "source" a scene's narrative is being gleaned from—hence the most important contribution of Stoker's "epistolary" form is that it prompts Coppola to forcefully (but only occasionally) employ the diaries, etc., as a component of his movie's visual style.
Yet by no means is the smallest part of it that Bram Stoker's Dracula is Bram Stoker's Dracula freaked out and jacked up to triple-speed. Such was the strategy undertaken by Coppola and his screenwriter, James V. Hart, and, indeed, it cures nearly all of the novel's inherent loginess; yet it winds up being key to the experience for reasons entirely to the side of "the book is drawn-out and, if we're being honest here, slightly boring"—it imposes upon the film a true feverishness that, in combination with its other strategies, turns it into one of the signal triumphs of 1990s horror. (Which is a decade known for being pretty lousy for horror, so it's worth mentioning it would've been a triumph in the 1980s, too, and feels more like a last gasp of that ethos recognizable as "80s horror," in ways that one of its decade's other handful of all-timers, 1991's Silence of the Lambs, is 90s horror through and through.)
You know the story: Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is a young lawyer dispatched to Romania to see a certain man about property. (Bram Stoker's Dracula—hereafter Dracula because I would otherwise drive the "jokes," which would be more like compulsive tics, straight into the ground—closes a hole the novel left open, affirmatively identifying Jonathan as the maddened Renfield's (Tom Waits's) replacement.) Well, Jonathan leaves his fiancée, Wilhelmina Murray (Winona Ryder), to advise his client—Count Vlad, "descendant" of the Impaler, Son of the Dragon. He is in fact the very same Dracula (Gary Oldman), an immortal vampire, and he imprisons Jonathan before making his way to his new estate in London, whereupon he begins to feed, coincidentally upon Mina's best friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). One of her several suitors, Dr. John Seward*, is perplexed by her symptoms—blood has no doubt been lost, but where is it?—and brings the case to his Dutch mentor, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), whose studies have ranged afield into mysticism. Van Helsing recognizes the signs, but his efforts are too hesitant, so all that's left is the heart-staking and head-lopping and rooting out the master vampire alongside Jonathan and poor dear Lucy's other two suitors, Arthur, Lord Godalming (Cary Elwes) and the Texan big game hunter, Quincey Morris (Bruce Campbell). Testament to this adaptations's unusual fidelity, most don't bother with Arthur; I believe none had previously bothered with Quincey.
But, of course, there is this Dracula's great innovation, its most famous—and most successful—departure from Stoker's text. It renders the Bram Stoker's of it somewhat bullshit after all, but, honorably enough, it at least makes this addition clear in its very first scene, a prologue set back in 1462. This explicitly confirms that our vampire is Vlad III of Wallachia; and this is surely the least of it. So we begin where Dracula himself began: a Christian prince on the wrong side of the Ottoman sultan, who snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat and, with a show of terror, caused his adversary to flee, but whose glory came at the cost of his wife Elisabeta (also Winona Ryder), for in a final act of perfidy the Turks deceived her with false news of her husband's death, causing her to leap from the window of their castle. As a suicide, Vlad's priests deny her grace; Vlad responds by denying God, and in that moment brings into the world the satanic power that gives him eternal life at the expense of eternal hunger. His attack on London would be but one more phase of his immortal depredations, but having happened upon a portrait of Mina kept by Jonathan, he believes he has recognized, in her, the soul of the love he lost.
So this Dracula, uniquely for adaptations of Dracula, if not so uniquely for vampire fiction generally (even Carmilla has a broadly similar concept), is the cross-time romance Dracula. And that's awesome: it gives it an entirely different set of emotions to play with, besides those dictated by Stoker's contest between blood-sucking evil and cross-and-wafer-wielding good. Meanwhile (bringing things full circle in this way) it makes it less like any previous Dracula, including Bram Stoker's, than a vampiric reinvention of Universal's seminal 1931 Dracula's own first "remake," 1932's The Mummy. Undying love is a solid spine around which to flesh out a degenerate monster, and it gives this Dracula access to something even more important, perhaps already incipient in the novel but I could suspect more by accident of what we now understand vampires to represent, rather than any conscious design: a really just astounding level of gross horniness.
I don't even really want to dwell on the "plot" or "themes" of this Dracula, because the manner in which they're pursued is so much more vital, but this manages to give shape and meaning to things that honestly just seem thrown haphazardly together in the book. It almost manages to satisfactorily explain why Dracula wanted to go to London, specifically, across an ocean of living water—it still doesn't, just like the book didn't, but if you slightly misremember the movie's order of events, it'll at least feel like it did. What it does do, however, is spin boring old book-Mina's man-motivating peril into a vastly more interesting and vastly more bizarre sexual awakening for the woman herself, brought on by her occasionally-hot (albeit mostly-very-much-not) vampire paramour on the one hand, but maybe just as proximately by Lucy—that they look at old-time pornography together and share a kiss in the rain might just be an expression of the film's own overarching hard-on, but it works either way—and, besides Lucy, there's her harem of boys. Lucy is presented with a great deal more worldiness than her novel counterpart, or maybe it's just seeming worldliness (a non-trivial distinction in youth, is it not?), and all of it, up to and including Dracula ravishing Lucy first, is calculated to drive betrothed-but-virginal Mina into a state where she may consent, for instance, to drink from the bleeding wound of a lover from another life. And nor do I particularly want to talk about the performances yet, particularly as Dracula has been dragged since 1992 for some of these performances. I have nice nicer-than-usual things to say about all of them; but it is correct to note here that if Frost is not giving the film its best performance, it's solely because we have to grudgingly concede Oldman is more essential. It is grudging, because while Frost is easy to overlook, as the mode of her performance is "merely" writhing on a bed with one tit out whilst faking half-agonized orgasms, it's an awfully splendid and generous exemplar of "writhing" and "faking half-agonized orgasms." Frost's evocation of pain and pleasure is, at least, one of the principal vectors for the film to get to where it's going, plus she looks just incredible in her white-clad, Queen-Elizabeth-as-a-vampire revenant form.
"Where it's going," of course, is something like a horror-porno. If I'm overstating its prurience, it's not really by all that much. (I haven't even mentioned Jonathan's rape by the brides of Dracula, halted only because the count wants young Harker for himself. It's possibly the single scene in any vampire movie ever made I would call legitimately frightening—they may be denied, but this movie goes for absolute broke in the form of the brides' consolation present from their husband, and Oldman's laugh is so horribly wicked.) Anyway, that's the "where," but the "how it gets there" is far more the point of Dracula, no matter how naturally it dovetails with the narrative goals which Coppola has set out for himself.
I don't necessarily wish to misrepresent Coppola's intentions, but I think he'd own it, and the movie wouldn't be one iota different if I were wrong: the purpose of Dracula was always to offer itself up to Coppola as a platform for every trick available to a well-heeled filmmaker in 1992 so long as it had been, in its substance, invented by around 1929, and ideally not before the publication of Stoker's Dracula, though as we're talking extreme primitivism, Coppola was happy to collapse "early film" into something like a single category. (Dracula owes Murnau for Nosferatu but earnestly might owe him more for Faust.) It perhaps doesn't strictly succeed—creature makeup had been "invented" but these special effects could be argued to be a wholly different art; more fundamentally, obviously Coppola uses optical printing (if we're going to be real bitches, we could point out Michael Ballhaus's photography is in color, but what color photography it is, all soft and Victorian and dreamlike and using light in ways equally as scary as it uses dark)—but for 1992, it was some determinedly old-school stuff, old-school enough that Coppola had to fire his first effects team and replace them with his own son Roman to ensure they got done "right." The idea's genesis was "Dracula sure is one old book! which was coincidentally published at roughly the advent of cinema." That's an okay justification, but if that were all there were to it, I might be slightly annoyed that Coppola did collapse the most revolutionary thirty-odd years of cinema history into a single undifferentiated thing.
That's not all there is to it: I implied maximalism, but saying it explicitly still barely describes it. I doubt there are three shots in a row—I might be overestimating at "three"!—without something that sears itself into your eyeballs as wrong. This cavalcade of old-school effects, in its sheer quantity, inflicts upon Dracula the quality of continuous nightmare, where nothing makes sense beyond the logic of a single string of images. The most iconic is the shadow that pointedly refuses to follow Dracula; maybe equally well-remembered is the Wallachian prologue that conjures an army of silhouettes, some human, some puppets, sometimes hard to distinguish, all battling across a red sky containing the impaled corpses of Turks and, when light illuminates the count, reveals the diabolical armor that looks like the musculature of a flayed beast. And the movie never stops; I could keep going forever.
But I think the moment that Dracula confirms what it's doing—that it is going to be doing this for 128 minutes, minus credits*—comes when the movie's settled into the main vein of its story enough that you might no longer expect it, with Jonathan's first encounter with what might be Dracula or might just be a manifestation of Dracula's omnipotent evil in the form of his phantasmal coachman. (And, indeed, this extremely visual approach does away, completely, with the Van Helsing scientician literalism that increasingly weighs down the novel.) The "reality" here is a mechanical device that works in concert with the frame. The seams are, of course, visible—the seams are meant to be visible. That's Dracula's point: Coppola, drawing on the legacy of an early cinema that saw all cinema as a magic trick, understands the power of illusion—not, in this film, to fool you, but to bewilder you, to force you to grapple with inexplicability. This amounts to supernatural horror in its purest form—a constant sensation that the world no longer works. Coppola keeps Dracula doing everything it needs to, and all at once: if I can indulge just once more, I think my favorite scene is, well, the one at the cinema, where reality ruptures completely around Mina in Dracula's presence, and she glimpses something she lost on the other side of the veil.
Everything comes together in an act of focused disorientation: the cinema scene is a creature of Dracula's three editors, marshalling chaos; I somehow have but alluded to Eiko Ishioka's weirdo costumes (and, specifically, Dracula's own can-afford-to-look-ridiculous style); and the actors, however maligned, do their part. It has, it's true, taken Reeves the last thirty years to erase "and what was that Dracula accent?" from his obituary, and he is, objectively, the weakest link. But Reeves's problem is almost exclusively just that accent—Coppola at least claims he tried to talk him out of it!—and you can almost literally see his brain cooking trying to keep it up; otherwise, Reeves's problem is largely just "being Jonathan Harker in Dracula" which he turns to his Reevesy advantage anyway, Ted Loganing through Castle Dracula, his obliviousness practically as destabilizing as Oldman's butthead hair, and funnier as he persists in failing to notice that his host is blatant demon-spawn. Hopkins is no definitive Van Helsing, but I have nothing against his arrogant oddballery. Ryder is up to the bodice-ripping tasks laid out for her, and rather remarkably, considering that she despised Oldman immediately. And Oldman, his personal abrasiveness aside, is a magnificent force of nature, never exactly camp despite every opportunity, allowing the accoutrements around him do that for him, as he treats his immortal demon with absolute sincerity, this tension between the silliness and the apparent emotional reality one more way Dracula shakes you, just like, to tie it back together, the emphasis on monstrous sexuality and all those impossible visuals are meant to shake you, excite you, and unnerve you, simultaneously.
It ultimately can't quite overcome its source—there's better cause to end things in Dracula's castle here, but it's still stuck with a tiresome chase across Europe that's dull in the book and, at the last, Coppola's instinct to crank the material up until its jibbering and febrile doesn't actually work. In fact, the new actiony focus winds up distracting slightly from the strengths of Mina's ambiguously-predatory romance; it's a demerit that the film, just like the book, requires you to ask "so why hasn't Dracula just killed them already?" 128 minutes of Dracula might have been too much. (I wouldn't want to cut Waits's Renfield, but I truly don't know what function he serves besides being one more grotesquerie on the pile.) But Bram Stoker's Dracula is, after all, a masterpiece of too muchness; how, then, could I complain that there's too much of it?
*He's called "Jack" in the movie. It's for verisimilitude in the book; hey, different characters having the same name is how we know the Bible's real!
**With an Annie Lennox song about movie we just watched; the 90s aren't my favorite decade, but it certainly did some of my favorite things.