A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

January 15, 2011

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I was working at Waldenbooks in downtown Boston when this movie came out. I remember being amused that we had on the shelves a book entitled “Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Book of the Film” or something like that. There’s a strange kind of recursion in marketing a classic novel as a byproduct of the theatrical movie adapted from it. All the more pathetic because the movie is so overblown and pretentious… and cheesy.

I’m not sure I agree with the direction that Francis Ford Coppola chose to go with this movie. I think he was trying too hard to do to much with it. He wants the movie to be a horror film of some kind. He wants it to be an epic love story. He wants it to be a lavish and spectacular production. He wants it to feel authentic to the book. And on top of all that he wants to infuse the movie with a complex directorial flare full of clever camera tricks and intricate set-ups. The end result feels… crowded. Like four or five movies are vying for attention on the screen at the same time. I can’t argue with any one of Coppola’s choices but taken all together they end up feeling like too much.

There’s not much point in summarising the plot of the movie. The tale of Dracula has been filmed so many times that it’s a genre to itself. The central conceit of this film, and its biggest departure from the book, is that Mina is somehow the resurrection of Dracula’s long lost bride. To this end there’s a prologue showing Dracula as Vlad the Impaler before he chose to become immortal, and explaining that the reason he turned his back on God is that when his beloved wife killed herself (thinking that he had been slain in battle) she doomed herself to hell. So he chose to turn his back on God and become an undead destroyer of all that is good and pure out of spite.

From there on the movie very closely follows what I know of the book. Jonathan Harker is sent to the castle of the mysterious Count Dracula in Transylvania. Eventually he becomes trapped in the Count’s castle while the Count travels to London to wreak havoc. Jonathan’s fiance Mina is staying with her childhood friend Lucy when Dracula turns up to turn Lucy into an undead vampire herself then seduce Mina. Lucy’s three suitors (an American cowboy, a psychiatrist and an English Lord) band together with the enigmatic Abraham Van Helsing to become reluctant vampire slayers. When Jonathan eventually escapes Dracula’s castle he rushes back to London and joins the others in a desperate bid to destroy Dracula before he can claim Mina as his own.

It’s a very Victorian adventure story, full of the sort of things I expect from British adventures of the time. The exotic American stereotype, the proper British gentlemen, the train rides to distant and savage lands at the edge of the reach of the British empire… it all feels very familiar, and Coppola captures that aspect of it quite well. That’s where the movie is most faithful to the book, is in recreating a world on the edge of the industrial age when there were still wonders to be found on distant continents while at home the age of science was just beginning.

Something I had not known about the film before researching it for this review was that Coppola had chosen to do the movie with almost no computer effects of post production trickery. Almost every visual trick was done in camera using things like rear projection, forced perspective, backwards filming, turning the camera on angles, double exposures and such. It means that aside from a very few special effect shots here and there this movie could have been made the same way fifty years earlier – and what an amazing thing it would have been then! It just shows how jaded we have become in the modern age of digital special effects that we take for granted that anything is possible on film, so we’re not particularly wowed when seemingly impossible things are presented to us.

The cast that Coppola has collected for this movie is astonishing. I enjoy seeing Cary Elwes getting work of course, and Anthony Hopkins is as always great as Van Helsing. I won’t say that Keanu Reeves’ performance is anything particularly grand, but the stuffy hero of the story isn’t really what the tale is about. Indeed it might work FOR the movie in some way that Jonathan Harker is so wooden and forgettable, because after all this is a movie about Dracula. That’s the title of the film of course. What a Dracula they got too! I can’t imagine anybody else besides Gary Oldman in this particular role. he has the deeply unsettling madness to portray Count Dracula in every stage of his descent. We see him as the elderly and eccentric Count in his castle, surrounded by a strange supernatural air. We see him as the suave lover in London wooing Mina. We see him as a gruesome monster. He is a jilted lover, a cold-blooded rapist and killer, a soulless undead monster – and all the time he has a slightly tragic and sympathetic air. It’s an absolutely stellar performance, especially considering the mountains of prosthetics and pounds of make-up that Oldman had to perform through.

Given all the thing I actually do like about the movie, it’s a little puzzling to me that as a whole I can’t really say it’s all that good. Maybe it’s because it’s too artsy for a star-laden action monster flick. Maybe it’s that the story itself is too firmly lodged in an outdated and almost archaic view of the world. The movie is too over-produced to be enjoyable as pure cheese and too bizarre to work as summer movie pap. In that regard it reminds me somewhat of the David Lynch Dune. I can’t really enjoy it as much as I’d like because I feel as if it’s hammering me over the head at every turn saying “Look! See how clever I am?” I enjoyed watching it again, but if I want a good vampire movie I’m much more likely to put in Lost Boys any day of the week.

January 15, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. I think for all the mythology that has accreted around Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the actual story can only bear so much weight heaped upon it. Your comparison with Dune rings true — so many layers of style and design piled upon the core story that it falls flat.

    Comment by Jeff | January 16, 2011 | Reply

  2. Cary Elwes was also in another Drac. treatment: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

    Most wierdest Dracula: “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary”, Guy Maddin(!)’s silent-movie treatment of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet(!!)’s version of the story.

    Comment by Doc Wheat | January 16, 2011 | Reply

    • Heh. The ballet one sounds great – I’ve got to find that!

      Comment by tanatoes | January 16, 2011 | Reply


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