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Bram Stoker's Dracula Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007

Image Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" is some kind of great movie. Astonishingly inventive, yet consciously old- fashioned, it bridges a strange gap between the earliest movies of all and the experimental films of today. The narrative is at times a little clouded (just why does Dracula come to England?), and sometimes the old-fashioned qualities verge on corn, but the energy, creativity, and brilliance of technique make this, despite its occasional flaws, one of the greatest horror movies ever made. And in the unlikely person of Gary Oldman, Coppola has found an astonishing, mesmerizing Dracula, evil, romantic and driven.

In some ways, this dream-like movie resembles classic silent films;, it's not especially gory though, being about vampires, blood is indeed spilled. Coppola plays with techniques and imagery, including shadows (Dracula's occasionally carries on actions after he's left the scene), and delirious superimpositions (Dracula's eyes are seen in storm clouds), lap dissolves, iris shots, camera tricks old and new, matching cuts (vampire bites on a neck line up with the eyes of a wolf escaped from the London zoo). This isn’t self-indulgence; it's in the interest of furthering and expanding the story and its implications.

The movie is headily romantic, because between the pages of Stoker's novel, writer Jim Hart has inserted a tale of reincarnated love. In the portrait of Mina (Winona Ryder), the true love of Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), Dracula (Gary Oldman) recognizes the reincarnation of his own lost love (also Ryder). The scenes between Dracula and Mina in London carry a dreamy romantic charge, even if they tend to go on too long, and even if Ryder is required to do an abrupt about-face from hating Dracula to loving him. Hart's script does follow the plotline of Bram Stoker's original novel, something that's never been done this accurately before. But Hart also reaches beyond the novel, plucking the reincarnation angle from the original "The Mummy" and tying it to the life of the very real Dracula, a Transylvanian nobleman whose brutal defense of his homeland earned him the title of "Vlad the Impaler." Coppola's visually sumptuous movie opens as the still-human Dracula rushes back from a battle to discover that his beloved bride Elisabeta, having been falsely told by the Turkish enemy that Dracula was killed, has drowned herself. Dracula rages at God's unfairness, and swears he will rise from his grave to avenge himself. He plunges a sword into the huge cross in his castle chapel, and drinks of the blood that pours forth.

This stylized, folk-tale-like opening (Hart's creation) sets the stage for the movie that follows. If you've seen any adaptation of Dracula, you're probably familiar with the basic plot. Young Jonathan Harker, a London real estate agent, makes the arduous journey to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count Dracula, who's buying property around London. Harker is imprisoned by Dracula, who heads on to London himself, getting younger as he feeds on the blood of the crew of the ship bearing him, his coffin, and his boxes of native earth to England, where he eventually comes into conflict with Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins — who has two roles in the movie; he’s also the priest attending Dracula on his return to his castle.

The movie includes some elements rarely featured in adaptations of Stoker's novel. Quincey Morris (Bill Campbell), a Texan with a big Bowie knife is one of the three who loves the ill-fated Lucy (Sadie Frost), Dracula's first victim in England. The other two are the nobleman Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) and Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant). Stoker's novel is told in the form of diaries, journals and letters, and Coppola physically realizes these upon the screen in occasionally astonishing ways: as Harker writes in his journal on the way to Transylvania, the train he's on moves across the top of the page.

Unlike too many Hollywood moviemakers, Coppola really respects the intelligence of his audiences. Some are going to accuse him of "self-indulgence" here, but; he isn't making "Dracula" for himself. In his fascinating commentary track, he makes it clear that this was a project someone else brought to him. He was fond of the novel—as a camp counselor in his youth, he read it to his young charges. The cinematic visuals are to express the romanticism; his use of what he's called "naive" special effects is to match the story with the period in which it's set. And it works. Again and again, it seems almost as if you're watching a movie made in 1897. The dialogue is right out of the book — ripe Victoriana read by an enthusiastic young cast who make Stoker's stiff words seem alive, and novel.

When first announced, Gary Oldman seemed a strange choice for the role of Count Dracula. He's not tall, he's not handsome, and he's shown an occasional tendency to go too far as an actor. But just as the equally unlikely casting of Marlon Brando as an old Italian gangster paid off brilliantly in "The Godfather," so does the eccentric choice of Oldman work here. He uses an authentic Hungarian accent (so that he sounds, unexpectedly, rather like Hungarian Bela Lugosi), and he appears in about as many different makeups and guises as any actor ever has in a single film. As the original, living Dracula, he has a full beard and long, flowing hair; as the ancient Count Harker visits, he's beardless, withered, almost sexless, with his hair caught up in a strange. memorable headdress; in London, we see him as a wolf creature and a bat creature; most often, he's young, with a mustache, but even that face is occasionally replaced by a strange, beast-like countenance. (The makeups are designed by Greg Cannom). On board the ship, he’s sometimes encased in a transparent membrane, and sometimes looks bestial.

But those are an actor's tools, and Oldman uses them well. Even within the body of the wolf creature that attacks Lucy, we can sense Dracula's powerful personality. Oldman gives us Dracula as a romantic lover, an evil beast, and a man outside of time itself — and he's always consistently the same person. He's found not only the heart within Dracula, but the power and menace as well. It's a performance as fresh and unexpected — and as original — as the film itself.

Winona Ryder originated this project by bringing Hart's script, intended as a TV movie, to Coppola, who wanted to work with her after they failed to on "Godfather III." She wanted to play Mina to establish herself as an adult actress, to get away from the teenage roles she had been playing, and she's easily done this. (Other problems later virtually ended her career.) Her Mina is a quiet, intelligent woman, content at first to be tamely loved by Harker, but who is instead swept away by Dracula's violent adoration. Ryder plays on her own physical delicacy, contrasting it with the strength Mina ultimately has to show. And she allows her sensuality to emerge. But she doesn’t fully engage with the role. In his commentary, Coppola says that he feels she has always had a tendency to hold herself back; he’s still convinced that when she finds the courage to go for broke, she’ll astonish us all.

Reeves was cast at Ryder’s request. He enjoyed making the movie, but his performance is erratic with a period accent that comes and goes. At times, his performance is very strong; at others, as in Dracula’s castle, he seems to be deliberately underplaying, an unwise choice. But he isn’t as bad as some have claimed; Harker is supposed to be a pawn of fate, and a lovesick Victorian swain; he convinced me that's what he is. Sadie Frost is a dynamic, sensual Lucy — vampirism realizes her barely-restrained sexuality — both before and after her death. She gives one of the best, most involved performances, but her career since has not be what her performance here promised.

The three suitors, Elwes, Campbell and Grant, are all distinctive, amusing and touching. As the tormented, fly-eating madman Renfield, Tom Waits — another unusual choice — is tragic, funny and disturbing.

Dracula's opposite is Van Helsing. Hopkins' role seems somewhat truncated, but as with Oldman, he makes surprising, inventive choices. When he realizes who his opponent actually is, he's overcome by a fit of the giggles. He's almost as mysterious as Dracula, and may have some unusual powers of his own. The book's Van Helsing was a doddering old man; this Van Helsing is a man seared by his researches into the dark side of life, who's emerged scarred but stronger.

Michael Ballhaus photographed the movie, using an especially broad palette of colors; he ranges from delicate pastels to deep, rich earth tones. The sets by production designer Thomas Sanders and the costumes by Eiko Ishioka are also amazing, capturing and extending the Victorian atmosphere that Coppola sought.

The director and his collaborators used visual motifs and ideas that were common in art in 1897, the setting of the story, including symbolism: a skull can be faintly glimpsed in the ruins of Carfax Abbey, Dracula's London hiding place; the returned Harker sees Dracula in the streets of London, and the camera pans to an obelisk, signifying the vampire's sexual powers.

The score by Wojciech Kilar, like the performances, matches the daring of the film itself. It's thunderously romantic at times, barely heard at others. Surprisingly, in his commentary, Coppola reveals that Kilar composed only three major themes, which has to be revised for different effects. I cannot imagine what it would be like to listen to this score without the images. The special effects were under the direction of Roman Coppola, Francis' son; they used old- fashioned techniques such as reverse action, building sets upside down, allowing characters to emerge from holes in the floor, etc., but it all goes to add to the air of other-worldliness that was sought throughout.

It's not an unalloyed delight. It’s raggedly paced, for one thing. Also, Coppola shot the film almost entirely on studio sets (the exception being a brief scene on the streets of London, shot at Universal Studios' backlot); because of the extensive use of paintings and miniatures, this itself isn't a problem, but it gives the movie a claustrophobic air, even cramped at times. This would have been alleviated if the film had been shot widescreen, but it's in a standard aspect ratio. The occasional weak acting is also a problem, as is the feeling that Coppola is not as involved as he’s been in other films.

Also, Coppola and Hart apparently assumed that everyone knows the story very well, and simply jumped over some story points. We never really know why Dracula comes to London in the first place — and just how is Van Helsing able to convince Lucy's three lovers to visit her tomb? The ending is abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying; we needed a coda, perhaps narrated by Van Helsing.

This is a surprisingly delicate movie, even though some scenes have a tremendous, dark power that, while not being frightening, can raise the hackles on your neck. There's an atmosphere of dread, doom and horror suffusing much of the film, even though there are several surprising (even shocking) jokes. Coppola has said that he envisions his movies in one big mass, which makes reviewing them at times maddening. You can't saw off the acting and examine that alone, nor can this be done with any other elements. "Dracula" is of a piece, from costumes to actors, from music to photography; it has to be experienced as a whole.

I adored the film, even more so on watching this Blu-Ray disc. If you are not caught up in the alien atmosphere from the beginning, if you're reminded too much of Bela Lugosi in Oldman's accent, if the familiar lines (..."children of the night"...) can jar, if the overlapping imagery and "naive" effects don't connect with you, the movie will leave you isolated and puzzled, perhaps annoyed. But it's a work of art, and art has never played to everyone at once — it can't.

Despite its weaknesses, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an outstanding movie, a major horror film that has even yet not been given its due. It’s one of the most creative, imaginative horror movies of all time, comparing well with “Nosferatu” and “Vampyr.” And it looks simply sensational on this Blu-Ray DVD; it’s another film that can easily serve as a demonstration of the process. Even on standard-definition DVD, it looked great; now it looks even better.

The blacks are deep and velvety; the images capture the rich, voluptuous textures of the many fabrics on display. You can feel the chill od Dracula’s castle, the steamy warmth of the Victorian gardens. The colors are the deep tones of the period. Coppola’s many uses of imagery of the day give the film an unusual texture and visual style. Eventually this film will be rediscovered and recognized for the unique gem it is; this Blu-Ray disc is a good place for the rediscovery to begin.

It also features an exceptional package of extras. “The Blood Is the Life: The Making of ‘Dracula’” is a brief (28 minutes), rich making-of documentary featuring comments by Coppola, writer James V. Hart, Richard E. Grant, Anthony Hopkins and Winona Ryder. There’s even a shot of Bela Lugosi. In this featurette, Coppola has interesting, original comments on screen acting.

“The Costumes Are the Sets” includes an interview with designer Eiko Ishioka, who created the amazing costumes in the film. Coppola allowed her designs to influence the designs of the entire film, resulting in an unusual, and unusually cohesive, design. “In-Camera” focuses on Roman Coppola, the director’s son, in charge of the “naïve” effects of the movie. Coppola Sr. says he’d talked with several major effects creators, but all of them veered away from his hopes for good but old-fashioned effects, straight into the usual stuff. “Method and Madness” focuses on other artists who influenced the film, and mentions a book, “Dreams of Decadence,” that was a major influence.

Coppola’s commentary track is one of the best I’ve heard, not so much in its revelations about the movie, but in the revelations he makes about himself. As anyone can attest who’s met him, Coppola is a surprisingly unguarded, open man, his emotions and thoughts right there in front of you. He reveals he originally intended the film to be shot on featureless sets, with just a few backdrops and projected backgrounds. He admits to mistakes—he thinks Anthony Hopkins may have been right in not wanting to go through the extensive rehearsal period Coppola set up for his actors. He points out scenes influenced by earlier movies, embracing his influences and predecessors. He clearly remembers the difficulties he had, and eventually begins to sound as though he regretted making the movie.

In the last quarter of his commentary, Coppola sounds discouraged and weary, but bounces back in what’s obviously another recording session. He regains his energy, but does say that the only reasons to make a movie is because it’s something that has never been done before (which certainly doesn’t apply to “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), and because it is part of your feelings about life. He says perhaps directors committed to film should finance their own movies. In the 13 years since “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was released, there have been only two theatrical films directed by Coppola, a major loss to American film. But he’s been a happier man, working on his vineyard, acting as genial host in his resort in Belize. He did make “Youth Without Youth,” just released in Italy, but not yet in the United States. This was self-financed—and he’s making more the same way. More power to him.

“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is so unusual that it took many people by surprise; many reacted badly. Some were annoyed that the title states this will be directly based on the novel—but it includes those romantic elements that writer James V. Hart added. Still, it’s overall the most faithful adaptation of the novel ever—yet its importance doesn’t lie in that area. It’s in the style and approach. Coppola wanted the scenes at Dracula’s castle to be suffused with magic; he thought that in the presence of a vampire, the laws of nature change—and he depicts that as well. Rats run along a ceiling; Dracula’s bride emerge out of Harker’s bed, two of them seem to fuse as they flee; Dracula’s shadow does its own tricks, and he sometimes moves without walking. In the extras, there’s a surprising shot of Harker falling sideways across the front of Dracula’s castle.

In London, Victoriana is presented in a romanticized way, with lushly romantic gardens with peacocks, fountains that whisper, the birth of movies themselves, the intoxicating effects of absinthe—Dracula even refers to it as “The Green Fairy,” words perhaps never spoken on screen before in this context. Coppola may not feel that “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” represents his best work, but he’ll have to hold a gun to my head to get me to say that it’s something other than a great movie with a brilliant man’s imagination given rare full rein. And this DVD is the best way currently to re-experience this amazing movie.

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