Seen again three lustra after its 1992 creation, Francis Ford Coppola’s remarkable vision of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (ably assisted by James V. Hart’s inventive screenplay) is another solid example of sight over substance.
The entire production team headed by Thomas Sanders has rendered Dracula’s “end-of-the-world” castle and temporary London, er, digs, in a totally convincing manner from the sharp teeth of the imprisoning gate to the de rigeur spider webs that metaphorically capture all intruders with their century’s old stickiness and weave.
Eiko Ishioka’s sense of style and period in costuming of both the living and the undead (the Count’s red train is so over-the-top that we know its crimson hue could only have come from the leftover spurts of hot human blood that have kept Dracula’s quest for his long-departed bride alive for eons) is only slightly surpassed by the small army of talent that flesh out the makeup department. The Prince of Darkness has never looked better (in his rejuvenated form) or worse (new visual-meaning comes to the description “flesh and bone”). Initial twinges of horror are quickly replaced with the truly incredible depictions of the doomed, their admirers (the trio of Dracula’s brides—notably Monica Bellucci who comes into her own in a far more violent way a decade later in Irreversible, cross-reference below) and their insatiable lust make it hard to ponder why the master would ever leave his bordellic abode and their relentless pursuers who have much more at stake than the sharp tools at hand.
Director of photography, Michael Ballhaus has, seemingly, used every lens, filter and angle in the book to capture the horrors with gritty detail (the silent-film stutters of the streets of London and the peep show reels are especially deft touches). Wojciech Kilar’s moody tracks come into their own as the cellos add just the right depth and tragic tone.
With all of this going for it, the film should have garnered far more than its richly deserved Oscars (Costume Design, Sound Effects Editing, Makeup).
Alas, the humans couldn’t match the brilliance of the horrific worlds that surrounded them.
Gary Oldman’s visage was a marvellous study of the art of wordless expression. Whether in agony at the loss of his Princess or in rapture with the discovery of his soulmate, much of this performance was truly magnificent. Sadly, the affected accent glanced off the ear as more of a caricature that might have been used for a Bugs Bunny version. Equally out-of-tune was Anthony Hopkins’ lines as he otherwise wondrously portrayed the lecherous Professor Abraham van Helsing—slipping in and out of his mid-European dialect too often to truly nail the characterization.
Winona Ryder as Mina/Elisabeta and Sadie Frost as Lucy feed well off each other in their virgin/strumpet banter but apart from the latter’s maniacal ecstasy as she’s hungrily impaled by a wolf (bestiality is never far from the surface) the leading women can’t find the inner core of these pivotal parts.
Their suitors don’t fare much better. In a plot device that seems lifted straight from The Merchant of Venice (cross-reference below) Dr. Jack (Richard E. Grant), Lord Arthur (Cary Elwes) and Cowboy Quincey all vie for Lucy’s affections but none seems man enough to bed her much less purge her infected veins of life/love everlasting.
Keanu Reeves starts with promise.; His innocent good looks and devotion to Mina flow easily. But once trapped with Dracula and then, in ways that will have all fantasists salivating, literally eaten alive by the castle’s ageless tramps, isn’t able to evoke either a post-tryst demeanour of shell shock or oh-my-god-I-loved-that-more-than-I-should denial once he’s reunited with his betrothed. Visually, his on-again, off-again greying locks make a subtle point when they aren’t revealed out-of-sequence.
When all is said and bludgeoned, the film’s underlying attempts to make the surface story slip into more universal themes (not least of which is the gory subtext of organized religion creating more carnage in the name of whatever Almighty than souls that have ever been “saved”) can’t overcome the litany of blood, beheadings and breasts that demand our attention more than the roots of too many demonic travesties. JWR