Francis Ford Coppola entered the 1990s coming off a decade of work that lacked the commercial success and critical adulation of his classic New Hollywood period but which had seen his creative vision and ingenuity expand dramatically. For all of its flaws, the final Godfather had showcased the director’s wider artistic repertoire, reconfiguring the literary roots of the franchise as so theatrical that the film literally climaxed at the opera. Yet it is Bram Stoker’s Dracula that truly feels like the culmination of a decade spent making musicals, glittering youth fantasias and cinema that incorporated every era of its history. The film is a collage of methods ranging all the way back to the silent age, a masterclass of in-camera techniques, costuming and practical effects all done in defiance to the growing reliance on digital trickery.

Consider the prologue, in which a young Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) leads an army against the Ottomans during their 15th-century invasion of Europe. Coppola films a battle with silhouetted figures being cut down and impaled against a blood-red sky like a garish Lottie Reiniger animation, while the cutting and framing also recalls the battle sequences of Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. Coppola sketches the background of the character in grandiose, melodramatic flourishes, contrasting Dracula’s carnage on the battlefield with the cherubic innocence of his wife, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), who, upon receiving misinformation from Turks that her husband died in combat, leaps out of a tower window. The count’s anguish upon returning home is filmed from high angles that peer at him as from the perspective of a capricious god, whom he curses for the Church’s refusal to offer absolution for Elisabeta’s suicide. In one final burst of frenzied energy, Dracula stabs a giant crucifix, which begins to seep, then spew blood.

The remainder of the film, somehow, keeps up the manic inventiveness of this introduction. Dracula is arguably the single work of literature with the highest number of genuinely good adaptations, and at this point the story is as much a cinematic touchstone as a literary one. The shadow of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is all over the early scenes of London solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) traveling to Transylvania to conduct the count’s real estate dealings in England. Though working with sturdier sets than the German director enjoyed for, say, a hamlet tavern, Coppola retains the creaky, fragile sense of the realm under Dracula’s thrall, the sense that everything is a house made of hay waiting for the big bad wolf to blow it down. Shot mostly on soundstages, the film nonetheless retains even a measure of Werner Herzog’s epic, on-location Romanticism in the journey to Dracula’s castle. Once inside, Coppola lets loose with a rich shadowplay, most especially in a scene where Harker and Dracula speak in front of a large map of London that looks almost like a battlefield map with the count’s proposed property purchases marked like targets for a bombing run. As the two converse, Dracula’s shadow comes alive behind Harker, moving independently as it lunges at the lawyer’s throat.

Elsewhere, there are in-camera techniques and dazzling production design galore. Even detractors must marvel at Eiko Ishioka’s costumes, which blend period-accurate detail with sudden, wild dashes of expressionistic fervor. Consider the evolution of Lucy (Sadie Frost), the coquettish friend of Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Ryder): her dresses are initially a reflection of her personality, bold but still hemmed in by social mores. After being bitten by Dracula, however, her costumes grow stranger, culminating in a warped corpse bride outfit as a premature burial gown of virginal white is turned into an ironic joke as the seductive undead writhes. Coppola uses various methods like iris shots and match cuts to bridge scenes, while a host of rear projection and false perspectives add depth to the film’s soundstage design.

At heart, all of these wild cinematic flourishes are put in service to what may well be the most faithful adaptation of the source text; it is no wonder why the film’s title includes the author’s name. Coppola retains the epistolary structure of the novel, constantly resetting the mood and transitioning between plotlines with moments of characters writing letters and diary entries that the director uses almost as chapter breaks and theatrical intermissions. He captures the book’s Gothic mood throughout, as well as its contrasting Victorian propriety. Indeed, one could almost argue that the weak accent work and awkward dialogue of Reeves and Ryder as the protagonists are used to great effect to further delineate the isolated world of London society from the dark forces coming to usurp it.

Coppola also understands the book deeply, not merely translating the text but emphasizing elements buried within it for matters of period taste. Vampires have long been associated with sexuality, but Coppola teases out the erotic qualities of Stoker’s book like no other interpreter. In his hands, Dracula becomes not merely the story of a vampire attempting to seduce an innocent but of the broader conflict of Victorian society’s outward repression and its inner conflicts. This is made clear by the contrast between the virginal Mina, who admits she and Harker have barely made physical contact, and Lucy, who openly strings along three suitors and whose attack by Dracula is as sexual as it is physical. The entwined sex and death desires of vampire myths come to the fore with scenes of Dracula’s brides, their bloodied faces somehow adding to the erotic charge of how they worm over Harker. Coppola even includes elements of actual Victorian underground to suggest the more realistic conflicts of prim behavior, as in a scene of Mina seeing an early pornographic film being shown via a traveling exhibition, a vulgar display compounded as an aspect of cinema history when Dracula can only marvel at the film projector as an incredible invention while the woman turns her head from what’s on the screen.

This sexual undercurrent culminates in the deviation Coppola makes to the novel’s ending. Dracula concludes with a redemptive act of Christian innocence, Mina’s purity ultimately conquering the beast in line with social values but somewhat at the expense of the novel’s dark logic. Others have tweaked this coda before; Herzog’s Nosferatu indeed ends with the vampire slain by his fascination with the woman, but includes the added detail of a bitten Jonathan becoming the next vampire, perpetuating evil as a cycle rather than dispelling it. Here, Mina does not easily let go of Dracula’s thrall, dissociating her own life with that of Elisabeta and giving in to the sexual freedom that the vampire represents. The film’s finale is as tragic as it is redemptive, one in which Mina may help to defeat the monster but is left with a crushing empathy for him that may not be so easily shaken off as she returns to a normal life with her boring, “normal” husband.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Discography: David Bowie: Hours

Perhaps it was inevitable that Bowie would finally turn pensive and reserved after his 50t…