Dracula November 23, 2016
I suppose all cinematic adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula are variably characterized by their tinges of eroticism — a vampire’s kiss is perhaps among the most grandiose expressions of carnal hunger to be displayed in the movies — but Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 take on the classic novel is arguably the most ribald of them all. From 1958’s Horror of Dracula to 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, the portrayal of creeping, embodied terror has been the utmost priority — to take on the tonality of a horror picture is a given. And yet this Dracula feels more romantic than it does horrific.
Not that the film wholeheartedly rejects notions of bloodcurdling; it’s that it’s so luxuriantly mounted — think The Scarlet Empress (1934) visual crowdedness — that it resembles an emboldened, rose-colored stylistic exercise to be fondled and not repelled by. And in that respect was I optically entranced by it; few genre films are as beautiful to behold as Dracula. Its budget, said to be a lavish $40 million, delectably shows in every frame.
But its ocular panache is also one of its biggest downfalls. Because looking at it is such an awesome experience, with an abundance of its images working as some of Coppola’s finest artistic achievements, its relatively understated dramatics don’t much suit it. Despite its original story mostly staying intact, it very much feels like an excursion into style over substance materialism. So buried in a deluge of theatrics is it that watching it is something akin to roller skating through a massive Caravaggio exhibit, mostly thrilling but sometimes overbearing. A grave imbalance rests between decadence and plot substantiality.
Even its performances are engulfed in Coppola’s self-indulgence. Gary Oldman stars as the titular count, who, in this incarnation, is handsome and suave in the daylight but is hideous — cobra in a cloak reminiscent — in the moonlit confines of his decrepit manor. Everything else, though, remains relatively faithful. The story’s set in stone by now, with us introduced to the antagonist through his association to doomed real-estate agent Jonathan Harker (an abominably miscast Keanu Reeves) and later with us acting as audience as he preys on the latter’s fiancee, Mina (Winona Ryder), due to her resembling a past lady love.
But Coppola’s storytelling methodologies are sweeping, wide-ranging, and sometimes confusing — as opposed to past adaptations that kept things tight as an anxious seatbelt, it resembles something of an epic, operatic in its characterizations and broad in its set pieces. Those familiar with the classic Dracula story will find the film to be navigable if dizzily drawn. But first-timers will undoubtedly get lost in the shuffle of Coppola’s maximalism. At least Oldman is snakily good, with Ryder and Anthony Hopkins (as Van Helsing) dependably suited to this kind of material.
And yet the tyrannical spectacle of its visuals keep me from writing Dracula off as an overblown extravaganza. Sure it’s overlong and more overelaborate than it has any right (or need) to be. But Coppola has incontrovertibly produced a lush, updated take to be artistically savored. If only its heart matched the melodrama of its patina. B-