Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic and wildly spastic adaptation of the author’s epistolary novel is, despite its warts, never dull. To be fair this film version is arguably the most accurate spiritual portrayal of Stoker’s work, which many forget is a salacious, gothic pulp novel in its own right. But is the film good? It’s maybe the most difficult adaptation to categorize down the fine lines of “good” and “bad,” because it truly depends on what you appreciate. For every moment that works there are confusingly bombastic directorial decisions and unhinged editing which seem to upend any momentum. It stops and starts more than any film I can remember, and yet, there is some real magic here.
The opening act is by far the most compelling section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There is the prologue, showing Vlad the warrior curse God and become the Prince of Darkness – which contains some wonderful visual work – after his wife hurls herself from atop the castle walls. Then we hop forward a couple hundred years and meet Jonathan Harker, the young lawyer traveling to Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle to work out a real estate deal. Keanu Reeves plays Harker, and is a curious choice for the role. Reeves has never been a fit in period work, and even Coppola has said his casting was pressure to get a young, hot actor in the role to put butts in seats. That being said, Reeves’ strange attempt at a stuffy accent and wooden acting somehow works to juxtapose the insane theatrics he finds himself thrust into once he meets the Count. It’s grown on me ever so slightly, and it has evolved over the years.
Once Harker arrives at Castle Dracula, all bets are off. It’s here we meet the most fascinating embodiment of the vampire, who changes looks throughout. Gary Oldman is game for the role, and he plays it up with a macabre glee. Harker’s spiral down the dark tunnels of madness in this early act is both brilliant and extravagant, setting a feverish gothic stage. But once the action moves from Transylvania to London, the tapestry of the picture unravels. We meet Mina (Winona Ryder, perfect) and Lucy, we build some strange sexual undertones, and the structure of the film spirals out of control through visual flourishes and extravagance Coppola had never before been so distracted by. It all seems to crescendo when Lucy is raped by Dracula, in wolf form no less. The film moves from a fluid opera of death into a frenetic, over-edited mess of confused sexual nihilism; the focus dissipates. To be fair to the jumpy structure, Coppola keeps the narrative episodic to honor Stoker’s epistolary style in the novel, but he could have left a few things out and mad some choices along the way.
That structure is what stops and starts the film. It is too episodic to congeal as a coherent whole. The early scenes work magic, then the next scenes where a dapper young Dracula woos Mina at the town fair plod along. Part of the problem lies within the strange chemistry between Oldman and Ryder. I won’t say there is no chemistry, it’s there, but it’s stodgy and weird. There were reports from the set that Oldman and Ryder, who were pleasant with one another in the production stages of the film, showed up day one of filming seemingly hating each other with no explanation as to why. Maybe that plays into the odd chemistry between the two, who knows.
And then there is Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing the famous vampire hunter. Hopkins plays up Van Helsing as some sort of madman, chewing scenery left behind by Oldman. It is simultaneously a distracting and captivating, amusing performance. In that sense it fits in with the rest of the film, at once all over the map and exactly what the film wants. To be fair, Hopkins’ portrayal fits the manic nature of the character in Stoker’s novel. Van Helsing’s scenes with the trio of gentleman callers sometimes seem to be happening exclusively from the romance between Dracula and Mina, jarring loose any forward momentum.
There is a precise intent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though that very precise intent requires the film to lose track of itself more than once. This intent of precision is not fully executed, but despite the stop-and-start manner of the film certain scenes are decidedly powerful. First and foremost, the film is a romance, and it knows this. And Coppola frames this love story as a true operatic narrative, full of grandiose gestures and theatrics. It works in the vein of a stage play all too often to fit together as a complete film.
And yet, I want to like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I absolutely yearn to love it, because of what it has to offer. Perhaps that’s what keeps me coming back to a film that continually leaves me wanting in the end.