Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Director: Francis Ford Coppola.
Screenplay: James V. Hart.
Starring: Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Waits, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Bill Campbell, Sadie Frost, Jay Robinson, Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, Florina Kendrick, I.M. Hobson, Laurie Franks, Octavian Cadia.

“They say you are a man of good… taste”

During the early 90’s there was a reinvigoration for classic horror characters that were tackled by some of the most reputable names in the movie business. Under the watchful eye of director Mike Nichols, Jack Nicholson put his spin on the werewolf in 1994’s Wolf while Kenneth Branagh managed to convince Robert DeNiro to take on the lead in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (also in 1994). Two years previously, however, it was Francis Ford Coppola who reimagined Bram Stoker’s lengendary tale of Dracula and he done so with some of the most visually impressive work he’s ever produced. 

Plot: In 1897, young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to gloomy Transylvania to close a deal on 10 London properties purchased by Count Dracula (Gary Oldman). However, the Count happens upon a photograph of Harker’s betrothed Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) who strongly resembles the undead vampire’s lover, Elisabeta, who died centuries ago. Inspired by the photo, the Count imprisons Harker and sets forth for London on a reign of seduction and terror to find his lost love.

The Godfather’s, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now are considered some of the cinematic greats and just a few from the resumé of Francis Ford Coppola at a time when he was at the forefront of filmmaking. However, when Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released it came when, the once great, Coppola had fallen on harder times and he was unable to recreate the quality that his name had become synonymous with. Many would even claim that Dracula continued his poor run of projects but as a reimagining, it’s actually quite a stunning piece of work.

One thing that can’t be said about the film is that it lacks style or is anything less than ambitious and hugely extravagant. It’s obvious that it’s Coppola intention to provide a fantastically visual experience and if the film is to be judged on that alone, then it’s a massive success. Production designer Thomas Sanders really earns his crust in his recreation of this timeless story and he’s helped, immeasurably, by Scorsese’s regular cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus as every movie artifice in the book is utilised to beautifully, hyper-stylised effect.

Although faithful to Stoker’s original source material, narratively, the film has holes bigger than anything an old Transylvanian could sink into your neck. However, on this occasion, it doesn’t really matter such is Coppola’s ability to sweep you up in a romantic, Victorian love story while adding a much needed humanity to Dracula’s character and motivations. This isn’t just a generic horror tale involving coffins, stakes and garlic, this cuts across each characters personal journey; from lovers Mina Murray and Jonathan Harker to vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing, with each of them afforded equal and ample screetime. That said, the least said about some of the performances, the better: Winona Ryder is an actress that I’ve never taken to so anything she delivers doesn’t really work for me and as Harker, Keanu Reeves is plain woeful. Reeves is no thespian and often comes in for criticism but this is, unequivocally, the worst he’s ever been. His accent alone is so cringeworthingly bad that it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for him. To be fair to him, though, you get the feeling that even Reeves knows he’s out of his depth. Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins doesn’t fare much better as Van Helsing. Normally, Hopkins delivers strong work but he absolutely hams it up here with another poor grasp on an accent that he simply can’t get his tongue around. On the periphery, there’s an overindulgent Richard E. Grant, an overzealous Sadie Frost and a rather brilliant Tom Waits as the deranged, insect-eating R.M. Renfield. Anyone familiar with Waits’ ability to assume different personas in his musical work will see that this is a perfect role for him. When all is said and done, however, the majority of the meat on the films’ bones rests with the leading man and Gary Oldman really delivers the goods. Of all the main performers (with the exception of Waits), Oldman is the only one who seems to understand what the tone of the film should be. He knows when he’s required to crank it up or play it down and his range as an actor is on full display. He, at once, makes Dracula a broken-hearted romantic while also capturing a genuinely sinister and foreboding presence.

With an abundance of atmosphere and visual mastery, Coppola lays the old cliched vampire to rest and ressurects the gothic tale in true creative style. It’s certainly not without its flaws but you’ve got to admire Coppola’s chutzpah to do things vastly different from any other adaptation. His handle on mood is masterful while his composition is breathtakingly imaginative.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Francis Ford Coppola wanted Johnny Depp to play Jonathan Harker, but the studio wanted someone who was more of a heartthrob and Coppola eventually cast Keanu Reeves in the need for a young star who would connect with the girls. Reeves said years after the movie came out, that he wasn’t happy with his work in it, stating he had been exhausted from making several films right on the heels of signing on as Jonathan Harker, and that he tried to raise his energy for the role “but I just didn’t have anything left to give.”

19 Responses to “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”

  1. Nice review Mark. Admittedly I’m a bit conflicted about Dracula. Coppola certainly delivered a faithful adaptation to Bram Stoker’s novel, and the visuals are undeniably gorgeous, adding to an atmosphere that I haven’t really seen in vampire films outside of Nosferatu and Herzog’s remake.

    But I’ve had a rough time getting around the movie’s flaws, most notably the acting (as you mentioned, Reeves is particularly miscast). Although Oldman undeniably steals the show, it’s hard to overlook the movie’s problems for myself, though I still enjoyed the film overall. I might just be a bit tougher since Coppola is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I’m one of those people who will continuously defend Rumble Fish and One from the Heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I certainly share your feelings on its flaws, Charles. Some of the acting is pathetic (Reeves in particular) but I really liked Tom Waits and Oldman’s performances. As flawed as it is, I still really enjoy the film. Visually, it’s outstanding and Coppola really outdoes himself with some striking imagery.

      If also agree with you on One From The Heart and Rumble Fish. Those are two films of Coppola’s that I find vastly underrated. It’s actually about time that I gave One From The Heart another viewing. To be honest, I think it’s one of Coppola’s best.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rumble Fish is quite something, isn’t it? I recently bought the Criterion blu-ray and have been itching to watch it again. Really need to see One from the Heart another time too.

        A lot of Coppola’s post-Apocalypse Now work gets an unfair rep. I’m even amongst the few who really loves The Godfather Part III.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Again, we’re on the same page. The Outsiders was actually my favourite film once upon a time (although it, admittedly, doesn’t quite hold up now) but Coppola still done a lot of great work and he was also my favourite director for a time. I really enjoyed Peggy Sue Got Married and Tucker. Two very underrated films. The Godfather III is still a great film but it had a lot to live up to. I would really like to see Tetro., though. One of the few I still haven’t seen but heard some good things about.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t seen Tucker and I’ve only watched part of The Outsiders a couple of years ago, another film I need to get on board with. I remember liking Peggy Sue, if finding it not spectacular. Still need to watch Tetro, read some good stuff about that as well.

        As someone who grew up idolizing the first two Godfathers, I’ve always felt Part III gets a lot a bad rep that it never deserved. Coppola’s direction is perhaps the most evocative it’s been since Apocalypse and the design is perfect. Plus Sofia’s performance wasn’t as bad as people say it was.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tucker is worth a watch but if memory serves, it didn’t really feel like a Coppola film. Still good, though.

        Yeah, The Godfather III really took a kicking didn’t it? Again, I’d have to revisit it but I still remember liking it. That said, I’m one the critics of Sofia’s performance I thought she was terrible. A role originally slated for Winona Ryder as it goes,

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a Gary Oldman showcase, truly. He rides the tide of the tale so beautifully. From dramatic to scene-chewing to finally heartbreaking, what a turn for a literary villain on the big screen. Wonderful look at this, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Michael! Oldman is especially good here. It’s probably fair to say that this was the role that made him a more household name but he always delivers quality. For all the film’s flaws, I like this a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review, and pretty timely too. Interesting tidbit about Keanu.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers Jay. I normally like to throw in a little horror movie around this time of year and a revisit to this was long overdue. It’s a film that can be easy to criticise but I still really it. Atmospheric as fuck! 😉


  4. It’s a visual spellbinder with Coppola pulling out all the stops when it comes to technique and Gothic passion.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: