Dracula is a name that is synonymous with horror and vampires. Bram Stoker brought the name into the world in 1897 and Bela Lugosi brought the character to life for Universal in 1931. From Bela Lugosi to Lon Chaney, Jr. to Christopher Lee, Dracula was the pale-looking, well-dressed Count who captured our imaginations and awakened our fears. In 1992 award-winning producer and director Francis Ford Coppola, of The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now fame, adapted Bram Stoker’s novel for the big screen with an all-star cast and spectacular effects, make-up and costumes. As part of a special Dracula weekend, which included a review of the Bela Lugosi classic and a profile of Vlad the Impaler, UMU is proud to present Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The movie opens with a shot of a dome topped with a cross accompanied by a haunting soundtrack by Wojciech Kilar. Prince Vlad of Wallachia is dressed in a suit of armor. Before he leaves to war, he shares a passionate kiss with his wife Elisabeta, knowing it may be their last. When he returns from war, he finds Elisabeta dead by suicide which at the time was considered a sin and therefore the victim was refused a proper burial. He then renounces God and stabs a cross, drawing blood from which he drinks, becoming Dracula. The movie fast-forwards to 1897 London, where Dracula returns to find his lost love and quench his bloodlust.
Francis Ford Coppola is a legend in the film world and this movie is one example of what makes him a legend. Bram Stoker’s novel is a timeless classic and Coppola took that novel and used it as the basis for such a powerful movie. The Godfather is my all-time favorite Coppola movie, and in my opinion his best movie, but Bram Stoker’s Dracula is up there on my movie list with it. The way the film is structured is beautiful from the origin story opening to the fading effects as the scenes change. The special effects are amazing for their time capturing Dracula’s various transformations and illusions. The film won three Academy awards: Best Costume Design (Eiko Ishioka), Best Sound Editing (Tom C. McCarthy) and Best Makeup (Greg Cannom, Michele Burke and Matthew W. Mungle) which were well-deserved. The costumes and makeup, especially for Gary Oldman and Sadie Frost, are intricate, historically accurate and haunting. The parts where he is the werewolf and the demon bat are the scariest parts. The part that always creeped me out was when Dracula is the demon bat and as he slips into a dark corner all that you see are his red eyes. While there is much to be said about the direction and production of the film, there is plenty to be said about the stellar cast.
Talented actor Gary Oldman (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) plays Dracula and plays him like he has never been played before. Aside from enduring make-up and costume changes throughout the entire movie, he gave Dracula this romantic quality where he was more than a scary monster who wants to drink blood. In this film, Oldman plays Dracula in a way where you feel bad for him and even sympathize with him. Here is a man who lost the love of his life which leads to feelings of being betrayed by a higher power who he vowed to fight for and decides he believes in nothing or nobody but himself. It is certainly a situation we can relate to on some level. Oldman also lent a romanticism to the character especially in parts with Mina. He never wanted her to see his dark side (“No! Don’t see me!”) and would stop himself from biting her. Despite their off-screen animosity, Oldman and Winona Ryder had such great on-screen chemistry in this movie which made the interactions between the two, and the movie as a whole, so great.
Speaking of Mina, Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice) did a fantastic job in the role. Not only was she beautiful, she played the character with such innocence and grace. While Lucy was the boy-crazy, hopeless romantic extrovert, Mina was the loyal, soft-spoken fiance of Jonathan Harker whom she always worried about while he was away. Little did she know, she was also the reincarnation of Elisabeta, who Dracula sought to reunite with. Ryder did a lot with this role as Mina goes from worrisome lover to the target of Dracula’s affection to being momentarily controlled by him. As an added bonus, Ryder put on an authentic English accent.
Jonathan Harker is the other main character in Dracula and Francis Ford Coppola wanted to cast a Hollywood heartthrob in the role to attract a female audience so he chose Keanu Reeves (Point Break, Speed). I read the book and liked Harker but Keanu Reeves did not impress me as Harker. He put on a terribly inconsistent English accent and didn’t put any kind of enthusiasm or fire into the roll. This may have been due to Reeves finishing a film in a short time prior to filming Dracula. Even so, I was not impressed by Reeves’s performance as Harker. He and Ryder had no chemistry together and did not seem like a married couple.
There is not much to say that hasn’t already been said about Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, The Wolfman). The man is legend who can play any role and seems to excel in the horror genre. Fresh off of the success of Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins was picked over Liam Neeson for the role of Abraham Van Helsing. Van Helsing was my favorite character in the movie after Dracula just because Anthony Hopkins did an outstanding job in the role. He gave the character an eccentric personality and witty humor to offset the dark overtones of the the movie. To add to his brilliant performance in the movie, he also played the priest in the blood cross scene and narrated parts of the movie. It was certainly a pleasure seeing Hopkins and Oldman, two fine actors, in the same film as opposing characters. While Oldman, Ryder and Hopkins were the names in lights, the supporting cast did a great jobs as well.
Sadie Frost was superb as Lucy Westenra, the flirty, boy-crazy friend of Mina who becomes a victim of Dracula’s bloodlust. She made such a seamless transition from human Lucy to vampire Lucy that you would think it was two different actresses. In addition to Oldman, Frost had to endure make-up and costume changes over the course of the movie to complete that transition. Tom Waits played the role of doctor-turned-asylum inmate Renfield. Renfield is a bizarre and often times repulsive character who eats bugs and lives in filthy conditions. He believes he is the servant of Dracula and is ready to do his bidding. Dr. Jack Seward, played by Richard E. Grant, is the man who is studying Renfield and also aids Van Helsing in trying to cure Lucy. Grant played the role well and fit right in alongside veteran Cary Elwes (Arthur Holmwood) and Billy Campbell (Quincy P. Morris). Coppola had Grant, Elwes and Campbell spend weekends together on excursions relating to the film to build the camaraderie they would exhibit in the film.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a modern-day film masterpiece. While it only captured three Academy Awards, it captured five Saturn Awards: Best Horror Film, Best Director (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Actor (Gary Oldman), Best Writing (James V. Hart) and Best Costume (Eiko Ishioka). Francis Ford Coppola is one of film’s greatest directors and delivered a spectacle that hit on all kinds of human emotion and feelings. There was a mix of sympathy and horror for Dracula as he transformed and progressed through the film. The film aroused sexual desire when Dracula took to Lucy and tried to take Mina. There was plenty of action courtesy of the mountain chase scene with Holmwood, Seward and Morris. We laughed at the wit and dry humor of Van Helsing while we turned away from the disgust of Renfield and the asylum. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is my favorite horror movie of all-time because it is not your typical scream-and-slash type of horror film. It explores the themes of religion and redemption from your past sins. I give this movie five stars because it is so well-done in every way.
(Joe Grodensky – @JoeGrodensky)