Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Coppola’s Visually Dazzling Film Starring Gary Oldman

Francis Ford Coppola’s new, visually dazzling version of Dracula, the often-filmed vampire tale, is titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula, indicating the director’s wish to be as faithful as possible to the literary source, first published in 1897.

With the exception of the very young, most audiences have seen at least one screen or stage adaptation of the noted novel. Film-viewers may be most familiar with the l931 version of Dracula, which made Bela Lugosi a household word and forever shaped the conventions of the horror film.

In his effort to make at once a more “accurate” and a more “timely” movie, Coppola has paid a certain price. His Dracula is an excessively gory and violent rendition, a film experience for the senses rather than the mind. Indeed, stressing the erotic aspects of Stoker’s work, by graphically depicting sexual fantasies and nightmares, the chief storyline and the characters sometimes get lost. As a result, what we evidence onscreen is something like Coppola’s reflections on the Dracula mythology rather than an emotionally engaging or truly scary narrative.

In a recent interview, Coppola is quoted as saying that he always wanted to be Woody Allen, meaning, I think, a director who makes intimate, small-scale films that would express his personal vision. Fortunately for all of us, Coppola is not an Allen-type director–his rich oeuvre, including Dracula–demonstrates an unparalleled versatility in genre, content, and style.

Coppola’s Dracula is in fact exactly the opposite of an Allen endeavor: a big, over-stylized film that consists of numerous set-pieces and some stunning visual effects. His new picture is a cold, impersonal, and detached enterprise that deep down may reflect its filmmaker’s ambition to make a huge commercial hit. Coppola has not had a big success in over a decade, though some of his “smaller” films (most notably the underestimated Vietnam film Gardens of Stone) were interesting in their own right.

In some respects, Dracula’s problems are similar to those of Spielberg’s Hook, another movie that placed so much emphasis on its visual design (which ironically was not that great) that the magic of the fairy tale was forgotten. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Dracula and Hook were scripted by the same writer, James Hart. Hart writes “big scenes” all right, but he doesn’t produce scenes that logically propel the plot, and he is not particularly good in drawing complex characterizations and establishing intriguing relationships among them.

The acting in this Dracula leaves much to be desired, though it is not the actors’ fault. The only performer who manages to build a coherent role and to project her personality into it is Winona Ryder, who plays the dual role of Elisabetha and Mina. But the versatile British actor Gary Oldman, who plays Count Dracula, shines only in a few moments; his Romanian accent is so heavy and his make-up so extreme that he can hardly breathe. In l931, Bela Lugosi was a scary and truly frightening Dracula, and in l979, Frank Langella was suave and elegantly seductive. But in the Coppola version, Oldman fails to register the animalistic masculinity and erotic charisma that would make us believe he is irresistibly alluring to all these women.

This Dracula is clearly not about acting, for even the usually dependable Anthony Hopkins, who won the Oscar Award last year and is cast here as Van Helsing, doesn’t excel. Still, the sight of Hopkins carrying the heads of some dead men and the brutality of his character resulted in laughs in the screening I attended, because they reminded audiences of the role he played in Jonathan Demme’s horror film, The Silence of the Lambs.

The film shows evidence of brilliance on a strictly technical level. I was particularly impressed with the transitions between scenes and the intercutting within scenes. The movie contains flawless dissolves and seamless montage and superimpositions.

Fortunately, the second part of the film is more touching and more involving. Here, Coppola effectively conveys the doomed love between Dracula and Elisabetha, and later between him and Mina. And because there is such graphic display of sex and discussion of infected blood, this movie may also be read as a metaphor about AIDS.

The main problem is that everything in the film is big–and self-conscious–as if Coppola set out to prove that he could make a horror film in tune with the requirements of mass, commercial cinema today. This Dracula owes its existence to an extremely sophisticated film technology over which Coppola has total mastery; this movie could not have been made a decade ago.

The director must have instructed his inventive cinematographer, the German Michael Ballhaus (who has worked with Scorsese, Jarmusch and others), to keep his camera really near the actors and the action. In some scenes, the camera is so close to the actors that I felt claustrophobia. This style deviates from Coppola’s more complex and open mise-en-scene in his best movies (The Godfather, The Conversation), in which the images are not fixed. But Dracula’s heavy reliance on mega-close-ups forces the viewers to watch what the director had determined for them to watch.

In tribute to German Expressionism, Coppola uses Gothic style, presenting a distorted perception of reality, one in which there is no realistic ratio between the size of human beings and that of objects. Ballhaus’ camera often switches from extreme low-angle shots, which magnify the ominous castle in Transylvania, to extreme high-angle shots, that tend to dwarf the human characters.

You would think that after the disastrous effects of voice- over narration in the otherwise stunning Apocalypse Now, Coppola would never use this device again. But you would be wrong. In his push toward authenticity, Mina and her fianc Jonathan Harker (played by the miscast Keanu Reeves) read the entries that they record in their diaries. Their narration provides the necessary transition from Transylvania to England, but it also increases the distance between the viewers and the screen.

In its level of energy, intensity, and raw sensuality, Dracula reminded me of the Batman movies; these films are never boring because so much is happening all the time. You may have read about the “fine-tuning” and “scaling back” of the film, after its first previews. I haven’t seen the previous version, but judging by what’s on screen now I can say that its nightmarish quality, bloodletting, and gory violence are quite excessive; the scenes involving Lucy’s turning into a vampire may remind you of Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

I had fun recently, when I screened (in a film class) Tod Browning’s 1931 version, which is only 76 minute long, than with Coppola’s ambitious and grandiose movie, with a running time of 123 minutes.