Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Beauty with the Beast

Across a gulf of time, Dracula still hopes to be loved. Vampire movies had already made him a predator: now armed with compassion for monsters, could he be remade into a suitor again? Would he still appear beautiful after an eternity moping in the halls of his own mausoleum? He’s so confident in his own allure that he never considers it -- we have to do so for him. This is how Francis Ford Coppola approaches this titan of German cinema, formed from skulking terror by Murnau and Herzog and bemused theatrics by Lugosi and Lee. He creates a total Dracula out of all his past lives, and like the monster himself, he never doubts that a figure of such towering mythology will retain his allure. In Coppola's palpable, heady style, Bram Stoker’s Dracula finally gives the story back to those who have always loved him.

Winona Ryder heaves through every scene as Mina Harker, face beaming, exerting as much as she can to resist admitting that she loves it when the Count’s claws lurk towards her lovely neck in her dreams. Anthony Hopkins exerts even more as Van Helsing, sniffing the air, spewing his lines with soul-sucking candor. When the film becomes a handheld hunt through London streets and Romanian mountains, Hopkins’ wild eyes sell the tension almost as much as Michael Ballhaus’ surreal cinematography. They are accomplices in creepiness.

So in its artistic purpose, Bram Stoker’s Dracula acquires the insatiably creepy awe of its ancestors. But it's whole allure is inseparable from the central performance by Gary Oldman, taking on all of Dracula’s forms with equal zeal, from the dulcet Prince to the sniveling monster. Coppola reveres the Count’s transformative power: instead of choosing one form only, he descends through a litany of all his iterations, as if to say that this is not a version of Dracula but a moving portrait of the idiom itself.

Oldman provides an ideal vessel to achieve this ambition. He lurks as well as Schreck and sermonizes as well as Lugosi. He roars, tongue flickering, when Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) makes light of his ancestor’s conquests, and slurps maddeningly as he slinks into frame while Harker shaves. The Count’s relationship with Mina reconstructs Murnau’s venereal terror as he wafts into her body, beaming from the eyes. Yet despite his ambitious tonguing, of all the versions manipulated to include romance, Coppola’s is most uncompromising in its fetish. He sends his reincarnated lovers spiraling across time to find each other like if Kate & Leopold included the undead. His version may even be patient zero for all these monster romance clichés via Stephanie Meyer currently suffocating vampire horror. But the love here is investing, even when it’s over-draught by a strange obsession with a parade of suitors (including Cary Elwes and Billy Campbell) who serve as extras for the vampire hunt in the film’s third act. Like Mina, you want to be overwhelmed by this story.

Reeves’s posh, awe-inspiring badness (Dick Van Dyke could have tutored him to be a better Brit) makes Harker’s imprisonment off-camera a sigh of relief for the audience. Without him, the romance hinges on whether you can accept Dracula as worthy of it, as though he wasn't just the forbidden love but also the sexiest by comparison. This will be a problem for some people, those who say that Ann Darrow should see the love in poor King Kong’s eyes in the end but that it's just wrong to let them make it to third base (remember when he blowdried her with his breath in the '76 one, or ice-skated with her on his big furry butt in the Jackson film?). In a time when The Shape of Water can win best picture though, Bram Stoker's Dracula makes a compelling argument. Coppola’s affair is thorough, love to a height of religious devotion, and as the Count never considered whether he would be beautiful, so it is with Mina: she will kiss him in any form, so long as he keeps wooing her. She kisses him through a layer of blood and wrinkly bat skin in this movie.

Coppola remembers that Dracula is God’s reject, but unlike Murnau’s sniveling monster, in this version he's rejected through tragedy, lustful and tormented, sad and impossibly desirable. Coppola's style brings life to Oldman's slinky awe, and Oldman works within these effects like he was born to them. The effects by Roman Coppola are achieved entirely on-set or in-camera, with no digital fakery to help us wake up from the nightmare. This is a film as tangible as a classic of German Expressionism, a true film lover’s film. Memories are either rear-projected or shot on the same strip through multiple exposure, as miniatures are forced into perspective, or as Ballhaus reconstructs gravity around Coppola’s weird ambitions. The Count scurries up walls on all fours, hangs from the ceiling, and passes into a shadow that moves spookily out of sync with his body. It’s so sumptuous it’s nearly too full to stand. But if it’s overstuffed on tropes and mechanisms so that it nearly reads as an homage to classic horror techniques, it’s a special joy compared to its contemporaries’ sterile digital transgressions, their love affair with newness, too readily bought at the cost of the old techniques that served us so well, so long.

The art critic Federico Zeri said of German symbolist Gustav Klimt that he painted “decomposed bodies … absorbed in a decorative style strongly suggestive but eternally becoming human.” Klimt’s “Judith I” and his “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (famously called “The Woman in Gold”) demonstrate Zeri’s sentiment with the liberties they take on anatomy in order to build an image of her coming-into-being, as the hieroglyphic gold encloses a face whose eyes stop the gold from being mistaken for gaudy: there's eternity in them. Why else would Dracula rise from his coffin wearing Adele Bloch-Bauer’s dress if not to convey the same sense of timeless longing? Coppola distills the vampire legend with such penetrating symbolic power that none of his film’s flaws can temper its allure. Its humanity is more than a theme—it is a mercy. In Nosferatu, love rose to send the vampyre to his eternity. The greatest testament to Bram Stoker’s Dracula is that the reverse is true. Sometimes, I wish they would still make vampire movies. And then I remember this one, in which Coppola brought him back to life, to put him to rest.

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Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Francis Ford Coppola

James V. Hart (screenplay)

Bram Stoker (book)

Count Dracula/Vlad the Impaler Gary Oldman
Mina Harker/Elisabeta Winona Ryder
Professor Abraham Van Helsing/Priest/Narrator Anthony Hopkins
Jonathan Harker Keanu Reeves
Dr. Jack Seward Richard E. Grant
Sir Arthur Holmwood Cary Elwes
Quincey P. Morris Billy Campbell

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