Academy Award wins: Best Costume Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Art Direction
Despite its disappointing critical reception, director Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to make THE GODFATHER PART III proved to be a fruitful one. His company, American Zoetrope, earned a stay of execution by the forces of bankruptcy, but it wasn’t in the clear yet. Coppola’s next project came from an unexpected source: Winona Ryder, who had previously dropped out of playing the role of Mary Corleone for Coppola without explanation, came to him with the idea of a new take on Bram Stoker’s iconic literary creation, Count Dracula. Sensing an opportunity to explore the unworldly and deeply erotic undertones of Stoker’s vampire story, Coppola channeled his inspiration into one of the most original visions in cinematic history—boldly forward thinking but achievable using cinema’s most primitive effect techniques—and saved American Zoetrope from obliteration in the process.
The result, 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, distinguishes itself by loyally adhering itself to the source novel, while presenting a lavishly surreal vision of gothic horror. You know the story, but not like this:
It is the year 1897. The Victorian period is on its way out in Europe, and a fascinating new invention named cinema—that is, moving pictures—has captured the imagination of the public. A young, English real estate broker named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to distant Transylvania to negotiate a contract for a piece of prime London property with its buyer, the reclusive and supremely mysterious Count Dracula (Gary Oldman). Seemingly held against his will, Harker languishes in Dracula’s ancient desolate castle while Dracula spirits away to London in search of the blood of virile young women. He sets his sights on Harker’s young fiancé (Ryder), but soon finds himself falling in love with the girl, who may be a reincarnation of his own lost love from centuries ago. When Dracula’s vampiric nature is deduced, a scholar of the occult named Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) is called in to help Harker destroy Dracula before he turns Mina into his own bride of blood.
To think of Dracula is to imagine ancient, cobwebbed castles, cheesy flying bats, and sinister shadows. But most of all, we think of the unmistakable visage of Bela Lugosi, who literally defined the role in the original Universal monster movie DRACULA (1931). His depiction of the infamous Count has towered over every other incarnation for just over sixty years, so what would Coppola need to be do differently to reinvent a character who had already been so firmly established in our collective subconscious?
What Coppola has chosen to do here is something of a triumph, quite honestly. From day one, his interpretation of Stoker’s novel was meant to be strikingly original. His initial intent was to reduce the sets to artful configurations of shadows and light akin to the German expressionism found in such early silent films as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), while pouring the art budget into elaborately designed costumes. When his financiers balked at this idea, Coppola agreed to make a more conventional looking film, but the heavily-stylized design conceits would remain. The result is nothing short of a complete visual tour de force, the likes of which may never be seen again on a scale like this.
Coppola’s cast, an eclectic mix of acting powerhouses and young, attractive stars, breathes life into the director’s grand, baroque design. Gary Oldman is perfectly cast as the infamous Count, completely shredding any lingering impressions of Bela Lugosi while still paying a tremendous deal of respect to Lugosi’s interpretation. An apt comparison would be the Heather Ledger’s take on The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), against Jack Nicholson’s depiction in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989). Oldman assumes many guises—each one of them horrifying, oftentimes acting under pounds of prosthetic makeup. It’s a radical reinvention of the character, and apparently much closer to Stoker’s original vision for the character than the form the Count has taken in pop culture.
Winona Ryder plays Mina Harker, a mischievous young socialite who finds herself caught up in Dracula’s gaze, and unable to resist his advances. Ryder gives all of herself to the role, no doubt making up for lost opportunity when she bowed out of THE GODFATHER PART III. Anthony Hopkins turns in a predictably powerhouse performance as Van Helsing, giving the iconic character an Old World flair and a somewhat-scruffy, wild-eyed demeanor. Whereas in the classic Universal version of DRACULA, Van Helsing was portrayed as a dignified, elderly intellectual, Coppola’s take on the story finds the character considerably sexed up, prone to fallibility and temptation. Hopkins is one of the finest actors of his generation, and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is yet another showcase of his superlative talent.
The inverse can be said for poor Keanu Reeves, who I don’t find to be a particularly terrible actor in general, but rather one with an extremely narrow range. In a performance that evokes the fiasco that was Sofia Coppola in THE GODFATHER PART III, Reeves’ utter inability to convince as a wealthy English aristocrat drags Coppola’s entire vision down. He tries so hard to speak his lines in a Victorian English accent, that he completely forgets to emote, resulting in one of the most wooden performances I’ve ever seen. His casting reads as a cynical move on Coppola’s part, who has publicly stated that he needed “hot young actors” to lure in the youth audience. As to why he didn’t pick from the sizable pool of attractive young stars that could actually pull this role off, I’ll never know.
Cary Elwes and Tom Waits are the performances of note that round out the supporting cast. Elwes plays Lord Holmwood, a dandy-ish aristocrat who is drawn into Dracula’s insidious activity when his new wife is infected with vampirism. Waits, a regular performer for Coppola in the 80’s, plays Renfield, the infamous character who is driven mad by his encounter with Dracula and eats rats for sustenance. Waits’ take on Renfield channels something of a steampunk aesthetic, and the musician’s insane, disheveled mannerisms are the most exaggerated displays of Acting (with a capital A) that I’ve ever seen from the man.
Every penny of the film’s budget is thrown right up on the screen in dripping color. For the cinematography, Coppola enlists the help of a new collaborator, Michael Ballhaus, who captures the director’s sinister, baroque vision with feverish aplomb. The 35mm film gauge is typical of a modern Hollywood film, but Coppola and Ballhaus channel the spirit of cinema’s magician roots to convey a look that’s firmly entrenched in techniques of the past yet altogether entirely new. Drawing quite liberally from the aesthetics of German Expressionism and Japanese shadow puppet theatre, the film affects a preternaturally creepy persona via perspective tricks, stylized theatrical lighting, billowing cloth, and subtly unnatural visual cues.
Understandably, the color red is the dominant color in Coppola’s palette, but even more interestingly is his treatment of the green end of the spectrum—particularly in the appearance of foliage and other plant life. Most visibly evident in springtime garden sequences featuring Mina Harker, Ballhaus and Coppola have dramatically desaturated the green from the surrounding trees and hedges, thereby draining the film of life itself. In Coppola’s vision, the rules of nature and physics bend to the will of the undead, and the stench of rot is overbearing.
For a film set during the dawn of cinema, Coppola’s chiaroscuro appropriately and heavily borrows from the aesthetics of silent film, most notably from F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922). The production design, by first-time Coppola collaborator Thomas E. Sanders is first-rate, but the lion’s share of acclaim really goes to costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who won the Oscar for her Japanese kabuki theatre-influenced costumes. By far, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is Coppola’s most elaborately stylized film to date, and its loving references to cinema’s beginnings blend sublimely with the rest of the mise-en-scene.
In a move indicative of his love for collaborating with direct family, Coppola famously fired his visual effects team when they were unable to give him what he wanted, and replaced them with his young son, Roman. Some might say this stinks of nepotism, a further indulgence of the kind that stained THE GODFATHER PART III; however, Roman’s youth and relative inexperience proved to be serendipitous and liberating. Literally every single effect was achieved in-camera via forced perspective, painstaking multiple exposures, miniatures and other tricks of the trade. As a result, this film—like its undead antihero—will never age, forever existing in the realm of pure cinematic magic and unblemished by outdated computer renderings. The amount of creativity on display is simply astounding, and it is a standard that visual effects artists should hold themselves too more often.
The score is supplied by a new collaborator for Coppola, one Wojciech Kilar. His gothic, mysterious cues recall the ominous bombast of the classic Universal monster films while adding an unworldly soprano voice that hints at Dracula’s deeply-buried humanity. Coppola’s decidedly romantic vision is complemented by Kilar’s lush palette, as well as by an orchestra of frenzied voices, wails, and screams that somehow defy the chaos to harmonize into a feverish sound design.
After returning to his stylistic roots with THE GODFATHER PART III, Coppola forges entirely new ground in an attempt to bring class and elegance back to gothic horror. Ever the innovator, Coppola’s use of ancient filmmaking techniques was unprecedented in this day and age, and it also became the first major film to utilize a nonlinear editing system in its construction (as the digital era had yet to descend on the industry, traditional flatbed editing was still in widespread use at the time of the film’s release).
But most of all, Coppola’s risky vision paid off at the box office and finally saved his long-beleaguered American Zoetrope from financial ruin. In the years since its release, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA has been gently forgotten, dwarfed by more mainstream vampire fare like INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994), or a certain popular book series adaption that I refuse to name, but those who take the time to reacquaint themselves with Coppola’s vision will find a timeless masterwork by one of cinema’s most brilliant minds. Just don’t get too hung up on Keanu.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures (although it’s a little known fact that it was issued as a part of the Criterion Collection during the Laserdisc days).
Produced by: Fred Fuchs
Written by: James V. Hart
Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Production Design by: Thomas E. Sanders
Edited by: Anne Goursand, Glen Scantlebury, Nicholas C. Smith
Composer: Wojciech Kilar