Bram Stoker's Dracula (Columbia 1993)

Monsters are a basic component of the human psyche. We speculate about their creation, their mysteries, we feel them breathing upon our necks, hiding beneath our beds and, ultimately, to a great extent, we design them specifically in tune with our deepest fears. No monster is quite the integral part of ourselves as those which transform--and have the dual aspect--of humanity.

Consider the werewolf, Mr. Hyde, and the vampire. For centuries now, mankind has been delighted with the tale of the vampire, revealing him as not only an undeniable part of our own Dark Sides, but making him a legacy of folklore and folk literature since the Dark Ages. And no vampire's myth has been preserved quite so well, or has been so popular, as that of Dracula.

There have been scores of different representations of the famous Count in literature, plays, and film but, in this particular flick, the author's name is also curiously invoked in the title: not just Dracula, mind you, but Bram Stoker's Dracula. The film is directed by Francis Ford Coppola--and it may as well have been tattooed on the celluloid. Sure, Coppola is, or was, one of Hollywood's most powerful and influential directors but, through the years (and after some expensive bombs), it is all too clear that he still suffers from his peculiar delusions of grandeur. Instead of Bram Stoker's Dracula, this release should be re-named Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. Poor Bram shouldn't have to take the blame for this overblown sop.

Coppola makes sure his film has respectable star power, featuring Keanu Reaves, Winona Ryder, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and Gary Oldman in the title role--but here lies my first complaint: the casting. Whoever picked these actors and actresses for the roles in this film must have been on crack. Gary Oldman may be a very competent character actor (and a wonderful Sid Vicious) in the title role, but a dashing Transylvanian Count he ain't. And okay, so I do have a distaste for Winona Ryder as an actress (except for her role in Heathers) but, to be fair, she does an adequate job dually playing Drac's original sweetheart, Elisabeta, and her modern incarnation, Mina. Keanu Reeves looks sedated as Mina's tortured fiancé, Jonathan, but that's hardly anything new. Hey, I try to be fair. I loved Keanu in My Own Private Idaho, but a brave hero out to wrestle the very forces of evil for the woman he loves? Not! The only bright spot in this film is the indomitable Anthony Hopkins, as Dr. Van Helsing. Even when Hopkins has acted in the occasional dud movie (the hideous Hannibal comes to mind. Blech!), he never ceases to be compelling. Without him, this Drac would be best off nailed in the coffin forever.

Actually, the first scene, with its explanation of how Dracula came to be the monster he is, touched me the most. As a feared warrior fighting in the Holy Wars, his humanity seems plausible. Scenes of people on stakes like shish-ka-bobs surrounding the battlefields show that the gore and ugliness of the Dark Age wars was only a part of Dracula's (Oldman) struggle and life as a warrior. He fights as the "defender of Christ", so when his beloved wife, Elisabeta (Ryder), commits suicide in his absence due to a dirty trick by Dracula's enemies--who have told Elisabeta that her husband was slain in battle--he is enraged and mad with grief. Coppola gives us a plausible presentation of a Dracula as once a loving, religious human being until, through the loss of his beloved, he is experiences the ultimate crisis between man and God. Is there any rage deeper than that rising from the sense of God's betrayal? In a fit of madness, the Count crushes and curses all his idols and crosses at the castle, declaring himself damned for eternity, and vows to avenge himself against his betrayal by Christ. As he does so, blood spurts from one of his stone crosses like a park fountain (a la Kubrick in his The Shining), the Count drinking the blood in his rage to seal his promise of revenge. Anyone who has ever felt betrayed by God or by death itself cannot help to be a little moved by the tormenting unfairness of it all.

Alas, when we see the Count again, it is the 19th century, meeting Jonathan Harker (Reaves) at his Transylvanian castle. At this point in the film, all remnants of humanity--and realism--are blown to bits. Coppola shoves at us the archetypal haunted castle at the top of a cliff in the Carpathians, complete with howling wolves ( his "children of the Night"), and steel-barred drawbridge. When an aged Dracula greets Jonathan at the door, we wince as he utters the ultimate Dracula cliché: "Velcome to my...home." We know that "I vant to drink your blood" can't be far behind. The appearance of Count Vlad has changed as well. Musty-old and pasty white, he has claws for fingernails, is dressed in a flowing brocade robe (which we know must reek of centuries-old moth balls), and the absolute worst 'do of any vampire, ever! Forget about the slicked-back hair of Bela Lugosi, even. Oldman's Count Drac has these funny, sweeping white wings pulled back from his face, as though he's planted some of those women's banana clips on the sides, and a long Pocahontas pigtail in back. This video should be subtitled, "Hair Extension Horrors." If anyone should be waiting to plant a stake in his heart, it should be a cosmetologist! Okay, enough about the hair. I laugh every time I think about it, though.

Reaves plays Jonathan as a hopeless dope who never questions why he happens to be in a haunted castle with a monster at all. It takes his finding a bed full of succubi calling his name to convince him that all is not right at the castle. Dracula leaves Jonathan a prisoner there among the succubi, while the vampire sails to London packed in mouldering Transylvanian soil to find Jonathan's fiancee, Mina: the reincarnation of the Count's wife, Elisabeta.

When pursuing his lost love, Dracula seems less like a monster and much more human. What could be more human than seeking love and devotion? At this point, the fabled conflict becomes Monster vs. Man, because many obstacles--including his own unnatural existence--stand in the vampire's way. Back in London, when Mina's rich and provocative friend Lucy is attacked and all signs point to a vampire as the culprit, a posse of Lucy's male suitors forms, headed up by Dr. Van Helsing (Hopkins), the eccentric medical expert on the Undead. These scenes are some of the most unintentionally hilarious. For instance, when Lucy is initially attacked, it is by something that looks like a weremonkey, that gets down and kinky with Lucy on a park bench. After Lucy is put in her crypt, a young doctor (part of the posse) spies Van Helsing toting his medical bag, and asks, incredulously, "Autopsy?" "No, I'm just going to put a stake through her heart and cut off her head," Van Helsing answers nonchalantly.

It is Van Helsing's robust eccentricity and sense of absolute control that allows him to steal every scene. Nothing phases this character. Even after he puts an end to Lucy--who sinks to The Exorcist's level by vomiting blood in Hopkins' face while he shouts prayers and shoves a crucifix in her face before impaling her--he has absolutely no problem enjoying a vast supper of rare roast beef in the very next frame, while everyone else watches queasily.

It is Dracula's task to find Mina and get her to recognize and to love him before he can be destroyed, and one of the segments in the film where the monster becomes human, and is accessible to our emotions. He appears to Mina in London as a gracious Prince decked out sprucely and, eventually, she loses her soul to him. Even though trying to convince herself that she is marrying Jonathan and loves him alone, deep in Mina's heart she realizes she loves Dracula, and wishes more than anything to find him again. I have to wonder here, though, if Dracula can appear so sprightly and well turned out, why would he choose otherwise to present himself as a shriveled up Pocahontas wearing banana clips--or as a weremonkey, or hideous bat, or glow in the dark green mist, etc.? I suppose even the Eternal can't be expected to be stylin' all the time.

When eventually our vampire is discovered by Van Helsing and his crucifix slinging posse - man hunting monster that is at heart a man - we can really sympathize with Dracula. He has found his last chance at love and Mina, at last, realizes that she desires him over everything worldly. Both Dracula and Mina are torn between their desires--which both know to be ultimately wrong--and ending the gruesome legacy of vampirism which has fueled Dracula's vengeance against God. It is up to Mina to choose which it will be--to become the Undead bride of Dracula or his ultimate destroyer. It is man (or Monster) against himself in the struggle to make an impossible choice.

There are some noteworthy things about Bram Stoker's Dracula: Although the main characters are terribly miscast with the exception of Anthony Hopkins, both Oldman and Ryder do put forth an effort. The young men who play Lucy's man-friends-cum-vampire slayers perform their parts much better, but alas, they are not even recognized by name in the credits. On the second viewing of the film, I found a pleasant surprise when, among the credits, I saw that blues musician Tom Waits is featured as the late lunatic/real estate salesman, Mr. Renfield.

If nothing else, this could possibly be the most visually opulent version of the familiar vampire tales, thanks to the "arty" but heavy hand of Coppola. It is also perhaps one of the most sympathetic to Dracula's human core. The costuming, makeup, and to a certain extent, the sets, of Bram Stoker's Dracula, are above average and well coordinated. There seems to be a real effort to make this the definitive Dracula movie. God knows--and only He could count--the hundreds of films created through the years retelling the Count's legend, which has to be arguably the most popular vampire tale of all time. Ultimately, however, Coppola's version of the legend is annoyingly overblown, miscast, and downright farcical at times. Still, at the end of the film, Dracula's very human dilemma as he strives to hold onto his lost love and make his peace with God, is what hits the heart of viewers and reminds them that they are not just watching another monster flick.

In spite of the downfalls of Francis Ford--er, excuse me--Bram Stoker's Dracula--it does contribute a much-needed extra dimension--the humanity in the monster, and vice-versa--to a story which has been told and retold without much reason for us to care for him at all.

[Kimberlee Rettberg]