Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Copolla, 1992)
For those that don’t know, I’m currently nearing the end of my Masters in Film and Literature, and my final thesis is concerned with the sanitization (‘defanging’ if you will) of the vampire in modern media; how and why the vampire has become a romantic icon rather than a symbol of the uncanny; what Freud described as unhiemlich. One of my core ‘texts’ for the project is Francis Ford Copolla’s 1992 film version of Dracula, which I’m presenting here as the latest of the on-going Dracula film reviews. However, as I’m so immersed in critically embracing it, it’s actually quite difficult to offer as generalised a review as I might have done with the others. With that in mind, I’ll probably have even more to say about this film at some point in the near future. In the meantime, however, I’ve already decided that its one of my favourite versions.
Aside from being one of the more romanticised versions of Dracula (which fits my argument), it also features far more religious iconography than ever, and far more blood and sexualisation than in most previous films. This Dracula is defined throughout by his relationship with religion, from his renouncement of God in the opening scene through to his salvation in the closing moments. Even his appearance when Jonathan Harker meets him at his castle, Dracula looks dressed like a Catholic cardinal, and vampirism is his unholy breakaway from the true faith. In relation to this, under pining my thesis argument is the idea that the loss of religion, which had utilised the vampire as a scapegoat for sin, meant that the vampire lost its uncanny qualities; previously it had been a mirror for our own darker drives but also as a warning against expressing all our forbidden desires. The loss of some of its original function his has meant that the vampire has been adopted in many other ways, and here although a demonic horror he is also a civilized lover (although never in the same scene, making this the more schizophrenic of portrayals). Whatever the changes in Dracula and vampires in general, this is still a great film.
Sumptuous, lavish and absolutely gorgeous to look at, from a design point of view Francis Ford Copolla’s take on Dracula would seem to have plenty of strengths over previous versions. Elsewhere, however, the film lacks the great performances and atmosphere featured in older versions. One other aspect which grates is the much publicised (at the time) tale that this was to be the definitive version of the story, respectful to the source material. While the film does follow the book closely, it is far from faithful. The false historical link between Dracula and Vlad the Impaler is made explicit, building on the ideas presented previously (as in Dan Curtis’ 1973 film) and Dracula’s impetus becomes the seeking of his reincarnated wife. Even the costume design alone often presents us with an anachronistic spectacle, and further distances this film from the novel. As much as it impresses, I often feel far removed from 1897. In his portrayal of Dracula, Gary Oldman continues this odd combination of remaining close to Stoker’s vision while simultaneously sticking two fingers up at it. He is a monster, but then he is a well dressed and polite gentleman, although as I have mentioned, the change is jarring.
Not to say Oldman isn’t extremely entertaining; he creates an obsessed and tortured vampire who is generally quite captivating. However, he is let down from woeful performances from other quarters, which in a production as expensive and as major as this is quite a shocking thing to see. Who really thought Keanu Reeves was the best man for the job? Actually, it was Coppola himself, who now admits he only cast Reeves as he was the teenage heart throb of the day. 20 years later, it stands out as an ill judged decision, although Keanu tries his best I suppose.
Sadie Frost is wonderfully erotic as Lucy and Richard E. Grant is fine in his supporting role. To be honest, there are good performances here, just also an occasionally woeful one. As expected, Anthony Hopkins adds the right amount of gravitas as Van Helsing.
This version of Dracula is sometimes an overblown spectacle, but it is well directed and looks marvellous. It doesn’t particularly scare and isn’t the definitive version it perhaps wanted to be, but it’s perhaps the version most affected by the excesses of Hollywood and makes a treat for the eyes if not the head. I believe it could have been Copolla’s masterpiece, and the greatest film Dracula, but as it is, it is a wonderful Gothic indulgence.