Revisiting Coppola’s ‘Dracula’ 28 Years Later
Amid the tumult of our addlepated society, millions are hopefully taking little excursions into the realm of entertainment, now and then, to relieve the inner-cranial pressure that threatens to explode with caldera-like potency not seen since Yellowstone’s last prehistoric tantrum.
Even if your diversions are random at this point in time, do try to find the wherewithal to enjoy such jaunts … while you may.
My diversions of late have been markedly random. Aside from writing them, books seem to hold less appeal to me than ever before. Voices crooning and screeching from my music system only serve to remind me that humans exist, and movies, in general, have been off my Recreational Activity List for quite a while, due to the fact that most of them have nosedived into the Abyss of Substandard Bilge, there to take-up murky residence with (surprise!) most contemporary books and musical endeavors.
Adventures into dusty and near-forgotten archives of amusement, however, have yielded more satisfying results. Stylish old horror films, for example, can distract the mind from current existential quandaries while performing the neat trick of “staying on theme,” emotionally: doom, gloom, terror, helplessness, death, apocalyptic destruction, and, well, monsters.
Anyhow, I opted to forge into such territory the other day and find some goddamned movie to occupy my otherwise fevered brain for a couple of hours. With my bandwidth running low out here in the hinterlands, I turned instead to the cobwebbed alternative of an old DVD player and its attendant collection of discs, scattered in a dilapidated cardboard box in the closet. To spare myself the creeping madness of choosing, Choosing, CHOOSING, I committed to the first jewel-case my fingers managed to grab amid the hodgepodge.
It was Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Or, one might say more accurately, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This was a great “random grab,” if for no other reason than the fact that Beverly Hills Chihuahua was also lurking somewhere in that heaving cardboard receptacle. (A friend had loaned that film to me years ago for a “kick.” I never watched it and never returned it. Perhaps tellingly, a return was never requested, despite ample opportunity).
Dracula it was, then.
What a leap back into the quasi-misspent days of my youth. More to the point, what a head-trip to watch it again, no matter the moment in time.
I remember going to the cinema to see this rapturous, doddering epic as a mere lad in 1992, the year of its release. To say that Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s classic novel had been highly anticipated back then would be putting it mildly. The expensive adaptation caused quite a stir, as I remember. Hollywood critics were poised with their own vampiric fangs ready to draw blood. One can see why; the estimable Coppola was still smarting from the rickety reception of The Godfather Part III and his tackling of another lavish production, one considered well out of his artistic wheelhouse at the time, did not inspire confidence from the bone-picking set.
General audiences, however, were far more willing to give the film a chance—rumors of a “new, never-before-imagined” interpretation of Dracula tantalized. The cast list didn’t hurt, either, at least at first glance. Gary Oldman was not exactly a marquee-level name in those days, but was still a respected actor and beguiling choice to play the legendary Vlad Dracul. The addition of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder was irresistibly befuddling, but quite wise from a business standpoint because they were hot box office properties.
The film became an unexpected hit around the globe.
What I remembered most about seeing it on the big screen 28 years ago was the lush, transporting cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, crafted fluidly under Coppola’s determined and innovative direction. The whole production unfurled in visual terms as an ever-dazzling chiaroscuro, a nightmarish landscape of insinuating, erotic colors and equally tempting shadows. Much credit was also be given to the effulgent-yet-ominous and mesmerizing designs of costumer Eiko Isioka, whose work leapt from the screen in brushstrokes evocative of Fellini crossed with Hieronymus Bosch.
Then there was Gary Oldman’s extraordinary performance, a reading that not only broke the mold as far as the titular vampire’s canonical portrayal in film as a caped Svengali wearing a burial suit, but which foreshadowed eloquently the subsequent, sometimes annoying, trend of exploring the wronged, “good-sided” soul-qualities of characters otherwise relegated to the camp of Absolute Evil (think Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West in Broadway’s Wicked or any number of reimagined comic book movie villains that have since been “origin-storied” out of their asses).
Even diminished on the smaller screen, the film holds up surprisingly well today. The scope is sweeping and perhaps overlong. The script is jerky-jerky at times. Yes, Keanu Reeves is atrocious in the role of Jonathan Harker, exhibiting all the engagement and charisma of that tall, wooden pepper-mill you stopped using in 2003 and stuck in the very back of a kitchen cupboard, towering awkward and alone above other obsolete utensils. Winona Ryder isn’t much better, but quite lovely in spite of her affected, I-just-got-back-from-the-mall-in-Petaluma performance. Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look like he’s enjoying a single minute of his duties, occasionally boisterous but as dead behind the eyes as any vampire might ever hope to be. Still, Sadie Frost is superb as a supporting player and the sets are so deliciously atmospheric that one is happy to dismiss the miscasting issues and simply revel in the dreamscape Coppola has conjured, particularly since the narrative ends up being sufficiently cohesive and faithful to the novel’s peculiar spirit.
All in all, Dracula remains a feast for the imagination, a welcome respite from the vicissitudes of a world at wars seen and unseen, and I felt as if I could have walked right through the screen, onto the blue-chilling snow, and into that coach on the Borgo Pass, hurtling toward doom and an invitation from Gary Oldman to cross the dreaded castle threshold.
There are worse, far less elegant ways to escape the ongoing tribulations. Dig into your own box of oldies. See what cinematic ghosts may perchance arise.
Jonathan Kieran’s new, dark, and disturbing supernatural/metaphysical epic, Wistwood, a tale of cosmic horror, is available now at all major international retailers and outlets. Buy it in digital form or in print today. Want a short-cut? Click on the link above and to the right. All of Mr. Kieran’s efforts are there stacked, ready to be purchased and voraciously consumed.