Cinema/TV, Dracula, Film Notes

Your Daily Dracula – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Gary OIdman, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) sets out simultaneously to deliver a faithful adaptation of the novel and pull the story inside-out to turn a monstrous villain into a romantic hero.  Another possessory credit could easily be squeezed in for screenwriter James V. Hart, who initiated the project: having scripted Hook (1991), a Peter Pan sequel in which the Boy Who Never Grew Up grows up, he had a track record for bending rules in unusual, if pointless ways.  In telling its old, familiar tale, Stoker’s Dracula follows trends which had been developing.  The novel’s Dracula appears first as a grotesque old man but grows younger as he drinks the fresh blood of English ladies.  The cinema’s first Dracula — Schreck’s rodentine, repulsive Graf von Orlock in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) – has been succeeded by Counts who grow progressively more handsome, and suited to passing in polite society: Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Udo Kier, Louis Jourdan, Frank Langella.  Even gaunt Jack Palance (Dracula, 1973) and Schreck-faced Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht/Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979) play for tragic romance.  Jesus Franco’s El Conde Drácula (1970), the first ‘back to the book’ Dracula, has Christopher Lee deliver more of the novel’s dialogue and makes the star look more like Stoker’s descriptions of the old and younger Counts than in his Hammer outings.  Coppola and Hart use more Stoker than most adaptors, with voice-overs and onscreen documents to match the novel’s multiple diary extracts and varying viewpoints.

Hart and Coppola tip in material to suit their own agenda.  The Jack Palance Dracula, which also has a ‘Bram Stoker’s’ possessory credit but doesn’t go so far as to write it into the official title, had already adopted the identification of Dracula with Vlad the Impaler made forcefully (if controversially) in Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu’s book In Search of Dracula (1972).  Vlad is now so mixed up with Stoker’s character that the sole surprise in Dracula 2000 (2000), a de facto remake of Dracula AD 1972 (1972), comes when its Dracula (Gerard Butler) turns out to be someone else.  Like Richard Matheson, who scripted the Palance movie for producer-director Dan Curtis, Hart has Dracula pursue the 19th Century reincarnation of a woman he loved before he turned vampire: a whiskery romantic horror theme found in H. Rider Haggard’s She, many Mummy movies and, pertinently, Dark Shadows (1966-71) and Blacula (1972).  In Curtis’s film, the long-lost love is Lucy (Fiona Lewis), the girl Dracula bites and turns into a vampire; the Count’s shift from devoted lover to enraged avenger follows her destruction by Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport).  Stoker’s Dracula makes Mina (Winona Ryder) the reincarnation, which begs the question why Dracula (Gary Oldman) pines for centuries for reunion with his wife but, upon at last finding her, opts to seduce her best friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) before properly introducing himself.

Coppola doesn’t go as far as Badham and W.D. Richter, who have Lucy (Kate Nelligan), their ‘Mina’ character, entirely seduced by Dracula and turn against her fiancé (Trevor Eve) and Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier).  Instead, Ryder’s Mina – who dallies with Dracula only after her Jonathan (Keanu Reeves) has been ‘unfaithful’ with the Count’s three vampire brides — becomes a psychic conduit between vampire hunters led by the scarred Professor (Anthony Hopkins) and the Count as he flees to his Transylvanian castle for a last stand.  This Mina is out to save Dracula’s soul: after Stoker’s desperate fight in the snow, she is the one who mercy-kills and decapitates the vampire.  In death, the Count reverts to his heroic Christian knight persona and is reconciled with the church he abjured after the suicide of Mina’s earlier incarnation.  The set-up is surprisingly close to the way Dracula (Jamie Gillis) becomes a vampire in the porn movie Dracula Exotica (1980).

If not the least-satsifying Dracula – the lacklustre BBC Dracula (2006) with Marc Warren as Dracula and David Suchet as Van Helsing probably takes the wafer  – the Coppola version doesn’t electrify source materials the way his Godfather films or Apocalypse Now (1979) do.  It’s less effective as horror than Coppola’s modest debut Dementia 13 (1963), because it needs to also be a romantic melodrama, an anthology of cinematic quotations – encompassing unlikely sources like the flesh-melding of Society (1989) and a wolf-sex scene from Meridian (1990) – and a guide to the novel.  Entirely stagebound, it admits no glimpse of reality and is never remotely scary: Eiko Ishioka’s costumes are remarkable (the lizardy ruff of Lucy’s wedding dress) and there’s a richness to the Wojciech Kilar score, the vast castle and asylum sets which swallows many lifts from Murnau, Tod Browning and Terence Fisher (not to mention Kurosawa and Eisenstein).  At best, it suggests what Georges Méliès might have done with the resources of a major Hollywood studio and, at worst, what a horror film directed by James Ivory or Christine Edzard might look like.

Self-consciously more luxurious even than Badham’s film, previously the most expensive Dracula, it lacks even that version’s moments of chill reality – a single shot of bedraggled Whitby miners more removed from the drawing room teas of the upper-class characters than Transylvania is from England – and is so suffocated by gilt that its action, chase and fight scenes feel like puppet-shows.  Among the credited consultants is distinguished scholar Leonard Wolf, editor of The Annotated Dracula, and the film finds time to adapt his footnote essays on the Fall of Constantinople, the history and legend of Vlad the Impaler, venereal disease and ‘syphilisation’, the production and consumption of absinthe, or 19th Century means of transport and cinema exhibition.  Poor Keanu Reeves became a laughing stock for his earnest attempt at an upper class English accent [*] – a misdirection which demonstrates the film was written and directed by Americans: Stoker’s Jonathan Harker is aspirational lower middle-class, and ought to sound less plummy than Lord Godalming (Cary Elwes) or Dr Seward (Richard E. Grant).

Coppola presents Dracula as, variously, a mediaeval knight in scarlet armour which evokes flayed musculature, Dame Edith Evans in a long scarlet peignoir doing a camp Lugosi imitation, a longhaired lover in blue-tinted glasses and dove-grey town clothes, a mummy in gold patchwork robes and the man-sized hairy/fangy/clawed bat-wolf special effects creatures of Fright Night.  To emphasise this mutability, various tie-in action figures (collect the set) were available representing the Count in different moods.

Oldman has a few moments of distinction – craftily licking Jonathan’s razor after the startled guest has cut himself shaving – but left surprisingly little mark on Dracula, even as he added the role to his tally of the despised: Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Lee Harvey Oswald, a football hooligan, a terrorist, a Republican Senator, Pontius Pilate, the Devil, Dr Smith from Lost in Space (1998) and child-molester Mason Verger.  Despite crossing ‘oceans of time’ to woo Ryder, Oldman isn’t a natural romantic lead like Jourdan, Langella or even Butler; he’d be happier as Renfield, though Tom Waits makes a fair fist of fly-eating lunacy.  In asking for audience sympathy (along with Mina’s affections), Oldman’s Dracula is too needy, too wheedling and (oddly) too old-person asexual to be credible as a heroic, tormented vampire on the Anne Rice (or Dark Shadows) model.

* Oldman and Hopkins surprisingly evaded similar censure for their equally strained stabs at sounding Romanian and Dutch.

Extract from Nightmare Movies


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