Of all the literary creations out there, Romeo & Juliet, Holmes, Hamlet, Frankenstein, none come close to appearing on screen more than Dracula. The character as we know him was created by an Irishman named Bram Stoker in 1897. So few characters evoke such imagery in both European and American cultures as the name “Dracula”. Think for a moment of what comes to mind, what thoughts you have when you say that name. High Capes & Collars? Fangs? Bats? A gentleman? A Monster? Sex? Seduction? Blood? So many more thoughts and concepts come with that name. It is safe to say while Stoker did not invent the vampire, their legends date back to ancient Sumeria (trust me on this), he created the modern version. He took them from monster to seducer. He made them an incubus (or succubus depending on the writing) that we want despite the danger, rather than the unattractive corpse. Nearly every author in the vampire genre has been somehow affected by this seminal work.
As the inspiration and basis of so much that came in the century since I found it interesting when the trailers appeared and people began to freak out. Sure Keanu couldn’t hide his accent no matter how hard he tried and people joked “Whoa! Its, like Dracula dude!”. Almost no one had heard of this Gary Oldman guy. Hannibal Lechter is Van Helsing? That chick from Beetlejuice is in it; ok thats almost expected. The guy who made Apocalypse Now AND the Godfather is doing Dracula? What? All of that got people, but the fact there’s a shot in the trailer with him in the sun had people lose their minds. Sad to say folks, sunlight didn’t kill Stokers Dracula, only annoyed him and so many people didn’t know and didn’t want to believe it after 90 years of Dracula that is killed by the sun.
Lets talk about that decision, which probably lays at the feet of writer James Hart. This is the same man who gave us Hook, Muppets Treasure Island, Contact and this years Epic. Yeah that’s what I said too, this guy is all over the place. He does however show a keen understanding of what was so attractive about the original work and made a point to use so much of the style that he could. Granted there’s a lot added to it as well, partially him and partially the director, but all of it is successful.
That comes from the experience of having such an acclaimed director at the helm. Acclaimed and insane. I’ve read the stories of things he did making Apocalypse now. Yeesh. He is however a visionary and used that vision to give us things we have never quite seen in film before. Intelligently using color (mostly reds), sound, lighting, shadow and atmosphere to its fullest. He goads his cast of well know names to places they had never quite gone and probably for many will never achieve again – even 20 years later. It’s a near perfect atmospheric film that tells the story in word, deed and look. A $40 million dollar budget being doubled at the box office and 3 academy awards show other people noticed too.
Behind the scenes is important, but then there’s the cast. This film had one of the most amazing casts of its day where nearly every actor was known for something and those that weren’t have become infamous since. The weakest performance is of course Keanu as Harker. He is trying his best at the time, but really never quite delivers. This could be due to four movies released in the previous year (Point Break, Bogus Journey among them) and just being tired. Ryder on the other hand had built a career so far on being in dark or gothic films, such as Heathers, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands. She seemed to take to the role of the prudish, repressed Wilhemina Murray fantastically. Her accent work is fairly good and she carries the natural transitions of the character through the film. My biggest gripe is that she comes across more waifish than Stokers actual Mina who was more active in her part in the story. One cannot talk about the actors without mentioning the great Sir Anthony Hopkins. Probably one of the wildest portrayals of the character he also plays the most menacing. Much of the dichotomy comes from Hopkins performance where he devours scenery as the Count devours blood. The movie even hints at a specific background for VanHelsing that is not touched on much in other releases where there are clear ties between Dracula, the Brides and vanHelsing. A lot of that comes through in the performance as well; which only goes to show what happens with a master at the helm of the character.
In 1992 the name Gary Oldman was barely known to American audiences. Few people had seen Sid & Nancy or recognized him as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991). So when faced with the amazingly manic range of emotions, expressions and body language delivered people didn’t know what to think. Since then he has proven to be one of the greatest actors of our time. We see hints of his genius in how he can change at the drop of a hat and put every ounce of emotion into the performance that you feel for him through the film.
Many people also forget that Cary Elwes (Princess Bride, Saw) makes an appearance as Lord Arthur Holmwood. Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) plays American Quincy P Morris, who lives and dies as he did in the novel. It’s worth mentioning that the beautiful Monica Bellucci (Matrix 2, 3, BRotherhood of the Wolf) is one of the brides in only her 4th credited screen appearance.
The technicals are worth mentioning. I rant about post production computer imagery over practical effects all of the time. This film has almost none. Nearly every shot was done using elegant, if not old fashioned, camera tricks. Coppola actually fired the original FX crew when they said what he wanted couldn’t be done. Apparently he was right and they were wrong and the film was better for it.
This is, excluding the Twilight series, the 4th highest grossing Vampire film ever. 3 of which involve the character Dracula. If you haven’t seen it – you must. While some of it may come across corny at times, it is one of the vampire greats and should be enjoyed for all it offers, good and bad.
Tomorrows review – I am going to let my readers request below.