1 January 1993

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

As we have come to expect, Coppola has procured excellence from cast and crew to realise a work that is undeniable; in a word: BIG. Shot entirely on the Sony soundstage, this is a physical film, a juggernaut one endures rather than simply consumes: the sound design bodily assaults; the camera is forever dancing, trance-like and manic forcing the viewer to read the film; the use of colour is lurid, sensual, and oh so bloody red, as the costume design and art direction burn the idea of this Dracula deep into the memory.
Bar the appalling Keanu Reeves, the acting is exemplary with Gary Oldman again delving into his nether-regions to produce a genuinely enigmatic performance as the tragic, lusty Count Dracula. Playing opposite is winsome Winona Ryder who suffers from occasional
bouts of overactus hollywoodenae in amongst probably her most impressive role to date, while the supporting cast is led in cavalier fashion by the ever brilliant Anthony Hopkins, and impressive newcomer, English actress Sophie Frost.
Coppola's decision to tell this traditional screen romance by avoiding modern special FX technology (such as computer animation, morphing or blue-screen matteing, etc) in favour of old fashioned in-camera, "trick photography" (such as reversing footage and multiple exposure) works extremely well. The mood is like a Hammer film with production values raised to
the Nth degree but without the camp sensibilty in fact Dracula offers a lexicon of pre-cinema photographic illusionism. All FX were performed by second unit director, Roman Coppola, F.F.'s 27 year old son, continuing the rich tradition of creative nepotism that runs through his oeuvre.
On the level of performance Dracula bears no flaws, gaps, or gaffes: it's seamless, entertaining and engaging. Still all the brilliance doesn't seem to drag the resonance of the script above the archaic, perhaps because it keeps so true to Stoker's Victorian novel.
It IS a period piece and comes replete with Victorian social and moral baggage, but it begs the question: of what contemporary relevance is this?
Why do we need this movie now, today?
Just to clear Coppola's debts? Digging for clues, one interesting move is the backstage role christianity plays in the plot's denouement: the Count is a sort of underworld stand-in for Christ, forgoing immortality in the name of life rather than the other way round. It's a truly subversive moral manouvre: Dracula willfully brings about his own demise in the name of Love, not in the face of God's power. This is admirable but instead of being driven home it lays meekly buried 'neath all that silver screen "magic". Desperate for other sweeping metaphors, the AIDS epidemic is obvious: Blood + Sex = Death. But if it's Coppola's intention to draw his Dracula as a parable on the mythic, primeval link that humans make between sex and death then he's obscured it behind some extremely fancy footwork. Somehow a great film gets lost behind its dazzling archive of performance.

MICHAEL HUTAK
First published in Filmnews, 1989