Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves
What devil or witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood flows in these veins?
This film is frequently (and inaccurately) referred to as Bram Stoker's Dracula, which is odd, as it is so singularly Coppola's movie (I'll be the first to admit I've referred to it in this way as well). We don't call his gangster trilogy Mario Puzo's The Godfather, yet Bram Stoker's name is no more emphasized in the titles of this movie. Coppola himself has not helped the situation, constantly speaking in a way that suggests he does not want to take responsibility for the picture. He frequently mentions that the movie was Winona Ryder's idea rather than his, and that he tried to be as faithful to the novel as possible. When speaking about the ways in which the movie is unfaithful, he credits the screenwriter, and emphasizes that the love story was Hart's idea rather than his. He also praises his special effects team and the costume designers, and stresses that his son Roman filmed as much of Dracula as he did. He talks about the levels of cinematic homage embedded into the film, as if this takes away from its flamboyant originality. Finally, he recently mentioned how dismaying making a movie of this kind can be, and unless a director is making a very personal movie, how pointless the endeavor seems to him.
All this is terribly misleading because Dracula is not only a masterpiece, but a masterpiece that is undeniably Coppola's. That's not to take away from the collaborative nature of any big budget production, or diminish the contributions of Roman Coppola or Eiko Ishioka. But there is real stylized vision here, and just because it is a job-for-hire does not mean it is any less significant than his seventies classics. The fact that it's "just a job" may ultimately make it a better movie, revealing the ways in which Coppola is trying to ascertain what role film plays in the modern world. Cinema is everywhere here. Coppola's understanding of film history is present in every frame, and his idea of it is clearly democratic. He references Fuller (Lucy's fondling of the Texan's knife, recalling Stanwyck's fondling of Fitzgerald's pistol) and Cocteau (Dracula turning Mina's tears to diamonds, not unlike the Beast himself), yet if there's a primary influence, it's probably Melies. Melies' genius lay in his ability to convert magic tricks into something purely cinematic, despite their theatrical roots. Coppola is as concerned with theater's illusions here, and his stubborn unwillingness to use post-production digital effects is frankly heroic. There is not an exterior shot in the whole thing, and it is telling that the only on-location sequence involves the church where Harker and Mina are married. Only the holiest of places cannot be recreated on Coppola's extraordinary soundstages.
Something this avant-garde, this beautiful and bizarre, really should have its defenders, but it does not have too many. My three favorite American films of the nineties are probably Dracula, Dead Man, and Carlito's Way, none of which were especially popular when they were released. Kael's defense of De Palma's film was pretty hilarious, and Rosenbaum defended both Jarmusch and Coppola (God, I love Rosenbaum sometimes). Not many others seemed especially willing to defend Coppola, however, and unlike Dead Man and Carlito's Way the film's reputation has only diminished with time. It is probably a problem of marketing. If it was presented to the art house crowd as Guy Maddin's silent was, it might have been enthusiastically embraced for its "operatic storytelling" and "technical viruosity." Unfortunately it was a big budget blockbuster starring Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, and those snobs derided it for the same reasons. But what Coppola achieves here, at least as effectively as he did with his Godfather films, is take Hollywood cinema beyond melodrama. To call his movies operatic is by now a pretty embarrassing cliche, and yet it is the rare instance where it is completely justified. I'm not sure if melodrama was ever fashionable, but it's certainly never been less fashionable than it is today (unless treated ironically). Coppola's fondness for melodrama has always jumped off the screen, but it's so elevated in his best pictures that to call it anything other than operatic would be insulting. Wojciech Kilar's beautiful score, which succeeds in eliciting the deepest feeling, only confirms that Coppola is playing for keeps, and that he wants you to live and die with these characters. This is jarring not only because it clashes violently with the modern, snarky sensibility that informs almost all mainstream film criticism, but because it seems to contradict the reflective nature of the picture, which concerns itself with the particular world views and character archetypes that have been present in cinematic history. The problem, I think, is that homage and reference are not seen as integral to an artist's being as his or her straight-faced telling of a story. For Coppola, however, it is never an academic exercise, and the operatic love story and allusions to Murnau are inseparable in terms of weight and profundity.
Consider Dracula's seduction of Mina as they observe the cinematograph. It is a bizarre, almost psychedelic, set piece in which the wild happenings projected (all authentic early silents) mimic the chaos of the actual scene. It is representative of the whole picture in that it is a sequence of depraved elegance, and yet shortly before the scene completely explodes Dracula, watching the silent film, remarks that there are no limits to science. Mina looks at him shocked, stubbornly protesting that it is not science. In this moment, both the film's wild romanticism and thematic concerns are fully revealed. Coppola is attempting nothing less than a complete marriage of high and low culture and art. Here, science is an entity pervading everything, cinema is an entity pervading everything, God is an entity pervading everything, and finally, all world events become informed by a peculiarly operatic and melodramatic brand of romanticism. It flirts so loudly with the absurd that if you ever stop believing in it the criticisms of its cynical and overly clever detractors seem valid. What is most remarkable (and most admirable) is that Coppola does not seem to care what the audience thinks as he pushes it further and further over the top, fully aware that there is a great deal of truth in extremity.
The cast is often mocked even more maliciously than Coppola. Although it is difficult to fault Oldman or Waits for their performances, Hopkins and Ryder and especially Reeves are frequently criticized. Hopkins' performance is hammy and hilarious and spectacular, and his incredibly frank manner of speaking ("I just want to cut off her head and take out her heart") is responsible for some of the funniest moments in the movie. (I love the film's pervasive good-natured sense of humor. Another one of my favorite moments is when a bird flies in front of Hopkins; Elwes looks off in the direction it has gone, highlighting the absurdity of the situation he has been thrown into.) Hopkins most fully exemplifies the way in which Coppola, in inhabiting traditional character archetypes, reinvents them and gives them new life. Whether it is Van Helsing, who is truly God's madman, or "the Texan with the big knife," or the lovesick junkie doctor, or Cary Elwes' Hammer gentleman, Coppola is able to redefine the real depths that exist beneath these character's absurd facades, so that every time the deranged Van Helsing says "Yah," it is far more remarkable and pregnant with meaning than Brando's mumblings as the Don. As far as Ryder and Reeves go, I think they are more criticized for being Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves than for the performances they give. Neither of them are even remotely restrained, which some might find embarrassing, and I think Reeves' performance, in particular, is brilliant in the ways in which it alludes to von Wagenheim's hammy performance in the original Nosferatu.
To get back to the movie rather than linger on its criticisms...early on Renfield says, "All life interests me." I find this sentiment to be fascinating. Renfield has been to the other side, to Hell on earth. Tom Waits often locates the deepest pathos in the dumbest phrase, and when he delivers this line, he really splits open a certain truth. After coming into contact with a deep, supernatural force (think of how physics don't apply in Dracula's castle), he has ceased to view life with a prejudiced or adult eye. Instead, he has become fascinated with the world. He has transcended the most basic existential dilemma, and has found a complete and unmitigated sense of awe. This is echoed later in the picture, when he urges Mina to run away from the asylum. He cannot wish his situation, his sense of terror and awe, on anyone. Everything is so alien. Coppola's use of early, amateurish special effects gives the film a constantly uncomfortable edge, as if anything could really happen, and this amateurishness really gets back toward something more real. It's not just Renfield who is in awe. It's the audience too, and although it's not a scary film, we are a little terrified.
And, ultimately, we care. Dracula is a real enigma, capable of obscene malignant cruelty (he feeds a newborn baby to his wives) and genuine tenderness (I am always moved by the absinthe scene). The characters are equally amused and horrified by their predicaments, and when Mina finally decapitates Dracula (which was actually George Lucas' idea), the sense of catharsis is universal. Unlike many modern horror movies, Dracula embraces life even as it is repulsed by it, and its uniquely weird blend of high art (opera) and low art (Hammer and snuff) is ultimately beautiful and life-affirming.