Though The Godfather and Apocalypse Now are the films most often used as evidence of Francis Ford Coppola’s genius, in this reviewer’s opinion his best movie is the one least frequently referenced. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite being a wordy mouthful, is a beautiful, baroque example of American cinema at its most excessive and exquisite. Visceral and delirious, it becomes almost Biblical in its intensity, and indeed the film is ultimately about nothing less than man’s relationship with God.
Coppola draws the connection between Stoker’s story and its historical roots, beginning the proceedings with a prologue that connects Dracula (memorably played by the peerless Gary Oldman) to his Vlad the Impaler, his real life counterpart. Drawing extensively on the character’s backstory – an element of the tale often ignored by other versions – Coppola ensures that art’s most famous vampire is less an antagonist and more a tragic doomed figure.
After all, Dracula is haunted by the loss of his beloved – she committed suicide after falsely hearing that he died upon the battlefield – and his primary motivation is finding the woman of his dreams again. To Dracula’s great joy she appears decades later in the form of Mina Harker (played with gusto by Winona Rider) the wife of Jonathan Harker (Keeanu Reeves; more on him later), and when the Count first sets his eyes upon her photo, he is motivated to hunt the woman down and make her his bride.
From that point on, the story follows Stoker’s fairly carefully, with Coppola truly honouring his source text. As in the book, Dracula initially appears old and frail – and, let us not forget, with some very memorable hair – but after ingesting increasing quantities of blood, grows to look younger and younger.
His familiar, Renfield, is also included in this version, played to gravelly voiced perfection by Tom Waits. Indeed, all of the performances are fascinating: even, yes, Keeanu Reeves’ infamous turn as Harker. It’s true that Reeves never acts in a way that any human being you have ever met has acted. It’s true that he’s unbelievably stiff. And it’s true that his accent is amongst the least convincing ever captured on film.
But despite all that, Reeves’ work is amongst the best he has ever done, and his performance has been harshly judged. He might not seem natural; but there is nothing in the film that implies he is trying to deliver a realistic performance. There is something hypnotic about his stiffness; something Kabuki-esque. It’s an exaggerated portrayal of a mawkish man that sits in the centre of an exaggerated, excessive film.
After all, there is nothing subtle about Oldman’s performance either; or Anthony Hopkins’ work as vampire hunter Van Helsing. Indeed, the film works because everything is pitched at quite such a frenzied level. Coppola’s direction reaches surrealist heights through its sheer imagination, as the director match cuts peacock eyes’ with tunnels, and floats Dracula’s disembodied eyes high in the sky.
It’s vivid stuff, from beginning to end. Every scene drips with blood, shadow and abandon and by the time the ceaseless torrent of horror and beauty has come to an end, one feels genuinely drained, as though every single one of the senses have been overloaded. In that way it’s less a film and more a physical experience: one that aims for the gut and the heart as much as it aims for the head. It gets under the skin.