Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is the basis for two outstanding films, both from Germany, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), about which I have already written, and Hans W. Geissendörffer’s Jonathan (1970). Tod Browning’s 1931 Hollywood Dracula and, like Jonathan, from West Germany, Werner Herzog’s 1978 Nosferatu are of some substance, and star, respectively, Bela Lugosi and Klaus Kinski as the bloodsucking vampire; but Francis Ford Coppola’s luxuriant Bram Stoker’s Dracula is pretty much an exercise in style. With eye-catching sets and costumes, and rich, dark color cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, here is a mere entertainment—but one very well done. Returning to his origins (his first feature was the 1962 horror flick Dementia, done on a shoestring), Coppola has made one of his rare decent films.
Abraham Stoker—that’s his name in full—invested his immensely popular novel, written when he was nearing fifty, with something of his own remarkable history. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Stoker, a bedridden invalid for the first seven years of his life, evolved into a powerful athlete; it may have indeed seemed to him, looking back, that as a young child he was something akin to the “living dead” and more dependent on those who cared for him than even children normally are. Young Stoker was driven by his appetite for life; like many who start out and remain sickly for a spell, he had a lust for life. As an adult, he somewhat replayed the same childhood event, working as a civil servant for ten years before becoming, more adventurously, a full-time writer. I mention all this because I’ve grown weary of the notion that the novel is only about Victorian sexual repression—about female sexual fantasies of the male (as a male author conceives them). In transmuted and symbolical form, Stoker also put a lot of his own story into his most famous book, and it’s largely this personal investment that enlivens his prose. (I should add as a footnote that it’s surely with a sense of humor that Stoker lent his first name to the tedious Professor Van Helsing, a parody of the competent detective who is responsible for mischief, even inadvertent tragedy, in addition to some heroics.)
One should be cautious about reading the book too heavily on the basis of current clichés about Victorian sexuality. I am happy to report, therefore, that Coppola, working from a script by James V. Hart, largely ignores the sexual angle—although he can’t resist turning Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare into a near-tableau vivant, with Dracula in this case mounted on the heroine’s reclined sub-belly. (Murnau gives the sexual angle a great twist: In Nosferatu it’s Jonathan who is sexually stunted and whose wife is fantasizing a fuller marriage and more productive sex life.) I am less happy to report, however, that Coppola is predictably deficient at conjuring in any depth either London, where much of the action unfolds, as the city approaches the turn of the century and modernity, or backward, superstition-plagued Transylvania, where the prince of “the undead,” Dracula, dominates a creaking castle and its harem of undead brides. As usual, Coppola betrays a disdain for reality; his Dracula is swathed in fantastic and fabulous ethers. Of course, its utter lack of realistic grounding is what enables Coppola to transform the material into such a fine stylistic occasion. His Dracula becomes a decadent fairy tale, and, in truth, the material at hand lends itself more easily to this development than that of The Conversation (1974) or Apocalypse Now (1979), two dreadfully heavy fables that are more typical of Coppola’s low level of accomplishment.
Stoker’s book is presented through real-estate agent Jonathan Harker’s journal entries, fiancée Mina Murray’s journal entries, letters between them and other letters, other characters’ diary entries, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and so forth. It’s a novel “pieced together,” as it were, and this formal device gives its narrative exceptional spirit, directness, simplicity and urgency. Coppola’s film, on the other hand, is elaborate, baroque, stylized and remote. Some of it is presented (as voiceover) through the journal and diary entries, for instance, when Harker records having become Dracula’s prisoner after selling him a piece of London property. The film is steeped, though, in imagery that suggests the art of the British Decadents, the latter-day Aesthetes. It is a swirl of brooding colors, it’s neurotic, and it’s aglow.
And it is a love story across time. For Dracula, long ago, was in love with Mina, who, to his eye at least, is the reincarnated form of Elisabeta, his wife, from whom war and death—she committed suicide, believing that he had fallen in battle—separated him. At the time, upon returning home to Transylvania, Dracula—then, Vlad Dracolya, the Romanian Prince of Walachia—cursed God over the loss, swearing an oath to oppose God forever. Forever, he—now, it—is discovering, is a very long time. Be careful what you wish for; God has an awful sense of humor. Go off to fight the Muslim Turks who, invading it, threaten Christian Europe, and your soldierly loyalty is matched by holy capriciousness and disrespect. For Vlad, then, the Crusades weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Besides, it was the Turks, whom he generously and fearsomely disposed of in God’s name, who gave him that nasty nickname: Vlad the Impaler. Had he known what the family outcome could be, he might have elected to stay at home and protect Elisabeta, whom he loved above all else.
The year in which Vlad’s impaling on the battlefield begins is 1462. Van Helsing’s voiceover, tying the present, 1897, to this past, introduces Vlad as an heroic knight responding to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the danger this poses to the rest of Europe. The irony is breathtaking, and it’s Coppola’s nearly instant coup. Europe is still Christian; so the implication that launches this reading of the tale is that Dracula helped save Europe. The height of heroism will collapse into the most Godless villainy, the most wretched existence imaginable, with its reliable echo of Cain, marked and doomed to wander endlessly after he disobeys God in the nature of his sacrifices—vegetable, not animal,—only to slaughter his own brother: a “sacrifice” not to God but to his own ego. We usually get no depth whatsoever from Coppola; nothing else in his œuvre resonates as profoundly as the opening movement of this film.
The high point of the movement, the passage glimpsing war, astounds. It isn’t smirking and grandiose, like the scenes of battle in his earlier Apocalypse Now. Here, an artist is at work—an expressionistic artist. The background is fiery red; the combatants, in their ancient armor, are forms of black or near-black. We watch as Vlad stabs a spear clear through a Turk and then raises the spear, to plunge it into the ground so that the Turk can slowly die, impaled. (A Christian form of crucifixion?) Then we see in the background a slew of these impalings, spear after spear straight up, each with a Turk, horizontal and face down, stuck through the middle. Visually, this magnificent passage fuses Dziga Vertov’s use of black-and-white cartoon silhouette in Kino-Eye (1924) and Akira Kurosawa’s scenes of battle in such color films as Kagemusha (1990; Coppola himself had brought this film to the U.S.) and Ran (1985). Moreover, the passage launches another irony that works its way through the film: the continuity of Dracula’s violence, first, in God’s service, and then in defiance of God. In either case, people plentifully, and horribly, lose their lives. To be sure, once the film moves us ahead 435 years, it leaves the realm of art and enters the world of artful entertainment. But what an opening! It helps us imagine the artist that Coppola might have been had he possessed stronger character.
The Fall of Constantinople is rendered, powerfully, as black smoke consuming the Christian cross on top of an Orthodox Christian church. The cross, which makes Dracula quiver and retreat, is an emblematic object we see throughout the film. It is identified with the backwardness of Transylvania, but it participates also, less emphatically, less (pardon) religiously, in London, a cosmopolitan center of museums and theaters: a cultured place. If Coppola meant to make a statement one way or the other about the role of religious faith in “modern” existence, I didn’t catch it. It’s certainly possible that I missed this. However, I did pick up on all the harbingers of modernity in London, including those having to do with photography and, indeed, motion pictures, a sample of which, in its infancy, we see. But something that Coppola probably didn’t intend occurred to me and made me smile—something that’s perfectly in keeping with his theme of the old interpenetrating the new. Each time I saw a woman’s opulent bustle I thought of the heavy garb that, worn by Muslim women today, hides from public view the sensual nature of their fleshly form. In like manner, these costuming strategies are self-defeating, for they cannot fail to draw male attention to what they emphatically cover. If the Muslim dress code for women strikes us as reactionary in the extreme, we may have to admit with a giggle that those bustles represent “civilization” in the throes of fooling itself. No laughing matter, though, are the tightly corseted waists that submit the female human form to a severe, breath-challenging mold. Thank goodness if only we were past that, but my associative mind protests that we delude ourselves if we think we are past that. For what is the culture- and media-induced mania among girls for a trimmer and trimmer waistline, even at the expense of their well being, but the corset returned, in another form, from the dead? Here, too, is “the undead.”
In fine Victorian fashion, Coppola’s film is very much taken up with the whole notion of civilization. For nearly all the major characters, Dracula exists as a test to their self-image of being “civilized”—a test, one way or another, most of them fail. Moreover, Van Helsing, addressing his university class, makes a pun that associates “syphilization”—that is, venereal disease—with “civilization.” The word that the good doctor coins suggests the degree to which objectification is involved, because, to be entirely accurate, civilization doesn’t expand the incidences of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases; rather, it gives these diseases a name, objectifies them, and inflicts upon those who have them the knowledge that they in fact have these diseases. In turn, ironically, this can sharpen the victim’s ancient sense of guilt. This is precisely the case with Van Helsing, who is himself syphilitic. His determination to rout out Dracula and end him once and for all by driving a stake through his heart and lopping off his head (civilization at work, mind you) aims, at least in part, to expiate his own guilt for his venereal affliction. As it turns out, Mina—by this time, Jonathan’s wife—is the one who thus dispatches Dracula, with whom she has dallied, to Hell.
The cast is very entertaining. At the head of it, though, Gary Oldman is more than that; his is an amazingly moving account of a thing driven by loving marital memories and a sense of God’s unfairness and betrayal. I won’t say that his is “the best Dracula,” because the vampire’s various screen incarnations are so vastly different; but the role of Dracula unites Oldman’s gifts with opportunities that close in on genuine tragedy. Winona Ryder, as Mina, is exceptionally well directed by Coppola, and even her intransigent boyishness, her complete lack of sex appeal, contributes to the film’s decadent atmosphere. Anthony Hopkins is engagingly fruity as Van Helsing. However, the character’s syphilis-induced nuttiness and unpredictability somewhat vacate the moral center that Van Helsing usually occupies in Dracula films. Keanu Reeves, to the rescue. However uncertain his British accent (Ryder’s, incidentally, is terrific), Reeves rises to the occasion, creating a portrait of Jonathan Harker that embodies innocence as a combative moral force. How refreshing, for a change, to find some movie character’s innocence shown as a strength rather than as a weakness, and not a pathetic occasion for its loss. A Method actor, Reeves couldn’t find the requisite correspondencies between Harker’s experience and his own on this occasion. Unable to apply the acting method that constitutes his security blanket, he mistakenly believes he failed the role. But Reeves’s talent runs to the depth of his unconscious; it isn’t contained in, or defined by, any “method.” In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only Oldman’s tremendous Dracula surpasses Reeves’s typically inspired work.
Tom Waits is a hoot as Renfield, Harker’s predecessor in approaching Dracula on business, but Dwight Frye really is definitive in that role in the Browning version, much as Laurence Olivier, in the 1979 Dracula that John Badham directed, is the definitive Van Helsing. All in all, the most frightening Dracula remains Max Schreck in Murnau’s Nosferatu.
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