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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Bram Stoker's Dracula

* * *

Winner: Best Makeup, 1992

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula may not be the best film based on the Dracula novel (though it is, ironically, one of the most faithful adaptations), but it is the most fun. Dripping in excess, constructed with a great deal of humour, and full of references to the earlier adaptations, Coppola’s interpretation of the classic novel is an endlessly entertaining film.

Coppola’s version begins before Bram Stoker’s story, mixing in the legend of Vlad the Impaler as a back story for Count Dracula (Gary Oldman). Broken-hearted by the death of his young wife (Winona Ryder), Dracula falls into a deep despair, renouncing the church and declaring that he will rise from the grave to avenge his wife. Centuries pass and, true to his word, the Count is still alive and kicking, sustained by feasting on the blood of the innocent. One such innocent is Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves in a bit of legendary miscasting), a guest at Dracula's castle who encounters many horrors and barely escapes back to the arms of his fiancĂ©e Mina (also played by Ryder).

Unbeknownst to Harker, he’s been followed back to London by Dracula, whose object is to have Mina for himself, her appearance having convinced him that she’s the reincarnation of his wife. As he waits for his opportunity to take Mina, he satiates his bloodlust on her friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost), whose transformation from lively flirt to a pale and blood thirsty creature prompts to arrival of Dr. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). The doctor recognizes the signs of a vampire and teams up with Harker and Lucy’s three suitors to stop Dracula before he can destroy Mina the way he’s done to Lucy. Unfortunately, it may already be too late.

I think the thing that I really respond to in this version of the Dracula story is how much joy has obviously gone into its making (has Hopkins ever seemed to be having more fun than he does here as Van Helsing?). This is an exuberant and colourful film directed with a lot of passion and constructed with a nice dose of tongue-in-cheek humour to offset its more intensely dramatic moments. A lot of this humor comes courtesy of Van Helsing who seems to approach every situation with a mixture of seriousness and dry wit. For example, after beheading the undead Lucy, he explains to Mina and Harker (while violently cutting up the meat he's having for lunch) that she was in a great deal of pain but that after they cut off her head she seemed fine.

Is it all a little over the top? Yeah, but it’s also the adaptation that’s most in touch with Bram Stoker’s novel. Most adaptations of the story cherry pick from it, retaining the basic elements of the plot while ignoring the other preoccupations that Stoker has folded into his story, such as his fascination with emerging technologies. Coppola throws all of that in and also makes time for referencing other film versions, particularly F.W. Murnau’s great Nosferatu. This isn’t great Coppola in the way of his work pre-Apocalypse Now (an amazing film but one that clearly broke his brain given the films that have followed it) but I think that anyone who makes that film, the first two Godfathers and The Conversation should get a free pass ever after to make whatever he wants, even if it's silly. Bram Stoker's Dracula is sometimes silly. It also has moments of great beauty and has been lovingly put together and photographed. I am amazed that the cinematography by Michael Bellhaus wasn't recognized along with the film's achievements in makeup, costumes, art direction, and sound editing. I also think it's a shame that Gary Oldman couldn't get some recognition for his work here because despite how campy the film is, his performance is surprisingly soulful and it's definitely engaging. I'm not saying he should have won or anything (though I will point out that 1992 is the year Al Pacino hooahed his way to the win), but he manages to make the character more than a caricature, even when the film itself seems intent on not allowing him dimension. It's just one of the many ways that Bram Stoker's Dracula seems to work almost in spite of itself and if you can sit back and allow yourself to appreciate its glorious insanity, you're in for a good time.


The Mad Hatter said...

The moment in this film that will always stick with me is one of the most tasteless (yet somewhat clever) edits of all time...

After Van Helsing decapitates the biride we watch the shot of her head tumbling thorugh the air...and right when it seems like it should hit the ground...(cut to) a roast beef on a platter.


Danny King said...

I liked this film overall. For me, the first thirty minutes of it are among the most terrifying I've ever seen, but the film becomes increasingly less effective as it goes along. In that first half though, Gary Oldman creeped me out beyone belief. Masterfully done.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

I think me and Danny might be the few people on this planet who'll cop to liking "Dracula." Gary Oldman was great; Winona Ryder was good; and I even liked Keanu Reeves. The makeup and costuming, of course, were phenonmenal, but Oldman really sold me on the whole film.

Norma Desmond said...

@Mad Hatter: I know, this movie is insane!

@Danny King: I agree that the film gets weaker the longer it goes on. The last scene, in particular, is a bit overly sentimental.

@M. Carter: Oldman is fantastic. He definitely brings more to the role than the film actually requires him to.