At the time of its theatrical release Francis Ford Coppola's reinterpretation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) infuriated a lot of critics and fans - most weaned on the North Americanized Bela Lugosi and Hammer Film interpretations of that famed blood-sucker that in no way reflected the original storytelling prowess of its author.
No, there is no bat-like transformation sequence in Coppola's remake, no high collared black cape or majestic hand manoeuvres a la the stylishly elegant re-interpretation of Bela Lugosi. But what Coppola achieves herein goes beyond the hokum of Draculas gone by to evoke a genuine sense of the gothic thriller/romance that would have made the likes of Stoker or even Emily Bronte proud.
Yet today, removed from all its marketing hype - that at least in part promised audiences what the film never entirely delivers: a really good scare - one can see that Coppola's take on Dracula is far more comprehensive and faithful to Stoker's authorship than any movie made before or since. The screenplay by James V. Hart has a lot of literary territory to cover and, for the most part, succeeds in providing a narrative that compels as well as entertains.
It's 1462 and Vlad 'The Impaler' Dracula (Gary Oldman) embarks upon a bloody religious crusade against the Turkish Empire. Presumably riding to his defeat, Vlad prays for victory and is granted such - presumably by God, only to return to his Gothic retreat and discover that his one true love Elisabeta (Wynona Ryder) has committed suicide after hearing false reports of Vlad's death. Consumed with despair and further enraged by the notion that his wife is eternally damned for committing suicide, Dracula desecrates his chapel and renounces God, stabbing into the large cross and declaring that he will rise from his grave to avenge Elisabeta with all the powers of darkness.
Fast track to 1897, to Transylvania where law clerk Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) arrives at Castle Dracula to complete a real estate acquisition left unfinished by his colleague R.M. Renfield (Tom Waits) who has gone insane. Dracula (also Oldman), is a witheringly haunted and manic reflection of Vlad. During the signing of the papers, Dracula discovers a picture of Harker's fiancée Mina (also Ryder), and realizes that she is the reincarnation of Elisabeta.
Leaving Jonathan to be nightly raped and drained of his blood by his undead brides, Dracula restores himself to a more youthful appearance before sailing to England with boxes of his native soil. Taking refuge inside Carfax Abbey, Dracula's arrival is foretold by Renfield's ravings at an asylum run by Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant). Confronting Mina on a busy London street, Dracula is at first admonished by his former bride who gradually is compelled to learn more about the stranger and eventually succumb to his wicked charms. In the meantime, Harker manages to free himself of his blood-lusting beauties to make a harrowing escape from Castle Dracula to a nearby convent where he is slowly nursed back to health.
In London, Dracula transforms himself into a werewolf-like creature who hypnotizes and contaminates Mina's close friend, Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) with the fate of the undead. Her health in steep decline, Lucy's former love, Quincey Morris(Bill Campbell) and new fiancée Arthur Holmwood(Cary Elwes) begin a frantic race to save her soul. With Seward's encouragement, they summon Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to the case, during which he discovers that Lucy is a victim of the vampire.
Getting word from the sisters at the convent that Jonathan is safe, Mina leaves for Hungary to marry him causing Dracula to transform Lucy into a vampire as his revenge. Presumably dead, Lucy is buried in a crypt, then exhumed by Van Helsing, Holmwood, Seward and Morris, who arrive just in time to prevent her from devouring the blood of an innocent child in order to prolong her undead suffering. Beheading Lucy to save her from eternal damnation, Van Helsing next turns to saving Mina and Jonathan, who have returned to London.
Renfield attempts to warn Mina of her fate and Dracula brutally murders him for this betrayal. Retiring to her bedroom, Mina is visited by Dracula. Confessing to her that he murdered Lucy, Dracula begins to transform Mina into a vampire as well. Van Helsing and his followers break into Mina's bedroom and foil the completion of this ritual but not before Dracula - now strangely bat like in appearance - declares Mina as his bride.
Sailing to Hungary to escape persecution, Dracula is hunted down by Van Helsing, Harker, Morris and Seward. In the final confrontation, Harker slits Dracula's throat while a wounded Morris stabs him through the heart. In the same chapel where he renounced God centuries earlier, Dracula rebuffs Mina's attempts to pull the knife from his heart, instead asking her to give him peace. The chapel is lit by God's presence and the hole in the cross heals itself. The curse of eternal damnation on both Elisabeta and Mina's souls is lifted, with Vlad and Elsabeta ascend together to Heaven.
Bram Stoker's Dracula is hardly perfect entertainment but it remains a compelling study of period gothic horror, albeit without the essential element of a good 'chill' down the spine. Most problematic for the film's overall success is its casting of Keanu Reeves as Harker. In hindsight, it's astonishing how many plumb roles Reeves received during his Hollywood career considering his anemic acting abilities. Here, he is painfully miscast in a role he neither understands nor even remotely attempts to make his own - his period costumes unable to mask that inimitable brand of 'Kowabunga' California surfer dude persona that would have long ago been the kiss of death for any other actor's career.
Equally as troublesome is the usually gifted Wynona Ryder - here reduced to somewhat simpering melodrama. Yes, she is more convincing in her part than Reeves is in his, but she emotes more fret than fright throughout the story, reducing Mina to a weak kneed lily that simply awaits her fate to be plucked by either the Count or Harker.
On the plus side are Gary Oldman's superb interpretation of Dracula in all of his many forms and Anthony Hopkins who gives the most intelligent and exciting read of Van Helsing to date. Together, these two craftsmen in their art manage to sustain the rest of the story, even when the script or their acting counterparts miserably falter. In the final analysis, Bram Stoker's Dracula is a film that should be given more respect for Coppola's direction, its sets and costumes and its infinitely more faithful adaptation of a beloved literary classic.
Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray is somewhat disappointing. Although the image exhibits good solid color rendering, it is softly focused with a loss of fine details throughout. Overall, the image will not disappoint, but it's hardly as spectacular as it might have been. The audio is lossless HD but here too the effect seems blunted by dialogue that is, at times, so quiet that it seems inaudible, only to be followed by bursts of effects and dialogue that threaten to blow out one's sound system. Extras include extensive deleted scenes and a very thorough series of featurettes that equate to one comprehensive documentary on the making of the film.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)