Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: James V. Hart
Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Starring: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Anthony Hopkins
Running Time: 127 Minutes
In 1462, Prince Vlad Dracula of Wallachia (Oldman) is at war with the Ottoman Turks and leaves his wife Elizabetha (Ryder) at his castle when he goes to war. While he is gone, the Turks deliver a false message carrying news of Vlad’s defeat and death, to which Elizabetha responds by committing suicide. Dracula returns victorious, but is crushed when he finds his wife has killed herself and cannot be given a Christian burial. The warrior then renounces God and vows to return from his death with the powers of darkness to avenge her. In 1897 English solicitor Jonathan Harker (Reeves) travels to the Eastern European region of Transylvania to help the mysterious Count Dracula (who we know is Prince Vlad) purchase property in London. While Harker is at Dracula’s castle, the count’s eye is captured by the sight of Jonathan’s fiance Mina (also portrayed Ryder), who the vampire believes to be the reincarnation of his long dead wife. The young Harker is kept prisoner at Dracula’s castle while he goes to London to rejuvenate and win the heart of Mina, but not before Dutch scientist Abraham Van Helsing (Hopkins) discovers that there is a vampire in their midst.
At the time of this film’s release in 1992 there had been many onscreen portrayals of Dracula. The most well known being Max Schreck (1922’s Nosferatu), Bela Lugosi (1931’s Dracula) and Christopher Lee for the Hammer horror films (beginning with 1958’s Dracula). For the first time since 1977 (in Count Dracula, starring French actor Louis Jourdan), we see the illustrious vampire count portrayed as written by Irish novelist Bram Stoker.
Gary Oldman portrays Dracula masterfully as both man and beast. He makes him sympathetic while still allowing the character to maintain his role as the villain. Oldman’s performance is at times very unnerving and frightening, but he is always interesting to watch. Just as in the novel, Dracula gets younger and younger as he drinks more blood. This is a fact not portrayed since Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970). Gary Oldman’s elderly makeup, and his more monstrous forms (like that of a demonic bat-like creature and a wolf-man) are very convincing. Gary Oldman’s appearance was clearly modeled after Vlad Tepes (or Vlad the Impaler), who is commonly said to be the real life Dracula (and is portrayed as such in the film).
Winona Ryder also does a very good job in the role of the troubled Mina, who is both worried about her missing fiance and her newly arising feelings for Prince Vlad (whom she does not know is actually Count Dracula). While the portrayal of Mina in this film is much more realistic than what is written in the book, I still think Mina we see in the books is a better character (for an accurate portrayal of Mina as written by Stoker, watch Philip Saville’s Count Dracula).
Anthony Hopkins, still riding on the shockwaves produced by his Oscar-winning performance as cannibalistic serial killer Doctor Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, portrays a rather eccentric version of Professor Abraham Van Helsing. I think Hopkins did a good job as far as giving a good performance, but I don’t like his portrayal of Van Helsing. I’m all for an eccentric Van Helsing, but I believe he took eccentric a bit to far for this character. We do get some chuckles out of his performance (such as when he describes in detail the death of Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra while at dinner with her and Jonathan).
Now here is the performance everyone expected to be terrible: Keanu Reeves. The only purpose casting him in this movie serves is unintentional comic relief. The main part that comes to mind when I think about his dreadful performance is him, in a very wooden manner, delivering the line, “It’s the man himself! Look, he’s grown young!” upon seeing a youthful Count Dracula when he returns to London. Thankfully, the good performances are enough to forgive the utterly disastrous casting of Keanu Reeves.
The only members of the supporting cast that are worth mentioning are Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra, Mina’s best friend and Tom Waits as the insane RM Renfield. First we’ll go into Lucy: she’s a bit of a slut for her time and is the total antithesis of the stereotypical chaste Victorian woman. She makes hilarious sexual innuendo about the size of the knife of one of her suitors (Quincy Morris, played by Billy Campbell). She’s very likable and a stunning beauty. When she becomes a vampire, she is one of the scariest you’ll see on film. Her innocent-natured flirting turns into a kind of Satanic-seduction, all the while she is wearing this reptilian looking wedding gown, causing you to forget that this was the fun-loving and romantic Lucy beloved by her friends and family. Musician Tom Waits is quite simply one of the best Renfields’ since Dwight Frye took on the role in the 1931 Lugosi film. His pseudo-religious petitions to Dracula for eternal life are brought forth in a very ecstatic manner. It’s difficult to believe that this man once had a capacity for sane thought. I’ve never seen Tom in anything else, but there is no question lingering in my mind that he’s a great performer.
Besides the performances, one of the primary things that sets this film apart from other Dracula adaptations is the erotic tone. This is a very fitting choice on the part of the director and screenwriter. Stoker’s novel has been read by many as a tale of sexual escapism for Victorians, and this is transferred perfectly into the film. The drinking of blood for a vampire is an act of both pleasure and is a part of procreation for them, much like sexual intercourse is for humans. There is a scene when Mina drinks blood from the Count’s chest, and he reacts as if he’s having the ultimate orgasm. The very voluptuous female vampires also help a lot with the sexual tone of the film, from Dracula’s brides sexually assaulting Jonathan to a near vampiric-Mina trying to seduce Van Helsing.
The costumes and effects in this film were another thing that set this film apart from other Dracula movies. The most notable costume in the movie has to be the old Dracula’s flowing red gown with golden dragon symbols imprinted on the front (a reference to Vlad the Impaler being a member of the Order of the Dragon). This is certainly the most well-dressed Dracula that’s been put to film! Another one of my favorite pieces from the movie is Dracula’s armor that he wears in the prologue scene, which some have affectionately dubbed the “licorice armor”. Eiko Ishioka received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her work on the costumes in this beautiful film. The special effects in this movie were achieved with no use of CGI. This was a return to classic special effects, and because of this the film is much more convincing. Dracula undergoes many transformations and not just from old to young. Dracula also morphs into the monstrous forms we mention earlier. Despite my knowledge that such creatures do not exist, the realism of these guises of Dracula defy your sense of reality versus fiction.
I highly recommend this film to fans of the vampire and/or horror genres. With the exception of Keanu Reeves, the film is very well acted. It’s also well written and well staged. This is probably Gary Oldman’s best and most terrifying performance as the infamous vampire Count Dracula. I hope you’ll give the movie a chance and enjoy!