Coppola & The Dracula Mythos

By 1992 Francis Ford Coppola had become a director for hire, restricted by the financial debt incurred with the Zoetrope productions of One From The Heart (1982), Rumble Fish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984) and Wim Wender’s Hammett (1982).  With Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart re-imagined the Gothic horror tale as the story of an anti-hero driven by true love and redemption.  The idea was to transpose the exploitation stigma associated with Dracula in favor of the commercially viable mainstream character driven dramas that defined Coppola’s work in the seventies (The Godfather and The Conversation).  Returning to his roots, Coppola filled out the cast of his horror blockbuster with a stable of stars ranging from the veteran (Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing) to the up and coming (Gary Oldman as Dracula, Winona Ryder as Mina Harker, Keanu Reeves as John Harker, Richard E. Grant as Dr. Seward, Cary Elwes as Holmwood, and Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra).  However, it would be Coppola’s determination to reclaim his status as an auteur and as a blockbuster success that would be the debilitating factor in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

From the beginning of the film it is clear that Coppola’s objective is to create Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the expressionist form that defined F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu (1922).  Every component in the film is arranged to signify various elements of the character’s psychology as they navigate the narrative of the film.  Most of these signifiers are referential of other Dracula films, most overtly Nosteratu (Coppola’s use of shadows and shadow puppets) as if to capsulate Dracula’s cinematic lore.  Other elements signify more obscure or less well-known films.  For instance, the design of Dracula’s castle recalls the set pieces of the Hammer films from the fifties, sixties, and seventies (specifically Freddie Francis’ underrated Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, 1968), the make up design for the younger Dracula recreates Christopher Lee’s make up in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), while the vampire orgy scenes with Keanu Reeves seem indebted to both The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971).

Drawing on film history, Coppola invents a vernacular specific to his narrative.  The downside of this achievement is that it complicates the reading of what would normally be a straightforward retread of a familiar story.  What makes this an apparent problem is the introduction of characters from the novel that rarely gets portrayed on the big screen.  When two components to a film run parallel throughout but in opposition of one another it becomes difficult to tell what is invention for invention’s sake and what is innovation out of necessity.

Coppola’s interest in presenting Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a kind of “compressed history of cinema” is further reflected at the cinema show in the film itself.  Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dracula (Gary Oldman) attend a screening of some of the Lumiere Brother’s actuality films.  This not only reinforces a sense of time and space within the narrative, but also within the context of the cinema.  Surrounding the scenes at the cinema, Coppola employs digital effects to recreate the look and texture of the Lumiere Brother’s films.  By doing this, Coppola reintroduces the audience to the importance of these earlier films as well as establishes the technological advance of the cinema.  The motivations of this display do not seem tied to the film’s narrative, they have more in common with the motives behind the film’s expressionistic tendencies, to put Coppola back on top as an auteur again.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t a bad film; it is simply convoluted in its cinematic langue, burdened by the heavy amounts of visual references and historical contexts.  Where it exceeds is in the realm of its cinematography by Michael Ballhaus.  Always concerned with new innovations and striking camera movements (the 360 degree pan in R.W. Fassbinder’s Martha, 1974), Ballhaus is able to breath into the film a level of elegance that the genre had been lacking since Roger Corman’s The Masque Of The Red Death (1964) photographed by Nicolas Roeg.  It’s to Coppola’s credit as a director that Bram Stoker’s Dracula presents a number of opportunities for Ballhaus to bring his unique visual lyricism to the screen (specifically the scene in which Ryder and Oldman waltz by candle light).  Ballhaus’ cinematography combined with the analogous effects intended to conjure expressionist forms make Bram Stoker’s Dracula one of the most fully realized visual extravaganzas of the early nineties.

Another key component to Coppola’s film was observed above, and marks a return to his earliest approach to filmmaking.  Casting relative newcomers alongside veteran actor Anthony Hopkins gives the film the fresh atmosphere that revitalized the gangster film with The Godfather.  The cast of Bram Stoker’s Dracula proves to be less outstanding than the ensemble of The Godfather, but manages to provide at least one remarkable performance with Gary Oldman in the character of Dracula.  Since the Hammer films it had become almost a tradition to cast a British actor as the Count, and an elder counter part as Van Helsing (Hopkins takes over the role Peter Cushing defined in Horror of Dracula).  Oldman’s work takes him from old age to youth, mutant bat creature to wolf man with a fluidity that is at once believable and fantastic.  Oldman’s prowess as a character actor, though only recently acknowledged, makes him equipped to transform himself into any role, so that he as well as the character are manifest simultaneously.  Unfortunately, Reeves and Ryder turn in unremarkable performances that, in contrast to what I consider Hopkins’ Missouri Breaks, seem timid and dull.  Perhaps the problem stems from the ensemble approach Coppola took during the film’s rehearsal stage.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though cluttered with supporting roles, is only ever really about Dracula and Mina.

The approach to the material Hart and Coppola employed was in many ways another step back for Coppola.  Not since The Conversation (1973) had one of his films charted the story of a lone anti-hero, which, upon examining the prologue of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula apparently is.  In many ways this is counter intuitive.  Most of Bram Stoker’s novel is more concerned with Dracula’s victims than analyzing Dracula’s motives.  Likewise, half of the film’s characters and scenes are concerned with killing the monster, while the other half approaches the legend as if he were a contemporary stand in for Travis Bickle.  Again parallel themes and devices run through out the film but contradict one another.  This prevents the audience from investing their sympathies with either side, a strange conundrum given the usual approach to the Dracula mythos.

It should now be taken into account that although Bram Stoker’s Dracula doesn’t work very well as a film (even with an end credit song by Annie Lennox), it represents some of the more remarkable ideas related to the horror movie genre to evolve in the nineties.  To classic horror fans it’s a cinematic almanac of previously made Dracula films, and to filmmakers it represents the potential of reviving the cinematic langue in a genre that is done to death.

-Robert Curry

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