Retro Cinema: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - Reviewed

Francis Ford Coppola's ambitious and outright insane treatment of the classic gothic novel, Bram Stoker's Dracula is a thrilling amalgam of sexually charged horror, esoteric practical effects, and endearing homages to the silent era of film. Gary Oldman leads a multi-faceted ensemble in an adult oriented take on the classic story of vampiric obsession that focuses on the more obscure qualities of the original text. Dracula is often considered to be an integral part of the horror pantheon, and Coppola's unique approach not only captures the surreal ambiance of the source material, it deviates from the traditional narrative by dialing up the amorous underpinnings and exploring complex themes of forbidden love.

A well-meaning clerk is dispatched to the Carpathian mountains to secure a real estate deal with an elusive count. What follows is a supernatural manhunt that spans across Europe as the forces of good slowly begun to comprehend what they're up against as their war is fought through companions and proxies. James V. Hart's screenplay delves headfirst into the love story that has always been the core of Dracula. Winona Ryder stars as Mina Harker, a doppelganger of Gary Oldman's Dracula's lost true love. Both stars do excellent work in their scenes together, with Ryder delivering one of her best performances. Oldman, as always is the foundation of the film. While Anthony Hopkins’ and Keanu Reeves' supporting turns are hilarious at best, Oldman's rock solid delivery never transgresses into comedy. This is one of Dracula's best qualities. It is outright certifiable at times, such as Hopkins’ fiery delivery of arcane knowledge and Reeve's eye rolling accent that almost feel out of place. However these extremities play into the mythology of larger than life characters doing battle in the fog of the mind and it works as a quirky departure from form. The humor is offset by stirring violence and steamy sexual encounters that keep everything mired in the heady ambiance that is the true star of the film. 

Michael Balhaus's cinematography immediately conjures a vintage feel, both in the shadowy presentation of Dracula's crumbling manse and in the well-lit, yet ominous streets of civilization. From the moment Harker enters the Carpathians, a veil of darkness descends over the viewer, instantly transporting them beyond reason and into the Count's malignant embrace. The entire carriage sequence is a perfect example of tone setting done by a master, while the confrontation with Lucy in the middle act is one of the most repulsive and gorgeous scenes Coppola has ever constructed. While this perfectly communicates why Dracula is such an important addition to the master's filmography, it is also a powerful indicator of why it continues to divide audiences to this day. 

Dracula won three Oscars, one for Eiko Ishoka's flawless costume design, a second for Greg Cannom, Michele Burke, and Matthew Mungle's unbelievable make up design, and a third for Tom McCarthy's sound editing. These three elements combine with in camera practical effects to transform the story into a complex love letter for the lost eras of cinematic history. The original pre-code Dracula exposed American audiences to the power of horror with words, bridging the past and future with Legosi's legendary embodiment of the fanged prince. Coppola's return not only matures the source material, it shines a bloody spotlight on the marriage of these films during the early thirties and showcases their influence on the director's body of work. 

Available now for digital rental, Bram Stoker's Dracula is a beautiful film, and an intimidating work of art, fusing themes of sex, violence, film history, satire, and romance into an uneven package that continues to work to this day. Perfection is not something this film seeks to attain. Even if it were possible, the missteps, gaudy presentation, and half-baked performances only enhance the mystery that has endeared this flawed, but great film to audiences for years.

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-Kyle Jonathan