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The erotic surrealism of Francis Ford Coppola's 'Bram Stoker's Dracula'

Francis Ford Coppola - 'Bram Stoker's Dracula'
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Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the 1992 gothic horror offering from Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather mastermind’s film is a weird, terrifying flick that is actually one of the closest to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel to date. Since Stoker’s original release, the world has had countless Count Dracula-based books, TV shows and films. However, the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation sticks out as one of the most memorable and polarising.

Boasting an all-star cast with the likes of Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, and Gary Oldman as the titular count, Coppola’s adaptation is spine-tingling at points, and, due to its Ray Harryhausen-Esque animation, downright hilarious at others. The scene where Oldman’s Dracula is climbing up the outside of castle walls like a lizard is a standout moment of surrealism.

The film’s score was composed by the late Wojciech Kilar, and its closing theme, ‘Love Song for a Vampire’, was written and performed by Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, becoming an international success. It even features Tom Waits as the crazed Renfield.

Coppola’s plot, based on the screenplay by James V. Hart, is impactful as it navigates between London and Transylvania. In the former, the modern age is in its infancy, and Transylvania is stuck firmly in the past. After the film’s first few scenes, where we witness Dracula’s heartbreak and subsequent vow for vengeance, we cut to the future where we meet Keanu Reeves’ young attorney, Jonathan Harker. Faithful to the book, Harker ventures far out east to arrange the finances of Dracula’s estate. However, all is not as it seems.

What follows is an erotic, sinister and colourful adaptation of Stoker’s novel. 

The irony of the film is that it was actually Winona Ryder who brought Hart’s script to Coppola’s attention. Coppola’s head was turned after a meeting between him and Ryder as they cleared the air after her late withdrawal from The Godfather Part III caused production delays on the film and led her to believe that Coppola hated her.

Ryder said, “I never really thought he would read it. He was so consumed with Godfather III. As I was leaving, I said, ‘If you have a chance, read this script.’ He glanced down at it politely, but when he saw the word Dracula, his eyes lit up. It was one of his favourite stories from camp.”

Explaining her take on the script, Ryder added: “what attracted me to the script is the fact that it’s a very emotional love story, which is not really what you think of when you think about Dracula. Mina, like many women in the late 1800s, has a lot of repressed sexuality. Everything about women in that era, the way those corsets forced them to move, was indicative of repression. To express passion was freakish.”

Coppola agreed with Ryder’s take on the repressed sexuality inherent to Dracula and Hart’s screenplay and set about making scenes in the picture resemble an “erotic dream”. These erotic trance-like scenes in the film add to its status as one of the best Dracula adaptations out there. It is a quasi-feminist take on Dracula’s work, and there can be no doubt that if she were alive to see it, Mary Shelley would have enjoyed this take on it.

Critics have also noted that the film is perhaps a little bit too preoccupied with aesthetics and themes of centuries of repressed lust rather than narrative devices. As the late Roger Ebert pointed out, “The one thing the movie lacks is headlong narrative energy and coherence. There is no story we can follow well enough to care about.” This is true to an extent. However, Coppola’s movie has a rewatchable quality, constantly throwing up new angles, scenes and lines that we missed before—adding to its longevity.

Then we come to the most polarising element of the whole film. Not a terrible performance, by all means; Reeves’ Harker is more comedic than the haunted, lovelorn lawyer of the novel and other screen adaptations. In fact, there’s a sense that Reeves was not yet out of his ‘totally awesome’ early phase of his career. This assertion is made all the more apparent when rewatching Reeves’ performance. He seems almost held back by the Victorian garb as if he too is wearing a corset. His British accent is so ridiculous that it could quite easily have been delivered by Matt Lucas or David Walliams in the obnoxious TV series Little Britain.

Although Reeves’ performance can be seen as a little lukewarm yet highly comedic, the film is blessed with strong showings by its other stars. Winona Ryder perfectly captures the modern essence of Mina Murray, Anthony Hopkins is captivating as Professor Van Helsing, and Gary Oldman delivers one of the standout performances of his career. Oldman’s delivery of the line “I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you” still makes the hairs stand to attention. 

Oldman’s role was augmented by the fact he speaks in an octave lower than his usual voice after hiring a vocal coach to sound sinister like Stoker’s original.

Ultimately, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a refreshing yet confounding take on the source material. Aesthetically, it is beautiful, eerie and haunting, and presents itself as more in line with Victorian gothic than many subsequent adaptations. Yes, Reeves’ acting is comedic, but that adds to the film’s pull. Surrounded by brilliant, serious performances, Reeves’ Harker serves to lighten the load of this crazed, surreal adaptation.

Watch the trailer, below.

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