Friday, July 1, 2016

BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA - ***1/2


Rated R for sexuality and horror violence
Running time: 128 min.
Release date: November 13, 1992


With the exception of Nosferatu, the silent horror classic from 1922, the character of Count Dracula has pretty much spent his entire time in a tuxedo and cape, lusting for blood. There was not much other depth to the character other than that. He was considered evil because he all he wanted to do was bite your neck. Now here is famed director Francis Ford Coppola with a vision of Dracula that is much closer to the vision his creator, Bram Stoker, had in mind. Not only does Coppola change the cinematic mythos of the Dracula character, he has given him a time and place to fit into and provided him with more depth than we had previously imagined vampires to have.

The film opens with Dracula's origin in the mid-15th century, once a man known as Prince Vlad, defender of God and the church during the Crusades. His wife, Elizabeta, commits suicide when she receives false word of her husband's death in battle. He returns home to find that the church has condemned her because of the suicide. He renounces God and takes on the powers of darkness. In a surreal scene, he drives his sword into a stone cross that subsequently bleeds.

Flash forward to 1897 London, where Keanu Reeves plays young attorney Jonathan Harker, assigned to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) to finalize his purchase of various plots of land around London. Reeves is miscast as an attorney in late 19th century England, and his early scenes with the count have Oldman acting circles around him, but it's not too much of a distraction. The reason for that is the presence of Oldman is so captivating, and the gothic surroundings so lavish, that Reeves is not the center of attention. He gets a pass because of everything and everyone around him. Dracula spies a photograph of Harker's fiancée, Mina (Winona Ryder), and recognizes her as the reincarnation of his long-dead bride. He forcefully convinces Harker to stay at his castle, while he prepares for his arrival in London. The castle is the home of some truly strange sightings, such as Dracula's shadow not exactly being in the same place as Dracula himself; Dracula scaling the wall of the castle to enjoy the company of wolves; Dracula's vampire brides seductively hypnotizing Harker to the point where they can drain him of blood and energy, keeping him weak so he can remain a prisoner of the count.

Back in London, Mina is concerned for Jonathan, while her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) entertains a trio of suitors: the Texan Quincey (Bill Campbell), the doctor Jack (Richard E. Grant) and the aristocratic Arthur (Cary Elwes). While Dracula is being carted across the sea (unbeknownst to the crew of the ship), he is able to project himself to Lucy as a pseudo-wolf creature, as he seduces her in her garden during a heavy thunderstorm. Lucy's health declines and Dr. Jack contacts his acquaintance, Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to help in her situation. Van Helsing discovers the bites on Lucy's neck and knows immediately what he is up against. Meanwhile, a younger version of Dracula roams the streets of London, where he finds Mina. He and Mina begin a relationship, as Mina slowly begins to remember a past life she never knew she had. The love story between Dracula and Mina is the crux of the film. Oldman is very convincing as a centuries-old being who has finally found the soul of his late wife in Mina. Winona Ryder's performance as Mina was a little shaky to start the film, but as the story got into the relationship between Mina and Dracula, she appears to grow into the role.

Harker escapes from Dracula's castle and writes Mina to meet him in Romania where they are to be wed immediately. Mina breaks the news to Dracula via letter, where we get a scene of a weeping vampire who is so distraught that he lets go of his young visage momentarily and in a fit of sorrowful rage, he kills Lucy. She has now turned into a full-blown vampire after her apparent death, and the scene of her quietly coming down the stairs of the crypt to a haunting score and a crying child is probably the most chilling scene in the film. Van Helsing and company dispatch of her, as they prepare to hunt the man himself. Hopkins' take on Van Helsing is quite pleasing, as he mixes age-old wisdom with a dash of humor, leading to couple of light moments that the film needs.

As our heroes race against time to intercept Dracula before he returns to his Transylvanian home, the climax is built up to a near perfect pitch. Ultimately, the ending is somewhat anticlimactic but also necessary. Coppola has paced the film slowly until the ending rushes along to the conclusion. In the meantime, Coppola has taken the Dracula character and given him a heart, even though the character himself claims to not have one. From a technical standpoint, the production values in set designs and costumes are to be commended. From the gothic nightmares of Transylvania to an England just about to usher in the modern world, the sense of time and place is very convincing. The cinematography by Michael Ballhaus is at its best inside Dracula's castle, with shadows playing in the background. The score by Wojciech Kilar is one of the more haunting scores you will hear. The song playing over the closing credits is "Love Song for a Vampire" by Annie Lennox, which suits the material perfectly. As for the cast, this is Gary Oldman's picture. His turn as Dracula took a character that is traditionally played as one-note and he gave it heart, and pain and yes, even evil glee at times. The other notable performance came from singer Tom Waits as Renfield, as a raving madman who longs for his master to grant him immortality.

There are scenes and images in Bram Stoker's Dracula that don't make sense, or may come off as slightly surreal, and some of the casting choices may be questioned, but overall Francis Ford Coppola has crafted a horror/romance film that is quite pleasing to the eyes, as it looks great. The film tends to come off as an erotic dream at times, but it is also quite chilling. This would be the vampire film that influenced future vampire films to be more about heart than blood.

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