Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Sadie Frost, Cary Elwes, Tom Waits

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by James V. Hart; adapted from the novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker

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“I have crossed oceans of time to find you. . .”

One of the most intimate portraits of a self-disclosed perfectionist in film is Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary by director Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor, detailing the harrowing, maddening journey of filming Apocalypse Now.  

Candidly introduced in a post-production interview with Coppola, the famed director stated simply, “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

Insanity, perfectionism, an undying commitment to vision, these descriptions were used by supporters to prop up his deserved lofty critical status following his incredible success in the 1970s.  Conversely, these words were also used by detractors to undermine his works of the 1980s, reflecting a proposed – and ridiculous – idea that he found his heart of darkness in Apocalypse Now, and as well as nearly killing him forever changed his appeal, his penchant for making marketable, successful movies.

This unfair impression followed him specifically after news broke that he’d be helming, and no doubt producing, the newest adaptation of Dracula, written in 1897 to muddled accolades, but since then becoming probably the most famous and influential of all horror novels.

The script, written by James V. Hart some years before, was brought to Coppola’s attention by Winona Ryder in a break-the-ice sit-down between the two after an assumptive falling out following Ryder leaving the set of 1990’s The Godfather, Part III after being tagged to play Mary Corleone.  This did not deter the two from agreeing on a want to bring to life the story unlike any before, and, in particular, the script’s eroticism. As stated by him later, the sensual aspect of the feverish, often blasphemic historically fated connection between characters Count Dracula and Mina Harker appealed to Coppola.

Columbia Pictures, having greenlit the picture, giving the still-esteemed Coppola’s own Zoetrope Studios the power to cast, emphasized a want to make the film especially marketable.  The last two retellings of the classic story – both released in 1979 (Frank Langella led a reworking of a long-running Broadway performance, and Werner Herzog lent his own vision to a stylized remake of F.W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens featuring Klaus Kinski) – didn’t generate much aplomb and both were found straying from the original Stoker product.

Coppola vowed to not let this happen; to mesh entertainment with due respect, as well as inputting newly discovered themes he found most important, starting with insisting that the film uses the Anglo-Irish author’s name in its title.

Perhaps it was with great surprise on the part of universal critics that, upon release, the film was . . . really good, even great.  The best regeneration of the classic story in fifty years, and the most dutiful adaptation yet.  Coppola’s vision, aligning with Hart’s sexualized, lusty script, succeeded despite – or because of – its weirdness, its hyper-stylization, and its visceral gore.

Coppola chose to spend most of his not unimpressive $40 million budget not by dragging camera crew through Transylvania, or constructing massive sets of Victorian Kensington, but on his actors, what he referred to as the “jewels” of the feature.

Costume designer Eiko Ishioka, a veteran of many venerable Japanese works, was given free reign of both pocket and mind to dress the film’s actors, and to fit the inimitable style that was beginning to creep into the story’s vision, the combined talents of a dazzling supporting array of make-up artists, special effects wizards, matte designers, art and set designers.  This roster included German-born cinematographer Michael Balhaus, another veteran of his medium, who proved himself the very scope of Martin Scorsese’s visions, lending his hand to The Color of Money (1986) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Goodfellas (1990).

The money saved from reducing the film’s ventures to the myriad sound stages of Burbank and Hollywood made the small(er) scale of production conducive to more imaginative contributions from the film’s virtuosos.  Left alone to dabble in their own interpretations, the weekly drawings and storyboards brought to Coppola’s desk made him work with Hart to alter the script to suit the fantastical, dreamlike elucidations that were beginning to become the benchmark of the story.

As a result, in only shallow observation, Dracula‘s art direction is astonishing.  The use of matte effects for backgrounds as studiously applied miniatures do more for the film’s feel and aura than saccharine greenscreen ever could.  Furthermore, each setting, whether in Count Dracula’s brooding, eerie, decrepit castle, on the waterlogged, doomed vessel Demeter, or in the Westenra’s gilded, lofty garden mansion, is made wholly effective by the special care taken to characterize them.

In Dracula’s castle in particular, imaginative concentration converged on this frequently filmed setting, making it its own creature entirely, more than just gargoyles and wispy cobwebs: the much- mimicked effects of Dracula’s ever-moving shadow, the long red cape of Gary Oldman’s ancient Count gliding behind him on colossal, burnished floors, and most memorably, the eternally damned vampiric vixens (one is Monica Belluci) sifting and straining through silk sheets and crawling unnaturally along tall, dusty mist-covered bedposts.

Each scene, much like filter-rich cinematographic epics like 1975’s Stanley Kubrick classic Barry Lyndon, is rich enough to take something out of on each subsequent viewing.  In this respect, there are simply too many admirable and exciting qualities to reference and recommend, unfortunately putting a patron of the film in the position of stating, “Just see it.”

The reasons why Todd Fields’ 1931 visualization, and Hammer Film’s subsequent additions deviated so criminally from the novel’s plot came from the obvious – it was easier.  Easier to make just one female character, an amalgamation of virginal, thoughtful Mina and well-heeled, somewhat indecent beauty Lucy, and easier to have just two protagonists – Jonathan Harker and Abraham Van Helsing – and leaving out most of Lucy’s suitors, who are paramount to the novel’s action/adventure ending.

And most easily, making Count Dracula the obscene, evil abomination; the king of the undead, the antagonist that even Stoker portrayed as fairly one-dimensional.

This was not in the vision, or the story, that Coppola wanted, and the first change of predicted pace he hired chameleonlike Oldman, the wunderkind of Eighties British independent cinema, to portray the count in his many forms.  To deepen the character’s scope he rediscovered and used the story of Vlad the Impaler – the 15th century devout Christian prince Vlad Dracula, who impaled thousands of Turks in his remorseless victories – as the archetype, and used Hart’s precursor story of Vlad denouncing his faith in favor of Darkness after returning from battle only to find his wife, Elisabeta, dead by damning suicide.

Following Oldman was a cast of young American and British actors eager to prove themselves in such a promising reworking of a classic: Ryder as Mina, reworked in the script as the reincarnation of Dracula’s beloved Elisabeta, Keanu Reeves as her fiancée Jonathan Harker, the lawyer that descends unknowingly into Dracula’s web, Anthony Hopkins fresh off his Oscar win as the fabled Dr. Van Helsing, Sadie Frost as robustly sexual vixen Lucy, and Cary Elwes, Richard E. Grant and Billy Campbell as her suitors.

Offbeat musician Tom Waits takes a fabulous and repellent turn as Renfield, the man Harker replaced that was driven mad by Dracula, rounding out the cast.  In trying to find a Vito Corleone for his Godfather, Coppola initially reached out to Laurence Olivier in the thought that other great thespians would flock to the opportunity. The idea ultimately had no staying power, and Oldman was no Olivier in 1992, but the range of characters serve to complement one another, and Coppola – a noted actor-friendly director -worked hard to make them comfortable with each other as actors, whether in sexual throes or sparring on backs of wagons.

Much has and will be made of Oldman’s performance, which must have required limitless patience whilst sitting through hours of makeup and prostheses, but in which he poured all of his considerable talent and incredible diversity in a role that seemed tailor-made for him.  Whether the aged Count, the youthful, captivating Prince, a monstrous wolf-creature, a flaccid-winged demon bat, or a wisp of green smoke Oldman is never lost in the countless effects that cover him, and he exudes his personality through any and every way, and apparently made quite sure of having his say, as revealed by several off-screen directional arguments with Coppola.

Among the film’s supporting cast, the two women stand out alone.  Reeves as Harker nearly falsifies the film, a surfer boy with a British accent, and Hopkins understandably takes on much license with Van Helsing and has a little too much fun, but Ryder and Frost are perfect opposites, and their youthful vigor and startling, completely different versions of beauty, tantalize and tempt.

Ryder holds her own against Oldman’s menacing, intimidating Count, at times just a tiny bit foppish, but startlingly believable when Dracula’s hold on her begins to tighten, and the two embrace in a centuries-spanning love that has never abated.

This is Coppola and Hart’s most understated addition to the story, its theme of undying love, exemplified in the relationship between Mina and Dracula, something that is fated from the beginning, and inherently destructive despite both characters’ mystical, infinite longing.

Fulfilling this unearthly providence, Mina is finally enfolded by Dracula, where there love is to be consummated for all eternity as she begs to be made into a vampire.  Struggling against the indomitable will of fate, Dracula pushes her away, telling her that he loves her too much to give her this life.  At long last, he yields, but the mere hint of an exertion against this cursed existence denotes Dracula’s humanity – something no other adaptation looked at in such sympathetic fashion.

This makes the love story, filled with lofty verbiage – “Then I give you life eternal, everlasting love, the power of the storms and the beasts of the earth. . .” – much more believable than could be imagined, and transcends the horror and even the book’s romantic limitations.

Composer Wojciech Kilar, brought in at first for how his decidedly Eastern European style would parallel the story, does well in reinforcing mood through his music, but his true resonance is through the score’s main centerpiece: the ancient passion and devotion of the film’s love story.  The main motif, listed on the soundtrack simply as “Mina/Dracula”, is Gothic, brooding and almost sentimental.

The accolades were many, but virtually all for effects.  The sound editing and makeup teams deservedly won their Oscars at the 65th annual Academy Awards; Ishioka was also given one for her rich work on the costume designs, without which none of the film could have been possible.  Domestically and especially internationally, the film reaped in over $215,000,000, and all noted critics praised Coppola’s vision and Oldman’s feat of performance.

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow from 1999 is the only other horror film in the past quarter century that can come close to matching Bram Stoker’s Dracula in incredible art direction, a true work of cinematic tapestry-making in which a bonafide artist of his medium was allowed to do whatever he wanted in bringing his vision of a classic to the screen.

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