Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a vampire movie that lends itself almost entirely to the whim of mood and atmosphere and steals itself away from true storytelling. The story, of course, is familiar to one and all, even to little children who have a thing for the macabre. Writer James V. Hart does nothing new with the material. What he does is spread it out as thinly as he can to make way for passages of horrifying, gloomy, hypnotic terror. This is a movie that’s not so much about following as it is about absorbing.
Gary Oldman plays Vlad Dracula, a Romanian crusader of centuries past who ventures out to the battlefields to fight the Turks and returns to his castle to discover that his wife, upon falsely hearing of her husband’s death, has succumbed to self-defenestration.
Enraged, Vlad curses God and all things sacred and vows to arise from his grave empowered by the forces of darkness in order to, well, I don’t really know the full extent of his maniacal plan. He vows to wait forever for his love to come back to him, but I think he fails to exercise foresight — in about four hundred years he will look as attractive as a bleached prune.
The plot jumps forward to 1897 in London. A young solicitor named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) has just been instructed to travel to Castle Dracula in Transylvania, Romania, to consult with the Count over land transactions.
Jonathan, it must be said, is not the brightest bulb in the box. Upon arriving at Transylvania, he is fetched by a horse-drawn carriage and a clawed driver endowed with the powers of levitation. Does he not, for a second, think it strange? What about the towering monolithic castle he later strides up to? Doesn’t this Count Dracula seem a bit too… weathered? Jonathan soldiers on with his cause like a fresh broker smelling the greens of money.
Much of Bram Stoker’s original story unfolds as it should, with Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), Jonathan’s fiancée, locked in the ecstasy of new love, and her best friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) obsessed with sex and courting as many bachelors as humanly possible. Both Ryder and Frost are effective in expressing the inherent opposites of their characters that will eventually lead to one’s demise and the other’s salvation.
But it is Oldman who perhaps has the most fun. The Dracula of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee always maintained a kind of nobility. Dracula wasn’t a monster but a suave wraith who would glide across the floor, shrouded in mist, or descend upon a room from the shadows of the ceiling. He was a creature of love and mystery. Oldman’s Dracula is a beast (figuratively and literally), also shackled by love but not as sophisticated as Lugosi or Lee. We are told his mission from the start, and after an abrupt leap in time to the “present”, his mission remains the only course of play. He is not concerned with seduction, patience, intimacy. Indeed, included is a scene of beastiality rape. Oldman’s Dracula is a broken, corrupted soul, bound by his fate to remain ugly forever.
This, if anything, is a twist on the classic Dracula adaptations, and I enjoyed the way Oldman plays the role courting the brink of camp but exercising enough restraint to make the performance wonderful instead of ridiculous. He knows when to lunge forward to attack and when to recoil in utter self-pity.
At the end of the day, though, there are parts about Dracula that work and parts that don’t. Director Francis Ford Coppola manages to extract the vibes of the vampire’s terror at the expense of a coherent story that should, by expectation, guide us along this terrible man’s tragic journey. The characters are suddenly in Transylvania. Then they’re in London. Then they’re on a ship. Then they’re back in London. And on and on. Nothing ties events together; the events merely happen. If you want to experience Count Dracula, this is the movie for you. If you want to understand him, you might be better off with Dracula: Dead And Loving It (1995).
And then there’s the Keanu Reeves situation. I don’t know what unholy force encouraged him to take on this role, but his presence in the film plays almost like a toxic dart. His absurd London accent cuts through each scene he’s in, and he never looks so much surprised as befuddled. It’s a good thing he’s opposed by Oldman, and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing the equable vampire hunter. It’s a bad thing that only one of them wants Jonathan Harker dead.
Best Moment | Visiting Castle Dracula for the first time.
Worst Moment | It’s a Reeves buffet.