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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)::rating::4::rating::4

Bram Stoker’s Dracula pulls off a rare double feat.  As directed by Francis Coppola, this vampire epic manages to be deeply reverential to the beloved source material, while also blazing its own cinematic trail.  Stoker’s novel has been filmed–in some form–nearly 300 times, but it’s never had such perfect alchemy:  Coppola blends elegance and intelligence with undiluted sensuality; the result bears the expected Gothic aesthetic, but it also feels undeniably modern. Thirty years after its release, this Dracula remains the filmic gold standard for the character.

Coppola (working with scribe James V. Hart) faithfully follows the general vibe of the novel.  Set during Victorian England, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is an ambitious young bookkeeper.  Before he can marry Mina (Winona Ryder), Harker is sent to organize the affairs of Count Dracula, deep in the hinterlands of Transylvania.  The Count is an eccentric, menacing aristocrat; everything around his immense estate seems cursed and wretched from some smoldering, unseen evil.  An unseemly magic hovers in the air. Naturally, Harker is unsettled, but Dracula soon makes him a prisoner within the castle.

Everything changes when the Count sees a picture of Harker’s beloved Mina. She bears striking resemblance to Dracula’s betrothed, from centuries back when he dwelled amongst the living.  Something is kindled within his frozen heart, prompting Dracula to book passage to England and court Mina for himself.

Back in London, Mina grows increasingly frantic for the safety of her fiancé.  His letters from Dracula’s castle are curt and cryptic, which is not at all his style.  Something terrible must’ve befallen him!  She attempts to find some distraction in Lucy (Sadie Frost), her bawdy, free-spirited friend, but to no avail.  Mina senses that something has gone terribly wrong in Transylvania.

Of course, she’s dead-on accurate.  Dracula hits the open sea, and the bodies immediately start piling up.  In London, he attacks and turns Lucy, and slowly bewitches Mina.  Alarmed, Lucy’s would-be suitors band together and recruit Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to find and kill the mysterious vampire.  Thus, the balance of the movie becomes a chase on two fronts:  Van Helsing’s makeshift team hunts the cunning and elusive Dracula, while the Count pursues the confused and lovesick Mina.

The resulting film is an opulent, eye-filling experience.  Coppola takes a kitchen-sink approach to the material, which turns out to be absolutely the right call.  Famed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus imbues the film with an oversaturated color palate, giving every scene the quality of a dream—or, often a nightmare.  Polish composer Wojciech Kilar delivers a score that’s one part Danny Elfman, one part Carl Orff, resulting in music that’s alternately thundering, ethereal, or hauntingly tragic.  (Coppola finds layers of sad poetry in Dracula’s eternal loneliness.)

For the most part, the performances match that Oscar-level craftsmanship.  As the Count, Oldman is in peak form.  His Dracula spans several forms and personalities, from a wizened, predatorial old man to a lean, charismatic rock star (replete with a flowing Michael Hutchence hairdo).  Hopkins is his match as Van Helsing, a brilliant and slightly off-putting eccentric who turns out to have deep wells of knowledge on vampires.  Tom Waits also earns props as Renfield, a haggard, jabbering toady for Dracula.

If there’s a weakness in all this blood-soaked majesty, it’s Reeves.  God bless the man, he’s turned in iconic work before and after this film.  (Let’s see Oldman play Johnny Utah, or Hopkins pull off Bill or Ted, for that matter.)  That said, his community theater accent and surfer dude mannerisms nearly torpedo all of his scenes.  Again, he’s my John Wick; he’s your John Wick.  He’s also a terrible choice for a British period drama.  (See also his pancake-flat turn in Kenneth Branagh’s spin on Much Ado About Nothing.)

Still, make no mistake:  This is the Dracula flick we deserve:  It’s beautiful, sexually-charged, and terrifying.  Even better, it holds up beautifully with age.   If you were forced to pick one adaptation, some purists might suggest the Bela Lugosi version.  Other rebels might toss in Christopher Lee’s remake.  My vote would be for this one—Coppola’s late-period horror masterpiece.

128 min.  R.  On demand.

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