Bram Stoker's Dracula is a furious thunderstorm of a movie. Under the direction of Francis Ford Coppola (who had just completed the relatively understated The Godfather Part III), the film writhes, shrieks, snarls, hisses and flings buckets of blood everywhere, eschewing the slow-burning seductiveness of earlier vampire movies in favor of a full-throated piece of bombastic gothic horror. I can't say that it's the best Dracula movie ever made, but it's certainly the most Dracula movie ever made.
We begin with a brief origin story. In 1462, Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman, Sid and Nancy) – a member of the Order of the Dragon – wins a bloody victory against the Turks. Unfortunately, his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder, Beetlejuice) receives an erroneous report of Dracula's death and commits suicide. Infuriated at God for permitting his wife to die (after all, he just committed a whole lot of bloodshed in the name of Christianity, and thinks God ought to be more grateful), he renounces his faith and announces that he will, “rise from my own death, to avenge her with all the powers of darkness!” Then he stabs a stone cross with his sword and blood starts pouring out of it, because that's the sort of movie this is.
Fast-forward a few centuries to London circa 1897, where handsome young solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) has been tasked with traveling to Transylvania to take care of a real estate transaction for the mysterious Count Dracula. He bids farewell to his fiancee Mina (Ryder again) and makes the long journey to Dracula's creepy estate. There, he slowly makes the horrifying discovery that Dracula is no mere man, but some sort of demonic, shape-shifting creature who feeds on human blood. Dracula hadn't planned to hold Jonathan captive, but after seeing a picture of Mina and discovering that she looks just like his late wife, he becomes determined to win her affection.
The film follows the plot of Stoker's novel a bit more faithfully than most other Dracula movies (hence the title), but Coppola amplifies the tale's mad, feverish tone considerably. Every single aspect of the movie – Wojciech Kilar's stormy music, Michael Ballhaus' striking cinematography, Dante Ferretti's gloriously opulent production design, the larger-than-life performances – seems designed to give the whole affair a sense of grandeur. You can almost hear Coppola's voice offscreen: “Give me more... more... MORE!” The film often seems drunk on its own stylishness, often losing control of the narrative while diving headfirst into another memorably inventive dissolve (a tip of the hat to the person who came up with the idea of transforming puncture wounds on a young woman's neck into a wolf's glowing green eyes).
There's never a dull moment in the movie, but the general lack of self-control has a price: the whole thing starts to feel exhausting before the movie hits the finish line. Coppola cranks the volume up to 10 right off the bat and just leaves it there, so we're more or less numb to the film's gleeful energy and wild visual ideas by the time we reach the action-packed third act. Additionally, there's a curious lack of focus in the storytelling department, as Coppola can't seem to decide who the film's central figure is (or who we're supposed to be sympathizing with). For a while, it seems like Jonathan's movie... but his story is ultimately just a prologue to Dracula's story, which is basically a complicated lead-in to Mina's story, which leads to a tale that eventually places a good chunk of its focus on esteemed vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins, The Remains of the Day). It's an ensemble movie, but the pieces don't fit together as smoothly as they should.
Part of the reason the cast doesn't quite gel the way it ought to is that most of the actors seem to be performing in different registers. Even so, there's plenty to enjoy. Oldman's performance is the sort of overacting that only he can get away with... he plays every emotion as intensely as possible and ends up feeling perfectly in sync with the film's overall tone. His commitment is what sells it: no matter how ridiculous the performance gets, it's built around a potent core of heartbreak and rage. Hopkins goes over-the-top, too, but in a considerably more playful way. Van Helsing is the man cackling with glee as the world falls apart around him; a thrill-seeker who gives the initial appearance of muted respectability but shows his true colors during moments of crisis.
Meanwhile, the younger stars are doing quieter, more human-scale work. Ryder fares fairly well as Mina (she certainly sells the tearful moments of fear and concern), but Reeves is so terribly miscast as Jonathan that you can't help but snicker every time he pops up (Coppola later admitted that he only cast Reeves because he needed a marketable heartthrob in the movie). Elsewhere, Tom Waits turns in a fairly ridiculous performance as Renfield (who comes across as “Igor on bath salts”), Sadie Frost is enthusiastically sensual as the ill-fated Lucy Westenra, and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I) and Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) play a trio of goofy young suitors who spend the first half of the movie lusting after Lucy and the second half vowing to avenge her.
This is a messy movie, but it's an interesting mess that ultimately feels unified by Coppola's consistently bombastic direction. For all the darkness and violence, it's obvious that the director is having an enormous amount of fun with this thing, and you sense how much he enjoys playing with material that allows him to be so shamelessly melodramatic. Every other scene feels like it might be the grand finale of a different movie, which makes watching the film feel like overeating at a buffet: you're weary of it by the time you're finished, but that won't stop you from going back for more once you get hungry again.
Bram Stoker's Dracula
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Year: 1992