Where do I start in reviewing such a masterpiece? Francis Ford Coppolla directed what is generally considered the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, and for most people’s money (including mine) Gary Oldman (JFK, Léon The Professional) delivers the most definitive and frightening incarnation of Count Dracula. This all can easily be attributed to James V. Hart’s screenplay being so rich in character, dialogue, and respect to its source material. Coppolla delivers quite the intriguing visual experience, and while many of the effects are dated by today’s standards, they fit in well with the style and tone of the film.
The tale of Dracula is one of love that endures through death. Dracula (Gary Oldman) was once a soldier fighting the Turks in war, and was a man of faith. Unfortunately, despite his victory over his foes, the Turks brought word of Dracula’s death at their hands, and his dearest love, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) is stricken with such unbearable grief that she plunges to her death. When Dracula returns to learn this, he is driven into a maddening rage. He cannot understand how his God would allow this injustice to happen. He renounces God, shuns him, and practically declares war against him. Dracula vows that he will rise again from his own death to avenge the death of his beloved.
Flash forward to some centuries later, and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent out to meet with a mysterious Count in Transylvania after one R.M. Reinfield has gone wholly mad. The Count is set to move into a new estate in England, and Mr. Harker is there to deal with the final paperwork and such. Jonathan must leave his beautiful wife-to-be Mina (Winona Ryder), but the Count becomes aware that his beloved has been reborn as Jonathan’s own. Harker is very mystified and weary about the strange happenings at the castle all throughout this land of Transylvania, and soon, he falls prey to the Count’s evil. Dracula soon begins his quest to reclaiming his eternal beloved, but as he moves in closer and closer, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is brought into the mix. Dr. Jack Seward (who has been overseeing a clearly certifiable R.M. Reinfield) calls him in, being an old student of the Professor. Soon, Van Helsing deduces the supernatural happenings, and concludes it is the work of the undead, a nosferatu, a vampire. Soon, the hurt begins, and there is much carnage left on the path to the ultimate confrontation between the living and the undead. The story comes together in a very unique way, and very fitting for this strange tale of love that will never die.
The creature effects here are outstanding! The creatures of the night are given a massive life of their own, and will frighten you to a great extent. The makeup effects on Oldman are stellar as well, making him look to be a very elderly Count, or the wonderfully young Prince Vlad. The transformations the character goes through are simply amazing, and just on these levels, it beats out all other cinematic presentations of Dracula (or most any other vampire). From wolves, to giant man-bats, to god knows what other unholy abomination. Coppolla and Columbia definitely spent their money well on the makeup effects. As stated earlier, the visual effects are rather dated, but they fit well into the overall look and style of the film. However, they were all created practically, in-camera without any optical or digital composites. Coppolla details this well in the special edition DVD release.
I’m really eager to speak about the acting in this film, but not for the reason you may think – Keanu Reeves. Okay, I happen to be a Keanu fan. I’ve seen many of his films from Bill & Ted to Point Break to The Matrix to Constantine to Street Kings, but frankly, hearing Keanu trying to pull off a genuine English accent is bad cinema, really bad. And him working off of Gary Oldman for most of the film only makes him appear worse than he’s being. Keanu can deliver a fun and/or interesting performance in the right film, but this just doesn’t play to his style. Reportedly, Coppolla cast Reeves just so he’d have a “hot young star to appeal to teenage girls.” Why he felt that was required, I don’t know, and again, I have nothing but respect for Keanu, but this just wasn’t his kind of role. Anyway, onto the strong performances. Gary Oldman is where it all lies here. A Dracula film hinges on the power of the actor in the title role, and you couldn’t get any better than Oldman. The man has proven his diversity in countless films, and is absolutely one of the greatest actors of our time. He plays the infamous undead Count with such insidious charisma and lust. As the elderly Dracula, he is very creepy, eerie, and devious. He plays it up so well that it’ll make your skin crawl. As the young Dracula who attempts to illicit the love of Mina (Winona Ryder), he’s very mysterious, seductive, and still rather creepy. All in all, it’s a masterful performance, and it baffles me why Oldman wasn’t nominated for an Oscar or a Golden Globe. He did win Best Actor at the Saturn Awards, though. Joining him on the darker side of things is Tom Waits as the delusional and especially crazed Reinfield – a wonderfully satisfying performance. He certainly brings a special flavor to his few scenes acting as a prophet of doom (kind of like Crazy Ralph in Friday The 13th, only completely out of his mind).
On the protagonists’ side, we have the ever impressive Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Mask of Zorro) as the venerable Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Hopkins’ performance is quite lively and jovial, but overall powerful. It’s a clever and endearing performance, and despite the character’s unorthodox, verbose style, he really makes himself a favorite. He portrays a very interesting adversary for the immortal undead Count of Transylvania. While Hopkins easily has the hero lead, you also have great talents such as Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Saw), Richard E. Grant (Warlock), and the female lead in Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands, A Scanner Darkly). Winona does a fine job in this role which requires strength, fear, vulnerability, and simple beauty. She’s the object of obsession for Count Dracula, and she is the woman he has renounced God for, and has forced himself into eternal damnation over. All of these marvelous talents are well handled by the very seasoned Coppolla who is no stranger to star studded cast overflowing with sharp talent.
The score from Wojciech Kilar is absolutely awesome. It’s practically operatic, and very dramatic stuff. It’s grand, it’s powerful, and scary all at the same time. It’s an absolute wonder to experience, and makes the film even better than it was. This music is so haunting at times, and frankly, this is how a classic horror film should sound. I can’t say anything negative about it because it makes the film so much larger than life. It enhances everything on screen.
The costume design is as intricate and detailed as you would imagine. It has depth and character to it as well as grace, and in other parts, a very strange appeal. Oldman’s wardrobe is especially impressive and has become iconic. Every character is aided and enhanced by their wardrobe, and it helps breath further life into the picture. In addition to the fantastically exhaustive production design work, it gives the picture a sense of texture, personality, and history.
All in all, every part of this film makes it live and pulsate with power. Aside from Keanu, all the performances are masterful, the makeup effects are absolutely amazing, and I challenge you to find a more intense classic horror film score than this one! Overall, this is one solid, taut, and frightening film from a master filmmaker in Francis Ford Coppolla. If you’re looking for a genuinely scary, haunting, and chilling horror film – you absolutely cannot go wrong here. Frankly, I do not have the knowledge to compare this to every other Dracula film that’s come around, but general consensus has left this fine film with a strong reputation that has endured. I am glad to contribute to that with a solid endorsement for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.