What Dario Argento’s Suspiria did for witches, and what Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu did for haunted houses, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula does for the titular vampire: create a film as out-there as the myths & tales themselves. Dracula is a character immortalized in pop culture, born out of the 1897 novel by Irish author Bram Stoker and adapted into a string of acclaimed films, including F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Tod Browning’s Dracula, and the beloved Hammer Films series of Dracula pictures starting with 1958’s Horror of Dracula. What sets Coppola’s take on the character apart from the previous is how he approaches the material. Though there are certain things to be noted.
To say James V. Hart’s script is the heart of the film would be a bit of a disingenuous claim. While Hart crafts a unique version of the tale of Count Dracula, one drenched in eroticism and Gothicism with a tragedy behind it all, it simply isn’t the sharpest tool in Coppola’s shed. It serves in organizing the film and the events of the story well enough, and there are a lot of great bits of character writing, particularly for Dracula, but it does get rather confusing in its progression, muddled even. The actors and actresses all play their parts with a great level of investment and enthusiasm, safe for two. And yes, it is our two leads. Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost, and the rest of the ensemble are all enveloped by the material and sets; they are the characters. But in the case of Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, they seem like they’re sleepwalking through the film. Their performances are subdued, emotionless even. Ryder does fair better though, thanks to her chemistry with the young Count and her role in the film’s finale, giving her some of her best scenes. And to be fair, Reeves’s first scene with Dracula’s brides is terribly effective, in part due to his performance. But on the whole, there is no real damage done knowing where the heart of the film truly lies. And that place is in the production itself.
I associate Coppola’s Dracula with Argento’s work and Obayashi’s cult classic as these are dreamlike films, films that focus on creating a sensation, an emotion, and an impression. Coppola doesn’t screw around when it comes to crafting this sensation. He guides everyone through the film through a combination of offset requests, such as having actors hanging out to improve their onscreen chemistry, and by emphasizing the surreal, expressionistic qualities of the material, with a parade of references to classic German films like Nosferatu and Faust, and even a nod to Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 horror film Vampyr. Coppola lets the camera linger on baffling and grotesque imagery, including a bestial creature in two striking scenes with Lucy. He also builds up the presence of Dracula very well, particularly through the use of shadows and striking effects shots, such as Dracula’s eyes being superimposed on a shot during Harker’s journey to Transylvania.
Thomas Sander’s production design and Andrew Precht’s art direction have been praised to the high heavens, and I’m joining the chorus on this one. If there was ever an apt description, it would be Mario Bava directing a Hammer horror film. The potent saturated colors of films like Blood & Black Lace are combined with the gloriously moody and macabre depictions of London and the Count’s castle, as seen in the best of the Hammer library, to yield a powerful effect, a flooding of the senses that elevates the film well above other renditions of the tale. The award-winning costume design by Eiko Ishioka also fits in well, especially considering how it is stylistically reminiscent of costuming for traditional Kabuki theater. Dracula’s look, notably the long cape seen early on in the film, is a very extravagant piece of work that develops this massive personality and creates a sense of nobility that the Count maintains in his old age.
All of this is captured by the expert lens of Michael Ballhaus, echoing his ability to film striking uses of color in his collaborations with Martin Scorsese such as The Color of Money and Goodfellas. But here, here it is above and beyond the call of duty. Like with the aforementioned Suspiria and Hausu, the extreme saturation and creative lighting schemes are shot elegantly. Ballhaus uses wicked Dutch angles and tracking shots that further escalate the already operatic and unsettling atmosphere born out of the sets and the majority of the performances. The effects work, too, is another aid in creating this larger-than-life atmosphere surrounding the Prince of Darkness. Coppola sought to employ practical effects, with a heavy emphasis on miniatures, front projections, and gruesome makeup effects. This creates a morbid fantasyland for the story of sensuality and horror to unfold.
Then there’s that score. Polish composer Wojciech Kilar brings a lush, ballsy gothic score to the film. Percussive, romantic, and explosive, this score completes the atmosphere by drenching the film in shower of robust choral passages, a yearning love theme that reaches for the heavens and carries with it a tinge of Bernard Herrmann’s own gothic tendencies, and thunderous themes for the two warring forces of Dracula and the Vampire Hunters led by Van Helsing. It remains a supremely effective and doom-laden effort that puts the final nail in the coffin in creating this opus of visual gothic horror.
This film, in spite of its script’s odd and often messy handling of the story, and the emotionally nonexistent performances of its romantic leads, Dracula is a must see of modern expressionist horror. It explores stylistic excesses that have been part of the major appeals of German expressionism and Italian horror. Its unashamed focus on creating a glorified tragedy of the Dracula character is on full display through every element of the production in terms of the technical. It pretty much blew my mind with its scale and surreal scope. A remarkable rendering of Stoker’s character that is horror eye-candy in the first degree.