Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the original King of the Vampires, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of the most unlikely blockbusters I can think of. Everything about it seemed ripe for failure: It’s far too artsy, the plot itself is vague and unengaged, the actual scares and gore horror movies are known for are pretty few, and it’s completely self-indulgent. Yet, armed with a production budget of $40 million, it went on to make $215 million worldwide.
The main reason, I think, that it was so successful is simple. It’s fucking gorgeous to look at.
The majority of effects are completely practically filmed, utilizing techniques that could have been available to a production team in the 1930’s. Many of the most recognizable effects, like the Count’s shadow on the wall, are created by something as simple as an off-camera spotlight with another actor standing in for the “shadow.” Instead of using CGI to create the effect of the chariot driver’s endlessly long arm, the chariot was rigged with a seat that tilted, leaned and reached in the same direction as the camera’s dolly track.
Other, more practical means of creating an effect are eschewed. The shot where Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is traveling by train to the Count’s castle in Transylvania and a series of images shows him writing in his journal while a train chugs by in the distance, the easiest thing to do would have been to get a shot of a guy writing a book and overlay it against a shot of a train going by. Nothing is simple in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Rather, a huge book was constructed specifically for this shot and never used again while a miniature train was constructed to go back behind it.
These small details are important when selling to an audience the universe that a specific movie takes place in. Suspension of disbelief is important for any movie, but that suspension of disbelief has to be earned. A director can’t say, “Well, it’s just a movie, so…” and expect people to swallow plot holes. Instead, you must make that abundantly clear from that get-go that what you’re watching is a story that doesn’t exist on the same logic you and I are used to. This is a theatrical, beautiful-to-look-at production with silly things going on and the whole point of it all is to escape the world that we know and live in this macabre creation for a little while. And, at that, I think Francis Ford Coppola succeeds tremendously. He reminds everyone why he’s a master of the craft. He can frame a shot like no one else and then command the camera to move at such a deliberate pace, whether it’s flying through the air, circling a ring of fire or just establishing a location, he knows the language of film.
When Dracula (Gary Oldman) is caught seducing Mina (Winona Ryder), in any other movie you might be able to question why Dracula wasn’t more careful. If he knew men were hunting for him, why was he so clumsy in his reveal? Well, frankly, it just doesn’t matter in a movie like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, because we want to see what happens next without regard to things like logic or reasoning. We want to see the inevitable happen, because when it does happen it’s going to be a marvel to look at it. How we get there isn’t nearly as important as what finally happens.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a movie more concerned with set-pieces, cinematography and action than with writing, plotting or acting. Keanu Reeves, who I actually like a lot, just gives such a piss-poor performance here. I mean, it’s like at no point does the director ever tell him, “Okay, you’re being held prisoner here and you’re scared. Act scared!” Instead, Keanu acts and reacts like a man from Mars unsure of Earth Behavior… but it’s almost sort of the point in a movie like this. The whole thing was an excuse for a fun time in a dark setting with bloody themes and the important things that fall so flatly are just secondary.
Gary Oldman as Dracula and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing seem to be the only actors who are totally aware of what kind of movie they’re in, and so they have fun howling at the moon, stomping about the sets and acting completely and utterly insane. They realize that they’re not the real stars, the wildly designed special effects are, so why not let loose and pretend your day at work is a day just playing make-believe, like you’re getting paid to celebrate Halloween?
Oddly enough, the love that Dracula feels toward Mina doesn’t feel secondary to the visuals. It feels real and sincere and unlike anything else in a Hollywood movie. I do believe that he loves her immensely, and it made sense to me when she decided to love him in return.
After suffering massive failure after massive failure, Francis Ford Coppola desperately needed a hit, and that he chose to go about this way is either the dumbest idea I can think of, or completely brilliant—because he succeeded, in the end. When I think “massive success” I rarely think of stream-of-consciousness type horror movies with completely experimental special effects. I guess if you throw in an obligatory shot of Monica Bellucci topless, you’re going in the right direction.
21 years after its initial release and Bram Stoker’s Dracula is still one of the most attractively filmed movies you’re going to see. Everything about it is perfect, right down to the colors of the sets and the creations of the costumes. The sound design is underrated (note the scene where Van Helsing informs the suitors to a vampire victim the truth of Dracula… you can hear him growl and a bat screeches across the sky, but it’s barely audible) and the composed score is, without hyperbole, one of the finest films scores for a horror movie that’s ever been recorded.
If you go in knowing that, you can safely turn off your brain and ignore some ham-fisted acting and clunky writing. Those things don’t matter. What matters is seeing Dracula as one of the scariest werewolf costumes and Tom Waits shouting in a strait jacket.