Vampires, like many mythical creatures, are not new. Considering that they are nearly immortal, this isn’t terribly surprising. Barring some less than favorable iterations, vampires suffer few weaknesses: daylight, garlic, holy water, crosses, wooden stakes, and of course overuse. We have a tendency recycle familiar entities, retelling old tales. By nature, humans are creatures of habit, and our fascination with creatures of the night persists. Dracula’s story isn’t quite novel, and with another version imminent, undoubtedly with the intention of banking off the Halloween craze, it’s worth returning to the definitive version: “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Campy, kinky, and loaded with talent, it’s a gorgeous portrayal of the Prince of Darkness.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 “Dracula” opens with a retrospective of Dracula’s origin. Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman), of the Order of the Dragon, comes back from battling the Turks and discovers his wife has killed herself. In a fury, he swears vengeance upon his wife’s damnation, and destroys his chapel. Piercing a cross, blood oozes out which Dracula drinks, transforming him into a vampire.
Flash forward to 1897, and we meet solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves). Harker receives ownership of Count Dracula’s account. His predecessor, Renfield (Tom Waits), has seemingly lost his sanity, thus Harker travels to Transylvania to solidify Dracula’s real estate deal in London. The Count glimpses a picture of Harker’s fiancé, Mina (Winona Ryder), and believes her to be the reincarnation of his deceased wife Elisabeta. Kidnapping Harker, Dracula sets sail for London, where he attempts to woo Mina. Escaping, Harker seeks help from the legendary Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to combat Dracula.
Coppola’s epic vision, coupled with phenomenal talent, propel “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” to the forefront of Dracula adaptations. The sets are gothic and sprawling, particularly the Count’s Transylvanian abode. Special effects lend a cartoonish surreal quality to the film, which enhances the fantasy elements of the narrative. The plot highlights the erotic aspects of vampirism, from Dracula’s brothel of wives who hold Harker captive to the Count’s lust for Mina. Luckily, Coppola drizzled a healthy dose of campiness which refreshes the age old tale. Don’t expect “The Evil Dead” slapstick, but the starched seriousness which plagues many an adaptation is thankfully absent.
Acting truly sets “Dracula” apart from competing creatures of the night, not surprisingly considering the veteran cast. Keanu Reeves helps considerably when infusing a quality of camp, particularly when visiting the Count early in the film. The always on Anthony Hopkins nails Abraham Van Helsing, portraying the monster hunter as a driven genius. Winona Ryder lends Mina an ethereal look, and bolsters the idea that she is the reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead wife. Gary Oldman, however, sinks his fangs into the audience and doesn’t let go until the credits roll. In true Oldman style, he’s unrecognizable even between the old and young Dracula in the movie. From the disfigured Mason Verger (“Hannibal”) to the wizened George Smiley (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”), Oldman magically transforms into character. At this point, Oldman himself may not even remember his natural appearance.
While it may not be the first cinematic interpretation of Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s retelling is arguably the finest modern version. Notably, Hammer Studios produced a great Dracula series with Christopher Lee as the Count, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Coppola’s production, however, benefits from advanced special effects, a monstrously talented cast, and unique perspective. The concoction of superb acting, enchanting sets, and a truly singular approach stakes “Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s” claim as the ultimate Dracula film portrayal.