As Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman, in the dread Count's root incarnation), he wielded a bloody scythe in defense of God and Christendom, slaughtering thousands of invading Turks and defying death 10 times over, only to find that as his reward his beloved Elisabeta (Winona Ryder, in one of her two roles) has plunged to her death in despair over a false report that Vlad had perished in battle.
Vlad, it's fair to say, does not take the news well.
He curses God for his betrayal and (ooooops!) himself by promising to bedevil God for all eternity, sentencing himself to a timeless existence beyond the grave, without life, without love, without end.
These operatic emotions are the cornerstones of Coppola's "Dracula." They cry out for excess -- of blood and spectacle, of design and costuming and makeup, of innovation and imagination -- and that's precisely what Coppola and his collaborators have supplied. In making "Dracula," Coppola is working out of the back row of his Crayola box; his palette is as fantastic as it is obscure, with colors almost recognizable, but simultaneously foreign, richer and more intense than in memory.
This is Coppola the master showman, the conjurer and maestro, directing at full tilt. If you've read that Coppola is attempting to make himself bankable again, he's not doing it by playing safe. Stoker's "Dracula" is a 100-year-old story, and more than 100 different versions of it have made it to the screen. Will this "Dracula" replace F.W. Murnau's 1922 original "Nosferatu" as best of breed? No, but that's a false comparison.
Coppola's "Dracula" is probably closer in spirit to an epic fantasy fable like "The Thief of Bagdad" than to Murnau's astringent classic. It's sexy and bloody and, to my amazement, R-rated, but in a stylized, Grand Kabuki manner that lifts the action (including the sex and violence) from our normal sphere of reality to the realm of timeless, primal tales. It is Coppola's most lavish and, certainly, his most flamboyant film; never before has he allowed himself this kind of mad experimentation. And never has he executed these feats of prestidigitation with such control, or such childlike pleasure in playing with his cinematic toys.
This cuts to the heart of it because Stoker's original version is a Victorian child's-eye view of love as a horror story -- and that's how Coppola has presented it, as a fairy tale, a children's story with fangs.
It's also witty and self-mocking and in places almost hokey. But that's not a fault; it's part of the fun. This is a film that invites you to laugh at it, to smirk at the wooden innocence and squaresville purity of the young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) and his budding fiancee, Mina (Winona Ryder). It wants us to delight in the thumb-sucking lascivity of Sadie Frost's Lucy, or the grungy, insect acting of Tom Waits as Dracula's earlier victim, Renfield.
We laugh, too, at Gary Oldman's Count Dracula, but that may be a case of whistling in the graveyard. This Dracula is truly frightening -- especially early on, when Harker, acting on orders from his law firm, travels to Castle Dracula in the Carpathian wilds, four centuries after Vlad imposed his curse, to make adjustments in the count's will. There he is, the perfect marriage of 100-proof predatory aggression and seductive mandarin decadence -- with his nine-inch nails, his absurdly prissy bouffant and his Caligula giggle: "The Prince of Darkness."
"Listen to them," Dracula says, turning his ear to the wolves howling outside his castle. "The creatures of the night. What music they make!"
What Oldman does vocally in these early scenes is nothing short of genius. The dexterity and snaky complexity of his line readings is both awesome and inviting. His voice is that of a somnambulist, soothing and playful. What a bedside manner this guy has! What's fun too is that, ever so slightly, we hear the perverse timbre of Bela Lugosi's inhuman intonations in Oldman's Transylvanian purr. This is a subtle reference, but it conveys the spirit of playfulness that drives his performance.
Oldman is less compelling as a younger man (he can change shape at will), when he travels to London to reclaim his lost love, Elisabeta, who has been reincarnated at the end of this Victorian century as Harker's fiancee, Mina. As a result, this section is spottier, and its experimentations less consistently successful, than the first. Oldman is the force that holds all these elements in balance, and when his magnetism wanes, the movie suffers.
Luckily, Anthony Hopkins is present to take up some of the slack with his portrayal of the Dutch metaphysician, Van Helsing, who assists his crew of bumbling vampire-slayers (all suitors of Mina, played by Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes and Bill Campbell) in ridding themselves of their undead blight.
Hopkins's syphilitic Van Helsing is almost as far out as Oldman's Dracula. He's mad, of course, and capable of saying or doing just about anything, but he is on the side of the angels. And Hopkins uses just the right pinch of comic hamminess to season his performance.
Though Oldman and Hopkins are the acting stars, Eiko Ishioka, the Japanese artist who designed the magnificent costumes, Thomas Sanders, who designed the sets, and Michael Ballhaus, who executed the dream-vision cinematography, deserve equal billing.
"Dracula" is Coppola's illuminated manuscript of Stoker's classic, working into the visual mix the collection of letters, logs and diary entries by which the story is told, as if the book were actually coming to life before our eyes. Coppola himself seems to be doing the same; he has awakened, perhaps not as fully as the artist who directed the first two "Godfather" films and "Apocalypse Now," but certainly as visionary entertainer and miracle worker. He no longer walks the night.
"Bram Stoker's Dracula" is rated R for nudity and suggestiveness.
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