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‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 13, 1992


Francis Ford Coppola
Gary Oldman;
Winona Ryder;
Anthony Hopkins;
Keanu Reeves;
Richard E. Grant;
Cary Elwes;
Bill Campell;
Tom Waits;
Sadie Frost
Under 17 restricted
Costume Design; Makeup; Effects

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In "Bram Stoker's Dracula," director Francis Ford Coppola wins endless vam-Pyrrhic victories but loses the narrative war. Not so much a story as an endless dreamscape, this "Dracula" is peculiarly undead.

For one thing, the 130-minute drama goes on forever. For another, it feels like neither a success nor a failure, living in its own world of maddening oppositions: It's enthralling in many places, dull in others. It's as wondrous as it is overextended. You can't tell if this is a flawed masterpiece or an intricately designed bag of wind.

Thanks to masterfully wrought special effects and an extraordinary lead performance by Gary Oldman, there is much to marvel at and enjoy. At the same time, there's nothing inside those swirling, dry-ice reveries.

"Dracula," which also stars Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves and Anthony Hopkins, is an evocative visual feast. But the meal is spectral, without the dramatic equivalent of nutritional value.

Like most screen Draculas, from Max von Shreck to Frank Langella, Oldman's dark prince has weathered time's ravages. The movie opens in 1462 with Oldman as Dracula's original incarnation -- Romanian King Vlad the Impaler, who defends Christianity and skewers Saracens.

When his enemies send fabricated word to Oldman's beloved princess Ryder that her husband has been killed, she hurls herself from the castle ramparts. The death triggers Oldman's desertion of the God he once defended. Stabbing the cross and causing it to bleed, he triggers self-damnation and heartbreak through the ages.

Four hundred years later, company envoy Reeves visits Oldman's Transylvanian castle to discuss the old vamp's London landholdings. When Oldman sees a photograph of Reeve's fiancee (Ryder), he tearfully realizes his princess has returned. It's time to reclaim his love.

What follows is an astounding array of images, sensations and visual juxtapositions too numerous to outline. There are prescient themes of blood taintings, sexual liberation and scientific ignorance. There is alarming eroticism, including an eye-popping scene in which three surreal, alluring Brides of Dracula seduce castle-prisoner Reeves.

The movie's also full of bizarre, intentionally campy humor, as Hopkins's Dr. Van Helsing matter-of-factly seeks a few good vampires to decapitate; and Tom Waits (as the wonderfully lunatic R. M. Renfield) nibbles like a gourmet on maggots and flies.

Oldman is the strongest reason to see this. Through a wide variety of mutations, from bloody warrior to dandy, from old man to young lover and from man to wolf, he maintains a mournful, powerful, lovesick presence. The makeup serves him, rather than the other way around. He may well have reached his acting zenith here.

Ryder and Reeves are young, talented people acting in less-than-demanding roles. She's suitably chaste and delectable. He's a perfectly innocent, 19th-century goofball. More interesting work comes from British newcomer Sadie Frost as Ryder's friend and soon-to-be vampire. She's not only talented and vivacious, she may be the only actress around with little need for stage teeth.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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