Bram Stoker’s Dracula, (also known simply as Dracula) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is supposedly more “faithful” to Stoker’s novel than previous versions. That subservience to the book may seem like an unusual act of modesty, but in fact, Dracula is practically the height of cinematic arrogance and a perfect example of how telling the same story as a novel is not synonymous with literary fidelity. It is a hugely successful adaptation, but no one’s idea of modest.
Besides, even Tom Browning’s creaking theatrical adaptation, with Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance, follows Stoker’s action pretty closely. The real distinction (and I suspect purpose) of Coppola’s film is to overwhelm the viewer with a cascade of startling, foreboding images, staged and cut so quickly that we are left gasping in awe. In literary terms, Coppola’s only original contribution is to treat the Count as a tragic figure, pining for centuries for his lost love. Gary Oldman does surprisingly well with that conception, conveying both the Count’s loneliness and his reserves of vicious, horrific violence. The rest of the cast, however, including Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Cary Elwes barely emerge from under their exquisite trappings. Tom Waits as the psychotic Renfield has a grand old time disgusting us with his diet of spiders and grubs, while Anthony Hopkins, as van Helsing, substitutes mannered eccentricity for character.
But then, so does the film. While Dracula was produced before digital animation made elaborate visual effects commonplace, its surfaces remain impressive. A touch too impressive, in fact. The glitter, part Jügendstil, part Gothic horror, part Symbolist decay, helps to recreate the over-heated, neurasthenic fin-de-siècle as a rapidly spinning jewel of diseased extravagance. Green fog that transforms into rats; pillars of blue flame; writhing snakes in the hair of Dracula’s brides; one striking effect after another tumbles off the screen. There’s no generosity in it, however, no desire to please, just to overwhelm. The brilliance is too showy and aware of its daring not to be just a touch off-putting.
There’s thematic justification for such Mannerist display, but unfortunately, everything is pitched at such a level of treble-range rhetoric, it is as if the film were meant to be screamed, not screened. (That’s almost literally true of some of Wojciech Kilar’s score.) In the absence of any normality, the smashing, beautiful, extraordinary and terrifying effects are ultimately cloying, too rich, ornate, anxious and neurotic to create anything more than a dazzling one-off. It is certainly no surprise that the film did not initiate a host of imitators (other than Kenneth Branagh’s lamentable Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, produced for Coppola). Coppola’s Dracula is nonetheless a worthy addition to the genre. If it does not quite succeed in making us forget other films in the genre, that failure may result from its determination to overwhelm. All the frenetic technique comes close to being a pain in the neck.