- by Jeff Beck
Bram Stoker's Dracula: Beautiful, but Heavily Flawed (Blu-ray)
For nearly 100 years, filmmakers have been bringing the infamous Count Dracula to screens both big and small, leaving us with enough adaptations of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece to fill an encyclopedia. These adaptations range from outstanding works of cinema, such as F.W. Murnau’s masterful 1922 silent film “Nosferatu” and Terence Fisher’s “Horror of Dracula” from 1958 with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, to ones that succeed thanks to their strong performances, such as Tod Browning’s 1931 classic starring Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan and John Badham’s 1979 adaptation starring Frank Langella and Sir Laurence Olivier.
When it was announced that master filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather Trilogy,” “Apocalypse Now”) was going to take a stab at this oft-filmed novel, there was little doubt in the minds of critics and the public that he would give us a hell of a show. After all, the man already had five Oscars to his name, and nine other nominations besides, so he could seemingly do no wrong. Little did we know that it would be an unexpected turning point in this once great director’s career.
This version of the classic tale begins by giving us some backstory on how Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) came to be the force of evil that we know him as. Centuries ago, he was a knight defending his country from invaders. During the battle, his wife is tricked into thinking that he has been slain, leading her to commit suicide in despair. Finding her dead upon his return, he renounces his faith and turns himself over to darkness. In present day (1897), a young clerk named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to Count Dracula’s castle to finalize a real estate deal for several houses in London, a trip that forces him to leave behind his soon to be wife, Mina (Winona Ryder).
However, Jonathan soon finds himself a prisoner of the Count, who leaves the young man behind to be fed upon by his three wives while he travels to London. After taking up residence in Carfax Abbey, the Count begins feeding upon Lucy (Sadie Frost), the young woman that Mina is staying with while Jonathan is away. Meanwhile, he begins to seduce Mina, whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his late wife. All seems to be going according to his plan until a doctor friend of Lucy’s calls in an expert in diseases to determine just what has happened to her, a man by the name of Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), who happens to know all about the undead. With Mina’s life in danger, Van Helsing must devise a way to stop the Count before he is able to take control of her completely.
Taking into account the numerous times this story has been brought to the screen, there is certainly little doubt that this is one of the most opulent adaptations to have ever been produced. The costumes, makeup, and production design are simply stunning, with the first two actually earning Oscars and the third nabbing a nomination. The design team certainly spared no expense when it came to giving the film a sense of time and place, building an atmosphere that would help draw the audience into this late 19th century tale of gothic horror. No, their craft can certainly not be blamed for what resulted from this misguided attempt to bring Stoker’s novel to the big screen once more.
But where exactly did such a grand production go wrong? This version, it would seem, was cracking at the foundation before the cameras even starting rolling. Its major downfall lies in a very uneven and downright dull screenplay by James V. Hart (“Hook,” “Contact”) that tries to jump back and forth between horror and romance that borders on melodrama. As if that weren’t enough, the film is also stretched out to over two hours and features a glacial pacing that does nothing to help its already problematic structure and content. On this point, they should have taken a cue from some of the previous well-told versions, none of which needed nearly that long to tell the tale (“Nosferatu” and the 1931 film run about 85 minutes each).
As mentioned earlier, some adaptations have managed to lift themselves up based solely on the strength of their cast, such as the 1931 classic that features excellent performances from Bela Lugosi as the Count and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing, the latter of which gives the film most of its gravitas. However, for Coppola’s version, the cast is nothing particularly special. Oldman does a fine job as the Count, delivering what is arguably the best performance in the film, but Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Van Helsing is very one note and bland, and the less said about the terribly miscast Keanu Reeves, the better. All this is to say that this is one instance where the ensemble was not able to save a film that was suffering from some deep-rooted problems from the very start.
It’s such a shame because this is a rather beautiful film, but no matter how well dressed and made-up Coppola made it, it wasn’t going to solve the issues that needed tending to in the script. What we’re left with is a gorgeous, but tedious adaptation of the classic tale that feels confused about its own identity, leaping this way and that, while at other times just meandering about. Luckily there are plenty of other versions out there that do this classic story justice, so all that one needs to do is seek out one of the better-told adaptations to satiate their vampiric needs, leaving behind Coppola’s unfortunate and forgettable misfire.
This special edition of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” comes to Blu-ray in a fantastic 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that has been remastered in 4K, making the film look better than it ever has before. As has already been mentioned several times, this is a gorgeous film, so it’s great to see that such care was taken with the video so as to bring out its visual beauty. The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio has also been cleaned up very nicely, giving you the dialogue and the dark, brooding score in excellent quality. Overall, the film has been given outstanding treatment that will give you the best experience possible.
Commentary with Director Francis Ford Coppola, Visual Effects Director Roman Coppola, and Makeup Supervisor Greg Cannom: A fascinating track that reveals a lot about the making of the film. Definitely worth listening to.
Commentary with Director Francis Ford Coppola: A track that contains a few interesting tidbits of its own, but is ultimately not quite as informative as the first track.
Introduction by Francis Ford Coppola (4 Minutes): A brief intro in which the director discusses his experience with and approach to the material.
Reflections in Blood: Francis Ford Coppola and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (29 Minutes): An interview conducted with Francis Ford Coppola about the film. It doesn’t really cover anything particularly interesting, so it’s not really worth watching.
Practical Magicians: A Collaboration Between Father and Son (20 Minutes): A fascinating interview with Francis Ford Coppola and Roman Coppola in which the effects for the film are discussed.
The Blood is the Life: The Making of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (28 Minutes): An older featurette featuring interviews with the cast and crew in which the story and characters are discussed. It’s worth watching, particularly for all of the behind the scenes footage that’s included.
The Costumes Are the Sets: The Designs of Eiko Ishioka (14 Minutes): An interesting look at the costumes designed for the film, discussed through interviews with Eiko Ishioka and Francis Ford Coppola.
In Camera: Naïve Special Effects (19 Minutes): A neat featurette in which the special effects are discussed, detailing several of the practical and in camera tricks used.
Method and Madness: Visualizing Dracula (12 Minutes): Another intriguing featurette, this time taking a look at the overall design of the film.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (28 Minutes): A hefty collection of deleted material that will be of great interest to fans of the film.
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of “Dracula” may be decadent in its overall design, but with a heavily-flawed script that produces an uneven tone and deathly-slow pacing, it becomes nothing but a dull, misguided version of Stoker’s tale that will leave you yearning for one of the classic cinematic renditions of the story. At best, it remains a mere curiosity that shows how even a director as great as Coppola can have trouble bringing to life a work that several others have already done successfully.
Available on Special Edition Blu-ray starting Tuesday.
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