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Defending the “Guilty Pleasure” BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Defending the “Guilty Pleasure” BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Bram Stoker’s Dracula made its theatrical debut 25 years ago, opening at number one at the box office with a then-huge $30 million take, and going on to make some $82 million over its run domestically and $215 worldwide. That’s not bad for a horror movie now, much less in 1992.

The movie couldn’t have been more hotly anticipated, thanks largely to a cast including Anthony Hopkins, fresh off of playing Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Hollywood’s “it” boy and girl of the moment Keanu Reeves and  Winona Ryder, and character actor Gary Oldman as the titular count. But the most exciting prospect: director Francis Ford Coppola, who hadn’t made a film since completing his The Godfather trilogy in 1990. Even though he’d made several flops by this time, Coppola was still Coppola, he of the Godfather films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.

Of course, the film didn’t live up to the director’s finest in most critics’ eyes, and hasn’t exactly aged well in the eyes of the public. The best you’ll hear most people call Bram Stoker’s Dracula today is a “guilty pleasure.” But this is a film that deserves far better than that.

Sure enough, Bram Stoker’s Dracula packs plenty of amazing material. Coppola decided that he wanted the film to be an homage to classic horror, averting the use of any modern visual effects, instead employing techniques that had been used since then days of silent films like Nosferatu.

Then there is the absolutely stunning production design, and the even more gorgeous costume design by Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka. Coppola’s directive for “the costumes to be the sets” yielded outfits you can’t take your eyes off, from Dracula’s red velvet cloak to Lucy’s funeral dress that makes her look like a lizard on the prowl.

The score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar is also another significant triumph of this film. How good was it? For the rest of the ’90s, outtakes from the score were seemingly used in every other trailer for any movie that was heavy or serious in the slightest. Today, Kilar’s name isn’t as well known as some other film composers, but the score for Dracula is without question a masterpiece.

And of course, we can’t not talk about Gary Oldman. At the time, Oldman wasn’t terribly well known; if you did know who he was, it was from supporting roles. But from the moment he steps on screen, he chews the scenery in the best possible way. Likewise diving in with gusto are musician Tom Waits as Dracula’s human slave Renfield, Anthony Hopkins as a slightly insane version of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing, and Sadie Frost, who camps it up as Dracula’s lady victim Lucy Westenra.

Yet with all these positives, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has earned status predominantly as a guilty pleasure. For starters, the acting from Keanu Reeves as the stalwart hero Jonathan Harker is an example of one of Hollywood’s very worst attempts at an English accent from an American actor, and Winona Ryder does not come off much better. But the movie has even deeper problems than this pair’s performances.

Coppola wanted to be the first person to properly adapt Stoker’s book. If you’ve never read it, you might not realize what a daunting task this is. Stoker’s 1897 novel is written as a series of correspondences, diary entries, and newspaper articles, making the structure very wonky. Such is why most famous adaptations of Dracula, such as those of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, have dumped the epistolary structure for something more straightforward. Because of his need to adhere to the book’s format, the movie feels less like a story and more like a series of scenes strung together, with weird voice overs that come and go.

And yet, despite all these flaws and the overwrought campiness of this film, I keep returning to this movie over and over. Its combination of incredible visual and sonic appeal kind of cast a spell on me every time, and even the bad parts (basically, all the Keanu scenes) give me a chuckle; I wouldn’t place a better actor in the role now even if I could. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a watch, if only to witness its visual grandeur. Your mileage may vary with this film, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses for me each and every time. And I can promise you it’s still better than Twilight.

What do you think of Coppola’s version of Dracula, and how do you see it stack up against other adaptations of Stoker’s classic? Be sure to let us know your thoughts down below in the comments.

Images: Sony Pictures

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