Friday, October 17, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 16 - Bram Stoker's Dracula

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

The November 1992 issue of Fangoria - the cover of which refers to Bram Stoker's Dracula as "The Horror Event of the Decade!" - features an interview with director Francis Ford Coppola about his then-new film. Coppola talks at length about his attempt to make an experimental film out of Bram Stoker's novel, while the studio wanted a big, lavish A-list horror movie. At the end of the interview, he concludes:

 "The irony is that even though this film didn't turn out as experimental as I originally planned - I got maybe 40 percent of what I was going for - it's still not your conventional movie. Certain aspects of it got away from me, got bigger than I intended; I was looking at making a smaller, stranger, artier version, and what I got is a big, strange, artier version."

It's a familiar narrative turn of events in Coppola's career, the intention of making a small art film ballooning into something much larger. In this case, though, Dracula turned out to be the rare unqualified hit of Coppola's post-'70s career, largely thanks to a very effective marketing campaign - the movie's gorgeous poster was ubiquitous that fall, as were the many bits of cross-promotional ephemera (the VHS release featured ads for the soundtrack and the Sega Genesis game). The movie itself didn't prove to be the horror event of the decade, and it remains divisive among horror fans, but Coppola did succeed in making a uncommonly idiosyncratic blockbuster - with its opulent, romantic approach to horror, Dracula is very much of its time, but there hasn't been anything quite like it since.

Personally, I've always been a fan of the movie, which I wanted to see as badly as most of my peers wanted to see Home Alone 2: Lost in New York that fall. I had to wait until the following summer to see it on video; admittedly, my attention flagged a bit in the last half-hour, by which point everyone in the cast is yelling all of their dialogue, but I liked the movie for the reason many critics didn't, the way it aspired to elevate Dracula to the level of high art while still indulging in gratuitous T&A and as much onscreen bloodletting as the average splatter movie. Seeing it on the big screen several years later, I was able to fully admire Coppola's attempt to tell this story in purely visual terms, as though it were a silent film; the movie's over-the-top visual spectacle may not always be dramatically coherent, but between the lavish production design, the extraordinary costumes by Eiko Ishioka (who deservedly won an Oscar for her work on the film), frequent Fassbender collaborator Michael Ballhaus' cinematography, and the stunning visual effects (supervised by Coppola's son Roman), which were mostly achieved in-camera, the movie's accomplishments are unique and ambitious enough to forgive its occasional missteps. It's playfully inventive and proudly disreputable in a way that Coppola's films wouldn't be again until his most recent, Twixt.

The first thing people are apt to remember about Dracula, of course, is Keanu Reeves' performance as Harker, particularly his oft-parodied British accent. Ever since I read an interview with Coppola where he mentioned that he wanted Johnny Depp for the part (the studio didn't think he was a big enough star at the time), I can't help imagining an alternate universe Dracula that, with that one change, is celebrated as a classic. Beyond that, I'm the fan of all the performances - yes, everyone is chewing the scenery, especially Anthony Hopkins, but naturalistic performances would have been drowned out by the scale of the production. It's the kind of movie where a curly-mustached Cary Elwes can burst into a room and bellow "What the devil is going on hee-ah?" and it just feels right. Other standouts in the cast include Tom Waits playing Renfield as a bug-eating Tom Waits, and Sadie Frost, who takes the typically thankless role of the best friend who Dracula seduces first and makes something special out of it - she's sexy in a way that made me uncomfortable as a kid and probably more so as an adult (the whole movie is luridly sexual - it's probably unnecessary, but I'm not complaining). And while the character of Mina doesn't require as much from Ryder as her much more interesting performances in movies like Heathers and The Age of Innocence, this might not matter if, like me, Winona circa 1989-1994 was one of the earliest and most influential crushes of your formative years.

It's Gary Oldman, though, who steals the movie; he's my favorite screen Dracula after Christopher Lee, and his chameleon-like talents are perfect for Dracula as conceived here. Managing to convincingly act through the several complex makeup designs created by Greg Cannom (also a deserving Oscar winner for his work here), Oldman is equally convincing as a decrepit elderly Dracula, a young heartthrob Dracula, or a six-foot-tall bat. His romantic scenes with Ryder are straight out of a Harlequin novel, but he's persuasive enough that when he bares his bleeding chest for Mina to drink from, you can see how she might be into it. Dracula was one of the first in a wave of movies, like The Crow and Interview with the Vampire, that took a Gothic, romantic approach to dark subject matter that appealed to young audiences, particularly teenage girls. Years later, it's easy to trace a line from these films to the Twilight series, though fans of Dracula would likely sneer at the comparison. The truth is, they tap into the same fantasies, though, compared to Stephanie Meyer's chaste sexuality, Coppola's film is practically pornographic, and delightfully so - I can't believe I've reached my conclusion without discussing the blood-drinking orgy scene. Ah well, another time, perhaps.

U.S. Release Date: November 13, 1992 (Also released that day: Traces of Red, Love Potion no. 9, Tous les Matins du Monde)

What critics said at the time:

"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." - Desson Howe, Washington Post

"Boring? Empty? These adjectives accurately describe most Hollywood pictures I see week after week, all of which have easily definable heroes, plots, conflicts, and resolutions, and as few ideas of any kind as possible--visual, thematic, stylistic, or otherwise. If anything, Bram Stoker's Dracula suffers from a surfeit of such ideas, not to mention a surfeit of characters and action. If you require your entertainments to be easy to follow and to synopsize or review afterward, you'd be better off heading for Aladdin." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Readers

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