Dir Francis Ford Coppola/1992
You ever have one of those movies that you didn’t like the first time that you watched it, but you keep returning to over and over? Me too. It’s been 25 years since its release date, and I think Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is finally starting to grow on me.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was Coppola’s most audacious film since One From the Heart. When the box office failure of his Las Vegas-set musical fantasy put a stake through the heart of his production company, American Zoetrope, Coppola had to turn away from personal projects and move into ‘Director for Hire’ territory. There’s nothing wrong with a director attaching themselves to a project they didn’t originate- Spielberg does it all the time and he can make those projects his own. After One From the Heart, however, Coppola played it safe. This is partly because he had been tagged as a difficult director who routinely blew budgets and shooting dates (somewhat deserved), but also because Coppola was in deep debt and needed quick payouts and fast! Without detracting from the merits of films like The Outsiders, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Tucker: A Man and His Dream, it’s hard to watch his output in the decade following One From the Heart and connect them to the same man who brought us the fever dream that is Apocolypse Now.
There’s no denying, however, that Dracula is a film that is comes from an unleashed imagination. It’s unrestrained and positively dripping with cinematic overindulgence. It’s the film equivalent of a chocolate lava cake covered in vanilla whipped cream and a bourbon butter sauce drizzled on top. With cherries. It’s so over-the-top in its visual and aural richness that it should be criminal, but it absolutely works. The novel is a horror story with some very evocative imagery, but it is still a product of it time in its late-Victorian primness. Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes the implicit explicit and gives its audience a grand guignol opera filled front to back with sex and blood. Everything is turned up to eleven. The audio track is filled with animal sounds, growling and hissing, when it is not given over completely to Wojciech Kilar’s bombastic score. The set design fills each frame with every conceivable flourish. And Eiko Ishioka’s costumes… Oh, Lord, what costumes! Coppola wanted the costumes to be envisioned as characters in their own right. There’s no wonder that the performers had to ‘play to the back of the theater’ just to avoid getting swallowed up by all the detail and richness that surrounded them (yes, yes, we’ll get to Keanu Reeves in a bit).
When I first watched Dracula in the theater during its initial release, all of that richness really turned me off. I have a strong ‘less is more’ mindset, and feel that while rivulets of blood running from a stone crucifix can be creepy and unsettling, gallons of blood geysering from it shoots right into farce. And yet, watching the movie again this time around, right on the heels of a rewatch of Apocalypse Now, it clicked with me. The film didn’t change at all, but I was watching it with older, more experienced eyes. The risks Coppola were taking with it were apparent, and I am more familiar with his total oeuvre all these years later. It is now plain how Dracula fit into Coppola’s canon with its operatic structure and its powerful editing. Watch again the scenes where he cuts back and forth between Harker’s and Mina’s wedding and Dracula’s brutal murder of Lucy and tell me that doesn’t come from the same man who directed the baptism sequence at the end of the first Godfather.
Now this isn’t a perfect film, and parts of it haven’t aged as well as others. The performances of the two romantic leads, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder leave a lot to be desired- especially Reeves, who is way out of his wheelhouse in this movie. I still don’t care for the way the story tries to sell Dracula as a tragic romantic hero during the middle act. It feels like we’re suppose to be rooting for his reunion with Mina, but we’ve been shown that Dracula is a murderous, baby-eating monster. Kind of hard to get on board once you’ve seen that. Finally, while I like Annie Lennox’s Love Song for a Vampire as a pop song, it just feels tonally out of place even if just played over the end credits.
Coppola had no guarantee a movie as stylized as Dracula would work. The last time he attempted anything like it was 1980’s One From the Heart. That musical fantasy, set in an obviously artificial Las Vegas, bombed hard. It’s production costs were astronomical, due in part to those large, extravagant Las Vegas sets, and in part to Coppola’s over-investment in video tools he hoped would allow him to direct the film remotely. The movie needed to be a monster-sized blockbuster to even begin earning a profit, but it just didn’t connect with an audience, and they stayed away. As a result, Coppola was forced to sell American Zoetrope to cover the debts he incurred, and he lost a great deal of the independance he had throughout the 1970’s. For a director like Coppola, that loss hurt more than the financial one.
Dracula, however, would not repeat that history. By the end of its theatrical run, Dracula had earned over $215 Million on a $40 Million budget. Video sales and rentals, and regular rotations on television and, later, streaming services add to this considerably. Film critics generally liked it, although no one seemed to really love it. Prominent critics such as Vincent Canby of the New York Times, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times, and Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle gave the film favorable reviews, and all remarked on what Ebert referred to as the film’s “feverish excess.” The movie won the Academy Awards for its costumes, sound effect editing and makeup, and was further nominated for its art direction.
After Dracula, Coppola would direct just two more movies before retiring from filmmaking for nearly a decade: Jack (1996) and The Rainmaker (1997). Although they vary widely in their quality, they were a return to his safe style of filmmaking of the 1980’s. Coppola would be much more experimental again with his low budget- but deeply personal- films in the new millennium.: Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011). He hasn’t yet been able to recapture cinephiles’ hearts, and his film work has taken second place to his other interests such as his winery. Coppola managed to surprise everyone with his wild adaptation of Dracula and he still might surprise us all yet again. Until then, Bram Stoker’s Dracula remains what might be Coppola’s last great movie. Ask me about it again in another 25 years.