Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Revised Assessment)

Over three years ago in this space, I posted a review of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic 1992 re-telling of the late 19th century novel.  This version was originally seen in the December 1992 edition of OMNIA, Delta Secondary School’s news magazine.  Without rehashing too much of what I wrote in that May 28, 2006 entry, let’s just say that rage was all I felt when I looked at that issue for the first time.  (Click the link to find out why.)
At any event, the critique that was submitted for consideration was much longer than the published version.  Two whole sections were excised as well as a few other random sentences, not to mention a few credits.  How do I know this?  This unaltered incarnation of the review was included in The Movie Critic: Book One, my unpublished manuscript of raw, unpolished opinions that was put together between June 1992 and March 1993.  It was number 117 in the running order.
Upon reflection, I’m not too thrilled with how the review was both written and edited 17 years ago.  Having thought about this numerous times and having finally sat down to look over my original thoughts, I’ve decided to do something I haven’t done before:  publish an improved version of a previously posted review.
As you will see, there’s far more plot summary in this revised assessment, not to mention restored credits, slightly more critical commentary on Keanu Reeves’ bad acting as well as a reworked intro and different conclusion.  I’ve decided to drop my original views on the film’s ending and its musical score.  I’m puzzled as to why I thought the final scene was "weak and inconclusive" considering how brutally violent it is and how it leaves no loose ends untied.  Chalk it up to sloppy, careless writing, typical of that period of my life.  I can’t for the life of me remember a single note of music from the movie and I’m willing to bet it’s not as "wonderfully orchestrated" or "enchanting" as I originally wrote.  To be safe and more accurate, I’ve left that comment out, as well.
All the other changes are pretty obvious if you compare the two reviews.  Without further ado, here’s the updated, improved version of a film I first screened almost 20 years ago.  Enjoy. 
Adult Accompaniment
135 minutes, 1992
Gary Oldman–Count Dracula
Winona Ryder–Mina Murray/Elizabeta
Anthony Hopkins–Van Helsing
Keanu Reeves–Jonathan Harker
Richard E. Grant–Dr. Jack Seward
Sadie Frost–Lucy Westerna
Tom Waits–Renfield
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Fuchs and Charles Mulvehill
Screenplay by James V. Hart
Music by Wojoiech Kilar
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
From the long, black cape to the dark, slicked back hair, the image of Dracula in 1931 was an unforgettable one, a blueprint established by Bela Lugosi that would be imitated and parodied for decades to come.  The role was a breakthrough for the struggling Hungarian stage actor and he would work steadily, mostly in the horror genre, for the rest of his life.  Unfortunately, it would remain his only iconic performance.
In director Francis Ford Coppola’s visually impressive remake, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, underrated (but exceptional) British actor Gary Oldman takes over the title character in this stylish re-telling that focuses more on the 15th and 19th Century settings of the original novel than previous cinematic incarnations.  It is a truly excellent performance that should’ve definitely earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.  (Sadly, he was overlooked.)
The movie opens in the late 1400’s.  A war is raging with no signs of a cease fire.  Prince Dracula, not yet a vampire, is a heroic Christian fighting for the freedom of his people.  Out on the battlefield, he is extremely confident in his abilities.  He proves to be a valiant warrior annihilating any and all enemies who dare to engage him in combat.
Meanwhile, his wife, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder), has been given some devastating news.  Her husband has died in battle, she’s told.  Immediately following her shocked response, she commits suicide by drowning.  Unfortunately, the new "widow" was misinformed.  Prince Dracula is still very much alive.  In fact, he returns to his castle just as his dead wife is being laid out on the floor.  He doesn’t take the news well.  Renouncing God over his sudden, needless grief, he unsheaths his sword and pierces it into a large cross directly behind him.  Like a human being, it gushes blood as the film’s title blazes across the screen.  It’s a fantastic transition.
The story then jumps ahead to the 19th Century.  Dracula is now an immortal buying up some real estate in London, England.   A miscast Keanu Reeves plays Jonathan Harker, a woefully unprepared agent assigned the seemingly innocent task of showing him property around the area.  He’s replacing another agent who was devoured by the Transylvanian vampire and his three lovely companions.  Harker seems destined to meet the same fate.
When Dracula learns that Harker is engaged to a prim and proper woman named Mina Murray (Ryder again in another excellent performance), he is stunned.  She looks exactly like Elizabeta.  Separating his new real estate agent from his bride to be becomes an immediate priority.  Their first meeting is quite memorable.  Dracula appears as an elegant old man, polite and ever attentive to his guest’s comfort.  Oldman clearly outshines his stiff, unconvincing costar.  When Harker accidentally cuts himself with a razor, Dracula sneaks a taste.  Creepy.
Despite his seemingly genteel manner, Dracula makes an unreasonable demand of Harker.  He wants him to stay in his castle with him for a month.   (I’m not sure any explanation is given as to why the unarmed Harker neither objects nor even asks about the reason why he must obey this order.  To his credit, he’s well aware that something is not right based on the reaction his client gave to Mina’s picture.)  Sometime after that confusing scene, Harker becomes overwhelmed with the presence of Dracula’s predatory but lovely companions.  Any chance of remaining loyal to Mina is impossible and it’s not his fault.
After securing the rights to more scattered properties across the city, Dracula, in a much younger appearance, seeks out Mina.  Eventually, a romance blossoms between the two of them which, inevitably, causes problems later on in the film.  I wouldn’t dream of revealing how that all turns out.
Other key characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula include Professor Van Helsing (a smart and comical performance by the great Anthony Hopkins who also narrates), an experienced and crafty vampire hunter who leads the crusade against the seductive vampires; Lucy (the vivacious Sadie Frost), an engaged friend of Mina’s who juggles four lovers including her fiance (Cary Elwes) and, of course, Dracula, who manages to drive her wild while resembling a wolf (well done, sir); and Renfield (a gritty and demented Tom Waits), a man driven insane by his blind loyalty to Oldman.
Despite these fine performances, terrific visuals and an unsettling, sexy atmosphere, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is far from excellent.  Like Batman Returns, it could’ve been so much more.  It’s a good thing Keanu Reeves has limited screen time here.  His performance pales against his co-stars in every scene he’s in.  He should’ve been replaced long before production.  
In the end, it’s Gary Oldman who stands out the most amongst the cast.  Charismatic, devious and obsessed with rekindling a lost love in the form of a more than willing doppelganger, he easily eclipses Bela Lugosi’s famous portrayal by utilizing the latter’s dramatic pause technique (sparingly, it should be noted) yet avoiding any silly over-the-top gestures that would hurt his own credibility.
Alternately spooky and tensely sexual, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite falling short of excellence, is a good film worth seeing.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 23, 2009
9:55 p.m.
Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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