Francis Ford Coppolla’s "Dracula", based on the 19th century novel by Bram Stoker, offers a surprising mix of romance and horror. On the surface, it appears to be nothing more than another blood-gushing, shadow-dwelling montage of evil and death. But would Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman really accept such drab confines? The story refreshingly journeys beyond the macabre to present a character true to Stoker’s brilliance: one both tormented by loss and spurred by desire. This is not just a horror movie. It is about a new kind of anti-hero in very old world.
No character, not even the Transylvanian prince for whom the movie is named, takes center stage. The film meanders between Mina (Wynona Ryder) and her diary, to Jonathan (Keanu Reeves) and his, to Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and his age-old crusade, finally back to Dracula (Gary Oldman) and the devastating consequences of his grief. Each character is intentionally overdone, perhaps in a homage to the theatrical origins of Bram Stoker, but this aspect only adds to the uniqueness and intrigue of the film.
Hopkins – made famous by his stone-cold portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in 1991 – portrays the unabashed ego and eccentricities of Dr. Van Helsing with ease, falling into the role as though made for it. Similarly, Oldman’s rendition of Dracula embodies both nobility and humanity; one never doubts that the Dracula on-screen was once royalty, nor does one question his love for his wife. He becomes simultaneously capable of extreme sadism and unexpected compassion in Oldman’s hands.
Stringed instruments weave throughout the film’s score to evoke age and history, the lost worlds of both the Carpathian wilderness and the gray propriety of London. The chords become dark and brooding with menacing cellos when Dracula’s anger surfaces, but then recede into nostalgia with high-pitched violins – perhaps meant to mimic human cries – when he thinks of his past. The setting crosses back and forth between Transylvania and late 1890’s London, the former full of shadows and wolf howls and the latter gray and misty.
Several scenes even include signs pointing on-screen characters to the Lyceum, the theater where Bram Stoker worked as a manager. Such small details help exhibit the care and respect with which the filmmakers handled this project. Finally, the darkness of the whole film, whether evoked through shadows or literal night, forces the audience to remember that despite the fully humanized plot, "Dracula" is at heart a story of one man’s descent into evil.
The movie continually juxtaposes scenes of actual film footage with puppet stages and theatrical curtains, both of which suspend the audience’s perception of reality. Narrations by all members of the cast prevent the movie from becoming solely about Dracula’s bloodlust or cheap horror. At slightly more than two hours, "Dracula" constantly remains aware of itself. It tells its story, then makes a quiet, poignant exit.
While it certainly employs some of both, "Bram Stoker’s Dracula" transcends both gore and horror to become a movie equally concerned with light as it is with darkness. No character is perfect, no hero blameless. For those willing to tolerate its eccentricities, it is celluloid theater at its best.