Saturday 20 June 2015

The courtship of Mr Dracula

I don't know Francis Ford Coppola, obviously. But Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) suggests something about the director behind the project: namely that, stung by the middling reviews and accusations of cash-grab filmmaking that dogged him in the wake of The Godfather Part III, Coppola decided to make the most spectacular, overtly 'artistic' picture he could. And if the result was a film that would inspire devotion from some and bile from others, so much the better, for no-one could accuse him of playing it safe for guaranteed box-office returns.

Obviously, that may just be a fiction. But it would explain some of the eccentricities in Bram Stoker's Dracula, a film so chock-full of odd choices that it barely resembles a coherent narrative at all. An undead love story invented from scratch, perching precariously atop an almost slavishly orthodox retelling of Stoker's novel; milquetoast, bland performances right next to unfettered scenery-chewing; out-there visuals that never cohere as an aesthetic - Dracula has it all, and then some. It's a film of a thousand ideas, many of them clashing with each other in what could not possibly be classified as a success, but rather an endlessly watchable, legitimately fascinating failure.

The plot: in the fifteenth century, Prince Vlad of Wallachia (Gary Oldman) fights the invading Ottoman Empire. While he is gone, his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) receives a false report of his death and kills herself in despair. Overcome with rage and grief upon his return, Vlad curses God, drives out his priests and becomes an immortal bloodsucking fiend.

In 1897, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to Transylvania to seal a real estate deal with Count Dracula (Oldman). Arriving at Castle Dracula after an unsettling journey, he soon finds the count a strange host: besides being the only person Harker ever sees, Dracula also appears oddly obsessed with blood and medieval history and nurses a worrying hatred of mirrors. Harker soon realises that he has become the count's prisoner. His purchase of Carfax Abbey in London completed, Dracula departs the castle for England...

... where the psychiatrist Dr Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant) is troubled by his patient Renfield (Tom Waits), who rambles about 'the master' and has taken to devouring spiders and small insects. Meanwhile, wealthy socialite Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) has become engaged to Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), despite also being courted by Seward and Holmwood's friend, Texan Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell). Lucy becomes ill after being found wandering outside at night by her friend, and fiancée to Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), who happens to look exactly like Elizabeta. Lucy's strange case leads Seward to consult his mentor Abraham van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile Mina's seemingly chance acquaintance with a recently arrived Transylvanian prince turns into a mutual obsession...

There are too many Dracula adaptations out there to claim that Bram Stoker's Dracula is the most faithful of the lot, but it undoubtedly hews far, far closer to the text than other well-known film versions. The film does actually reproduce the whole of Stoker's novel from beginning to end, missing virtually none of its beats (and if this seems like nothing special for an adaptation, please consult the 1931 and 1958 films). In places this is faithfulness for faithfulness' sake: the character of Quincey Morris remains exactly as inessential as he is in the novel and could easily be merged with Arthur Holmwood, but Coppola chooses to keep him in there. The devotion to the source material extends to seemingly trivial details earlier versions saw fit to dispense with.

And yet! The narrative structure of the novel is presented pretty much unchanged, but the story is completely different. Where Stoker wrote a Gothic horror novel about a sworn group of men fighting the vampiric villain who targets 'their' virtuous women, Coppola's is a tale of irresistible love/lust between an immortal lover and the reincarnation of his true love. The novel is terrified of female sexuality (Lucy's attempts to attack Holmwood are one with her amorous advances, forcibly interrupted by Van Helsing in his dual role of vampire hunter and chaperone), but the film's Lucy acts downright shockingly liberated (to put it politely) to begin with. Meanwhile, the overtly physical love between Dracula and Mina does not bring the latter to perdition, but helps the former renounce evil.

Adopting the novel's structure but repudiating its reactionary ideas does not, to me, work particularly well: it  turns the film's heroes into fools for at least the film's third act, when they're supposedly racing against time to stop evil. It also forces Oldman to portray two totally different characters: a hammy centuries-old monster liberally quoting Bela Lugosi's performance in the role (literally: his line readings of "I am Dracula. Welcome to my home" and "... What music they make" blow Lugosi's right out of the water, besides being a lot of fun for the actor), and a sensitive romantic lead. Both are fairly compelling, but they're impossible to reconcile as a single figure.

That decision also amplifies the tendency of the other performances to feel like they're from totally different films: Keanu Reeves's bland presence is frequently criticised, but his is a thin straight man part in which he acquits himself reasonably, mind-bogglingly horrible 'English' accent aside; Grant's twitchy Seward, a theoretically rational scientist who runs a nightmarish Bedlam while addled on then-newfangled drugs; Hopkins's Van Helsing, insane on a level that's occasionally amusing but clashes so badly with the other performances that several scenes he's in just fall apart; Elwes, a little unsure if his performance is an homage to or a parody of Errol Flynn. Ryder is, I think, the standout: her accent, too, is weak, but she never ceases to be convincing as the story's heart.

The film's enormous problems with its tone extend to the visuals, which are proudly overblown and lush but incoherent, throwing around idea after idea just to see what sticks. Some are fantastic: Castle Dracula, looking like a sinister enthroned figure against the backdrop of the Carpathians; vampire Lucy in her gorgeous and terrible shroud; the count suddenly dissolving into a mass of rats. Others are much less successful (Dracula's costume and makeup in his initial appearance are strikingly different from the usual 'You'll know I'm a vampire because I wear a cape' interpretations, but they're somewhat awful on their own merits).

It all adds up to a film that has a thousand things on its mind: being an homage to earlier iterations of the material (Coppola quotes without restraint from the genre's classics); half-baked explorations of fin-de-siècle signifiers like the cinematograph and absinthe-fuelled decadence; a young-and-sexy updating of Dracula for the MTV generation; a visual playground for an undoubtedly creative team; occasional questionable forays into horror-comedy (there's a particularly tasteless cut - you'll know it when you see it) -

- and, somewhere in there, an honest-to-God vampire picture that disregards an ossified cinematic tradition around Dracula to arrive at a totally new look at the count. Coppola foregrounds the beastly, feral nature of Dracula, his menacing presence - tinged with temptation - outside civilisation's hall and its hearth-fire in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. It feels at times as if Coppola is adapting not Stoker, but a take Angela Carter might have devised on Dracula.The result is a film that's unlike any other bloodsucker film out there. Unfortunately, its extravagant ambition never coheres. It's not boring for a second but, alas, that doesn't mean it's any good.

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