This was written for The Pointer, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Other headlines in the same issue, published in November of 1992, include “Videos produced on Point’s award winning recycling,” “Freeze tuition costs!” and “Do you know where your deer tags are?”
With lush imagery and stunning special effects, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is unlike any other horror film you’re likely to see. The blockbuster hit flaunts the fact that it’s the most faithful adaptation of the 1897 Bram Stoker novel, but the story itself seems secondary to the grandiose staging and the swirling, dizzying visuals.
The film casts Gary Oldman (“Sid and Nancy,” “JFK”) as the notorious Count Dracula and portrays the vampire as a tragic figure. Dracula is less a monster and more a sympathetic figure who renounces the church after a priest declares that his wife will not be allowed into Heaven because she took her own life. As the nineteenth century comes to a close, Dracula is locked away in his Transylvanian castle, appearing as a withered old man to a law clerk (Keanu Reeves, his weaknesses as an actor in full display) who has journeyed from London to help the Count process some property purchases.
The Dracula we see in these scenes is a marvelously crafty creature, lapping blood anxiously off of a shaving razor or being betrayed by his own shadow, which creeps along as a separate entity, trying to throttle the clerk when Dracula’s anger rises. Oldman successfully makes the transition into portraying Dracula as an alluring, romantic man as he travels to London in an attempt to win the affections of the clerk’s fiancee (Winona Ryder), who looks exactly like his former wife. Through the lens of director Francis Ford Coppola, Dracula is a sensual beast, filled with enticing danger and capable of anything, even deep compassion. In this film, the vampire is more complex than the average night stalker.
Yet it is the trickery of the camera that seems to fascinate Coppola more, as he lets the character be buried in a muddled, at times incomprehensible, story that is often made worse by Coppola’s desire to make practically every scene change into an experimental meshing of images. The further the audience gets distanced from the story and the characters, the more difficult it becomes for this film to be scary, or even mildly disturbing. The film’s unwillingness to try to jolt the audience with cheap shocks is a welcome change from the usual horror fare, but even as scenes portray twisted, bloody madness, the film is never able to become as unsettling as it aspires to be. In fact, it can’t even send the least frigid chill up the spine.
Coppola creates a grand Gothic darkness, but the effect is minimal. The film holds us at a distance, allowing us to marvel at the images without letting them become intense or disturbing. The visuals are so overwhelming that the film’s simplest pleasure wind up being what works best: the tender moments between Dracula and his beloved, or the wryly perceptive performance from the great Anthony Hopkins as Abraham Van Helsing, the vampire hunter. Francis Ford Coppola may have crafted a big screen, dreary nightmare, but he’s eliminated the unpredictable frights, leaving only the disjointed confusion.