Ask someone what they think of when you mention Dracula, and it’s either Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. Lugosi so embraced the character that rumor has it his dying wishes were to be buried in the vampire cape. As for Lee, he brought the character to the post-WWII Technicolor era through the Hammer films. There were other Dracula adaptations and performance with Frank Langella portraying him during the early part of the 20th Century. Duncan Regehr played him in The Monster Squad so well that even though the movie wasn’t well received at the time in 1987, his performance is considered one of the best. Even Jack Palance donned the vampire fangs.
So by the time, Franic Ford Coppola was set to bring the bloodsucker from Transylvania to the silver screen, some people wondered what could be different. Well, for one thing, the movie would be an honest adaptation where as previous movies had just used the character. Werner Herzog had directed Klaus Kinski similar to the Max Shreck version but had gotten the two women roles reversed in Nosferatu The Vampyre.
Winona Ryder had brought the script written by James V. Hart to Coppola’s attention. Ryder had initially been cast as Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III before having to drop out at the last minute due to exhaustion. This led Coppola casting his own daughter, Sofia, in the role, much to a lot of criticism. To prove there was no animosity between the two, Coppola was iniitally intrigued by the idea. He said Hart’s script was focusing more on the erotica and sensuaity of Stoker’s novel, something that earlier adaptations couldn’t show. Coppola saw the film as a challenge as he would shoot it all on soundstages to give it that old-fashioned Victorian era feel. There also would be no computer-generated special effects and all would be practical.
The story takes us back to the beginning in 1462 in which Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) is battling the Ottoman Empire following the fall of Constantinople. Even though he is victorious in battle and survies, vengeful Turks shoot an arrow through the bedroom of his wife, Elisabeta (Ryder), spreading false information of his death in battle. She jumps from her castle window to her death. Since she’s commited suicide, a priest (Anthony Hopkins) tells Vlad that Elisabeta’s soul won’t go to Heaven. Enraged, Vlad renounces God and stabs a cross in the chapel which flows blood that he drinks becoming the vampire.
Then, we go to London 1897 where a young solicitor, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), has been tasked with taking up the work of his colleague, R.M. Renfield (Tom Waits) who has returned from Transylvania insane eating bugs and worms. Renfield is under the care of Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant) at the mental hospital near Carfax Abbey. Renfield had been visiting Dracula to sell him property in London before returning raving mad. Jonathan is told that if he travels to Transylvania to close on this deal, it will be very beneficial for him.
He leaves his fiance, Mina (also Ryder) with her long-time friend, Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost), a wealthy young debutante. He travels to Transylvania to meet with Count Dracula (Oldman) to close the deal. But even though the count’s castle is dark and empty, Dracula notices a picture of Mina in Jonathan’s possession and how much she looks like Elisabeta. He more or less forces Jonathan to stay for a month to help him get use to the customs of England.
But what Dracula wants to do is have three of his brides seduce Jonathan and drink his blood making him weak. Dracula takes off toward London stashed in boxes of dirt from his home to help him stay healthy. On the ship Demeter, he feeds on the crew before it arrives in the port where he can seduces Lucy to feed on her blood and woo Mina. At the same time, Lucy has taken up a suitor Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) as her fiance while remaining friends with Dr. Seward, also a suitor, and an American cowboy, Quincy P. Morris (Billy Campbell), who both help her when her behavior and health changes.
Jack calls in his mentor Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (also Hopkins) to come and help him as he’s needs help to treat Lucy. Mina also faces a dilemma on whether to remain with Jonathan or begin a new life with Dracula who appears in London looking younger than the old man he was in Transylvania while wth Jonathan. It’s implied resting in the earth has made him appear young. Dracula is able to change his appearance to look like a human bat, as well as shapeshift into a werewolf and even as a green mist and rats.
Is Mina the reincarnated version of Elisabeta? Dracula tells her he “crossedd oceans of time” to be with her. It could explain why Mina is so smitten with Dracula when he appears as a younger man in London. At the heart, is a movie about a woman torn between two men, one that she loves in the present and one that she may have loved in the past. Since Elisabeta’s soul didn’t go to Heaven as the priest said, it’s possible she’s been reincarnated over the centuries.
What Coppola and the cast have done is make a modern day old-fashioned movie. Prior to principal photography, Coppola had much of the principal cast rehearse their scenes for two weeks as if it was a play. While Oldman and even Ryder are perfect in their roles, Reeves has taken a huge hit over the years for his performance. Originally, Christian Slater was offered the role but turned it down, later regretting it. Coppola said they tried to get a “matinee idol” for the role since the role of Jonathan isn’t that good. Granted, it’s not written well. I’ve never read the original novel by Stoker completely but most of it is taken from diaries and journal entries. As Jonathan is mainly an observer, Reeves is never really given much to do except react. His accent is awful.
Oldman said he wanted to work with Coppola and the “oceans of time” line was what attracted him. At this time, he was still known as mainly a character actor. Having him in the role is a good move by Coppola. Surprisingly, Ryder is perfect in the Victorian era role. This would kinda become a recurring motif for her during the 1990s as she would go on to play 19th century characters in Little Women and The Age of Innocence (which despite the Family Guy joke earned her a well-deserved Oscar nomination.)
The rest of the cast is perfect. Hopkins portrays Van Helsing as an middle-aged man who might be a little crazy like Dracula. He was fresh off his win as Dr. Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs and that English theater experience, which Oldman also has, is needed for the role. Waits is a big surprise as Renfield as he seems just suited for the role. Grant, Elwes, Frost and Campbell all seem suited for their roles even if they are mostly given little to do but remain in the background for many scenes.
Produced on a budget of $40 million, it made over $215 million at the box office worldwide and would help another period piece vampire novel, Interview With the Vampire, which Slater did appear in, go into production have being in development hell for some time. That movie was also a box office success. At the 1995 Oscars, Bram Stoker’s Dracula received four Academy Award nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Sound Editing. It lost the Best Art Direction category to Howards End which takes place in the Edwardian era which was during the first decade of the 1900s.
However, an attempt by Coppola and Hart, as producers, to duplicate the success with 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did bode well with critics nor the audiences as Dracula had. In America, it was a box office bomb but still made $112 million worldwide against a $45 million budget. It didn’t help that Interview, which was more anticipated with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as vampires, opened the following weekend. Just like Universal’s failed Dark Universe, the book was closed very quickly on more accurate film adaptations of classical sci-fi/horror movies.
While the cast has all gone on to more success. Oldman and Hopkins have won Best Actor Oscars in the years since. Ryder had more success in the 1990s and then on Stranger Things. Waits continues to act most notably as a prospector in The Ballard of Buster Skuggs directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. And Elwes, Grant and Campbell continue to appear on popular TV shows and in movies. Monica Belluci has appeared in The Passion of the Christ as Mary Magdalene and The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions alongside Reeves, whose career has exploded so much he can look at roles like this as a teaching moment.
Sadly, Coppola would be the one to suffer some big problems. People were surprised to see him directing Jack with Robin Williams in the mid-1990s. Even his work on John Grisham’s The Rainmaker seemed more like a hack director position than what most movies he was notable for. It seems he would become more famous for disputes with studio executives behind the scenes as he had legal problems with Warner Bros. over Contact and a Pinocchip movie. Then, he was brought in by MGM to re-edit the sci-fi movie Supernova so it would get a PG-13 raiting which ended up sitting on the shelf for two years. Walter Hill had directed it and the movie was notable for using the psuedonym Thomas Lee. Since the late 1960s, Alan Smithee had been used as a psuedonym for directors not taking credit but had been discontinued in the late 1990s.
After a couple of decades of releasing re-edits of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather Part III as well as making smaller movies, he reportedly is set to direct Megalopolis in Georgia which has an all-star cast reporting consisting of Dustin Hoffman, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Driver, Laurence Fishburne and Forest Whitaker among others. So, it looks like Coppola who is 83, might be back in the limelight one more time.
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