EXTRAORDINARY. WHERE TO BEGIN.
You know maybe all the way at the actual beginning, because I had seen this movie before, but when I was 18, and for CLASS. Not a real class though, a fun wintertimes class as part of my college’s January term. It was called ‘Victorian Monsters’ and we read Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Dracula, and talked a lot about how the true monster was [insert social concept] all along!!, and also at one point were encouraged to give the 1992 Dracula a gander. The main sense memory I’d retained of it could probably be summed as “DRAMATIC,” all-caps, along with a vague recollection of my classmates, mostly other tiny freshman, being like, ahaha whaahahaat?, and our professor, this fantastic old woman who made her own ceramic jewelry, casually declaring that something this magnificently ludicrous and hornéd was the only valid interpretation of this material—rather foreshadowing the tone of what would later be my equally casually assured pronouncements about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
But I don’t remember us talking all that much about Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, probably because again, this wasn’t exactly a hard-hitting academic course, the whole of Winter Study being designed to give both us and the professors a bit of a break for a month. This was the kind of class where I think our grade came from simply class participation and a loosely defined final project to just produce whatever the Victorian Monsters spirit moved us to. And clearly impacted by the sexual energy of this film, 18-year-old me wrote a dark slashy fusion fic combining Dracula and Frankenstein, well before I had the terminology to know that’s what I was doing. I got an A. The real project you should be excited about though was that of my friend Sean, who now does math for Google, who made AN ENTIRE BOARD GAME (out of card-stock and tape, mostly) where the objective was to escape Count Dracula’s castle, involving numerous meta-aware jokes about the literature. As soon as she saw it our professor was like hold up—this is the best shit I’ve ever seen—and immediately halted class (“class”) to play through Sean’s game in its entirety.
The point is: I may have been kind of perfectly set up by that distant yet memorable college experience to finally rewatch the Coppola Dracula this year, now as an adult with the resources both mental and physical to truly appreciate what this baby has to offer while draped on my couch in the October night surrounded by taper candles.
All of which brings me here to you to report that Professor Case was right: this Dracula rocks it totally.
For starters, the attitude this work has toward adaptation is one of my very favorites, where it takes care to include a good amount of arcane nerdy details right from the text, while on the other hand going completely off the shits in art direction and boldly adding a new plot element whole cloth—that nonetheless dovetails with and contextualizes plot points of the original story. It’s actually a really interesting adaptation!
It also rules because it is grand bloody-minded lunacy. The filmmaking here feels like you’re paging through an antic, lushly drawn storybook, for ~adults~. It is so strange and grotesque and sumptuous and Catholic, with all these unusual in-camera special effects that give it this hokey yet innately magical quality—a real stage magician was even contracted to advise on some of the visual tricks. Throughout I kept quietly exclaiming that it was like Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête yet technicolor, only to learn afterward that in fact that was very much one of the reference points! The other primary reference point I think we can just call “costume designer Eiko Ishioka,” the ravishingly brilliant artistic mind who also designed the costumes of Tarsem’s The Fall, and whom Coppola wisely let just fly free. “Bring me things that are weird,” he would reportedly ask everyone.
Relatedly, this cast. Exquisite marquise-cut gothette Winona Ryder paired with oddball dialect boffin Gary Oldman, sure, a sort of crazy-like-a-fox brilliance there actually. My poor angel Keanu Reeves staggering in exhausted after just shooting three or maybe even four other movies back to back, trying to finagle a British accent he has no comfort with, and turning in just the most bewilderingly out of tune performance, oh honey. The scene where you realize you’re watching Tom Waits as a bespectacled madman in a cell acting against Richard E. Grant, playing curiously against type as, relative to everyone else, kind of a normal man?? Normal and doctorly enough that I didn’t even recognize him until his second scene. Then, Cary Elwes. Cary goddamn Elwes as Lucy’s posh fiancé, a role he could do in his SLEEP, but that doesn’t mean we’re not elated to see him. Finally, finally, rather deep into the runtime, Sir Anthony Hopkins rolls in as fucking Van Helsing, in what I think might be the nearest performance of his to his eventual turn as Thor’s Odin, but specifically in Ragnarok, where Taika Waititi infamously once asked him to maybe tone it done just a tad.
NOTHING in Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic romance is toned down, and bless it for it. Dracula, like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House: not sane, is a darkly fantastical tits-out vampire operetta on a fever dream scale, and I can’t believe I haven’t been watching this ornate night-tale every Halloween since Winter Study.