In its first act, Bram Stoker’s Dracula teeters so tenuously on the verge of camp that I had to stifle laughter. More than anything Francis Ford Coppola made in the 10-year period following his provocatively plastic One From the Heart, Dracula is excessively artificial. Using pre-CGI visual trickery, the movie’s bravura staging presents a film bloated in baroque detail, an almost unbelievable realization of Coppola’s most expressionistic fantasies.
But then something happens. That exasperating five-minute history lesson that opens the film, the Gothically total mise-en-scene, the expansion of key characters like Winona Ryder’s Mina and, of course, the tragic figure of Dracula – all of these elements gel beautifully into a final product that feels less like a Hammer horror film or even a haunting Jacques Tourneur horror flick (both of which are visually alluded to early on) than a Greek tragedy of tremendous heft. Critics’ claims that the movie is all style and devoid of substance are bogus; if you can’t find substance in a picture that, for all its gore, is a timeless tale of seduction, love and sacrifice, you must not be reading between the lines of arguably the truest visualization of Stoker’s words. How many directors besides Coppola have comprehended that Dracula is not a monster but a tortured, godless, immortally pained romantic seeking to rekindle the fleeting love of a past life? It would almost be the stuff of a corny romance novel were it not for the decapitations, carnal werewolves and blood-vomiting.
The costumes, set design and cinematography are densely detailed and tantalizing, and the casting is wonderfully peculiar, with Gary Oldman as the ever-mutating Dracula, Anthony Hopkins as the deadpan vampire hunter Van Helsing, comic genius Richard E. Grant as a clueless doctor and Tom Waits as the insect-devouring Renfield.
Coppola offers a nice introduction to the film, discussing his lifelong affinity for the Dracula legend, and delves further in a commentary track. The four featurettes on the bonus disc combine to form an hour-long film course, diving deep into the historical and technical execution of the costuming, special effects and storyboarding processes. The most entertaining documentary is The Blood Is the Life: The Making of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With footage filmed during a pre-production Napa Valley retreat with cast and crew, it shows Coppola to be the eccentric master he is, at one point making his cast toss invisible “sounds” at each other, while making onomatopoeic noises.