Plot: Wallachian warlord Vlad Tepes vows to find his love Elisabeta again.
Informed by three decades worth of Spanish, and Latin American gothic horror tradition and bursting at the seams with all the expectant excesses Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Dracula hereafter) is Italian gothic horror kitsch on a Hollywood mega-budget with all the attendant bells and whistles. Announced by Francis Ford Coppola as the most faithful adaptation of the old folktale Dracula was going to be a monumental genre piece no matter how it turned out. Not only was Dracula custodian to some of the hottest young stars of the day, some old veterans and awe-inspiring special effects; it grossed an impressive $215 million ($82 million domestically plus $133 million internationally) on a $40 million budget. Dracula introduced the world to, among other things, Coppola’s love for Italian gothic pulp, Keanu Reeves’ shaky English accent and Monica Belucci’s milky-white breasts.
While the nineties were a barren wasteland to many subgenres in horror the vampire movie thrived, above and below the mainstream. The decade saw the release of the high-profile Ann Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) as well as Robert Rodriguez’ genre-hybrid From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) took a more comedic approach while smaller productions as Cronos (1993) from Guillermo Del Toro and The Addiction (1995) from Abel Ferrara put interesting new twists on the age-old lore. The old vampire conventions were lampshaded in parodies as Wes Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995) and Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). Vampirella (1996) just as much as Blade (1998) missed the impending DC Comics and Marvel superhero craze (one that hasn’t subsided since) by just a few years and have been largely forgotten. Roger Corman stood at the cradle of said decade’s gothic horror revival with Frankenstein Unbound (1990). However it was Dracula - Francis Ford Coppola’s big-budget, mostly faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel – that ushered in the vampire horror revival in 1992. While horror is it’s genre of choice Dracula really wants to be a sprawling, timeless romance instead….
Francis Ford Coppola needs no introduction. He got his start with Roger Corman and in the seventies left his indelible mark on worldwide cinema with the likes of Patton (1970), The Godfather (1972) and The Great Gatsby (1974). Coppola commandeered budgets and possessed industry clout like no other. His Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979) – plagued by disaster and well-documented production woes - and the box office bomb One from the Heart (1981) changed all that. Coppola was bankrupt and forced to sell his American Zoetrope Studio in 1983. He would spent the next decade working on smaller projects to pay off the debts. The ill-fated The Godfather Part III (1990) had been lucrative enough but he was in dire need of a bankable property to re-establish himself as a reliable director in the face of the Hollywood bigwigs. What better way to do that than to re-imagine the classic tale of Romanian folk hero Dracula as a gothic romance the way only an Italian could? Dracula was the scion of the vampire horror films from Renato Polselli and Luigi Batzella as well as the atmospheric potboilers from Spanish directors as Amando de Ossorio, León Klimovsky, and Paul Naschy. Coppola delivers a sumptuous designed, blood-drenched gothic horror tour de force redolent of the best vampire films of the sixties and seventies. Dracula overflows with all the pomp, decolettage and religious hysteria you’d expect from an Italian-American director. Apparently quite a few people were surprised that a respectable filmmaker as Francis Ford Coppola would lower himself to a big budget iteration of a classic bloodsoaked Meditterranean / Filipino vampire movie. Lest we forget, Coppola debuted with the Corman produced proto-slasher Dementia 13 (1963) almost thirty years earlier.
The Universal Horrors of the thirties had inspired Hammer Film Productions from Great Britain to update them for the fifties and sixties. Hammer Film in turn led to a veritable gothic horror cotton industry in Mediterranean Europe and Latin/South America with the Italian, Spanish, Méxican, Filipino, and Argentine producing a spate of imitations for the local – and international market and even spawning a few sub-classics in the process. With the dawning of the eighties the gothic horror went all but extinct as the American slasher horror craze (which truly was pioneered in Germany and Italy some two decades prior with the parallell genres of the krimi and the giallo, respectively) and gritty action came to dominate the multiplexes. The following decade saw the genre turned into a pariah of sorts as horror turned into thrillers and scares were replaced by self-reflective witticisms and slapstick – or situational humor. In that hostile environment Dracula – the convergence of several decades worth of international vampire lore – was released. The last hurrah of the big-budget American gothic came with enough blood, breasts, and religious iconography to satiate even the most ravenous fans of Latin/South American - and European horror. At times Dracula almost deigns to collapse under the weight of its own pompousness. Never before, or since, has Hollywood embraced the exploitation film ethos so unabashedly.
1462. Constantinople has fallen. Voivode of Wallachia Vlad Drăculea (Gary Oldman), member of the Order Of the Dragon, returns home victorious from the Night Attack at Târgovişte. He discovers that his love Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has flung herself into the chasm after receiving a false writ from the forces of Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire that he died in battle. The head priest (Anthony Hopkins) informs Drăculea that Elisabeta has eternally condemned her immortal soul by committing suicide. Enraged, the Kaziklu Bey desecrates the chapel, renounces his faith in God and declares that he will avenge the death of his beloved. Drăculea drinks the blood from the desecrated chapel’s stone cross and becomes a vampire. Four centuries later, in 1897, in late Victorian Age London, newly-qualified solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is given an important assignment by his chief employer Mr. Hawkins (Jay Robinson). Harker is to travel to the land beyond the great vast forest, Transylvania, to attend to matters relating a number of real-estate acquisitions that his colleague R. M. Renfield (Tom Waits) – now rendered a babbling, bug-eating madman sequestered away within the walls of Carfax Asylum for the Insane - was unable to finalize before succumbing to insanity.
After an arduous journey by train through the grim mountains and haunted forests on the borders of Hungary, Moldavia and Bukovina Jonathan is picked up by an armor-bound spectral coachman who brings him to the imposing castle of eccentric and decrepit nobleman Count Drăculea (Gary Oldman) in Carpathia. Having per chance glanced at a photograph of Harker’s fiancée Wilhelmina Murray (Winona Ryder), who he believes to be a reincarnation of his Elisabeta, the Count insists Harker stay with him for a month to finalize the necessary administration for his estate acquisitions in England. Soon enough Jonathan realizes that he is in fact the Count’s prisoner and sees no other option but to indulge the Count’s requests to preserve his own hide. One night he is seduced and nearly ravaged by the Three Sisters (Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, and Florina Kendrick), the Brides Of Dracula, but manages to escape within an inch of his life. Partially exsanguinated by the Brides, Jonathan is able drag himself to a convent in Budapest where the nuns in Christian charity nurse him back to health.
Meanwhile in London Mina has been staying with her debutante friend and lady-in-waiting Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) over at the Hillingham estate in Whitby. While Harker is on assignment in Transylvania Mina makes her acquaintance with a suave young East-European prince (Gary Oldman) who insists that they have met before. Mina eventually falls for the prince’s considerable charms and two engage in a passionate illicit affair. While Mina does not recall her past life as Elisabeta, her blood does. At a high society ball Lucy is courted by three different men: the Texan Quincey P. Morris (Billy Campbell, as Bill Campbell), the clumsy but highly intelligent proprietor of Carfax Asylum Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), and Sir Arthur Holmwood, Esq. (Cary Elwes). That night Lucy is bitten by a wolfen creature and falls into an inexplicable maladie that Seward finds impossible to diagnose. In his desperation he summons his aging mentor Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). Mina, having finally heard from her ailing Jonathan, travels to the distant Romania to marry her betrothed. Enflamed Drăculea transforms Lucy into one of his undead minions necessitating Van Helsing and her three former suitors to stake, behead, and incinerate her remains.
Harker, now rapidly aged and despondent from his Transylvanian ordeal, along with Van Helsing and the three men agree to hunt Drăculea down. As Mina becomes increasingly corrupted by the Count’s evil the men learn that the fiend is traveling back to ancient Romania. The hunting party travels in haste to Varna, Bulgaria where the Count reads Mina’s mind and manages to evade them. The party splits up in Galatz, Romania with Mina and Van Helsing traveling to the Count’s castle near the Borgo Pass. Once more does the party face the Three Sisters but it is Jonathan who mortally wounds Drăculea in the fracas by slitting his throat. In the same chapel where he renounced his faith centuries ago Mina confesses her eternal love for the Count. As the Count regains his faith Mina lifts his curse of immortality and bloodlust by driving a stake through his heart and beheading him. At long last the Count is reunited with his beloved Elisabeta as a fresco depicts their two souls ascending to the Heavens.
What a cast was Francis Ford Coppola able to assemble for his first (and, so far, only) foray into horror since the early sixties. Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, Monica Belucci, Tom Waits, and… Tina Cote? Okay, so maybe Tina Cote wasn’t exactly a star at any point and her role was merely that of an uncredited extra but there are far worse places to start. Cote regrettably would end up making a living in Albert Pyun productions which was a hell not unlike the crazy, mixed up worlds of Andy Sidaris, Rene Perez, or… god forbid, the Neils, Johnson and Breen. Reeves’ star was on the rise after Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), Point Break (1991) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). Ryder had a few classics to her name in the form of Beetlejuice (1988), the teen comedy Heathers (1988), the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Mermaids (1990).
In 1991 Gary Oldman even made the pulse of redblooded hetero men race whereas Anthony Hopkins evinced that even a respectable serious actor can appreciate some old-fashioned pulp. Ginger seductress Sadie Frost had appeared in music videos from Spandau Ballet and Simply Red in the early-to-mid eighties and Dracula was her first big Hollywood role. And then there’s marvelous Monica Belucci. Coppola clearly considered himself an American first and an Italian second as in a post-Miranda (1985), Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (1987), Top Model (1988) and Paprika (1991) world perhaps Serena Grandi, Luciana Ottaviani, Pamela Prati and Debora Caprioglio would have been more logical choices in the wordless, mostly clothing-free, parts as the sensuous Brides. Arguably la Monica was chosen for her acting chops rather than her delectable figure. Belucci was an up-and-coming star, no doubt, and - like Stefania Sandrelli, Donatella Damiani and Claudia Koll before and Maria Grazia Cucinotta after - she too oozes sex from her every pore.
If anything, Dracula is a love letter to primitivism as Coppola staunchly insisted on the usage of in-camera practical effects. Dracula leaned heavily on foamlatex appliances that were revolutionizing monster make-up at that time, and some old-fashioned visual trickery and movie magic (miniature models, forced perspective, stationary matting, conventional animation, et al) to realize his grand vision. Costume designer Eiko Ishioka was ordered to make the wardrobe Oriental which she, understandably, interpreted as meaning East Asian and not Byzantine. Where else are you going to see an ancient, pallid, parchment-skinned Dracula in a red silk kimono with a train as long as any bridal dress and a hairstyle resembling that of an Edo courtesan complete with two-feet Manchu pigtail? Where else are you going to see castle Dracula in the shape of a man sitting on a throne and the man himself desecrating a lascivious, partially disrobed, maiden in wolven form with all the lust and vigor out of a Paul Naschy El Hombre Lobo episode?
Mina and Lucy are giggly ditzes that secretly read erotic literature and their experiments with lesbianism recall the best of Jean Rollin. The Brides are dressed in veils closer to the Arabian Nights or a peplum than anything else. Where rapid aging is nothing but a scant few hairs strategically painted grey (if it worked for Jess Franco, it’s good enough for Coppola). Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is – in tradition of Naschy’s Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) - both the villain and the romanic hero. For someone as avowedly Catholic as Coppola Dracula is rife with blasphemy and heresy – or at least as much as Hollywood would allow. It might not be Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) or Alucarda (1977) but it damn well pushes the envelope as far as it can. The ominous and lovingly creaky score from Wojciech Kilar – he of the Polish fantasy horror Lokis, the Manuscript of Professor Wittembach (1970) - is just as pompous as it is portentous. Blood flows freely, beheadings are many and often the baring of boobs is left to supporting players. This is Hollywood, after all. Frost and Belucci take off their tops and Ryder staunchly remains in hers.
The central love triangle and gothic romance is, while true to the source novel, something straight out of The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962). Dracula is Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) or The Dracula Saga (1973) on a mega-million budget. It’s everything that The Living Corpse (1962) wished and wanted to be. As a genre piece Dracula is far closer to lovable Mexican kitsch as Blood Of the Vampires (1966) than it is to Argentinian sleaze as Blood Of the Virgins (1967) – and that tells you everything you really need to know. Considering that this was written by James V. Hart, or he of Hook (1991) and the cheerleader comedy Gimme an 'F' (1984), this could have been worse. At any rate, this would have been a perfect storm and creative opportunity to drag once-and-future queen of Italian exploitation cinema Edwige Fenech out of retirement for a prominent guestrole or extended cameo. Instead it would take another decade and a non-Italian director (the Mexican Robert Rodriguez) to do such with Hostel II (2002). Dracula is tribute to Francis Ford Coppola’s early days in exploitation. In retrospect it’s unfortunate that Coppola never got the chance to reimagine his Dementia 13 (1963) on a massive budget as a tribute to the Italian giallo. Dracula did not usher in a new era of gothic horror but proved that it was well and truly dead. If anything it offered ample evidence that unlike the ravening undead the expiration date of the subgenre was reached – and that the coffin was firmly nailed shut.