Had director Francis Ford Coppola replaced the dialogue track from Bram Stoker's Dracula with silent-movie intertitles—a gesture that would have synced well with his frequent nods to cinema's infancy and use of old-fashioned camera tricks—it might have been a masterpiece. As is, it's a sumptuous gothic romance blighted by some of the decade's worst ensemble acting, from Anthony Hopkins' hambone Van Helsing to Winona Ryder's listless Mina to whatever it is that Keanu Reeves thinks he's doing as Jonathan Harker. Gary Oldman's melancholy take on the Count would be the only real casualty in a silent version, yet his haunted eyes and withered visage are expressive enough to suggest a proud man condemned to eternal life, in search of an elusive lost love. Dracula isn't particularly scary, but that isn't detrimental; Coppola's sympathies lie more with Dracula than Harker, so he isn't much greater a menace than the honorable men intent on stopping him.
Though the myth has been interpreted for the screen many times, Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart wanted to be the first to stay faithful to Stoker's novel, hence the titular possessive. A striking prologue establishes the title character as Vlad The Impaler, a brutal 15th-century warrior who defended Romania from invaders and lost his beloved Elisabeta to suicide after she heard false reports of his death. In the late 19th century, the vampire Count wants several properties in London, so real-estate agent Harker visits deepest Transylvania to broker the deal. When the Count finds a picture of Harker's fiancée, who looks uncannily similar to Elisabeta, he goes to dastardly lengths to possess her, with Van Helsing and his men standing in the way.
Bram Stoker's Dracula falls into a pattern that hampered Coppola throughout the '80s and '90s: It's a technical marvel, but inattentive to performance and the other human details needed to carry the story. But the technique goes a long way, because the film's look and sound is breathtaking, with credit due to Eiko Ishioka's ornate costumes, neato in-camera visual effects by Coppola's son Roman, and Wojciech Kilar's dreamy score. The pleasures are all right on the surface, so the film never quite pierces the skin.
Key features: Fittingly, the supplemental disc's mini-docs focus on the film's technical prowess, while Coppola contributes an intro and detail-oriented commentary on disc one.