An army of shadow puppets fights against a blood-red sky. A doll hurls itself out of a castle window, passing cotton clouds on its way to the moat below. The eye of a peacock feather becomes a railroad tunnel. A train erupts from the mountainside and then chugs along over the pages of an open diary. We are inside the train. A young man is writing; the pages of the diary are projected over his face.
These images all come from the first reel of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s imaginative, ambitious take on pop culture’s most famous Romanian. The original Dracula is an epistolary novel, composed of dated letters and diary entries written by different characters, and Coppola’s adaptation—scripted by James V. Hart—preserves this structure, using multiple narrators and periodically swapping protagonists. In fact, while most adaptations have attempted to radically compress Stoker’s novel, Coppola’s seems to be going out of its way to complicate it. The role of Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves, seemingly dead inside) and his romance with Mina Murray (Winona Ryder, who actually originated the project) are reduced to make more room for the other characters, and Dracula’s arrival in Europe is linked to the dawn of cinema and psychoanalysis.
The count himself (Gary Oldman) is both tragic and erotic. Introduced as an androgynous figure—with Oldman made up to look like a 90-year-old woman—he transforms into a handsome, mysterious dandy who strolls around London in purple tea shades, shoulder-length hair spilling out from under his silk top hat. When he feeds, he turns into a wolf-like creature—a literal sexual predator.
The movie’s overt, intentionally discomfiting sexuality is just one part of its bricolage-like texture, which includes conflicting acting styles, double-casting, stylized costumes (Eiko Ishioka won a very deserved Oscar for her work on the film), a stark and moody score, and a wide assortment of special effects techniques, none of which post-date the 1920s. Like Guy Maddin’s later Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary, the movie takes its cues from silent film, using double-exposures, forced perspectives, and mirrors to create its oneiric, flagrantly artificial Victorian world; Coppola insisted that all of the effects be accomplished either on-set or in-camera. (He also brought out a real hand-cranked Pathé for the scene where Dracula goes on his first walk through London.) This makes Bram Stoker’s Dracula one of the strangest-looking Hollywood films of its time, both opulent and handmade; against all odds—and industry predictions—it somehow went on to become one of the biggest blockbusters of 1992.
Availability: Bram Stoker’s Dracula is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.