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Delighfully Freaky Horror: Capturing the Drama and Surrealism of Dracula

The nightmare-inducing haunts of the infamous Count Dracula are brought to eerie new heights in the remastered Blu-ray release of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula.

There have been many representations of the most famous vampire in the years since he was first envisioned in the 1897 Gothic horror novel that bears his name, but none are quite as faithful to the eerie and uncanny mood of that book nor to the author’s original creation than the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Francis Ford Coppola gives credit to Stoker in the very title of the film (arguably for legal reasons, but Coppola professes repeatedly in the interviews included in this remastered Blu-ray edition that it is out of creative respect), and while he may take some liberties by adding some backstory to the count and making some of the more latent sexual themes of the novel more explicit and overt, Coppola’s adaptation is delightfully freaky and exudes a sense of surreal horror.

Opening with a scene not included in the original novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula tells the story of Vlad the Impaler, a courageous knight who fought against the Turks in a holy war, returning to find his beloved Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) had committed suicide, and as such, would be condemned to Hell by the very God in whose name he had just fought. Renouncing God in desecrating a stone cross, he drinks of the blood that pours out of it in this splendidly gory opener, and while not altogether logical nor consistent with the lore surrounding the creation of vampires, it provides a much-needed personal element to this notorious figure’s motivations.

Gary Oldman truly shines in his portrayal of variegated versions of Dracula, displaying powers of transmogrification himself with his impressive range. He evokes a palpable sense of anger and grief as the young and gallant Vlad but transitions seamlessly into the decrepit, ghostly pale, seemingly frail but powerfully commanding Count Dracula. In his rebirth into the New World, he becomes a believably dapper and charming young aristocrat, whose magnetism allows viewers to justify the actions of Mina, the re-born Elisabeta, who understandably falls victim to the charms of this dark and mysteriously attractive figure.

In his show-stopping portrayal of this infamous character, adeptly conveying the added complexities of his new backstory, Oldman demonstrates such versatility that he outshines the performances of the rest of the star-studded cast. Ryder had already made a name for herself in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, and her portrayal of the innocent Mina’s gradual seduction is somewhat simplistic, but that’s partly the nature of that character and her role in the tale. Keanu Reeves is characteristically and frustratingly monotone, and his one-dimensional version of Jonathan Harker is rather dull, even more so than would be consistent with book’s version. Tom Waits, by contrast, shines as the bug-eating, raving madman Renfield who in this version of the tale is Jonathan Harker’s predecessor, driven insane by his client, Count Dracula, whom he now refers to as “the master”.

Anthony Hopkins is also delightfully macabre and menacing as Professor Van Helsing, with no patience for sensitivity in the face of the great danger they face. His indelicacy in delivering instructions to his cohorts brings a twisted kind of humor to the film, reassuring Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), one of Lucy’s (Sadie Frost) former suitors who is grieving her death and appalled at the idea of an autopsy, by flatly saying that the plan is not an autopsy, exactly, “I just want to cut off her head and take out her heart.” The interactions between Van Helsing and the band of Lucy’s suitors, which also includes Cary Elwes as her ultimately successful fiancé Arthur Holmwood and Billy Campbell as drawling Texan Quincey P. Morris, as well as the squabbling amongst them lead to some valuable comedic moments to add to this adaptation’s uncanny mixture of horror and hyperbole.

James V. Hart’s screenplay is largely faithful to the novel, particularly in terms of its multiple narrators and resulting sense of disunity and a lack of a complete picture of these strange events. Some of the key differences, however, seem to be unnecessarily lewd, turning the patently pure and proper Lucy into a flirtatious and sexually adventurous young woman and Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s brides becoming undeniably orgiastic. Dracula’s romantic interests in Mina also make her gradual surrender to his power more sensual, notably shifting from a forcible ingestion of his blood to a willingness and erotic desire to do so. These changes perhaps reflect the changing proclivities of audiences, bringing the thematic subtleties of Victorian anxieties about female sexuality embedded in Stoker’s novel explicitly to the forefront for more modern viewers, but at times, the overt and almost exploitative sexual imagery is gratuitous.

The combination of these many different features are cemented by the stunning visual quality of the film, leading to an overall effect of an uncomfortable eeriness and making Bram Stoker’s Dracula such a delightfully unsettling film. The sets are stunning, particularly Dracula’s castle, and they are lit in such a way that the shadows overpower the light, emphasizing the mystery and danger of the proprietor of that grand estate. The costuming is also believably Victorian but with just enough quirky and incongruous features to create a dream-like quality.

What is most strikingly surreal about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, however, is the unique and seemingly rudimentary special effects. From the use of shadow puppets to recreate the grand battles of Vlad the Impaler to the illogical and sometimes ferocious movements of Dracula’s shadow, which seems to act on its own, the overall feeling of this film is a disjointed, nightmarish fever dream, which is decidedly appropriate, given its origins. Dracula haunts his victims with ghoulish visions at night that become reality, and the stylized weirdness of special effects that have this vampire crawling along the edifice of his castle like a lizard, his impractically long cape slithering after him, takes viewers along for Dracula’s twisted ride into the horror of the surreal.

This remastered Blu-ray release adds to the vibrancy of the visuals and thereby intensifies the playfully dark and off-putting feeling of the film. While many of the copious special features are the same as those of previous releases and the new ones contain a great deal of repetition, they do provide a great deal of information for film buffs and horror fans relating to the film’s technical construction, historical and literary inspirations, themes and imagery, and impressive in-camera visual effects along with raw on-set and behind-the-scenes footage. Although Bram Stoker’s Dracula is undoubtedly an exaggeratedly dramatic and perhaps over-the-top adaptation, the extravagance and richness of the visuals combined with the theatricality of the characters and performances results in a film that embraces the drama and surrealism of the novel and effectively reinterprets this classic tale for modern audiences while still retaining an impressive level of faithfulness to the original.

RATING 7 / 10
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