Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
When I was younger and more adventurous I traveled a lot on my own. I strapped on a rucksack and usually crossed the Channel to the UK. I traveled on foot or by train and saw the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales. There is something about traveling alone that makes it an unique experience. It is easy to meet people, it gives a sense of freedom that no other way of traveling can give you and it also teaches you self reliance.
At the same time traveling alone can be scary. There is no one to hold your hand when the skies darken and the wind picks up. When strange noises in a dark forest start to get the better of you. A firm grip on reality is required then. I guess that is why The Blair witch project did not scare me really. I had been there and done that.
When traveling I had always more books than survival equipment in my backpack. One of the books that has stayed with me the most from those days is Dracula by Bram Stoker. It was the first time a book really, and I mean really, scared me. Part of that was the fact that I was alone, reading in my tent in the middle of nowhere with all kinds of creepy noises around me but mostly it was because of the brilliance of the writing. Dracula has become a standard work of horror fiction for a reason! Unlike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I found unbearably dull.
Yesterday evening I was in a gothic mood, so what better film to put on than “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” directed by Francis Ford Coppola? I have seen this film so many times now that it does not hold any surprises anymore. And yet, still, it stands up as a great piece of work. This is all the more remarkable as the acting in it is not great across the board. Especially Keanu Reeves puts in a dire performance. He reads out his lines as if he is still in his dressing room. But you know what? This may be one of those rare films where this actually adds to the experience. Dracula (the film) has to adhere to certain traditions of the horror genre. Too much polish and it falls apart. It needs to jar here and there. There needs to be a certain b-movie quality for this kind of film to work.
At the same time Francis Ford Coppola has used all kinds of visual tricks to make this into a very special film. The battle sequence in the beginning for instance, shot en-profil gives it an almost a shadow puppet effect that helps set it apart from the rest of the film. Then later on the blending of the cinematograph footage and the shots of a London street makes it easy to transport the viewer into the late nineteenth century.
As actors go I think that Gary Oldman as Dracula has defined the role anew. He deserves to be added to the pantheon of other classic Dracula actors like Christopher Lee and Max Schreck (Nosferatu, 1922, free download at archive.org and well worth it).
This film is truly gothic and scary in a very tradition adhering way. It ticks all the required boxes but does so in a truly original way. It does veer quite substantially from the book but that is fine in this case. The essential brooding, dark atmosphere and underlying parallels, which after all are part of gothic literature requirements, are still intact.
Dracula was written after the heyday of gothic literature (mid to late 18th century) and may be viewed as an homage to that period. As such Bram Stoker himself borrowed a lot from writers such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe who wrote their classic gothic fiction almost a hundred years before he wrote Dracula.
I remember thinking at the time, “Do we really need another Dracula film and will it do the book justice?” Now I know: yes we do and it does. Every age has its own relevance for a Dracula film. As long as the director has the guts to give it a new turn while having the skill to keep within the idiom that is set down in stone.