[4 October 2007]
In 1990, Winona Ryder abruptly withdrew herself from the role of Michael Corleone’s daughter in Francis Ford Coppola’s production of The Godfather Part III, claiming illness. The role eventually went to Coppola’s own daughter, Sophia, and both were roundly attacked in the press, the father for his perceived nepotism, the daughter for her poor performance. A year or two later, Ryder came across the script for a TV movie called Dracula: The Untold Story and took it to Coppola as a peace offering over the Godfather incident.
While Ryder had reportedly never read or seen any portrayals of Bram Stoker’s famous character, Coppola had read the source material many times and seen the various screen incarnations. And Bram Stoker’s Dracula took off from there. What’s truly fascinating, though, is to listen to Coppola’s full-length commentary. In it, he is most certainly a man of two minds. At times he seems completely devoted to the movie, and at other times completely divorced from it. Knowing his love of the book, as a camp counselor in New York, he would read Stoker’s tale to the kids in their cabin, and his reverence for vampire movies, it is easy to see his love for the production. On the other hand, Coppola seems to give the impression that he feels he never really “owned” the movie, which isn’t surprising given the decision to craft the film as close the original text as possible, and the script’s origin as a television project for director Michael Apted.
Regardless of Coppola’s seemingly conflicted stance on the movie, the audience is treated to a visually stunning feast. From the story to the costumes to the film techniques, there is much to enjoy in the 127 minutes presented in the Collector’s Edition DVD of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It’s difficult to ignore the universal appeal of vampire lore. Ostensibly, gothic horror was born in 1816, on the shared summer vacation of Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It was here that Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, and seeds were sown for Polidori’s updating of the vampires of folklore into the version modern audiences know them as three years later in The Vampyre. In 1897, Bram Stoker published his fifth novel, Dracula, the jumping off point for countless pop culture nuggets.
The story of an aristocrat, a count, who drinks blood to sustain his immortality, is a now-classic monster, but Coppola took that character and moved him from monster into the realm of a tragic hero. As Gary Oldman describes his approach to the character for the 1992 film in the new documentary “The Blood is the Life—The Making of Dracula”, he tried to play the titular character as a fallen angel.
Coppola frames his movie in the same way Stoker presents the original tale, using journal entries as the convention. And in this version, Coppola provides a back-story that blends a fictionalized history of Vlad the Impaler with strong religious implications into the legend. The resulting character is sumptuous and textured, arguably to the point of overload. Oldman’s Dracula takes on nearly a dozen different guises, each one more complex and ornate than the last. He is old and fragile, young and noble, wolf-like, a green mist, a mass of rats, and on and on.
Supporting not only Oldman’s various transformations, but also the very film itself, is the work of Eiko Ishioka. Coppola’s early “lead with the costumes” mantra when planning the film became fully realized in Ishioka’s Academy Award winning costumes. The range of inspiration (everything from Japanese Kabuki to Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”) is topped only by the frequency of these stunningly elaborate and diverse wardrobe changes which rival anything George Lucas would put Natalie Portman in seven years later in the Star Wars prequels.
But unlike Lucas, Coppola takes an anti-digital stance with the production and goes organic on us with all the visual effects being done in-camera. Below the surface, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is both a tribute to the history of filmmaking and an homage to the greats that came before. Coppola’s son, Roman, took on second unit director duties on the film, sharing and realizing his father’s dream with impressive results.
Taking their cues from the technology available in the novel’s day, Roman used his father’s authentic Pathé camera in filming the opening street scene where Ryder’s Mina Murray first meets Oldman’s young and aristocratic Prince Dracula. The train sequence where Keanu Reeves’ Jonathan Harker travels to the Carpathian Mountains includes creative uses of double exposure and front projection. To give a surreal bent to the crypt scenes with Sadie Frost’s Lucy Westenra, the film was run backwards. Miniatures and oversized props, along with puppets and silhouetting were employed in the opening battle montage, and forced perspective and matte paintings were also used throughout.
Along with these nods to the pre-digital techniques, Coppola pays his respects to his predecessors with scenes that echo the works of Murnau and Cocteau, among others. Coppola recreates Max Schreck’s rise from the coffin as Count Orlok in Murnau’s Nosferatu with Oldman’s Dracula, and the same character turns Mina’s tears to diamonds in a clear homage to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
All this adds up to a truly hypnotic, over-the-top production that captivates with its beauty even as it repels with its over-indulgences and a wooden Keanu Reeves. The transfer is stunning, matching any previous release of the film, and the soundstage is much improved over the bungled Super Bit version from 2001. The extras are as good as any fan of the film or Coppola could ask for: a full-length director’s commentary, four new documentaries that cover the making of the movie, the costumes, the camera work, and the storyboarding, and 30-plus minutes of deleted and extended scenes. It’s not merely a time capsule, but an interesting package and consistently entertaining film.