In Love With Red: iconic film moments. 2: Coppola’s ‘Dracula’

Red is the theme as Winona’s Mina goes mouth-to-mouth with Gary’s Count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Frances Ford Coppola’s film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and what an indigestible mouthful the title is), is a mixed bag. Fatally compromised by most of the leading players and by Coppola’s direction of them, it remains a feast ravishing on the eye but agonising on the ear. The colour is gorgeous throughout, the costume designs by Eiko Ishioka lending much of the visionary strangeness that stays in the mind long after viewing. Hers are the sumptuous reds underlying the central themes of blood and desire. But the actors, no matter how imaginatively dressed, fail to hold everything together. They are its fatal weakness. So much so that there have been times when re-watching it, I’ve mentally turned it into a silent movie accompanied by music and a few text cards. Now that would be a good film. As things stand, we have to endure the director’s endless gaffs.

Winona Ryder, tiresomely arch and weighed down with ennui as Mina, struck lucky when the attention of critics was diverted from her performance by Keanu Reeves… and the least said about him the better… though her accent, seemingly learned from watching too many British films of the 40s, is almost as irritating as his. In the book Mina is a school teacher, but for Winona the lure of gorgeous costumes clearly clouded her judgement of the character, and she’s all gussied up like a Paris fashion-plate from start to finish, thanks to Eiko Ishioka’s shimmering designs. She preens and pouts her way through the proceedings, looking a good deal too pleased with herself. She brought the project to Coppola, and so had a vested interest in it, as well as star-power, but a school mistress she ain’t!

Anthony Hopkins storms and blusters like a bad actor from a Victorian Drury Lane pantomime, while his co-players stand around looking dumbstruck by his antics. (Who would not?) It’s a performance that unbalances everything in its orbit.

But the worst of all the director’s offences, is the bum-steer Coppola gives to Sadie Frost, cast as the ‘virginal’ Lucy Westenra. The whole heart of the tragedy should be Lucy’s corruption by the ‘undead’, but here she’s leery with desire from the get-go.

Instead of moving from the pure to the fatally tainted, Frost slams her foot on the accelerator, moving from being sexually predatory before her run-in with Dracula, to a heated frenzy of desire-turned-to-the-bad after it. There are no nuances and no losses. There can be no tragic theft, because there’s no innocence to steal. It’s a horrible experience watching Frost salaciously writhing on her bed in a peachy-ginger fright-wig, urged to excess by whoever was directing her off-camera. (It’s said that Coppola was uncomfortable discussing sexual desire with such a young actor, and relinquished the task to others.) It’s not just that this isn’t how Lucy is presented in the novel, but it makes no emotional sense within the narrative of the film. It plonks her in the role of those endlessly sexualised cheerleaders in slasher movies, who ‘put out’ for soccer jocks, and then get punished for doing so by men in masks with knives and hatchets.

In the middle of all this, Gary Oldman brings a genuinely interesting twist to the role of Dracula, and he has the acting muscle to pull it off. In the novel Stoker has Jonathan Harker describe the Count as an old man, “cruel looking”, with an “extraordinary pallor”. While Oldman’s youthful incarnation owes almost nothing to the author, he’s nevertheless cinematically engaging. When he arrives in London, a dandyish John Lennon lookalike, down to the shoulder-length hair and and wire-framed blue-tinted spectacles, his is an arresting and darkly romantic presence.

Moreover he’s been set down in the fin-de siecle that birthed cinema, right at the moment the art of illusion was being wrested away from the stage magicians who’d held sway before the Lumiére brothers brought about the entertainment revolution that would change the way audiences viewed the world. Coppola clearly relished the notion of the old European ‘supernatural’ order finding itself able to hide in plain sight, because people were learning to mistrust their own eyes. Well, just ponder on it for a moment. These days, were you to spot a dinosaur marching through your local shopping precinct, you wouldn’t think ‘Oh-my-gosh-a-prehistoric-creature!’. More like ‘Oh, a puppet!’, while casting your eye round for the camera crew.

The Count’s first appearance at the time Harker visits him in Transylvania, is a knockout. It’s eerie and compelling, and earns the film’s place as the second of my In Love With Red series of posts. This Count Dracula, ancient, reptilian and ornately coiffed in the style of the eighteenth century, has a whiff of embalming fluid about him, underlined by his slightly puffy skin. He crawls, spider-like, on ceilings, a trick Coppola borrows from Japanese ghost films.

Above: the Count furtively gets licky with Harker’s blood-slicked razor. House-guests beware!

The actor’s movement is stylised, his pointy-nailed hands a nod to Max Schreck in the silent film, Nosferatu. The Count’s shadow has an independent existence. (Nice touch.) He seems more animated corpse than man, his physical corruption in contrast to the searing vibrancy of his heavily embroidered crimson gown. It’s as though the garment is the blood reservoir of the parasite who wears it. He’s become a bloated tick so replete that he smears a bloody trail in his wake.

Coppola was greatly inspired by Jean Cocteau’s film of La Belle et la Bête, made in 1946 on a tiny budget and using largely practical and in-camera special effects. He showed images from the film to his crew to help them understand what he was aiming for. In imitation of Cocteau’s simple special effects, Coppola eschewed post-production ‘opticals’ for Dracula, opting instead either for practical effects created on set during the filming, or the in-camera effects of double exposure. He ran sections of film backwards to render strange the vampire-Lucy’s descent to her tomb. He made extensive use of models, puppets and forced perspectives throughout, and all this, coupled with the lush design and cinematography, lends the production a theatricality that is more akin to grand opera. Dracula’s three brides manifest out of the dishevelled bed-sheets, thanks to the technique Cocteau devised for Josette Day’s Belle to pass through a wall, and it’s weirder… and more elegant… than any optical jiggery-pokery.

It’s for the operatic vision that the film remains with me, despite its faults. All credit to Copplola’s team for this, not least the production designer, Thomas E. Sanders.

12 thoughts on “In Love With Red: iconic film moments. 2: Coppola’s ‘Dracula’

  1. Pingback: In Love With Red: iconic film moments. 3: Suspiria | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. Anita, I had absolutely the same thought. Clive, you write so beautifully, it’s always a pleasure to read your pieces and illuminating to read. If only Hartridge could take some of the credit for your lyrical prose……!

    Autumn greetings from Cambridge.

    • Wendy, how lovely to hear from you. It’s been too long. I wonder where the time goes.

      Writing, well, yes. Didn’t really have the confidence until I started writing regularly at the Artlog, thanks to Peter’s encouragement. I still think I’m clumsy, and it often takes me a long time to tweak a post into anything I’m happy with. But it was Peter who pushed at me, and helped me better express ideas in ways that were both grammatical, but also individual. I’ve always been a voracious reader, so that probably helps. And once, long ago, I wrote the longest letters. All that changed with e-mail, though I still write at length in them, and with sentences and paragraphs and spelling. Ha ha!

      Sending love from west Wales.

  3. Hello Clive !
    I love Ford Coppola, especially the dance scenes in his films. (And many action scenes in his films seem like dances, even when they are not.) I did not see this film, and in spite of your saving it in the end, I do not think I’ll ever watch it, because, in spite of knowing he is a great actor, I can’t stand Gary Oldman. I think he is great in secondary roles, as the villian one loves to hate, like, for instance, in Leon the Professional, but I am not ready to accept him as the ‘Hero’ of a whole film. Suffice to say, that while I am a fan of the Harry Potter books, and I own all the American first editions (I love the illustrations by Mary Grandpré), I nevertheless refused to watch any of the films, precisely because Gary Oldman was playing Sirius Black, a character I am quite a bit in love with.

    But these film chronicles are great. I hope you talk about Minelli’s reds too…

    • Hello Maria. Good to see you back on form in the comments boxes.

      Many of the films I’ll be looking at in this series are not necessarily my favourites, but have been chosen because of their use of red, and the iconic status bestowed on the sequences in which the colour appears. The fact is that Coppola’s take on Dracula is not the one I like the best, but it’s a film that has visual elements I find engaging. For me it’s an interesting failure I like to to look at from time to time. The acting is not its strength. Oldman’s is the best performance in it. While he is not my idea of the character, he created something cinematically mesmerising in his portrayal of the undead Count, and it’s for that reason the film has stayed with me.

      One of the problems with Count Dracula is that he’s become a somewhat charismatic fellow in films, and Oldman is undoubtedly alluring in his dapper top-hat and immaculately tailored frock-coat. For me the Count, as written by Stoker, is fascinating, but he is a monster, and he is attractive only in the sense that monsters are interesting to look at. At their best they hold our gaze, like the stoat holds the rabbit’s. But he is not a hero. He’s a force of nature, fuelled by appetite. I like the moment in the film where the aged Count in his Transylvania home, furtively licks from the razor that’s drawn blood from Jonathan Harker during his morning shave. It’s a feral, secret, sexual moment, raw and uncompromising, and it’s worth the price of admission. (And it would be even better were Keanu Reeves not such a block of wood!) But this is not a recommendation for you to watch the film, which disappoints on too many counts.

      • When I think of Dracula, I think of him more like a forever young Ian Mc Kellen, or a young Alan Rickman… Actors whom you root for, even when they play the baddies.

        But of course, I am fixed on a long time ago “heroes” ( good or bad, like Richard Widmark, like Lee Van Cleff, like Jack Palance, or Lee Marvin ) and I still have to find a young actor to love when he plays an evil character as much as when he plays a good one. Perhaps Mark Strong?

        I´ll try to find a video of the scene you describe, though.
        Thank you, anyway
        Un abrazo

        • You’re so right, Maria. The men you name are all so charismatic, which is a must have for a screen-actor playing big roles.

          I don’t think I have an all-out favourite Dracula as portrayed on screen. Mark Strong is compelling. I agree that McKellen might fit the bill, and he’s old enough now to play it without prosthetic make-up. Of the young actors, I have a bit of a thing for Ben Whishaw, who is both beautiful and yet alternative enough to make an interesting Count. He has the skills to make a character both terrible and watchable. Or Matthew Goode! Mmmm. Now you’ve got me thinking.

          • I’ve never seen Ben Whishaw, at least, I don’t think I have, ( I’ll have to look him up at imdb) , but Matthew Goode Yessss ! He would be great in any role. And he could be lovable and menacing at the same time.

  4. You are spoiling us Maestro Clive! Love the film stuff! Totally agree with you on this, l would only add one comment, the emotion showed by Oldman in terms of the love story was to me, very moving.

    • Thank you, Lorrie. And yes, I agree.

      I’m rather shocked that such a luminary of The Dracula Society should be here and reading my ramblings. Had I suspected this would happen, I think I may have balked at this subject!

    • Ha ha. Nahhhh, I’m no critic. But it’s enjoyable thinking about… and sharing… the films that left an impression, because I was raised to love cinema, and I remain in thrall to the magic of images flickering in a darkened space. It’s a good place to escape when things get rough. And I absolutely KNOW that what I saw when I was growing up had an influence on my work.

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