Ford Coppola’s Dracula

This isn’t going to be a review. Honest. But I watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula last night and loved it to such a degree that I’ve got to muse over it. As its title suggests, it is intended to be more faithful to the 1897 gothic horror novel than previous exhumations – not difficult when considering the character-juggling 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi or the comparatively action-packed Hammer production of 1958 with Christopher Lee. But this isn’t quite Bram Stoker’s story – this one belongs to the director. This is Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.

I am a fan of vampire fiction and most of all I like to see how different authors and filmmakers all riff of that same idea – that of an immortal bloodsucker, creeping through the night, preying on soft white throats. Some vampires must sleep in coffins, others can rise during daylight. To some, half a century passes in the blink of any eye, and to others it’s above and beyond their expected lifespan. Some ideas work better than other of course, but it’s all subjective, and everyone has their own favourite vampire character. Personally, I think author Kim Newman has the best grip on vampire mythology – his Anno Dracula series embraces and reinterprets everything from John Polidori to Anne Rice and even references Twilight and True Blood. But I digress. We’re discussing Coppola here, and his interpretation of that most famous vampire of all.

I first saw the film when I was a teenager, my interest at that point more in the artful fountains of gore and corseted bosoms that Hammer seemed to promise but never quite delivered on. My girlfriend at the time liked it too, because this Dracula is undoubtedly a romance. Stoker’s novel included both a marriage and a proposal but love was never the point of the story. There are myriad papers on Dracula claiming it as a Freudian metaphor, a xenophobic essay and even a veiled critique of capitalism but I think these are incidental, or at least, unintentional. Stoker’s novel is, to me, about the slowly moving hunt, the pitting of the modern age against something old, incomprehensible and undoubtedly evil. Coppola’s master stroke is to extrapolate that latent romance and sensuality of the story and to stake it through the heart of his adaptation, allowing us to understand the titular antagonist as a character, not just an irrevocably evil monster. The other themes of the novel fatten the story out, allowing for those scenes both violent and venereal that a young vampire enthusiast may wish to pay rapt attention to. But it’s the central romance that gives the whole thing its grandiose, operatic quality – a passion centuries old, crossing oceans of time, stronger even than the biblical rapture. More importantly, it’s this emotional centre that justifies the other indulgences of the film, and makes it a horror flick to enjoy with the other half.

Dracula’s plot may be a romance, but it’s not the only love story here. Coppola is in love with his film and with cinema itself, and this movie his own showcase for it. It feels old – not dated, but traditional, respectful, proper. The settings are dramatic and indulgent: lightning crackles above Carpathian mountains, flames lick at gothic ruins, and waves roar beneath the creak of a doomed ship. They feel analogue too – there’s not a pixel of CGI about this, none of that fancy new animation. This is a love letter to classic cinema, to mist-shrouded sound stages and painstakingly applied costume. Coppola eschews any kind of digital effect, and he looks like he had the time of his life in dreaming up situations calling for in-camera effects and detailed model work. Candles burst into sudden fire, opened vials drip upwards, and rats scurry across the ceiling like spiders. Had this been done with CGI it would seem shallow – “Look what this software can do!” “That’s great! We’ll work that in somehow.” – but Dracula doesn’t. It feels instead like a husband adding yet another little gift to his wife’s birthday present pile, just because it’s something fun, and he loves her. All this technology is in the spirit of Bram Stoker himself, of course. For those who haven’t read the novel, it’s written as an epistolary – a collection of diary entries, letters, even shipping logs. All this was a reaction to the technology of the Victorian world that Stoker lived in – hence we have newspaper clippings and even chronofax transcriptions. Ironically for a novel commonly seen as old-fashioned and gothic, Dracula was, for its time, anything but, embracing as it did the latest technologies with a fervour more in keeping with the techno-thrillers of today.

The rest of the film crew are game too. Perhaps in the same spirit that had Stoker explore the exotic and exciting for his book, so the costume and set designers take their cues from the weird and unlikely. Watch out for a lizard-inspired wedding dress, an anthropomorphic castle and for silhouetted battle sequences. Be warned too, against some post-The Exorcist moments of horror including freakshow contortions and blood vomiting. This may be a homage to a classic era of cinema but so too is this a lurid, gothic tale. Boundaries are there to be pushed; audiences are there to be shocked. Stoker would have wanted it this way.

Realising a cohesive vision based on a novel is one of Coppola’s strengths as a director, and his ability to respect something of the author’s original intent is justification enough to brand the film with its creator’s name. Not only is this film more faithful to novel’s plot than so many others, it is also true to the spirit of the novel. Just as the book loves to be a book, playing with different modes of writing, so the film embraces its own history, incorporating effects and features of different genres for the sheer love of cinema itself. It’s no coincidence that the lovers at the heart of the film first meet at the exhibition of the cinematograph – “wonder of modern civilization”. It has its flaws – inconsistent, shuffling pacing perhaps, or the occasional anaemic effect or casket-wooden performance – but it’s greater than the sum of its parts. A financially successful blockbuster with as much poetic depth as an art film – well, you can’t ask for more than that.

I did say this wasn’t a review, but oh well. Five stars.

Liam Smith

Writing twisted gothic tales and drumming whilst I think up more.

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