It was the first Dracula I ever saw and Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 Dracula is still the best Dracula I ever saw. One could argue the inclusion of a romantic plot between Dracula and Mina distracts from the purity of the old world versus new civilisation story but if it does so it does so in a really wonderful way. And even if that's wrong, which is quite debatable, there's so very much this movie gets right and goes above and beyond getting right that it wins the top spot for me.
Notoriously, Keanu Reeves delivers a perfectly wretched performance as Jonathan Harker. But he is at this point the only real complaint I have about the movie. Winona Ryder could have been a little more invested in the role, but mainly the movie is an exhibition of incredible casting.
Lucy's suitors, who in most adaptations are pared down to one or two, or combined, are here in full force and Coppola shows you can indeed make them interesting--Cary Elwes is the right combination of conceited and a genuinely honourable nobleman, Richard E. Grant infuses Dr. Seward with a nervous weakness of character that subtly supports the impression of a sinister reality, and even Billy Campbell as Quincey P. Morris presents an interesting prototype of the new western civilisation's animal man, who in many ways pales beside the old beast that is Dracula.
"You're such a beast, Quincey," says Lucy in this version, perhaps thinking she's found herself a good playmate. Sadie Frost gives us the definitive Lucy, violently horny and innocent at the same time, the impression of animal nature obliterating the weak veneer of Victorian morality is perfectly realised by her. She is, as Van Helsing says, "a wanton disciple".
Anthony Hopkins gives us the definitive Van Helsing, a slightly unpredictable, bohemian gentleman, carving himself out big slices of meat for dinner, unconcerned really if his words shock anyone, not really seeing a problem with aggressively sexual flirtation. Dracula versus the Victorians would seem to be setting the story up as dirty versus clean, but the truly heroic thing about Van Helsing is that he reminds the characters that realities of nature need to be respected and embraced in order to combat the worst parts of it. I love that Coppola preserves Van Helsing's speech about science--Van Helsing reminds Seward that science isn't about prejudice, it's not about adopting one dogma to stand against another dogma. As he remonstrates Seward in the book; "You reason well, and your wit is bold, but you are too prejudiced. You do not let your eyes see nor your ears hear, and that which is outside your daily life is not of account to you. Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are?"
In the introduction of the romance between Mina and Dracula, perhaps we can see something of the sadness for the passing of society. Dracula wants Harker's wife because she was his wife first, and would be still if the world worked the way it ought.
Gary Oldman gives a delightfully intense performance. The church fostered sadism in him in his ancient battles with the Turks and when he turns against God he becomes a man who stands utterly outside morality. There is bitterness as he recites part of the Race of Conqueror's speech to Jonathan but, in this version, he seems much more confident that the carnal and chaotic reality still fundamentally ties the world together. Eating insects is "perfectly nutritious" the great Tom Waits says as Renfield.
Coppola wielded a vast number of tools in crafting this film, directed a diverse range of great talent, brought a great range of influences together in a work of singular, remarkable cohesion. Unlike Guy Maddin's ironic and superficial use of silent film styles and German Expressionism, Coppola understands and can speak the old language fluently. The shadows that seem alive in Dracula's castle, the inexplicable distortions of physical reality, the evident, strange life possessed by all manner of dead things who seem to express themselves based on dream logic but in the waking world. Like in Vampyr, which Coppola directly pays homage to in Dracula's independently moving shadow, there's a basic sense of wrongness permeating the living air in Dracula's domain. As Harker says in the book, "I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt. I fear. I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul."
Coppola avoids cgi and even blue screen, almost exclusively using physical effects like trap doors and forced perspective. He borrows a bit from Cocteau's Orphee tricking the viewer as to the actual orientation of the camera in order to make it seem as though a character falls sideways or climbs straight down. He uses a moment from Cocteau's Belle et la Bete when Dracula turns Mina's tears into diamonds, helping give the impression, as Cocteau gave to the Beast, that the limits and nature of Dracula's powers are beyond our understanding even as they seem to feed off our perspective.
The beautiful and strange costume designs by Eiko Ishioka confer an individuality to character and compliment the mood in a way rare for a period film. The beautiful sets and art direction are much the same way--stylised and lived in, clear reflections of an aesthetic will while also appearing to have been affected by time and use.
And then there's Wojciech Kilar's score, which would have been great even without everything else that's amazing about this movie, throbbing repetitions of themes itself like impulses to sex and war, pushing up the frail floorboards of modern morality, perfectly complimenting the story.
Twitter Sonnet #470
Dominant rhinoceros tobacco
Plugs the soil with the spidery comb.
Gelatinous clouds cram the Texaco
With the raindrops of an oily poem.
Pig shaped cases contain the brief bacon.
Graves are balded by the sudden wig ghoul.
Vegetable gods are too soon forsaken.
No no, the beet juice is the life, Dracul.
Naga's negligee grants gratuitous
Access for her languid tentacle twitch.
Snakes who cosplay as Scylla must practice
Robot humanoid Walt Disney face switch.
Vinegar storms enliven the soil.
Elephant pills are made without oil.