Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a love story.
No, not the actual Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but rather, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a title so obviously annoying that it really should announce what kind of movie you’re getting yourself in for before you so much as sit through the opening credits.
With Gary Oldman as the Count, Winona Ryder as Mina, and Keanu Reeves as Johnathan Harker, this 1992 flick almost couldn’t be more nineties in terms of its casting. That nineties-does-fifties gothic retro is in full force here, painted backgrounds, miniatures, luscious costumery, high, hedonistic melodrama laced with a thick Generic European accent and plenty of heaving bosoms leaping out of tight corsets.
Because first and foremost, even before the love story, this version of Dracula is a sex story. We’ve seen a few hot-and-heavy takes on the Count and his minions over the years already, especially Lee’s version and Paul Natschy’s, but here, it’s not just Dracula who seems to be obsessed with sex. From the randy suitors of Lucy, to the 20% of the film given over to orgasmic groaning, to even Mina and Lucy sharing a quick snog in a rainy hedge maze, Coppola looked at this story and decided that it was in distinct need of a nineties erotic thriller makeover. Honestly, it’s a pretty fun interpretation; hedonistic and horny, overblown and a little silly, in all the ways that it needs to be. But the thing is, if you’re going to turn the sex appeal of Dracula up to eleven, you have to bring up the rest of the film to meet it – and there’s one giant hole (ahem) in making that a reality.
Look, I don’t know how Keanu Reeves got this role. I literally can’t imagine, with the choice of actors that Coppola had to choose from, why he decided that Reeves was the man for the job here. I’ve got a soft spot for Keanu Reeves – especially when he has two lines a film and spends most of his time shooting guns – but this performance has to rank up there with one of the most screamingly dreadful things I’ve ever had the misfortune of watching on the big screen. He emotes precisely nothing over the course of his time on screen, and given that much of the first act is about him and the big D himself, it’s damn near impossible to find a reason to keep watching. Johnathan Harker, or J-Hizzle as I’ve always known him, is perhaps not the most interesting character in the Dracula mythos to start with, but when you apply this gobsmackingly awful performance over the top of it – I think I’d have been asking for my money back within the first twenty minutes.
So the real tragedy of this movie is that Mina doesn’t end up with Dracula. Mina and Johnathan are where the real story starts, bidding each other a chaste farewell as he takes off to Transylvania to deal with a client of his former colleague, the insane Renfield (treated by the equally insane and utterly delightful Richard E Grant as an opium-addicted Seward). Their impending marriage and their sweet long-distance correspondence seems to set them up as the story’s central love match, but the more time they spend apart, the more obvious it becomes that they’re not. Johnathan forbids Mina from seeing her best friend Lucy, for fear that Mina might get used to the fancy lifestyle that Lucy lives that he can’t provide her; they’ve done nothing more than kiss, their relationship seemingly devoid of anything close to carnality.
Enter Count Dracula. After he abandons Johnathan at his castle to be gnawed on by some of the Wives, he heads to London in search of Mina, the spitting image of his dead wife. As soon as they meet, there’s something between them – Keanu’s dearth of presence works pretty well in comparison to Oldman’s confident, charming demeanour, and it doesn’t take long before Mina is taken entirely in by him. But Dracula doesn’t want to use his powers to make her fall for him. He charms her with his passion, his sophistication, his adoration of her; everything that Johnathan doesn’t seem to have. Even after Mina marries Johnathan, and the two of them presumably take it to the marital bed, her lust for the Count only deepens now she knows what she’s missing.
By the time the climax of the film rolls around, Mina is begging the Count to turn her into a vampire so they can be together forever, but (not unlike Dracula’s Great Love), he declines her that, not wishing the same fate on her as he has condemned himself to. Dracula dies in a sobbing Mina’s arms, sacrificing himself to save her, the film ending on that climax, not a reunification between the newly-minted Harkers. The scorching chemistry between Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder is enough to convince me that this was the right way to go, and it makes for a far more interesting approach than having Mina fall sweetly back into the arms of her husband. She does love Dracula, even despite his evil deeds, and there’s no doubt that he completely worships her. The Gothic melodrama of it all fits perfectly with the insanely stylised world Coppola created for this story to take place in.
So, yes, this version of Dracula is a love story, just not between the Harkers, but rather, between an insatiable Mina and her ancient lover Count Dracula. I think this part of the film is executed beautifully; everything to do with Johnathan, and Anthony Hopkins bizarre performance as Van Helsing, not so much. But overall, it makes for a bloody entertaining and unremittingly horny couple of hours against a gorgeous backdrop, and lives up to the ridiculousness of its overwritten title.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Eye for Film)