Coppola Revives Old Tricks In `Bram Stoker's Dracula'
NEW YORK — DRACULA, the Transylvanian count with a long lifespan and peculiar eating habits, is said to have the strength of many men in his supernatural hands. Certainly his story, written by a British author who borrowed heavily from Eastern European myth and history, has exercised an uncannily strong grip on the modern imagination - not least in the movies, where "Dracula" adaptations have multiplied ever since F.W. Murnau inaugurated the genre with his 1922 classic "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror."
The title of Francis Ford Coppola's violent new version, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," indicates a marketing strategy based not only on chills and mayhem but also respect for the author's literary reputation and faithfulness to his original vision. Sure enough, the movie stays fairly close to the novel's story line, with its late 19th-century details of life along with outbursts of gore in the late 20th-century manner.
More interestingly, Mr. Coppola resurrects a number of cinematic conventions from years gone by, supplementing high-tech special effects with old-fashioned camera tricks that evoke the atmosphere of magic and wonder sought by patrons in the early days of motion-picture entertainment.
Within the story at one point, we join two characters at the sort of movie show that flourished in the turn-of-the-century period when "Dracula" was first published. Surrounding the story, meanwhile, we see all kinds of gimmicks, gags, and illusions that enhance its historical ambience and fantastical mood while demonstrating Coppola's interest in the look and feel of primitive cinema. It's no accident that his production company, American Zoetrope, is named after one of the first inventions for producin g the illusion of moving pictures.
Coppola remains an artist of his time, however, and his "Dracula" is also full of the violence and sexual explicitness that have become frequent ingredients of today's mass-market entertainment. Shots of blood and naked bodies clash bizarrely with Coppola's more quaint and engaging notions; the result may be intended as a dialectical encounter, but seems more like a head-on collision.
One of Coppola's most amusing conceits in "Dracula" is to place such contemporary, colloquial, and (let's face it) limited performers as Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder in roles requiring old-fashioned stiffness and English-accented formality. In a more naturalistic treatment of the tale, this would have been a major mistake, recalling Coppola's casting of his daughter Sophia in "The Godfather Part III," his previous picture. If one accepts the presences of Mr. Reeves and Ms. Ryder as an aspect of the movi e's darkly humorous approach, however, Coppola's tactic works well enough.
As for the wicked Dracula himself, so firmly identified with Bela Lugosi for the past 60 years, Gary Oldman plays him superbly - swinging from the hideous to the hilarious with terrific ease while rivaling both the ugliness of Max Schreck in "Nosferatu" and the suavity of Frank Langella in John Badham's inferior 1979 version of the story.
ANTHONY HOPKINS makes a similarly strong impression as Van Helsing the vampire hunter - the sort of role Peter Cushing played so memorably in 1960s and '70s horror films - and Tom Waits deserves a nod for his portrayal of Renfield the lunatic. British newcomer Sadie Frost is capable as the victimized Lucy.
James V. Hart wrote the screenplay for the film, which bogs down badly in its second half by plodding through all the finely worked-out details of Stoker's vision - details that should have been passed through quickly, since audiences are so familiar with them by now. The cinematography by Michael Ballhouse is consistently good, however. Eiko Ishioka designed the costumes and Thomas Sanders was the hard-working production designer. Roman Coppola directed the visual effects.
* `Bram Stoker's Dracula' is rated R. It is violent and erotic, containing a good deal of hyperbolic mayhem, bloodshed, nudity, and sexuality in addition to the supernatural horror of its subject.