Universal Waves, Man. Universal Waves: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If one looks back on the halls of early ’90s cinema, a few trends emerge, but none stands more idiosyncratic than the sudden 50-years-late splurge of Universal horror films unleashed upon the unsuspecting populace, most of which are not, in all honesty, worth discussing in any serious capacity today. Mike Nichol’s Wolf is uncommonly interesting as a reflection of its time period and a commentary on gender and power in the modern world, even if it less of a film than it is a discussion piece. Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein is somewhat stodgily uncomfortable and beset by Branagh’s stilted reductionist theatricality.

There is one exception however: Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (a much better title than the ungainly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite the undeniable similarities between this film and the source material upon which it is based), now this is a film worth discussing, whatever you think of it. Gaudy and oppressive, garish and lurid, feverishly sexual and unwieldy and broad and blunt and devilish and all manner of other unholy, batty adjectives, it is undeniably the work of its auteur. It is, if nothing else, the most Coppola of Coppola’s films released in the past thirty years, and considering that this man was at one point one of the great filmmakers of the modern era, this is worth discussing. After a decade of artistic sycophancy on his part, and a decade of artistically aimless American genre cinema mostly playing ball with conventional Hollywood style, Dracula is Coppola’s phallus-waiving gambit to cinema-goers: watch my film, enjoy or don’t, I don’t care because I’ve bested you and you will be felled by its gigantism one way or another. All patchwork nonsense and scenes dripping sweat and blood from every unstitched seam unfurling and falling apart by the minute, this film is ironically not his Dracula but his Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s not a work of a filmmaker but a mad scientist, a film so committed to its own vision of life at any cost that it is willing to fall apart in front of you just to make its point. In oppressive lunacy and effervescent, exultant, unmitigated cinema, Coppola’s Dracula sacrifices everything at the alter of pursuing cinematic zest.

What do I mean by “most Coppola”? Well, truth be told, it depends on your definition of the man, and it encompasses the good and the bad (and here, as was often the case with the director, the good and the bad are so fundamentally linked as to be almost inseparable). Among the American New Wave auteurs, Coppola was always the most European. While Scorsese and others directed their films to pulse with present-tense jazzy, nervy energy and sweat, Coppola’s films always seemed more like classical art projects, works of intricate composure and monstrously opulent fetishes that contrasted with the rough-and-tumble grime of his fellow filmmakers. He wanted to stimulate operatic, cocaine-fueled, orgiastic Shakespearean tragedies, and he understood that this form of theatrical film required a different sensibility than many of his fellow directors.

He turned to baroque filmmaking, sacrificing narrative concision for symphonic, orchestral arias that enhanced the outre theatricality of his pieces at the expense of tightness and even sense. It is not for nothing that his One From the Heart is probably the most important release, excepting Michael Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate, in the dissolution of the New Wave upon producers’ realization that these damn auteurs were just sucking away money for whatever personal, unchecked whims and fantasies they could muster. If Coppola was anything, he was a man of unchecked ambition and fantasy, and he wasn’t about to let some pesky producer trounce on his dreams.

Cut to a decade later, those dreams long dashed by exactly those producers who Coppola most feared, and the director had spent far too long in relative obscurity. He was planning a comeback in a big way. Would that it had been Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, but no, Godfather III had to make a pesky appearance first to restore some of Coppola’s box office luster with the sure-fire commercial success of a new film in the much loved series of operatic Americana. Thankfully it served at least one goal: very temporarily reigniting the man’s career, before he got bored with commercial filmmaking altogether and gave up to generally make play with the arthouse world every once in a while, when he feels like rising out of his coffin. This temporary light to his flame allowed for at least one film to fit the man’s name, flawed as all hell, but massively, maddeningly invested and interesting in the way only a Coppola film can be: Dracula.

Taking a surfeit of the script from Stoker’s original novel, this rendition of the material begins with a young Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) visiting the flamboyant, eccentric Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) in Eastern Europe for an ostensible real estate deal. There he runs afoul of Dracula’s three vampire brides (although he isn’t bitten, but merely tempted), while the big bad man himself hops on over to jolly old England to menace and wreak havoc upon Jonathan’s wife’s friend Lucy (Sadie Frost). When she transforms into a vampire herself, her fiance Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) and her former suitors (Billy Cambell as Quincey Morris and Richard Grant as Jack Seward) call on Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to seal her fate and undo Dracula’s curse by sending her to the grave. Soon enough Jonathan, now married to his fiance Mina (Winona Ryder), returns with more evidence of Dracula’s evil-doing, and the new coalition of the willing is off to undo Dracula himself.

All of these people are well and good, but if Dracula has an MVP, it is without question Michael Ballhaus, cinematographer extraordinaire and an absolutely smitten fit with Coppola’s vision. See, Coppola’s conception of Dracula is to strip the text for parts, peck at the corpse of realism, and embody the work’s feverish, Victorian, libertine quality, dripping emotional sweat from the seams and stoking a kaleidoscopic conflagration at seemingly every turn. This is the version where the sheer malignant mass of  lunacy of everything around us crushes us like a behemoth of a concrete slab decked out in swelling, misty, mythical excess. It is exactly the version of the story only Coppola could tell, and the version he would be best at telling. And in Ballhaus, he found exactly the man to put the fear of god in this version of the film onto the screen.

Ballhaus’ foreboding, feverishly aestheticized style was originally tested for mettle in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s run of provocative, barbed ’70s melodramas (all dissecting diagonal lines and  foregrounded fissure of the screen in those films) and whipped up into an ion storm in some of Martin Scorsese’s late ’80s, early ’90s works, generally his grandest and most operatic, most Coppola-esque, works for that matter. Dracula may be Ballhaus’ ultimate oozing cinematic frisson though, drawing crimson blood from the vein of Hollywood’s past to galvanize Hollywood’s present as only he and Coppola could do. His camera traps every blood-curdled moment in still-life and autoerotically stimulates each to the heights of Mt. Olympus with Gothic set design and costuming that mutates shades of fuchsia and lustrous pink into shrouds of libertine terror (having Eiko Ishioka, arguably the greatest costume designer ever to grace cinema, on hand certainly doesn’t hurt). Matching the production design are some particularly ebullient, flashing, belting  camera gestures from Ballhaus that do not have a clue what the word judicious means for the life of them. It often seems like the camera itself is possessed and transfixed by Dracula’s curse, with the film almost phallically erecting a libidinally charged exhibition match between Coppola’s wild-eyed frustration with the naturalistic cinematic status quo and his rapidly mushrooming charisma, or foolishness, to blow past the cinematic-reality edifice’s limits.

Amidst everything, what I take to be the defining gesture of the film blesses us by fronting the whole affair: a crimson-red introduction of Dracula’s army at war conducted like an opera of paper cut-out figures in silhouetted black, surrounded by a fading sun that bleaches the screen in abstract color like a marionetted work by Lotte Reiniger that tacitly winks toward Kabuki Theater and cunningly proposes Coppola as an unholy puppet-master. Opposing naturalism as a principle, the scene primes us for a film that strikes us as fantastical, blood-soaked symphony, with Coppola’s starfucking imagery the libretto and the locus of attention. When we see a similar puppeteer mechanism appear diegetically in the film’s world when characters pass by the cut-out figures in a backstage showroom where all manner of performative contraptions are stored, the message is clear:  this is cinema as carousel of curios. We ought to look at Coppola’s film not as a story but a work of backstage performance, a grotesque revue show, that diamond-cuts quavering, ghoulish high-camp and earnest melodrama to a fine point and doesn’t for a second make any excuses for how flagrantly flamboyant it is.

Speaking of which: Keanu Reevese is in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an ostensible vulture circling overhead the film or an albatross around its neck. By any conventional definition of performance and essaying character nuance, he is truly, stunningly, in-utterably abysmal. Performances of this soul-searchingly bad quality are once in a blue moon, and they deserve discussion as beyond the pale of what conventional conceptions of good and bad acting can achieve.  In fact, Coppola has insinuated as much, stating that Reeves was hired for his “matinee” appeal in a tone that might imply reaction to criticism if it didn’t seem so germane to the film itself. Reeves is theatrically bad, even artificially bad, as though he himself could not have achieved the feat.  Something else must be going bump in the night.

That something, I suspect, is exactly this sense of knowing artifice, this sense of gee-willickers self-critique where-in Coppola tacitly exposes the superficiality of “Dracula” the novel while still having a boatload of fun bashing high and low art right up against one another and falling in love with the novel for its high-artifice melodrama all over again. All of the performances in the film fail for the same reason as Reeves’, from Ryder’s almost equally alien brand of vapidity to Elwes’ slinky “I’m a modern day Errol Flynn” routine he always does so well to Hopkins’ clipped fire-and-brimstone passion and professorial over-seriousness to Oldman’s ham-sandwich slab of succulent loneliness and kitschy grandeur. And they all succeed for the same reason too: they are exactly the performances that this film needs to sell its drugged-out, drunken, hallucinogenic variant on wild-eyed storytelling.

For Coppola is undeniably having a boatload of fun with himself here. As slovenly and aloof as his product often is and as questionable as some of his narrative jerks can be, all of the flaws somehow feel like winsome, endearing foolishness in this deliberate attempt to play around with matinee filmmaking and European works of horror art. This is a quintessential slab of British/Hammer Gothic concrete in a bloodletting Italian giallo mortar and whipped by the pestle of sub-German Expressionism, playing like a tour of every kind of histrionic horror Coppola can imagine for the pure joie de vivre of it, less a critique of artifice than a bodily expression of it. The capricious, abject, byzantine mess of the picture is also an engorged monument to personal monoliths of the cinema dating back to the hyperbolic days of the grand silents of old. It is a breath of fresh air for the modern era to see a noted director returning from the shadows and lashing out with his unbridled, personal, and entirely cinematic, vision, common sense be damned.

For Coppola especially, it feels like the unleashed-id running amok over cinema after a dormant decade-long slumber, daring to chart new territory without lighthouses to guide his way, tempting his own resolve by dangling increasing insanity in front of him. It’s the sight of a director  pulling the cinematic boat  toward the ends of the earth, testing treacherous waters where the monsters of outre style and uninhibited anti-naturalism wait to gobble up less than courageous filmmakers.  Not only that, but Coppola is rocking the boat while he’s at it, daring his film to dive to its own death and falter under its own portentousness, operating on the frontier of his mind even to insanity and back. Heaven knows it’s a self-sabotaging effort, but the sheer temerity of the expedition, and the girth of the biomes charted here,  make the rest of the medium seem bony  and timid by comparison. Coppola replaces wiry cinema with  live-wire cinema, incomplete in a way, but it defies completion. A feral burst from the unstable mind of cinema, a work that teeters on its own charisma, a film that asks itself to go for it and then answers with a rictus, noxious-gas grin, Dracula pursues cinematic life even to its own death.

Score: 9/10

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