Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a prologue set in Transylvania in 1462. We then cut to London, 1897 (‘Four centuries later,’ a caption helpfully tells viewers with poor maths). The film is littered with mentions of dates, a way of echoing the novel’s use of diaries, letters and newspaper articles. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is on his way to Castle Dracula on 25 May. On 30 May, diary entries from Harker, Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dr Seward (Richard E Grant) are read out as voiceover. We hear extracts from the log of the Demeter dated 27 June and 3 July. Having arrived in the UK, Dracula (Gary Oldman) rises from his coffin on 7 July. Harker’s finally escaped the castle by 12 August. On 17 September, he returns to London. And Harker’s diary tells us that he and his colleagues are chasing the count across Europe on 28 October.

Faithful to the novel? At the time of the film’s release, much publicity was made of it being an unusually unswerving adaptation of Stoker’s text. It is roughly the same story. However, *lots* of things have been changed, such as:

* Dracula actually is Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century psychopath who enjoyed torturing his enemies. Stoker certainly took inspiration from the historical figure when researching his novel, and Van Helsing suggests a connection between the two men – but this movie began a vogue for making it much more literal.

* Mina is the reincarnation of Vlad’s lost love, Elisabeta, who committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking Vlad had been killed. When he learns what she’s done, Vlad seemingly just decides to become immortal so he can avenge her death. (He blames God rather than the Turk who lied to her.)

* Once the story moves to the Victorian era, the role of Renfield (Tom Waits) has been changed: in this version he was a solicitor who visited Dracula and came back insane.

* Unlike the novel, the film presents events in chronological order, so Harker’s experiences at the castle are intercut with Mina and others back in Britain.

* Something that *is* faithful to the book is that when Harker first meets Dracula, the vampire appears to be elderly and only becomes visually younger as he feeds. It’s a detail that’s often ignored in adaptations. Oldman’s old-man make-up makes him look like the Emperor from Return of the Jedi.

* Dracula is buying 10 properties in London, not just Carfax Abbey.

* It’s possible Whitby is ignored. The Demeter lands at a seaside town with vertiginous headlands, but the rest of the UK action appears to all take place in London. Lucy’s mother is also absent from this version.

* Mina’s friendship with Lucy (Sadie Frost) is a touch more salacious: they get giggly while looking at sexually explicit drawings in a book, while they share a cheeky kiss at one point.

* Dracula can move around in the daytime.

* Newly arrived in London, Dracula spots Mina and recognises her as the reincarnation of Elisabeta. A newly invented subplot sees them then have an affair of sorts, which runs parallel to his pursuit of Lucy. The story’s chronology is rejigged significantly around this section.

* Dracula is often in the form of a wolf, and even becomes a big human/bat type monster.

* When under Dracula’s influence, Mina seduces Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He’s well up for the kiss-kiss, but pulls away when she tries to bite him.

* Mina kills Dracula.

Best performance: Richard E Grant is probably the best of a bad bunch, playing a half-klutzy, half-junkie Seward.

Best bit: Jonathan Harker’s more-sexual-than-usual encounter with the Brides (one of whom is Monica Bellucci).

Review: Francis Ford Coppola had impressive form when it came to making great cinema out of a potboiler novel. But the magic dust he sprinkled over The Godfather got blown away by a stiff breeze here. The movie certainly looks good, especially in inventive sequences such as the puppet-show-like flashbacks. There are plenty of impressively in-camera special effects. And the notion of Dracula’s shadow having a mind of its own is a neat idea that very nearly works. But this is a terrible film. The cast are appalling – most notably the horrendously miscast Keanu Reeves – while it gets thunderingly boring about halfway in. Ideas get set up then abandoned and there are also lots of jarring oddities, such as Victorian gentlemen not spotting that a woman’s breast is exposed, which make you question how firmly focused Coppola’s directorial eye was. The film also loses at least two marks for codifying the dreary cliché that Dracula is Vlad the Impaler.

Three beheadings out of 10

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