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Dracula Exhumed and Reviewed

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Dracula films refuse to die. In scores of movies since the 1931 classic with Bela Lugosi, the immortal themes of sex, death, and religion have transfused our fascination for the vampire's legend. The latest addition to this brood is Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Coppola tries to give his film a fresh twist by going back to the original. The film is titled BRAM STOKER'S Dracula because it's supposedly truer to Stoker's 1897 novel than any previous film version. That claim seems correct, but who really cares? Exhuming the original text fails to enliven the legend for 1992. Within Coppola's epic, Hollywood's jaded moral ambivalence clashes with Stoker's Victorian religious allegory.

Religion and death drive Dracula (Gary Oldham) into becoming a vampire. After defending the medieval Church against Turkish invaders, the Count rages at his beloved's tragic death, renounces God, and skewers a crucifix that consequently gushes blood. The Count drinks of this unnaturally produced blood while declaring that blood will be his life.

Dracula (Romanian for "Son of the Dragon" or "Devil") becomes anti-God, an inverted Christ. Christ, Light of the World, sacrificed his blood so that others could live. Dracula, Prince of Darkness, preys on the blood of others so that he alone can live.

Christian symbols are wielded by the protagonists Dr. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) as magical weapons to fight Dracula's lethally erotic advances on Mina (Winona Ryder). Crucifixes and communion wafers shield against vampires. Liturgies become exorcistic formulas. This may have played well in Victorian England, but to modern secularists those hackneyed plot elements are silly and to modern believers using religious icons without true faith is sacrilegious.

The insipid quasi-spiritual "happy" ending is the weakest part of the film. Dracula's tormented soul finally soars heavenward after he gains Mina's love and literally loses his head to her. Four centuries of soulless bloodthirstiness forgiven because of one spark of love? The final redemption of Dracula the character condemns the credibility of Dracula the film.

One of the film's best parts, however, is the marvelous acting of Gary Oldham as the Count. The character has been done so many times before, but Oldham's portrayal is one of the best. His character (with the aid of grotesque special effects) is both more horrifying and more sympathetic than in previous Dracula movies.

This achievement, however, has a liability. The novel's good and evil polarization makes Dracula a demon who must be destroyed at all costs. This film makes Dracula only a good boy gone very wrong. The viewer doesn't know whether to feel loathing for Dracula's evil or sympathy for his heartache. Since the film's supporting cast is weak, one almost wants to root for Dracula's bloodfest.

The film is a visual feast with sumptuous cinematography and costuming. The most interesting and yet least expensive of its vast special effects is the shadow of Dracula that moves independently of his body as if it had an unholy life of its own.

The visual landscape's dark side, however, is the torrent of blood, impalings, decapitations, and demonic sexual liaisons. Such gratuitous gore contrasts sharply with Lugosi's effective film, directed by Tod Browning. With a much lower budget and only a few drops of blood most of the original film's violence was left to the viewer's imagination.

Coppola, leaving little to the imagination, slakes the thirst of our eyes but not our minds. Coppola's film ultimately functions as a vampire itself for it feeds on sensuality but it has no soul.

Copyright 1993 Mark D. Stucky.
Published originally in Integra, February 1993.

 

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