Bram Stoker’s Dracula has to be one of the most misleading titles in recent movie history. Yes, Francis Ford Coppola’s blood-soaked, deliriously overwrought version of the Dracula legend adheres to the twisty melodramatic outline of Stoker’s 1897 novel. The movie also humanizes the monster (though in ways that have nothing to do with Stoker): In place of the libidinous fang- gnashing ghoul favored by studios from Universal to Hammer, Coppola offers up a Dracula who’s a tormented romantic antihero, a once-valiant 15th-century nobleman pining across the centuries for his lost beloved.

That aside, there’s nothing remotely old-fashioned about Coppola’s movie. His Dracula is less a filmed novel than an explosion of lava-hot imagery, most of it jammed together in the glitzy, one-thing-after-another style of MTV. For a while, the onslaught is hypnotic. Yet Dracula, unlike, say, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu, doesn’t have a discernible ”look.” What it does have is enough random baroque visuals to stock 150 horror films. The movie is a production designer’s wet dream — a smorgasbord of surreal fairy-tale backdrops, of gore and magic and pyrotechnical stunts. Here, as in One From the Heart, Coppola lets his visual genius engulf the story; you have to get your bearings with almost every new shot. This time, though, Coppola is working in a genre that has already been relegated to the rock-video junkyard. And so audiences may not mind Dracula‘s narcotic superficiality. They may even welcome a horror film that substitutes eye-popping sensation for genuine dramatic power.

The movie begins promisingly. In 1897, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), a fresh-faced young British solicitor, journeys to Transylvania to visit Dracula (Gary Oldman), who has inquired about buying some property in London. After a perilous coach ride, Harker arrives at Dracula’s castle, which is perched on a twisty mountain that juts out of the earth like a corkscrew.

Small and ancient, Dracula has skeletal hands, the mottled gray skin of a mummy, and long white hair that has been wound, as if on a spindle, into two tight bubbles atop his head. Clad in a long red kimono, he’s like a wizened alien: Bela Lugosi meets Yoda. In these early scenes, Oldman, the superb British actor (Sid and Nancy, JFK), gets a chance to establish his own impish rhythms. As Dracula, he speaks in a lugubrious Middle European accent (he even gets to reprise Lugosi’s famous line, ”I never dreenk…wine!”), yet his eyes are a-twinkle, and he gives the dialogue a giddy, supercilious spin. Walking in on Harker as he’s shaving, he grabs the blood-flecked razor and gives it a sudden, greedy lick, his appetite so naked it’s both sickening and thrilling. This old, lusty Drac seems a true mystical creature, a freakish blood demon.

Harker doesn’t quite realize he has been made Dracula’s prisoner until he is ravished during the night by three sexy, pale-skinned lady vampires (Reeves gives such a lightweight performance that it’s hard to tell if he’s pleased or horrified). For Dracula, keeping the poor boy occupied is no idle sport. He has glimpsed a photograph of Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Winona Ryder), who appears to be the reincarnation of his true love. Piling 50 coffins of dirt into his ship, he sails for England and makes his appearance as Prince Vlad, a dashing aristocrat who, with his long hair, top hat, and blue granny glasses, looks like nothing so much as a ’60s rock star.

Oldman is so vivid and funny as the cackling, centuries-old Dracula that we look forward to seeing what he’ll do in the London scenes. Yet after that superb first half hour, he never quite seems in the movie. Dracula follows Mina through the streets, making earnest attempts to woo her. At night he turns into a wolf and vampirizes her friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost), a cooing flirt. The trouble is, this Dracula hasn’t really been thought out as a character. He’s neither a spectacular otherworldly devil nor a charismatic human monster; he just seems a rather feckless outsider who goes crazy around necks. As Mina, Winona Ryder acts with her usual nicey-nice girlishness. Unlike the vibrant Sadie Frost as Lucy, she projects no sensual depths, and her scenes with Oldman are like something out of a high school Romeo and Juliet.

There’s nothing very dazzling about Stoker’s plot. After a while, the movie collapses into the usual hugger-mugger about garlic, fang marks, and, of course, a fellow named Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), who knows everything about killing bloodsuckers. Hopkins steals the movie by default, spitting out witticisms with impeccable ”I’m not worried, why should you be?” panache. Still, do we really want to be stuck, once again, watching Van Helsing teach Stake Through the Heart 101? It’s the main show that Coppola fails to deliver — the shock and passion of Dracula’s blood lust. The director has dressed up a classic tale in mesmerizing visual overkill without coming close to its dark heart. B-

Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Movie
  • 128 minutes