Bram Stoker’s Dracula Movie Review
Reviewed By: Katy Whitton on 20 October, 2019
Genre: Horror, Romance, Fantasy
UK Release Date: 29-01-1993
Studio: American Zoetrope, Columbia Pictures
This review is part of the 31 Films For Halloween Series
There was a lot of hype surrounding the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula back in 1992. It was one of the first films to assemble a “superstar” cast: Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes and Sadie Frost – it was a veritable “Who’s Who” of big name stars.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (it’s odd title is due to another studio having the rights for the much simpler title “Dracula” at the time) is from legendary film maker Francis Ford Coppola (director of The Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now and When Peggy Sue Got Married) so you’d think that the subject matter was in safe hands. Well, that’s sort of true, and sort of not true.
The film opens with Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) leaving his lover and heading off to do battle against rampaging Turks to save a Holy Church. These scenes are brilliantly portrayed as black silhouettes against a blood red backdrop. There are people being stabbed by swords, shot with arrows and impaled and raised to the sky. It’s a really effective piece of film making as showing the full battle in a normal way would have meant it would need to be so gory in order to get the full horrors of what the Count was doing across it would have turned into a bloody mess.
After losing the battle the remaining Turks ride off, but not before shooting a “Ha Ha! We killed your lover” message on an arrow through a window in the castle. Believing the note, the Count’s lover Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) throws herself off of a castle tower to her death in the icy river below. Returning from battle the Count sees her dead body and is told by a priest that because she committed suicide, Elisabeta is damned to purgatory and can’t enter Heaven. Dracula is really pissed off at this turn of events – after all he went to battle to save the church for God and it ended up with his lover losing her soul. He renounces God and vows to rise from the grave to avenge her death using the powers of darkness. All of the religious iconography in the church begins to bleed and the Count drinks the blood saying “The blood is the life… and it shall be mine!”
We then fast forward 400 years to London in 1897, we meet Johnathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), he’s been brought in as a replacement for a chap named Renfield who’s gone completely mad and is eating bugs in an insane asylum. Harker is tasked with going to Transylvania to help Count Dracula complete property purchases across London. There are a couple of issues with this scene that annoy me so please indulge me and let me get them off my chest.
Firstly, why is Dracula buying properties across London? The film never explores this avenue and we have no idea why. There are 10 properties in very specific locations. What does this mean? Enquiring minds need to know! Also, why has he suddenly decided to do it now? Surely it would have made more sense to purchase the land before England became an economic powerhouse and bureaucratic nightmare – there’s nothing us Brits like more than to keep records so there’ll be a big paper trail of evidence leading back to the Count if he decides to do dodgy stuff on these properties.
Secondly, Keanu Reeves.
I was just going to leave that sentence there but I’ll elaborate a bit more for you. In the opening scene after the credits we see Renfield (Tom Waits) in his padded cell. He’s on screen for all of 90 seconds and he manages to convey the madness that this poor fellow is enduring with great skill and little to work with. Keanu Reeves on the other hand is on screen for maybe four minutes in the next scene and you just want to punch him in the face.
I know that may sound a little harsh but his character comes across as being so pathetic, whiny and useless I just want to pick him up and shake him. The book was all about Harker’s transition from timid solicitor to Vampire slaying hero but we don’t really get that progression with the Reeves film version. Instead Coppola has him portraying Harker as Clark Kent and never really lets him become Superman.
And don’t even get me started on his accent. OMFG! I am English and I am very offended by this travesty.
Anyway, enough of my annoyances (there are more to come, be assured), let’s return to the plot.
Harker tells his fiance Mina (also played by Winona Ryder – see where we’re going with this?) that he’s off to Transylvania and she’s upset that they’ll have to postpone their wedding. He doesn’t see a problem with this and after some snogging which is weirdly (and not artistically) blocked by a peacock feather (apparently it’s an all seeing eye and is used to ward off evil spirits – are you being that overt Mr Coppola?) he heads off to Transylvania in blood-red montage sequence with an expositional monologue (in that accent) where he trades letters with the Count.
We then swap back to Mina (who has quite a reasonable English accent so it can’t be the voice coaches fault) who’s writing a diary entry. Will this be important, or will it be another lost thread of plot? No, most of the main character have voice-over diaries because exposition!
Jonathan has to swap coaches and he’s gifted a crucifix by a young woman who hands it over with the warning “The dead travel fast”. Harker then has to wait for his ride (the driver is certainly not getting a 5 star rating) and when it turns up the coachman is a strange looking fellow with claw-like hands and an outfit that looks like it’s been designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for The Fifth Element (except it was designed by Eiko Ishioka who won an Oscar for best costume design, plus The Fifth Element was released 5 years later so….)
Harker finally arrives at the castle after a perilous journey across the mountains and the Count comes to meet him personally. He’s an old man with a strange (and iconic) haircut and a very thick accent (it’s still miles better than Harker’s though) which is quite hard to understand as Oldman sounds like he’s muttering from down the bottom of a well.
During dinner the Count goes a little bit mental when discussing his family history. Is he what he seems? Well obviously not as it wouldn’t be much of a film now, would it?
A lot of the mise-en-scène, cinematography and business in this portion of the film can be traced directly back to influences from the 1922 film Nosferatu – just keep an eye on Dracula’s shadow and you’ll see what I mean. This really helps to build up tension (along with the spooky score and vocal arrangements by Wojciech Kilar) and it puts you on edge (despite the dodgy acting in parts).
Harker is writing to Mina and Dracula comes across her picture, he’s immediately drawn to her and in an emotional scene explains how lucky the young man is to have found love. He tells Harker that he expects him to stay at the castle for at least a month to teach him about English customs and directs him to write letters telling everyone how long he will be staying which is quite a big mistake.
Because it’s unseemly for woman to live on their own in Victorian England, Mina moves in with her friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) which is a bit of a bad move as she’s the complete opposite of Mina’s innocent girl next door – mind you, that doesn’t stop Mina copping an eyeful of the Arabian Nights which is full of saucy imagery of people having sex.
At a party thrown at the Westenra house, we discover that Mina’s a virgin but Lucy’s been slutting it up with American Quincey (Billy Campbell), Dr Seward (Richard E. Grant) and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes). It’s at this party that Dracula first starts to exert his power over Mina now he knows of her existence and she hears him calling to her setting the stage for the rest of the film.
Harker knows that something’s going on with the Count but he can’t put his finger on what’s wrong. Ignoring the Count’s warning, he goes searching through the castle and gets ravished by three mysterious women, all thoughts of Mina are put out of his mind. The woman are going all sexy-time on him and are drinking his blood (from a nipple and what we infer is his penis. Um, yuck) but Dracula appears and calls them off, giving them a baby to satiate their hunger. Harker appears to go a bit loopy at this point, much to the Count’s delight.
Stuck in the castle, all Harker can do is watch local workmen shovel soil into boxes, these are then placed on a ship bound for London along with the Count in a casket but after the crew disappears the ship goes off course and heads for Whitby – just where Mina and Lucy are, what a coincidence!
The chain of events that follows pretty closely mirror those of the book (apart from the end of the film but I won’t spoil the plot twist). For those of you who haven’t read it, a basic run-down is this:
Lucy (who’s dressed in red so must be a tart) sleepwalks through the garden and is attacked by a Wolfman who, between flashes of lightning, is revealed to be the Count. She starts to act super-weird so Dr Seward contacts his friend and mentor Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins who also jumps on the bad accent bandwagon) to see if he has some advice on what is wrong with her.
Meanwhile Dracula (who can go out in the daylight, huh?) woos Mina through a combination of flattery, hypnosis and presumably rohypnol. It’s all rather yucky and sleazy to be honest.
Back at the castle, Johnathan is acting as a personal blood bank for the 3 sex-and-blood-crazed women vampires but he somehow manages to escape and ends up in a nunnery where he’s able to send for Mina which tears her away from the Count’s clutches.
Lucy is still getting more and more ill and Van Helsing finally puts two-and-two together after she sprouts fangs and tries to bite Quincey’s neck. In order to spite Mina (she’s off marrying Jonathan), Dracula kills Lucy so that she’ll join his ranks of the undead.
Mina still has lustful hankerings for the Count (or her “Prince” as she refers to him) and on their return to England Harker sees the Count and is visibly shaken although he doesn’t really do anything about it apart from mope.
The rest of the film is Van Helsing and Harker trying to convince the others that Dracula is a real threat and is actually undead, trying to rescue Mina from his clutches and finally putting an end to his reign of terror.
Given the high calibre of the cast and the pedigree of the director you would think that this would be a stellar film. While the production values are high: the sets, cinematography, effects, costumes and music are all excellent, the directing and editing are rather lackluster and a lot of the time you’re concentrating more on what the actors are saying thanks to the rubbish accents and mumbling rather that understanding the context of their words in relation to the storyline.
Saying that, if you can get past Oldman, Reeves and Hopkins’ ropey accents, the film is one of the most faithful adaptations to the book that’s been put on film (even though it ignores the fact that the book version of Mina figures out Dracula’s plans and isn’t so easily swayed by his charms) and is worth a look if you want to get away from the Hammer Horror versions of Dracula that have so pervaded our culture.
I would have rated this film a 7 (“Good” under my rating system) but I knocked it down to a 6 (“Fair) due to the annoying accents (can you tell that I have a problem with those yet?) and the fact that the film is probably about 20 minutes too long – either that or the pacing needed to be upped to keep it at the 2 hour mark.
Watch this film if you can’t be bothered to read the novel and you aren’t put off by an American trying to do an English accent (and failing miserably).
Think my thoughts on Keanu Reeves where harsh? I’ll let you be the judge after watching the following – let me know your thoughts in the comments and of course it contains spoilers!