Francis Ford Coppola used to be one of the shining lights of film. Between the classic Godfather movies and the Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, Coppola was seen as being at the forefront of a new generation of American filmmakers, along with friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. But Apocalypse Now was such a staggeringly momentous production that it drained him emotionally. And he then released the prohibitively expensive One From The Heart, which tanked at the box office and with the critics (despite being a fun film), turning Coppola from one of the most powerful men in Hollywood to a director for hire. Churning out crap like Peggy Sue Got Married, Coppola needed something to make him financially solvent again. His first attempt was The Godfather, Part III, but that didn't achieve what Coppola needed, so he made an adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula.
Now, Dracula is certainly a well-known character in film. From the classic Bela Lugosi pictures through to Udo Kier's imaginative take on the character in Blood For Dracula, the character had very little mystique left. Coppola faced the challenge of making the character feel new again. To that end, he made the brilliant move of casting Gary Oldman, one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation. He also made the decision to have the film be a visual tour de force, with all the effects done in-camera.
Looking at it now, it's amazing that Dracula actually brought Coppola back from the brink of bankruptcy. Almost every single set was built on soundstages (one of the very things that made One From The Heart such a costly failure). The costumes are lavish. And the creature effects are incredibly detailed. The reported budget for the film was $40 million in 1992, which was no small chunk of change. However, it's clear where the money went, as the film is pure visual spectacle. Coppola's imagination ran wild in the best way possible, creating indelible and unforgettable imagery that has become part of film culture. Who can forget the various guises of Dracula, from old man to wolf to bat?
The film's success lies in the collaboration between Coppola and Oldman. Coppola creates the world for Dracula to inhabit, but it's Oldman who gives the character life (or unlife, as it were). He gives a remarkable performance that is subtle when possible, appropriately over the top when necessary, and always definable as Oldman. He's excellent at acting through the makeup, which he's wearing more often than not. In some cases there's almost nothing recognizable as human in him, but Oldman still shines through. It's masterful work and still one of his most enduring portraits.
If only the same could be said for the rest of the cast. For some unknown reason, Coppola thought casting Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker would be a good idea. Reeves has grown into a better actor as time has gone by, but in these early days he's as wooden and forced as his longtime critics made him out to be. Winona Ryder is actually the best of the supporting cast, playing the conflicted Mina with a strong mix of innocence and regret. Perhaps the most disappointing of all the cast is Anthony Hopkins. Fresh off his Academy Award-winning performance as Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins plays Abraham Van Helsing as a man just shy of a raving lunatic. He's loud, abrasive, and rude, without any of the style, panache, or discipline Hopkins usually brings to his roles.
The film is also too long. Running just over 2 hours, the movie feels like it's almost 3. Too much time is spent on useless characters like Renfield (although seeing Tom Waits play him was a treat) and the picture strays too far from its central theme of the undying love Dracula has for Mina. Still, the work is always visually stimulating and Gary Oldman's performance is truly breathtaking. It's not at the level of Coppola's best work, but it proved he still had some life left in him, even if it was for the undead.
The Blu-ray Disc:
These are technical issues. There are aesthetic concerns that are worth mentioning as well. This transfer of Dracula was supervised by a representative of American Zoetrope, who relayed Francis Ford Coppola's wishes on how the film should look. The final product contains some major changes from the way the movie has looked previously. Dracula is a stylized film, and the colors used to reflect that: Vibrant tints of orange and blue gave the film an otherworldly look. Now, a good majority of the colors have been drained, at times making the film look almost black and white. Other changes, such as turning a light from white to green, have been made for no discernible reason. There is some debate as to how closely these changes reflect Coppola's actual desires. But until we get some kind of statement from Coppola denouncing this transfer, I can only assume that this is at least a reasonable approximation of what he would have done had he personally supervised it.
Since my publication of this review, I have conversed with Kim Aubry, post production supervisor on the 1992 release of Dracula and freelance producer of the bonus content on this new release. According to Kim, "I was never satisfied that home video and TV editions of Dracula looked much like the release prints that were sent to movie theaters back in 1992....The feeling in the home video business was: the transfer had to be bright, it had to be saturated and colorful, it had to "punch" and it had to exist within the very limited palette of NTSC TV specifications. Allowing a diffuse shadowy background set to taper off to obscurity...that level of subtlety could not be seen or reproduced by most TVs, and so the levels were cranked up. TV versions of Dracula revealed much more of Dracula's castle set backgrounds than the original film prints did." Kim adds, "Simply put, the newer transfers are much closer to the final answer print which was the filmmaker's ideal at the time. What I can tell you is that this new HD transfer is as close (overall) to MY memory of the original film as anything that I have seen, and I worked round-the-clock completing Dracula in Summer-Fall 1992. (I saw a LOT of answer prints and release prints at a LOT of screenings.)" (Note: These comments are the sole opinion of Kim Aubry and are not to be considered official statements by Sony or American Zoetrope).
Furthermore, renowned film restorer Robert Harris (he of Lawrence of Arabia fame) also gave the transfer high marks, echoing many of Kim's comments, stating that the limitations of older televisions required home video editions that looked quite different from the original theatrical release. He goes on to call it "one of the most perfect [releases] to come from the Sony vaults." On the other hand, I've received many firsthand accounts from people who have either seen the film recently, or remember seeing it in 1992, and even got comments from a projectionist who ran the film for months during its original release, all who claim that the colors here are not representative of the original prints.
I should stop here and say we're really talking about two different things: The colors and the detail. I would imagine that there is more detail to be found in the 35mm than what we're getting here. But I am willing to take the word of both Kim Aubry and Robert Harris that this is an excellent representation of what we would get on film. To that end, I have raised the image quality rating to three stars. Simply due to the way it was shot, Dracula will never look crystal clear in high definition. But if this truly is closer to Francis Ford Coppola's vision, then I'm all for it. As far as the colors go, there's clearly some debate as to how close these are to the colors presented in the original theatrical release. But there is no debate that this edition does look different from all previous home video releases, and those who have grown accustomed to the look of the film as presented on previous DVDs or laserdiscs may want to hold on to those older versions. I myself actually like these colors and take no issue with them, but in this particular case, every one will just have to decide for themselves.