From Corleone to Kurtz, Coppola has often been drawn to the enigmatic overlord who exercises a terrible and absolute power over his domain. In Dracula he may have found the type's most fearsome embodiment - and its disembodiment, for this prince of darkness can transform himself into a green vapour as well as a bat, a lizard, a wolfish incubus or a closetful of rats. In his more photogenic incarnations he is played by Gary Oldman, first seen as Vlad the Impaler in the film's marvellous prologue, set in a glowering, magic-lantern Transylvania during the holy wars of the 15th century. Tooled up in armour that has modelled its pleated design on a Walnut Whip, Vlad returns triumphant from savaging the infidels, only to find his wife has been tricked into suicide by the enemy, and refused a Christian burial. He curses God, skewers the sacred cross and floods the altar with blood, so condemning himself to eternity and unleashing a myth that looks likely to endure for roughly the same period.
The story gets properly underway when we are whisked off to London in 1897, where young solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) has been entrusted to tie up a property deal with one Count Dracula in Transylvania. By the time he reaches the castle he's already a little spooked - not surprising, given that his cab driver looks like something out of Doctor Who - and is hardly put at his ease by the appearance of the Count. In the novel, Dracula is 'a tall old man . . . clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere'. Coppola and his team have had a high old time reimagining him for the screen. Sporting a double-scoop periwig, fingernails like talons and a billowing scarlet robe which may conceal casters - this Dracula doesn't walk so much as glide - it's fair to say he cuts a rum figure.
These early scenes - an encounter between European decadence and English politesse - are a shiver away from a ghoulish comedy of manners. Oldman, wizened and whey-faced, plays host with an ennui appropriate to his 400-odd years. 'I never drink . . . wine,' he leers. Reeves, struggling with an English accent, is hilariously out of place on what must be his most bogus journey yet, but his awkwardness lends an unwitting comic tilt. There's an inspired moment when he cuts himself shaving: whipping the razor from him Oldman surreptitiously licks the blade. It's a delicious sip of horror.
The narrative builds piecemeal in an attempt to honour the book's multiple viewpoints. While the hapless Reeves is left to the untender mercies of three thirsty vampirettes, the Count himself appears magically on the streets of London, where he will woo Harker's fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder), who is of course a dead ringer for Vlad's tragic wife. And what a change is here. The years have slipped from him, the nails have been clipped, and he's quite the dandy in stovepipe hat, loose dark hair and blue eye-glasses. This is the doomed wanderer who has 'come across oceans of time' to reclaim his love. In the interim he will feast on Mina's flighty friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and torment his disciple Renfield (Tom Waits), banged up in the local asylum and wolfing down any insect he can lay hands on.
In this woozy atmosphere of sexual yearning Coppola has decided to attempt a kind of moral transfusion. Stoker's tale stirred contemporary fears not so much with the Gothic baggage of ruined castles and rotting crypts as with the spectre of disease which the vampire potently embodied. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) quips about 'syphilisation' in his lecture theatre, but venereal plague among the Victorians was anything but a joke. (Ironically, it did for Stoker himself 15 years after the publication of Dracula.) When the Count completes his seduction of Mina by slitting his chest and inviting her to drink his blood you get the point, but the film-makers overload the analogy with Aids by cutting to sinister close-ups of blood cells. Love and blood equals . . . oo-er, death.
Bram Stoker's Dracula points up what many have long suspected about Coppola. He has the flair of an artist and the soul of a vulgarian. His visual sense is second to none, but finesse has to fight for a place nowadays. This Dracula is a beautiful fugue of Hallowe'en oranges, arterial reds and velvety blacks. Our eyes are fantastically indulged: tableaux vivant that nod to Tissot, a sepia dream of Victorian street life, any number of fancy dissolves and shimmering superimpositions. Every frame of the film is tricked out in opulent textures and dense colours, and its drama is heightened by Wojciech Kilar's brooding score. Coppola even manages to work in the bravura stunt he first pulled in The Godfather, when a baptism was interwoven with a mob slaying, cross-cutting between solemnity and savagery, the sacred and the profane. When Harker finally gets Mina to the altar, the camera hurtles through the London night like, well, like a bat out of hell, into one unfortunate lady's chamber.
The movie's recasting of Dracula as a tormented romantic outsider is plausible enough - Oldman and Ryder certainly give their all - but in consequence it sacrifices the novel's controlling animus. Just as Coppola's obsession with the toys of movie technology squeezed out the romance from One From The Heart, this time round his accent on romance has dissipated Dracula's single overwhelming force: evil. Van Helsing and his vampire hunters steal through the night exhuming the undead and warding off diabolic spirits, but Coppola never really puts the frighteners on us. Hopkins, indeed, seems to have been recruited to raise a laugh rather than the dead.
Somewhere along the line Coppola decided that his Dracula would not be a horror story, yet it doesn't quite work as a romantic tragedy either - there's too much else going on for the star-crossed lovers to take the screen over. What keeps the enterprise alive is the brio and daring of his movie-making technique: the virtuoso touches are inimitably his own. He remains one of the few Hollywood directors still capable of raising the imaginative stakes. This beguiling, inventive, slightly hysterical box of tricks isn't really Bram Stoker's Dracula, so call it something else - Coppola's One Through The Heart.
'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (18) is on general release.