FILM / The beautiful and the damned: Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula

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The Independent Culture
SUCCESS in the genre of the Gothic depends on a partial transformation of terror into beauty, and by that standard Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (18) is a failure, but for an unusual reason: the transformation of terror into beauty is absolute, leaving no ghost of a shudder behind. Why should we pretend to be frightened, when in fact we are looking forward to the next astonishing manifestation of what is only notionally evil? How can we be in suspense when we know that our appetite for lurid visual truffles will be fed without a moment's stinting? Even at the film's few sanguinary moments, there is no temptation to look away, since violence too is swallowed up - along with the plot - by the ravishments of design.

Coppola has often seemed both too large and too small for any genre he chose to work in. The triumph of the first two Godfathers lay mainly in the resonant inappropriateness of an operatic tone and a squalid story, while the weakness of Apocalypse Now was that the director's addiction to spectacle, to making a statement at all costs, made it absurd that he imagined he was diagnosing the same ailment in his country's foreign policy.

At one point in his career Coppola filmed two very similar novels for teenagers by the same author, S E Hinton, at the same time and with an overlapping cast, but going with the grain of the genre on one, The Outsiders (naturalism, colour, Stevie Wonder title song), and against the grain on the other, Rumblefish (expressionism, black- and-white, jazzy soundtrack). Of that pairing, it was the 'sincere' film that felt hollow, while the one where Coppola seemed to have no confidence in the material, and compensated by embroidering it almost continuously with experiments and aesthetic wonders, was the one that was perversely unforgettable.

The new Dracula, for at least its first 90 minutes, surpasses the seductive extravagance of Rumblefish. With his last film, The Godfather III, Coppola looked like an artist in decline. With Dracula, he is rejuvenated. It may only be a transfusion of fake blood, but it has perked him up no end.

James Hart's screenplay may put Bram Stoker's name up there in the title, but there's no certainty that the author would recognise the result. (As his strikingly inept screenplay for the Peter Pan sequel Hook demonstrated, Hart wouldn't recognise an author's intention if it flew up and bit him in the neck.) Hart's strongest idea is that Dracula is not a pagan but an apostate, a Christian warlord (the historical Vlad the Impaler) who fights the Muslim Turks, but curses the God he has served when he is told that his wife, a suicide, has thereby damned her soul to hell. This is a provocative twist on the formula, but gets lost in the confusions of the story.

The Cross - or indeed, a sacramental wafer applied to the forehead as a metaphysical poultice - sometimes seems effective against evil, sometimes not. Silver bullets are never mentioned, but garlic puts in an occasional appearance. Dracula seems at one point, when luring Jonathan Harker to his castle, to need to have hospitality freely accepted before he can gain spiritual ascendancy, but at other times there are no such limitations on his power. He appears as a werewolf as well as a bat, though a werewolf with an attractively bat- influenced nose. These details don't necessarily matter, but no one watching the film would have any idea why Dracula chooses to relocate to London in the first place, buying 10 carefully chosen properties for his purpose, whatever it is, and bringing along many crates of the ancestral earth that he needs to sleep in.

Coppola revisits the late 19th century as a period of technological turmoil, which makes a change from the costume-drama pieties, though it may reflect primarily the interests of the director. The camera dwells lovingly on typewriters and phonographs. London seems to have thriving porn cinemas in 1897, which is a bit sudden, bearing in mind that the cinematograph made its debut in Paris in December 1895. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) attempts a blood transfusion, which seems anachronistic but isn't - it is only successful transfusion that needed the discovery of blood groups, and indeed the Incas were able to transfuse successfully since they were all of one blood type.

Although the press kit includes a bibliography for 'Further Reading', what the film shows us is unmistakably the 19th century of a parallel universe. Eiko Ishioka, originally a graphic designer but responsible for the astonishing look of Paul Schrader's Mishima, plays almost as important a part here, though her credit is restricted to costume design, and the production designer (Thomas Sanders) and director of photography (Michael Ballhaus) must share in the honours. Vampire movies traditionally go a bundle on reds, and Dracula certainly doesn't skimp in that department: the Count has a scarlet train about a mile long, which looks particularly good when he is on all fours, and the screen is sometimes flooded with swirling platelets. But Ishioka hasn't neglected green, bottle green, bluebottle green, for the Count's gloves at one point.

Every stock element of the story has been re-thought or re-seen. This Dracula has no patent leather hair and widow's peak, but a towering grey wig reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts, in which, if you look at the back of the neck, his flesh is somehow implicated. Lightning leaves a stylised after-image, long enough for us to see that it is made up of curves - art nouveau lightning in neon blue. Coppola has made the unfashionable choice of doing most of the special effects inside or in front of the camera, rather than later on. It is appropriate that many of these techniques derive from Victorian stage magic, and they have the supreme virtue of seeming to flow, with the onward progress of a story that, actually, never materialises.

The main thing missing from this parallel-universe 19th century is, simply, repression. Lucy (Sadie Frost) is not merely fast but Concorde-fast, making penis jokes that her social circle seems to find only mildly daring, while even demure Mina (Winona Ryder) looks at the explicit illustrations in her Arabian Nights with fascination as well as disgust. There seem to be no parents, disapproving or otherwise. No one in Victorian London is much over 30, except the Count, who admittedly, at 400-plus, somewhat raises the average.

Without repression, of course, there can be no return of the repressed, and therefore no Bram Stoker's Dracula worthy of the name. Gary Oldman would probably make a good Count if he didn't appear in ten or so different guises. The other actors make equally little impression in this gorgeous phantasmagoria, whether they are good (Richard E Grant), indifferent (Winona Ryder) or plain bad (Keanu Reeves as Harker, speaking as if English vowels had been injected into his gums during a painful session at the dentist's).

The splendours and limitations of this Dracula can be summed up by one tableau in particular. Renfield (Tom Waits) is eating flies in an asylum, but all the audience will be thinking is, 'Where can I get a beautiful straitjacket like that. It's so subtly ribbed. A straitjacket like that would cost pounds 2,000 on South Moulton Street'. But perhaps it should repel us just a bit that he's eating bugs and worms. We're just disappointed that Eiko Ishioka hasn't done a design job on the creepy-crawlies, which would certainly make us want to keep them as pets.

(Photograph omitted)