Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
In some respects very close to the original novel on which it's based but straying in terms of romantic undertones, Bram Stoker's Dracula is both an epic, enthralling film and slightly disturbing. It's wonderful witnessing the book come to life but the unnecessary additions of the director taint the experience.
In the fourteenth century Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) is sent to war for the crusade. Becoming known abroad for impaling his victims on stakes, he returns to Transylvania to meet with disaster. His beloved bride has received wrongful word of his death and thrown herself from the highest window of the castle. Because of the suicide, the church will not grant her entrance into heaven. In a psychotic rage, Dracula vows to be ever adverse to the practices of Christ, flouting the faith and giving in to eternal darkness. Many years later, the new clerk in a real estate company has just been assigned a very important client in Transylvania. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is given sole responsibility for the eccentric, wealthy count who desires to purchase ten estates in London. He has not stirred from his sinister castle in many years and the original clerk sent to finish the job met an unfortunate fate.
Hoping to close the deal as rapidly as possible so he can return and marry his beautiful fiancé Mina (Winona Ryder), Jonathan boards the next coach. His journey to Castle Dracul is sinister and terrifying. Wolves follow at a distance, howling eerily into the wind. They pass through a strange blue inferno. His host is possessed of a violent temper, abnormal habits, and devious intentions. Mirrors shatter whenever he is present, he appears to have a curious passion for blood, and his sacred family history means everything to him. Jonathan encounters three beautiful women determined to drain him dry, and sees Dracula give them a baby to quench their bloodlust. Knowing he'll never be allowed to leave the castle alive, Jonathan despairs. Mina in the meantime is living in the household of her wealthy best friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost). Dangling three suitors from her bejeweled fingertips, Lucy begins to act abnormally when a strange change overcomes London.
A wolf escapes from the local zoo. A ship washes aboard with its captain and crew slaughtered. The worst storm they have seen in a hundred years assails the coast. In the midst of this, Lucy is found senseless in the garden, being ravaged by a half-man, half-beast. She then begins to show strange abnormalities, including loss of blood. No matter how many transfusions her horrified husband-to-be gives her, she still remains anemic. Concerned for her health, her doctor and once-suitor Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant) calls in the foreign talents of Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), known for his abnormal approach to the supernatural. Van Helsing believes she is transforming into a vampire, but his true prey is Dracula, her lord and master. Little does he know that Mina has encountered the charming count in the city streets and he has chosen her to be his new bride.
The best parts of Bram Stoker's classic horror novel are those that directly involve Dracula. He is an utterly fascinating character, full of sinister charm and repulsive habits. In the segments without him the book falls short of expectations. Screenwriters knew this and sought to incorporate the villain to a much larger degree in the script. It works extremely well, particularly once Dracula comes to London and attempts to court Mina. The pace never falls and it maintains the eerie charm of a world not quite normal but still humane, full of mysterious events and chilling plot twists. The cast was extremely well chosen. Hopkins is a methodical and slightly deranged Van Helsing that manages to be likable while proving eccentric. Ryder begins as very innocent and by the end shows a much darker side to Mina's character. Oldman wavers between a makeup-drenched aging count, a handsome young suitor, and a wolf-man with surprising ease. There's something alluring about him while at the same time repulsive.
There are also fabulous supporting roles by Grant, Cary Elwes, and newcomer Sadie Frost. The production design on this is gorgeous, from the dark and morose Transylvanian sets to the magical wonderland quality of Lucy's home. Once Dracula invades England, everything darkens and proves more melancholy. The musical score is also a magnificent asset, with haunting melodies and dark, forceful undertones. With every vampire film comes a generous helping of violence and sex, since the legions of the night are often associated with sensuality. This harms rather than enhances various aspects of the plot, simply because we must remember that this is Victorian England. Lucy is the primary offender, since whenever she has one of her violent fits, her chemise falls open and displays one of her breasts. This happens on several occasions. She and Mina laugh over drawings in Arabian Nights that show perverse depictions of intercourse. She mentions having a man between her legs and uses innuendo on one of her suitors.
Dracula has a sexual influence over the women in his life and they are often depicted as being aroused by his coming. Lucy is briefly shown with a wolf-beast between her legs in the garden. Mina is eventually seduced. Mist creeps in beneath the covers and she awakens to find Dracula in bed with her. Desiring to make her his bride, he cuts his chest and beckons her to drink the blood. It's depicted in a highly sensual light. Fighting her vampire instincts, Mina turns on Van Helsing and indicates she wants to please him. They share a passionate kiss, and he falls to his knees before her, then discovers what she is trying to do. Aroused by Dracula's influence, a rapid shot shows Lucy and Mina exchanging a kiss. The brides in his castle are topless and although the scene is very much in shadow, we see their breasts several times as they seduce Jonathan. In a later scene, we briefly glimpse them again draining his blood. Language is mild but there are still a half dozen profanities. Van Helsing calls Lucy a "b*ch of the devil, and the whore of Satan."
There is a healthy helping of violence throughout, from the opening credits where we see the silhouette of Dracula impaling his enemies and riding through a sea of bodies until the bitter end when a stake is driven through his heart and his head cut off. In a ritual against the Church he stabs a cross and blood flows from it, filling the room. This happens on another occasion when Lucy is brutally attacked by a wolf. Vampire heads are severed. Stakes are driven through hearts, spraying blood. A vampire spits blood onto Van Helsing. Several people are bitten and/or attacked. Dracula can assume many shapes. He becomes a hideous flying creature that greatly resembles medieval depictions of Satan, a wolf in its original form and half-wolf, half-man, and various forms of deteriorated men. A patient in a mental institution eats flies and other insects. Viewers might also object to his sacrilegious use of Jesus' final last words in death. "God, why have you forsaken me?" and "It is finished." Altogether it's a film that takes risks and works. There are many abnormal directing choices that add to the aura of the production rather than taking away from it. While I found scenes from the novel wonderful to watch come to life (such as the blue lights around the castle, Jonathan shaving with the assistance of his host, and Mina remaining in the firelight), I was disappointed with the sexual element they chose to depict. True fans will find it enjoyable but I wouldn't recommend going in unprepared.