Dracula is Francis Ford Coppola’s last genuinely ambitious film to date – a study in grotesque that outdoes every other adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel for sheer spectacle. Histrionic, baroque and overegged in every way, Coppola opts for a highly plastic aesthetic, using elaborate sets, lurid costume design, constant fades and superimpositions, and a dizzying array of different acting style – from the melodramatic flatness of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, who play Jonathan and Mina Harker, to the hyper-kinetic frenzy of Anthony Hopkins and Tom Waits, who play Van Helsing and Renfield, to Gary Oldman’s performance of Dracula, which combines every acting style in the film and then tries to invoke every other iconic screen Dracula to boot. In effect, this is a Universal horror film updated for 1990s special effects – Dracula as super-spectacle, a harbinger of the digital, the virtual and the post-cinematic, resulting in Coppola’s most stylised film since One From the Heart, and yet another one of his post-Apocalypse Now features that feels like it would be more suited to an amusement park ride, since the real point here is to offer one embodied thrill after another.
That approach doesn’t always work, since Dracula is so bogged down in its lurid tableaux that it often loses momentum and suspense, turning into an exercise in calcified mise-en-scene. Still, the sheer visual complexity of Coppola’s vision is quite fascinating and hypnotic, driven by endless superimposition, shadow play and special effects, along with an unbelievable variety of types, textures and styles of footage. At times, the film verges on pure abstraction, and the more experimental fringes prefigure the eccentric horror of Twixt, Coppola’s latest film to date. Through all this aesthetic hyperactivity, Coppola returns, time and again, to stagnant textures and dank surfaces, which is perhaps why it feels as if the film itself is decaying before our eyes, deterioriating through a series of fractallated states as it finally gives way to its own mortality. In that sense, Coppola’s film occupies the same position as Dracula’s own victims, who are also brought face to face with their death, only to then be preserved in the same undead torpor as the scenes here, which seem stillborn before they begin. It’s strange, then, that Keanu Reeves was panned for his superficial performance – not just because he’s barely in the film, but because the film as a whole is obsessed with surfaces, and utterly disinterested in the depth psychology that Reeves’ rendition supposedly lacked.
This hyperactive style tends to be most compelling when Coppola pairs it with an abject vision of the human body’s continuity with all other organisms and organic processes. Unlike most previous adaptations, Coppola’s Dracula drinks blood pretty indiscriminately, moving between humans and animals with no real change in appetite or pleasure, which collapses humans back into the broader animal kingdom in turn. This community of blood gives way, as the film proceeds, to a broader pansexual affinity between all living things, but especially between human and insects, rendering sexuality almost as alienating and exotic as Dracula himself. In one particularly eerie scene, Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra, played by Sadie Frost, peruses the Kama Sutra as Renfield examines and eats insects, while Dracula appears more in the guise of an insect than a bat, reaching out to his victims with hands like giant beetles.
That said, Dracula isn’t embodied in any consistent way, but instead exists as an orgasmic ripple than percolates throughout Coppola’s mise-en-scenes, which perhaps explains why all the women – and men – in the film are so desperate to be penetrated by him. It’s fascinating to watch this version of Dracula go from one lurid and bizarre embodiment to the next, while also gathering bestial, visceral and sexual surrogates around himself in increasingly revolting and titillating configurations. In one memorable scene, we move from Lucy and Mina kissing, to a herd of animals escaping from the zoo, to a vision in which Mina “sees” Lucy having sex with a wolf, who turns out to be yet another iteration of Dracula. It is as if Dracula here has gathered every single creature feature – and every Universal monster – into a single, non-conformist body, such that the film often plays as an AIDS allegory more than a period piece. We first meet Van Helsing giving a lecture where he connects venereal disease to the rise of vampires, while vampirism itself is often presented in the guise of a blood-borne sexually transmitted disease that resists nineteenth-century medical discourse, and the capacity of capital to regulate bodily desire, in the same manner as AIDS a hundred years in the future.
In that sense, Coppola’s Dracula often plays as an STD super-spreader – and uses cinematic technology as much as bodily contact to transmit his viral load. He first ravishes Mina at a cinematograph, speaking Transylvanian to her while semi-pornographic images flicker on the screen behind them. Only when Dracula pulls away from Mina’s neck to do we realise that the “film” they are watching is actually part of a broader fairground landscape, and that this cinematic screen is as inextricable from this polymorphous media spectacle as the individual bodies in the film are inseparable from the orgasmic abjection of all living things. Dracula thus induces a sensory awareness so intense that it exceeds the vocabulary of cinema, and instead requires multimodal expression. Conversely, Dracula evokes the medial messiness of early cinema as the ideal venue for Dracula’s own abject collapse of bodily boundaries, which in Coppola’s eyes – and Oldman’s rendition – feels like the true subject matter of Stoker’s book.
This really differentiates Dracula from most other film adaptations, which tend to equate the rapturous gaze of Dracula with the moment when he sinks his fangs into his victims. Here, by contrast, Dracula employs multiple media to infect and infiltrate his victims, including diaries, letters, wax imprints, telegrams, microscopes and other cutting-edge innovations of nineteenth-century science and communication. When we do get a POV shot from Dracula’s perspective, it usually accelerates rapidly, as if restless to move beyond the cinematic apparatus, and position Dracula at the cusp of nascent forms of mediated perception. Thus, when Lucy is infected by Dracula, she seems to be suffocated by a new sensory awareness that allows her to see, smell, hear and feel everything, including mice scurrying in the attic.
As the film proceeds, this multimodal apprehension is gradually associated with the possibility of female orgasm, which becomes the main medial horizon organising the film and its characters. Dracula’s ultimate appeal, here, is that he holds the secret to female orgasm – not simply because he is able to stimulate women with double penetration, thus conferring multiple orgasm, but because he is able to manipulate their physiological response on a cellular level, initially by seducing them with his own odd concoction of absinthe, and then through direct blood transfusion. In addition, Dracula is also capable of experiencing female orgasm vicariously, as in the final scene, when Mina encourages Dracula to bite her, then insists on tasting the blood he has drawn, leaving him quivering under a multiple orgasm that he has experienced via her body. Dracula’s greatest power, in Coppola’s version, lies in unleashing and stimulating the anarchic intensity of women’s sexual desire – and any sexual aspiration that isn’t heteronormative, as the continuous allusions to the AIDS crisis reiterate.
This polymorphous visual field climaxes in the third act, where it reflects a certain kind of lurid cinematic style that became prominent in the 1990s, and which now feels like a last gasp of film spectacle in the face of the impending digital revolution. The main genre to come out of this moment was the erotic thriller, but the same impulse is present in Dracula, which is also an erotic thriller in its own unique way. As with the classic erotic thrillers of the 1990s, Coppola seems to be operating on the cusp of analog and digital spectacle here, since there’s a heightened plasticity and materiality to every tableau, even as these tableaux appear to be unfolding in a single virtual space of spectacle as well. There is no clear spatial or temporal demarcation between scenes – just a kinetic shift from one spectacle to the next, often ushered in by a montage of frenzied impressions, or by the rapid winds and telepathic communions Dracula uses to bind the disparate events of the narrative into a tentative whole.
In the process, Coppola moves vertiginously between stately, classical compositions and frenzied handheld sequences that prefigure the camcorder revolution a half-decade later. Scenes that start out like mid-century Hammer horror suddenly resemble future found footage horror, in a postmodern mélange of historical and projected film styles that often gives Dracula a steampunk edge – especially in the scenes involving Renfield, played by Tom Waits, who acts as Dracula’s main conduit between England and Transylvania. That said, Dracula’s pivotal journey from Transylvania to England is divested of any real sense of space and movement, as are most of the key scenes, since Dracula here embodies a virtuality that makes him equally present whether he is at home or abroad – and equally present during the day, when he appears to be sleeping, as at night, when he is supposedly most active. Coppola’s adaptation is thus one of the least invested in vampires as nocturnal beings, or in the damaging effects of bright light, imbuing Dracula with an omniscient intermediality that is as indifferent to the body’s diurnal rhythms as the all-night hum of modern digital media.
In other words, Dracula himself embodies this cusp between analog and digital spectacle, allowing Oldman to put in the most mercurial performance of Stoker’s vampire yet committed to film. On the one hand, Dracula here is much more abjectly and revoltingly present than in any other adaptation, disseminating himself across a variety of demonic surrogates, all of whom are brought to life through lurid prosthetic effects. On the other hand, however, he is far more mutable than any previous screen Dracula, moving fluidly from vampire, to bat, to rat, to plumes of green mist, apparently capable of dispersing himself across the entire animal, vegetable and mineral world. So dramatically does Dracula morph in age and physical condition that he exists mainly as a spatiotemporal rupture in Coppola’s mise-en-scenes, with the result that the most dramatic moments tend to occur when Dracula simply enters or exits a space. The climax of the film consists of little more than the main characters waiting for Dracula to arrive back at his castle, which becomes the end point of Coppola’s hyper-kinetic effort to condense Dracula’s passage, and the entire film, to a single simultaneous image, thereby exceeding the materiality of film, and the linear temporality of cinema as medium.
And Dracula is, in the end, an exercise in simultaneity, which makes the conclusion feel strangely redundant and affecting in the same instant – as if we are just seeing one moment in a cycle of doomed romance that is destined to repeat itself until the end of time, both moving and bathetic in its undead simultaneity. On the steps of Dracula’s castle, Coppola draws on the lurid beauty of Powell and Pressburger to finally shift his film entirely into the virtual realm, exhausting the residual physicality of his tableaux at the same moment that Dracula sheds his own physical attributes. Becoming virtual is, here, the apex of being undead, and Dracula embraces his virtuality with a panache that brings the whole film to an oddly poetic and understated close, in what would turn out to be the last really decisive auteurist gesture in Coppola’s career to date. From here, he would relinquish auteurism with Jack, then move to the mainstream with The Rainmaker, and then shift to a trilogy of art films in the late 2000s, but none of them rival the risk-taking of Dracula – the only film after Apocalypse Now where he threw everything at the wall. This time around, not everything stuck, but in some ways that makes Dracula more winning, since Coppola gave himself license to fail here, which is rare in his later work, making this a sort-of spiritual sequel to One From the Heart, the only other time, after Apocalypse Now, when Coppola was prepared to fly so high or fall so hard.