There is one thing that Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula inarguably does better than any other movie. When the film came out, in 1992, the art of the cinematic practical effect stood at its zenith, and Coppola was a master. In only a few short years computer-generated effect would replace the grand old contraptions of glass, cardboard, foam core and pain. But they would never manage to look quite as good.
The two undisputed masterpieces of practical effects are Verhoeven’s Total Recall and Coppola’s Dracula. Coppola actually fired the original effects company for Dracula because they insisted on using computers. Coppola then hired his own son as the new head of the department, knowing he could be depended upon to carry out his directions precisely. This assignment was one of Roman Coppola‘s first major works, and he proved his worth with his attention to detail and fidelity to story.
The legendarily tempestuous production of the film does not detract from the sheer emotion depicted on screen in any way. In fact, the human tapestry depicted only seems to grow in richness because of the raw feelings captured. Coppola pulled career-defining performances from some of the most prominent young actors of the 1990s, from Winona Ryder to Cary Elwes. Gary Oldman played the ageless vampire with perfect aplomb, appearing in all his many forms. The movie is a biography of the deathless monster, following him from his human beginnings to his protean end. As a pale old man, a sinister young dandy, a barbaric warrior and every other form he takes, Gary Oldman is always the perfect Dracula. His performance defines the character as completely as Heath Ledger defined the Joker.
The film is suffused with tragic grandeur and humming with blood-red eroticism. It functions as a paean to a sort of romance once practiced by a world gone by. The doomed lovers of myth find their final, fullest expression in this movie. This film was designed to be very, very real. Almost all the effects were done on the set or in camera, and the turgid atmosphere of the production led to heart-felt performances of great nuance and power.
There have been several important adaptations of Dracula, some dating from the very beginning of film history. Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance is better known for certain still images from the film, which was important for the development of the character as he moved between being a Nosferatu-like grotesque and suave European royalty. However, Lugosi’s film itself is rarely watched today, except by specialized audiences. The same could be said for Kinski’s 1970s portrayal of the vampire, or Zhang Wei-Qiang’s delirious depiction in Guy Maddin’s take on the tale. They are strong iterations of aspects of the character, but they lack the ravenous universality of Oldman’s performance in Coppola’s film. The 1992 recreation of the Dracula legend was a bona fide blockbuster, reaching more paying customers than any other film version of the story ever.
Perhaps one reason for the reach of Coppola’s film is the way that it incorporates its references. Coppola, who was recently interviewed by the El Rey network (the full interview on demand; see this website for local channels) explains that the movie uses the framework of the original novel to create a love letter to the earliest days of cinema, recreating the world of the past with panopticons and hand-cranked cameras, fluttering film stock and artful exposures. Coppola made precise use some of the first motion picture inventions, and his attention to his craft brings the world of Victorian England to life in a way never done before or since. As Coppola interprets Bram Stoker’s novel through the lens his own cinematic virtuosity, he makes a point of incorporating elements from famous monsters of history such as Vlad Tepes and Elizabeth Bathory. The dread Count of Stoker’s novel never impaled his foes or bathed in their blood, but those legends have now been tied into his with great cinematic effect.
Coppola’s version of Dracula has a mythic scope lacking in the more limited adaptations of the work, and an air of veracity to it that will not easily be equaled by any other production. This is the very apotheosis of old-school movie magic, and that makes it the definitive version of Dracula.