FRANCIS COPPOLA’S (NOT BRAM STOKER’S)
It happens to all actors, even the greats such as the De Niros and Streeps, Oliviers and Hoffmans. They’re cast in a role that doesn’t suit them, that’s beyond their skills, range, or type. Often the casting is not even their decision (Like all of us, they have bills to pay. Acting is a job after all.) As an actor in college, I sometimes found myself playing characters I couldn’t fit into at all, but I was the guy that was there, so I did my best and hoped everyone would forget.
Sometimes the actor makes wrong choices as to how to play the character. But mostly the actor, great as he may be, simply doesn’t belong there. (I visited this problem in a recent piece on Boardwalk Empire.)
In this case though, I’m speaking here of poor Gary Oldman as Dracula in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I say “poor,” because while Gary Oldman has done much to be proud of (and I’m looking forward to his turn as George Smiley in the upcoming remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), his casting as Dracula is about the most egregious and ineffective since, well, Lon Chaney, Jr’s.
Gary Oldman is an excellent performer, an earthy, urban actor, a kind of grown-up street urchin as he showed by excelling in films such as Sid and Nancy, State of Grace and Romeo Is Bleeding.
Sad to say though, he doesn’t have the fierce demonic charisma to play a driven and driving hellfire like Dracula; nor is he the exotic young-man type that Winona Ryder’s Mina Harker is yearning for in this romantic Brat Pack conception that seems steered toward the Gen X audience.
The opening scenes of this Dracula cake Oldman with a thick crust of make-up, turning into him a laughable Punchinello hand puppet, swirled by a preposterous silk red cape. He regresses to his youth when he invades England—maybe because he’s invigorated as he draws near to his lost love—but once out from under the makeup, he seems uncomfortable and ineffective in the role. He and Winona Ryder never lock together (even with that nifty “oceans of time” line).
We have here a “tormented” Dracula for the Psychobabble Age: “My girlfriend got killed, so I decided to join the Forces of Darkness. Wahhh!” Call it Diary of a Whiny Vampire. Poor baby, if only someone gave him a hug. I would have felt perfectly safe doing it, too. This Dracula never struck fear in my fear-strung heart. He’s no Shreck or Lugosi creeping out of the darkness; no Lee hurling his shadow from the top of a staircase. He never wraps his arms around his evil. Dracula can be seen as pathetic, but sympathetic, a diminished object of pity?
Unlike Son of Dracula, much else is wrong with this movie. The official title alone—Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes a promise it fails to keep, for this adaptation, written by James V. Hart, changes the narrative enough so that adding Stoker’s name above the title constitutes false advertising. Or maybe an attempt to blame the author for what follows.
I recall an interview with director Francis Ford Coppola where he referred to Dracula as a book that not many people have read. OK. Then why put Stoker’s name above the title? Nothing wrong with making changes, but why fob it off as a purist’s Dracula? For one, the novel makes no mention of the historical Dracula’s lost love, and that’s just the beginning. It is not Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is its own movie. Only wish it were a better one.
My gripes don’t end there, because this is an over-stuffed, poorly cast and acted, slackly paced and edited movie. Having seen it twice, I admit it dazzles at times, like a Macy’s Christmas window, but it also feels like a tossed salad of visuals, some of them clever and beautiful (the eye-in-the-sky in the beginning; the conception of Dracula’s castle as an M.C. Escher world).
But when edited together this movie becomes a bloody mishmash of stops and starts, of quick dabs and broad slashes. The scenes with Renfield are so sketchy, they might as well have been cut (a tack some Dracula films have taken without detriment). Anthony Hopkins makes Van Helsing crazy fun, but, like Renfield, he seems to flash in and out of the movie, desperately trying to keep things busy.
I suppose this Dracula was meant to be a “dream film,” but I found it to be dream-like only in tiny bits (If a real dream film is what they wanted, they should have called in David Lynch). It never roils with suspense as does Horror of Dracula. It has no passion, no drive. It feels weighed down by its production in the same manner as such early 1960s thumpering epics as Cleopatra.
LATER DRACULAS, AND THEN TO SLEEP
Yes, Coppola’s version did turn out to be popular. (Therefore, it must have been good! Right? I mean, look at Pirates of the Caribbean III! Right?) Enough so, that my own screen-take on this tale was greeted with graveyard silence when I finished it in the late 1990s. (Look for its publication next year.)
And so Dracula vanished into his crypt again for a time, emerging again in 2000 in a movie called Dracula 2000. Produced through the clever auspices of Wes Craven (whom I met once and who actually saw my script, but declined in gentlemanly but evasive fashion). It’s not a good movie, though it contains a neat twist on Dracula’s origins. Scottish actor Gerard Butler as the Count leaves no fang marks at all. As other versions have shown, casting a hunk with a thick Mittle-euro accent is not enough.
In 2006, the BBC released an interesting mostly non-supernatural version, featuring an actor named Marc Warren as the Count. Here, Warren, who reminds me of Gary Oldman, plays the Count as a low-life thug, which is interesting, but he’s not very effective or scary. More fascinating is the great David Suchet as Van Helsing and how the film weaves themes of decadence and disease into its narrative. You don’t miss Renfield either. It’s no classic, but it’s worth a look.
Since then, silence. Dracula sleeps again, waiting for a certain color of night to fall. I’d like to think my version will see moonlight, next, but I’m not counting on it.
I used to fantasize that my screenplay would be the “definitive” one, but that vain notion has turned to dust. It’s just another version, I hope better than most of the rest, as it brings up tones and themes I believe have not revealed before. There’s yet another side, another face to this grand myth.
I recall a critic saying some years back that a “definitive film version” of Dracula may not be possible. Some great stories are all but impervious to remakes or “retakes” (for example, classics like The Maltese Falcon and James Whale’s Frankenstein films). Dracula may be too fungible, too much of a palimpsest, to ever define that clearly, that precisely. He’s elusive like a dream and may never be perfectly captured in the bell jar of a movie.
He’s not the only one who’s the shapeshifter here. With each generation, our attitudes and view of him reshape and shift with the times. However time turns, a new face of Dracula will blaze from the darkness.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark is available right NOW, published by Ambler House Publishing. It can be ordered in both paperback and e-book editions through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, Smashwords, Scrib'd and now at the Red Room bookstore. His original comic screenplay Whackers is now available in Kindle, Nook, iPad and on Scrib'd, also from Ambler House. His screenplayThe Uglies, a crime saga, will be out exclusively as an e-book soon. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. Not enough for ya? He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.
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