A Masterful Mess: Why Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula is a mesmerizingly terrible masterpiece.
One of my earliest memories of horror as a film genre was being allowed to stay up late when my mum’s friend was babysitting my brother and me. She let us watch The Ghoul, the 1975 Hammer Horror directed by Freddie Francis and starring Peter Cushing. If my memory serves, the film is about some people in a creepy mansion with the titular monster upstairs. My main takeaway from the movie was how hilarious the “ghoul” itself was. Rather than a horrific monster, it was just a bald guy with his face painted green, but it would untrue for me to say that, up until the point that was revealed, we weren’t scared.
Truth be told we were bloody terrified. I very vividly remember holding the sofa cushions over my face in horror. That how faded quickly once we saw the hilarity that had lurked just out of frame, but I was struck by just how well the movie had built the tension before that. This aspect is arguably what had me hooked, and since my childhood coincides with the last few years that BBC2 would show Hammer movies late at night, I set the VHS player to record, ready to consume more spooky goodness.
This was how I was first introduced to the biggest of all the classic monsters, Count Dracula. It was Christopher Lee’s iteration of the Count that formed by interpretation. I had seen images of the character from Hammer’s movies in a book my dad had (I’ve mentioned this book before) but to finally see him in action was special. As far as I was concerned, Christopher Lee was Dracula, and although as I began to broaden my viewing I discovered Bela Lugosi, Klaus Kinski, and Frank Langella, no one ever quite came close the capturing the character in the way I had seen him for that very first time.
I enjoyed all the approaches to Dracula in their own way, mind. Whether it be the style or the aesthetic, or even simply just the way the character was presented, there was always something about these different versions of the iconic Count that kept me engaged. The story varied vastly from movie to movie, although we could always expect certain elements to remain; Mina and Lucy would always be present, someone would always visit the Count in his home before he would travel back to London, and, perhaps most important of all, there would always be some form of a Van Helsing.
By the time I came to finally watch Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the classic tale, I had a very clear idea of what to expect from a movie with the title. But Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is different.
While the key beats of the story are there, and the Gothic look remains, there’s something so absurdly… wild about Coppola’s take on the story. I mean, to begin with, it’s rubbish. All the plot holes, character problems, and contrivances that are present in the book carry over into the Coppola film, as though the filmmaker was determined to stick as closely to the words written by Bram Stoker that he will happily bypass logic in favor of accuracy. But while the script itself suffers from issues thanks to this, the visuals are something else.
The film is like a mesh of operatic, old school filmmaking, painted with an overly simplistic view of good and bad, but then it somehow manages to inject everything with a complex and tragic backstory where characters or on heroin or fearful of class differences, but these aspects are never fully explored. Moreover, the entire thing is shot like it were The Evil Dead… on acid.
The camera moves around with gusto, crash zooming and hurling all over the place. Not a single moment isn’t given some extravagant effect, whether it be eyes superimposed in the sky or rats running across the ceiling. Even the quieter moments are presented here as being heightened, the melodrama and the horror become almost indistinguishable from one another. Sex and blood are forced into every moment, quite often in unexpectedly graphic ways, and the soundtrack is turned up to eleven, given even the least dramatic moments an underscore of over the top drama.
It’s a bafflingly over the top approach to making a film, and it gives the audience little to no opportunity to find their footing. The film lurches from one sequence to the next, every moment bleeding into the next like a sort of bizarre extended montage, which in turn makes the already confusing and ill-defined story even more difficult to follow. Before you’ve even had a chance to comprehend what you’ve just seen, the movie has already moved on to the next batshit setpiece, and without any pauses to focus on character, or without the pauses to focus on the characters being treated as character moments and not wild sequences shot and cut together with the same visceral excitement as the rest of the movie, it becomes almost impossible to get a grip on what is going on.
Added to this is the fact that almost all of the performances are ill-judged and miscast. Gary Oldman is delivering a hammy, high-emotion take on the character, but he is playing against Keanu Reeves, who is struggling to manage an English accent and can’t seem to do anything other than looking baffled and out of his depth at everything. Meanwhile, Winona Ryder is doing her utmost to be prim and proper but comes across more like she’s taking the piss, and Richard E Grant, Cary Elwes, and Billy Campbell constantly alternate between bumbling buffoons and treating the whole thing like their a gang of action heroes in their own separate movie.
The only person who seems to have any concept of what kind of film he is actually in is Anthony Hopkins, who gleefully appears at the midway point and is constantly delivering his lines like he’s a cross between Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi. Every overemphasized syllable from his mouth is a joy to watch, and it’s made even better when everyone around him seems so out of their depth that he is running circles around them.
Hopkins isn’t the only person who makes the film fun. As bad as it is, there are also some fantastic effects sequences and some creative moments. Oldman looking like a bat creature that descends into the shadows while his glowing red eyes peer out, only to turn into a pile of rats is epic, and the moments early in the film with Reeves’ Jonathan Harker held captive are fantastic. The shadows are used to great effect, and Oldman’s “old man” Dracula crawls on walls and toys with Harker in a way that’s so much fun it’s impossible not to get caught up in.
There is no doubt that the film is a mess. Nothing works and every decision is the wrong one. But it’s such a beautiful hot mess that I can’t help but love it. My introduction to Dracula, through Christopher Lee’s reserved and classical delivery of the character, never prepared me for Coppola’s utterly batshit version. There is no other film quite like it, and I can’t honestly say with any certainty that I either love it or hate it. It is a fascinating, mesmerizing wreck of a movie and that kind of makes it a wonderfully disastrous masterpiece.