"Bram Stoker's Dracula" is about the naked and the dead -- together, at last. Opulent and lustrous, it never makes much sense at the character level, but glistens with such dark, carbuncular magnificence and is fueled by such an elixir of sexual yearning that I defy any manjack among you to deny its murky tidal pull. In fact you could say that in his quest for visual glory, Francis Ford Coppola has left no baroque unturned and Klimt every mountain -- Gustav Klimt's baroque art nouveau genius seems to irradiate the movie.
The story occasionally glimpsed under this excess of style is conceived as a passionate but tubercular romance, in which Thanatos and Eros are entwined in a danse macabre: lovers reach across the centuries to embrace; sex is a weapon and a liberation; bodies are rent, the thousands are impaled; plasma is the lubrication of passion and satisfaction.
It's built out of dark, troubled 19th-century ideas of sex as narcotic: that to yield to its lure, to step beyond taboo, is to surrender your soul. It offers the sex of kink and damnation -- in other words, the good stuff. Symbolically, the antagonists aren't men and vampires at all, but bourgeoise (procreative) vs. libertine (pleasurable) notions of sexuality, with the contested terrain being the body of woman. Of course, nobody ever thinks to ask the woman. That's why they call it the 19th century, bud.
The big news (as implied in the title) is that Coppola, from the screenplay by James V. Hart, has returned to the original source, to the Bram Stoker novel as opposed to the stage play drawn from it that had formed the original text of so many other film adaptations. Thus, after the sheer bliss of the production itself, its second considerable pleasure is the embrace of old-fashioned, Victorian narrative: the story is complex but Coppola, as in his "Godfather" trilogy, loves to perambulate through crafty subplots, bringing in flashy characters for a spin or two, then moving onward.
Four hundred years ago, the Romanian soldier-king Vlad won a great victory for God by defeating the Turks and turning back the tide of Islam. All good deeds are punished, of course: His beloved wife, misinformed of his death, committed suicide. Thus he declared war on God, mastered the dark arts and somehow -- details left vague here as all through the picture -- he became the undead, sleeping in loam, living on blood, serviced by a coven of undead brides. Now, in the bright and hopeful year of 1897, he has learned that his new British solicitor's fiance, one Mina, is his beloved reincarnated. He sets sail for London to take her into his embrace; meanwhile, a brilliant Dutch doctor is alerted to the case and tries to prevent the inevitable.
Sometimes the density results in confusion, as in the case of poor Tom Waits, cast as a now-mad London solicitor whose role in the movie is somewhat confusing. At its lamest, the movie reiterates Stoker's Victorian ideas of male heroics, and its three fearless vampire killers represent the ultimate in the imperial imagination at high pitch of moral bankruptcy: a cowboy, a doctor and an aristocrat. But these three bozos -- the dim Bill ("Rocketman") Campbell, Richard T. Grant and Cary Elwes -- are too banal to qualify as worthy antagonists of the great Drac, and thus the movie's biggest flaw is its last act, where the Prince of Darkness is brought low by three drips.
But the meat of the matter is the contest between Dracula (Gary Oldman) and the Dutch doctor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins, playing the non-psycho for a change) for the soul of poor Mina (Wynona Ryder.) Ryder may not quite have the actressy skills to bring off such a delicate part, and to trace the arc of change from stolid maven of rectitude to the concubine of the devil himself and prime voluptuary, but her face is so luminously beautiful and her whole presence so iridescent that one indeed can understand how grief over her loss could keep a man alive for centuries and drive him into the realms of blasphemy. Hopkins is Hopkins, which is to say casually charming and brilliant.
Finally, Oldman. No doubt Coppola wanted to stay away from the by-now preposterous Transylvanian lounge lizard thing, pioneered campily by Bela Lugosi. The Dracula-as-handsome-seducer avenue is also banal, particularly when the looker had dreary matinee idol features. But Oldman, though refreshingly of neither tradition, still never seems to quite achieve the sense of sexual charisma that surely underlies Dracula. I thought of John Malkovich in "Dangerous Liaisons" as an example of a non-traditional persona who can nevertheless exude sexual attractiveness from every pore; the forgettable-looking Oldman never comes near that, though technically his performance -- witty and wonderfully ironic -- is excellent. He's really at his best when buried under tons of makeup in this or that vampire manifestation, particularly as a bat-style gargoyle discovered in Mina's room (the movie's best scene, by the way.)
Thus, we're never sure why Mina falls under his sway; we don't get his sway. (Oldman and Ryder have very little voltage between them.) This makes what follows somewhat more an exercise in high style and somewhat less a voyage of damned hearts. Far more passion transpires between Mina's best friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and her werewolf lover, who takes her in the garden (that scene is riveting, too). It also would help if somewhere the powers of Dracula were defined: he seems at one point to have dominion over the weather and is capable of bewitching from a continent away; in another, he's just a man, an old one, who can be slain by sword stroke.
An obscure novelist once called a book, "There Must Be More to Love than Death." "Bram Stoker's Dracula," has an answer to that heartfelt insistence. No, it argues, there isn't.
'Bram Stoker's Dracula'
Starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder and Anthony Hopkins.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Released by Columbia.