Title: Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Dir.: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Fuchs, Charles Mulvehill
Writer(s): Bram Stoker (“Dracula”), James V. Hart
Company: American Zoetrope, Columbia Pictures
Starring: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Cary Elwes, Sadie Frost, Richard E. Grant, Tom Waits.
This movie is an art nerd’s wet dream.
If I could, I could write an entire thesis about this film. From set, to special effects, to costumes, to the cinematography, this movie gives me everything I look for and it excites me. This is also one of the films that confuses me even to this day. A lot of it comes down to the casting choices… like why is Keanu Reeves in this? He’s very stiff in this film, but it is a part of who he is as an actor and he can get away with it in John Wick or The Matrix Trilogy. I just, I never fully believed his character in this movie til we get towards the end.
I love Keanu Reeves, I just never got beyond that notion of why is he in this.
But where to start…
Let’s start with recent announcements of the Oscars and the nominations. Actor Richard E. Grant got a nomination for the first time in his career and it was very cool to see him in this movie. I knew he was in this but you know you kind of forget and then you are reminded. So congratulations to him and his nomination, he seemed so surprised and humbled, I love that. Speaking of Oscars, also, this movie was nominated for a few awards. It had received four nominations, all of which have NOTHING to do with acting (that is no shade, just facts) and everything to do with visually.
Coppola himself has said that the “costumes will be the set” and it’s very true. The film was nominated for “Best Costume” (won by late designer Eiko Ishioka), “Best Sound Editing” (also won), “Best Makeup” (also won) and finally “Best Art Direction”.
The acting and the story is straight forward but it does take a back seat to what we see visually on screen.
I have a book that is actually “pictorial moviebook” found at Goodwill which is the screenplay of the film, including photos, insight into the costumes, set design, etc., of the film. And here’s a quote from inside…
“Costumes should be more than just items that explain the role of the actors who wear them,” Eiko says. “Costumes must have enough force to challenge the actors, the cinematographer, scenic designer and director. And at times, the costumes should challenge the audience and make them think about why the actor is wearing that costume”.
Ishioka has also worked for The Cell, Mirror Mirror, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Apocalypse Now, Immortals as well as music videos, operas and circuses. The costumes are simply beautiful and a great mixture of nature meets gothic meets supernatural. Yes, the film takes place in 1897, I believe, and there’s a hint of steampunk the core costumes are character driven. Lucy, played by Sadie Frost, she’s a bit more wild, more open and her clothing choices represent that. She shows a bit of shoulder, more skin, it’s flirty. Lots of pinks and red and oranges that compliment her. Then the opposite on the spectrum is Mina (Winona Ryder) who is very buttoned up, traditional, prudish and her color scheme is quite tame until she meets Dracula later on in the film.
The highlight of the film is clearly anything that Dracula wears. My personal favorite is either the armor he wears in the beginning which is inspired by armadillos and later on towards the end of the film, the robe that is heavily inspired by and mentioned by Ishioka “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt.
Another highlight that is worth mentioning is Lucy’s burial dress. I believe the inspiration behind it was of a lizard and actress Frost used her body to become animal like when it was time for her character to re-emerge as a vampire. It’s white, lace material, she’s looking like a bride, it’s beautiful and delicate and yet with that white face and the blood dripping down her face, it’s one of my favorite moments in the entire movie.
I can go on and on about the costumes alone and that will be a long post. So I will cut it short.
The set designs are quite brilliant as well. It was filmed on Sony Studios and built in construction of wood, stone, etc. “We worked off Francis’ storyboards and some of the Symbolist paintings”, says set designer Tom Sanders. The Symbolist paintings or works are based around the Symbolism movement during the 1850s. Like a lot of movements, it includes poetry and literature as a huge factor. It’s about decadence, myth, supernatural, fantasy. The lair of Dracula, his castle, his home, is build resembling the piece “The Black Idol (Resistance)”, by Frantisek Kupka. It’s ominous, gothic, it reminds me of Gustave Dore’s works. Or I see the other movement, Surrealism, being a factor as well.
*l to r: The Kiss, Gustav Klimt – 1897. Paradise Lost/David Slays Goliath, Gustave Dore. The Black Idol (Resistance), Frantisek Kupka – 1903.
On a side note, check out more of Kupka’s works. They are nothing like the iconic, gothic piece.
The overall cinematography, which was done by Michael Ballhaus, (director of photography), is using all these elements mentioned above, with colors and depth. The lighting in this movie is hit or miss, even with costumes illuminating such brightness in color that it can be muted… however, this could be just me who watched on vhs and not on the dvd Collector’s Edition version because it did not want to play and I do remember the colors being even more vibrant in that context.
It’s quite clear that the visual aspect is the most important part of the film, IT IS the film. Only other films I can think of in general where costumes, the backgrounds/set, are just as important if not important would be…. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars, Labyrinth, Dune, the television series Hannibal on NBC (which I desperately miss, it was well written, well acted, I hate NBC for cancelling it but it lasted longer than it should have), Mad Men or Harry Potter. These are just a small handful of media (film or television) that without the cinematography or the costumes, the colors, the lighting, would be kind of basic and ordinary.
There’s nothing basic and ordinary about this version of Dracula.
Out of ALL the different variations of Dracula, this film, the original with Bela Lugosi, 1922’s Nosferatu and even the latter’s remake are the ones that capture what that main character and the surrounding characters and setting are about.
Vampires depicted in media is a hit or miss.
Twilight was a thing but I never considered it something substantial unlike Anne Rice’s Vampire novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the original Universal Pictures version, 30 Days of Night, The Lost Boys, Let Me In/Let the Right One In, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and later spin-off Angel… there’s The Hunger, Near Dark, From Dusk til Dawn, Fright Night, Salem’s Lot… these are some that I believe that you should check out since we’re on the subject of vampires.
But there’s nothing like this movie. It’s a period piece, it’s got the gothic element. There’s horror, romance, supernatural, beautiful silhouettes and costumes, the music is great, you have very talented actors involved, I like the director and the people involved.
In all, it’s a stunning looking movie. It’s beautiful. It’s like every scene could be captured in a photograph and framed, it’s that beautiful in my opinion.
Watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Watch the Collector Edition’s version with the special features. Find the many clips available on YouTube and watch Coppola discuss the film, Ishioka taking you into her world of costume designing. You can watch how they built the sets, use special effects, personal talks with the cast and their point of views.
It’s a film worth watching.