FILMS

The vampire vogue

Dracula strikes it big in the movies

Brian D. Johnson November 16 1992
FILMS

The vampire vogue

Dracula strikes it big in the movies

Brian D. Johnson November 16 1992

The vampire vogue

FILMS

Dracula strikes it big in the movies

I would like to do Dracula like a dark, passionate, erotic dream. Above all, it is a love story.

—director Francis Coppola

I am a creature of great will and passion. How can I enjoy being a vampire so much, how can I enjoy it if it’s evil? Ah, it’s an old story.

—a vampire named Lestat in The Tale of the Body Thief, by Anne Rice

Almost a century has passed since Bram Stoker, an actor’s manager hoping to make a name for himself in Victorian London, wrote Dracula. Although critics panned the novel when it was published in 1897, its vampire villain would not die. He kept rising out of his coffin in one horror movie after another, losing a little dignity with each incarnation, and finally sinking to the level of Muppet immortality as a denizen of Sesame Street. But now the Count has found fresh blood to nourish his image. With Bram Stoker’s Dracula, American director Francis Coppola has gone back to the source and resurrected the dark prince of the undead as a tragic hero. Operatic, comic and visually exhilarating, the

movie is a sexy Gothic romance that both restores and overhauls Stoker’s vision. Its Dracula is a tortured soul on a romantic mission of vengeance—a godless Godfather making an offer that no woman can refuse.

Coppola’s flamboyant epic arrives at a time when vampires are suddenly in vogue. And much of the credit belongs to U.S. novelist Anne Rice, who has just published The Tale of the Body Thief, the fourth novel in her bestselling series, the Vampire Chronicles (page 68). Rice has done more than anyone since Stoker to reinvent vampire mythology. Her creatures of the night are much more credible, sympathetic and human than Stoker’s villain. And her influence seems to have rubbed off on Coppola’s adaptation. Its star, Gary Oldman, plays a vampire with vulnerability, and Rice’s fiction helped inspire him. “I got ideas from it,” he said during a recent round of Maclean’s interviews with the cast and film-makers in New York City. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a vampire. Clearly, Anne Rice does. You read those books and say to yourself, ‘I believe that there are vampires in the world.’ ”

Hollywood seems to be going out of its way

to create that impression. Dracula is one of half a dozen vampire movies being released this year. Bujfy the Vampire Slayer put the bite on the summer box office with a story of a Valley Girl with her neck on the line. A female vampire dined on a mobster in the recent thriller Innocent Blood. British actor Julian Sands sports fangs in the upcoming Tale of a Vampire. And B-movie king Roger Corman taps a familiar vein with two new releases, To Sleep With a Vampire and Dracula Rising. Television, meanwhile, offers a taste of Vampire Chic with Forever Knight, a new CBS-CFTO series filmed by Toronto’s Paragon Entertainment about a bloodsucking cop who is trying to wean himself from his habit.

Vampires tend to be fashionable in desperate times. The original Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, was released in 1931 at the height of the Depression. “There's a resurgence in the popularity of vampires z when the real world ap§ pears to be failing,” said I James Hart, who scripted t; the Coppola movie. As the “ millennium grinds painfully £ to an end, the vampire’s g scary, seductive cocktail of o sex and death makes a cer" tain sense. And in the age of AIDS, the idea of lethal blood-sex strikes uncomfortably close to home. Stoker’s novel made strong allusions to syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease that caused thousands of deaths in his day—including his own in 1912. “I didn’t have to try very hard to make a correlation with AIDS,” said Hart. “Unsafe human sex is just as potent as unsafe vampire sex.”

The screenwriter, who also revised Peter Pan to create the hit movie Hook, points out that previous Dracula movies had little connection with Stoker’s novel. Although Hollywood had turned the Count into cliché countless times, “the novel had never been done,” he said. “And it’s a great adventure novel.” Dracula is not about a guy in a tuxedo who sleeps in a coffin. It’s really about female sexuality. And I decided to tell the story from the viewpoint of the female characters—otherwise you just had a bunch of Victorian men trying to kill this monster because he was messing with their wives.”

Coppola, who has not had a significant hit since Apocalypse Now (1979), saw the potential. “I wanted very much to do a film that would work with the public,” he said, noting

that Stoker himself saw Gothic horror as a way of reaching an audience beyond the confines of the theatre that he managed. “I’m a purist,” added the director, “and I thought it would be great to make a Dracula based on the original Bram Stoker. But I wanted something really unusual, something pe^nle had not seen before. Otherwise, you’re making Dracula and people say, ‘What are you making Dracula for?’ ”

Coppola’s Dracula is indeed different. Instead of employing the latest computer effects favored by action directors, he used optical tricks and photographic effects reminiscent of early movies—such as double exposures and variable film speeds. And instead of building costly, realistic sets, he filmed much of the drama in a shadow world of painted backdrops and bold lighting. Coppola saved his extravagance for the costumes, stunning creations by Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka.

The result is a lavish spectacle of the imagination. Sticking to what he calls a “restrained budget” of $50 million, Coppola has mounted a stylish, hyper-theatrical production that combines the sublime spirit of silent-movie melodrama with playful allusions to Hollywood ho-

kum. The movie pays homage to early surrealism, John Ford westerns, The Exorcist and Bela Lugosi—Oldham even steals Lugosi’s line, “I never drink . . . wine.”

The script follows the broad strokes of Stoker’s novel. But it gives the ending a shocking twist. And it fleshes out Dracula’s connection to the historical character on which he is based—Vlad the Impaler, the 15th-century Transylvanian. In the movie, Vlad returns from the Crusades to discover that his wife has committed suicide. Mad with rage, he declares war on God and becomes a vampire in an unholy sacrament of blood.

Oldman’s Dracula has many faces, from the latex-wizened ghoul who traps a visiting property clerk, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), in his castle, to the younger gentleman who stalks Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Winona Ryder), in London. And Ryder, who also plays Dracula’s 15th-century wife, portrays her as a genteel, sexually repressed woman. But it is her more carnally ravenous friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost), who becomes Dracula’s victim, writhing naked out of Victorian corsets. When Mina herself finally gets bitten, she tears at her bodice in animal passion, but it does not come off—for contractual reasons. “I don’t do nudity,” explained Ryder.

Meanwhile, cutting a sardonic swath through all the high drama, Anthony Hopkins provides rich comic relief as the intellectually voracious Prof. Van Heising, a vampire hunter who knows his quarry so well that he becomes his mirror image.

With a shrewd, campy performance, Hopkins almost steals the movie.

And Tom Waits mugs his way though an amusing sideshow as Dracula’s lunatic disciple, Renfield. The cast’s only false note is provided by the perennially flat Keanu Reeves, who looks as if he has wandered onto the set of Bill and Ted’s Transylvanian Adventure.

As the story’s erotic provocateur, Oldman lacks the sexual charisma expected of a vampire, but he is such a fine actor that he makes up for it with nuance. “I didn’t see Dracula as a horror movie,” said Oldman. “I saw it as a love story.

It’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s so interesting to play someone who completely feeds off feminine energy. Blood has this symbolic role, from mythology, from the menstrual cycle—it’s a sacred thing.’

Despite two beheadings and a tide of blood that flows like the red wine from Coppola’s Napa Valley vineyards, Dracula is not scary. And the camera’s illusionist jokes have a dis-

tancing effect. But Dracula is a splendid feast for the eyes, and Coppola has succeeded in giving the Stoker legend a subtle transfusion of New Gothic sensibility.

The director says that he read Rice’s cult classic, Interview with the Vampire (1976), only after he had embarked on Dracula. “I am the custodian of the Bram Stoker book,” he said, “and I think it was worthwhile to do. But Interview with the Vampire is a much greater novel. I thought, ‘Gee, this book really makes me feel like a vampire, like I’m in their community.’ They drag somebody behind the garbage cans and just start sucking their blood, like drug addicts. My frustration is that the Anne Rice book had a more modem take.” Coppola, however, said that Rice’s sensibility influenced at least one scene of his movie—in which Dracula abducts a victim in an alley.

Rice, meanwhile, cites Coppola as a major influence. When she was writing her second vampire novel, The Vampire Lestât (1985), she says that she intently studied Coppola's Godfather Part II to learn how to weave together different time frames. “I worship Francis Coppola,” said Rice. In fact, she wanted him to direct the long-awaited movie version of Interview with the Vampire. But his involvement with Dracula precluded it. And, after one epic excursion into Gothic horror, Coppola seems to have had enough. He is hiring someone else to direct his own production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, based on another script by James Hart.

Rice has written her own Frankenstein movie for Universal, as a remake of the horror classic. But she is still looking for someone to direct Interview with the Vampire. Her first choice, Ridley Scott, turned it down. However, Canada’s David Cronenberg, she said, would be ideal— with Jeremy Irons playing the story’s two vampires. But Hollywood producer David Geffen owns the rights to her script, which is being rewritten against her wishes. “My efforts with Hollywood are like things written in water,” she said.

While Hollywood is still trying to figure out how to package Rice’s unusual vision, Vampire Chic has left its mark in the real world. There is a new nightclub in downtown Toronto, a grotto where a man in a cape scrutinizes visitors through a slot in the door and enforces a strict dress code—only black, red or purple. The place is called the Vampire Sex Club. Inside, there is no sign of real vampirism, or real sex. The patrons drink beer, not blood. But as with most fantasies that involve a craving for the dark side, it is the thought that counts.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON