Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Darkness, Aristocrat of Evil -- call him what you will. Count Dracula has haunted the movies since 1921, when the great German director F.W. Murnau first rousted him from the coffin in a primitive silent called Nosferatu. Since then, this durable ghoul has evolved into Bela Lugosi's gaunt 1931 masterpiece ("I ahm DRAH-cool-ah!"), the dark-spirited incarnations of Lon Chaney and John Carradine in the Forties and Christopher Lee's low-budget masher of the Kennedy-Johnson years. Jack Palance, Frank Langella and Klaus Kinski have all played the Eternal One relatively straight, while William Marshall cannily changed his skin color and transplanted him to L.A. in 1972's Blacula, and George Hamilton's man-about-town cruised the discos of Manhattan, fang-in-cheek, in Love at First Bite. As late as last summer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer rid suburbia of that same old menace.
This is just the cutting edge of blood lust, of course.
There are some 200 Dracula movies in all, most of them bad trips to Transylvania. Now Francis Ford Coppola, his vivid imagination at full boil once more, has gotten down for the Count. The result, Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a vastly entertaining gothic epic whose fires, fogs, and melodramas are as gorgeous to look at as its complex mythologies are fascinating to ponder. In the dual role of literary guardian and sly satirist, Coppola pulls off a neat trick: He's faithful to Stoker's original 1897 novel (rather than the stripped-down 1927 Balderston/Deane stage play that has fueled most Dracula movies), even as he indulges his own fantasies. Usefully, he invokes the AIDS metaphor that has inevitably attached itself to Dracula: The moment we get a glimpse of a few throbbing drops of poisoned blood under an early microscope, we get to thinking.
At the other end of the spectrum Coppola has also spiced up the vampire myth with inside jokes, self-mockery, and sheer playfulness. Yet he never slides into camp. This is the same man who made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, all right -- brilliant, emotional, reckless.
In the awesomely talented Gary Oldman (disordered Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, bewildered Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK), Coppola has found a Dracula equal to Lugosi's. We see the Count in all of Stoker's original guises -- the decrepit, razor-taloned geezer with twin hives of silver coiffure springing from the back of his skull; the charming Victorian dandy done up in top hat and blue-tinted Janis Joplin shades; the snarling wolf; the slimy, overhanging bat; and the flayed, desiccated horror belched straight from some unknown four-alarm fire, yet still cackling away and grinning that awful grin.
But there's more than magic from the makeup department. In an age when Stoker's brand of dark Victorian romance doesn't play very well even in Peoria, Oldman gives us tragedy. This is no cardboard-cutout monster but a tortured soul, no mere Halloween mask but a theological mutant cast into the Hell of his own making. Coppola's Roman Catholic roots show everywhere here, and Oldman is their shriveled fruit.
"There is much to be learned from beasts," the Count laments to his unattainable lady love. True, old fellow, true.
Meanwhile, the movie's assorted blood donors include Winona Ryder's sweet Mina, dead ringer for the Count's beloved a few hundred years back; Keanu Reeves's hopelessly square accountant Jonathan Harker, drawn into bed with a writhing trio of Dracula's befanged brides; and Sadie Frost's saucy Lucy, who'd like nothing better than to leap into the pages of a naughty Victorian novel. Best of all, though, we have Anthony Hopkins's magisterial Professor Van Helsing, every bit the equal of Olivier's, plotting against the demon, going crazy himself, jauntily announcing that, no, he has no desire to perform a full-scale autopsy, just to "cut off her head and take out her heart." The playful look in Hopkins's eye is priceless. Shades of Hannibal Lecter.
Coppola's rich array of visual and aural puns -- everything from the re-creation of a silent Western-movie chase up the hill to Count D's to the first tantalizing flickers glimpsed in a nineteenth-century London cinema -- pay homage to movies themselves as they defuse some of the overwrought nonsense of Stoker's novel, which will never be mistaken for great English lit. Coppola pokes fun at his own famous career as well: When the Count insists that poor Harker remain at the storm-tossed castle for a full month, he announces, like some Carpathian Don Corleone: "I vill take no refusal." Later, Coppola echoes the famous Godfather baptism/massacre sequence by cross-cutting Mina and Jonathan's wedding with a mass attack of the vampires.
It's all delicious stuff, right down to the reinstatement of Lucy's Texan suitor, Quincey P. Morris (Bill Campbell), complete with ten-gallon hat, Winchester rifle and homey cowboy aphorisms. He's been missing in action since Stoker hit the bookstalls almost a century ago, and it's nice to see him finally make his Hollywood debut.
Coppola has had his ups and downs, of course, but when he's at the height of his powers there's no one better. As any red-blooded Dracula fan can tell you, vampires cast no shadows, but Coppola has cast a huge one here with this grand entertainment: If lesser moviemakers know what's good for them, the Count may get some well-earned rest at last.
BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by James V. Hart, from a novel by Bram Stoker; with Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, and Keanu Reeves.