One wonders why certain works of art attract us, and the common answer is that they respond to something that we lack in our own lives. Desperate housewives will devour hunky, everlasting romances; pimply lads will become superheroes in the furrows of their imagination; old men will wax sentimental over movies contemporaneous to their youth. Our modern fascination with tales of horror has provoked a slew of interpretations so banal that one cannot but impute this banality to the interpreters themselves, and the less said about these silly theories the better. Yet this fascination is long-standing. For those of faith, evil is as real as goodness – even realer in the sense that evil invariably predicates the destruction of good and cannot exist in any sort of vacuum. The tangibility of the horrors of war, famine, pestilence, or ethnic cleansing cannot be mimicked in art, only referenced. So as we let our fancies drift into ancient castles, unlock rusted wards, and pore over wicked tomes, we feel a need to confront these baleful shapes – and then something very odd occurs. Amidst every malediction and ghoul that might infect our thoughts, we desire for a brief moment – indeed, perhaps even a while longer – the possession of that shape because that shape is power over the commonality of our existence. Each of us wants to be not only a superior among men, but also privy to what lies on the other side of the ineluctable modality of the visible. Evil, for whatever you might conceive it to be, offers us the straightest path to knowledge, even if what it teaches us is that we should appreciate every iota of our earthbound life and treat it like the flaxen stream it is. Which explains our First Disobedience, as well as this immortal tale.
As one might expect from a production bold enough to invoke a deceased author's blessing, the plot closely follows that of the book. At the acme of Victorian storytelling in the late nineteenth century, a young barrister by the name of Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) sits aboard an East European train on his way to meet a Romanian count (Gary Oldman) who needs little introduction. His travels are true to the fantastic opening passages of the novel, and the aura of mystery and dread could not be richer or more imminent. During this obvious precursor to very bad things Reeves remains unflurried and almost impassive, which led to some nastiness in the reviews of the film and whispers of mediocrity. Whatever one may think of his thespian abilities, Reeves's casting is correct: his natural stiffness and timidity reflect the average citizen's view on unusual matters. Harker may be the only one in the theater who does not find the wizened freakish count to resemble a grotesque, long-nailed cadaver, but he is also not in full possession of what else the count could be if not a human being. The solipsistic age of reason (a most regrettable misnomer) bred a certain type of man: the skeptic who took the longest time to admit that he did not or could not know how to explain the phenomena of his immediate environment. Harker is essential because as he overnights within the Count's lifeless walls, he will witness a host of terrible events and in some of them even be implicated. These will include an abominable tower and moat, three vixens and a baby, a mirror and a razor, and a series of unspeakable occurrences that he confesses only to his diary and to us.
Whom he cannot inform is his fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), who awaits him in the company of her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and Lucy's triptych of hapless suitors. The difference between the book and the film is an element that could only be theatrical and which is actually revealed by Ryder's presence in the very first scene not as Mina Murray. Whether this conceit simply panders to the juvenile whims of the target audience depends on rather subjective notions of coincidence in art, although it can be said that in context the addition does more good than harm. I would even go as far to say that it solves, in an artistic fashion, the main structural weakness of the original: namely, why on earth Dracula wished to leave the country in which he was practically invulnerable to expose himself to constant danger in a city brimming with enemies. Mina worries aloud, a tidy way of containing the novel's original epistolary format, whilst the Count approaches, communicating through former barrister Renfield (Tom Waits) as around Gibraltar heads a boat replete with crates of his native soil (perhaps never in cinematic history has there been a crew so doomed). Upon landfall, the Count begins plotting and scheming his way into the lives of strangers, all of which serves an ulterior motive. Lucy becomes very ill from a mysterious sickness unknown to conventional science; an old abbey is attorned to a certain tall, dark foreigner; Mina suspects that Jonathan has fallen on very black days in that distant kingdom even though he is forced to pre-write a number of calming if overly plain letters sporadically mailed by the Count; and Renfield, who languishes in an asylum, has been predicting the arrival of his Master. And what happens next will involve a hunt of the implacable monster who will flash enough of his former humanity to inflate what could have been a unerring fable into something deeper and more plausible.
The pleasantries of the film are so numerous that we forget how simple and operatic the plot machinations really are. Apart from sumptuous wardrobes and effects that convince us we have entered another dimension, the casting of all the main characters betrays Coppola's intuition for harmony among actors whose looks could easily have them mistaken for the heartthrobs of a daytime soap. The exception to these pretty people is Abraham van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), a grizzled Dutchman and specialist on obscure diseases, as well as a perfect foil to the monster he "has been pursuing all his life." He hijacks the search for answers and is necessarily branded a mystagogue; in time the other parties concur with his outrageous conclusions and finally know almost as much as we do. Van Helsing alters every aspect of the film's course while also becoming its true crusader and detective; in the book, by contrast, more is accomplished by the peripheral characters although this may be a function of its inflexible structure. That we first meet the Dutchman as he is making an old academic pun on an unfortunate pair of near-homophones indicates we must change our perceptions accordingly, and his humor and foreignness are much needed in the otherwise morbid London alleyways. Not that you would want to go anywhere near those places.