“Do not let your eyes see or your ears hear that which you cannot account for.” Abraham Van Helsing’s warning to three men in disbelief of the living dead has a blunt message: Our senses can lie to us. Anthony Hopkins’s off-kilter professor may be one of the top-billed “jewels” in what Francis Ford Coppola deemed his proverbial “crown” of 1992, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but his words feel ironic next to the lavish production design of Dante Ferretti and Thomas Sanders. Their work, along with Ishioka Eiko’s Japanese Gothic hybrid costuming, is a visual feast, sensual in its ebonies and crimsons and a sleek, sexy companion to Wojciach Kilar’s music. Coppola’s dramatic realization is overwhelmingly a sensory experience, a film engineered for appreciating how it looks and the way it sounds.
And does it “sound.” The story of Dracula is legend, and along with qualifying his title with “Bram Stoker’s,” Coppola includes a prologue. Kilar’s respective introduction is blasphemous from the beginning, with a sinister cello-driven accelerando under hammering piano. “Dracula – The Beginning” is heard over the Columbia Pictures credits, even before the crimson dome of Vlad the Impaler’s castle appears, suggesting this is a story that goes deep. At the onset of a war between “Muslim Turks” and “Christendom,” the opening demonic passages lurch along with Gary Oldman’s anxiousness and anger, reflecting the Count’s reluctance to leave behind his beloved Elisabeta (Winona Ryder). Brass notes snarl and explode on the battlefield, a tinny hellfire that only rises when upon his return, Dracula finds his lover has thrown herself from the castle, mistakenly believing him to have died. A fragile wailing solo voice pales in comparison to a slowly escalating men’s choir as the Count’s blasphemy boils over. But unexpectedly given the source material’s horror fiction roots, Kilar’s lovers’ motif is the most essential of Dracula‘s themes.
Such a tidy prologue encapsulates the emotional intensity of Coppola’s production, equally romantic and terrible in its scope — and regardless of any ambitions that may have been undermined by messy plotting or Keanu Reeves’s wooden real estate solicitor Jonathan Harker. Famously, Coppola shied away from digital effects at all cost, insisting on practical solutions for as many shots as possible. The end result is an imminently theater-styled production, with score-primed tableau appearing early as Harker’s introduction. As Harker sits trainside, bassoon, tuba and stringed bass crawl in a deliberate, ominous hunting theme. With driving timpani, Kilar layers his orchestra over the same melody with more brass and more unison voices until the rising action has climaxed with full-pitched violins and piccolos joining the incessant march. Coppola will employ this theme most liberally throughout Dracula, gluing together his Gothic romance between setting changes and building tension when his actors cannot.
“Vampire Hunters” (and its accompanying cues) are a crutch, but they’re a damn good one. On its own, these cues take on a minimalist “Bolero” quality. Against the backdrop of Dracula’s attempts to seduce Harker’s fiancée Mina (also Ryder, in a tidy-if-obvious bit of double-casting), the hunting motif lends an inevitability to the Count’s pursuit, both romantic and malicious. The similarly-layered “The Ring of Fire” plays as Van Helsing defends Mina against assaulting vampires, with another slow crescendo and a unison melody. So often, great scores will add to their film’s qualities. Here, Kilar is providing his director with narrative momentum, slowly but surely driving forth repetition and immediacy.
He’s providing emotional momentum, too. Despite its macabre marketing, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is more a love story than horrific fable. Dracula’s wooing of Mina Harker, a doppelganger for his departed beloved from centuries ago, is a misjudged romance of the highest order muddied by outdated sexual politics, mistaken identities and quite bluntly hypnotizing your way into someone’s heart. Dracula as a crestfallen lover is nevertheless a supremely powerful image, a symbol for a fascinating experiment that deserves to be seen and heard if not taken at face value. And its music adds some dignity to the end of Coppola’s classical populism, wandering its way through prologues, backstories and all the complications its misguided lovers might otherwise create.