COMMENTARY : A Shtick Through the Heart : Francis Ford Coppola’s sympathetic Count Dracula is a radical departure from previous versions. It’s enough to scare horror-film traditionalists

<i> Michael Wilmington is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Authors strive to create immortal characters; movie actors long to play them. And what film character achieves immortality quite like Count Dracula, Transylvania’s venerable, life-seeking, blood-drinking Lord of the Undead?

Ever since 1922, when Max Schreck first gave him silent life in F. W. Murnau’s German classic, “Nosferatu,” Dracula has been through one cinematic resurrection after another. And, after 1931, when Bela Lugosi set the prime screen image of the Count--leering, lecherous and beastly beneath a caped, courtly veneer--he’s become culturally ubiquitous as well.

Repeated stakes through the heart ruffle him no more than bad colds. Again and again, he comes back: as John Carradine, as Christopher Lee, as Louis Jourdan, as Lon Chaney Jr., as Klaus Kinski, as Count Chocula on a breakfast cereal box, as “Sesame Street’s” urbane Muppet the Count (of Counting), who teaches children arithmetic--in movies with titles as exotic or ridiculous as “Dracula’s Daughter,” “Dracula and the Seven Golden Vampires,” “Dracula, the Dirty Old Man,” “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” and even “Dracula’s Dog.”

What spurs this eternal return? Partially, it’s Dracula’s intimate connection with love and death. Most vampires, and Dracula in particular, are symbols of promiscuity or heartlessness. The model for the first famous literary vampire, John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, was the aristocratic poet, libertine and serial seducer Lord Byron. The blood exchange itself suggests aberrant appetites and also, in a way, reverse necrophilia, with the dead raping the living.


That is why Dracula--just as much as his old ’30’s horror-series Universal Studio running mate, the Frankenstein monster (who is due back himself in a new version, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh)--exerts such a continuous fascination. He always stays scary. The Monster is threatening and pitiable; the Count is merciless, sadistic, seductive. The Monster can attack you--but the Count enters your bloodstream, product of your worst fantasies and nightmares. Stake or no stake, he’s unkillable.

Immortality is Dracula’s shtick--and in reviving him again for their current $40-million version, director Francis Ford Coppola and screenwriter James Hart (“Hook”) re-validate that cultural force. But they’re also changing it, radically.

When Gary Oldman appears for the first time as the Count--his face an obscenely smiling, powdered and periwigged ruin, his body sheathed in bloody scarlet, and his hands fluttering like spider ballerinas--he generates both fear and laughter. That’s a frequent response to the post-Lugosi Draculas, and Oldman, who has specialized in bent outsiders like Sid Vicious (“Sid and Nancy”) or Lee Oswald (“JFK”), catches both sides of the persona: loathsome menace and genteel absurdity. He even tosses in what may be a little homage to Lugosi, a hammy delay in the middle of the line “I never drink . . . wine.

At first, Oldman’s Dracula looks like a vain, wicked old roue, and his lizard eyes drink in the movie’s fresh-faced young Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reaves) as if he’d like to take a bite out of him--which, of course he would. Yet Oldman isn’t camping up the Count. He’s been asked to do something complicated: Portray a hideous villain, intended to incarnate pure evil--and somehow bring out a sympathetic, even heroic, side.


His Dracula is 180 degrees away from Lugosi’s lustful bully, and also from Frank Langella’s matinee idol in his 1977 “Dracula.” Langella’s ladies loved him, but he was still bad ; Oldman’s Dracula is as much a tormented victim as the damsels whose blood he sips--and the movie shows that he can be freed by love.

Where did this come from? Orson Welles, who directed a “Dracula” for his radio Mercury Theater in 1938, once remarked that anyone who makes a movie from it should use the Bram Stoker novel rather than the Hamilton Deane-John Balderstone stage adaptation, which is the source of the 1931 and 1979 films with Lugosi and Langella .

That’s what Hart and Coppola have done, gone back to Stoker’s 1897 bestseller, a wild sexual nightmare that races all across London and the Carpathians, with the Count, his victims and the vampire killers chasing each other from mansion to crypt, bedroom to grave.

Most Dracula movies are a patchwork of novel and play, and they have to pad up the Count’s part, because there’s really not much of him in Stoker’s book. After the first long Transylvanian episode, the meeting of Dracula and Harker--which is the highlight of the novel and of Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and Tod Browning’s “Dracula” as well--he becomes, like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, a largely unseen presence: the offstage super-villain, always one step ahead. Onscreen, he’s represented by his mad idolater, Renfield (played for Coppola by Tom Waits), nibbling up spiders and flies and begging for rats and little kittens.


Here, the new Dracula scenes are in his long, lyrical London seduction of Mina, Jonathan’s wife-to-be (Wynona Ryder). Otherwise, the filmmakers preserve Stoker’s characters, events, even the epistolary form of the novel, which is narrated in letters and diary fragments.

It’s an act of homage--but also of subversion. Hart’s Dracula is no natural epicure of evil; he’s an idealist wronged. In a new prologue, based vaguely on the history of Dracula’s real-life model, 15th-Century Romanian tyrant Vlad the Impaler, we see the Count being forced into sin by a monk’s refusal to grant absolution to his bride, Elizabeth, a suicide.

When Dracula’s main antagonist, Anthony Hopkins as the perfervid vampirologist Dr. Van Helsing, describes himself and his fellow vampire killers as “God’s madmen,” it’s a comment on the religious war being waged between the vampire and his hunters. (So is the fact that Hopkins also plays Chesare, the monk who pronounces Elizabeth as damned.)

That clash of promiscuity and religion is also in Stoker’s book; it fairly reeks with a terror of sex. Awful sexual nightmares appear, and, like Dracula flinching from the cross, they’re counterbalanced by religious images. In 1897, the gruesome, horrific elements of the book were probably considered the most touchy. Today, the moviemakers may be charier of the omnipresent spiritual paraphernalia, the crucifixes, prayers and sermonizing--all of which seem designed by Stoker as much to shield himself from charges of bad taste as to protect his beleaguered virgins.


Yet, for the Victorian audience, the novel’s single most horrific elements may not have been the living corpses or moldering crypts--which they’d encountered before in other Gothic novels--but all the insistent paraphernalia of sex, disease and death: the tell-tale neck punctures or the moment when the Count slices open his chest and forces Mina to drink his blood. There’s something close to hysteria in these scenes; it’s worth remembering that Stoker, who published it at 50, died 15 years later of syphilis.

Hart’s conception is more sympathetic. In a world that’s gone past Stoker’s milieu of Victorian repression, all the way though the sexual revolution and the age of AIDS, this Dracula, has evolved into a tormented sexual outsider. And his swooning victim, Mina Harker, has become scrappier, fiercer.

Instead of justifying itself with religion, the movie drenches us in art and socio-cultural awareness. (A reactionary pundit might say that those are the liberal humanist’s substitutes for faith.) Coppola’s film is a real visual-cultural banquet, a glittering smorgasbord of designs out of Art Nouveau and frames out of Gustave Klimt or Caspar Friedrich. Every frame is packed with decor, virtuosic detail and visual allusions, the soundtrack a dense layer of effects, dialogue and Wojciech Kilar’s music. Operatic may be too mild a word for it.

The movie wafts us into a world of smoke and mirrors, blood and roses, stage magic and tableaux vivants. And Coppola keeps re-creating other movie images: the first “Dracula,” “Nosferatu” and Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” of course, but also Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible.”


Subversion or not, this “Dracula” probably is the best overall movie realization of Stoker’s characters and world. It’s a formidable display of directorial skill; there’s scarcely a scene that doesn’t in some way, technically dazzle and delight. But it’s not really the best Dracula-derived film: It doesn’t have the lyrical intensity, the fantasy-charged dread, the narrative beauty of Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” It doesn’t really grip us.

The best 19th-Century and 20th-Century vampire stories--J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” F. Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood Is the Life,” C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau,” Theodore Sturgeon’s “Some of Your Blood,” Robert Aickman’s “Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal,” even Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot,” usually touch on sexual deviance--and, in Anne Rice’s modern bestsellers, the “Vampire Lestat” series, analogies between homosexuality and vampirism are essential. The best non-Dracula vampire movies play with “perversity” too: Carl Dreyer’s eerily poetic masterpiece “Vampyr” and Roger Vadim’s “Blood and Roses,” (both based, partially, on Le Fanu) and Roman Polanski’s antic “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (basically a parody of “Dracula”).

That may be why Coppola, Hart and Oldman go easy on Dracula this time around, why they don’t let him pour out the venom and ferocious sadism that might magnetize the audience, why they’ve played up a romantic-victim side that isn’t present in the novel they’ve otherwise adapted so faithfully.

It’s clear that AIDS is on their minds, just as syphilis may have been on Stoker’s; Hopkins’ Van Helsing even discusses “syphilization” at his medical lecture. It’s also obvious that Hopkins--the virtuoso monster of “The Silence of the Lambs"--was hired to supply a ruthlessly “normal” antagonist for the sexually driven outsider Dracula.



It almost works. But instead of pure evil, from either Dracula or Van Helsing, the movie gives us impure misunderstanding, prejudice, the world as a bloody toy. Coppola and Hart don’t want to be accused of making Dracula too intensely “the other,” of feeding into cultural prejudice and paranoia--which is exactly, of course, what Stoker was whipping up.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was a radical novel, but Stoker’s “Dracula” is a conservative one, with queasy undercurrents. It’s a “classic,” that, in many ways, isn’t even a good novel, full of xenophobia, condescension, moments of anti-Semitism (and even anti-Slovakism), dialogue overheated to the point of absurdity, men and woman collapsing in faints, bats, blood and wild exhortations.

But no one should sniff too hard at the trashiness or sordidness of the original “Dracula.” Stoker was a derivative or second-rate writer--which is how H. P. Lovecraft described him--but he grips his readers passionately because he was writing out his subconscious. And the subconscious, that heedless, reckless, blood-spilling drive, is exactly what the Coppola “Dracula” tends not to reveal.


It isn’t a matter of not being faithful to Stoker. The film really couldn’t--and shouldn’t be. But it does need to replace the older vision more fully, twist Stoker around to something new--and that’s what it doesn’t quite accomplish. What this latest incarnation needs, more than anything else, is evil. Come to think of it, that’s not too hard to find.

* MORE DRACULAS: Michael Wilmington looks at some other versions of the vampire tale. Page 28.