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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

November 15, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | Michael Wilmington is a frequent contributor to Calendar

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.

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