Rarely has there been a more fascinating mixture of contradictory elements. The lavish sets and costumes, the garish art direction and the fine creature and make-up effects... clashing with the bizarre casting and performances. Coppola's (or Oldman's if you like) Dracula is a wild blend of creative ideas and creepy moments, not all of which are related to monster sequences. Alive with masses of writhing bloodsuckers and eye popping decorations, it's never going to live up to the title which declares this is a definitive adaptation. It just doesn't work as Stoker's Dracula. There are just too many odd choices and extraneous plot elements that don't belong. But seeing what works and what doesn't is always an interesting experience.
Yes Keanu is bad. Really, infamously bad. I guess they wanted Johnny Utah that badly for some reason as the unfortunate estate agent sent to meet a rather unsavoury customer. Cary Elwes was on board, why not use him, or in fact anyone else? It's baffling, and so are other things here - what of the other casting choices? Winona Ryder is better, bit still pretty stiff. Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing is another oddity that often seems to get a pass, but his random shouting and laughing feel just as out of place. Nobody would ever believe this version of the character when he starts to rave about creatures of the night. Of course this is Gary Oldman's show, and while his portrayal of the man himself is often cartoonish, the overblown maniacal expressions and tragic fits of agony make for a compelling performance.
The plot itself bares frequent resemblance to the source material, but still manages to deviate just as often. Dracula is changed from invading parasite to forlorn lover - though his nasty side does get plenty of attention. The romance angle is another strange one, isn't the long dead princess idea from the wrong story? Universal's orginal The Mummy featured this before, as did the '90s remake. Some elements from their first Stoker adaptation did transfer over so maybe they wanted to take something back. The sinister map of London on D's castle wall certainly alludes to the immigration idea but while his boxes of earth soon arrive they never leave Carfax Abbey to set up his plan of occupation. The diary format is kind of included but feels superfluous, and even small things like the escaped wolves are included, but not for the original plot development. It's hardly a faithful translation to the screen, they just wanted to use that title. However in some ways it's still above the competition.
The effects and horror set pieces are all pretty great, from the shadowy tricks in Dracula's castle, to the many forms the vampire prince takes on. That beehive hair is always absurd but it sort of sets the tone right away. His change into beast mode is frequently impressive and the use of sex and violence to add moments of disturbing blood lust are something that would never be approved these days. There are even a few instances that seem to recall The Exorcist with bed ridden Lucy flailing around and later vomiting on a Bible reciting Dr. Van Helsing.
The sheer spectacle is everywhere; if it fails in some aspects it succeeds in just being a weird nightmare full of outrageous costumes and surreal set design. While they skim Jonathan Harker's investigation into Dracula's crypt, there's still at least a moment where he finds the villain's coffin - only this time he's wearing a crazy disco robe made of reflective gold fabric. The impaler knight costume from the prologue looks almost restrained next to some of the later outfits. The surreal vampire brides scene, the hellish train journey and the low frame rate carriage chase finale all add to the sense of other-worldliness. Franco's squawking taxidermy might actually have worked in this version.
The result is a baroque fever dream where things look and feel a certain way, but people start to open their mouths and the effect is weakened. It's a technical wonder in places, even though their reliance on typical romantic vampire tropes conflicts with the attempts at making something more off the wall. In a cinema world where CGI was becoming the next big thing, Coppola at least demanded to have traditional opticals and in-camera special effects. It's got a lot of personality and atmosphere, so you can really let the mood take over... until the accents and dialogue which elicit raised eyebrows and laughter begin. It's a must see anyway; the last watchable use of Stoker's story and certainly the last interesting project for the director.