Way, way back in the fifteenth century, in the land of Transylvania, there was a warrior king called Dracula (Gary Oldman) who commanded firece loyalty among his subjects - at pain of death. His one true love was his bride, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), so when he was away from their castle home fighting a holy war, she stayed put and fretted that he might not return. So when Dracula won his battles and did indeed get home, he was horrified to discover Elisabeta had committed suicide when she was told by his enemies that he had died. This is why he renounced God. This is why he embraced the dark arts. This is why he was damned to be a vampire for the rest of time...
If there's one word for Francis Ford Coppola's rendering of Bram Stoker's famous horror novel, it would be opulent. It's a rare shot that does not display the strenuous efforts of production designers and costumers on this evidence whipped to within an inch of their lives by the director so his vision could be as intense as it was possible to be. But for all these lavish qualities, the result is akin to being yelled the Victorian classic at full volume rather than curling up next to a roaring hearth on a winter's eve and cosily turning the pages to lose yourself in the atmosphere.
It doesn't help that the actors are, by and large, all at sea here, lost amongst the noise of the visuals. Oldman in the title role is swamped in makeup, from an ancient, elaborately-coiffed version of himself to a wolfman, from a long haired lover from Transylvania to a, well, "batman" (foreshadowing for his Commissioner Gordon in the next decade?), and he is among too many members of the cast putting on a comedy accent that hinders their performance. He is a man of a thousand voices compared to Keanu Reeves, however, whose Jonathan Harker makes one wince every time he tries and fails with that English inflection.
Harker, as in the book, travels to see Dracula, although his reasons for doing so are apparently simply to be captured by the Count's vampire brides (who include Monica Bellucci before she got really famous) and alert his host to the presence of his fiancée Mina, played by Ryder. This is because it's yet another vampire movie which appropriates the reincarnation of lost love plot of the Boris Karloff classic The Mummy, something nowhere to be seen in Stoker's tale, owing more to the Frank Langella version than many care to admit. By bolting on a romance, Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart presumably hoped for a depth of yearning to be brought out in his vampire's plight, but he is scuppered by the lack of chemistry between his leads.
That's right, Dracula here is not the bad guy, but the hero, and all those living chaps are spoiling his fun with the ladies. One of those ladies is Mina's best friend Lucy, played with cartoon relish by Sadie Frost, and if you're hoping to see her quickly succumb to the bloodsucking you'll have a long wait: what should be a punchy shocker is dragged out far too long. The most fun to be had here is from Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, sounding like Dr Ruth as he discusses sexual diseases and the only actor in this to match the blare of over the top silliness that Coppola works up. At times this Dracula resembles a mega-budget Carry On Screaming with its overripe playing and lewdness, which would be fine if it were not intent on having you take its love story so leadenly seriously. It does look great, but loses the thread of what should be a simple plot. Music by Wojciech Kilar.