Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is so intense and rivetting it is often possible to forget all of its problems. But then Keanu Reeves opens his mouth, you laugh at his stupid line readings, and you remember. This could have been a really good film, if it didn't take itself quite so seriously. As it is, it's still a good film, but one that seems almost totally oblivious to its own ridiculousness. It plays sort of like a deformed bastard child of a Sam Raimi movie and a George Melies short. The only difference is, Raimi and Melies were both trying to make the audience laugh as much as anything else - they understood the delight inherent in over-the-top special effects. Coppola seems to have forgetten about this delight, and so has shots of people's eyes superimposed over stormy clouds, and expects the audience to take them without any sense of irony. I'm sorry, but it doesn't work.
Except that, sometimes, it does. This movie has scenes in it that are so over-the-top batshit insane, and played so straight, that they actually surpass any possible ironic feeling, and become legitimately freightening again. And this works to pull you in and terrify you, until Keanu Reeves speaks, and you're right back out of the film again, marvelling at the terrible casting choice.
The first scenes between Gary Oldman as Dracula and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker are frankly bizarre to watch. Oldman is chewing the scenery so much, and Reeves is so confused as to what he is supposed to be doing (he seems like he so desperately wants to fall back on his old standby, "woah!" but can't because, you know, it's a period piece), that it almost seems like one of those Youtube clips where someone has edited two completely different films together for comic effect. Once Reeves is trapped by the three vampiresses the film becomes good, because he's not really called on to say much in that scene, and then the film goes for about half an hour without him making any appearances. And it's then that the film really takes off - but Reeves comes back for the climax, forcing the audience to acknowledge the ludicrousness of what it is witnessing.
I loved the insane cinematography, the gory, sexy, bloody nature of everything - like they were filming what was written between the lines in Bram Stoker's original novel. There has never been a mainstream Hollywood film version of Dracula that has so openly acknowledged the sexual nature of the material, and for that I applaude. And the film looks beautiful, as well. I mean, it steals visual ideas from Nosferatu, from the Bela Lagosi Dracula, from the Evil Dead movies, from shadow puppetry, from the terrible Hammer Horror films, and from about a million other sources as well. And it synchronises all these steals into one gloriously hodge-podge, beautiful mess. I loved the way the film looked, but I just wish it acknowledged its own artifice sometimes. The difference between the first-person-monster-running shots in Evil Dead 2 and in Bram Stoker's Dracula is that in Evil Dead 2 they were meant to be funny. It still looks cool, and it is still legitimately scary, but at the same time there is something silly about it, and Coppola just seems content to pretend there isn't.
Also, I've ragged on Keanu Reeves quite a bit in this review, but he isn't the only one who gives a bad performance here. Almost everyone else plays their parts so insanely over-the-top that you wonder what the point was. Obviously it was intentional, but why? Was there just too much scenery lying around, and Coppola didn't know what to do with it? He couldn't be bothered throwing it in the garbage, so he just let his actors feast on it. Winona Ryder is actually quite good, but everyone else spends the whole movie on some bizarre wavelength that the audience is never quite privy to.
None of my complaints add up to a bad film. It isn't - it is good. But it could have been great. It was so close, and yet so far.