Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
When Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version of Bram Stoker's classic vampire tale hit theaters, many were critical of the film's "narrative confusions." It was hard to deny, however, that Coppola's visual excesses served his darkly romantic version of the undead tale quite well. If anything, the director can be accused of dizzying us by offering up a plate full of the most decadent delights -- never allowing us to settle too comfortably with our feast before we are swept up in the next course. There are Expressionistic and silent film influences, Euroculture overtones and allegories, a love story ripe with questions about female sexuality and desire, all the sweeping visual accents to support these point, and so on. With so many flourishes to indulge in it might seem difficult to find an entry point to savor these gorgeous details. This is why starting with some of the most obvious or basic visual references can produce a willingness to venture deeper in.
Coppola wanted to distinguish his take on the vampiric legend from his multiple predecessors with an emotional intensity he felt had never been shown before. We're immediately introduced to the heart of his romantic drama with the introduction of Gary Oldman as Vlad Dracula -- based on the real-life leader who was the influence behind Stoker's famous novel. Dracula renounces God after learning about his wife Elisabeta's death and promises to rise from the grave to avenge her. Now an eccentric old man (and sometimes Victorian dandy, rat, fog, bat and wolf ... ) living in Transylvania, he finds his love once again -- reincarnated as Mina (Winona Ryder), the fiancée of his London lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves). As the mysterious and deadly Count develops an obsession with Mina, he terrorizes her friends and loved ones so he can reunite with his true love and eventually transform her into a vampire so they can be together forever.
Lucy (Sadie Frost) is Mina's high-society, sexually adventurous friend who is hypnotically entranced by Dracula in the form of a wolf. He rapes and bites her, thus beginning his stranglehold on her mortal life to satisfy his blood-thirsty cravings. Lucy's health deteriorates and at the behest of her three gentleman suitors, Dr. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) is called to town in order to diagnose her strange behavior. Van Helsing realizes her condition is due to a vampire attack, but doesn't realize that the vampire is continuing to visit Lucy nightly and that nothing can stop him from taking her blood.
Eiko Ishioka's award-winning costume design, and Thomas Sanders'/Garrett Lewis's award-winning set design are nicely on display in this frame of Lucy being tormented and taken by the Count -- shown here as an invisible force, in menacing shadow. The image recalls the famous stills from F.W. Murnau's 'Nosferatu' where Max Schreck's inhuman visage is expressionistically portrayed in shadows on the wall or across his victim's bodies. Coppola's cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, explains that this was no mistake on the director's part:
"The role model that Francis (Coppola) used for 'Dracula' was 'Nosferatu,' the old (F.W.) Murnau vampire movie (1922). Francis had wonderful visual ideas. He wanted to do as much as possible in the camera rather than with CGI or visual effects. I think the budget was $20 million, but the studio said that anything that goes over budget would come out of Francis' own pocket. Every morning we met in his office. He explained the scenes to me and his ideas. It was like being in heaven for me. I made a shot list and tried my best to integrate all of the fantasy that he imagined. Francis made any changes he wanted and gave it to the storyboard artist. After that, it was like shooting the film by heart."
The director assigned his son, Roman, as second unit/visual effects director in order to achieve the cinematic style he so admired. Camera tricks and back-to-basic methods were used to achieve many of the surreal and stunning shots seen throughout the film. Even more impressive is that these effects were achieved in-camera and not during the post-production phase. Image projections, combined shots, moving walls and floors, forced perspective shots using miniatures, the use of cranes, glass paintings, Pathé cameras, body doubles and the use of an intervalometer were just a few of the resources used to bring Coppola's vision to life. The importance of shadows is something impressed upon us from first frame when we learn about Dracula's beginnings during a shadow-figure reenactment of Vlad's battle with the Turks. This theme of shadows is continued in the scenes where Harker meets the Count and his shadow acts independently of his visible movement, as well as the shadow puppet play in the movie theater. Originally, Coppola wanted to rely heavily on the use of shadows and light (again, similar to Murnau's tale), but he was dissuaded by the studio from using this minimalistic approach.
Still, in this frame that minimalism is used to great effect in combination with some of the more lavish elements that dominate most people's memory of the film. In this single image, we see all the things that make Dracula's tale timelessly addicting: sexuality, implied menace, mythical power and eerie suspense. Even though Coppola's canvas is loaded, some of his most memorable brushstrokes are beautiful in their simplicity -- creating perhaps the most visually striking version of Stoker's classic novel to ever grace the screen.