Ever since its 1992 release, Francis Ford Coppola’s gonzo pop horror masterpiece Bram Stoker’s Dracula has played host to a performance that regularly tops lists of the worst of all time – Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. A human surfboard cosplaying as British, Reeves is most notable in the film for possessing a vacant expression and for saying things like “Carfax Abbehhhh” like a member of The Californians in an Oscar Wilde play.
But to criticize the performance is perhaps to miss the point; that Reeves is so deadly, deadly dull – an avatar of sexlessness and dispassion – is part of the film’s central thesis. For all of its maximalist flourishes, its sumptuous visuals and Oscar-winning crafts, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is at its core an eschewing of the chaste and an embrace of the horny.
That was always there, of course, in the text. Literary scholars may disagree as to whether Stoker’s 1897 novel is a cautionary tale against the “forces” that would cause women to rail against the Victorian ideal of a male-dominated society, or an ode to female sexual liberation. But there’s always been a sexuality to the Count. Screenwriter James V. Hart’s master stroke is to put this front and center, reframing the titular character as a tragic romantic who’s “crossed oceans of time to find” his true love.
Here, Dracula (Gary Oldman, in arguably his boldest performance) is first introduced as a warrior (nee Vlad) in 1462. Returning from a battle with the Ottoman Empire, he’s greeted not only with the news that his wife Elisabeta has thrown herself from a tower in fear of his death, but that her soul is damned to hell for all eternity for committing suicide. He renounces God, drives his sword into a cross, makes it bleed, and in an extremely metal move, drinks the blood and becomes a vampire.
More than 400 years later, Dracula sees a picture of Harker’s fiance Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) and, believing it is Elisabeta reincarnated, sets off on a quest to reunite with his former love, all the while dealing with obstructions from the suitors of Mina’s friend Lucy (Sadie Frost), and the imperious Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). For a film that’s styled itself in name as the faithful adaptation of its source material, that’s a pretty bold departure from a book that’s essentially about a sexy but villainous monster preying on an innocent woman and the band of men who save the day.
Hart’s thesis, and by extension Coppola’s, is that the real villain of the story is Victorian male society, and it’s a pretty fun take! Sure, Dracula drinks blood and can transform into fog, but he’s also a pretty great hang and, at his core, a passionate gentleman lover. In that context, it makes sense that the film would want to reframe the book’s handsome male straight man Harker into a bloodless bozo. The common criticism of Reeves seems to be that his Harker feels like Ted Theodore Logan dressed up in period clothes, but perhaps we haven’t been giving him enough credit. Perhaps him playing this guy as an airhead is the entire point.
It’s his bumbling disregard for Mina’s sexual advances, his almost Mel Brooksian depiction of the prudish Victorian male, that helps tee up Dracula (in all his many forms) as a sort of liberating Fuckmaster Supreme. Of course, this is aided by the violent sexuality of Oldman’s performance. Whether in his old man drag in the film’s open act, caked in gargoyle makeup, or dressed in the sickest gray suit and top hat in cinema (to say nothing of his tiny but fierce purple glasses), Oldman delivers an operatic star turn that never lets its bravado overpower the character’s underlying soulfulness and lyricism. That’s why the shocking tableau of Sadie Frost getting railed by Werewolf Dracula plays mostly as a triumphant moment of sexual release. It’s also why when Winona Ryder and Oldman finally consummate their relationship, Ryder pleading “Take me away from all this death” before sucking the blood from Oldman’s chest, it’s framed as an orgasm.
It’s the release and the passion that Winona’s Mina craves, and Hart and Coppola are aligned with her. Even Van Helsing, typically portrayed as an eccentric but benevolent force in the battle between good vs. evil, is here rendered as a sort of conservative madman on an anti-sex crusade. Played by Anthony Hopkins in a performance that can only be described as a fresh-off-the-bone plate of grade-A ham, he’s a prude on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a self-appointed disciple of God whose guiding principle is that “Civilization and syphilization have advanced together.” It’s not unintentional that Hopkins is double-cast as the prologue’s priest, who delivers the news of Elisabeta’s damnation to young Dracula; it’s a sly underscoring of the idea that there will always be men presuming to know the will of God, utilizing it to snuff out any bit of liberation or passion in this world.
Luckily, that passion is on display in every frame of Coppola’s sumptuous film. A visual feast that samples everything from Jean Cocteau to James Whale to Dario Argento, Dracula is perhaps most indebted to its impeccable team of craftspeople: the striking art direction by Thomas E. Sanders and Garrett Lewis; the resourceful and ingenious cinematography by Michael Ballhaus; the macabre makeup by Greg Cannom, Michele Burke, and Matthew W. Mungle; Wojciech Kilar’s wicked score; and, of course, Eiko Ishioka’s iconic costumes, some of the most worthy (and raddest) Academy Award-winning work of all time.
Coppola somehow corralled these forces into a cocktail of pure cinema, and potentially invented Tumblr in one fell swoop. Such is the power of this unceasingly ingenious parade of striking imagery, nearly every shot popping with some invention or piece of in-camera trickery. Haunting purple eyes loom outside the window of a traveling carriage, shadows roam the walls independently of their master; at the time, Coppola was admired but also lightly ribbed for creating such an unfiltered piece of show-offery. But 30 years on, it plays like a master ravenously feeding off the blood of 100 years of cinema, passionately injecting it into his own unique tapestry. In that way, it makes perfect sense that he would side more with the Count than his combatants. In his world, the monsters are the lovers and heroes, the squares their oppressors.
Perhaps it’s time to admit that even Reeves, as the square-in-chief, is playing his own key role in the brilliance of the film. In a contemporary review, Richard Corliss of TIME wrote, “To the director, the count is a restless spirit who has been condemned for too many years to internment in cruddy movies. This luscious film restores the creature’s nobility and gives him peace.”
Maybe it’s time to do the same for Reeves.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released on November 13, 1992 from Sony/Columbia Pictures. It is currently available to stream on Prime Video, EPIX and Paramount+ as well as available to rent or purchase on Amazon and more.