In 1462, Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman) returns from conquering the Ottoman Empire to find that the false report of his death has caused his wife Elisabeta to commit suicide. Told by a priest that she is damned to Hell, he desecrates his chapel and renounces God. He stabs the stone cross with his sword and bloods pours out, which he drinks, and he becomes a vampire.
In 1897, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) takes on Count Dracula because his previous lawyer, Renfield (Tom Waits), has gone insane. He travels to Transylvania to arrange Dracula’s holdings in London. Dracula sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) and believes she is the reincarnation of Elisabeta. He leaves Harker with his brides (Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, and Florina Hendrick) and sails to England with Transylvanian soil in boxes, and moves into Carfax Abbey, where Renfield is locked up.
In London, he seduces, bites, and converts Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) with whom Mina is staying. Her physical decline forces her former suitors Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell) and Doctor Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), and her current betrothed Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), to call in Doctor Abraham van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), who realizes what is happening to her. Dracula, who changes physically throughout the movie, is young and handsome during the day, and he charms Mina. She hears that Jonathan has escaped from Castle Dracula and she travels to Romania to marry him. Van Helsing and Lucy’s suitors kill and behead the undead Lucy.
Jonathan and Mina return to London. Helsing and the others destroy most of the Count’s boxes of soil. Dracula kills Renfield, thinking him a turncoat. He visits Mina and confesses all, but she declares her love and remembers Elisabeta’s previous life. She embraces being a vampire. The vampire-hunters burst in and Dracula escapes. Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina and learns that Dracula is sailing home in his last box. The hunters leave for Varna to catch him, but he eludes them. Van Helsing and Mina travel to Dracula’s Castle.
At night, they are approached by Dracula’s brides. They cause Mina to try to seduce Van Helsing, but he stops her with a communion wafer and surrounds the brides with a ring of fire and kills them. Dracula’s carriage arrives at the castle, pursued by hunters. They battle Gypsies until Dracula bursts from his coffin. He is stabbed by the hunters, but Mina leaps to his defense. She and Dracula escape together, but Dracula lies dying in the chapel and reverts to his demonic form. The cross repairs itself and he reverts to his younger self and asks Mina to give him peace. She stabs him in the heart and he dies, then she decapitates him. A fresco of Vlad and Elisabeta shows them ascending to heaven together.
The film was directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Winona Ryder brought the script to Coppola, attracted by the nature of the love-story. Coppola emphasized the erotic side of the tale, and some thought it would be a failure. Ryder became uncomfortable with Gary Oldman for some time because of something he said or did to put her in the mood. Coppola also worked hard on the Victorian costumes and the various forms of Dracula. The special effects were almost entirely practical effects, using no CGI, created by Roman Coppola, the director’s son. Reviewers loved the look of the film, but thought it was over the top. Keanu Reeves was considered extraordinarily bad, constantly blown off the screen by the likes of Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins.
The film was nominated for four Oscars and won Best Makeup, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Costumes, by Eiko Ishioka. She had been hired as an art director, but Coppola saw some of her sketches. The score by Wojciech Kilar and the song “Love Song for a Vampire” by Annie Lennox were a hit. The main title music is reminiscent of that of James Bernard’s Hammer Films Dracula movies with Christopher Lee. The film created a series of new Vampire tropes. Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It was a direct parody, and there were countless references everywhere, including on The Simpsons. When the movie was made, Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios was 27 million dollars in debt, but this put them back in the black.
The film was released on the 95th Anniversary of the release of Bram Stoker’s novel and the 80th Anniversary of his death. Prince Vlad’s scream as he stabs the cross was that of punk singer Lux Interior. One of Coppola’s ideas was that the presence of a vampire changes the local laws of physics, thus all the strange goings-on. There really was an Order of the Dracul in the 1400s. The alternate to Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker had been Johnny Depp, but the studio wanted Reeves. As in the novel, Dracula starts out as an old man and becomes younger as he feeds on blood. 35 minutes of gore was cut out after its first screening for audiences. The decapitation of Dracula at the end was suggested by George Lucas. And we thought Frank Langella’s Dracula was lush and romantic! Dracula is a mythic story and fantastic by nature, but this was a perhaps a little self-indulgent.