Bram Stoker's Dracula Review

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The result is decidedly mixed

by Chris McEneany Oct 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Bram Stoker's Dracula Review
    “She lives beyond the grace of God. A wanderer in the outer darkness. She is “Vampyre”. Nosferatu ...

    Famously, it was Winona Ryder who brought James V. Hart's script for Bram Stoker's Dracula to the attention of movie-master Francis Ford Coppola. Then called Dracula - The Untold Story, Hart's screenplay pertained to capture not only the supposedly true historical aspect of the notorious Vlad The Impaler - template for Irish wordsmith Bram Stoker's immortal literary creation - but also the tragic emotional turmoil that he saw lurking behind the gothic prose of coffins, castles and crucifixes. In short he took the term Gothic Romance literally and wove into Dracula's well-known plot a bittersweet and fateful love affair. It was this very addition that had Ryder, who initially believed the script would merely be about “a man with fangs running around biting people”, falling under its spell and championing it when studios as far back as 1977 had given Hart the cold shoulder. Of course, once the great Coppola came onboard, the decision was made to attempt to follow the original book as faithfully as they could whilst still incorporating this new Mills And Boon type of subplot. So, in the end, Bram Stoker's Dracula, as the final film came to be titled actually owes less to its long-dead creator than to a clutch of revisionists with grandiose notions of mingling high art, period drama and horror into one.

    The result was decidedly mixed. Although the film was very successful, with a huge opening weekend and a tremendous run on home video, it was exactly the type of genre product that seemed designed to infuriate as well as intoxicate the fans. The horror camp was naturally horrified to discover that the big budget movie of the greatest vampire ever known was just that - camp horror. But, amazingly, lovers of the book actually found much to embrace with this complex and emotional adaptation. The film has gone on to become a sort of classic - a roguish renegade take on the tale whose explicit stylistic determination to be visually and thematically experimental was hardly what mainstream audiences gorged with Freddy Kruger sequels had expected, and incredibly florid eroticism that stimulated and disturbed in equal measure. I remember seeing the film on its opening night in a jam-packed cinema in Liverpool - the advertising campaign had been truly and bloodily enticing enough to have people queuing round the block - and being completely bowled over by it. I can recall glancing around the audience during some of the unexpectedly “slushy” and moving sections of the film to see that even young scallies (the “hoodies” of their day) actually transfixed by the canvas spread out before them - such was the effect of the visual passion on display. It should also be noted that my wife actually slept all the way through it and has never found the time to get through the entire film to this day!

    I will dispense with the plot of this extremely well-know story, sufficed to say that long-dead noble Prince-turned-vampire Dracula seeks to relocate from his gothic ancestral home in the wild Carpathian Mountains to the hustling metropolis of London. Once there he seeks to procure for himself the attractive young Mina Harker, who he believes to be the living reincarnation of his dead wife, Elizabeta, and will stop at nothing to see that this happens. Needless to say, there are those who will seek to stop him and put an end - one made of sharpened wood, preferably - to his diabolical scheme, once and for all. The characters and situations are as familiar as the backs of our hands, the screenplay only differing inasmuch as adding some historical background of the real Dracula - Vlad Tepes of Wallachia, champion against the invading Turks and fond fan of human kebabs - and supplying the love story that propels the film through all the usual set-pieces that made Stoker's novel such a popular page-turner. But whilst we all know a lot of the details and the outcome of it all, Hart and Coppola should applauded for attempting to bring such a well-worn and, by now, inevitably clichéd odyssey to the screen with a fresher interpretation geared for a newer audience. With unparalleled set-designs - practically the entire film was lensed on a sound-stage - and some outrageously exotic costumes created by Eiko Ishioka that take in wolfen battle-armour, richly textured Victorian duds, a truly otherworldly wedding-cum-funeral dress and sinuous, almost living robes for the eminently fashion-conscious title character - the film was a visual banquet that soaked the screen to a degree that the garish Hammer stable could barely have comprehended. But the writer/director duo had a further trick up their collective sleeve in effecting a sky-high, operatic tone that was, indeed, a radical departure from all the versions that had risen from the grave before theirs.

    “Ahhh, the children of the night. What sweet music they make.”

    I said in my review for The Company Of Wolves from my Full Moon Frenzy werewolf series that although vampires are always linked with seduction, it is their hairier cousins who are actually the more overt sexual predators. Vampires content themselves with a bite which seems positively dainty when compared with the werewolf's full-on mauling and ravaging of human flesh. And, although Oldman's Dracula is certainly one of the most sexually inclined vampires to grace the screen, it is important to note that his lust for Lucy is satisfied whilst he is in werewolf-form. The various looks of Dracula are also quite a revelation in the history of the character. Remaining faithful to the book, Coppola's noble bloodsucker is, at first, a decrepit, wizened old letch - the kabuki drag-queen as the look came to be known. It is an arresting sight indeed. Curiously androgynous and sickly sinister, the Count glides along the grim corridors of his castle, letting his wonderfully independent shadow do most of the acting. Those blood-red robes literally gush over the stone floors and those horribly clutching talons create an image that is morbidly skin-crawling - the rot of decadence mingled with the otherworldly arrogance of the Prince of the Undead. Conversely, the raging warrior of the Count's prior existence is exhibited via his swirling, liquid-skin transformation into the afore-mentioned man-wolf, a towering, nostril-flared beast that, if we are honest, doesn't really bear close scrutiny. Much better is the bat-thing that he becomes later on, a hideous monstrosity of glistening, leathery prosthetics, blazing eyes and a voice dredged up from the steaming floor of the abyss. Hats off to Coppola and Hart for letting us see the extent of his shape-shifting powers, although it is hard not to rue the fact that these monstrous guises aren't actually more fully utilised in Dracula's battles with his human pursuers. You've just got to love that bit when he stamps a bat-foot down with enough evil force to set fire to the crucifix in Van Helsing's hands, though. “Look what your God has done to me!” he hisses through a grotesque rodent-mouth, actually taking the mickey when you think about it, as we have all seen how dashing he can also appear when he feels so inclined and freshly rejuvenated.

    “I condemn you to living death. To eternal hunger for living blood!”

    Whereas Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee kept their Counts wickedly one-dimensional and bloodthirsty, Louis Jourdan's celebrated BBC incarnation brought character, refinement and status to the role. However, it was in John Badham's wonderful-looking 1979 version that Frank Langella brought mesmerising sensuality to the Lord of the Undead, uncorking the diabolical lust that resides of the heart of the fatalistic vampire. Largely underrated, this version is perhaps the one that scratched closer to the essence of star-crossed love and the notion of Dracula being a suave, sophisticated and devoutly sexual predator that James V. Hart found so intriguing. With Gary Oldman plaguing the role with a brilliantly realised, yet strangely comical accent of twirling eastern-brogued vowels and deeply intonated soliloquies of lost love, regret and a hankering for bygone times, Dracula becomes, for the first time, a real three-dimensional character. Winning the role from the first choices of Daniel Day-Lewis (running through the woods with a tomahawk at the time for The Last Of The Mohicans), Viggo Mortenson, Gabriel Byrne (who I would really like to see play the part) and even Antonio Banderas, Oldman's depiction is light-years away from either Lugosi or Christopher Lee. But turning Dracula into a sort of tragic anti-hero was never going to appeal to everyone. Since the novel was first published, and throughout its vast and varied existence in every medium and genre-twist known to man - with musicals, plays, comedies, porn etc all vying for the Count's attention - Dracula has always been something to fear. He may arouse dark taboo-laced desires within his mesmerised female victims, but there can be no doubt of the horror that awaits them in his hungry death-embrace. And then there is the way in which he deals with the protective men-folk out to stake their claim on righteous retribution for losing their ladies. Christopher Lee could become explosively nasty at a pinch - battling Peter Cushing's Van Helsing with athletic aggression or gleefully tormenting Patrick Troughton's insane manservant in Scars Of Dracula. But Oldman brings something strangely more humanistic to the role than any of his cloak-swirling predecessors This Count is articulate, educated and incredibly self-aware. He yearns to walk among the teeming life and excitement of London's wondrous new society. He seeks to learn about the astonishing “marvels of the modern world”. And, above all else, he is emotional. Desperately lonely and haunted, himself, by terrible deeds and the irreconcilable betrayals of the past, Oldman makes it impossible for us not to care about him - which, of course, is not what many people were expecting. The actor, quite typically, throws himself into the character with gusto, finding the connection that we all need to have if we are going to sympathise with his damned plight. Sorrowful angst in front of the always-perplexed Harker (at least in Reeves' hands, anyway), put-upon anger at the interference from the vampire hunters and soul-revealing pain and longing in the company of Mina - Oldman's Dracula lets his centuries-old guard down all too often. It is a great depiction, though immensely stylised and far from definitive.

    “I am nothing. Lifeless, soulless ... hated ... feared. I am dead to all the world. Hear me - I am the monster the breathing men would kill! I am Dracula!”

    The girls do a fine job of things. Ryder, a little too mousy to really convince as anyone's eternal love, musters up as much passion and energy as she can. Her on-screen chemistry with Reeves is stuttering and basically uninteresting, but her affair with the Count is excellently pensive, risky and furtively bewitching, the trepidations of the pair finely dragged from deep within. Oldman is superlative in his wooing, but Ryder finds her feet when she gives in to the dark side and attempts to viciously seduce Hopkins' Van Helsing. Sadie Frost's perennially-doomed Victorian slut is eerily magnificent though. Gazing longingly at the lewd illustrations in “Arabian Nights” and teasing misplaced cowboy Quincy about the size of his Bowie knife, she is the tragic party-girl that everyone knows. A girl who not only cannot say no, but for whom danger is as tempting as the prospect of choosing a suitor from one of three eminently eligible lovers. When her nascent fangs are revealed and she lapses into a heated, tormented reverie, her rapid panting marks her transformation into something more predatory. But her epically macabre return as one of Dracula's brides is a standout sequence, more for her exquisitely uncanny performance than the gorgeously creepy lakeside crypt setting. Effortlessly, Frost combines pure gothic beauty with sensual savagery. She is the most poignant aspect of the film - strong-willed yet defenceless, so full of life that she is the brightest flame to be snuffed out so wretchedly. The Brides - including the phenomenally gorgeous Monica Belluci - have the arousing presence of a trio of Black Widows, mating and murder their very reason for existence. Genuine Old-World Rumanian tumbling from their pouts and lascivious eyes that no man - or woman, for that matter - could tear themselves away from, they pack a deeply emotional and symbolic undertone of the bliss of raw depravity.

    “I've seen some strange things already! Bloody wolves chasing me through some blue inferno!

    Headed-up by Keanu Reeves' gash-barnetted fop Jonathan Harker and Anthony Hopkins' deliriously loopy Prof. Abraham Van Helsing, the boys are a wildly eclectic bunch. The would-be suitors for the delectable Lucy - the rakish and impeccably proper Lord Arthur Holmwood (Carey Elwes), the impetuous and obsessive geek Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant) and, finally arriving to a filmed version of the story, the heroic and brazen Texan Quincy P. Morris (Bill Campbell) - are furnished with quirks and accoutrements of character, just enough to make them memorable, though never too much to distract from the jovial “part-of-the-crowd” attitude that comes over so well throughout the production. Of course, this unusual casting would also prove to be something of a flame to the critical moths seeking to pick holes in the fabric of Coppola's passionate project. Reeves' ridiculous and literally jaw-droppingly bad attempts at a refined English accent were the immediate and most justified target. Admittedly, his involvement in the movie should, in all honesty, never have been. He doesn't bring anything believable to the role and looks hopelessly out-of-place in period costume and prancing about in dank passageways or cavorting in a labyrinth of lace and velvet with Hell's whores. But, and here's the incredible thing, I simply cannot imagine anybody else in the part now. Reeves has become, albeit after a struggle, the Jonathan Harker for this particular version, like it or loathe it. Coppola wanted a hip, marketable face for the ostensible hero and, in Reeves, he could guarantee hordes of teenage girls flocking to the flicks. The overall surprise that was in store for them, though, was that they would end up falling for the deadly, but despairing charms of the film's villain instead. Clever, that.

    “Dr. Jack ... I am no lunatic! I'm a sane man fighting for his soul!”

    Tom Waits lords it up with brilliantly inspired and totally unpredictable flashes of sheer insanity as Dracula's asylum-residing scout, Renfield. Always something of a memorable catch, the role of Harker's fear-maddened legal predecessor, is often coveted by erstwhile supporting actors who can find in it their chance to shine. Given some of the best lines in the movie and certainly one of the most broodingly demented characters in the novel, Renfield can be played in a variety of ways. Waits, though, is thoroughly fascinating to watch. Even in the midst of his mental collapsing, he manages to imbue the lunatic with a sense of refinement and taste - even if that taste includes gobbling down spiders and flies - “Actually, Dr. Seward, they're perfectly nutritious.” A tortured soul, he nevertheless has twinges of fear-filled guilt that have you despairing at his wretched predicament. Stoker was really on to something with Renfield. It would have been so easy - especially nowadays - to have had him simply go missing before Harker is sent to the Carpathians as a creepy little warning of what might be lurking out there. But Stoker, and the better filmmakers since, have realised the unsettling aura that his lingering madness provides to the atmosphere of the story. Not simply killed off, nor completely utilised as an evil minion, Renfield makes us realise the true despicability of Dracula by virtue of his simply being cast aside to virtually rot in the doldrums of false hopes and dream-betrayal. Like a junkie going cold turkey, Waits has Renfield clinging to the prospect of another fix, yet never quite forgetting the true awfulness of his condition.

    “We have all become God's madmen! All of us!”

    Hopkins neither saves or damns the film with his ludicrously over-the-top performance as Dracula's determined nemesis. Saddled with a role that veers dangerously from learned occult expert to cackling screwball with writing from Hart that is never certain whether to play it for laughs or not, Hopkins does an incredibly peculiar job with his Van Helsing. A notoriously dark and troubled performer he may be, but to my mind he clearly doesn't take any of this stuff seriously and hams the part up even more so than Laurence Olivier did when he tackled it in the 1979 Langella version. Adopting a terrific scar and an accent that recalls what Connor McCleod said of his own in Highlander when asked where he comes from - “Lots of different places,” - Hopkins whoops and giggles and dances like a demented hobbit one minute and then regards us with that frighteningly piercing stare, drops his voice to a deadly whisper and intones threats of the gravest importance, the next. It is pantomime, to be sure, but he understands the need for brevity in the character of a man who moonlights as a monster-killer. His vengeance-spree with that wicked Kukri-blade is a terrifically welcome sight though and here, at least, he knows when to ditch the laughs.

    “He is coming ... the Master is coming. Please don't stay here - get away from these men ... please. I pray God that I may never see your sweet face again.”

    The film was a welcome return to the gothic chillers of yesteryear. It hurled the tragedy of doomed romance into the steaming pot and stirred in an ensemble of oddball and colourful characters, lashings of gore and a grandiose sense of the operatic. Coppola had a taste for rediscovering the classic horror yarns at the time, and even had plans for his own big budget remake of Frankenstein but handed the property over to Kenneth Brannagh. His equally lavish and highly theatrical adaptation, called rather obviously now, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, received just as much of a critical backlash. Typically for Brannagh's thesp-cum-director, his take on the horror milestone forgot that it was meant to be a horror film and dovetailed into overwrought, but showy and entertaining, melodrama. Coppola, at least, was savvy enough to keep the overall fantasy of his film quite well integrated amidst the period romance. He directs with a flamboyance that skirts with surrealism, splinters its narrative amongst its cast (like the book) and plunges into exotic symbolism and stage-bound esoterica. For Coppola the image is everything. Snap-shot edits layer in detail such as the rose petals wilting and dying as Dracula passes by. Frame-jumping lends kinetic energy to the slaying of a groundsman, the incapacitating of Quincy on the steps and the wild chase of the gypsies on the mountain pass. Superimposition and glass-shots give the film a deeper sense of texture - the Count's eyes appearing in the black clouds or his face looking down upon Mina - and piles on the notion that everything you see has been somehow conjured. The use of colour and of shadow, their interaction and astonishing volatility keep the picture alive, yet secretive. All these visual tricks would have you believe that Coppola was trying to make up for some other shortcoming - the performances, perhaps - but this isn't the case at all. Without a doubt his intentions are to submerge you in a phantasmagoria of pictures-within-pictures, beauty and hideousness enmeshed and a rapturous vision that lives in emotion and imagery rather than strictly linear narrative form. His movie is about sensation and experience and, with that in mind, it clearly succeeds. Old school movie-making techniques may thrive within this production - vampiric effects, you could say, having returned from Hollywood's grave to feed off modern celluloid and live again - but they are simply tools to convey a tale that Coppola insists will reverberate in the heart and soul far longer than it will in the eyes and the mind.

    “Gentlemen! We're not fighting a disease here. Those marks on your dear Miss Lucy's neck were made by something unspeakable out there. Dead but not dead. It stalks us, for some dread purpose I do not yet comprehend.”

    Van Helsing does away with those AIDS metaphors that critics seemed so keen to foist upon this version of the blood-intermingling classic.

    The one constant in a film that wilfully jumbles its narrative via multiple viewpoints and voiceovers and combines primitive model-work and puppetry with then-state-of-the-art computer wizardry, is the incredible score from Wojciech Kilar. Now, I have a passion for movie soundtracks that a lot of my friends find utterly bemusing, but even I was genuinely surprised by how many of those mocking philistines actually went out and bought the CD for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Something about his unique combination of the immensity of those thundering, demonic chords for Dracula's introduction and arrival on British shores, the pounding and strident exhilaration of his theme for the Vampire Hunters and the breath-snatching pursuit of the gypsy wagons before they reach the castle before sunset and, of course, his soaring love themes, so tragic and heartbreaking, works away at you, taking the viewer upon a journey that is, arguably, more powerful than the film itself. There are moments of pure terror and dread - Harker's intrepid wandering around the dark corridors of the castle and the horrific confrontation when Van Helsing and Mina huddle within the protective ring of fire from the Brides - and then of delicious mystery and romance. Kilar produced one of the greatest scores of the nineties with this and the film is certainly all the richer for it. The composer went on to score Roman Polanski's really rather poor Satanic thriller “The Ninth Gate”, starring Johnny Depp and the previous Dracula, Frank Langella, and it is interesting to note just similar the two soundtracks are. In the case of “The Ninth Gate” even his momentous music couldn't save the film. The only downside to Dracula's score , I would say, is the song “Love Song For A Vampire” from the esteemed Annie Lennox. Don't get me wrong, I do like the track immensely, but I just don't think it fits the tone and style of the film at all. Thankfully it only plays over the end credits but, even despite containing some beautiful lyrics and truly ethereal vocals, it brings a modern pop quality to a slice of cinematic verite that just doesn't belong.

    Dracula has become a very popular title, although not primarily with fans of the horror genre. In fact, most of the people I know who rave about the movie are actually women, revealing - without wanting to sound condescending - that the film's appeal lies more in its brooding gothic romance sensibilities than in its dark and demented creature-festival. The vampire has, of course, become a romantic figure thanks in no small part to Anne Rice's novels, but this was the first film since the thirties that made an audience side, en masse, with the monster and discover the soul beneath the horror. Coppola did a fine job of translating and adapting themes that were previously considered sacredly formulaic and subverting them with surrealism, eroticism (even bestiality) and gloriously high camp. It may never be frightening - well, except for that scene with the horse and the ring of fire - but its flavour of weirdness (visually, with its unsettling geometry in Castle Dracula, and emotionally in the twisting of our sympathies) - but the movie is a grandly dark and foreboding fantasy that brought the genre back into the mainstream. It is also nice to recall that the Academy saw fit to award it three Oscars as well - for the resplendent costume design from Eiko Ishioka, the makeup and the sound effects. And it remains a film that is rewarding to watch even now, being fresh, provocative, comical and visually sublime. Its arrival now on Blu-ray is welcome and the movie comes highly recommended. But I still don't reckon the wife could keep her eyes open all the way through it!

    The Rundown

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