Bram Stoker's Dracula Blu-ray Review

An acutely brave experiment in naïve movie-magic

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

Bram Stoker's Dracula Blu-ray Review
SRP: £17.95

Blu-ray Review

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.
Bram Stoker

Blu-ray Picture

The film comes presented in a 1.85:1 image encoded via MPEG-4 that, whilst certainly a noticeable upgrade over its SD ancestor, is not the visually majestic transfer that I, for one, really hoped for. The image doesn't radiate in the way that such a baroque, colourful and sumptuously bedecked film should do.

Sharpness is called into question with a picture that remains softened no matter how many new lines of resolution have been lavished upon it. No matter how much you pretend otherwise, the picture just doesn't possess any three-dimensionality and remains steadfastly flat. Such a shame, considering that this is a movie that positively thrives on its dreamlike and incandescent visuals to draw you in. But, the disappointment should be tempered by the fact that this image does contain more detail than was previously available. Faces, especially the various countenances of Dracula, have been allowed more information - sharper eyes, more distinction in crags, lines and features - and edges are definitely more tightly reigned-in. And there are some instances of ultra-clarity allowed that reveal the transfer really could have been something to marvel at had it remained consistent. Images such as the swirling peacock-feathers that herald a scene-change, or Mina sitting at her desk in the conservatory have great distinction. Check out the little torch burning high above Dracula as he crawls head-first down the castle-wall.

Contrast is good and it certainly needs to be, with so many sequences set in dismal vaults and corridors. The Brides attacking the horse, Vlad impaling enemies in the prologue, Mina and Lucy wandering around the maze etc, all contain a fine mix between light and dark, colour and shadow. I was initially disappointed with black levels that didn't seem as strong as before - Harker searching the castle, the Borgo Pass, Mina and Dracula dancing in the candle-light - but re-watching the disc a couple of times leads me to the impression that the overall film is actually a shade darker than before, thus detracting from the deepness of the blacks during their more obvious showboating scenes.

And, just like the Halloween BD (reviewed elsewhere) there has been definite colour tamperings. The heat and radiance so beloved from the original cinema and early VHS and DVD versions has been all but eradicated, now realistically de-saturated and much more naturalistic. This has already caused some controversy among fans, with debates swinging to and fro between what people expected to see and what Coppola had actually wanted us to see. Considering that the filmmaker and Zoetrope, itself, have overseen this transfer there appears little in the way of argument that we can make as to its intended accuracy. Personally, I am disappointed with the look of this disc - but this really is just my own point of view, based on the garish, lush versions that I had previously seen and enjoyed. The colours rendered here are still exquisite, they are just no longer as rich, thick or vastly suffused. When you compare this edition to previous ones (well, the SD, primarily) the heat of the lighting - fires, glows, illumination of any kind - is greatly subdued, making for a more realistic picture that does not seem quite so overly-embellished anymore.

I still like the midnight blues, throbbing reds of the liberally-splashed blood and the lush orange cast that can overcome the skies, though, and the street scene when the younger Dracula first spies Mina amongst the crowd displays her beautiful green dress and his blue spectacles majestically. Whites no longer bloom quite as much, Lucy's ethereal vampire-gown perhaps lacking the visually perverse purity it once paraded. But the pin-sharp blue-scratch lightning in the skies always looks amazing.

The source print may be good shape, but there is still some grain - much more evident in some scenes than in others, with lighter backgrounds tending to show it up the most - and there is an element of noise and even a couple of traces of red trailing around a couple of edges that may, or may not be just down to my Samsung. I haven't as yet had the opportunity to cross-reference this disc on another set-up, so I'll reserve judgement on that for now. But, even if the colour has been lessened and the image is a tad darker than before, the picture is still better-looking with regards to detail than the earlier editions that I've seen. It is just a shame that the image couldn't have had more depth and vitality.
Bram Stoker

Blu-ray Sound

Of the two English tracks on offer - a DD 5.1 mix and one of PCM Uncompressed flavour - I found the PCM (at 48kHz/16-bit/4.6 mbps) to be the stronger. Featuring a deeper and more emphatic bass level, a more open soundfield and slightly better channelling of the effects, the PCM is a treat for the ears. We aren't talking about bombast here, folks, although the slamming of castle doors, the hefting of boxes of earth, the stridence of Kilar's score and the great storm that brings the Demeter to England all possess a very satisfying weight of sound that really crashes through the room. It is perhaps with the quieter, more ghostly sounds that the track delivers its best. Whisperings around the haunted castle, strange moanings from the Brides that play about the speakers and wolves howling from around, behind and somewhere beneath you are delightfully atmospheric and well presented. Dialogue is clear and natural-sounding - be it the madcap rantings of Renfield, the brash ebullience of Van Helsing, Harker's wince-inducingly clipped speech or the various soothing, snarling, wooing and roaring of Dracula and his many guises. High ends are well achieved without being too spectacular, with the screaming of the poor horse, the high-notes of Kilar's score and various sustained crescendos combining both screaming and music still sending shiver up and down the spine.

I would have liked a bit more action from the rears, the big moments such as the ride to Castle Dracula, the rain-lashed ship, Dracula's nocturnal visits to Lucy, the crowded city streets and the final, hell-for-leather chase are alive and active, but I think that they still could have been better integrated. So, as I say, the disc is better with the subtler elements than the more overt and grandstanding sequences. The swelling score still delivers a workout even if it doesn't quite hit he mark you may have hoped for. Then again, having watched this, Halloween, Dawn and Day Of The Dead (the latter having an awful PCM mix that should definitely be avoided) and The Evil Dead II, there is real case of eager fans perhaps expecting too much from these older titles. I know that I'm guilty of such stupidly high hopes, myself. So I think a bit of common sense should now be applied and our expectations kept realistic.

Overall, Dracula still left me satisfied with its sound design. It may not have “wowed” me as such, but it certainly supplied plenty of all-important atmospherics and lent the movie a life that lifted it from the screen.
Bram Stoker

Blu-ray Extras

Coppola gives a three-minute introduction to the film that is way better than many other such items. He is humble, very casual and affable and makes a great stab at his motivations and delight at making a film of a book he cherishes. Nicely, this intro, if activated, leads directly into the excellent commentary track that he provides. Sans the participants who joined him on the Criterion laserdisc's yak-track, Coppola goes it alone for a fresh and pretty much scene-specific examination of the production. He brings with him a wealth of knowledge that not only enhances the scenes we are seeing but also manages to discuss in detail the overall film, the story and the lasting legacy of Bram Stoker's book and character creation of Dracula. It is, without doubt, a terrific track, and Coppola is rich in detail, anecdote, insight and opinion throughout. I like the way that he informs us how much he wishes to find the little baby (now all grown up) that we see Dracula give to his Brides for a midnight snack, so that he can thank her. There is also candid talk of the sex scenes and just how awkward and uncomfortable they were to film and the director confesses his adoration of Murnau's wildly expressionistic and unofficial adaptation of the tale, Nosferatu (read the excellent review by Simon Crust). This is one of those tracks to which it would be a pleasure to return.

A tremendous bonus is the generous selection of deleted scenes. There are twelve of them and, with a Play All option, they last for around thirty minutes. Now, I have long been anticipating these, ever since I first saw stills of Harker facing off against Vlad with a shovel. So many elements to see during the film seemed rushed or slightly truncated that I just knew there had to be more residing on the cutting room floor. Well, finally, after fifteen years we can get to see those excised scenes. All of them are in rough video form, with white lines, noise, blurry edges, ill-saturation and all those lovely things that you thought you'd never see on a high-definition disc, but a worthy inclusion they still make, just the same. We get much more of Harker wandering around the castle, the best sequence the extended scene of him discovering the gypsies filling caskets with earth and then confronting his undead captor with that shovel. Great stuff. There is also more of the wolf-beast, but although I was pleased to see the monster given more screen-time, I was mortified by the incredibly naff one-shot sequence that has an aged Drac recede into the shadows of a cabin aboard the Demeter only to re-emerge from another dark doorway as the beast claims snooping sailor - just like one of those eerie Swiss clocks where two characters come out of little doors at either side. Many more scenes play out like extensions, alternates or a combination of both. It is interesting to note that Harker's escape from the castle, as seen in the finished cut, is actually the beginning of the earlier shovel/confrontation scene and makes a little more sense out of that weirdly off-kilter plunge that he takes sideways down the wall. There is also an extension to Renfield's death, although this is not in the manner in which you might have expected.

The Blood Is The Life - The Making Of Dracula is the first part of Zoetrope's 72-minute behind-the-scenes chronicle of what went into producing the movie. Lasting for 28 mins, this reveals the cast going through some very adaptive, emotional and script-changing rehearsals at Coppola's Napa Valley ranch - Camp Coppola. This is excellent and quite intimate stuff and certainly proves the depth and gravity that the makers had in mind for the oft-filmed story.

The Costumes Are The Sets - The Design Of Eiko Ishioka is an interesting 14-minute look at the awesome clobber that helps make this film so incredibly striking, including nice character descriptions and the avant-garde attitude that helped the designer win a richly-deserved Oscar for her work here.

Then comes the excellent little (19 mins) study of the effects work that went into the film with In-Camera - The Naïve Visual Effects Of Dracula. From projected puppetry and enclosed soundstages to green mists and latex, the many varied effects displayed in Dracula were all achieved optically as opposed to digitally, with Coppola adamant that computers would only aid in the editing and sound post-production stages. This, like all the other features, is fairly candid and informative and never outstays its welcome.

Method And Madness (12 mins) takes us through the design of the film, its look, style and unusual approach to bringing such a well-know tale to the screen for a new audience.

Finally we get a teaser and theatrical trailer for the film, as well as one for the BD release of Ghost Rider. In all, this a terrific package of extras that really goes the distance in exploring the themes, desires and passion that went into producing Bram Stoker's Dracula. And it is pertinent to note that these documentaries have been mastered in 1080p for this disc, which is nice of them, isn't it?
Bram Stoker

Blu-ray Verdict

8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Bram Stoker's Dracula Blu-ray Review

Bram Stoker's Dracula gets past some horrific miscasting by virtue of visual energy, spellbinding atmosphere and a beautifully emotional take on the well-known story. An acutely brave experiment in naïve movie-magic, Coppola's adaptation flows with stylistic flair and a broad range of cinematic imagination. It may not be the quintessential version of the celebrated tale, nor even particularly successful as a horror film, but there is a haunting elegance to the production that transcends the sometimes contrived and over-ripe screenplay, making it one of the most sumptuous period fantasies ever mounted.

The new Blu-ray disc is superb in its presentation of features. Coppola's commentary is wide-ranging, entertaining and always informative. The deleted scenes reveal a much more engrossing and dynamic movie once existed and are a joy to see now. The documentaries are varied and intriguing. Sadly, the transfer is not what you might have hoped for. It does nothing wrong, as such, but the opulence and splendour that this movie once seemed to embrace so wildly is nowhere near as bold, striking or vivid as the format can often provide. Having said that, this is still definitely more detailed and colourful than the SD version and that, coupled with the excellent roster of features makes this version of Bram Stoker's Dracula a practically essential purchase for fans.

Scores

Movie

.
.
8

Picture Quality

.
.
.
7

Sound Quality

.
.
.
7

Extras

.
.
8

Overall

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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