Sunday, 21 October 2018

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Since it is that spooky time of year, I'd like to review a film near to my heart. Yes readers, I'm here to talk about Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula! This film is based on the 1897 novel Dracula by...well obviously by Bram Stoker. The film though, plays a little fast and loose with the narrative and is, by the by, rather more hilarious than scary in my opinion.

So why do I like this movie so much? Well precisely because it is so funny.

Opening in 1462 in Wallachia, we see Prince Vlad Dracula (wearing the absolute weirdest armor I've ever seen on screen), leading his forces against the invading Ottoman Empire. It takes place in a weird shadow puppetry sequence, where most of what happens is hidden in shadow. I guess saves the budget on a big battle scene. He has just been married to his one true love Elisabeta. However, upon his victory the Turks send her false news of his death, in grief she kills herself and Vlad, enraged at priests telling him because she committed suicide her soul is damned, renounces his faith and stabs the crucifix. Oddly, it bleeds literal blood, lots of it, and he drinks it, attaining his evil immortality.

So that's how you make a deal with the devil.

Moving on the film follows the original work, visually and word for word echoing the opening of the original novel with Jonathan Harker (Keeanu Reeves) in Transylvania. However, it takes some rather glaring liberties. For one thing, the coachman in the novel is implied to be the good Count himself. In the film its a man in an iron mask-esque creature who guides the carriage through a wolf infested wilderness with blue flames seemingly popping up at random until we reach the Castle Dracula. Meeting his host, who seems to have a flair for ridiculously dramatic outfits, he soon realizes the true nature of the Count and that he is essentially a prisoner here.

Stopping for a moment, I'd just love to address that outfit. It has become almost iconic in parodies of Dracula, from the Simpsons to Mel Gibson's Dead and Loving It, which is a rather affectionate parody of that film at large. With an outrageous hairdo and absurdly long blood red robes, its something that seems intentionally made for parody rather than being creepy or threatening. That this is Gary Oldman playing the master vampire makes it even more unintentionally hilarious.


Moving on we cover some interesting ground. We meet Mina Harker, the fiance of Jonathan. She and her friend Lucy Westerna (Sadie Frost) are together at Lucy's home. Again there's some odd liberties. Lucy is far more cavalier in her sexuality, openly reading the Karma Sutra, while flirting scandalously with each of her suitors. In the novel itself she's rather more reserved and known as beautiful rather than flirtatious. Mina (played by Winona Ryder) is far more reserved in both adaptations. However, this reserve oddly breaks at one point in the movie where Dracula rides a doomed ship in a storm to England, and both women end up kissing in the rain... for some reason.

What follows is Dracula's attempts to ensnare both Lucy and Mina, while he succeeds in 'killing' Lucy, he only bites Mina, corrupting, but not controlling her. The skills of Doctor Abraham Van Hellsing (Anthony Hopkins) are called upon. Realizing what they are up against, he begins trying to track down Dracula, who according to the film he has been tracking for some time, contrary to the novel.

From there we move on to the stunning fight and climax of the film, which I must admit is moderately well directed, but with the odd twist that only Mina, who resembles Dracula's dead wife, can send him to his death. It's weirdly romantic I guess?

All in all, the movie is endearingly bizarre. The costuming, the shooting, and the effects are just amazingly over the top. Though in many ways, this only adds to the unintentional comedy after the fact.

First off, while the movie has many spectacular special effects for the time period, it has not aged well since 1992. For one thing, the weird fire effects in the beginning look genuinely dated by comparison, seeming to be superimposed on the film in a manner which doesn't look right to anyone with experience in 2000s special effects.

For another, some of the costuming choices are...strange. Previously mentioned is Dracula's crazy old man costume, while his 'beast form' is more like a big hairy werewolf costume. His other bestial form as some kind of man-bat hybrid is equally odd, looking like one of the feral vampires from Daybreakers. The costuming is just so silly that it's hilarious rather than scary. For instance the scene where he is 'attacking' Lucy looks more like a creepy fetish scene rather than a monster attack. It misses some of the menace and mystique from the original book where this malignant shadow is standing near and slowly draining her of vitality.

Then we get to the acting, which is pretty hit and miss. Gary Oldman hams it up like there's no tomorrow as the Count, making it pretty fun to watch. Similarly, Hopkins as Van Hellsing is hilarious for his thick accent and general hammy delivery. Sadie Frost as Lucy does a weird sexy vixen performance that seems at once amusing and out of place for the story.

Meanwhile Reeves and Ryder have very subdued performances. Reeve's in particular seems to take everything that comes at him with a bit of blank bewilderment which is unintentionally hilarious when a normal person would be either in the throes of fear, or seriously angry. Ryder just seems as though she's not given enough to work with and has the same blank and almost uncomprehending attitude towards everything that isn't flirting with Dracula or acting hammy at the end.

The supporting cast are alright, but nothing to write home about.

What we see for set shooting feels constricted, almost like its the set of a TV movie rather than a film with a budget of 40 million dollars. The asylum scenes in particular seem like sets from the old Adam Wayne Batman show, and could be a stand in for Arkham Asylum. Other sets seem like they've been built in the same theater space, while also seeming cramped and uncomfortable for the actors. The film just doesn't seem to have gotten its budget for the locations.

Now despite these gripes, its a solid hammy movie. It's not really scary, and has deserved every parody its gotten, but its fun. It's weird, over the top, and spectacularly cheesy, like an old 80s horror movie. I would recommend it to anyone who likes a fun flick.

Of course, if you prefer some genuine terror and mystique, I definitely recommend the book!

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