A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 321 – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – January 15th, 2011

Tonight, while looking through our list, Andy and I decided that tomorrow we would embark upon a rather long series. We toyed with the idea of starting it tonight, then looked at the movies’ lengths and mapped them to which days they’d fall and realized it wouldn’t work. And so we have the next two weeks planned, but we did not have tonight planned and so I said “How about Dracula?” and Andy said “Huh, sure. Why didn’t we watch this during our Keanu Reeves weekend?” I have no answer aside from forgetting he was in this, because, you see, I had not seen this movie prior to tonight. Indeed, this is probably another admission that might get my English degree revoked, but I’ve never read the book either.

I’ve always meant to read the book. It’s one of those things I have no good excuse for aside from simply never getting around to it. My college English lit classes were mostly modern literature, with only a few small ventures into earlier centuries (Shakespeare and Chaucer, most notably – my Victorian lit class was focused on material culture) and since then I tend to keep myself busy with work reading. But I like the idea of Dracula, told through articles and letters and transcribed interviews and the like. Epistolary writing can be really fantastic when done well, and I like the concept of tracking a story through multiple formats, as opposed to a single character’s diary. The trouble with a story told in this way is that it makes for a challenge when it comes to adaptation to a new medium. The format is so integral to the telling of the story that transferring it to a visual format such as film means losing much of its flavor and tone(s). A graphic novel might be better suited to the job. Just look at the original graphic novel for Watchmen. Now there’s some fantastic epistolary work, and the film adaptation had to do some fancy footwork to deal with the content from the novel chapters and psychiatric files and old photos. I think this is the source of Dracula’s major failings for me.

And yes, that means its major failings for me are not Dracula’s hair or Keanu Reeves’ performance. Yes, the hair is easy to poke fun at, and no, this isn’t Reeves’ best work, but the major issue I have is that the plot seems to meander and the transitions aren’t terribly smooth. Oh sure, the movie is fantastically over-dramatic and all, but I kind of would expect that. It’s Victorian. I expect swooning here and I expect shocking revelations and I expect everyone to be exaggerated. I expect melodrama and big dresses and big hats and this movie delivers on those counts. Unfortunately, while doing all that it also wanders in and out of various episodes in the plot, sometimes giving background, sometimes not, sometimes having things connect, sometimes not. And I can only assume that it comes from the content cleaving too closely to the written work, which, being composed of letters and other bits and pieces, would force you to skip from one piece of the story to the next. It’s a difficult thing, I would think, and I don’t think it was handled terribly well, which is frustrating.

The thing is, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot. Visually it’s a lovely piece of work, with lots of details and gorgeous costumes and fun camera tricks instead of the usual post-production special effects I’m used to. It was great to see so many in-camera effects used. I liked the cast (yes, even Keanu), especially Lucy’s three suitors and of course Gary Oldman as Dracula. I can’t honestly say how I feel about Winona Ryder as Mina, but I understand she’s the one who brought the script to Coppola, so it’s not like they were going to ditch her. She does a fine job, but every so often I felt a little thrown out of her scenes and I can’t put my finger on why. But really, I like the visuals, I like a lot of the acting, I like that the movie kept in a lot of characters who are, according to what I’ve read, often omitted or combined into one stand-in. As I said, I enjoyed watching it. But I freely acknowledge that it has flaws.

I’m not sure what I would do to fix my problems with the movie, to be honest. Were I taking a book done in this format and adapting it for the screen, I might end up doing the same things, and so I understand where it’s coming from. But it makes it feel a little sloppy, which is a shame. I like the portrayal of Dracula as a semi-sympathetic villain, and I liked the teamwork of Lucy’s three suitors. I liked a lot of the choices that were made. I just wish the narrative had either been thoroughly consistent or it had been more obvious in how it was drawing from its source, because other than that, this movie was a lot of fun.

January 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

January 15, 2011

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I was working at Waldenbooks in downtown Boston when this movie came out. I remember being amused that we had on the shelves a book entitled “Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Book of the Film” or something like that. There’s a strange kind of recursion in marketing a classic novel as a byproduct of the theatrical movie adapted from it. All the more pathetic because the movie is so overblown and pretentious… and cheesy.

I’m not sure I agree with the direction that Francis Ford Coppola chose to go with this movie. I think he was trying too hard to do to much with it. He wants the movie to be a horror film of some kind. He wants it to be an epic love story. He wants it to be a lavish and spectacular production. He wants it to feel authentic to the book. And on top of all that he wants to infuse the movie with a complex directorial flare full of clever camera tricks and intricate set-ups. The end result feels… crowded. Like four or five movies are vying for attention on the screen at the same time. I can’t argue with any one of Coppola’s choices but taken all together they end up feeling like too much.

There’s not much point in summarising the plot of the movie. The tale of Dracula has been filmed so many times that it’s a genre to itself. The central conceit of this film, and its biggest departure from the book, is that Mina is somehow the resurrection of Dracula’s long lost bride. To this end there’s a prologue showing Dracula as Vlad the Impaler before he chose to become immortal, and explaining that the reason he turned his back on God is that when his beloved wife killed herself (thinking that he had been slain in battle) she doomed herself to hell. So he chose to turn his back on God and become an undead destroyer of all that is good and pure out of spite.

From there on the movie very closely follows what I know of the book. Jonathan Harker is sent to the castle of the mysterious Count Dracula in Transylvania. Eventually he becomes trapped in the Count’s castle while the Count travels to London to wreak havoc. Jonathan’s fiance Mina is staying with her childhood friend Lucy when Dracula turns up to turn Lucy into an undead vampire herself then seduce Mina. Lucy’s three suitors (an American cowboy, a psychiatrist and an English Lord) band together with the enigmatic Abraham Van Helsing to become reluctant vampire slayers. When Jonathan eventually escapes Dracula’s castle he rushes back to London and joins the others in a desperate bid to destroy Dracula before he can claim Mina as his own.

It’s a very Victorian adventure story, full of the sort of things I expect from British adventures of the time. The exotic American stereotype, the proper British gentlemen, the train rides to distant and savage lands at the edge of the reach of the British empire… it all feels very familiar, and Coppola captures that aspect of it quite well. That’s where the movie is most faithful to the book, is in recreating a world on the edge of the industrial age when there were still wonders to be found on distant continents while at home the age of science was just beginning.

Something I had not known about the film before researching it for this review was that Coppola had chosen to do the movie with almost no computer effects of post production trickery. Almost every visual trick was done in camera using things like rear projection, forced perspective, backwards filming, turning the camera on angles, double exposures and such. It means that aside from a very few special effect shots here and there this movie could have been made the same way fifty years earlier – and what an amazing thing it would have been then! It just shows how jaded we have become in the modern age of digital special effects that we take for granted that anything is possible on film, so we’re not particularly wowed when seemingly impossible things are presented to us.

The cast that Coppola has collected for this movie is astonishing. I enjoy seeing Cary Elwes getting work of course, and Anthony Hopkins is as always great as Van Helsing. I won’t say that Keanu Reeves’ performance is anything particularly grand, but the stuffy hero of the story isn’t really what the tale is about. Indeed it might work FOR the movie in some way that Jonathan Harker is so wooden and forgettable, because after all this is a movie about Dracula. That’s the title of the film of course. What a Dracula they got too! I can’t imagine anybody else besides Gary Oldman in this particular role. he has the deeply unsettling madness to portray Count Dracula in every stage of his descent. We see him as the elderly and eccentric Count in his castle, surrounded by a strange supernatural air. We see him as the suave lover in London wooing Mina. We see him as a gruesome monster. He is a jilted lover, a cold-blooded rapist and killer, a soulless undead monster – and all the time he has a slightly tragic and sympathetic air. It’s an absolutely stellar performance, especially considering the mountains of prosthetics and pounds of make-up that Oldman had to perform through.

Given all the thing I actually do like about the movie, it’s a little puzzling to me that as a whole I can’t really say it’s all that good. Maybe it’s because it’s too artsy for a star-laden action monster flick. Maybe it’s that the story itself is too firmly lodged in an outdated and almost archaic view of the world. The movie is too over-produced to be enjoyable as pure cheese and too bizarre to work as summer movie pap. In that regard it reminds me somewhat of the David Lynch Dune. I can’t really enjoy it as much as I’d like because I feel as if it’s hammering me over the head at every turn saying “Look! See how clever I am?” I enjoyed watching it again, but if I want a good vampire movie I’m much more likely to put in Lost Boys any day of the week.

January 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 3 Comments