Monday, July 21, 2008

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Being Film #10 in Hail Horror 2008

This is a review from the drunken heart of a geek, written just after the Witching Hour with loud music playing in his headphones.  And as such it should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.  I originally saw BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA in the theater with a number of college friends, including my girlfriend at the time.  The experience was significant because our impatience with what Francis Ford Coppola was trying to accomplish with the movie led us to revile and actively disparage it at the time, and also, on a more personal note, led to what my now wife refers to as, "the worst date you ever took me on."

Luckily that date turned into many more (and, ultimately, marriage), and luckily I grew up a little (okay - a lot) and took the time to watch and learn a lot more about film than I knew before, which helped immensely when I revisted the film via the recently re-issued DVD, which has been remastered and contains audio commentary by Coppola.  Seeing again with older, more experienced eyes, I'm now able to see DRACULA for the wonderful, beautiful mess that it is.

Understand, it's not perfect by a long shot.  The script is bloated and some of the performances, particularly Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, just don't work for the grand, theatrical style Coppola's going for, which is a shame because if anything can be said for the film it's that Coppola directs the Unholy Hell out of it, working in homages to dozens of films and directors, including F.W. Maurnau and his immortal NOSFERATU (reviewed here), Jean Cocteau and his telling of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING and even SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES.  In addition, he automatically gets bonus points for including one of my favorite performers, Tom Waits, as the insect-obsessed Renfield:

I won't bother to re-cap the plot of either the film or the famous novel it's based on - there are liberties to be sure, but the story is essentially the same as every adaptation has used over the years.  The big difference in this version is the love story used as both a new lens to view the legend of the vampire as well as a framing device for the film.  Much of Gary Oldman's excellent portrayal of the Count is based on his eternal love for his dead wife, who killed herself after wrongly hearing of his death at war.  When he sees what he believes to be her reincarnation in Ryder's Mina Murray, the horror and melodrama are all colored by his longing to be reunited with his lost love.

Oldman is gleefully devious as the title character, giving a very broad performance meant to distance itself from previous incarnations of Dracula, particularly Bela Lugosi's immortal version.  Using various guises (bat, wolf, rats, mist) Oldman runs through the entire gamut of vampire lore.  But my favorite is still his aged, slightly effeminate Count of Transylvania, though the credit is as much costume designer Eiko Ishioka's as it is Oldman's.

But the real star of the film is Coppola, and this is really the last film (excepting the recent YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH) where he pulls out all the stops and slams his vision onto the piece.  Partnering with his son Roman Coppola (a gifted filmmaker in his own right; see CQ), who handles second unit directing as well as the amazing effects, everything is shot with an eye to the past, even as the future constantly makes its presence felt.  Almost all of the effects are done in camera: matte paintings, double exposures, pixellated cameras - Coppola makes DRACULA sing with the love and attention of hundreds of films that came before it.  Everything is filmed on sound stages, the acting (especially Oldman and Anthony Hopkins as a mad, devilish Van Helsing) is purposefully broad, as if it's being projected from the stage.  The visuals are sumptuously Gothic (if that makes sense), and the gore and violence, when it comes, is shocking.

BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA is a film where you're rewarded with multiple viewings.  If at all possible ditch the old discount DVD or VHS and seek out the newly remastered 2-disc set.  You get an amazing commentary by Coppola, where he details many aspects of the film from pre-production to the fights with the studio, as well as four new documentaries detailing every aspect of the film's visuals and performance stylings.  There are few filmmakers who can really carry a commentary: Scorsese comes to mind, but Coppola's frank assessment of the production is a wonderful companion piece to this movie, a luscious platter of love and blood.

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