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DRACULA WEEK DAY 4: Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stokers DraculaDirector: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits, Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, Florina Kendrick

Plot: In 1492, the warrior Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) returns from battle to find his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has killed herself after hearing a false report of his death. Enraged, Dracula renounces God and stabs a cross, which begins flowing with blood. He drinks the blood and screams.

Over four hundred years later, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is given an account from his colleague Renfield (Tom Waits), who has gone mad. Harker says goodbye to his fiancé, Mina (Winona Ryder again) and travels to meet his new client, Count Dracula of Transylvania – now a frail-looking old man, but with horrible power. When Dracula sees Harker’s photograph of Mina, he is stricken, believing her to be the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. Harker explores the castle, only to be found and fed upon by Dracula’s three “brides” (Monica Bellucci, Michela Bercu and Florina Kendrick).

Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) is romanced by three separate men: a visiting American, Quincy Morris (Billy Campbell); Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant); and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes). She ultimately accepts Arthur’s proposal of marriage. Dracula, meanwhile, has boxed up himself and the most important parts of his household and is sailing to England and his new property in Carfax Abby. As they arrive in England, Dracula transforms into a wolf-like monster and seeks out the home of Harker’s fiancé. Mina awakens to see Lucy, mesmerized, leaving her home in the midst of a storm, and finds her being ravaged by the wolf-man. When he sees Mina watching, he flees. In the morning he appears as a young man, and introduces himself to her as “Prince Vlad of Sangre.”

Concerned for Lucy’s ailing health, Seward calls for Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He arrives to see Lucy again being drained of blood, this time by Dracula in shadow-form. He gives her a transfusion from Arthur. Elsewhere, Dracula plies Mina with absinthe, wooing her slowly. Harker manages to escape from Dracula’s brides and sends for Mina to join him so they can finally be married. When she bids farewell to her “prince,” he goes into a mad fit and kills Lucy. After her funeral, Van Helsing convinces her three suitors to join him in opening her crypt, only to find it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, enters the tomb with a small child intent on feeding, and the men slay her. Harker joins them and tells them Dracula resides at Carfax Abby, and they plan to destroy him.

Van Helsing and the others go to the Abby and begin destroying the boxes of Transylvanian soil Dracula must sleep in. He, meanwhile, visits Mina, who begs him to grant her his gift of eternal life. As she drinks his blood, Van Helsing and the others burst in and force him back. He transforms into a horde of rats and escapes. He takes a ship to return home, but the others take Mina by train, a much faster voyage. Van Helsing and Mina travel to the castle, while the others try to head off the gypsies transporting Dracula’s casket. The Brides attack Van Helsing, but he manages to track them to their crypt and slay them by the light of day. The hunters catch up to Dracula at the castle. Morris dies in the battle, but not before stabbing Dracula in the heart. The wounded vampire crawls into the chapel where his curse began and dies, Mina by his side. She professes her love to him before cutting off his head, releasing him from his curse. A fresco appears, picturing the human Vlad and Elisabeta rising, at long last, into Heaven.

Thoughts: You’ve got to give Francis Ford Coppola credit – the man doesn’t do half-measures. From the first moments of the film, when we see Gary Oldman marching around in blood-red armor sculpted to suggest bare muscle tissue, we know we’re in for a wild sort of ride. That’s only where it begins, though – Coppola took great pains to give this film a unique look, eschewing camera tricks, even the sort of green screen that was common when the film was made in 1992. Every effect is practical, including the projection of words on the faces of actors, the reflection of enormous eyes onto glass windows, and some frankly humorous model train work. Lightning strikes don’t look remotely realistic, instead giving the impression of someone shining a flashlight through a cut-out flat behind the actors. It’s as if Coppola decided that he was by god going to make sure everything he captured on film was no more complicated than he could have gotten out of a community theater production of the story. And boy, did he succeed.

Despite the inherent goofiness of doing something this way, though, I find that the look of the film is one of the first things I loved about it. This doesn’t look like any of the other Dracula movies I’ve seen… hell, it doesn’t look like any other movie I’ve seen. It has a unique sort of style, not just in the design but in the way all the elements come together, that appeals to me in ways I can’t fully articulate. Let’s just say there’s something really cool about all of it, the same way you realize your dad was kind of cool when you get older and catch yourself making the same kind of jokes that embarrassed the hell out of you when he told them to your friends.

On the plus side, some of the monster effects are really cool. While certain other films downplayed the notion that vampires could change their shape or were limited by the effects of the time, Coppola pulls off a pretty convincing monstrous transformation on the screen, with Oldman metamorphosing from a pale creature to a hairy, wolflike beast. (Yeah, folks, in classic lore vampires could turn into bats or wolves. Also mist. It’s cool.) The design of the human-sized bat is really creepy and worthy of the nastiest supernatural horror flick. The set design is impressive, and the costumes are top-notch.

Gary Oldman… if ever there was an actor who gave himself entirely to the movie, it’s Gary Oldman. He’s given us the finest interpretation of Commissioner James Gordon ever to fit a Batman movie, and he’s also given us the insane, over-the-top lunacy of The Fifth Element. One thing you can count on is that he never phones in his performance. In this film, he revels in the cheesy dialogue and ridiculous character work he’s asked to do. Every chunk of scenery to be chewed, every wild arm flailing or preposterous accent… when Gary Oldman presents it to you, you know he believes it.

Winona Ryder is pretty effective as Mina, pulling off a passable British accent and a convincing amount of young naiveté, as befits the character. Anthony Hopkins brings his usual air of class to Van Helsing, and Cary Elwes continues to prove, as I asserted back during Robin Hood week, that he should have been born in an earlier era, because he has the presence of a grand star of cinema’s Golden Age. Keanu Reeves plays Keanu Reeves.

I’m a little weirded out by the ending, to be perfectly honest. Coppola appears to be trying for some sort of fable about the healing power of love, showing some sort of redemption for Dracula after Mina’s love “sets him free” (by means of brutal decapitation). That’s all well and good, lord knows there aren’t many people that believe in true love as much as I do, but is Dracula really the best place to insert that particular moral? The man is, by every definition of the term, a terrible monster. He chose to turn against God, he brutally murdered countless people over 400 years, but at the end he seems to get a pass just because he got a woman (that he gave the vmpire equivalent of a roofie) to say she loves him. That’s the ending of Beauty and the Beast, except that the Beast was only guilty of kidnapping and a little mild verbal abuse. How does Dracula deserve redemption?

That aside, I enjoy this movie quite a bit. It’s a well-made production with its own look and feel that sets it apart from any other version of the character, and for me, that’s one of the most important things you can look for in a movie.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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DRACULA WEEK DAY 2: Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958)

Horror of DraculaDirector: Terence Fisher

Writer: Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Charles Lloyd Pack, Barbara Archer, Janina Faye

Plot: Librarian Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is called to Castle Dracula by its mysterious count (Christopher Lee). He encounters a strange woman (Valerie Gaunt) who begs him to help her escape, but she flees as Dracula makes his appearance. Dracula has summoned Harker to index his enormous collection of books, and encourages him to make the castle his home as he works. As Dracula leaves him, Harker pens a journal entry that reveals his true intention – to end the Count’s reign of terror forever. That night, he again encounters the strange woman from before, and she again begs his help, only to bite him on the neck. As she does so Dracula appears, blood on his mouth, and he attacks the woman. Harker grapples with the Count, but is defeated, and Dracula takes the woman away. Harker wakes up in his bedroom the next morning, a pair of fang-marks on his neck, and decides he must exterminate Dracula before sundown. He finds the crypt and drives a stake through the vampire woman’s heart, awakening Dracula just as the sun goes down. Dracula seals Harker in the tomb.

Some time later Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) stops at a tavern, seeking word of the missing Harker. A tavern girl gives the Doctor a book she found – Harker’s journal. He finds Castle Dracula and the bodies of both the vampire woman and Harker. Van Helsing returns to Harker’s bedridden fiancé, Lucy (Carol Marsh) to tell her of Harker’s death, but her brother Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) hide the truth from Lucy, unaware that she is already being visited by Dracula in the night. He is biting her, draining her slowly, preparing her to become his new thrall.

As Lucy is treated for what her doctors believe to be anemia, Van Helsing recognizes the symptoms of a vampire attack. He orders the windows in her room shut at night and the room filled with garlic cloves. At Lucy’s behest, though, her housekeeper (Olga Dickie) opens the windows and removes the garlic. In the morning, Lucy is found dead. Later, the housekeeper’s daughter Tania (Janina Faye) claims to have encountered her dead “Aunt Lucy.” Arthur goes to her tomb that night and finds it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, summons the child to her and they encounter Arthur. Van Helsing saves him and stakes Lucy, sending her to a true rest. Arthur gives Mina a cross to wear, but upon touching it she shouts and collapses, the cross burned into her flesh. She, too, has been touched by the vampire.

That night, Dracula comes for Mina again, draining her so completely Van Helsing has to give her a transfusion of blood from Arthur. Van Helsing finds Dracula’s coffin in the cellar, but the Count takes the moment of distraction to take Mina and flee. They chase him back to Castle Dracula, where Van Helsing exposes him to the light of the sun. Dracula shrivels and turns to dust, his reign of terror ending… until the sequel.

Thoughts: It is utterly unforgivable that I’ve been conducting these movie studies for three consecutive Octobers now, and this is the first time I’ve touched upon the storied Hammer Films catalogue of horror. While Hammer may not have the immediately recognizable icons of Universal (although they in no small way owe their fame to remaking the characters Universal made famous), it’s no less an important chapter in the universe of terror, and I should have delved into it a long time ago.

That said, I picked a great film to begin my Hammer Horror education. Horror of Dracula was Christopher Lee’s first time portraying Count Dracula, and he did a fantastic job in the role. Although largely absent from the middle section of the movie, his presence is compelling and powerful, a real menacing figure worthy of the Dracula name. In the final confrontation with Van Helsing, he momentarily devolves into a mad, snarling beast, and it’s a great moment. You’re terrified of him, you think he’ll rip Peter Cushing’s throat right out. He’s a monster in the best sense of the word.

He’s also the subject of some pretty impressive special effects. When the sunlight kills him at the end, the way he wilts away into nothing is really remarkable for a 1958 film. Hammer truly was on the top of its game.

As Van Helsing, Peter Cushing makes for a great hero. There’s an authoritative sense to him – he’s a man you want to trust in the middle of a terrible ordeal. He carries a gravity and a power that makes the situation seem just as serious as a horror film should seem. Even now, over 50 years later, this really works as a horror classic.

The structure of this film is odd. It’s based on the original Dracula novel, at least in part, but both the plot and the characters presume a great deal of familiarity with the Dracula concept even before the film begins. Harker knows who and what Dracula is and has a plan to destroy him from the very outset, although Dracula seems at least initially fooled by his façade of being a simple librarian. It’s almost as if the film’s heroes had read the novel and decided they wanted to cut off the monster at the pass. Of course, that sort of genre awareness seems to evaporate when Harker reaches Dracula’s crypt and stakes the woman first. Seriously, man? You always kill the boss first, if you’ve got the chance. It’s like this 19th century character from a 1950s movie had never played a video game or something.

Although clearly inspired by Bram Stoker, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster took some unusual and rather inexplicable liberties – changing Harker’s love interest from Mina to Lucy, making the two sisters-in-law, making Arthur Mina’s husband and so on. All in all, the film succeeds in telling a perfectly coherent story, but it’s not exactly the same story as the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is a… thing. That happened. And I find it curious enough to point it out. The film also attempts to distance itself from the novel, accepting the by-then common conceit that the vampire cannot venture out in the daylight (absent from the novel) and dismissing the idea of the vampire changing its shape as “pure fallacy” (this idea was present in the Stoker original). I’m truly not sure what to make of it. The writer really seems to be struggling to buy in to the existing Dracula mythology, while picking and choosing the parts he likes and bringing in other elements pretty much at will. I don’t know how a storyteller reconciles those two impulses, but Sangster at least manages to turn out an entertaining story in the mix.

If nothing else, the movie is plenty of fun and a great film to throw on during your Halloween party… or any other time you’re looking to have a creepy good time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 4: Dracula (1931)

draculaDirector: Tod Browning
Writer:
Hamilton Dean & John L. Balderston, based on the play by Garrett Fort, based in turn on the novel by Bram Stoker
Cast:
Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Solan & Francis Dade

Plot: The mysterious Count Dracula and his unwitting slave, Renfield, travel to England. When the ship is arrived, the entire crew and passenger manifest is dead, save for Renfield, who has gone mad. Dracula takes up residence in an abbey near Renfield’s sanitarium, and mysterious sightings and deaths occur, spurring the noted professor Van Helsing to confront the Count, and expose him for what he truly is – a vampire.

Thoughts: I’ve been waiting for this one. The Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, more than any other film or piece of pop culture, is what has helped to inform our current perception of the vampire. (Because the things in Twilight are not vampires, damn you Stephenie Meyer.) A lot of people don’t even realize how many of our current tropes come from this film or its sequels or imitators – the explicit connection of the vampire to bats, for example (where in the past – and even in this film – vampires could transform into bats, wolves, mist, and other things), or their aversion to sunlight. As important as those things are to current vampire lore, they didn’t come from the classic lore. (Which raises the question – if the Universal pictures depiction of the vampire hadn’t made him allergic to sunlight, would Meyer still have felt the urge to make Edward Cullen sparkle as an aversion to that trope? Hmm. Okay, I think I need to stop talking about Twilight now.)

Lugosi pops in with his tuxedo, his cape, his pendant, and those convenient beams of light that always seem to fall across his eyes and he absolutely owns the room, mesmerizing whoever’s on screen with him and whoever happens to be watching him. He may not be overtly sexual in the way that writers have tried to make vampires since the rise of Anne Rice, but he’s clearly seductive in a way that defies explanation. Even without the supernatural powers of the vampire, Lugosi’s presence would command anybody.

Other classic horror character tropes appear to be in their infancy here as well. Renfield, once Dracula has possessed him, is extremely effective. Dwight Frye has a madness in his eyes that spreads throughout his entire face. As he smiles and peers up the staircase of the ship at the camera, you find yourself absolutely chilled to the bone – he’s a madman, and he’s coming after you next. The Renfields of this world may come second to the Igors as the horror movie second bananas, but when played right, I’d be more scared of a Renfield any day. The atmosphere of the film is powerful as well – the scenery is fantastic, and the scenery is the stuff of every classic haunted house.

As masterful as Lugosi and Frye’s performances are, however, some of the other elements of this 80-year-old film just don’t hold up as well. Granted, you’ve got to make allowances for the special effects limitations of the time, but the scene towards the beginning where Renfield leans out of his carriage to see a bat flying in front just yanks a modern audience out entirely – it looks as though someone is dangling a rubber bat from a fishing pole, which probably isn’t that far from the truth.

You can’t blame age on stale performances, though, and Lugosi and Frye are really the only memorable actors in the film. The women are mannequins, and Edward Van Solan’s Van Helsing is forgettable at best. David Manners as Jonathan Harker is just plain bland, vanilla, and utterly unexciting.

The climax of the film, however, is what really hurts it. After so much tension and so much buildup, the ending just doesn’t excite. Van Helsing simply marches into Dracula’s lair and stakes him – off-camera at that. Again, I’m trying to make allowances for the time period. There wasn’t going to be any gory close-ups or a fountain of blood (like in the painfully weak Mel Brooks comedy, Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but at the same time, I can’t help thinking there could have been more. In truth, I think it speaks to how the still-evolving language of film hadn’t really been solidified yet. The film is based on the stage play based (legally, unlike Nosferatu) on Bram Stoker’s novel, and in 1931 they were still filming movies as if they were stage plays. I actually worked backstage on a production of this play several years ago, and I know how effective the final scene can be when done properly, but film is an entirely different medium with different demands.

The same goes for the novel – in the book, a great deal of the tension and fear is internal. It’s a lot harder to do that in a movie. You need to give the audience something to look at, something to see and fear. This is one of the reasons I’m not a purist when it comes to film adaptations. Sometimes, what works great on the printed page just doesn’t work on film. This is a case where the screenwriters should have found a more dramatic way to stage that final moment between Van Helsing and Dracula, some way to get the audience more engaged, than just waltzing in and driving in the stake.

I look back at these comments and I start to feel a little worried about myself. This film is a classic of the genre, isn’t it? I sure as hell haven’t endured for 80 years, do I really have the right dismiss something that millions have found frightening? Worst of all, what if I’m falling victim to the same mindset that I so often accuse my high school English students of having? What if I’m unable to divorce myself from my modern mindset and appreciate the film for what it was when it was created?

A terrifying thought.

But then I look at the next film on my list, a film released in the same year as Dracula, and one that I do consider a masterpiece of cinema. And I think, “Maybe Dracula simply doesn’t hold up the way Frankenstein does.”