Sunday, April 27, 2014

Bram Stoker's Dracula


Normy and I have been ensconced at Chateau Maine for over a week with no new entertainment offers coming in and we've been going a little stir crazy. Normy decided to head off incipient boredom by practicing his chip shots from the rose garden, but I had to put a stop to that after the third shattered window at Johnny Carson's house next door. Normally Johnny and I get along rather well, but things have been a bit tense of late after the dispute over the Christmas decorations a year or so back and I did not want relationships to deteriorate any further. I sent him a glazier and a fruit basket and sent Normy to his music studio to write a new hip-hop version of Panis Angelicus for inclusion on Outkast's new CD. His producer owes me a favor. 

I was just about to have the spare room repainted yet again when the phone finally rang. It was Vera Charles, an actress friend of long duration whom I had not seen in a month of Sundays. She and her husband, Basil, are in town for the next few months as she has been hired to star in an all female version of the Jack the Ripper saga and wondered if I might be persuaded to lend my terpsichorean talents to the production team. The original choreographer had been involved in a serious hang gliding accident involving an ice cream truck and a pedalo; he would not be out of plaster for eight to ten weeks and opening could not be postponed. I told her I would be delighted and will meet with the team early next week. 

I didn't have a version of any of the dozens of Ripper films easily available, so decided to begin my research with another atmospheric tale of late Victorian London horrors, Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 take on the vampire legend, Bram Stoker's Dracula. Coppola was somewhat at loose ends at the time he made this tale. The third chapter of his The Godfather trilogy had opened to nearly universal booing from both critics and audiences just a short while before and he decided to helm an old fashioned crowd pleaser to buff up his reputation. It worked. The film was a success and its earnings helped keep his Zoetrope studios from bankruptcy. 

The basic outlines for Dracula come from the late Victorian novel by Bram Stoker, the general manager of the Lyceum theater in London, which at the time was dominated by the great actor/manager Sir Henry Irving (rumored to be one of the principal inspirations for the character). Screenwriter James Hart stuck fairly closely with the design of the original novel; a first act in which a young businessman, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) goes to Transylvania to conclude a business deal with the mysterious Count Dracula (Gary Oldman); his predecessor in the job, Renfield (Tom Waits), is now a lunatic consumed with a blood lust. There follows a second act in which Dracula arrives in London and causes havoc in the lives of Harker's fiancĂ©e Mina (Winona Ryder), her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and Lucy's three hapless suitors (Cary Elwes, Bill Campbell and Richard E. Grant). This leads to the summoning of the brilliant, but eccentric Dr. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) who recognizes the work of a vampire when he sees it, various permutations of death, blood and seduction. Ultimately, in the final act, the surviving characters pursue Dracula back to his castle for the final confrontation. There have been so many film versions of the tale, that the basic outline and plot can be recited by any child older than ten who has ever seen the late late show. 

To differentiate his work from the dozens of others, Coppola decided to use a unique production design. The fanciful costumes of Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka and the art direction of Thomas Sanders and Garrett Lewis created an eerie post modern Victorian gothic look that's difficult to describe but hard to forget. The rubber musculature of Dracula's armor, his purple spectacles or Lucy's bizarre ruffed wedding dress being cases in point. All were nominated for Oscars. Ishioka won, the others lost to the muted Edwardiana of Howards End. Coppola also very specifically wanted a retro look to the film's opticals and special effects. Rather than use modern techniques, many of the effects are simply updated versions of in camera effects that have been around since the time of Melies. 

His performers were game for the ride. Gary Oldman delivers the most original interpretation of the Count the screen has ever seen. His line readings leave Bela Lugosi in the dust and he manages to create a rather pathetic romantic figure by the second act. He also pairs well with Winona Ryder, at her fragile best as the troubled Mina. Their scenes sizzle along. The other high point is Tom Wait's demented Renfield. He isn't afraid to take chances and try for some oddly disturbing moments. Unfortunately, not everyone is up to their assignments. Keanu Reeves proves once again that he should not ever be cast in period roles. He looks great in the clothes but he makes you groan every time he opens his mouth and tries to deliver a line. Sadie Frost, never much of an actress, does little besides simper and impersonate a lap dancer during her seduction scenes. The three suitors are barely distinguishable as men, despite ridiculous character quirks and Anthony Hopkins over acts so badly, one expects him to be served on rye. 

The film is available on a Superbit DVD which takes full advantage of the potentials of surround sound. The image is clear and the strange visual details of the world can be fully appreciated. There are no major extras besides the letterboxed film. 

Turk impaling. Blood cursing. Ghostly carriage ride. Young Monica Bellucci. Gratuitous Kama Sutra. Long white braid. Desperate transfusion. Bride beheading. Gratuitous film attendance. 

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