Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

No Trace Of Sparkly Vampires Here

Some links before I get started today. Parsnip has company. Eve took a drive and posted pics. Shelly has computer issues. And Maria had a recipe

Today I have a movie review for this time of year....

"Do you believe in destiny? That even the powers of time can be altered for a single purpose? That the luckiest man who walks on this earth is the one who finds true love?" ~ Dracula

"My friends, we fight not one beast but legions that go on age after age after age, feeding on the blood of the living." ~ Van Helsing

"When my time comes, will you do the same to me? Will you?" ~ Mina

Director Francis Ford Coppola, whose body of work includes The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and The Outsiders, turned in 1992 to a different genre, that of literary horror with an adaptation of the classic novel in the acclaimed Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film is a mix of horror, fantasy, erotica, and epic history, with a cast that mostly serves the story, a protagonist that is simultaneously the villain, and a rich vampire story that gets under the skin, all while reminding us in the post-Twilight era that proper vampires do not sparkle.

The film opens centuries in the past, in 1462, where a Transylvanian knight, Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) leads his forces to victory against Turkish invaders. His wife, however, believing him dead, has taken her life, and enraged by the priest’s remarks that she’s damned, he renounces God, vowing to avenge her from beyond the grave, and gives himself to darkness. This could have all been avoided if the priest was just a bit less rigorous in doctrine and a lot more compassionate, but that’s beside the point, and there wouldn’t be a story, would there?

In 1897, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), a solicitor in London, is being sent to Transylvania to make arrangements for a certain Count Dracula after the last solicitor, Renfield, lost his mind during a trip to Eastern Europe. Conveniently he happens to be residing in a nearby asylum, and is being played by the eccentric rocker Tom Waits. You would think that might be his first warning that a trip into Transylvania might be a bad idea, but no. He bids farewell to his fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder), who’s staying on with her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost). Jonathan sets out on his journey to meet his client, who appears in the form of an old man (with really weird hair and interesting shadows that seem to have a life of their own). The Count sees Mina’s portrait, which is a ringer for the long lost wife of his earlier years. Harker, meanwhile, remains largely oblivious of the odd shadow tricks, the mysteries involving mirrors, the way animals behave, the general creepiness of the castle, and lots of other things that would send most people running for their lives. At least he remains oblivious until it’s too late. By then the Count is on his merry path of destruction which will lead him into a bond with Mina and a vendetta with a group led by an unusual professor (Anthony Hopkins).

The screenplay by James Hart frames the story through the use of letters and journal entries, reflecting the fashion that Stoker himself used in writing the novel. This is a wise course, as it makes the film feel very much of its time. It emphasizes both the sensual and the horrific of the story as it goes along, giving us a monster that remains sympathetic. There’s even a dash of dark humour here and there, such as when Coppola cuts abruptly from the severing of a head to the next scene with a roast being cut. Coppola’s style renders the story in an over the top, operatic quality, but in a good way, giving the characters complexity and shades of gray. Where Dracula himself might be a monster, there remains some spark of nobility in him. And the vampire hunters themselves must admit they are not completely noble in the end; Professor Van Helsing remarks that they have become God’s madmen.

Coppola, who had a reputation at the time for going over time and over budget, wanted to keep to a schedule and a budget this time, and it started with extensive preparation in pre-production that paid off as he went along. His crew designed storyboards for the filming in a way that would have made filming proceed more smoothly. He chose to build sets for much of the film instead of relying on location shooting and the problems that might bring. And he had costume and set designers go to work, giving them the instructions to come up with something weird. And weird is in abundance. From the armour we first see Vlad wear into battle to the appearance (or appearances) of the Count to the garb of a Transylvanian carriage driver, weird is all over the place, and it’s not merely confined to Eastern Europe. We see it in the asylum, where the design of the place looks like the work of a lunatic. The work of the crew throughout has a nightmarish quality to the finer details, which fits perfectly with the story matter.

Coppola also refrained from using computer generated effects, going for more traditional techniques in conveying the special effects needed here and there in the film. It’s another wise choice, a nod to the tradition of horror in the past and the timeframe of the story itself. Dracula’s appearances and abilities are rendered in those traditional techniques, and each time, the effects work. Combined with his choice of camera angles and the overall look of the film, there’s a very artistic quality to the film, and it feels just right for the story. The production design overall in the film really shines, and the film won Oscars for makeup, Sound Editing, and Costume Design. Coppola’s choice of composer for the score was also ideal; Wojciech Kilar, a Polish composer, gave the score an Eastern European feel, with brooding themes and the sound of a dark chorus. The music perfectly complemented the story.

With one exception, the cast was very well chosen. Tom Waits as the mentally addled Renfield gives the role a complete eccentricity. He’s totally out of his mind, a servant to the dark count who’s given to chewing the scenery (and some insects) while confined in the local asylum. His performance is a very unsettling one, a surprise given Waits’ usual job. Sadie Frost plays Lucy as the naughty and not quite proper young woman of society, Mina’s best friend. She’s daring and bold, something that startles Mina, and as the story goes along and things become, well, complicated, that boldness continues to assert itself.

Cary Elwes (Glory, The Princess Bride) plays Lucy’s fiancé, Sir Arthur Holmwood. He gives the character an aristocratic and dignified touch; we first meet him as a man vying for the hand of the flirtatious Lucy, and we know he’s deeply attached to her, which makes it all the more troubling for him when things go terribly wrong. Elwes gets all the reactions right as the story moves along, and his transition from nobleman to vampire hunter feels appropriate. Bill Campbell (The Rocketeer) plays one of Lucy’s other suitors, the American cowboy Quincey Morris. He gives the role a brash, loud talking and thoroughly American sensibility, a man who says what he thinks and is handy in a fight. The third member of the group of suitors turned vampire hunters is played by Richard E. Grant (Twelfth Night). Jack Seward is a doctor who studied with Van Helsing, and is puzzled by the change in behaviour of Lucy over time. Grant, who’s one of those character actors so often interesting in whatever he does, plays him as a smart man, but also one who feels, as he says, like a blundering novice when confronted by something he doesn’t understand. Regardless, however, he’s loyal to his old mentor, and rises to the occasion when called for.

Keanu Reeves, however, is the exception to the casting that proves the rule. While he’s perfectly acceptable in films like Speed or The Matrix trilogy, he’s completely miscast here as Harker. He is totally unable to hold an English accent, and comes across as out of his depth. This particularly shows itself around actors like Oldman and Hopkins, who are such skilled actors, and his lack of range is clear. We just don’t believe him with Ryder; the chemistry isn’t there, and the problem is all on Reeves. He’s just dreary in the role.

Contrast that, then, with Anthony Hopkins, who seems to be having the most fun of the entire cast as Professor Van Helsing. He plays the part as an unusual scientist who accepts that there are things science cannot explain, who wages his own fight against evil, while still respecting his adversary- at least the man he once was. And he gives the role a natural authority as well. We accept him as the leader of this group because Hopkins brings the gravity and decisiveness to the role. It doesn’t hurt that humour in the film tends to originate from his performance, and he provides a great counterbalance to the restlessness of Oldman.

Winona Ryder does well as Mina (with a cameo early on as Dracula’s wife). She holds a better English accent than Reeves, certainly, though it’s not quite perfect. However, she inhabits the role in a natural way, starting out as unsure of herself, timid and less daring than her friend, and by the end of the film finds herself in an assertive and decisive role, her character having had gone through much along the way. She has good chemistry with Oldman, which is pivotal for their relationship, as she goes from feeling friendship for a man who happens to not be her fiancé (and who occasionally shapeshifts into other things and has a habit of drinking blood) to feeling much more.

It is Gary Oldman whose performance is the bedrock of the film. As an actor he’s a chameleon, given to taking on new looks in a movie, as we’ve seen elsewhere in Immortal Beloved, JFK, and The Fifth Element. He gives the Count, who’s been portrayed in too many films as a ghoul, a streak of humanity and heart. Yes, Dracula is a monster, but there’s a man in there too, and Oldman’s performance finds that balance in just the right way. He plays the Count as restless, driven by revenge and lost love, but still noble in the midst of his monstrous curse. It’s a towering performance by one of the best actors working today.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the way a vampire movie should be made, a Gothic thriller with a sensual romantic streak, a lavish and artistic production, and a story of a monster grown weary of immortality. It features a cast that is mostly chosen well, with two great actors in the form of Hopkins and Oldman as opponents in in a struggle of good and evil. It’s an ideal Hallowe’en movie.


  1. You've hit upon one of my pet peeves. Why oh why do we have Americans play roles and fake an accent? Can we not find English to play English, French to play French, and so on? It is probably only me. That said, I may have to watch this movie again!

  2. That's as bad as movies set in the Holy Land that have British actors portraying Hebrews.

    I haven't seen this movie. I used to love vampire movies--I still love the old Universal Studios horror movies, including Dracula. But in recent years, there have been so many vampire novels and movies that I lost interest. There are a couple of authors doing vampires that I still like, but....

  3. I absolutely love this one. It's my most favorite Dracula movie.

  4. Excellent review of an excellent film.

  5. I normally hate these kinds of movies, but your review made me rethink that position and think that I should maybe see this! Why can't you leave me alone! Heh, heh.

  6. Sigh, haven't seen this one either. I think I should though.

  7. @She Writes: sometimes it's the studio pressing to have American stars.

    @Norma: you should see this one!

    @Shelly: Bela Lugosi must be rolling over in his grave.

    @PM: thanks!

    @Lowell: I like a whole range of movies, and it never hurts to point out one that might have been overlooked, though this one got a lot of attention.

    @Kelly: yes, you should!

  8. I saw the movie but I think my dislike of vampires colored my reaction!

    Nice review!

  9. Bram Stoker's Dracula was the best dracula movie I'd ever experienced. The sound track is the best and I agree about Keannu Reeves being out of place in this one.

    Great review!

  10. I love the cheesy Lee/Cushing version so much I haven't really considered watching another. Interesting review.

  11. I believe I fell asleep in this one at some point. Might have to check it out again--this weekend seems like the perfect time for a film like this!

  12. Let me say that when I first saw this film in the theater, it grabbed me, and Oldman doing Dracula was fantastic (my only question was why was the hair long, and put up so silly, but, whatever).

    Finally, someone had done the story in the way, I think it should have been done! (Of course, there were legal reasons why earlier versions could not be made from the book as was written by Stoker.)

    I have not had the chance to see this one again. I think you're right about Keanu not able to do the accent, or losing it at some point.

    But, thank you, William for doing this one today!


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