Sunday, October 26, 2008

31 Days Of Horror. Day #14: Bram Stoker's Dracula

There is probably no movie that I wanted to see so much, waited so long for, and was more disappointed by then Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Let me explain, as long as I can remember I’ve been a certified horror nut. And to say the the trailers/commercials/posters/town criers, brought in to convince people that Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be the greatest movie ever fucking made, certainly achieved their desired affect. Unfortunately as I was seven or eight and had two somewhat protective parents there wasn’t anyway in hell I was going to see that movie. So instead I let my imagination fueled by American Zoetrope’s marketing department build the best possible Dracula movie ever. Suffice to say when I saw the movie about five years later, the expectations where not met.

Still I don’t think that it can all be blamed on the build up, as I believe that my eight year old self also wouldn’t have known what to make of Dracula turning into some kind of ape creature and fucking the shit out of Sadie Frost. Coppola’s Dracula is a movie that seems determined to destroy itself. For every masterful scene, every stunning bit of design (and dear God there are plenty) Coppola balances it with one that has an equal but opposite reaction. It speeds between great and terrible with a nimbleness that’s mindblowing.

Lets start with the good. To call the film opulent is like calling Versailles a little gaudy. It just doesn’t quite convey the idea. The film is eye candy of the highest order. It’s long been my personal theory that to achieve the look Coppola locked his production and costume designers in Scrooge Mc Duck’s money been and told them to get spending before they drowned. Every shot, every set, every costume, is simply masterful, and it helps that Coppola’s cinematographer, the great Michael Ballhaus, shoots the living shit out of the movie. The movie is a very Catholic one, and it taps into “The Catholic Imagination” with great zeal, giving evil a truly epic quality that most horror films lack. When Dracula comes across a pack of vampire hunters, shifts into the form of demonic bat, forces a cross to burst into flames merely by lunging at it, moans “Look what you’re God has done to me!” and then desolves into a pack of ravenous rats, your watching the product of two thousand years of considering the worst case scenario.

The special effects are amazing as well, mostly done in camera it gives even the simplest of tricks, like the extending of the coachman’s arm, or the backwards contortion walk by one of Dracula’s brides have a great “How did they do that?” charge that’s all but lost in cinema today. CGI would have ruined this movie.

The problem with all this fantastic design is that there are people in them. Had Dracula been silent or acted out with hand puppets, it would probably be considered a flat out masterpiece. Instead it is a very flawed movie that simply looks very very good.

Coppola assembles one of the most random casts ever seen to make this movie, and almost all of them are terrible, and seem to think they’re acting in different movies. Only Oldman’s hype living up to Dracula, who invests his character with the perfect mix of pathos, operatic insanity, and straight up bloodlust and Tom Wait’s fantastic Renfield, played with just the right mix of tragedy, pitch black humor, and superb skin crawling creepiness, seem to know the movie they are in.
Winnona Ryder is merely bland rather then a woman one would cross “Oceans of time” for, it hardly seems realistic that Dracula would ask her for a second date, Sadie Frost is vacant in a very special way. And one scene where she and Winnona play with a bit of Three Company style misunderstanding, involving a Texan’s knife and penis, pinpoints the exact place where “Comic Relief” becomes an actual punishment. Anthoney Hopkins is absolutely wretched, playing Van Helsing at a level I can only describe as ultra camp.

Ah but there’s someone I haven’t mentioned yet is there?

Now look I’m not a Keanu hater. I think he’s an underrated and undervalued actor. No seriously. Films like My Own Private Idaho and The River’s Edge prove it, I’ll always have a debt to him for nailing Bob Arctor in Scanner Darkly and I’m an unabashed Matrix apologist.

That says Keanu really does fuck this movie up quite badly.

It’s not all his fault, I mean the casting makes the choice of Sofia Coppala for Mary Corleone look like a masterstroke. Who better to play a young repressed law clerk from the Victorian era out to make his fortune then you know… Fucking Keanu Reeves.

The opening scenes between Keanu and The Count are pretty fucking hilarious. Similar to the Nicholson Duval face off in The Shining, Keanu seems so utterly outmatched that it’s comical. It would only take a short nudge of editing to turn their scene into a short about a salesman so determined to make a sale that he desperately attempts to ignore all the crazy shit his mark is doing.

Now I suppose that a meeting between a centuries old undead immortal, and a callow clerk should have the latter feeling outmatched. But this plays less like a young Harker being swallowed by the experienced decadent count, and more like Oldman’s style of acting seriously is seriously harshing Keanu’s mellow.

This is particularly evident in the scene where the grisly tableau of Dracula feeding an infant to his hellish brides, to a reaction shot which conveys that Keanu’s buzz has been seriously harshed by the fact that like dude they just totally ate that baby. Not cool.

Keanu actually becomes more useless as the movie goes on. By the end as he prances around wearing a white fright wig that makes him look like Andy Warhol, his performance has become complete camp. It doesn’t help that Keanu has a British Accent that makes Dick Van Dyke sound like Laurence Fucking Oliver.

Once the film gets to London it continues its mesmerizing dance between great and awful. Dracula sliding between the screens at an early cinema, paying to tribute to a knew form of immortality? Brilliant. Dracula turning into an ape creature to fuck Sadie Frost? Not Brilliant. The vampire hunter’s harrowing confrontation with Dracula in his decaying abbey? Brilliant. Dracula turning into mist so he can give Winnona Ryder some head? Not Brilliant. Dracula scuttling inhumanly down a sheer wall? Brilliant. The suggestion that Dracula is a compulsive masturbator… Well you get the picture.

Aside from a piece of eye candy Dracula is most interesting when looked at from an auterist perspective, as it’s most likely Coppala’s most personal film of that decade. Of course given that his other films of that decade were Godfather III, The Rainmaker, and Jack, the competition was not fierce.

At it’s core stripped of all it’s supernatural hugger mugger, Coppala’s Dracula is basically an old guy who gets mad at the Catholic church for along time and then comes back to it in a time of need. It’s about our duty to God and his to us, and the limits if there are any to his forgiveness. Sure as far as theological complexity goes it’s not The Virgin Spring, or The Last Temptation Of Christ, but it’s an interesting look at a director who never really seemed interested in testing such waters before, even you know when he was making a film about Shenanigans at The Vatican.

All in all Dracula is a mess. But it’s a glorious one.

Post Note: Truth in criticism, the recent DVD edition is pretty tremendous. From the art, to the docs, to the design, to the transfer, this is one of the coolest discs I’ve ever owned. If you have the original release this one is actually worth the double dip.

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