Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Vampires 101: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker's 1897 novel DRACULA is one of the most adapted stories ever written. It's been reinterpreted for numerous movies, television shows, comic books, plays, radio dramas, video games, ballets and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

Only that it really hasn't. The character has made thousands of appearances in other media, but Stoker's novel has rarely been translated with any authority, especially on the big screen. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola decided to correct that problem with BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, a film that purported to be the first movie to fully adapt Stoker's original text.

As with earlier Dracula movies, the idea of creating a faithful adaptation fell victim to creative hubris, deviating frequently from Stoker's novel to integrate elements of THE MUMMY and DARK SHADOWS to remold the story as a romance. Anyone familiar with the novel can tell you there's nothing romantic about Dracula, who isn't much more than a rapist in the 1897 story.

Unlike other adaptions, though, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA succeeds in bringing the story to life without leaving much of the novel on the proverbial cutting room floor. While it takes liberties with the story, these are errors of addition, not subtraction. It's a film that plays it's hearse opera roots to the hilt and incessantly boasts of its significance in every scene. But, I have to admit ... I love every frame of film in that stupid-ass movie.

It's appropriate that much of the film takes place in a madhouse, because it's the end result of a three-way race between Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins and Coppola to grab the Brass Ring of Crazy. It's a close race, but Coppola is the clear winner.  BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA is one shrill line reading away from Coppola posting a Monty Python-esque title card reminding us who's directing.

That's not to suggest it wasn't a competitive race, though. As one critic pointed out around the time he began slumming in summer blockbusters like AIR FORCE ONE and LOST IN SPACE, Oldman is the only actor alive capable of over-acting before he even appears on screen. Not content to play one character, Oldman takes the novel's shapeshifting nature of Dracula to play a dozen different on-screen personalities, all of them LOUD. Even when he's not part of the drama, his looming presence is felt in every scene. You can practically feel him standing off-camera in every scene, waiting for his cue.

Despite all of this (or hell, maybe BECAUSE of it) Oldman's interpretation of Dracula works, especially when he strips away the layers of werewolf/batman prosthetics and plays the character as an actual human being. Even though he murders and molests his way throughout the movie, it's hard not to feel pity for him as the vampire hunters kill him in the movie's climax. He's kind of naive, in his own way, like a well-dressed bumpkin.

Coming in a not-that-distant third in the Dracula Crazy-thon is Hopkins, who plays Van Helsing as a singularly insensitive human being. The more grotesque a situation, the more gleefully evil he acts. He enjoys his own misbehavior more than the movie's tragic villain, which adds a layer of ambiguity to the story that Stoker never intended. He's also pretty hilarious, and its Hopkins' success in this regard than keeps the overall tone of the movie from becoming too oppressive.

The two most controversial elements of BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA remain the decision to use camera tricks and primitive special effects to create a funky, dreamlike atmosphere, and the baffling casting of Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. I like Reeves and think he takes a lot of unnecessary shit for his acting abilities, but he was horrendously miscast as Harker. Even if he wasn't suffering from fatigue (DRACULA was the third or fourth straight movie he shot) I doubt anyone was going to buy him as a straight-laced, Victorian era attorney.

Winona Ryder doesn't fare much better, and the contrast with their co-stars (especially Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Sadie Frost and Tom Waits) is a persistent reminder that these two actors are out of their depth. It doesn't take a Master Thespian to tread water in a movie like this, but neither seemed to grasp the looney nature of the film. While everyone else is hamming it up to one degree or other, Reeves and Ryder are dripping with the earnestness of a community theater production. The only reason these two actors don't knock holes in the hull of the film is that BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA's tone is already so wonky that it's an almost impossible movie to capsize.

As loud as the the cast can be, it's amazing that any of them were able to compete with Wojciech Kilar's score, which was so bombastic that it threatened to rouse Richard Wagner from the dead. Watching Oldman and Hopkins duel egos on screen as Kilar's music builds to almost impossible levels is like listening to Danzig while GWAR is playing in the next room. This is not a classic Universal monster movie, which requires the audience to be constantly engaged to the story. If anything, the opposite is true for BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, which wants nothing more than to make you its prison bitch. AND. YOU. WILL. SUBMIT.


Zahir Blue said...

This may be the most fun review of this movie I've ever read!

MissSpottyJane said...

Topps published a comic book "prequel" to this movie in 1993. It's written about as well as you would expect, but they hired Esteban Maroto to do the psychedelic art. For whatever reason, the issues ended up in those cheap grab bags of assorted 1990s comics. The art was top notch, it was sad to see it in the same company as tenth-rate Liefeld knockoffs.

QPT said...

Google celebrates 165th birthday of - Bram Stoker. Doodle depicts the story of Dracula.

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