Sunday, October 22, 2023

HalloWatch: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Watched:  10/21/2023
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  Second, I think
Director:  Francis Ford Coppola

Firstly, this isn't Bram Stoker's actual Dracula.  This is Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992).

I very much remember Coppola, with whose work I'd just become acquainted at age 15 or so, announcing he was going to remake the Universal Monster stuff using the source material.  And as a teen, I was jazzed.  Let's kick the dust off, ditch the stuffy 1930's stylings (I'd never seen the movies at this point) and lets make a Dracula for the 90's!  

All I can really remember from that first movie is that it was... a lot.  The reviews were mixed, but everyone was going to see it, and I was in a packed theatre when I watched it myself.  

Honestly, I remember thinking "well... that was a lot.  And I get why the reviews were mixed."  Halloween night of '93, I went to see the original, and was like "oh, wow.  This is rad.  I get why people love this." and, in fact, my interest in horror movie monsters I'd had as a kid was reignited (along with a VHS copy of Phantom of the Opera) to the point where I'm annoying about it to this day!

Over the years, I've not returned to the Coppola movie because (a) I didn't like it all that much to begin with, and (b) there's so many Draculas.  And one gotta catch 'em all.  

Since seeing this back in '92, I've since read the novel, watched the 1930's original many, many times, seen some sequels to that, watched the Hammer films, watched a clutch of other vampire films and Dracula adaptations - including stage plays, read Carmilla, and basically laid down what I think is a solid foundation.

This movie is super strange.

Like, look.  It's got some amazing ideas, and beautiful visuals.  My exposure to the movie in the internet age has been largely through stills and gifs, and given the dedication to the visual that this movie embraces, its a reminder that the film has some stunning photography, FX, design, costuming, etc....  It's an absolute "spared no expense" endeavor.  

I actually love the fact that the movie uses weird edits and dissolves - the peacock feather to the sun, etc... 

You can't ask for a better cast in 1992.  This is a post Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins getting to play all the cool roles, a height of her fame Winona Ryder, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Keanu Reeves, and fucking Tom Waits as Renfield.  And, of course, a young Gary Oldman showing everyone what Gary Oldman can do.

Look, the movie isn't the book, full stop.  Since Lugosi made women swoon in the stage show of Dracula and then in theaters (no, really), the story of Dracula has become weirdly morphed from "agent of Satan slowly murders virgins" to "eternal love story".  

The book provides nothing like the pre-credits sequence to explain why the Count became an agent of the devil other than it sounded like a fun sort of thing to do.  There's no suicide of a wife, no war with the Turks.  There's no attempt to humanize Dracula by giving him a reason he might turn to the forces of darkness with which the audience might sympathize.  

There's just no love story between Dracula and anyone else in the book.  There's Mina having a mix of shocking sympathy for her tormentor (because she's a good person) and a bit of Stockholm Syndrome in the final chapters.   I have read that a lot of the past lives stuff is borrowed from a different Stoker novel about mummies, but it feels straight taken from the Boris Karloff movie The Mummy.  Which makes me wonder what Coppola planned to do for his remake there, had they proceeded as planned.  

There's nothing wrong with making the story a romance - that's what vampire stuff does, I guess.  But Bram Stoker's Dracula essentially turns the story of Dracula into Mina cheating on her boyfriend while he's at work with a dude with no job and a soul patch.  She'll insist they made such a connection (and, ironically, he's also juggling three other ladies she doesn't know about) and she's going to act nuts about it because she's invested so much into her secret little fling when she should write her dude and admit she's banging someone else.

The end result is that no one in the movie is anyone you care about except for maybe Van Helsing.  Mina seems like a dupe, Jonathan is wishy-washy, Lucy is narrative cannon fodder as the horny girl in a horror movie, and the three suitors are stripped of any qualities other than they sure are in the movie, and one has a hat.

Because the movie leans into Mina and Vlad's secret affair, it chews through a lot of plot time and also sets the pacing of the movie somewhat different from the novel.  By necessity, this means - so the movie isn't even longer than what feels like a very, very long two hours - the other characters get some short shrift and plotlines get condensed.  And that's... fine?  

Surely this movie's love affair works for someone out there, just as the Bella/ Edward romance works for a lot of people.  And I'm not opposed to it on its face, I just don't think this movie pulls it off in a way that makes you (a) cheer for the romance or (b) be horrified by Mina's seduction.  It just sorta rolls out, and the dramatic irony of Mina having no idea what's really happening becomes tedious.  And tedious is not good for movies.

I don't blame either actor here (even if sometimes Ryder's Ryderism in her voice gives the game away).  Oldman is maybe at an 8 at his lowest and an 11 for good chunks of the film, but that's what's called for.  Ryder is playing what she's got, but it's hard to know what that is.  We don't get much of who Mina is until she's already in crisis.

What we clearly do get is the idea that this is sexual repression, Victorian style.  And Dracula is supposed to prey on the unspoken horniness of the women - with Mina clearly trying to push Jonathan's Victorian sensibilities, and of which Lucy seems keenly aware as she uses the barest hint of a sexual nature to keep three dudes with options on the line.  

At the time of the movie's release, between fighting prudishness and lots of blood, this was seen by some as a movie for the AIDS/ HIV era, which... I don't think Coppola probably thought about even once.  It's the sort of observation made that is more about how the movie reflects the times, and what the viewer might bring to the film.  I don't think (but don't know) it was made for such a comparison - especially when the novel is clearly about science wrangling with unknown diseases, and the movie skips a lot of that element.  Except...

Our intro to Van Helsing has him discussing syphilis in a medical classroom, and making clear connections between STDs and the moral nature of man, which was quite the rage in the 90's.  I doubt that bit would make the cut in 2023, and it's an odd tie to Van Helsing as mystic scientist and Dracula-chaser. 

Flipping the script of the seduction of Mina is the imprisonment and seduction of Jonathan.  What is curious is that the movie never deals with what Mina knows about Jonathan's time away, how he delivered that info, etc... as it seems she's fully aware of the situation, and  we are robbed of her own reaction.  It's a lot, and she just seems like she's taking it all in stride.  Which, I guess if you've been shtupping a mysterious Eastern prince, you don't make a lot of fuss when your man tells you three hot women forced him into sex daily for a month.

What the movie does offer is spectacle upon spectacle.  And that isn't necessarily wrong.  The portion of the novel that's Jonathan's POV gets really weird, really fast.  But it can be the difference between Jonathan seeing a glimpse of what seems to be wolves in the woods and us seeing Jonathan's wagon from the shoulder POV of wolves, as the movie does.  The suggestion that the count moves unnaturally versus the obvious floating and zipping around the count does on screen that leaves nothing for the viewer to share Jonathan's uncertainty.  But this is a matter of taste.

I do enjoy the "this is a soundstage" look and feel to the exterior shots and the swing-for-the-fences design, including some of the stuff that's a bit risky to try as it can *feel* like it's trying.  The movie really is gorgeous, and there's a reason the stills that people post every Halloween have made me want to revisit the movie.  

Is it scary?  I mean - I think it has its moments.  And it embraces the weirdness of Renfield and Dracula himself as well as any version.  But without really *caring* about Mina or Lucy, the horror of what's happening is more indicated than visceral.  The scariest bit is probably, really, the dudes going into Lucy's crypt, with the first fifteen minutes in Dracula's castle a close second.  There's a lot of space in-between those scenes and after.

What's odd is that this is really considered the other Dracula film, the primary version still the 1931 Lugosi version or the Spanish version.  There have been innumerable versions before and since the 1992 version, but no one really seems interested in just telling the story in the book.  That said, this one is certainly closer than most.  

With endless streaming services, it seems like *someone* would just give it a go.  

By the way, I still think the guy who played the best Dracula in a movie in recent years was Nic Cage in Renfield.  I can only imagine if Coppola had cast his nephew for this what we could have had.

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