TTT #2: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Posted: September 19, 2014 in Horror Blog
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I’ve been on a real classic monsters kick with Augustana College (the college I graduated from) producing The Passion for Dracula this year, as well as with my own personal research since I am trying to develop a play centered around the three traditional classic monsters (Dracula, the Frankenstein creature, and the wolfman.) So I’ve been going back, rereading the stories, plays, and obviously watching films. Which leads me to this week’s review- 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

 

Sigh.

This movie.  There are things about this movie that I love and are just unbelievably amazing and iconic. Like Gary Oldman’s performance, the art direction and sets, the cinematography, Gary Oldman’s performance, the score, the costumes, the makeup, and… oh yeah, Gary Oldman’s performance.

Then for every good aspect that makes me love this movie there is something glaring back at me, making this movie a bore and, at times, kind of a chore to watch.

Now, this film is actually a rather good adaptation of the original novel.  And some of the issues in the movie are issues in the book as well. But others are purely directorial and acting choices that just flash out at you.

By now everyone knows the story, or generally knows the story of Dracula. John Harker, played by Keanu Reeves, travels to Transylvania to visit this Count Dracula who has recently been buying up a lot of estates in England.  Johnathan’s job is to close the account with Dracula, successfully. But once he arrives he becomes witness to… “many strange things.” There is something off about this count, and his castle. Dracula (Gary Oldman) becomes obsessed with Mina (played by Winona Ryder,) Harker’s fiancé- who looks a lot like his love from centuries before who killed herself- Elisabeta. While leaving Harker for his “brides/the sisters” to feast on Dracula travels to England to pursue Mina.

I actually don’t know what else to say about the plot. I mean, obviously, it is more in depth than that. Lucy (Sadie Frost,) Mina’s best friend, is seduced and becomes a vampire. There is Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) coming on to the scene as the main hero of the tale, deducing what and who Dracula really is, and it all leads to Harker coming home and “God’s madmen” hunting down the count before he can eternally damn Mina’s soul.

While this isn’t the first Drac picture to play on the whole “love story” deal (even the original 1931 promoted the film as ‘The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!’) this is the first one I can think of off the top of my head to have come out that actually uses and explains the bond between the count and Mina as a pivotal plot point other than just using the “the vampire has mystical powers that can overtake me,” cliché. And part of that, I feel, has to deal with the fact that this is actually the first time in film or… really any work that an “origin story” for the count has ever really been addressed. Sure NOW a days we throw out the name Vlad the Impaler and most people who know anything about vampire mythology or Dracula know exactly who you are referring too. Vlad III Dracul.  But before 1992 it was never really addressed as being in relation to the fictional nosferatu. The opening of the film which addresses the origin of how Dracula became the damned, immortal soul is one of my most favorite moments in the film. It’s so visually stunning, and just sets the stage for the entire film therein. The stabbing of the cross, and the drinking of the pouring blood… every time I see that I get chills. And Oldman just sells it perfectly as a grieving man who is wholly pissed off at God and the church; a man who feels betrayed. It helps us identify with Dracula from the get go, and his subsequent motivations.

Now, I’ll admit- there are moments where Oldman’s performance seems a tad over the top at some points, but the count is an eccentric character to begin within his own way. I believe that what the problem really is, is that the rest of the cast almost seems to match his level of intensity for the film (at least the main cast that is.) If anybody is to be as equally as eccentric as the count it is Van Helsing, and… well he defiantly is, but it’s almost distracting at point. Hopkins is an amazing character, and is known for his more “subdued” and quiet moments on film- especially just coming off of an Oscar win for Silence of the Lambs. But it seems like Francis Ford Coppola just told him to go crazy in this role, as if he wanted him to become like Capt. Ahab in the final chapters of Moby Dick. If that is what they are aiming for then they got it, but man I would have liked for a continuous more calculating version of Van Helsing instead of a condescending, creeper of an old man who seems to be taking some of Dr. Sweard’s morphine mixed with something else.

Mina and Harker are the only other two main characters and they have just as many scenes where they over act or act out of character or are “not in the scene.” Some people say that this is just Reeves acting style. While I actually have no major qualms with him as an actor, I will admit that I agree that he was not the best choice for the character of John Harker and that his English accent is quite bad. But, people, he wasn’t the only one. I feel like people get really hung up on his performance in this film and they forget that the movie was actually filled with some not-so-great moments from other cast members.

The secondary cast of characters, Quincy, Seward, Lucy, Holmwood are actually really well done. They don’t over act, or pull unneeded attention to themselves and act fairly realistically in most of the circumstances.  So… good job guys.

The film, visually, is a treat for the most part. As I said before the sets are beautiful and the style that the film was shot was great. The costumes and makeup just really bring it all together. There is a reason this film won Oscars for sets, makeup, and costume. It also won a fourth for sound editing, and it does have some really fantastic sounds going on.

The only thing I’ll harp on a little bit are the visual effects. This is 1992 now. CGI is around at this point in time. T2: Judgement Day came out a year before in ’91 and Jurassic Park is released the next year in ’93. There are computer effects, but instead Coppola goes with nearly all practical effects, filming, and staging techniques and while I am generally a BIG supporter of “if you can do it practically, do it” it doesn’t always work here. Now, the makeup, yes- it does work. No need for CGI. I love Drac’s different vampyric states, especially his giant demon bat. But moments like the super imposed eyes, and maps, and fog effects… don’t really hold up to today’s standards, and don’t really seem like they even look right in ’92. It probably would have worked if it was one or two, and they were using them to give it more of a classic monster film feel… but here is just feels cheap. They are trying to do so much new with this story and film, yet it feels dated and these effects aren’t just “been there and done that-” they are clichés. Still there are some shining moments with the effects, such as when we first meet count Dracula with Harker. The count’s shadow is very much its own creature, moving opposite the count or delayed… it’s creepy, and effective. That would be an effect I SO WISH I could see on stage.

The music is another highlight for the film. It successfully captures the feeling of something new, while calling back to some of the more melodramatic classic horror films. It’s become iconic, I feel, with the Dracula character as well. When it popped up in season one of American Horror Story I flipped. The main theme is ominous and troubled yet has a layer of sympathy to it- everything that is Dracula.

In the end, yes- I like this movie. It has flaws and it’s not my “go-to” Dracula film, but as a film that is representing a character that has been used in almost 50+ films by this time it does a real good job of keeping it fresh and interesting for the viewers. It also is one of the best, if not the best (in my opinion,) adaptations of the original source material that we have in film. It also is partially responsible for not only many our 21st century depictions and interpretations of Dracula, but of vampires in general.

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