Monday, October 26, 2015

BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (American Zoetrope/Osiris/Columbia 1992) Sony Home Entertainment

I would really appreciate some self-respecting woman offering up an explanation as to why the very thought of some four-hundred year old blood-sucking vampyre feasting on her neck, resulting in a painful transformation into the eternal undead, is considered a pleasurably erotic ‘sexual’ experience. Personally, I have never been able to wrap my head around that idea.  So, it is perhaps saying much that I continue to adore Universal’s 1931 masterpiece, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Clever people, over at Universal then: crafting an alternative mythology to the one put forth by gothic impresario, Bram Stoker; Legosi’s courtly caped Count, with his pomaded pate of slicked back, jet-black hair, and those dark and flashing Hungarian eyes, moodily lit for maximum effect along the Borgo Pass, establishing the template for all cinematic incarnations of the Count to follow. Curiously, while Tod Browning’s legendary film set the bar very high, subjecting Count Dracula to ‘countless’ (and increasingly bastardized) re-constitutions of the most basic attributes – and vices – as depicted in Stoker’s novel, that no film maker could resist when retelling the fable, none of the subsequent movies had ventured to tell Stoker’s story verbatim until Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious 1992 reincarnation. Alas, here too, and despite the film’s full moniker –as Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Coppola could not resist, but to deviate from the original text by including a brief pro and epilogue, devoted to the ‘history’ behind the histrionics.
Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia is more infamously renowned in the historical record today as ‘Vlad the Impaler’, for skewering his foe like shrimp upon the barbie. He ruled a tiny principality in the Balkans from 1456 to 1462; legendary in his uprising against the Ottoman Empire, and for his subsequent bloody victories. Superficially, at least, these had served as Stoker's inspiration for his 1897 novel. Nevertheless, Stoker makes no outright mention of the Prince or his bloody battles in the novel, leaving Coppola to handcraft his own pair of bookends for the movie. It goes without saying, Coppola’s Count is about as far removed from Legosi’s cultured aristocrat as one might suspect. His enigmatic star, Gary Oldman, does possess something of Legosi’s hypnotic sway over the hearts and souls of his victims. But Coppola’s vision for this Dracula is more creepily represented as a very disturbed, semi-tragic snapshot of the fallen angel; Vlad’s shallow victory over the Turks resulting in the suicide of his paramour, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder).  From this auspicious beginning, Coppola sets about on his flawed premise: to make Count Dracula the hero of his sweeping gothic romance. Again, this closely mirrors Stoker’s own empathy for the character.  Too bad for Coppola what works in literature, rarely gels as pure cinema.
Personally, Coppola’s high concept in this retelling of the time-honored tale, already regurgitated ad nauseam as cinema folklore, has never worked for me. Coppola’s determination to employ no digital effects; rather, perform virtually all of the SFX shots in camera, is undeniably commendable, though it nevertheless adds a layer of gratuitous pretense to this already operatic exercise. Establishing mood is one thing. But increasingly, the effect is counter-intuitive to the quest: Coppola, merely striving much too hard to be clever. Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography, Thomas E. Sanders’ production design, Andrew Precht’s art direction and Eiko Ishioka’s costumes draw undue attention to their individual contributions, instead of weaving all of the elements into a seamless tapestry that is all-immersive/comprehensive as ‘another’ netherworld to our own. Ironically, it is not the theatricality of the piece that stifles and/or distracts, but the disparate nature of the impacts made by these artisans. Each repeatedly takes us out of the story. Reviewing Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula again after an absence of some years, I was repeatedly struck by how often my subconscious left the story to suddenly become absorbed by a particular composition, set design or costume. To be sure, there are many visually stunning vignettes in Dracula; marvels of period recreation and engineering, all of them confined to the stages on the old MGM backlot, using hanging miniatures, forced perspective, matte painting and good ole-fashioned movie-land trickery that harks back, in some cases, to the silent era; marking a sense of tradition in craftsmanship sadly discarded for the invisibility of digital compositing. However, in the same paragraph, I draw attention to the fact good shots alone do not a great movie make.
Somewhere along the process, Coppola has become too enamored with these ‘old school’ techniques to appreciate that the story he is endeavoring to tell has, for the most part, already been told before – and arguably better – if not as ostentatiously – elsewhere. The fundamental flaw herein is Coppola’s perception, or rather mis-perception of Vlad the Impaler as a tragic Christian martyr, conquering the Moors in a hellish onslaught, presumably as tribute to God; only to discover the scald of battle has been repaid him with the loss of his beloved Elisabeta. How quickly the human heart can turn to stone, even toward divinity itself; Vlad, sacrificing his immortal soul by defying and blaming the heavens for his beloved’s death. After reading Stoker’s novel again, I still do not see how Coppola could have embraced Dracula as a heroic figure; nee, flawed anti-hero with whom we are meant to empathize. Inevitably, screenwriter, James V. Hart (whose prose underwent a myriad of rewrites before and during production) has elected to treat Dracula as a man ‘merely misunderstood’. So Coppola suggests, Vlad might have been the good little Christian soldier, if only Elisabeta’s untimely passing had not shattered his lusty heart. Yet, to suggest as much is a little like inferring Adolf Hitler could have been a great impressionist painter instead of a mass murderer, if only the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts had accepted his portfolio.
A man is either truthful – or not – to his religious convictions. Vlad is a man who serves his own earthly precepts, taking God’s name in vain. Elisabeta’s death merely affords him the opportunity to reveal his truer self to the Almighty, and it is a nightmarish beast we behold; one unleashed on the unsuspecting world as the love-starved Count goes through his various permutations in search of his next sexual conquest. Near the end of the picture, Count Dracula, having transformed into a life-size, and remarkably hairy bat, confronts Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), angrily pleading his case for redemption. “Look at what your God has done to me!”  But what the Count, Coppola and Hart fail to understand is God is not responsible for the suffrage Dracula has endured these many centuries since his renunciation of the church. Rather, the Count has condemned himself to this eternity of darkness from which no speculative redemption can comes to him, unless through the porthole of death he has defied.
We have to give it to Gary Oldman here; one of the most enigmatic, introspective and highly intelligent actors of his generation, in yet another mind-boggling transformation into Count Dracula. Enduring endless hours of interminable and painful makeup applications (building up his slender features with wire and latex appliances; layer upon layer of glue, powder and other sundry tricks to sufficiently age and/or mutate his fine-bones into this ancient relic, an eerie bat or humpbacked wolf), sewn into even more ill-fitting and improbable and unwieldy costumes, designed by Eiko Ishioka (who had never seen a Dracula movie before), Oldman nevertheless manages to unearth an unsettling alter ego from beneath this camouflage and deliver the most credible performance in the movie. His Count is teeming with all the vial repugnancies and immoral vices of a fallen angel like Raphael. But Oldman also evokes a queerly disconcerting empathy for this ageless deviant, caught in a purgatory of his own design. If only the rest of the actors were as good, Coppola’s movie might have at least had one leg to stand on.
Instead, we get Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top physician cum vampire hunter; hurling blood-soaked and fiery crucifixes about the landscape while espousing religious platitudes with all the ineffectual resolve of a misguidedly drunken cleric having tumbled from his pulpit. At one point, Hopkins grasps an unsuspecting Mina (Winona Ryder) around the waist, drawing her near him to sniff her understandably frightened visage; a very bizarre gesture – even for a craven scientist – and deliberately reminiscent of his Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). But even Hopkins’ grandstanding proves a revelation compared to the likes of Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes and Billy Campell. Reeves’ in particular is an epic misfire. I have yet to know Keanu Reeves as an actor. I am not certain what he is here. Soulless stick figure is a moniker that immediately comes to mind. At this point in his respective career, I would mercifully settle for mere competence; Reeves’ herein reading every line as though staring blankly into a mirror with the cue cards written in reverse and Mactac-ed to his forehead. Once again, we discover him channeling his inner moon-doggie, leaden and uninspiring as the solicitor, Jonathan Harker; sent by his law firm to oversee the estate of Count Dracula after his predecessor, R.M. Renfield (Tom Waits) has been stricken with a strange malady, presumed as stark-raving madness. Reeves so badly bungles this pivotal role, out of his element as Mina’s youthful suitor, held prisoner in the Count’s castle, and ravaged as a concubinus for ‘the sisters’ – Dracula’s undead trio of brides – his performance prompted Total Film critic, Josh Winning to astutely surmise, “You can visibly see Keanu attempting not to end every one of his lines with 'dude'.”
The miscasting continues with Winona Ryder as Mina; the virgin-esque counterpoint to the high-bodice/high born voluptuary, Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). Lucy and Mina are devoted to one another; Mina reveling in her girlfriend’s unabashed and audacious contemplation of sex and men. Engaged to Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes, doing nine minutes as a sort of clichéd Texan loudmouth), Lucy is destined to befall the evils of the world for her brazen contempt of its natural order. Women from a certain vintage – particularly Stokers’ – are property – not people – meant to be praised while quietly swooning for their menfolk. This, Frost’s Lucy absolutely refuses to do. Winona Ryder, who would appear almost verbatim in terms of costuming and deportment for Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence one year later, is fairly unimpressive herein as the chased ‘chaste’ object of Dracula’s desire; her transformation from naïve waif - green in the ways of the world – to turbo-charged amatory viper, hypnotically thirsting for the blood of the vampyre, despite Vlad’s strenuous objections, reeks of a grotesquely inadequate frenzy, meant, presumably to evoke Mina’s sexual frustration: though herein, more school girl-ish than festering bloodlust. Throughout the picture, Ryder is just awkward, silly and unprepossessing; overshadowed by Frost’s more energetic and animated turn as the deviant mistress, doomed to haunt eternity as just another of Dracula’s undead brides, until Harker and Van Helsing put a stake through her heart and behead her.
Our story begins with a prologue set in 1462: Vlad Dracula, belonging to the Order of the Dragon, returns from a bloody war against the Turks to discover his wife, Elisabeta (also played by Winona Ryder) has committed suicide after receiving a false report of his death on the battlefield. The priest (also played by Anthony Hopkins) passes sentence over her remains. Elisabeta cannot enter the kingdom of heaven after having taken her own life. Unable to reconcile this rejection, Vlad instead damns God; defiling the chapel and causing its statuary and candles to run red with the blood of his sins.  Presumably, because nothing of merit occurs in the next 400 years, we fast-track to 1897; introduced to Jonathan Harker, a newly qualified solicitor, entrusted by his firm to look after the formidable estate of the Transylvanian Count Dracula after his predecessor, Renfield, has succumbed to madness. Jonathan, engaged to Mina, speculates he will be gone little more than a week to setting the accounts and hasten the Count’s acquisition of various other properties throughout Europe, including Carfax Abbey in London.
The initial meeting between Jonathan and Dracula is inauspicious. The aged and curiously effete Count, draped in majestic flowing robes of state, suffering from an albino white skin condition, is seemingly fragile, as he encourages Harker to take supper at his table. However, when Jonathan offers a polite chuckle regarding the Count’s family tree, his playful insinuation is met with an unanticipated outburst of energy. The Count’s wrath is quelled after he witnesses Harker remove a small photo of his fiancée; Mina’s image stirring Dracula to speculate she is the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabeta. Seducing Harker into exploring his castle, Dracula allows Harker to become ensnared by his nightmarish brides. The women make Harker their captive in the dungeon, feeding upon his fresh and blood daily to the point where he is severely aged and weakened. In the meantime, Dracula, now miraculously transformed into a much younger facsimile of his former self, long black tresses flowing from beneath a gentleman’s top hat and sporting the latest fashion and dark spectacles to conceal his blood shot eyes, ventures across the sea in a terrible gale. His arrival in London is foretold by Renfield’s mad ravings: Renfield, now a patient of the dashing Dr. Jack Seward (the marvelous Richard E. Grant in a throw-away part), who is also confidant to both Mina and her girlfriend, Lucy. The girlfriends are inseparable; Mina fascinated by Lucy’s audacity in romantically pursuing Lord Holmwood, newly arrived from Texas.
The narrative timeline gets a little muddled as Lucy is bewitched under Vlad’s hypnosis and lured into the gardens during a violent thunderstorm. Mina chases after her unresponsive friend, but keeps her distance; shocked to discover Lucy splayed across a tombstone in the moonlight, observing her raped by a wolf-like creature. The next day, Lucy’s health begins to deteriorate. She suffers from a strange sort of possession, speaking in tongues and growing more pale and gaunt as the days dwindle down into night. Unable to even suggest a cure, Seward, who was once desperately in love with Lucy, now suggests to another cast off lover, Quincey and her current paramour, Holmwood they summon Seward’s old college mentor, Prof. Van Helsing to devise a method of recuperation. Alas, Van Helsing’s initial assessment proves prophetic. Lucy has been consumed by the blood of the vampyre. It is too late for her reprieve. She will suffer a terrific metamorphosis and die. It is only a matter of time. Yet, a ray of hope there may be in a primitive blood transfusion; Van Helsing ordering Holmwood and Seward to roll up their sleeves and pledge to the cause immediately.
In the meantime, Harker has managed a daring escape from the Count’s Transylvanian castle, tumbling into its moat physically depleted, though somehow managing an escape to a nearby abbey where he is marginally nursed back to health by the sisterhood. In London, Dracula presents himself to Mina in his youthful incarnation. He tempts her as a stranger in town to show him the sites, especially the Cinematique. Mina is, at first, stern. However, she is bewitched and does accompany Dracula to the tented show where all sorts of various oddities are being projected onto canvases, much to the amusement of the other patrons. The romantic mood is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a lone white wolf, bursting into the room and snarling at Mina. The frightened crowds flee. But Dracula is unafraid, coddling the animal as though it were a harmless puppy and encouraging Mina to do the same. Despite the Count’s decidedly odd appearance – and his even more abnormal behavior – Mina is attracted to him. However, upon learning of Harker’s salvation abroad, she packs her bags and travels to Romania to be reunited with the man she truly adores. In Romania, Harker and Mina are married. Outraged, the Count – unseen and lethally enraged – takes possession of Lucy, transforming her into a vampyre as Van Helsing, Quincey and Holmwood helplessly look on.
To spare the girl eternal damnation, Van Helsing convinces Quincey, Holmwood and Seward they must exhume Lucy’s remains from the family crypt, drive a stake through her heart and behead her. Holmwood is, at first, vehemently opposed to this desecration. However, he nevertheless follows the others into the crypt; shocked to discover the glass casket empty. Lucy emerges at the top of the stairwell, carrying a frightened half-naked child in her arms, presumably meant as a human sacrifice. The whites of her eyes swollen with blood, a newly formed set of fangs from her mouth, Lucy is driven back into her casket by Van Helsing, who defends himself with the crucifix long enough for Holmwood to drive a stake through his dead lover’s heart and then decapitate her with his sword. Sometime later, Harker and Mina arrive in London; Harker helping Van Helsing to locate and destroy the Count’s secret hiding place where his boxes of Romanian soil are stored.
A vengeful Dracula transforms himself into a silken green-glowing mist, oozing past the iron bars of the asylum to murder Renfield for his betrayal. Mina, who has been confined to Seward’s quarters, is visited by Dracula, now in the shape of a life-size vampyre bat. Van Helsing, Harker, Seward and Holmwood burst in: Van Helsing, at the point of a crucifix, ordering the Count to return to Transylvania. Alas, the religious icon holds no sway over this demon of the night; the cross bursting into flames in Van Helsing’s hand. The Count manages to reincarnate Mina as his former lover and under his spell she not only confesses to being Elizabeta, but professes to still be in love with him. At Mina’s insistence, Dracula begins transforming her into a vampyre. Too late to prevent the inevitable, Van Helsing instead manages to read Mina’s mind via her connection with Dracula, learning of the pair’s sailing for Transylvania. Pursuing Mina and Dracula to Varna, Harker, Seward, Quincey and Van Helsing split up to save time and cover more ground.
By nightfall, only Van Helsing has managed to make it to the castle. In attempting to protect Mina from further harm, Van Helsing falls under siege from Dracula’s brides; surrounding himself and Mina in a ring of torch-lit fire and placing a communal wafer upon Mina’s forehead. Momentarily, Mina appears to awaken from Dracula’s spell. Meanwhile, the rest of the vampyre hunters are chasing after the coach carrying Dracula’s remains back through the Borgo Pass. Using his powers of persuasion, Dracula turns the local gypsies against the hunters. In the resulting carnage, Quincey is mortally stabbed in the back, though not before he manages to thrust his own knife into Dracula’s heart; Harker, charging from behind to slit the Count’s throat. As Dracula staggers into his chapel, Seward and Holmwood advance upon the castle. They are prevented from pursing Mina by Van Helsing. It’s no use. Mina is still in love with the Count.  Quincey quietly dies in the snow, surrounded by his friends. Unable to restore himself, since having reverted to his ancient demonic form in the chapel where he renounced God so long ago, Dracula instead transforms into his youthful self; Mina’s tender kiss stirring the candles in the chapel to flicker and ignite. With Vlad’s encouragement, Mina plunges a stake through his heart, thus breaking the curse upon her soul and freeing Vlad’s to rise overhead; imbedded in a fresco depicting the Count and Elisabeta, at long last reunited in their ascendance into heaven.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula – or rather, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula – ought to have clicked more succinctly than it does. I cannot exactly pinpoint the fault, except to reiterate its existence as detrimental to the overall appeal of its storytelling. Arguably, Coppola never intended this to be a gory retread of the caped blood-sucker and his romps through a perpetually fog-laden London. And yet, some of this old-time Hollywood hokum has been retained; fleshed out by the grandiloquence in James V. Hart’s prosaic dialogue; too, too operatic; too Shakespearean even, to be believed; its’ stultifying effect compounded and then further stalemated by Coppola’s adherence to the script, at times, as heavy-handed and methodical in his pacing of scenes that in and of themselves are richly compelling, but ultimately prove convoluted and dissatisfying as a whole. Somewhere along the way, Coppola has fallen in love with the exercise of making the movie; overly amused by its artifice without first realizing too much of a good thing is still, decidedly, too much! At the start of the enterprise, Coppola gathered his cast together for a retreat on his Napa Valley vineyard: a dry run of rehearsals and readings; the actors spending a few days interacting with one another and partaking in the pleasures of Coppola’s hospitality; doing improvisations and giving Coppola feedback on his meditations regarding the screenplay. In the interim, Coppola hotheadedly fired the litany of SFX wizards initially procured to establish the look of the picture, after each leaned on Coppola to reconsider his deadlock against using more contemporary and streamlined visual effects. Ensconcing his twenty-one year old son to helm the production instead, Roman Coppola became the de facto visual effects supervisor on Dracula; indulging his father’s every whim to make an ‘old school’ motion picture.
In retrospect, it is not the artifice that mortally wounds Dracula or even prevents it from becoming an iconic re-envisioning of the time-honored Stoker tale. Rather, it is Coppola’s own infuriatingly inability to take an editor’s scissor’s to his work; to see the forest clearly for its trees, as it were, that cripples the entire production. At some level, the effects go beyond and draw undue attention to their presence; not as badly conceived and/or achieved, but rather, as far too clever, gaudy and overly-produced for their own good. It still might have worked as a sort of experiment in ‘stage-bound’ theatricality, except that the acting – apart from Gary Oldman’s immaculate portrayal of the multi-faceted Count – is so woefully pathetic, so muddled by ill-omened casting decisions, and so profoundly dreary when Oldman is not on the screen, that the resultant spectacle becomes a bedraggled and benign cacophony of noise; again, as Shakespeare might have noted, “full of sound and fury…signifying nothing!”    
The style of the picture was heavily influenced by Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast as well as various paintings by Gustav Klimt and other symbolist artists; Coppola urging his designers to give him “something weird” and further compelling them to dig deep to bring forth memories from their nightmares. There is little to deny either the technical proficiency or the ‘artistic’ moodiness derived from their contributions, the resultant sets, uber-Gothic and brooding; not a single exterior or location among them. Alas, the cumulative effect proves rather suffocating; this resplendent darkness consumed by overwhelming lavishness. Bluntly put, and once more excluding Gary Oldman from this evaluation; quite simply, the sets and the costumes overpower the actors; the film becoming very top-heavy visually, and in utter absence of juicier performances into which not only Count Dracula could sink his teeth. Coppola and his cast are undeniably luxuriating in the absurd richness of the production design. But the effect is wholly unattractive instead of sparse and uncanny. In the final analysis, Dracula is a failed experiment – often, providing the viewer with exceptional vignettes, imbued with an impressionist’s starkness for boldly re-conceiving the Stoker classic. But the movie founders in too much good taste and not enough actual food for thought. If the blood is the life, Dracula remains queerly anemic, suffering from bloodless arteries that run nowhere except dry.
Sony ‘Mastered in 4K’ re-release of Dracula on Blu-ray will leave some aficionados cold. In 2005, the studio’s ‘director approved’ Blu-ray left much more to be desired. This reincarnation improves on virtually most – though arguably, not all – of the movie’s visual aspects; chiefly and vastly, its’ color-timing. Overall sharpness has taken a quantum leap forward: ditto for shadow depth and fine detail, with a modicum of grain registering as exceptionally film-like and pleasing. Where the controversy will likely fall is in Sony’s decision to re-frame the image. There is a noticeable amount of more information in the upper and left quadrants, so much, it does not constitute ‘more’ so much as it alters – in some cases, considerably – the visual space of the action. Those unfamiliar with previous home video incarnations will be oblivious to this shift. I hesitate to refer to it as an ‘alteration’. My memory of seeing the movie projected in a theater has been muddled with the passage of time. But purists will likely perceive the decision to re-frame as untoward meddling by the studio. Comparing both Blu-rays, personally I have chosen to accept this new disc as the authoritative version, despite the fact both have been heralded as ‘approved’ by director, Francis Ford Coppola.  
Sony has painstakingly re-imagined the soundtrack, this time in 7.1 HD, also a Dolby Atmos track, capturing the essential subtleties and dynamic range with startling clarity. Dracula has never sounded quite so intense, the core elements of this remastering effort giving new life to even the most quiescent moments.  Dialogue is firmly situated in the center channel, but it also enjoys ever so slight reverberation in the surrounds. Given all the work committed to this monumental overhaul, we can sincerely forgive Sony for not going the extra mile to produce ‘new’ extras. Yes, we get an ‘exclusive’ introduction from Coppola. But it is scant, with Coppola suffering from a queer ennui. There’s also new packaging. Personally, I wish the studios would stick with what they know. I am also not a fan of Sony rechristening this as the debut of their ‘Supreme Cinema Series’ as, from past experiences with all the studios, I have come to realize just how short-lived such ‘collections’ can be (Sapphire Series, anyone?). Nevertheless, I cannot deny Grover Crisp and Sony have once again taken the utmost care to prepare this release for Blu-ray; a snazzy 24 page booklet with colorful artwork and info; the rest of the extras distilled to imports from the previous Blu-ray release (actually, these were all part of the DVD collector’s edition); and a few new ones, including, Reflections in Blood: Francis Ford Coppola and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Practical Magicians: A Collaboration between Father and Son and four Legacy featurettes. We also get all of the deleted scenes and the 1993 commentary track, featuring Francis Ford and Roman Coppola and Greg Cannom. 
Parting thoughts: I am not a fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so the improvements herein are moot to me, though nevertheless welcomed. Sony has been at the forefront of remastering their back catalog for a whole new generation to admire. I sincerely would like to see them turn their digital wizardry loose on a Cinema Series hi-def offering of 1994’s Little Women, The Remains of the Day, A League of Their Own, Places in the Heart, Sense and Sensibility and The Age of Innocence: titles I would deem just as – if not more – worthy of this honor. I can see the logic in choosing Dracula ahead of these, as improvements in overall clarity have brought out even more of the hellacious detail in Coppola’s grand guignol. Impressive, yes. Worthy contender…hmmm. Bottom line: highly recommended for fans of the movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS

3.5 

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