Category: Movies

Halloween '08, Part 3: Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula

Continuing from my previous post:

Bram Stoker's Dracula was my favorite of the four movies, and here's why: it managed to create the most faithful adaptation of the events of the book, while totally subverting its theme. Also, it had boobies.

The movie goes to great lengths to adapt the book accurately, from the inclusion of Holmwood and Quincey, a pair of redundant characters who are usually left out of movie adaptations, to details like Dracula climbing on the walls of the castle like an insect, feeding a baby to his wives, becoming younger after feeding on Lucy, and appearing on the streets of London in broad daylight; Harker going prematurely gray after his ordeal; Dracula's wives surrounding Van Helsing and, unable to break his protective circle, killing his horses.

And yet, in the end, the viewer is left with a wholly different feeling about Dracula: far from being evil incarnate, he's more of a sympathetic character. It's the uptight Victorians who are the real villains here; Hopkins's Van Helsing is out of his damned mind, chopping a woman's head off and then casually discussing it over dinner, after dismissing her as "a bitch of the Devil, a whore of darkness" while laughing giddily.

The sexuality that's implied in the book, and in most of the film adaptations, is overt here. Yet, it seems far less perverse than the society that condemns it. Lucy talks lustily about "unspeakable acts of desperate passion on the parlour floor", and this seems a far more natural thing for a nineteen-year-old girl than choosing a husband. She doesn't look like she's suffering when she's clutching at herself during an "attack" by Dracula, but she certainly does when she's having her head cut off by Van Helsing.

Yes, Dracula's origin story and his motivations are original to this version, as are his meetings with Mina under the identity of Prince Vlad. Most importantly, Mina's consent, and indeed insistence, on being turned is original here. And that's an integral part of the film: when all is said and done, it's clear she belongs with Dracula, her exciting and mysterious ancient love, not the boringly conventional and dull Harker (a role which you'd think Keanu Reeves would be perfect for, but which he still manages to drag down). Dracula is a sympathetic character, and thus the whole story is turned on its head.

Thematically, it's The Rocky Horror Picture Show played straight.

No, hear me out.

I'm not comparing the quality of the two movies, and certainly not of the two directors. Rocky is an awful damned film, which is of course part of its appeal. Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is, by contrast, an utterly brilliant film. But thematically, the two have a lot in common: a fresh take on monster movies of the 1930's, centering around the conflict between old, prudish attitudes toward sex and modern, more liberated ones. Both movies focus on straightlaced couples seduced by a character who's traditionally depicted as a villain but who, in the end, is far more relatable than the eccentric German professor who seeks to destroy him.

Which is not to say that Frank-N-Furter and Dracula are good guys -- they're both cannibals, for God's sake. Frank kills Eddie and serves him up for dinner; Dracula throws a baby to his wives (and reminders are given throughout the movie that he is, in fact, Vlad the Impaler). And so both of them are still monsters, and there's no defending those acts -- saying they're another metaphor for breaking taboos is a copout. Less a copout, perhaps, is to contrast these actions with their sexual behavior: it's not sex that makes them monstrous, it's violence; the typical western notion that violence is more acceptable than sex is another piece of those perverse and puritanical social values that both movies criticize. (In Dracula's case, it also allows for the contrast between a charming, Lugosi-style Dracula and a monstrous, Schreck-style one within the span of the same movie.)

So that's where the Coppola movie shines: Stoker's Victorian sensibilities are wrong, but his story can be easily adapted to late-twentieth-century themes -- perhaps because Stoker's novel itself is about the clash between the ancient and modern worlds. (Not to say, by any stretch, that modern films aren't prudish in their own way -- MPAA-approved nude scenes are still utterly absurd, and this is a movie chock-full of graphic sex scenes where nobody ever completely disrobes.) Ironic, then, that Stoker's name is in the title -- this was the first in a trend of films with authors' names, not always appropriately, stuck in the titles to differentiate them from previous adaptations of the same work (the worst offender being Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which bore even less resemblance to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book than Disney's animated version; if memory serves its credits didn't even say "Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling" but "Based on characters from the book by Rudyard Kipling").

Anyhow. All this to say, Francis Ford Coppola makes pretty good movies. I know, amazing observation, right? That is why you read this blog. Because you enjoy watching someone take 800 words to say something everybody already knew.

Go vote tomorrow.

Halloween '08, Part 2: Three Dracula Movies

Halloween's my favorite holiday, and this year, in celebration of the season, I watched four different versions of Dracula: 1922's silent German Nosferatu, the 1931 Bela Lugosi Universal classic Dracula, the 1958 Hammer Horror of Dracula starring Christopher Lee, and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula from '92. (I was hoping to squeeze in the 1979 Dracula with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier, but ran out of time. Maybe next year.)

The most obvious and banal observation I can make is that each of the four films is the product of its time. But interestingly, they all stayed fairly close to the source material.

Nosferatu is an excellent example of the art of silent film, and does an admirable job of conveying the plot with minimal dialogue. The acting is, of course, purely physical and greatly exaggerated. Schreck's makeup is suitably creepy; his ratlike features and too-long limbs and fingers grant him a sense of the otherworldly and frightening. The cinematography adds to the effect with the shots of Count Orlok's shadow on the wall, and, most famously, the Count springing up out of his coffin as if his feet are on a hinge. In the version I saw, the soundtrack was fully orchestrated; I expect this detracts from the authenticity of the experience, but it added to the atmosphere.

It's no wonder Prana Film lost Florence Stoker's copyright infringement suit, as the film's efforts to dodge infringement accusations are decidedly half-assed. The film's first two acts are virtually identical to the novel's, and Count Orlok, Hutter, Ellen, and Knock are clearly the same characters as Dracula, Harker, Mina, and Renfield, respectively. (Harding, Lucy, Professor Bulwer, and Dr. Sievers are minor enough characters to have plausible deniability, but their names are still suspiciously similar to Holmwood, Lucy, Professor Van Helsing, and Dr. Seward.)

Most of the movie is a fairly straight-up adaptation -- Hutter, as in the original story, is a realtor, and is bound for Orlok's castle to sell him property in his hometown. (The movie deviates from the book by making Knock/Renfield a realtor as well; the 1931 and 1992 versions follow suit.) Hutter says goodbye to his wife, meets spooked villagers who warn him of wolves in the woods and refuse to take him to the castle, and takes a scary stagecoach ride with a mysterious driver. When he arrives at Orlok's castle, we see all the expected symbolic scenes: he cuts himself, Orlok lunges for the wound but is repelled by the cross; Hutter falls asleep and wakes up with bite marks on his neck. After Hutter finds Orlok sleeping in a coffin, the count leaves him for dead and departs for his new home on a ship.

The ship sequence is expanded in significance compared to the book, but to the same result: Orlok kills everyone on the boat, leaving only the captain's body tied to the wheel.

The last act seems truncated by comparison. It's creepy enough -- the seeming plague come to the city, with people dying left and right, and the angry mob led by Professor Bulwer against Knock -- but Orlok's defeat ultimately seems anticlimactic. No turning Lucy into a vampire, no stake through the heart; the significance of multiple coffins filled with soil from his homeland is hinted but never comes to any payoff. He simply stays out too late and dies by exposure to sunlight. But that in itself is probably Nosferatu's most lasting contribution to the story and the genre: it introduced the idea of vampires not merely being weakened by exposure to sunlight but actually dying on contact with it.

Moving on to 1931: it struck me how different this Dracula is from its best-known contemporary in the Universal Monster series. The 1931 Frankenstein has very little to do with its source material, while the 1931 Dracula follows Stoker's story fairly closely, with only a few major deviations: Renfield, not Harker, is the realtor who goes to Castle Dracula to close the sale on Carfax Abbey, and Dr. Seward is Mina's father.

That aside, we've got the same staples noted above: spooked villagers, the coach ride, the blood and the cross, the coffin, the attack, the departure by ship, and the arrival of the same with its crew all dead. We also see Dracula's wives, who show up in the 1958 and 1992 versions as well.

Swapping Renfield in for Harker does a nice job of explaining his madness, and also serves to throw out Harker's unlikely escape from the castle, one of the more problematic parts of the original story.

And of course in Lugosi's Dracula and Frye's Renfield, we get the two best characters in the film. Lugosi's Dracula stands in stark contrast to Schreck's Orlok; Schreck is immediately scary, while Lugosi is charming with menace below the surface.

This version includes Lucy in more than a cameo; as in the book, Dracula bites her (after appearing at the window as a thoroughly hokey rubber bat), Van Helsing attempts a blood transfusion, and she turns anyway; unlike in the book, this doesn't take an agonizingly long series of trial-and-error attempts to stop Dracula from coming through her window every night (though part of that sequence appears later in the movie, with Van Helsing hanging wolfsbane around Mina's neck and the nurse removing it). Lucy's story, curiously, is left dangling here; she becomes a vampire, but the heroes never bother to track her down. Presumably, like Mina, she reverts to her old self when Dracula is killed.

Dracula starts feeding on Mina and then, for reasons not adequately explained, decides to show up and hang out around the scene of the crime long enough for Van Helsing to notice he doesn't have a reflection; in an iconic moment, he breaks the mirror.

As in the book, Renfield betrays his master for Mina's sake and Dracula eventually strangles him. Unlike the book, Dracula shows up to gloat some more; Van Helsing gloats back and tells him his plan to kill him. Once again we get the multiple coffins containing Transylvanian soil.

No chase back to Castle Dracula in this version; Van Helsing corners him in Carfax Abbey and stakes him there. Mina reverts and she and Jonathan leave Van Helsing behind.

In the end, there's a reason this is the definitive Dracula movie. It's not as creepy as Nosferatu, but it's bigger and has a more satisfying third act. The sets are gorgeous, and Lugosi's charisma (and eastern European accent) make him the Dracula all others would be compared to and most would imitate to some extent. The pacing is good and a lot of extraneous material from the book is removed; the changes are mostly good ones.

Speaking of changes from the source material, the 1958 version probably deviates the most out of the four, while still keeping fairly true to the story. That version starts much like the others -- Harker goes to Castle Dracula, except this time he's a librarian rather than a realtor, and the most interesting early twist is that he knows who Dracula is and is actually there to kill him. It seems a little farfetched that he writes this all down in a diary that he keeps not-really-hidden in the desk in his bedroom, but as the plot develops it becomes clear that the diary is insurance in case he fails his mission.

Lee plays Dracula similarly to Lugosi -- charming and eccentric; perhaps a little colder than Lugosi's version. Much of the typical foreshadowing -- the mirror, Jonathan cutting himself -- is missing; instead, a single Dracula wife feigns being a damsel in distress, and then bites Harker. Dracula appears at that point, looking crazed, and with blood around his mouth. Here we see what may be this version's biggest departure from the previous films: cinematic sex and violence were getting more overt by 1958, and in fact the Hammer Horror series was on the leading edge of the trend. Horror of Dracula is tame by modern standards, but pursued titillation that the Universal version didn't. You don't quite see the female vampire sink her teeth into Harker's neck, but this movie comes closer to that shot than the 1931 film did, and shows blood around her mouth and Dracula's afterward. As for the "sex" part, the inherent sexuality of the story is still veiled, but there is an element of the erotic to the scene, and the female vampire is one of several women in the film to wear a revealing dress.

Harker lives to fight another day, but only one more. Like the 1931 version, this film throws out the hard-to-believe "Harker gets away" part of the book. Unlike the 1931 version, it replaces it with the even-harder-to-believe premise that he waits until right before sunset to try to kill Dracula, and kills the wife first so she can scream and wake the Count. This seems like particularly poor planning on Harker's part given that he has the presence of mind to hide his diary where someone will find it first.

Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) turns up looking for Harker, finds him vampiric and sleeping, and stakes him. Between the scene in the crypt, Harker's diary (which he acquires from the traditional spooked villagers), and the carriage he saw tearing out the gate carrying a coffin as he arrived, he determines that Dracula's headed to London to replace his dead wife with Jonathan's fiancee. In this version, Lucy is engaged to Jonathan, and is Holmwood's sister; Holmwood is married to Mina.

Holmwood, with good reason, is originally skeptical of Van Helsing, but as Dracula goes after Lucy and Dr. Seward (a minor character in this version) misdiagnoses her with anemia, Mina seeks his help. We get the transfusion scene again in this version, as well as the wreath of garlic around her neck that the maid then removes. Lucy apparently dies, Van Helsing reveals Jonathan's diary, they go to the crypt and stake her.

As Van Helsing and Holmwood try to track Dracula's coffin down (there's no Carfax Abbey in this version, and neither is there a ship scene; Castle Dracula is within a day's ride of London and Dracula came by coach). As in the previous movies, Dracula needs to sleep in a coffin in his own home soil, and in this version he isn't capable of transforming into wolf, mist, or bat, so his mobility is limited.

While they're out looking for him, Dracula makes his move (leading me to wonder why they didn't perform the search in the daytime) and turns Mina. Holmwood discovers what's happened when he hands her a cross and, as in the book, it burns her. He and Van Helsing go to the morgue to find Dracula's coffin, but it's gone; in another unexpected twist, it's inside Holmwood's house. As Dracula attacks Mina again, Van Helsing finds the coffin and throws a crucifix into it, preventing Dracula from returning to it and forcing him to flee with Mina back to his castle. At last, the chase scene!

Van Helsing corners Dracula for a good, solid fight scene, ending in sunrise and Dracula's death. Holmwood saves Mina, who was buried alive; she returns to normal. Presumably Harker and Van Helsing didn't know that killing Dracula would cause his victims to revert, because if they did, then none of the movie makes any sense.

This version, while IMO the least memorable of the four, is interesting for managing to throw some twists into the story, most notably Harker's revelation that he knows who Dracula is and intends to kill him and Dracula hiding inside Holmwood's own home. The decision to include Holmwood while minimizing Seward's role and omitting Renfield's is interesting. And again, the increase in sex and violence over the previous films is notable.

I think my biggest complaint is that Dracula's transformation from man to monster occurs too quickly in this movie -- Christopher Lee doesn't get nearly enough lines, which is a pity given his fantastic voice and delivery. Nonetheless, it remains one of his most memorable roles in a long and distinguished career, and with good reason.

That leaves the 1992 version, and I have enough to say about that one for it to be its own separate post. To be continued!