Monday, 13 April 2009

Movie Review: Bram Stoker's Dracula

I had heard that Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula was one of the closest to the actual novel. Having seen Dracula 2000 and other modern adaptations, I was excited to see how close it was. After all, if Van Helsing became vamp himself, Mina Murray married the undead Lucy, and Dracula took over the New World, it would still be closer to the book than half of the versions I've seen.

It wasn't quite so ridiculous, of course, but it certainly wasn't the same. There were two primary differences. The first is about plot: in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Dracula's interest in Mina Murray is not particularly different from his interest in, say, Lucy. She's fresh blood in a pretty bod. The only reason the two have more of a connection is 1) she's involved with the vampire hunters and therefore he can use her against them, and 2) he gets interrupted without being able to finish the job. In Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, however, we get a bit of Dracula's backstory. He becomes a vampire after the love of his life, thinking Dracula is dead, kills herself and is denied a proper burial; ol' Vlad apostates himself very dramatically and becomes the cursed undead. By some fluke, Dracula comes upon Jonathon Harker's picture of his fiance, Mina Murray, when they are finalizing the real estate transaction in Transylvania, and the elderly vampire realizes that Mina Murray, betrothed to the bookish realtor trapped in his castle, is the reincarnation of his long-dead bride. A fairly complicated love story develops between Mina and Dracula, which I won't detail too much for fear of ruining the plot. Needless to say, it deviates from the book significantly.

Which really didn't bother me overmuch. I will write a post on my view of adaptations, but let's just say here that I found it a good story regardless and enjoyed watching Mina's inner conflict, and seeing how the whole things would be resolved.

The second variation was more thematic: there was a marked influx in the erotic.

That's not to say that horror and the erotic don't walk hand-in-hand, or that the original Dracula didn't have elements designed to arouse. But in this one, everyone was downright horny. Lucy wasn't a flirt; she was a slut. Van Helsing wasn't a decorous doctor; he was an old goat (I have never seen Anthony Hopkins hump a man's leg before). Lucy and Mina were indeed old friends, but they were friends with benefits. Harker wasn't aroused by a femme vampire visiting him one night; I'd say he was raped, but that implies that he didn't consent. If this movie is anything to go by, Victorian dresses were manufactured so that breasts could pop out by accident at a moment's notice.

I'm serious: Dracula did not merely drink people's blood, but had sex with them in the form of a man-wolf before doing so [Note: link contains mature content]. At one point in the movie, Lucy and Mina make out in the rain for no reason at all. Lucy could not keep her clothes over her body parts, and Mina had an interesting relationship with cleavage. Dracula's wives were interested in blood only as a side-dish to the other pleasures Harker could provide.

I harp on this because I'm frustrated by it. It's not simply a "Our generation is deteriorating into vice and sin" sort of thing: rather, I'm concerned about the fact that the movie was rated 14A, and about the fact that subtlety has gone out the window. Half the pleasure of Dracula is that you know they're sexiness broiling underneath, that there's a dark attraction to the vampires, but it's suppressed. It's the act of suppression and the threat of it coming out that is truly engaging. That's why innuendo is funnier than a more explicit joke, and why we have things like courtship (or stripteases, if you're more voyeuristically inclined). It's also why Jaws is scariest when you haven't yet seen the shark. So it's not just that I'm a prude and am disappointed in the perceived need to include gratuitous nudity in a movie to make it do well. It's also that the gratuity itself ruins half of the artistry that can be involved in including the erotic in horror. I will in time write an entire post about this.

Onto more traditional review topics:

The acting is pretty decent. Keanu Reeves is never amazing, but he is adequate enough in his role. Gary Oldman does an excellent Dracula, appearing almost like Palpatine as the withered Dracula and like an almost Ann Rice libertine as the rejuvinated count. Anthony Hopkins is always amazing. The supporting cast are generally spot-on, though Renfeild is a bit too stereotypical: it seems that even now, we can't portray a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum without treating the inmates exactly as the "psychiatrists" of the period treated them. The performance that impressed me most, though, was Winona Ryder's. She managed to be something other than a spoiled, cynical little girl, and that's a great acheivement. In places she reminded me of Kiera Knightley, which is to say that in places she was actually attractive, which I would never have expected from Ryder. Perhaps I will from now on judge movies less harshly by her presence in them. She manages to convey the emotion of the re-vamped (get it? re-vamped) Mina Murray very well.

The special effects are dated, but the cinematopgraphy and editing are very well done, and the music adds to the atmosphere without becoming overwhelming or falling flat. The transitions are clear and clever homages to Hitchcock and the composition is great. I questioned a few choices, but I was generally quite pleased with the execution of the film.

Like the original, the movie paid close attention to the use of primary documents and to modern technology. The novel, in case you are unaware, consists entirely of correspondence, periodicals, diaries, and other written documentation, and one of the themes the text explores is the use of technological advancement to aid in the hunters' struggle against Dracula. The film addresses both of these in ways I found satisfactory.

Overall, I would recommend the movie if a) you do not care too much if it deviates from the original and b) you can tolerate lots of bared breasts. And I write this because I suspect at least one of my readers might not be so keen on that.

1 comment:

Jakob Dailes said...

The 1977 BBc adaptation of Dracula is the closest. I do admit, though, that I had a problem with Mina and Lucy being sisters in it. They were doing so could with barely changing a thing and then BAM! they're sisters. It might not irk you as much as me, though.

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