Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Dracula Untold is right at the gates of the fortress, preparing to unleash its bile on the already tarnished legacy of the tale. Is there anybody who can save us from the curse of Dracula that is not Hammer Films? Well, there is, but it’s not even close to perfect enough for mopping up the mess. It’ll just do.
Once upon a time, Francis Ford Coppola was a titan of filmmaking. At the top of the world, the director of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, the Palme d’Or winners The Conversation and the anarchic Apocalypse Now and heading the 70s bad boy auteurs straight out of UCLA and USC. But that is a time well enough long past by the time we reach the era of the movie we are about to hit up. See, like Icarus, Coppola had supposedly went too high over budget and over schedule with his wild dreams as an artist in the infamous production of Apocalypse Now. He didn’t very much clear the financial hurdle so much as just trip over it and he didn’t learn his lesson of caution with that movie.
One from the Heart in 1982 was almost as much too tall a Tower of Babel as Apocalypse Now and this time its financial bombing came crashing down to topple Coppola’s company American Zoetrope – once a beacon of light to new filmmakers looking to create art instead of a business. To add insult to injury, most of the techniques in One from the Heart went on to being fundamentals of film stylization, just the sort of profound innovator of film Coppola liked to fashion himself as. But at what cost, Lois?! AT WHAT COST?! Well, the cost of filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and being laughed at by every critic in the country. Zoetrope was ruined.
But these are stories for another time, same as all the films in between 1982 and 1992 where Coppola became the whipping boy of many a film studio to pay off the debts necessary to keep Zoetrope afloat. Most of these films became failures outright until 1990 when Coppola found himself somewhat back in the consideration of his peers with the return to his magnum opus the Godfather films and, though I personally am disappointed with The Godfather Part III in more ways than one, the movie succeeded financially and critically at the time and made Coppola return to figuring out just maybe one more passion project for himself to really let out his being through film like he once did through Apocalypse Now and The Conversation.
Then came the day that Winona Ryder approached Coppola with a script for an adaptation of Dracula as an olive branch for declining to appear in The Godfather Part III (although it led to one of the most atrocious performances reluctantly put on screen by Sofia Coppola, I can’t really blame Winona for such a good call). Recalling how at one point when he was a camp counselor, he would read Dracula for all the children of the night to sleep to (Questionable approach, but again, I’m the guy who grew up on Sin City and Tales from the Crypt) and figured “why not?”. He knew the potential of it as an epic like Carl Laemmle Jr. didn’t get to make. He wasn’t some noise junkie like Stephen Sommers. He knew how to make pictures. Or at least, he used to know, he just had to get himself back in the gears.
Well, let me be clear, I will start a glowing review about all the wonders of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but first we need to understand that it’s not even close to perfect. And I probably in fact do not need to tell you that when I start reviewing the movie. Most of my friends who I showed it to have had either a mixed reaction or a negative reception towards it. There was never anyone in my peers as enthusiastic about the film as I was, except maybe a girl I was with a few years ago. On one hand, it is a bit dismaying and alienating. On the other, if you want someone to showcase all the shining examples gleaming in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I think you’ve come to no better person than yours truly, the Movie Motorbreath. Let’s get started.
And to begin with, the main intention of Coppola with this film was realizing there really wasn’t a very faithful adaptation to Bram Stoker’s Dracula – from Universal to Hammer to all the other stuff that’s been floating on by. They never really stuck entirely to the story as Stoker told it. A lot got close, but they’d usually dilute details understandably. Coppola wanted to make this movie completely ripped from the pages of the book.
Let’s get things straight: A faithful adaptation does make a good movie. It makes a faithful adaptation. That’s it. A movie stands on its own merit. Most people have a problem realizing that in regards to any film, that the two mediums do not entirely suit each other and sometimes you need to accommodate. I know for a fact that fucked up Universal’s Dracula to go ahead and just about For instance, The Thin Man, fine fine fine book but it’s the only Dashiell Hammett work I had to work through. Add the cadence of William Powell and Myrna Loy, despite its third act deviations, The Thin Man as a movie is a classic of screwball and murder mystery works. Vice versa, we got Stephen King’s The Shining. While the book was actually a pretty fascinating piece on personal demons, the miniseries in general falls short of scares or any real emotional impact.
The best adaptations to me, keep the essence of the source material while either enhancing the themes or perspective or actually making a new one. And surprisingly, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is willing to do that all over the edges of the story. James Hart’s script applies the character to his real-life historical roots and inspirations, namely in the form of Vlad the Impaler, which mixes mythology with a more involving grounding now. It does however use dialogue that merits only the highest classification of acting (and I guess Coppola couldn’t reign that kind of acting in, but more on that later). In addition, there’s a lot more of a sixth sense within watching the picture… if that makes sense (and it really doesn’t since you can only hear and see movies)…
Let me fix it then, unlike the Universal film, there is a dynamic aura within the film. You know what you are meant to feel and have no trouble feeling it because the movie has no problem with grabbing you by your arms and tossing you about. Namely there’s a more erotic and sensual basis within the story (I hope Coppola was not reading to the kids like that). The movie brings out more of the violent sexuality in Dracula to attack Mina and Lucy and even Jonathan Harker with and that’s not exactly a terrible thing. It’s just a lot more evoking, a lot more provocative, and when it comes with a story like Dracula, a horror story, you need a reaction from audiences – that is the point of horror storytelling.
You see, just to quickly go over the story, Vlad the Impaler (Oldman) is a 1400s bad mother in war who returns to find his wife (Ryder) has killed herself after the Turks vengefully sent her a letter claiming to have killed Vlad. When the clergy insists that Vlad’s love has been damned for her suicide, Vlad renounces God and swears to remain on this earth as a human plague.
Fast forward to 1897 and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) has been sent to complete a sale of land in London to Count Dracula’s home in Transylvania. Even a child can tell Dracula is Vlad immortal. Vlad sees Jonathan’s fiancee Mina (Ryder again) in a picture of his and immediately obsesses to the point of imprisoning Harker in his castle and heading straight for London, causing many strange and unnerving events to happen. Jonathan escapes and joins Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and company, who by this point have begun their fight to save Mina’s soul and stop Dracula, in the process avenging a damned beloved.
Anyway, how we get to that ability of evocation is the most marvelous part about the movie. Coppola believed that in the presence of a vampire, things essentially don’t make sense. Vampires should not exist and don’t exist, so when you have to deal with one… the rules of the world change. You get more of a misunderstanding about the atmosphere. And how much more – I don’t want to say subtle because it’s usually right in front of the screen but… – poetic for him to do so than through avant-garde methods reminiscent of the techniques of Murnau and Dreyer. It’s a gigantic toybox of on-camera tricks, like multiple exposure, angles, film reversal, perspective shooting, lens, filters, you name it all, Coppola pulls out of his bag.
We all know how much I am a fucking sucker for practical effects when done right. The process of planning and performing the effects as well as the ambition necessary to go ahead with it makes me admire practical effects a world more than CGI admittedly (and I like CGI too when done right). Coppola brings us back into the world of the story by not just stating we are in Transylvania in the very balance between the 1800s and the 1900s, but by pulling us in with his archaic visual sensibility which is quite frankly a joy to look at. It’s a silent picture except it gets to use sound. It is especially unnerving in the Transylvania scenes, where physics goes completely wonky. Shadows move by themselves, liquids drip upwards, rats scrawl wherever they damn well please and these moments are just inexplicable except that a vampire is in the midst, beware. And each act has its own style (though admittedly the third act is the most generic of them all) – The very prologue going over Vlad’s heinous deeds at war is basically a bunraku shadowplay… the Transylvanian moments feel like a more fleshed out Nosferatu, the intimate scenes between Dracula and Mina is a tragic romance largely lit by candles…
But that’s only part of the visual aesthetic, lovingly captured warmly in a crisp nostalgic brown rot in Transylvania, a black nightly abyss with blue tangents in London’s night scenes by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and then arranged at the most precise order by editors Nicholas C. Smith, Glen Scantlebury & Anne Goursaud, marrying the trippy aspects of the film with the patience of a bedtime story for the doomed. The movie begins by taking its time laying the groundwork that by the first half ends, you’re ready to fight and then, once Van Helsing steps in, the movie raises through setpiece after setpiece of intended moments of reasoning and action. It finds itself skipping over stuff, but we’re really eager in the end to see who will win: Dracula or the humans. And here’s the rub, the script goes the right way of arranging sympathy for both characters without dismissing who is good and who is evil. That’s pretty solid by me.
And these setpieces are magnificent, ripped right out of a Cocteau film. The castle of Dracula is a nightmare of Escher arrangements and crypt-like decadence, a seemingly endless labyrinth of dungeons of stone, while London is imposingly aristocratic, civilized and stuffily Victorian. Nevermind the arena-like arrangement in the snowy gates of Transylvania where the final battle is staged.
Toss inside some frightening makeup that turns Dracula from a human pillar of ash to a very sexy Victorian rock star to an exaggerated anthropomorphic bat and all of the above, plus career-best work by legendary Eiko Ishioda in costume design, ingraining her personality and background of Japanese influences to add to the conglomerative whirlwind that makes Bram Stoker‘s Dracula the shellshock of worlds that it is and we end up with essentially the single most expressionistic piece of filmmaking past the 1950s. And holy shit am I happy with that. I have friends who say it’s basically Coppola on Apocalypse Now excessive ambition and my response to that is “You may be right? But so what?” It works. It gets you understanding the moods and tones and forcefeeds it to you and you swallow it and get involved. Coppola himself wanted the film too look like a great big painting or dressing or decoration for what he insisted were the “jewels” of the feature.
And unfortunately that’s where the film sort of has its weakness.
What Coppola failed to realize was that the acting in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is… pretty godawful, I gotta say. Or maybe he did realize it and for the most part only took what he could get. Or maybe we just have to face the fact that 80s-Present Coppola is fucking terrible at directing actors (and the 70s were a fluke for him) as opposed to just creating visual atmosphere. Whatever the case, a lot of the moments are either dented or damaged (depending on your perspective) by the extremely faulty acting. First off, if they weren’t Gary Oldman, Tom Waits or they weren’t doing their own accent like Richard Grant was, they all sound ridiculous. I can’t put a finger on what the fuck Hopkins’ accent is meant to be, Reeves is just laughably not even capable of a Transatlantic and Bill Campbell is a fucking stereotype of Slim Pickens proportions with his accent. Then there’s the fact that what these actors are discussing at many moments, the lines that would come out of their mouths is very imperative to the situation at hand in the story, but they kind of let it slide down and then overact unessential lines. Like for instance, when Dr. Seward (Grant), Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and Quincy Morris (Campbell) are discussing the symptoms of Lucy Westerna (Sadie Frost, who is quite alluring all throughout the movie) with Van Helsing, they don’t really show any real concern. They show excitement, they’re not wooden, but they’re talking about it like it’s just a simple science lesson when they should be as urgent as Mulder and Scully in an episode of The X-Files.
In the meantime, an earlier moment where the three men would be courting Lucy, a scene which is essential as background noise and subtle progression of character relationships but still inconsequential to the main story, they’d all be acting like they were putting their heart on their sleeve… If their heart was made of felt and not actually beating… A lot of these actors are not entirely certain where their characters stand in the film. But they can still at least provide stock grounding. Tom Waits doesn’t need to, but he’s still quite a joy to behold as the insane Renfield in a more 90s darkness tone. Gary Oldman goes as far as he can go to be diabolical and broken at the same time without hamming it up like he sometimes does deliberately with performances in Leon or The Fifth Element. For the horrible horrible inconsistency in his accent, Anthony Hopkins has not yet begun phoning it in like he has been doing in films as of late. He’s got just enough crazy in him along with wise to be a curious little presence in the film.
But how about that crowning jewel of all of the fuck-ups?
People expect me to say Keanu Reeves, but I’m honestly unsurprised by how bad he was. He certainly hurts the film more than anyone else and is definitely not qualified for this role if not his career (I won’t immediately say he is the worst actor around – shit, James Franco exists – but he’s not making it easy). The person I am most disappointed with is Winona Ryder as Elisabeta and Mina. She puts on the same face and hams up her moments with Oldman’s Dracula, and that would be maybe excusable for a few of the supporting characters (though not really, since acting is an essential part of the storytelling of film and the actors do have a responsibility to pull into the world of Dracula)… but Mina is the center of this arc between Jonathan and Dracula and she needs to sell herself being torn apart. Ryder is not up to it, she hits one exact note on her performance and stops there, refusing to go further. It makes it all the more painful to hear this heightened language that she needs to act like it’s coming straight form her heart and jamming it into her throat… It’s not heart-wrenching, it’s cringe-inducing for fuck’s sake Wino!
Like imagine Kristen Stewart reciting Shakespeare. That’s how Winona feels as Mina. And if the movie just about is dented by most of the acting, Winona’s terrible job outright tears the foundation of the romantic storyline and nearly undos all of the hard work the crew did to surround you with this fantasy world and make it seem real and get you involved in how our characters are going. It’s sadly up to the discretion of the audience in the end to decide to hold it together or not.
Me, I choose to hold it together. The world looks too fantastic, too beautiful to let it go down to the toilet. Coppola has come too far for one more hurrah and I kind of was eager to give it to him, so it wasn’t out of my way to put in a little more suspension of disbelief and when I look at the film, rather than listen to it… the fog… the light balls… the cemeteries… the castles… the rose… all around… it pays off to me in the end.
To put it more basically, when the actors are not the main reason to look at the screen, it’s like my wildest dreams come true. When the acting is at the forefront and neither Waits nor Oldman are there to save it too much, I can live without it. But, you have to take the good with the bad and in the end, Bram Stoker’s Dracula proves to be one of the only two adaptations of Dracula yet that actually pleases and entertains as a picture as much as it should. And if Coppola’s career had to descend afterwards (and it did), I can’t think of no better way to go out than through the complete explosion of auteur intuition he once had.