Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bram Stoker's Dracula

I recall being excited to see Bram Stoker's Dracula when it came out. I was still in college and living in Alphabet City with a bunch of film/art students and several of us got,  in the parlance of the time, "rippin' stoned" and went to see it at the Village East Cinema, in the old main theater.
I now realize that Coppola's goal in Dracula was to make the schmanciest B-movie ever. An homage to Universal and Hammer, both studios and aesthetics to which this film owes much. Also, let us not forget that Francis got his start working on Roger Corman's gothic horror movies, including A.D. on a few of his Vincent Price Poe flicks and getting his directorial feet wet on the creepy castle/wandering solider/Boris Karloff/Jack Nicholson/should-be-a-better movie The Terror.
So, we open with some lovely Javanese shadow puppets and a flashback to the birth of Dracula, so to speak. Where he went to war, impaled a bunch of people, his fiancee thought he was dead and killed herself, he cursed god and, presto, he's Dracula!
Clock the armor. The costumes in this movie are irrefutably spectacular, many referencing art or history or nature  and I do love me a some good costume design -- actually, that's a large part of the reason I wanted to see this movie when it came out. Coppola has said "I put most of my money in the costumes" and Eiko Ishioka gave him every penny of his money's worth and then some.
Another major reason was the casting of Gary Oldman as Dracula. Because before Gary Oldman was a B-movie villain or a Commissioner Gordon or a right-wing asshole, he was Sid Vicious in Love Kills.  No, seriously, he was Sid Vicious and every punk teen girl of the late 80's loved him for it. (Also, see Romeo Is Bleeding. Really.) The part where he reels around the chapel, screeching in Slobovian and cursing god and kicking over the holy water font -- it's pure Sid. (Although that's actually Lux Interior of the Cramps screaming. Diamanda Galas does the Dracula Brides screaming. Tom Waits does the madhouse screaming.)
But let us pause for a moment for one of the finest supporting actor turns of the 90's. Full disclosure: I worship Tom Waits like unto a very god. I have seen him play live and it was a life-changing experience. I interviewed him once and it was delightful; he told me that i was funny and it is a moment i still think of when i am feeling low... So,  Tom Waits plays Renfield, Dracula's maddened disciple in a performance that even a a non-fan has to admit is powerful and memorable -- he's revolting, deranged, pathetic but with this little lingering edge of reason clinging like the last leaf on the tree....

Oh, do you not remember Tom Waits? Because you saw Dracula on TV? I know, because those dreadful imbecilic fuckers who edit movies for television cut him out. To make room for commercials. They left in every fucking moment of "Whoa." but got rid of Tom Waits. So they could sell you Hot Pockets and Flonase. Miserable, rotten, filthy, wretched bastards!
But, now we're back to the B-movie hackery with our two leads -- the roles that most vexed me at the time. Mina Harker is Winona Ryder -- well, if you wanted Helena Bonham Carter, why didn't you hire Helena Bonham Carter? (Oh, that's right, she was off making Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at the time.) She's lame. And Keanu Reeves, as Jonathan Harker, he's worse. I mean, a lot, lot worse. Like Special Achievement in  Film Golden Raspberry worse. Like "maybe this will make people forget how lousy my daughter was in Godfather III" worse. But, when you think about it, the romantic leads in old horror movies are always annoying and mediocre and, I guess Winona manages that level. But Keanu... no. Although if Coppola really wanted to go balls-out on it, he should have gotten Nicholas Cage to play Jonathan. Or, i mean, he had Cary Elwes standing right there, who could have given B-movie leading-man realness, easy.
Yeah, I wanna choke him too.

So, yeah, Keanu has to go to the Carpathian Mountains ("Whoa."), leaving fiancee Mina behind with her rich, slutty friend Lucy. The Dracula's castle section is the most fun of the movie, with Coppola going all out on the effects -- and, nicely, they're not greenscreen, CGI bullshit. No, it's old-school double exposures, reverse film, miniatures, puppets -- all things used in old horror movies.
So Transylvania is alive with creepy disembodied shadows and upside-down rats and giant floating eyes and, of course, the vampire babes. Also, this is the one part where the Keanu "Whoa." school of acting works.
Gary Oldman has a grand time playing creepy old Dracula, unctuating the classic dialogue, like "The children of the night... what sweet music they make!" and that perennial chestnut about not drinking... wine. He also resembles a blend of Mr. Burns and the Duchess of Windsor with some Count von Count on top.

So, blah blah, Dracula packs his boxes of dirt and hops on the Demeter for London. In London, Mina pines for Keanu and slutty Lucy tries to decide whether to marry the doctor, the cowboy or the Lord. Lucy is played by Sadie Frost, who has great dresses and amazing hair and is far more fun and interesting than prissy Mina. So you know she's doomed....

But, since Lucy is so slutty, it is unsurprising that Dracula also decides to get some of that and begins appearing as a bat, a werewolf, a hot Eurotrash guy to drink her slutty, slutty blood. Seriously: Most horror films have sexual subtext, Dracula makes it so blatant that it's ridiculous. Lucy is supposed to be a flirtatious upper-class Victorian maiden , not a jaded queen dishing about the Pit Crew after a few cocktails in the Interior Illusions Lounge on RuPauls' Drag Race. Rather than sexual tension, we get writhing topless girl getting banged by a drooling werewolf, fangs bared, legs in the air -- someone made a figurine if you'd like to preserve this moment for display in a china cabinet.
Naturally, all of this vampire bangin' and blood drinkin' makes Lucy ill. Call in Dr. Van Helsing! Anthony Hopkins goes for the ridiculous with this role because, really, what else is there to do? He has a scar and an accent and literally humps one of the bros' legs at one point. (Jesus, if Coppola had used Nicholas Cage, they would have had to get everything on the first take before he and Hopkins chewed the scenery beyond repair.)
No, you're not Dracula. You're Van Helsing. Get over it!

And now, of course, Dracula reappears in London, all damn suave with Chris Cornell's old hair and immediately picks up Mina on the street. And takes her to the movies. (A movie with nekkid Victorian ladies -- Travis Bickle couldn't take a chick to a porno on the first date but, when you're the Prince of Darkness you can get away with it. Also, the magic lantern scene might remind you of the one in Sex and Fury, but i believe the homage is inadvertent.) 
There's also some business about a wolf escaped from the zoo and Lucy's still getting her blood drained and Keanu is still stuck in Transylvania ("Whoa.")

Lucy dies, Dracula takes Mina to the basement of Queen Gedren from Red Sonja -- y'know, where the Police shot the "Wrapped Around my Finger" video (because Dracula, the Evil Queen and Sting are all pals, naturally. Birds of a feather and all...). They get loaded on absinthe and babble and twirl around. Best friend dying, husband missing, presumed dead but, hey, this bitch is moving on.
... or she was, because now Keanu has appeared alive (Damn.) and Mina rushes off to marry him. Dracula cries a lot and turns old again and then decides to fully drain Lucy. Lucy "dies," becomes a vampire, eats some children and then Van Helsing and the rest of the bros drive a stake through her heart and chop her head off.
Then, of course, we have the mandatory return to the vampire's homeland -- not sure why this always has to happen, but it always does. There's the creepy castle, race against the setting sun, the female in jeopardy they have inexplicably decided to drag with them even closer to the danger. And, of course, the mandatory ending for ol' Dracula...

Bram Stoker's Dracula had a great pinball machine. They used to have one at Max Fish in NYC and they have one at the Pinball Hall of Fame now -- if you hit a certain sequence, Gary Oldman lights up and pops out of his coffin. As far as the movie, it's magically delicious eye candy and has two great performances. The rest is, well, "Whoa."

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