Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Happy Halloween everyone!

It's time for me to make a confession. At the time this movie was released, I was still very much in LUV with Keanu Reeves. Of course, there was no way my parents were going to let me go see a movie with blood and boobs in it, so I couldn't see it. Do you remember how in the 90s a television pay station was scrambled so that you couldn't watch it? Lots of curious young boys would spend their time squinting at the scrambled Playboy channel, trying to get a glimpse at a naked lady. Well, ladies and gentleman, I did this for the sake of looking at my precious Keanu. There was a good solid month where this movie was playing on pay per view, and I would frequently turn the channel on, listen to the movie since most of the time the sound would come through, and occasionally I might get to see him, slightly squiggly and tinted an improper color, but there. I am fully able to laugh at myself now for this, so by all means, join me.

For the longest time, given the title of the film, I assumed this was a faithful adaptation. Surely they wouldn't put the author's title in the film unless they meant it to be accurate, right? Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for instance, actually follows the events of the novel rather than the classic movie we're all familiar with. So is this movie the same? Yes and no. It is the most faithful adaptation I've seen to date, but it also changes some things. The trading narration does a good stand in for the journals, and Mina even uses a typewriter while Seward uses his phonograph. Many of the lines of dialogue are taken directly from the book. It's similar enough that I'm going to focus on what's NOT in the book rather than what is.

The movie starts by telling us all about Vlad the Impaler and how he also was known as Dracula. There are moments in the book where Dracula talks to Jonathan about his "ancestors" and how they kept invading forces at bay, so this is semi-accurate. Vlad was the inspiration for Dracula, so including this moment is not entirely far fetched. The story about his wife throwing herself in to the river is more legend than fact, and is definitely not referenced in the book at all. However it's handled well. Because she committed suicide, she cannot go to heaven. Despite Dracula once working for the church, he now turns his back on it and swears he will not make to to heaven either. This is the start of the movie's biggest discrepancy - the idea that Mina is Dracula's lost love reincarnated.

The movie then gets to Renfield in the asylum, telling his master that all the preparations have been made. In this movie, Jonathan is his replacement in the law firm. Renfield is played by Tom Waits, and he plays it wonderfully. He's a little more understated than most of the previous Renfields, but he brings a good amount of madness to it. It seems to be the kind of character than most of these actors have a lot of fun with.

One book item that we get to see for the first time in the movies is the blue flame Jonathan describes seeing on his way to Dracula's castle. Technology has finally caught up to us that we can see it accurately.

After Jonathan arrives in Transylvania, we once again see the scene that originated with Nosferatu, of Dracula seeing Mina's picture. With the opening scene, we know why he's so fixated on her. When Dracula and Jonathan go over the paperwork, he mentions that Dracula is purchasing ten properties, not just Carfax Abbey. In the book Jonathan doesn't figure out that Dracula has purchased multiple properties until much later. Dracula was wise enough in the books to go about getting different lawyers, shipping services, etc. so that no one would be wise to his plot to set up locations all over London. Seeing as how we never hear mention of these other properties again in the movie, I'm not really sure why they bother.

With my eyes no longer tinted under the rosy colors of infatuation, I'm willing to admit that Keanu's performance is downright wooden here, and his attempt at an English accent is pretty atrocious. He's trying so hard, but he just isn't a strong enough actor to do it.

Fast forward to 2:22 in this clip to see the worst of it. I can't help but laugh at him there. The vest really just makes you associate him with Ted even more, doesn't it?

Also, since I'm showing that clip, Dracula doesn't actually shave Jonathan in the book.

The next discrepancy occurs as Jonathan runs into Dracula's brides in the castle. It starts off very accurate, how they appear originally as mist before materializing, but beyond the fact that they're topless just so we can see some boobies, they also do manage to feed on Jonathan, whereas in the book Dracula stops them before the first bride can so much as come in contact with his neck. The line one of the brides cries to Dracula, "You yourself never loved" is taken directly from the book, though there he has no response for her, and here we get another mention of his love for his lost wife. The baby that he gives to the brides is very accurate. Pretty shocking for something written in the 1800s.

The movie feels the need to stress the class divide between Mina and Lucy. In the book Mina never makes any mention of this. Mina is an orphan and does appear to be a school teacher, though once she marries Jonathan she mostly helps him with his work and does none of her own. Lucy on the other hand does seem be more well off, as she attracts the attention of someone as high in regard as Arthur who eventually becomes a lord in the book once his father passes away. While one might think that a lady who received three marriage proposals would have to be a bit of a flirt to get that way, I think it's also possible to assume that men would want to marry her simply for her higher standing. The movie decides it must be the former, however, and she becomes as much of a slut as was allowed for the time period, speaking in incredibly raunchy language and suggesting that she's playing all three of her suitors for fools. It's really quite sad, as the Lucy of the books comes off as far more innocent, and feels terrible for having to tell Quincey and John no when they propose.

In the movie, Dracula seems to almost always transform into either a werewolf or bat-like creature whenever he feeds. This happens on the ship on the way to London, and again when he begins to feed off Lucy. Technically we only hear about these events once they're finished happening in the novel, so I guess it isn't a full out lie as those who have been bitten never talk about it directly. It also ties him more to the creatures at his command, and seems to be the way to explain how he looks so much younger after he feeds.

We see Seward taking a dose of morphine at one point in order to help him deal with the pain of being rejected by Lucy. It's really quite pointless.

In the book, Mina wakes up to see Lucy sleepwalking out the door and follows her outside where she eventually get a glimpse of an old man, who we of course realize is Dracula. In the movie, she finds Lucy having sex with a werewolf version of Dracula who is also feeding on her. He hypnotizes Mina so that she cannot see him and thinks Lucy is alone and explains away Lucy's description of what just happened to her as a nightmare. It's an interesting concept that we'll see revisited later when Mina throws some pages out of her journal - the idea that this movie is the story of what really happened, and that the book isn't accurate because Mina is not a 100% reliable narrator.

So the movie wanders off from the novel again as Mina and a young looking Dracula meet in town and fall in love. She takes absinthe and through the help of "the green fairy" is able to remember some of her past life. Her best friend is slowly dying and the men are trying to save her, but Mina's too busy being unfaithful to her fiancee to pay any attention. It's only when she receives notice from the convent of Jonathan's condition that she realizes she must be faithful to him and she throws out those pages of the diary. She marries Jonathan but of course she doesn't truly forget her "sweet prince."

As Van Helsing discovers exactly what's going on with Lucy and Dracula, he acts as if he's been hunting and trying to discover and defeat Dracula his whole life. There's no evidence of such a thing in the books, and the only thing I can think of is that since Anthony Hopkins also played a priest/bishop in the opening sequence of the film, we're supposed to believe he's descended from that person and his family plays a part in this as well. Most fiction I've seen seems to suggest that the Van Helsing family's grudge with Dracula and vampires starts here rather being a pre-existing condition, but I guess it works alright.

The moment when they kill Lucy in the crypt is mostly accurate, beyond the fact that Lucy spits blood all over Van Helsing. It's more a modern horror flair than an accurate detail. I really love the emotion Cary Elwes brings to the scene as he stakes Lucy through the heart though. It makes it a very powerful moment.

They are now determined to defeat Dracula, and when Mina expresses pity for him here in the movie, we tie it to the fact that she loves him. In the book she also expresses pity for him, but it's related to that fact that just as Lucy was once pure of heart, she assumes Dracula must have been at one time. Van Helsing first mentions here that it must be Quincey's bowie knife that kills Dracula, though no one attempts to explain why. It does look to be made of silver though, and maybe since we've seen Dracula appear as a werewolf that makes some sense.

While the boys go to sanctify Carfax Abbey, Dracula visits Mina. The romance and dramaticism is really cranked up to 11 here as Mina begs to be with him, both before knowing he's a vampire and even insisting upon it once she finds out. It may surprise you to learn that I actually enjoy the hell out of this, even though it's inaccurate. I blame Winona Ryder, who also activates my often dormant romantic side in Reality Bites.

The boys walk in toward the end of this scene, somewhat similar to what happens in the book even though Mina was not a willing participant there. They eventually race Dracula back to his castle, and the only real difference here is that it doesn't take them as long as it does in the book, and that Jonathan and Arthur went by steamship while Seward and Quincey went on horseback. They still catch up to the gypsies as the sun is setting and poor Quincey gets stabbed before dealing the blow to Dracula with his bowie knife. While in the book Jonathan beheads him, here he says that the job is now Mina's to finish. She drags him into the temple from the opening sequence and the romanticism and blood are laid on thick one final time as she releases him from his eternal life.

The movie's biggest sin is that for the longest time I thought this whole storyline was exactly how it was in the novel and I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Had they left "Bram Stoker" off the title they really could have avoided all that. It's also hyper-sexualized, which at places works and at others just feels a little exploitative, but of course your mileage may vary. I love the large amounts of blood all over the movie without there being gore, and the way colors are used, like when Mina's dress of green makes her stand out from all the others dressed in grays on the London streets. As I said, I really, really enjoy the addition of the romance, though I could understand where a purist may not care for it as much. It's also possible that, given the number of times I watched(well, listened) to this movie I may have more nostalgic and sentimental attachment to it than most. Regardless, it's my favorite adaptation of Dracula.

Saying that, I may as well put the ones I've reviewed in order from best to worst:
1. Bram Stoker's Dracula
2. Nosferatu
3. Dracula (1931, English)
4. Horror of Dracula
5. Dracula (1931, Spanish)
6. Nosferatu the Vampyre
7. Count Dracula

If you're a fan of vampires, I recommend at least checking out the top 5 if you haven't seen any of them yet. Also realize that the novel is no longer under copyright. You should be able to download it for free to any e-reader, you can get it delivered via email from Daily Lit, or you should be able to even find a few web pages that will allow you to read it online. Of course it's also available as a good old fashioned book if you don't mind spending a couple bucks.

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