Thursday, November 5, 2020

Blast From The Past Movie Review: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Myopia Movies, the film podcast I'm a regular participant in, did Bram Stoker's Dracula for our October-themed month on vampires. I remember when the movie came out in 1992 (I wasn't allowed to see it, being in elementary school at the time), although I do remember reading about one of the video-game versions in my friend John's Nintendo Power magazine. I finally got to see the film in high school, when I had my own membership at Blockbuster Video.

However, high school was many, many years ago and the original premise of the podcast was re-watching childhood favorites to see if they were still good. So when the time came to brainstorm for the current season, this one of the movies I really pushed for. Here's the episode. And now for the review.

The Plot

British lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent by his law firm to make the final arrangements for an Eastern European nobleman to purchase some land in London. There's just one small problem--said nobleman is none other than Vlad Dracul (Gary Oldman), the infamous impaler of history and a vampire to boot. He sees Jonathan's locket with an image of his fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) and becomes infatuated because she reminds him of his dead wife.

So, being evil, he leaves Jonathan for his vampire brides to consume and sets off to London. He feeds off Mina's friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) and attempts to woo Mina, who begins remembering a previous life as Dracula's wife the Princess Elisabeta (also played by Ryder). However, one of Lucy's suitors contacts Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to deal with Lucy's mysterious "illness" and Jonathan escapes, marrying Mina in an Orthodox ceremony at the nunnery where he's recovering. Dracula as you can imagine is a bit angry and now the war is on. And Mina finds herself surprisingly conflicted...

The Good

*The film is simply beautiful, even though now with improved camera technology it looks a bit aged. The sets are good, the costumes are good, etc. The clothes are well-designed. For example, I get serious Byzantine vibes off Dracula's brides and the robes Dracula wears in one scene, which make sense considering historically Vlad the Impaler was Eastern Orthodox for most of his life. And they use the costumes to make subtle character points--Mina's clothes are a bit out of fashion because she's a schoolteacher wearing her rich friend Lucy's hand-me-downs. It deserved the Academy Awards it got for costuming and makeup.

*I liked some of the characterization. They made Mina a great deal hornier than I recall from the book--she's eager to get married to Jonathan right away and they have a make-out session right before he leaves for Transylvania and she and Lucy at one point kiss (!) in the garden of Lucy's estate. Add Jonathan's prolonged absence and Lucy's "illness" and it's a lot more understandable that Mina might be tempted by the Count. And Dracula is more sympathetic than one would expect of an explicitly Satanic predator. He was a Christian knight victorious in war against the invading Muslim Ottomans--who to spite him tricked his devoted young wife Elisabeta into committing suicide by convincing her he'd been killed in battle. The priests told Vlad that because she'd committed suicide she automatically went to Hell and Vlad proceeded to totally lose it, railing against God and desecrating the church to become a vampire.

(From a Christian POV this is a warning against idolatrous devotion to a romantic partner, self-absorption, and false doctrine. Had Elisabeta not been so unhealthily devoted to Vlad she wouldn't have committed suicide and had Vlad not been so self-absorbed and possessive--he acts more like God had wronged him than wronged Elisabeta--and valued her more than God, he wouldn't have lashed out like he did. And had the priests not incorrectly claimed suicides were automatically damned at the worst possible time, his grieving might have proceeded along more normal channels rather than leading him to become a Satan-worshiping mass murderer.)

*The soundtrack is good too--the film got another Oscar for Best Sound Editing. The credits song "Love Song For a Vampire" is sad and beautiful and the instrumental stuff does well for setting an ominous tone.

*It's got a very high-quality cast. Winona Ryder does a good job as Mina--much like Alien Resurrection, I think she's the best performer in the film. (And per a well-documented Wikipedia article, she was the one who brought the script for what was supposed to be a TV movie to Francis Ford Coppola, so there's even more credit to go around.) Gary Oldman does a good job as Dracula. Anthony Hopkins might be a little too manic as Van Helsing, but he's entertaining. Although Reeves' accent is inconsistent and sometimes he comes off as a bit monotone, I didn't have a problem with his acting per se.

*The film puts Vlad the Impaler's actions in the context of the Fall of Constantinople and the Ottoman invasion of Eastern Europe. Yes, he was a monster (even if there's some speculation that his horrors were exaggerated by his German enemies), but there's a reason he's a national hero in Romania.

The Bad

*My single biggest problem with the movie is how incredibly boring it was. Part of it is that it mimics the original novel, which is written in an epistolary format (letters, diary entries, etc) and so there's a lot of what Nic calls "talky-talk," but there's also the long draggy second fifth or so of the movie in which Dracula comes to Britain to try to seduce Mina. Someone on the almighty TVTropes mentioned a fan-edit that removed the romantic plot that cut around an hour. Seriously, one of the podcast regulars actually fell asleep with a drink in his hand while watching the movie. I got my phone out around 1/3 of the way into the movie, probably during the sequence where Dracula in his guise as a foreign prince visiting Britain is taking Mina out on various dates while, unbeknownst to her, his vampire brides are keeping her fiancé captive and feeding on him.

*Speaking of that, surely Jonathan told Mina about where he'd been and what happened to him after she came to Eastern Europe after getting the letter he was alive and recovering in a convent. She has a lot more reason to hate Dracula beyond what he did to Lucy and yet that's what she seems most angry about when he comes to her and she knows what he is. She should also be angry he had held her fiancé captive and let monsters feed on him for weeks. Taking it a step further, she might have realized that Dracula was keeping Jonathan captive (and thus away from her) and causing Lucy's illness to make her emotionally vulnerable to his seduction. Watching it now I see just how manipulative and predatory Dracula is, and not just in the "drinks blood" sense. Even if Dracula is super good-looking and charismatic, even if she finds his occult nature intriguing or pities his unhappy back-story, even if she's somehow channeling the long-dead soul of his wife and isn't fully herself, why doesn't she realize just how much of a creep he is? In one of their scenes together she seriously Does Not Get It and things just get worse from there.

*Per the above, Mina and Jonathan's relationship doesn't get built up well. Building up Dracula is necessary to realistically show why Mina would be tempted into an adulterous relationship, but what is so special about Jonathan? He's certainly a decent person by any standard, but is he interesting? If they wanted to contrast him with Dracula's physicality and animal magnetism, emphasize that as a lawyer he's schoolteacher Mina's intellectual/career peer? The book does describe him as "uncommonly clever" and "full of energy" and apparently he can speak multiple languages and that's something she might admire. In the episode Nic theorized that they wanted to minimize Reeves' role to avoid accent problems, but that was less of an issue than Mina's actual husband and the original novel's protagonist getting minimized. Even if Dracula and Mina are the real protagonists of this version of the story, Jonathan is underdeveloped even as one of two romantic choices for Mina, let alone a major character. Better a character with a badly-done accent than no character at all.

*What's with Van Helsing getting so excited that Lucy is getting victimized by a vampire? At one point he tells Quincy Morris (Billy Campbell) that Lucy is going to become "a bitch of the devil" and starts humping his leg. Remember, dear reader, that Quincy is one of three men vying to be Lucy's husband. Quincy is right to call him "a sick old buzzard." Hopkins is appropriately zany, but jeez. Someone theorized that he's excited that he's been proven right that vampires exist, but this is at the price of Lucy's safety and ultimately life. There's feeling vindicated and then there's being an ass. Are we supposed to like him?

*The film strongly implies that the historical Vlad's crimes were after he became a vampire, as a consequence of his rage against God. I'd thought that his realization that Elisabeta was not in Hell (because she's been reincarnated as Mina or her soul has somehow become attached to Mina in the present day--never mind that reincarnation is not part of orthodox Christianity, period, and "possessed by the dead" is actually more like the Jewish concept of a dibbuk or ibbur) was making him reconsider his path of destruction. That's what I was referring to when I brought up Calvinism in the episode, although I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about how this would relate to predestination for spoiler reasons. That doesn't seem to be the case here, or at least it's very subtle. Given Dracula's arc in the film, that could have been highlighted more.

*Keanu Reeves' accent is inconsistent. He tries to sound British and sometimes it works, but Ted Logan from the Bill and Ted films comes through quite often. From my understanding, this got mocked a whole heck of a lot when the film came out.

*Sadie Frost doesn't really stick out much as Lucy. Per TVTropes Laura Dern was considered for the part and given her performances in the Jurassic Park films (I don't recall having seen her in anything else), I imagine she'd have been an improvement.

*Dracula was already buying up property in Britain when he noticed how much Jonathan's picture of Mina resembled his dead wife and Renfield--who has no idea Harker has gone to Transylvania--is eagerly awaiting Dracula's coming. So what was he planning on doing in Britain before he got the idea to try to get his hands on Mina?

The Verdict

Much like Blade Runner 2049, a beautiful bore. If you watch it for the acting and visuals, don't forget you have a fast-forward button. 6.5 out of 10.

No comments:

Post a Comment