THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW
Tag-Team Movie Reviews: Round 4
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) vs MARY SHELLEY’s FRANKENSTEIN (1994)
LK: Strangely, this time I didn't dislike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (aka MS’s F.) as much as I remembered disliking it. Maybe I was in a more receptive mood this time around, or was looking at it more from an adaptation point-of-view. Still - where it cheats, it really cheats....
CD: Oddly enough, I felt the same way...and Coppola's Dracula (which I had a perverse liking for before) irritated me more than ever before!
ZH: Conversely to what you both have said, I was deeply irritated by MS’s F. this time around. It's a highly irritating movie; it's self-indulgent, hysterical, and often hilariously over-the-top - it also seems to think it's saying something far more interesting and more emotionally relevant than it actually is. (Am I the only one who thinks Kenneth Branagh listened to a lot of opera while filming this?) It's not a completely terrible movie - some of the visuals, while not exactly in keeping with the source novel (the creation sequence springs to mind), are striking, and there are a few good performances.
LK: I'm not arguing with your contention, Zack, that MS's F. is "self-indulgent, hysterical, and often hilariously over-the-top"; I just think that I'm so irritated by so-called horror movies that refuse to take themselves seriously, or allow the viewer to do so, that I've developed a fairly high tolerance level for films that take themselves overly seriously. It isn't the film's (or Branagh's) pomposity that bugs me - my problems with it lie elsewhere. And anyway - let's not forget that "self-indulgent, hysterical, and often hilariously over-the-top" is a pretty good description of good old Victor F. himself! :)
(Also - perhaps Chad and I were alike in finding MS's F. less irritating in comparison to how very irritating we found BS's D.!)
I would have to say that MS's F. is actually the best attempt I've seen at following the novel - up until the home stretch! The only possible competition would be the - Swedish? - production, Victor Frankenstein, which I have seen but don't remember too clearly. This version tends to get dismissed with, "Yes, it is like the novel - boring!"; you may put your own judgements upon that. I seem to recall rather liking it; but then, I'm the kind of person would could enjoy 90 minutes of philosophical debate, so that's no guide! They also say that the recent Patrick Bergin-Randy Quaid version is fairly faithful. I haven't seen that - although I think I've got a copy lurking in my video collection - have either of you?
CD: I haven't even heard of the Patrick Bergin version, sadly. The only versions I remember seeing are pretty distant from the source material: Hammer's Frankenstein (and, boy, is that film's Victor a real bastard!) and, er, Frankenstein Unbound (of course, the less said about that one the better….).
ZH: Yeah, I remember hearing about a more “faithful” adaptation than MS’s F., but I'm not sure if it's the one to which you refer or not.
CD: I sheepishly admit that Peter Cushing's incarnation of Victor is my favourite.…
LK: Why be sheepish?? That's the beauty of Pete - we like him so much, his Victor can be as much of a cold-blooded bastard as he likes, and we'll still go along with it.
ZH: Peter Cushing kicks major ass in that movie. I think it's one of his best roles - even though he's near psychotic, I couldn't help rooting for him, and being strongly disappointed that the "good guys" eventually took over. (It's nice to think that he escaped the hanging, as is implied in the sequel, but clearly that's not the intention of the original.) The Hammer Curse Of Frankenstein and Whale's Bride of Frankenstein are my two favourite Frankenstein movies, by the by - not very original on my part, maybe, but a couple of terrific pictures.
Many of the criticisms I've thrown at MS’s F. can easily be thrown at the book as well. It's too melodramatic, tends towards pomposity, and has a singular lack of sympathetic, or even interesting characters. (The Creature comes closest, I think.) So, I guess bravo to Branagh for managing to bring the novel's flaws along for the ride. Gone, however, is much of the (endless) introspection and philosophical debate; every major decision the movie Frankenstein makes comes off as absolutely spur of the moment; you can feel the gears grinding in the plot.
LK: My objections to MS’s F. are two-fold. Firstly - yet again we have a scientist being set on his path by a personal tragedy. Sigh. You know, it @#$%s me immeasurably that films simply cannot deal with concept of science as a purely intellectual passion. And they so nearly get it right here, too, in that scene where Victor drags Elizabeth and Justine out into the lightning storm; there, you can feel Victor's excitement simply over the possibilities of the universe. But no, it all has to be 'cos he lost his mummy.
Like Lyz, I'm often irritated by movies that have to give their
scientists a 'motivation', but I thought that this was a plot point
from the novel as well (also at least they established that Victor is
fascinated by science before his mother died, although they ruin that
with that idiotic monologue he gives over his mother's grave, which
to occupy an entire mountaintop by itself!).
ZH: It was ruined for me when Victor cradled the corpse in his arms and said "Bring her back" (or something to that effect) over and over again. Like, y'know, we wouldn't get it or something.
CD: Either way, I think the film could have been stronger if it focused less on Victor trying to 'cure' death and more on him CREATING life. I think in this regard the script shot itself in the foot anyway - at one point Victor says his goal is to create a new race that will be immortal, but elsewhere Victor's goal seems to actually be to save the current generations from death...did anyone else notice this?
LK: I don't think he really is specifically motivated in the novel, is he? Yes, he's fascinated by science, and moreover by "magic" - alchemy, and so on - and the point is made that it is insufficient guidance from his father that leads him up the wrong path in the first place. He happens to find out that he's very good at science, and certainly this leads him to investigating "the mysteries of life" - but I don't think he has any initial intention of either "creating life" or "curing death". And I also don't think there is any cause/effect thing from the death of Victor's mother; it's just a natural tragedy from which they all move on.
ZH: To contrast, of course, with the entirely unnatural tragedies that were to follow.
LK: One of the problems with the film, as with many films, is that they impose late 20th century mindsets on 18th century events - death being such a more "natural" part of life then, Victor would not be - and is not - motivated by that. And to me this is highlighted by the fact that in the film they give his mother such a horrible death, rather than the quiet resigned expiration of the novel. Obviously, that wasn't traumatic enough.
ZH: My impression of novel-Victor's foray's into science is that they stem less from personal tragedy and more from an innate quality in his character; lest we forget, nearly everyone in the book is utterly blown away by how amazingly smart and beautiful and perfect the man is (even the monster!), and the impression I took away was that he was driven to reach too high because he was nearly perfect, if that makes sense. The quote at the beginning relates him to Prometheus, but I also think a comparison to Icarus makes sense; reaching too high with utter disregard for cloud cover.
There's a terrific bit in Stephen King's
“Tommyknockers” that talks about how gifted children tend to get
passionately interested in a number of things, only to eventually put
them aside- until they find the thing it is they’re looking for in
terms of profession or goals or what have you.
Novel-Vic seems to me a fairly strong example of this. Movie-Vic, as Chad noted, is a man with a mission. Novel-Vic, on the other hand, is just a very smart guy who keeps wandering into things; note his utter and complete obsession when he goes to school with creating life - and then that obsession just deflates afterwards. Sure, part of it is his abhorrence for the process that created such a monstrosity, but I think it's also because science - or at least the specific science which led him to the creation - just isn't his bag, so to speak. It's just a passionate fling that unfortunately ends up destroying him utterly.
LK: The film’s major flaws - I go into this at length in my review, so I won’t repeat it all here - is its conception of Victor as "romantic hero" - and the way in which, in order to indulge that, it constantly removes or lessens his degree of culpability. Even when Victor is finally confronted by the Reanimant, he's all quiet and apologetic and hangdog, not screaming abuse at it - because that would be mean. (Of course, this might be because they felt compelled to tone down the novel's language! While Branagh might have been comfortable with dialogue like, "Abhorred monster! Fiend that thou art!", I can't quite picture Bobby De Niro dealing with it!)
CD: Good call on the romantic hero - why it is so hard to find a balance between a “sympathetic Victor” and a “bastard Victor”, I'll never know.
ZH: Don't forget “dumber than a bag of hammers Victor”. The creature threatens to be with him on his wedding night. What's the next thing Victor does? Victor gets married. And as soon as they’re ensconced in the bridal suite? Victor runs off, to leave his bride - who has absolutely no idea what's going on, and no way of defending herself - utterly alone. Crimeny. I mean, Victor just destroyed the woman he was creating for the Creature - did it never occur to him that the Creature might return the favour?
Ah, well - that is, of course, easily the least credible part
of the novel (even less than the "lovely Arabian" subplot!).
There are a couple of things going here.
What we have in the novel is a Victor Frankenstein who is such a monstrous egomaniac that he is even capable of interpreting a threat like "I will be with you on your wedding-night" as a threat against himself! Of course, the reader knows differently; so it builds a kind of tension. But even Branagh’s Victor isn't that much of a jerk; so they have him on the verge of a breakdown, and Elizabeth threatening to leave if he doesn't marry her, and the two of them making a break for it afterwards, to try and make it look a little less like the single stupidest thing that anyone could have done at that point in the story.
They fail, but, you know….
ZH: Branagh is, well - sometimes he's very good. Sometimes he isn't. In the opening sequence he very much isn't - I laughed quite a bit, to tell the truth. After that, though, he seems to get a handle on the thing; my problems with his character are more due to issues in the script than his acting. Although I still think he overuses whispering. (And he's no Colin Clive.)
CD: I don't know about you guys, but I was seriously disturbed by the sight of a sexually active Frankenstein. Dammit, Victor, I screamed in my head, you don't actually lust for some busty Elizabeth and then have her, the closest you ever get to sex is through blatant incestuous thoughts or vaguely homoerotic actions. Seeing Branagh's Victor in a sex scene was just too much. I was ready to go grab a torch and a pitchfork by that point.
None of this is to say, of course, that Branagh doesn't endow his Victor with homoerotic intensity. Now, that brings me to...the creation scene. A professor of mine actually presented this, alongside Whale's Frankenstein, as examples of homoeroticism in cinema. I know I'm an English major and prone to elaborate on such things, but how much more over-the-top can you get than showing a giant phallus firing sperm-like electric eels with a shirtless Branagh wearing only what could be seen as leather pants prancing around, followed up by a thoroughly soaked Branagh and De Niro wrestling in metaphorical embryonic fluid?
LK: Oh, absolutely - the "birth" scene is entirely homoerotic! Well, when the thing it puts you most in mind of is the wrestling scene in Women In Love, how could it be otherwise!? :)
ZH: I guess Branagh was going for a "sensual" birth, but that seems wrong to me. Isn't the whole point that “science” is taking the birthing process from its natural origins? As such, I would have made everything very sterile and clean, and have the whole process be utterly clinical. But that's just me.
CD: What did you think of this film's handling of the 'nature vs. nurture' debate? Plotwise it certainly made the right decision of completely reversing that old yet dumb motif of the Creature accidently being given the brain of a criminal, which, more than anything, kills the entire story (what point is there in displaying the hubris and tragedy in Frankenstein's actions when there's the nagging possibility that his experiment might have 'worked' if he had the right friggin' brain?). Here the film does give a lot of screentime to the Creature's harsh awakening to the ways of the world, but then there's that tiny little bit of information that because most of the Creature's body was made from that of a deranged man, he has a tendency toward violence, and this is hammered in by the conversation Frankenstein and the Creature have in the wild. And then we go back to depicting the Creature as an abandoned, mistreated 'child.' It was as if the writers wanted to have their cake and eat it too.
LK: And did you notice that during the sequence when the Creature is, uh, hanged, or whatever is supposed to have killed it in the first place, it gets a nice solid whack on the head? They just can't leave that "abnormal brain" bit alone, can they? As Karloff's Creature rightly put it - "Grrr!!"
ZH: Wow, I didn't think of it like that. I was just trying to figure out why the movie had turned into a black comedy. (Actually, if the whole movie had stayed in this vein, I might have enjoyed it a bit more...)
CD: The idea that the body has impulses of its own is one that survived even into the Enlightment (I think it's mentioned in passing in the novel - correct me if I'm wrong, Zack), so maybe the movie was addressing it. Still, it's something I think they should have avoided, in addition to giving an 'explanation' behind Victor's science. Sure, it was very interesting of them to have Victor combine contemporary scientific research with ancient and medieval writings and at least Victor's methods weren't really goofy, but Shelley knew what she was doing when she did not mention exactly how Victor reanimated a human body in the first place (admittedly, though, it's much easier to do that kind of thing in prose than in film.)
ZH: I think you're right about the “writers having cake and eating it too”. Perhaps one could view it as such: the Creature does have violent tendencies (although do bodies, and not brains, have tendencies?), but the reason those tendencies are allowed to run rampant is that terrible "childhood" the Creature has. Once it grows to manhood – i.e., when it starts remembering things, and understands enough of the world around it to survive - it has the ability to resist those tendencies. It is capable of great love, as well. But because its upbringing was so awful, it has no real reason to love, and every reason to hate.
I'm a big fan of many of Robert De Niro’s other movies - but I think he was miscast here. Granted, again, that miscasting was intentional, in that it went towards the direction they decided to go with the monster: i.e., he less of a fallen angel and more of a barely reformed thug. Still, I never found him frightening for a moment - not even during the incredibly out-of-nowhere bit where he rips Elizabeth's heart from her chest.
Gone, too, is an important part of the nature of
the Creature: in the book, he's physically hideous, but the immediate
negative, almost reflexive response he inspires in others, seems to be
more than simple ugliness - it's as though folks
are screaming and running away from the sheer unnaturalness of his
creation and continued existence, as if he were an abomination whose
looks weren't nearly as horrible as the sheer wrongness of his being
alive at all. The movie doesn't manage that; doesn't even try to.
Instead of giving the Creature an almost supernatural quality (in the
novel, he's built larger than a normal human in order to make the
operation more easily accomplished - in the movie, that's
ignored for the most part - I suspect De Niro wore platforms, but
that's all), it just makes him another disfigured freak. You watch
him, and you watch people freak out when they see him (the guy's an
instant mob maker, for some reason), but they always seem to be
Does that make sense? It's not written particularly well. What I mean is, the Creature in the novel is majestically wrong; he's Satan fallen from the heights. The movie Creature is just the victim of a bad skin graft.
LK: I agree. I think De Niro's performance is good, and quite affecting; he does that "Why is everyone picking on me?" thing very well. The problem is the concept, not the performance. He's not gross enough. And what about that scarring pattern? It's in Waldman's notes, so we know it's somehow "necessary", but they never tell us why. Of course not. Because it isn't. There isn't any real reason why this V.'s creations should be hideous, particularly when he's dealing with fresh materials. Those scars are just a cheap gross-out.
Well, if you took them away, you'd lose one of the morals of
the book: Don't be ugly. (And conversely, If you're pretty, don't @#$%
with ugly people.)
My problem with De Niro's performance is that it belonged in a different film. He was method, all the way; I'm sure there are stories of him doing some sort of research for this, and it is a very careful, realistic performance. Unfortunately, he isn't in a careful, realistic movie - and when put against the backdrop of the craziness that surrounds him, he seems smaller. I think my contention was that the creature never seemed all that impressive to me - it could have worked in a different movie than this, and I will freely admit there is nothing technically wrong with his work, but it just didn't gel for me.
CD: I found Robert De Niro's Creature one of the best aspects of the film. I did find him fairly sympathetic, even though, like in almost everything else, the film was trying far too hard to accomplish it (how many “sad close-ups” does the Creature get, anyway? You could make a drinking game out of it!) I admit, though, that before watching this film and Whale's Frankenstein again I would have argued absolutely that a Creature more like the one Shelley envisioned than the one Whale used would have been preferable for a film adaptation. Now I'm not too sure.
ZH: Well, I loved the Whale creation - I expect you'd be hard pressed to find a movie lover who doesn't - and it is far removed from its literary ancestor.
To retract what I've said just a tad, I might actually agree with you - the Shelley version might not be the best way to go. For one thing, how does one convey "instinctive revulsion" in a visual medium and still managed to maintain sympathy for the character? (One of the more interesting things I found in the novel was that even after Frankenstein has gotten over the initial shock of the thing's face, he can never get completely comfortable with it. This is mostly because the thing killed his obnoxious baby brother - but I think it also has to do with the depth of Frankenstein's sin against nature, and the horror of the creature itself. It's so unnatural that it will never look "normal" in this world.)
CD: Thanks for bringing up
William. That reminds me of something I thought of while watching the
movie, but almost forgot. It caught my attention that, while in the
Whale version the child Maria is killed on-screen, William's death is
off-screen. Now, one very good reason for this is that Maria's death
was accidental, an innocent act gone horribly wrong, while William's
murder was malicious, an act of brutal revenge. But it was still an
interesting difference that might hint toward changes in the culture.
Excellent point about De Niro's performance. Whatever flaws De Niro's Creature had were definitely strapped on him by the script or by his surroundings. The only scenes with him in it that felt they had any subtlety at all were the scenes where he fled the mob and became attached to the peasant family, and even that was undercut by the ridiculous need to have all the private lives of the people look positively idyllic.
I want to mention Elizabeth's resurrection, even though I think we're unanimous in voting it as a horrendous choice (for one thing, the tug-of-war between Victor and the Creature is just too much like a Monty Python sketch). But it is also a curious choice, as it adds a new level to Victor's crime but takes away much of the rest of the film, such as the implication that Victor really repents of what he had done. Also it gives another kick in the balls to the nurture side of the “nature and nurture” debate, while raising the plot-derailing question of: if Elizabeth remembers so much of who she was, why wasn't the Creature able to do the same?
If you want to justify it, I'd say brain freshness; while the
Prof had been dead for at least a few days before Vic stole his brain,
Lizzie had been gone mere hours.
I think it's just lazy scriptwriting, myself. They got this cool idea, and decided it had to be used, and damn the logic. You notice how quickly the last forty-five minute of the movie run? Especially the climax - Vic decides not to help the Creature out, then walks downstairs the next morning and and begs Liz not to go, she says yes but only if he'll marry her today, and then tell her everything tomorrow (heh), they marry, set out, Dad dies, night falls, Liz dies, Vic runs back home, shake and bakes a new Liz, Creature shows up, Liz burns, house falls down - all in the space of about a day. This is very, very compressed from the book, and it speaks to me of writers not actually considering how long things should take.
It's kind of interesting, though - it's as if they were
trying to film the novel, then suddenly realised that it didn't have a
climax, as such - nothing visual, anyway - just “Well, this
person died, and then this
person died....” - and had to make something up.
The whole final section annoys me, but the worst bit is surely the Creature taking Justine's body to Victor. Now, if it was sincere in its desire for a mate – and we are given every reason to believe it is - why would it deliberately provoke Victor like that, and with its “materials, nothing more” crack? And again, a purely “intellectual” reaction on Victor’s part (i.e. “I won't do it because I believe it to be wrong”) is passed over in favour of an “emotional” reaction (i.e. “You pissed me off, so I'll piss you off!”)
Of course, they did have to deal with Shelley's biological naivety here, since the reason Victor won't go through with it the novel is his fear of the “monsters” breeding....
ZH: I'm not sure if it's intentional, but the “bring back Liz” sequence is essentially the same as the ending of Pet Sematary. (Which is why I thought freshness might be involved.) You have the crazed husband lugging the corpse
of his wife, determined to bring her back to life through the same process that created her killer in the first place - the friend who begs him not to - and, of course, the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of the resurrected wife: murderous in the novel, self-loathing in the movie.
LK: And to flog a deceased equine a bit more - isn't the completely misconceived (if you'll pardon the expression!) “resurrection of Elizabeth” sequence rather too reminiscent of the ending of The Bride, where Frankenstein's “perfect woman” turns out to prefer her “brother”, his original creation? Also, while Victor was waltzing with Justabeth, I kept waiting for her to lose her head, a la Jane Seymour in Frankenstein: The True Story! (Ah, now there's something else we could have tackled! To paraphrase Arthur Dent, this is obviously some strange meaning of the word “true” with which I was previously unacquainted!)
Speaking of this (and possibly those other two putatively faithful adaptations of the story), has anyone ever filmed the “bride” sequence as written? - had Victor building a female Creature, then changing his mind and ripping her apart with his bare hands? (And having to go back later and clean up - eww!) And if not, why not? It would be a great scene!
CD: I haven't said anything about Elizabeth yet because, well, she didn't make an impact on me at all in the novel. The one point where she could have made an interesting impact in the film, her offering to assist Victor in his experiments (now THAT would have made the birth metaphors more interesting), is quickly brushed away. She just seems to be used to embody the idyllic existence Victor has scorned. And, by the way, I like how the script tries to make Victor seem “obsessed” but instead he just acts like the 20th century concept of the “workaholic”.
ZH: I, for one, really liked Helena Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth. (I'll admit to having a minor thing for HBC, okay? Laugh at me all you like.) Maybe it's a guy thing; but personally, after the wet-sop of the novel (to be fair, in the novel it seems like everyone is a wet-sop) (admittedly, I'm not sure what wet-sop is, but it definitely sounds like the kind of thing I'm going for), it was nice to see a woman with at least a little backbone to her. I suppose Lyz could argue that she doesn't have quite enough - but I'll leave her to say what she found so annoying.
LK: You may dismiss my objection to Elizabeth as "a girl thing" if you wish! :) Of course, in the novel Elizabeth is entirely passive - she exists only to be murdered on her wedding night. So she's not really necessary to the story. But either film-makers aren't comfortable with that, or they just feel some tiresome compulsion to bump up the "love interest". (Personally, I'd prefer more unethical experimentation, and grave-robbing, and such....)
ZH: The problem with that is, if you're already picturing a characters as a “love interest”, all the beefing up in the world won't change that; either you have her be an actual full-blooded person, or you keep the stereotype as out of sight as possible. An amalgamation is, as Lyz points out, pretty damn annoying. Because for every inch of backbone we see, that person will always crumble completely if the object of affection which defines their existence comes a'calling. I thought the whole "tell me everything tomorrow, provided I don't die a horrible bloody death tonight" thing was kinda goofy; not only does Victor not get laid, Elizabeth never knows what's killing her, and she was so close to knowing, too! Ah, the irony!
LK: In MS's F., they try to make Elizabeth "modern" by having her charging back and forth and being all independent and passionate; but for all that, she still doesn't actually do anything! My favourite bit is when she threatens to leave home. Uh, where exactly is she going, this late eighteenth century woman? Going to find her own apartment? Get a job? Go on the dole? Please....
You know - between Frankenstein, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I'm beginning to find all these "Elizabeth"-s rather tiresome! :)
ZH: Hey, in BS’s D. it’s "Elisabeth”. Completely different thing altogether. One gets her heart ripped out literally; it happens metaphorically to the other, before she defenestrates herself.…
LK: Any more random observations before we move on?
ZH: Randomly, I'd just like to mention one of the few changes the movie actually got right - I'm so glad they got rid of that idiotic Turkish sub-plot. One of the lowest points in the novel, really.
Oh, and I did not buy Vic's death at the end. Or rather, I didn't buy it because I'd seen the beginning of the movie - he looked very healthy, didn't he? It was only at the end that he got all sick. Not sure why they did it that way.
LK: You're not suggesting that our "RRRROMANTIC HERRRO" should look all half-dead and emaciated and, dammit, unsexy, are you?? HA!!
By the way - is it just me, or is Krempe in the film NOT that unreasonable or hidebound? Isn't all he says that doctors should work towards curing people? Frankly, I think Victor behaves like a complete dick towards him. And I really, really HATE that "Krempe as the voice of Victor's conscience" bit - could we be ANY LESS SUBTLE, do you think??
I also hate Victor’s introduction of himself: "My name....is Victor....FRANKENSTEIN!!!!" [DRAMATIC CHORDS!!!!!!]
CD: I thought the exact same thing as soon as I started on it! I so desperately wanted the Captain to get a puzzled look on his face and reply, “Uh, who?” Although it still wasn't as guffaw-inducing, for me at least, as the fact that Victor's mom got a whole mountain to herself.…
CD: Since it's probably expected of me, I'll comment on the “historical background” of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and its links between Dracula and Vlad III “the Impaler”, Prince of Wallachia. It is reasonably accurate, I suppose, although as I pointed out to Lyz earlier the battle scene is a tad misleading, since Vlad only ever led guerilla operations against the Turks and never really led a widespread campaign against them.
Anyway, before I start nitpicking, I'll bring up the biggest - and most interesting - inconsistency. The story about Elisabeta's suicide is only half-right. Vlad was married, although the woman's name has actually been lost, but he wasn't victorious against the Turks at the time of her death - the reverse, actually. His brother, Radu, backed by the Turkish Sultan and by rebellious nobles, usurped the throne of Wallachia and forced Vlad to flee to one of his castles in Transylvania. The Turks were in close pursuit, however, and it was obvious to everyone that the castle would not survive a prolonged assault. That night an arrow with a letter attached was shot in the castle, claiming truthfully that the Turks were gearing up for the attack. Vlad’s wife, choosing death over capture, jumped in the river, which did become known as Riul Doanmei, “River of the Princess”. So while the story was close to the truth, it's also far from it. Why they changed that one important detail I can't say; I guess it just made it more 'rrrooomantic.'
I haven't read enough of the literature to argue one way or the other if linking Dracula to Vlad III has its merits or not. The Transylvania connection does have merit, even though Vlad only ruled parts of the region, and loosely at that. Further, Vlad III was known as 'Dracula,' or 'Son of the Dragon,' since his father, Vlad II, had the nickname 'Dracul' - 'Dragon' - from being a member of a Hungarian knightly society called the 'Order of the Dragon' (which is also mentioned in the film, although it wasn't so much a powerful crusading organization like the Knights Templar as a fashionable clique surrounding the Holy Roman Emperor of the time).
LK: There was an article in an early issue of Video Watchdog in which the whole Dracula-is-Vlad thing was thoroughly debunked. And among other things, the author points out everyone in the cast speaks Romanian very very badly – and that they should have been speaking Hungarian!
By the way, has it struck anyone else that this film's set-up makes NO SENSE? First, wouldn't someone in Elisabeta's position know that committing suicide is NOT going to reunite her with someone slain in a holy war? Second, why would Vlad blame God for Elisabeta's stupidity? Third, why would someone presumably frying eternally in a Christian hell get REINCARNATED??
CD: Ha! That is a good point, since the beginning makes it fairly clear that the Christian God does exist and still has that Old Testament sense of humour ('though why Vlad's renouncement gets a nasty punishment when much, much more sacrilegious crimes have been committed is beyond me!). I think the film wants us to think that Mina was sent to offer Vlad a chance at “redemption”, which the cheesy ending would indicate, but, eh, whatever...
And yeah, the film certainly does set things up as a holy war, doesn’t it? But, at the time, the “crusading spirit” had left Europe along with feudalism. And the people who lived on the front lines stuck between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans tended to be ruthlessly pragmatic. I got the impression from my research that Vlad, while a devoutly religious man, was much more worried about saving his own hide against the Ottoman invasions than he was with impressing God. :)
I don't think there's any doubt about which of our two
films is the better adaptation of its novel. At least
Branagh tried, up to a point - although he hamstrung himself by the inappropriate conception of Victor that we discussed earlier; and by trying to tack on a huge operatic climax that frankly is just silly.
However - I think on the whole Branagh shows a reasonable amount of respect for his source material. Coppola, on the other hand, obviously had nothing but contempt for his novel - even assuming he knew anything about that novel in the first place. Apparently, in his commentary on the laserdisc (which I gather didn't make it onto your DVDs?), Coppola gives the old "Oh, no-one reads THAT anymore!" speech, explaining how "Dracula" is so dense and difficult and abstruse that you couldn't possibly read it. Well, I've just finished it for the umpteenth time, and as always, other than a few stodgy patches towards the beginning and the end, I found it a fast and entertaining and occasionally affecting read. Great literature? No. A good story? Absolutely!
(Although, granted, since I just used a word like "abstruse" in a sentence, perhaps I'm not the best judge!)
And this brings me to something that puzzles me greatly: I understand why no-one ever really tries to film "Frankenstein" as written (too much philosophy, not enough story), but why has no-one ever tried to film "Dracula"? Look at it: some action, lots of gross-out scenes, a little sex, lots of opportunities for special effects--- What's the problem? A little judicious pruning, perhaps, but....I think it would make a great mini-series! Come on, BBC productions!!
Anyway - I guess this is what it comes down to:
for me, "Dracula", the novel, works because it succeeds in
interesting me in its characters. I like them, I'm sorry for them, I'm
on their side....
....and this is where BS's D. fails most dismally. I couldn't give a @#$% about anyone in it. They're a punch of pathetic puppets; ill-conceived, appallingly executed. The film is very pretty to look out, but there's not a single drop of sincerity anywhere in it. Awful characterisations - awful.
Oh come on, what are you talking about? There's Lucy the slut;
Jonathan the Boorish Non-Entity; Seward the morphine addict; Quincy
the "American" with the horrible Texan accent; Holmwood who
does about nothing in the movie but stake his sort of wife; Mina, who
starts cheating on her husband first chance she gets; and Dracula, who
is apparently here to rescue us all from the sexual repressors.
Oh, and Van Helsing, a psychotic foreigner with no tact. What's not to like?
CD: You know, I have to confess that I loved Hopkins' take on Van Helsing. I admit I'm a bit of a Hopkins groupie to start with, but I just loved that scene where the transition goes from Lucy's (second) death to Van Helsing plowing into a large steak, bluntly describing what happened.
My main problem with this concept of Van Helsing is that it
falls into that whole "Hey, cruelty and
insensitivity are FUNNY!" thing that I personally loathe. The film is already emotionally hollow - having the supposed moral centre of the story behaving like a Vaudeville act doesn't help.
Not at all. And while I agree with Chad, that Hopkins was
pretty damn cool (and seemed to try, at least, to give the character
some dignity), when Van Helsing started humping Quincy's leg and
shouting off about Lucy being the
Devil's Concubine, I lost what little regard I had left for the character. I think Hopkins could make a great Van Helsing; but in a movie where the character, like you say, is reduced to a joke.
I had to laugh: he mentions how he's been tracking Drac all his life. Well, since Dracula was still living in the same castle he'd been living in for centuries, had you ever tried looking in Transylvania? Jeez.
Apropos of nothing, I would like to state that the most disturbing scene in the movie to me was when Mina comes on to Van Helsing – and he responds whole-heartedly. This is not right! Ick, ick, ick.
LK: Did you know that there was a scene filmed in which they - did considerably more than that??
Arrrrrrrrghhh! That so pissed me off; it utterly denies what
little credibility Van Helsing has. How are we supposed to respect
this guy as this major vampire killer when he falls for the first
vampire chippie who bats her – er - eyes at him. So embarrassing.
However, I did like Van Helsing's entry into the story; giving a lecture on venereal disease. (Or vampire bats, but know venereal disease comes up - he makes a syphilis joke.) It's a neat pun – ‘cause by many accounts, especially
the "vision" of this movie, vampirism is just another sexually-transmitted disease.
While we’re sort of on the subject, am I off-base for
finding the brief make-out scene between Mina and Lucy not only too
gratuitous, but also offensive, considering that the implication is
that it was brought on by Dracula's hoodoo? I can hear Hopkins/Helsing
saying now, "Among the lesser known powers of the vampyr is to
inspire almost uncontrollable homoeroticism wherever it goes..."
LK: You might as well ask why the first consequence of vampirism is an uncontrollable urge to bear your breasts?
For all the sexual writhing, I never for one second feel any genuine emotion between any of the characters [sic.] in this film - not even between Vlad and Elisabeta - or Vlad and Mina.
ZH: Well, that's my major problem with the whole reincarnated love deal. It never resonates; after all, it's not like it's something people in the audience can identify with, and we never see these two actually falling in love. We see Elisabeta frantically making out with her husband (every goddamn kissing scene in this movie, it's like Coppola was screaming "More! Sloppier!"), then killing herself. And when we see Drac and Mina (or E2) running into one another, first he stalks her, then he hypnotizes her somehow, and then she's into him. The reincarnation is this cheat to supposedly allow you to just jump into a fully realized emotional relationship - instead, it just seems like Drac really likes girls that look like Winona Ryder.
CD: Yes! The film does try to remedy this with those scenes where Dracula tries to court Winona, but the scenes are just so choc full of 'clever' editing and filming techniques and are so quickly churned out they don't make a difference at all.
Well, they did get to re-enact the Police video "Wrapped
Around Your Finger," with all those candles and that room in the
middle of nowhere. So I guess it's not a total wash.
Honestly, even if it had succeeded, I'm not sure I would have liked it. But that it doesn't is the ruin of the movie; you can't have your central romance be too hasty and morally conflicted to be believable. (I don't mind moral conflict, I do mind a movie that so obviously can't make up its friggin’ mind.)
LK: In contrast with all of this, I find the novel's grieving over Lucy very effective - particularly that moment when poor Arthur comments that him giving Lucy a transfusion makes her "his wife"....and all the other guys are standing there staring at the ground or the sky or their fingernails and not saying anything....
Yeah, that is a nice moment. I also liked how it bonds the
group together - all of them have a stake in Lucy's fate (ha!), even
more strongly than when they were in love with her.
I still think Lucy takes a bit too long to die. It's surprising, once you're used to vampires that drain people in one night, to have the king of them all taking a couple of weeks to get through one red head. (Of course, they did
keep filling her back up...)
I was talking to someone about the novel "Dracula"
when I reviewed the Lugosi film - not either of you guys, I don't
think - and they said that the problem with the novel is a lack of
distinctive voices; that, VH and QPM's accents aside, if you open the
book at random you can't tell who's narrating.
And while that's true, I at least find Lucy and her suitors credible enough to be interested in them. The problem with the film - ONE of the problems with the film! - and I think I said this to Chad when he and I were first talking about this - if you make your vampire your hero, where does that leave your vampire hunters? That, on top of the fact that this is about the only version to include ALL of them! Whoo-hoo! FOUR useless, ill-written characters!!
ZH: I know it wasn't me you were talking to, but I've also had that pointed out to me, and it's quite true. As a stylist, Bram isn't much of a writer; but he is a decent plotter and occasionally comes up with a good character or two.
Admittedly, Lucy's three suitors didn't have all that much personality in the book - but at least they weren't entirely dismissed, as they seem to be in the movie.
CD: I agree completely. The film's biggest weakness by far is its great reluctance to accept that there are characters in the film other than Dracula, Mina and Van Helsing. I remember a friend of mine was watching it with me and when Holmwood died toward the end, he looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked, "He was alive?!"
[Editor’s note: It’s actually Quincy Morris who dies at the end, not Arthur Holmwood; which I also had forgotten, although I had seen the film only days earlier. I was going to fix up this slip, but then we decided it was too good an illustration of just how interchangeable the supporting characters in this film really are….]
ZH: It's another one of those "have your cake and eat it too" situations; because I don't think they entirely give up on the vampire hunters as heroes (albeit utterly bland ones) until the very end of the movie, when Mina suddenly gets all righteous. "Would you do the same to me?" Why yes, honey, if some undead bastard drained you dry of blood and turned you evil and predatory on small children, I most likely would stake you. Especially if you made the choice voluntarily. (And what the hell does Harker's line, "Our work is done here, hers is just beginning" mean?) That the movie ends with a painting of Drac and Elisabeta flying together or something, and I just wanted to hit something.
CD: Oh yes. "Don't underestimate the power of CHEESE."
ZH: The movie seems pretty schizophrenic; on the one hand, there's this idea of Dracula as a romantic hero (there's that phrase again!) who gives up everything for love - and this is the guy we're supposed to feel for, we're supposed to be happy when he finds his long lost love, and saddened when he loses that love. This is also the guy who kills women and children, and rammed people onto poles in his hey-day. The ending of the movie is trying to imply something tragic happened, with Dracula dying and Mina pining for him. I don't buy it.
LK: One of the things I like best about the novel "Dracula" (if you can get past Van Helsing's constant crapping on about the qualities of "a woman's heart"), is that Mina is an intelligent, efficient, useful young woman. She isn't just "the victim" or the "female lead"; she contributes. (And I love, love the fact that it is the superior males' decision to keep Mina out of things that leads directly to Dracula getting at her!) But in the film she's nothing but the "love interest". Ugh.
It's also interesting that the one time that Mina goes against her own judgement - allowing herself to be excluded from the conferences - is what precipitates the crisis. And it occurs to me that, after including Mina in the circle where they all swear to dedicate themselves to hunting down Dracula, it was doubly wrong for her to be excluded - spiritually as well as practically, if you like.
It's kind of ironic that, in trying to “expand” Mina's role
and “de-victimize” her, Coppola is actually decreasing her
influence in the story.
LK: Yes! Funny how such an obvious attempt to "update" and "modernise" what was clearly regarded as a mouldy oldy ended up in a such an infinitely more conservative (and unimaginative) characterisation, isn't it?
CD: True. On one hand, she is given some 'space' as a character (personally I'd have dated the original Vlad Tepes itself over that loser Jonathan). On the other hand, it's implied, probably unintentionally, that she's under Dracula's spell (one of the problems of introducing a romantic subplot where none was meant; not only does it make Dracula too paradoxical and inconsistent to be digestible, but also throws Mina's motives and actions into question.)
ZH: Even though the screenwriter choose to keep some of the journal entries and newspaper clippings, he left out one of my favorite ideas about them; how Mina collects everything together (as Lyz points out, she's very useful in the book) and organizes it so that it's possible to use the information they've acquired separately to discover a way to beat Drac.
LK: And isn't it Mina herself, in the process of collating, who realises that Drac always does everything over the same way; so that they can beat him home by taking a different route?
ZH: Yeah, she does - which is cool; at first it seems that the only reason to keep giving Mina information is to keep her safe (as Lyz pointed out earlier, they make a huge mistake when the initially withhold things from her), but this shows she's also likely one of the smartest of the lot, and can figure things out that, say, would utterly be beyond Quincy and Holmwood. Plus, she's got the train schedule memorized. What's not to love?
LK: Also, when they lose track of Drac towards the end, it’s Mina who puts all the facts that they have at their disposal together and makes a logical deduction about where he is and how they can catch him.
ZH: Of course, in the movie, Mina is too busy giving herself over the bad guy and hitting on septuagenarians to do anything.
I really hate the film’s conception of Lucy as a nasty little
sex-obsessed @#$%tease - pardon the expression.
I'll remove it if I can think of a more appropriate way of describing her.
ZH: Unfortunately there isn't. In the novel, she's more of a flirt –
I've just re-read that bit, and I wouldn't even go that far.
She's overwhelmed by her three proposals, yes, but she behaves very
well towards JS and QPM.
To me, "Dracula" is a tragedy because no-one in it deserves what they get; even in the usual crude, sexual way of "deserving it".
ZH: I agree, Lucy does truly love Arthur, and you don't get the impression that she was leading the others on. And her slow, slow, slow wasting away is not presented as her getting more and more horny.
CD: I'm sure in Stoker's time a woman like Coppola's Lucy would have been locked up in Seward's Sanitarium for 'hysteria.' :)
LK: Absolutely! The Creeping Flesh, anyone? :)
CD: Lucy is definitely, definitely a bad case of applying modern mindsets to a character from a different time. Trying to create a strong, sexually independent woman in a time period notorious for its misogynistic and puritanical culture is a good thing, but making her so hypersexual she would have been considered too much in modern times is a bad thing!
ZH: Um, brief aside here: did anyone else notice the variable usefulness of crosses in this movie? Jonathan has one on his neck, which scares Drac off - but ten minutes letter, one of the vampire ‘hos in the basement melts the cross off him. Exactly how powerful are the crosses if they can be melted off from that close?
LK: I agree, the use of religious articles in the film was idiotically inconsistent. Surprise.
On this re-reading, I also found the novel's religious progression interesting. It starts off with the classic "peasants force crucifix on unwary traveller" scene, where you have Jonathan expressing doubts that, as an Anglican, it ought to take it. Then, when the crisis hits, our C. of E.'s have to call in a Catholic to save the day; and by the end, they're all wielding crosses and hosts and holy water like they've been doing it all their lives! Was Stoker Catholic?
ZH: Also, was anyone else weirded out by the serious increase in Drac's powers for this movie? Apparently he can send his shadow, or his superimposed image, just about anywhere. (I'm thinking of the party scene, and the little rainstorm frolicking that happens later.)
I think the ability to send the superimposed image anywhere was
one shared by everyone in the film. :)
I definitely agree. One thing that always irritates me about the horror and fantasy (and occasionally sci-fi) genres is the idea of the Conveniently Omnipotent Villain. The writers give the villain such broad and even undefinable powers that they have to 'ignore' the scope of their powers just to let the heroes win. That scene where Dracula causes a windstorm that just happens to have a dramatic effect on Van Helsing, who just happens to be reading a book on vampires, was astonishingly silly.
It's also at strong contrast with the Dracula in the novel who,
despite the reputation he's gained over the years, is nowhere near as
powerful as I always remembered him. He's got the earth restriction,
the changing restriction,
can't do much during the day, and as I mentioned in another letter, it takes him nearly forever to drain one woman dry. Granted, he could eventually have quite the formidable army (although seeing how his "brides" act to him,
wouldn't it seem that he would be unable to successfully control an even moderate size group of women? And of course, they would all be women, and perhaps a few children), but that's what makes it a novel with stakes (I'm
trying to avoid that word, I really am). The hunters can succeed, but only if they band together and use their powers of modern intellect and ingenuity - Van Helsing speaks out of how very, very old Dracula is, and how used he's become used to taking a very long time to make choices, something which the hunters can exploit by keeping him always on the move - to defeat the essentially Old World evil. Contrast that with the movie. I can't even tell if we're supposed to be rooting for the hunters or not; most of the same plot elements are hit, but it's hollow.
CD: That's another thing about the novel that I forgot I appreciated. Although Stoker doesn't go that much into it, Dracula does have the psychology and habits of an ancient being. The Dracula here seems unfazed by the 19th century - it would have certainly made the film more interesting if they took an opposite route.
ZH: I suppose this is a good time to bring up Oldman's work. I thought he was very good. Especially in the opening scenes with Jonathan. I like how he appeared nearly alien, and some of the gestures he made were quite affecting. (I thought the licking of the razor blade was very nice.)
Useless bit of trivia: Oldman was such a fan of
Lugosi's original performance that he asked to be allowed to use that
line in the movie. I think he does it very well, managing to remind
you of the original while making it his own. Too
bad the rest of the movie hadn't been that clever.
As young Drac, Oldman was solid, but here I had a harder time enjoying his performance, simply because I detested the direction of the script. It's like he goes from EVIL to Harlequin Novel Foreigner, with the abrupt, forceful manners and the nearly impenetrable accent, just popped into London for a few days, mind if I seduce a few young impressionables?
There were moments of actual pain, and in a different movie, I might have enjoyed the shock on his face when Mina starts drinking from his chest of her own free will - but the movie was too jumbled for me to focus on it.
CD: I should also admit that, alongside Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman's performance is one of the best. The fact that he had KEANU REEVES as an adversary in the first arc of the story (which, I admit, is my favourite part of the traditional Dracula story), and was saddled down with some inexplicable dialogue, is tragic.
Oh, Keanu Reeves! Jonathan spends the first half of the movie
being tortured by a man, only to come home and find out his wife has
fallen in love with that man - and we still can't work up any sympathy
for him! I'm almost positive that Coppola cast Reeves full knowing
what the actor was incapable of; he was stacking the deck against
poor Jonathan, which frankly pisses me off.
LK: I agree! The script seems to have been tailored to cause poor Keanu as much humiliation as possible. I swear, though, I got all the way up to "Those bloody wolves in a blue inferno!" before I had my first giggling fit. And was it just my ears, or did they actually make him say "Blimey!" at one point?? The highlight of the whole film, though, has to be Jonathan's squeaky-voiced explanation that he was "impotent with fear”!
Yeah, I wrote that one down. I couldn't believe it.
CD: Watching this again, I laughed at so many of the scenes poor Keanu was in (from the "bloody wolves" to his childish excitement at seeing de-old-ified Dracula on the streets of London: "It's the Count! But he's grown young!"...um, how can you tell? For one thing, he's in entirely different clothing, has glasses and heavy facial hair, and ditched that silly little wig, which, incidentally, I've wanted for Christmas for years now), I got the idea that he would have been perfect for the role of Renfield in Dracula: Dead and Loving It.…
My own personal theory, which I would like to see verified, is that Keanu was forced on Coppola by the studio and he, at least subconsciously, took it out on him (well, okay, probably NOT subconsciously)...
And whenever Keanu stepped onto the screen, I couldn't help but scream, "EMOTE, DAMN YOU, EMOTE!"
LK: Ah, yyyyeah.... I had this in mind when I was watching, and to me this is one of those “be careful what you pray for” deals; 'cos in the scene where Drac gives the baby to his brides, Keanu is emoting....and it ain't pretty!
However, strangely enough--- Although I came to mock, I must confess that by the end, the only person connected with BS's D. that I felt any sympathy for was poor old Keanu. So sue me. I guess I'm just not up to kicking a dog when it's down.
Also - I gotta say this - is it just me, or does Drac in that “baby” scene look disturbingly like Glenn Close in Cruella DeVille mode?? Seriously. Look at it again, and tell me I'm wrong! And there's something even worse: a shot of Drac while Mina is drinking his blood, with his head thrown back in, uh, ecstasy - I swear to God, there's an angle where he looks exactly like David-Spade-as-Joe-Dirt!! I swear!!
CD: I didn't see the Joe Dirt thing, but I DEFINITELY did see the Glenn Close/Cruella DeVille connection, right down to the makeup job!
Before I get into any concluding remarks, I thought I might
quote for you from Coppola's afterword to the novelization of the
"When I read Jim's script, I thought he had made a brilliant innovation by using that history of Prince Vlad to set the frame for the whole story. It was closer to Stoker's novel than anything done before.… I noted, watching all the other Dracula films, how much they held back from what was written or implied, how they played havoc with the characters and their relationships. In our movie, the characters resemble Stoker's in their personalities and function, including many characters that are often cut out. And then the whole last section of the book- when Van Helsing is
uncovering Dracula's weaknesses, and the Vampire Killers pursue him back to his castle in Transylvania, and the whole thing climaxes in an enormous John Ford shootout - no one had ever portrayed that...
“Doing justice to the complex character of Dracula was one of our main goals. He's been portrayed as a monster or a seducer, but knowing his biography made me think of him as a fallen angel, as Satan. The irony is that he was a champion of the church, this hero who single-handedly stopped the Turks, and then renounced God because his wife was a suicide and was denied holy burial. When great ones fall, they become the most powerful devils - Satan was once the highest angel. Man's relationship with God is sacramental; it's expressed through the symbol of blood. So when Dracula rejects God, blood becomes the basis for all kinds of unholy sacraments in the story: baptism, marriage, and Mass.…
“Blood is also the symbol of human passion, the source of all
passion. I think that is the main subtext in our story. We've tried to
depict feelings so strong they can survive across the centuries, like
Dracula's love for Elizabeth. The idea that love can conquer death, or
worse than death - that she can actually give back to the vampire his
lost soul.… Usually Dracula is just a reptilian creature in a horror
film. I want people to understand the historical and literary
traditions behind the story. To see that underneath the vampire myth
is really fundamental human stuff that
everyone feels and knows.… Even if people today don't feel a sacramental relationship with God, I think they can understand how many people renounce their blood ties to the creation - to the creative spirit, or whatever it is - and become like living dead. The vampire has lost his soul, and that can happen to anyone."
Yeah. Try to remember, this is the same guy who brought us the first two Godfather movies and The Conversation. Sigh.
LK: “Knowing his biography....”
Just FYI, that article on how Dracula isn't Vlad that I was quoting from is entitled "Dracula, Schmacula: Misinformation Never Dies."
ZH: BS’s D. is a script with a bunch of disparate ideas trying desperately to pretend they form a cogent theme, when they don't. Not really. Coppola should have either been more faithful to the novel, or ignored the novel all together; the vision we get is compromised, and as such, can't be taken very seriously.