05 October 2010

DVD: "Bram Stoker's Dracula"

Bram Stoker's Dracula
Starring: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves
Screenplay by James V. Hart
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
MPAA Rating: R (For Violence, Sexuality and Language)
DVD Release Date: 7 October 1997
Cinescopes Personality Types: Destined Hunter, Rebellious Lover
List Price: Out of Print

The Film
Based upon Bram Stoker's novel Dracula (as well as elements from its screen and stage predecessors), Transylvania's Count Dracula buys up a lot of London real estate and comes to town near the end of the 19th Century.  This time around, the familiar story is conflated with a fictionalized account of Vlad the Impaler.  He returns from the Crusades to learn his wife has been tricked into believe he has died, and killed herself in response to this false news.  Told that she will be damned for having taken her own life, Vlad rejects Christianity and becomes (somehow) a vampire.  Four hundred years later, he finds Mina (Winona Ryder), who appears to be his deceased wife reincarnated, and a love story ensues.

Most adaptations play up the Gothic aesthetics in the production design; here, the emphasis is on an operatic flamboyance.  The Academy Award winning costumes (designed by Eiko Ishioka) are genuinely unique among the assorted Dracula counterparts; Gary Oldman appears in such style that Bela Lugosi's iconic cape and pendant seem pedestrian.  To say that Bram Stoker's Dracula is an exercise of style over substance is an understatement.

In Hart's version of the story, the emphasis is more on the erotic than the violent.  Ryder's Mina simmers with sexual curiosity and longing; Sadie Frost's Lucy can scarcely contain her lust.  And Anthony Hopkins's take on Professor Van Helsing is that of a dirty old man; personally, I think he was playing Benjamin Franklin.  The only one not in on all the lust is poor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), who is apprehended by a trio of vampires who maul him in a months-long orgy, leaving him just alive enough to keep going.  According to the IMDb trivia page, Reeves was exhausted during filming, having just come from a series of shoots, and it shows in his performance.  His lack of energy is actually one of the most authentic elements in the film.

When we put the disc into our Blu-ray player, it bypassed the menu and began playing the film.  I didn't think anything of it, because auto-start is a common feature.  I was, however, surprised when the film concluded and the player automatically shut down!  I turned it back on to check out the menu and quickly learned why my player thought it was a waste of time.  There is a 4:3 aspect ratio static screen with the poster art and a list of choices that includes spoken languages, subtitles and chapters.  There's not so much as a trailer to be found.  This was, after all, a 1997 release; commentary tracks and making-of features weren't commonplace.

The Recommendation
Ultimately, it's hard to really handle a property like "Dracula" because the source material (structured as a collection of diary entries and letters) isn't really suited for a direct adaptation in the vain of, say, Frank Miller's Sin City.  By 1992, the best that anyone could really do was produce an amalgamation of the key elements from the mythology and dress it up nicely--which was done.  If you like your Dracula threatening, you may be disappointed; Gary Oldman's performance is really more of a seducer than a villain.  But if you like a little vamp in your vampire movie, Bram Stoker's Dracula might just be worth your time.  If you're a movie-only person, this out-of-print edition should suffice.. But if you enjoy at least some rudimentary bells and whistles with your DVD, you'll want to look for one of the subsequent re-issues.

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