Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Of all the old monsters, Dracula was always my favorite. As a kid I thought he was too cool to be frightening, what with the ability to turn into a bat (I haven't grown out of being easy to please). Then, as I got older, I picked up on the overt sexuality of the character, his appearance and mysterious demeanor. Not to mention his method of feeding, which Bram Stoker extrapolated from its folklore roots into a take on the sexual repression of Victorian society. It gives the monster more layers, to me, than any other classic creature, more even than the notions of ostracizing, mob mentality, science and the issue of "playing God" that Frankenstein's monster conjured.

Gary Oldman does his best to capture the various aspects of this dense and allegorical character, but he's fighting an uphill battle: against the script, against the direction, certainly against the other actors. He might as well have played Sisyphus, because he has to keep dragging everything up with him until we break through with a moment of adequacy before Oldman pauses to get a moment all his own and the whole damn thing comes crashing down again.

We first meet Dracula as Vlad the Impaler, a warrior who marshals Romanian troops to a victory over a staggering invasion of Turks in 1462. He returns home triumphant, only to find his beloved wife dead from suicide upon receiving false news of her husband's death. Enraged that the Church he defended condemns her soul to hell, he vows to use all the powers of darkness to bring her back.

Four centuries later, law firm clerk Jonathan Harker is dispatched to Transylvania to settle Count Dracula's latest real estate acquisition. Keanu Reeves portrays Harker as an apparently-American man trying to sound British and failing. At least if I think of it that way Harker becomes a half-assed metaphor for a pressure to conform to one's surroundings rather than a showcase for terrible acting. When Harker arrives at Dracula's castle, he seems to accept the rather frightening creatures who populate the area and the bloodthirsty count with no reflection. The Pope doesn't have that kind of faith.

Dracula spots a photograph of Harker's wife, who looks just like his own, and he departs for England to seek out the reincarnation of his beloved. To keep Harker from interfering, he traps the hapless clerk with his "brides" (Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu and Florina Kendrick), who leave him weak by drinking his blood and engaging in orgies. Now, I do my best to suppress my piggish man instincts, but sometimes I see something so shamelessly exploitative that I can almost identify with the thought the average guy will have watching this scene: "I'd let them drink my blood for that." I'm sure this scene is supposed to engender tension, but really it comes off as nothing more than pure titillation.

The rest of the film plays out as a sort of battle between Harker and Dracula for Mina (Winona Ryder), like a romantic comedy with a lot of blood. Mina herself finds herself torn between the two: on the one hand she loves her husband, and on the other Dracula uses all sorts of mysticism to awaken her past life. It creates a character in great sexual confusion set against the repressed Victorian ideals, a character that requires some serious chops. Sadly, Ryder isn't up to the challenge, though -- with the exception of Reeves -- I'm hesitant to blame any of the excellent cast for their work here. They're simply too boxed in by a terrible script that understands the themes of Stoker's novel, a script that the writer says he worked on since 1977. That's scarier than anything in the film.

Finally, there's yet more of Francis Ford Coppola's gradual descent into mediocrity. Now, the film does boast some incredible old-school effects; Coppola refused to use digital techniques, and the film has aged incredibly well because of it. However, he takes some big risks and they often fail; Dracula's story is of course soaked in blood, but Coppola literally dumps the red stuff around so much I began to wonder if I was in a modern art exhibition. At one point one of the vampire brides recoils at the cross around Harker's neck, only to wave her hand and make the cross disappear. Well what's the point, then? Why even establish the cross as a weakness if they can just banish it to the nether dimension? Coppola's life post-Apocalypse Now would make a far more interesting movie than anything he's cooked up since, and Bram Stoker's Dracula only stands out as one of the more noble failures of a once-great filmmaker.

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