Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Special: Dracula Spectacular!

I would like to send a special shout to Josh. He talked me into doing this subject when I originally was going to talk about some slasher flicks. The idea was to do something I have access to. But the fact of the matter is that there are a ton of Dracula movies on Netflix paired with the ones I already own in my personal collection. So thank you, Josh, for making this even easier and more unique than I thought it would be. Let's go in chronological order from when they were released.
Also as one more disclaimer I was really hoping to do five movies, but that did not pan out. I'll only be doing three but I think for how much I write in these reviews it'll be more than enough.

Campy/Artsy Adaptation - Blood for Dracula (1974)
When I first was getting into artsy fartsy movies I went to the Criterion Collection for some guidance as anyone who needs an intro into art film should. Within that collection I found tons of unique titles. Two of which that really stood our for me were Flesh for Frankenstein, and the one I'll talk about now, Blood for Dracula. Not only were they unique looking adaptations but they were produced by Andy Warhol. Even on their original release his name was right there in the title as a selling point. I thought to myself, "Warhol!? Holy shit I need to see these movies." So glad I did. While Flesh for Frankenstein is one of my favorite Frankenstein adaptions I didn't like Blood for Dracula as much. That's not to say it's not a great movie.
And as a quick P.S. to the film poster. An alternate title to the movie is Andy Warhol's Dracula but the proper name is Blood for Dracula. A similar thing happened with Flesh for Frankenstein.
I'm not 100% sure if the version I watched for this review was uncut. According to Netflix instant the movie ran for 103 minutes. However IMDB stated it runs 106 minutes. But then I cross referenced with the Criterion Collection edition (they pride themselves with the full cut of movies) and that also stated 103 minutes. I know it sounds like I'm being particular but if you know me well enough you'll know how strongly I feel about seeing film in the cut it is meant to. Not a botched up version. Whatever. IMDB might just be listing incorrectly or an unreleased cut listing. Anyway the version I watched did seem to have a lot if not all the explicit stuff I remember from my original viewing. So it probably was the right one.
One thing I'll say right off is that this one is really hard to recommend. It goes off in such a different direction it's hard to say who would be into it unless you already knew their tastes. Not to mention it would even be hard to recommend to Dracula fans because it does play fast and loose with the mythology. Although that may depend how hardcore you are in regard to that. And how this is toyed with is simple. He can seem to do things that another Dracula otherwise wouldn't do. Like go out into the sun (NO THERE ARE NO FUCKING SPARKLES THIS IS THIRTY FUCKING YEARS EARLIER!) among other things. It's tough to tell what actually harms him in this interpretation because right off the bat he is so weak it's sad.
But let's get to the story. So as I stated Dracula is portrayed as very weak, which is because he has not drank blood for quite some time and has little time left to live. Now my knowledge of the original or proper vampire lore is limited so bear with me. In this interpretation he specifically needs the blood of a virgin so he travels in search of a bride while using his title as Count to his advantage. He comes across a wealthy-ish family with four daughters, all of whom are placed as potential brides for the count. Now I am on board for all of this. It's a surprisingly somber approach to the character and what he needs to do to survive. Also because he is so weak we see limited interactions with the count. Either he's being hauled along from place to place or he's meeting with the girls. Other than that there is a lot of interaction with the family as well as Drac's right hand man who is doing all the hard work for his boss. Still I really liked most of the characters not really feeling cheated because of Dracula's lack of presence.
Of course if you've seen one Dracula story you've seem just about most of them. Despite Dracula being very weak (literally) in this interpretation it still follows some of the same story arcs seen in other ones. The seduction, bites/kills, eventual epiphany of who Dracula really is, and then the killing blow. One spot where it stayed within lore was there. Can't imagine I'm spoiling anything for anyone when I say he gets a stake to the heart in the end. But not before literally being chopped apart. It's a really brutal and really bloody death, and it's amazing. Still what makes this one stand apart is the choice in how to present the tone of the story and the unique reactions not seen in many other Dracula stories. My favorite of which is his near allergic reactions to non-virgin blood.
It shouldn't be a surprise that some of the girls aren't virgins. There are multiple scenes when it shows the naughty ones in bed with the (muscular and very attractive) gardener. Scenes that spare little to no detail (this movie is very heavy on the sex). So when Dracula is finally alone with one of these girls he goes for the bite not realizing he's drinking non-virgin blood he reacts very... medically I guess. He shakes and shivers like he's having a seizure while vomitting up the bad blood. It's long and very intense in the movement so it's hard to watch. This happens a couple times which is giving Dracula a lack of faith in thinking none of them are virgins. Not true but still a sound thought.
I'll try not to go on too much longer because this is probably already longer than the next two reviews will be.
So in typical Dracula/Vampire fashion it is eventually discovered who Dracula really is. The hunky gardener hunts him down then kills Dracula by chopping him up first then driving a wood stake through his heart... as I previously mentioned. One last thing to happen is that one of the sisters is so upset by this she committs suicide by throwing herself on top of the same stake. She was under mind control by the count so her love for him is pretty apparent.
Overall this is definitely a flawed Dracula story, however I can't keep myself from it. I love it so much and would easily re-watch it multiple times. The Criterion Collection edition of the DVD is out of print so it usually runs for $40+ but I would easily pay it to have the best edition out there. What I love the most is the score. It's a light piano* theme that gives the whole movie a much more calming, artistic tone. Even when Dracula is biting into the daughter's neck it is light, almost feels like a love-making scene instead of an attack. Despite this artistic feel there is still a lot of camp. Blame it on the budget, blame it on the era, whatever, but some of the acting is so bad it's comical. Either that or the approach is what's so bad about it. Most characters can and are so over the top with their performance it's almost impossible to take seriously. Especially Drac's right hand man who is ALWAYS so intense in his words and actions. That and when Dracula is being chopped up, while very violent, is also pretty corny. The special effects are not strong in the dismemberments and I could see many people busting a gut the first time that axe swings down to chop off his arm and all the blood shoots out. I try to ignore those things especially since this was made in a completely different era while not under a Hollywood level budget.
But my favorite part... besides how fucked up the whole experience is... is the actor playing Dracula. Udo Kier. It was this and Flesh for Frankenstein that I first saw him act (or first time I recognized him) and I've been keeping an eye on him since. I think he is awesome! Not stupendous but someone I always enjoy seeing on screen. He's one of those guys whose been in over 200 movies but he's still great. He just takes a lot of the work he's given, even if it's a small role. Like a Malcolm McDowell or Danny Trejo. He's the German version of them.

The REALLY Artsy Adaptation - Dracula (1992)
You know, every so often a really good filmmaker comes along and redoes a classic story and we get an instant classic that knocks most if not all other adaptations out of the water. Many would argue The Dark Knight is the epitome of Batman movies. Then there's Kenneth Brannagh's adaptation of Hamlet from the mid-90s which a lot of people would consider to be one of the best if not THE best. Just two examples that come up right off the top of my head. Not the best connections to what I'm talking about here. Anyway this is one of those cases where a prolific director chose to take on a classic. And you know what? He made it work on just about every level.
There's many reasons why this is one of my favorite Dracula movies. One aspect I want to get out of the way right away (because it has nothing to do with the story) is the technical side.
This is something I know the mainstream audiences won't care about. But film lovers definitely will. Throughout the movie there are plenty of special effects. Just enough to give it an artsy feel and enough to convey the supernatural occurrences onscreen. But here's the thing, some of it may look like it was done with a computer. But NONE of it was. NOTHING was done with a computer. It was all done with 100% organic, old fashioned  editing. So lots of models, in camera tricks, film strip overlays, etc. There's a lot of examples present and if you're interested in looking further then follow this link. For an example early in the movie start at the 10:30 mark.
What I also adored about this interpretation is it's unapologetic approach to the violence and other harsh elements of the story. It always kills me how Dracula, a really violent and dark story, is portrayed in such safe ways over the years. Either that or it's interpreted in Syfy channel level corniness where Dracula is less a legendary immortal creature and more of a supervillian worthy of over the top anime (or like the way they're portrayed in Underworld. Fucking stupid). But this one goes for it all. The intro alone is intense, violent, all with the bombastic soundtrack that I adore. It even goes to the root, roots with the origin dating back to Vlad the Impaler. It's brilliant and the violence doesn't stop there. It continues as well as the sexuality. But it's not in there for the sake of being there. Like I said Dracula is a dark tale so it calls for this level of insanity and violence. And it's with this use that helps create the creepy tone. Yes, a Dracula movie made within the last couple decades that's actually pretty scary. Unlike (ugh) the super hero tales of Dracula and other vampires like in so many titles since the turn of the millennium.
The other major aspect of why I love this Dracula and why I feel it's one of the best is the style. The concept design throughout is beautiful in almost every way. It gives a strong sense for the time period while owning it's own style in the process. Some of my favorite designs show up right in the beginning. I absolutely love that armor in the opening battle sequence. Not a traditional style. It looks almost something like muscles instead of metal or whatever the hell armor would usually be made out of. It is simple details like that, that make this interpretation unique because it doesn't blend in with other titles with the not so uncommon styles. And with that said I actually liked Dracula's garb from early on in the movie. It makes him look out of touch with the world. Like he's been stuck up in that castle for an eternity without feeding. He's not aware of the outside world as he once was. So he dresses the way he feels comfortable with, no matter how out of date that outfit may seem to everyone else.
Since this is a bit more of a well known title I don't have too much more to say on it that hasn't already been said. But there is one thing that is hard to avoid. The performances. Now when you look at the casting choices you first think, "Oh shit, Anthony Hopkins! He's awesome. And Gary Oldman?! SWEET! This is gonna be great." Then you look further and realize, "Uh-oh, how did Winona Ryder get in this... and... and... KEANU REEVES?! How the hell is he going to act along the gems in this movie?" It does seem like odd casting choices. On one hand you've got a couple of the best actors of the modern age, then you've got not the worst but a couple of the biggest jokes when it comes to the big screen. And the crazy thing is that of course Hopkins and Oldman knock it out of the park. Sadly the less than stellar performances by Rider and Reeves actually bring the experience down as a whole. It's not as easy to get by as other movies. Like with Lincoln that came out last year. Daniel Day-Lewis gave the performance of the year, yet everyone else around him was competent enough to keep it a compelling experience. However the great mixed with the bad here just makes parts hard to get through. While the goods feel natural, the bads feel like they're trying too hard.
And I guess that leads me to my last thought which is more of a personal opinion than anything. I'm not the biggest fan of period pieces. To me they have to really be done well to get my attention. Like, REALLY well or offer something unique. And this is because I feel in period pieces too much of the production and the actors try way too hard it feels unnatural. And that was the case in the non-scary parts of this movie. It felt like it turned into your run of the mill period piece you see every so often where everyone is putting on their best English accent and pretending like it's a couple hundred years ago. It takes real talent to make that feel natural and for the most part I wasn't feeling it here.
With that aside this is one of the best Dracula movies you'll find out there. While it may not appeal to everyone in the mainstream in all aspects overall I think most would enjoy it as is. It's also one of the easiest ones to get a hold of, including the three I listed here. I got my copy from the $5 bin at Wal-Mart and I'm sure they still have copies there. Whereas my other two choices you would need to do a little bit more digging to get your hands on.

The Fictional Biopic Adaptation - Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
While from a style perspective it's not the most unique, in story execution it definitely is in terms of the source material. Shadow of the Vampire is the fictional making of story of Nosferatu. Meaning it takes place in our universe instead of one originally conceived by Bram Stoker. Definitely not a common concept since so many adaptations seem to want to redefine vampires... which is annoying.
First good sign, this isn't like other biopics. It must say something about life and the human condition when almost every single biopic you see is exactly the same in structure. Makes life a little predictable. Thankfully this is a fictional biopic so it takes many liberties to make it more interesting. The setup is that the director of Nosferatu had very unique ideas in terms of getting his film made. He's also hired an actor he claims to be a method actor who will only appear in full costume, makeup, in character, and they will only shoot at night. Giving the illusion of working with a real vampire. Well the idea for this story was born from the legend (not sure how many people believed this) that Max Schreck was a real vampire since he only did Nosferatu way back when and no other movies. A legend that was easily born in a time without the internet because five minutes of research proves that false. However in this story they flat out make Max Schreck exactly that. A real deal vampire that the director contracted to be in the movie where his payment is in blood and kills. So of course the movie goes through the motions of making the movie that leads to the vampire's inevitable end (if you've ever seen Nosferatu you'll know what happens). So in a way it was formulaic but clever enough to keep you interested.
Now what especially makes this movie are the performances and the balance overall. In the previous review I talked about how even with the powerhouse performances by Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins the movie as a whole was brought down by the performances of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder. Thankfully that was not the case here. There were a couple of big names present but one of them was in heavy makeup so it helped with immersion. There was John Malkovich who was the most recognizable. He did a standup job like always. Cary Elwes shows up late in the movie doing a fine job. Not spectacular but all is well and he didn't bring it down at all. But Willem Dafoe as the vampire was incredible! He is in so much makeup it makes him physically unrecognizable. There are some Dafoe-isms that come out here and there that make it obvious. But for the most part if I didn't know that was him under all the makeup it would definitely take some time to figure out. It's the cheek bones. But besides those famous actors there weren't any other universally recognizable faces. Something that really helped out this movie. That and they all did a great job so it kept it level unlike Coppola's adaptation of Dracula. One last fun fact, though. The producer in the movie is played by Udo Kier. If you were paying attention two reviews ago you'll remember that, that is the same man who played Dracula in Blood for Dracula. Always like seeing him on screen and this is certainly no exception.
Overall this is a great under-appreciated experience. It got a little bit of attention when it was released by the academy when it was nominated for two Oscars. One for best supporting actor (Willem Dafoe) and for Best Makeup. It didn't win either but it's easy to see why it was chosen in the first place. And the thing is that there's definitely an audience for this movie but it seems so unknown overall. As far as I can tell at least. It's got the magic of movie making element to it. Everyone seems to love that! It's a horror story but plays less violent and more tense than anything else. Much like a thriller. Also it's based on a classic that so many people already love. It's hard to tell why this movie didn't do better or get more attention.
Well, one last thing I do have to say about it is it's length. This movie is way too short for only coming in at a mere 92 minutes. So much more could have been done. So much more could have been said. And while the ending has a nice touch to it, it would also be nice to see the post-production reaction. The build up of the mystery following Nosferatu's release where so many people seemed to go missing after the production (because they're dead). That or more could have been done within the movie making process they experience. Instead you're given a great story that's over way too fast.
Still I don't want to complain. I love these alternate history movies (also see Inglourious Basterds and Death of a President) because they take what's true and create either a fun, exciting, or even thought provoking alternate story that turns history on it's head. It makes you want to believe in urban legends again. Giving you the thought that history isn't what it claims it is. Now this movie specifically wouldn't do that but thinking of there being a movie out there that featured a real deal vampire would be the tits.

In closing I hope you all have a great Halloween! As I'm finishing this I'm re-watching Dawn of the Dead to keep the spirits of the holiday alive in my home.

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