January 8, 2009

Seen Between Fingers - Don't Quit Your Day Job, Dracula!

In this regular feature, wimp and noted horror non-enthusiast Chris Kelly reports back with his first-impressions of memorable scary movies (he's also one of the judges of my January Interview Contest). Chris always seems susceptible to atmosphere and storytelling, so when I found out he'd never seen 1992's Dracula remake, it was a no-brainer to assign it. Unfortunately the movie itself is sort of a no-brainer -- it hasn't aged nearly as well as one might hope...

What confounds me about Bram Stoker's Dracula is how primed I was to enjoy it. The sight of Gary Oldman decked out in wrinkles and kabuki robes while licking a razor is forever seared in my mind as a new and invigorating take on an icon whose image had remained unquestioned for decades. The film holds a considerable reputation and has left a legacy of visual references and parodies. It was so prevalent in the '90s that I owned and regularly listened to the CD soundtrack even though I had never seen the movie itself. I was sure that a piece with such a strong reputation would bring quite a bit to the table. How, then, could it have run so far adrift from my expectations?

A number of hugely enticing and creative elements come together in this work. It's a credit to the costumer that the old man wrapped in gold fabric with Mickey Mouse ears for hair has become an accepted vision of our favorite vampire. The boldness of that redesign is practically equivalent to dressing Santa in a pin-striped suit, [Editor's note: see Palm Centro's accursed take on St. Nick here] and the fact that it seems justified is almost miraculous. The movie also sounds scary; from the swelling trumpets during the opening battle to the operatic soprano that precedes Mina’s first (we assume) taste of bestiality, it’s still clear that someone has created an ideal score to which to lose your mind slowly. The dialogue and acting aren't all bad, empirically speaking, and yet so much goes wrong.

According to IMDB, the script was initially envisioned as a made-for-TV movie. It helps to cling to this idea as you watch the madness unfold. I think Francis Ford Coppola might have had the word “theatrical” in mind for his direction, but “hokey” might be a more fitting description. The vivid colors! The cycles and repetitions! The bloody blood! Remember high school English class, when you had to find the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter? That’s what this feels like. I know camp when I see it, and I definitely watched a couple hours of it here.

With the exception of Keanu Reeves, Coppola assembled a pretty capable cast, only to have them take turns gnawing the scenery to bits. Anthony Hopkins commits the worst sins in this regard, using an accent as absurd and erratic as his line delivery. Winona Ryder was never the strongest performer in the world, and her presence simultaneously shouts “Hey, it's the '90s!” and “Wow, am I ever uncomfortable!” Gary Oldman gets a little more leeway by the nature of his role, and thus comes out relatively unscathed. Under that much make-up, you pretty much have to give the same performance whether you're playing an undead bat-count or Edna Turnblad. In hindsight, the unkindest hand is unfortunately dealt to Sadie Frost, whose “And introducing...” credit only serves to illustrate how few people in Hollywood wanted to meet her. This girl banged a latex wolf on a concrete casting couch and still barely ever managed more silver screen credits than costar Tom Waits. (Speaking of which: Tom Waits?)

The uniform lack of subtlety employed by all involved is supremely distracting. Almost every choice made in or about the movie raised immediate questions. Why has Winona Ryder worn six dresses in the exact same shade of mint green? Why are Dracula's eyes superimposed on fucking everything? The landscape is so red -- is his castle on Mars? Has no one thought to make Sadie Frost a dress capable of restraining both her breasts at the same time? Does she really wear that slutty red nightgown to bed even when she's on the verge of death? Has the "loose wolf"subplot really existed entirely so we can watch the lead characters pet it for a while? No, seriously, Tom Waits? Is anything scary going to happen? Am I watching TBS right now?

I couldn't help but feel as though the whole fiasco was being run by my high school theater teacher. Each atmospheric element that could have been creepy if the audience was trusted to notice it on their own was instead turned up to eleven and thrust in our faces. Sure, it's a nice touch that Dracula's shadow doesn't always line up with his motions perfectly, but after ten minutes of watching the actor and his projected image polka around each other, it gets a little tiresome. Similarly, it's enough (too much, really) that Winona Ryder plays dual roles: we don't need constant dissolves between her two characters. More and more, I got the impression that the production team thought I was pretty stupid. And that's the thing: if you have to tell me I'm frightened, then I'm not really frightened.

When the credits began to roll, I was left largely confused. I can't for the life of me figure out why we collectively remember Dracula so fondly. What was it about the previous decade that allowed us to believe that we enjoyed this film? I kept waiting for the big awesome thing that would make me want to keep watching. In the end, it was a big win for Eiko Ishioka, who snagged herself an Oscar by turning the onscreen fiasco into a runway for her evocative fashions. Without her visionary stylings, I find it hard to believe that we'd still be talking about this movie today.


Tom said...

In my teen years I used to get pretty irritated with people when they poked fun at Oldman's buns-hair or purple Willy Wonka glasses. I would have defended this movie to the death -- it had hot polyamorous vampiric BJ's, wolf-rape, lesbian canoodling, and a main character who was somehow sexually irresistable despite not being particularly hot. It's basically any 14 year old's perfect movie.

As an adult I'm still into all of those things (though regular wolves can't legally offer consent, and the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the rights of supernatural wolves), but now I can see Mina and Lucy for what they are -- merely those girls who make out at the bar to attract men. Coppola basically whored them to rally an army of teenage fans. Stay classy, Francis!

Unknown said...

Well, the Supremes may not have ruled on lupine sex yet, but The Onion wants you to marry a wolfman in California...