Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: The Count Goes Just Plain Weird

by Rustbelt

By the 1990’s, bad was cool. (See e.g. nWo, ECW, Austin 3:16) Anything that wasn’t extreme was dull. (See e.g. any Mountain Dew commercial) The Macarena ruled and stoners determined culture. How did this affect vampires? Well, just when it seemed as though filmmakers had finally realized that Dracula is meant to be scary, they go pants-crapping crazy and make the story utterly unrecognizable. Blood-drinking became cool. Any connection between Christian faith warding off vampires was deemed unhip. And unless you were an uber-sexy teenager/twentysomething, it was wrong to fight vampires because you were ruining all the fun. I blame this all on Jess Whedon.

But before that annoying hipster got his turn, it was a member of the Movie Brats who turned vampire lore on its head. To get to the root of this, we’re going to have to go back a few decades.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (American Zoetrope, 1992)

Probably the most famous play version of Dracula is the 1924 Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderson adaptation. Tod Browning relied heavily on it when filing his classic version starring Bela Lugosi for Universal in 1931. Over forty-five years later, the play reopened on Broadway with Frank Langella in the lead. This, of course led to the 1979 film starring Langella. However, the producers weren’t the only ones inspired by the play to make a bizarre new film version.

During the show’s run, screenwriter James V. Hart decided to take in the performance. Hart later recalled that on the night he was in the audience, (and apparently during the scene where the Count bites Lucy), he heard a woman in front of him mutter that, “she’d rather spend one night with Dracula dead than the rest of her life with her husband alive.” Hart went back and read the book. Interpreting virtually everything in the novel as a sexual metaphor for something, he eventually wrote a rough screenplay for his own adaptation. Years later, in 1989, budding Hollywood starlet Winona Ryder got a copy of the script and took it to Francis Ford Coppola -- the story goes that she was shocked that he listened to her since she had pulled out of the The Godfather Part III. Coppola liked what he read and decided to make his take on Dracula with one particular word in mind: weird.

Horror or Romance, You Make the Call

Bram Stoker’s Dracula starts off with something that never happens in the book: Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) claiming that he is Vlad the Impaler. He is shown fighting the Turks in…muscle armor? Then, after impaling his foes (recalling the Impaler’s real-life ‘forest of the impaled’), he learns the terrible news that his wife committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking he died in battle. In a chapel, he is told that her soul is damned for committing suicide and in a rage renounces God and declares himself blood thirsty, setting him on the path to becoming a vampire.
Note: Vlad the Impaler’s first wife did, in fact, throw herself from the battlements of Castle Poenari. The reason is unknown, but it’s inferred that because the castle was being besieged by the Turks, she killed herself out of despair.

The film then follows a similar plot to the Universal version, with Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reaves) traveling to Transylvania... and the weird is on. Everything is done to excess (cough, cough Peter Jackson). The ‘peasants’ in the coach seem dressed for Mardi Gras; the armor-clad coach driver looks like an enemy out of the Castlevania franchise; and when Harker encounters the Brides - one of whom has Medusa’s head snakes - it quickly becomes a scene out of Caligula.
The Count arrives in England and the script morphs from an LSD-fueled version of the Universal movie, to a hybrid of the Palance and Langella versions done in the Kabuki style. (Seriously! That’s what half the costumes in this movie were based on!) Dracula recognizes Mina (Winona Ryder) as his wife Elizabeta reincarnated and begins courting while feeding on her friend, Lucy. A near-insane Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and the uptight vampire hunters begin to investigate.
Finally, after Lucy (Sadie Frost) and Mina have deep sexual awakenings after being bitten by the Count, the hunters chase Dracula to his castle where Mina turns on the group and nearly helps the Count escape. She only stabs and decapitates him as an act of mercy. Whew!
Dracula: Gary Oldman

I have a lot of issues with this version of the Count, though they really can’t be blamed on the actor. Coppola wanted everything to be as over-the-top as possible. This included giving Dracula a red evening gown complete with twenty-foot train and a Krusty the Klown style hairdo. The appearance is more laughable than frightening.
It improves somewhat in London, as the Count dresses like a nobleman. However, he wears blue-tinted John Lennon-esque glasses and cries purple tears. [insert your Prince joke here] I can’t help but wonder if Coppola was actually making fun of the character by this point.
Anyway, Gary Oldman is one of those rare actors who can almost seamlessly become different characters and make them believable. Here, he does what is asked of him: he uses a deep Romanian accent and acts creepy as the old Count in the castle. After drinking the blood of the crew on the Demeter makes him younger, he switches gears to sex-starved stalker, albeit one with a heart. I say this because as much as he wants to make Mina a vampire to be with him forever, he doesn’t want to damn her. However, she falls in love with him because…?

Oh, Let’s Just Say It: Twilight for Adults

Why does Mina love Dracula? Because he took her out? Because he’s a gentleman and won’t bite her? Does he sparkle in sunlight? Will he introduce her to the family? Will he take her to the prom? (Well they do dance.) Oh, let’s just say it: this is Twilight for Adults!
This just hit me in the course of writing this article: the Count and Mina in this movie are Edward and Bella! He loves her, but won’t bite her because it’s terrible to be a vampire. She loves him and wants him to bite her so they can be together forever. How precious. Maybe he’ll also compose a lullaby on the piano for her.

Even more amazing, Mina is actually more obnoxious than Bella. As I mentioned above, she turns on the group in the end. She warns the Count of their plans, tries to bite Van Helsing, uses vampire powers to help Dracula get to the safety of the castle, and then pulls a gun on her husband to keep him from killing the Count. Turncoat, I say! Traitor! Witch! Benedict Arnold!
How to Make Bram Stoker Roll Over in the Grave (Which Would be a Feat, Since he was Cremated)

Once again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual liberator from traditional mores. I could rehash all of that, but I covered what I have to say on that subject in my article on the Palance and Langella versions. So let me detail other things I couldn’t stand:

- Even Coppola has admitted he doesn’t like the decision to cast Keanu Reeves. He claims the studio forced it on him. (He wanted Johnny Depp.) Reeves is wooden, uninteresting, and turns in one of the worst English accents of all time. Only three years removed from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you can’t help but wonder when he’ll say ‘whoa.’ BTW, Ryder is almost as bad with her accent.
- Feminism or non-feminism? Coppola deliberately focused the script on Mina and Lucy. Both constantly undermine the male characters. Mina even berates Dracula for thinking the cinematograph is a scientific achievement, and claims Marie Curie would scoff at it. (Screw you, Edison!) Plus, both spend a good deal of the film sizing up the men as per their sexual abilities. (Does Lucy have any lines that can’t be interpreted as innuendo?) And, of course, both choose Drac as their ultimate dude because he shows them a good roll in ze hay. Is that really feminism? You know, I can’t tell anymore.
- Finally come the costumes. Yes, I know this movie won Oscars for costume and makeup, but the Academy also gave ‘Best Picture’ one year to ‘Shakespeare in Love.’ So much for credibility. It’s all so over-the-top, it’s ridiculous. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was watching. Like I said above, most of the costumes are based on Kabuki dresses. Everything else seems to be Victorian garb on steroids. (The ‘muscle armor,’ BTW, is completely made up.) Exactly how you make a horror movie where everyone dresses like clowns and ringmasters is beyond me.
Obligatory Find the Good

All right, except for Gary Oldman, I’ve been really hard on this film. (And honestly, I think he saves it from being a total wash.) However, this film has many defenders and I can see why. The sets are highly detailed, crafted, and well-lit. But art alone can’t make a movie. You still need story and character. Christopher Lee pointed out the scene where Oldman licks the blood off Harker’s razor and has a moment of ecstasy as he swallows it. He called that a nice addition and I agree. To that end, here are some good things I found in the script.

- The hunters are all here. This is the first movie to show all of the vampire hunters- Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant), who proposed to Lucy, but was turned down, Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), Lucy’s fiancé, and Arthur’s Texan adventurer friend, Qunicey P. Morris (Billy Campbell). Most movies reduce the group to one or two. It’s nice to see them all together, even if they are portrayed as inferior males. On that note, Anthony Hopkins is no Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. He was deliberately channeling his Hannibal Lector character for the role.

- There’s homage to the author. While walking through London, Mina passes an ad on a placard for the Lyceum Theater, where Bram Stoker worked as business manager. The placard further advertises Sir Henry Irving in Hamlet can also be seen. Irving made his reputation playing the Prince of Denmark.

- There’s plenty of actual dialogue in the film. Dracula, Harker, and Van Helsing use many lines from the novel in the film, particularly in the scenes leading up to, and taking place in, Castle Dracula. Harker quotes from the journal entries in the novel several times. It’s only when the plot changes into Twilight and Lucy’s nymphomania appears that Stoker’s words become lost.
- Tom Waits does the most outrageous performance as Renfield since Dwight Frye in 1931. He’s eccentric, unpredictable, and just plain crazy; a good friend one moment; a homicidal maniac the next. Let me amend what I said before: Oldman and Waits save the movie from being a total wash.

- And, yeah, I’ll admit: I like “Love Song for a Vampire.”
The Difference Between a Lost Chapter and a Lost Cause

In 1914, two years after Bram’s death, Florence Stoker published something odd: a book of short stories called Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. It’s widely believed that the title story is an excised chapter of Dracula. It goes like this:
An unnamed Englishman (presumably Harker), arrives in Munich on Walpurgis Night. Although warned not to go out, the Englishman walks out to an abandoned ‘unholy village.’ He finds a massive tomb with an iron stake driven through it. An inscription reads, “The Dead Travel Fast.” A hailstorm forces him into the tomb’s doorway and he accidentally opens it. Lightning reveals a beautiful sleeping woman inside. Just then, thunder frightens him away and another bolt hits the spike, destroying the tomb as the woman screams. Hours later, the man wakes with a ferocious-looking wolf licking his neck. A group of soldiers arrive, shoo off the wolf, and take the Englishman back to the inn. It’s later revealed that the man’s eventual host, Dracula, sent a warning to the inn to look after the man.

No one really knows why the story was removed from the novel. Theories range from the style (it’s not certain who the narrator is), to the length of the novel, to the scene just not fitting into the narrative. The evidence that it may be a removed first chapter comes from the original manuscript now held at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia. Lines scratched out in the manuscript seem to refer to events in Dracula’s Guest. Also, nearly all the chapters numbers are scratched out and subtracted by one. The lack of information about this piece only adds to its mystery.

I think it was a good choice to remove it. First, it allows Harker’s experiences to build as we follow his journey across Eastern Europe. And second, it can be inferred that the experience should better prepare Harker for his experiences in Transylvania. If he went through that and behaves the way he does in the novel, he’d actually look rather stupid dismissing every superstition instead of carefully investigating them.
But sometimes family isn’t your friend. In 2009, Dacre Stoker, professional gym teacher and great-grand-nephew of Bram, co-authored a book called Dracula the Un-Dead. In a case like this, you’d hope that talent might be passed through a family bloodline. Alas, this is not the case.

I won’t bother with a full synopsis. Suffice to say, the original group of vampire hunters has drifted apart by 1912. They’re all recluses or addicts of some kind. Anyway, the vampire Elizabeth Bathory (a real-life Hungarian countess who had village girls killed so she could bathe in their blood, which she believed would cause her to retain her youth), has arrived in London and is causing trouble. Quincey Harker (Jonathan and Mina’s son), gets help from a famous actor named Basarab (Dracula in disguise), and they attempt to find Bathory and destroy her.

This isn’t written as a novel; it’s written as an attempted screenplay pitch. The book’s last chapters move and climax like a Die Hard film. Dracula takes over the role of superhero as he and Bathory fight X-Men-style. It’s also revealed that the Count and Mina were great lovers and that the group misidentified the Count as the bad guy the first time around. And, oh, yeah: everyone gets killed along the way.

Dacre Stoker has claimed the book was an attempt for the Stoker estate to reclaim the property. I, for one, hope they’re kept as far away from it as possible.
It Seems the Dawn has Arrived

How time flies. Well, everyone, it’s been a nice few weeks this October. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discussing the many faces of the vampire king with you. And like Gene Wilder told Mel Brooks on the set of Young Frankenstein just after the last day of filming wrapped, “I’m so happy. I don’t want to leave Transylvania.” Unfortunately, the time has come. When this is posted, Halloween will be over. Remember how the ghosts and ghouls in the Night on Bald Mountain piece from Fantasia return to their graves as sunlight shines through the clouds to the ringing of the angelus bell? Well, now, the vampires, too, must return to their tombs.

This year’s series of Monsterpiece Theater is complete. But it’s just a chapter. There’s always room for more.

“I trust your journey has been a happy one…and that you [enjoyed] your stay in my beautiful land. Your Friend, D.”

Sir Christopher Frayling’s “Nightmare! The Birth of Victorian Horror: Dracula”


ArgentGale said...

References to 90s pro wrestling and Castlevania, huh? Now that's stuff I can get! I was wondering if you'd review this one, Rustbelt. I never saw it myself but the consensus even back then seemed to be "WTF?" Doesn't look like I really missed anything, either, though your story on how the script came to be reminds me of something. I was browsing the local Barnes and Noble or maybe Goodwill (can't remember which, but I think it was Goodwill) one day and saw Dracula. The back cover described it more or less the way you described this movie, interpreting the book as a criticism of Victorian sexual mores and making the Count sound like some kind of bisexual liberator (saying things like Dracula feeds on "strong men and beautiful women"). I'd say I don't know where they came up with that, especially in light of your background information on what actually gave Stoker the idea, but I've seen enough loopy college literature professor babble to recognize it. either way it sounds like you found some real messes for this article. I've enjoyed the series regardless, though!

- Daniel

Anonymous said...

Dawn always comes and October always ends but this was a great way to spend it. Thanks so much for the effort that you put into this. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I learned alot. This was a great discussion on film.

AndrewPrice said...

Rusbelt, Thanks for an excellent series. I've enjoyed it a lot.

On these in particular, I've never seen the Oldman version of Dracula either because, as Daniel says, it seemed like a WTF?? kind of film.

Mike K. said...

Excellent series of posts!

I can't see why Gary Oldman shouldn't be in every movie. Although for all I know he is, because I usually don't recognize him.

If anyone would like to dig into the novel, there's a podcast called Mythgard Academy that covered Dracula along with a few of the films a little while back--around a dozen two-hour episodes so it's a time investment, but well worth it.

Thanks for putting this all together, Rustbelt. I've enjoyed the heck out of it.

Rustbelt said...

Glad you liked it, Daniel!

I'm at a loss as to how so many people see sex in this story, too. In the Sparknotes take, whoever wrote it basically claimed that every scene is sexual. When the men kill vampire Lucy in her grave, for instance, it's supposed to be gang rape with the stake as a phallic symbol! (Never mind this is how vampires had been killed for years in eastern Europe.) Interestingly, I read an article about a graphic novel version that was under way at the time- designed by proteges of Alan Moore, no less- who saw no sex at all. They claimed it was about the fear of feminism. Go figure.

Yeah, this film is really out there. No middle ground. People either love it or hate it. And that's the bottom line 'cause R-Belt said so!

Rustbelt said...

GypsyTyger, you're welcome.

I'm so glad I didn't do this book as a one-week article as part of last year's series. There was just so much I found out that I wanted to share with everyone.
Hopefully, everyone got to learn more about why this story is great and has such staying power.
And as long as people enjoy it, I say it's always worth the extra effort!

Rustbelt said...

You're welcome, too Andrew! Thanks for letting me contribute!

On the Oldman version, yeah, it's just crazy. I think Coppola thought he was being edgy by throwing every artsy motif he could into the fray. But unlike Herzog's 'Nosferatu,' where the art is used to advance and compliment the story, the art here is just thrown in for the heck of it.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. One more thing: the novel never states that Dracula is Vlad the Impaler. This was the first movie to directly state a connection. And if I remember correctly, Coppola and Columbia (the distributor) got sued for defamation of character by Vlad's descendants (22nd generation). I remember an interview where one of them demanded that Coppola show where in the book the connection was. I think the suit was filed in the UK (where such laws are much stronger), and I'm not sure how it turned out.

Rustbelt said...

Mike K, I aim to please!

Oldman is a fantastic actor and he really did what he could within the confines of the script, costumes, and direction here. He just becomes any type of character seamlessly and blends in.

I'll definitely look into that podcast. It sounds good.

Glad you enjoyed the series so much. You're welcome!

ArgentGale said...

Literary analysis comes up with some really weird stuff, doesn't it? A lot of times it seems like these academics take what was just meant to be a good story and attach their own bizarre interpretations to it for whatever reasons - to make themselves feel superior and, in the case of literature professors in particular, to show their commitment to the leftist cause of the day I suppose. After reading your series I'm going to go with Stoker being a creative type in a set of very unusual circumstances that led to him writing a one of a kind horror novel instead of the themes that sex-obsessed (sexual dysfunction again?) analysts think is there myself, and if you're not down with that I've got two words for ya!

Come to think of it, since you mentioned it I never did pick up my part of the Castlevania discussion, did I? The games I finished were Simon's Quest on the NES, Symphony of the Night on PS1 (of course), and Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness on PS2, though I've got ROMs and ISOs of a lot of the other games on my computer waiting for me to put them on an emulator. I know it's predictable but SotN was my favorite of the group. The RPG elements were what sealed it for me, not to mention sometimes plowing through monsters with someone as insanely powerful as Alucard is a great way to blow off steam! I almost didn't give LoI a chance but a friend talked me into it and I'm glad I did since it was pretty enjoyable, especially playing through with one of the bonus characters. CoD was a lot of fun, too, again thanks to the RPG element and both the item and Innocent Devil creation (not to mention Hector was just an all around badass). I haven't heard anything of note about any new Castlevanias lately, likely in no small part due to Konami getting rid of a lot of their gaming division and doing it in such a way that it pisses off a lot of their creative talent, but I hope Koji Igarashi's indie project, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, goes better for him than Mighty No. 9 did for Keiji Inafune!

- Daniel

Rustbelt said...

Daniel, hey yo!

I definitely prefer to think that Stoker was simply using his imagination to write a good horror story. Some of the interpretations these people come up with drive me crazy. Like you, I prefer to think of it as just good, scary fun!


Unfortunately, my gaming days really stopped with Super Nintendo. (I was a D-Pad addict who never fully adjusted to thumb joysticks. That, and I found the early 3-D graphics of the fifth generation consoles a little off-putting.)And SCIV was the first of the series that I played. That game was just lightning in a bottle- the gameplay, control, graphics, atmosphere, and MUSIC! After that, the NES games just couldn't compare. I've been catching up on the series courtesy of Youtube review videos and articles. It seems the battle for top spot inevitably centers on SCIV and SotN.

Now, if I were to get back into the series just through walkthroughs (gotta start somewhere), what games would you recommend I check out? From any point in the series. I really need to catch up.

PikeBishop said...

Rustbelt: Thanks for a lively and engaging series of articles. Well-written, well researched and very lively. As far as your not seeing where all the sexual interpretations of the story come from, may I once again, as I did earlier in this series, strongly recommend Stephen King's "Danse Macabre" and his take on the vampire mythos and it's erotic elements and subtext.

ArgentGale said...

Rustbelt, the best overall resource I can give you is the Castlevania Wikia. It's pretty well-maintained and has a lot of information about the games, characters, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Fandom Wikias are good for information in general, though not all of them are well-maintained. If the series is big enough (like Final Fantasy or Mass Effect) then there are a lot of people working at keeping it quality, and same for smaller series with dedicated fanbases (like Shin Megami Tensei and Shadow Hearts). If not then all you'll find is useless stubs, unfortunately. Castlevania has a good one, thankfully!

- Daniel

Rustbelt said...

Pikebishop, glad you enjoyed it! I'll take a look at King's work and see what he has to say.
Sometimes authors intend meaning, such as when R.L. Stevenson wrote "Jekyll and Hyde" to be a commentary on Victorian hypocrisy.
Oh the other hand, writers just write stories and people slap meaning on them. Harold Ramis once said he was sent a graduate thesis on how 'Ghostbusters' was all about the need to regulate the nuclear industry with 'crossing the streams' clearly representing a meltdown. Ramis laughed at it. He said nuclear generators were the only things that could generate the power needed by the proton packs. Plus, 'crossing the streams' was nothing more than a plot device- something you shouldn't do, but do anyway to beat the bad guy. He said any interpretation was strictly in the minds of the interpreter.
So, to all their own, I suppose.

Rustbelt said...

Thanks, Daniel! Now I can finally get caught up. I'll be sure to take those other Fandom wikias with a grain of salt.

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