Judge Ryan Keefer would love to not be able to see his reflection in the mirror. I mean come on, take a look at that mug!
"I am the monster that breathing men would kill. I am Dracula."
It's arguably the most famous and recognizable monster in literary and cinematic lore, if you don't count mafia films. And in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola was the latest to take a crack at Bram Stoker's novel about the being that conducted most of his business in the evenings, one that never aged and subsisted on human blood. After a couple of lackluster attempts on DVD, now we have a new version with bonus material, and the first of Coppola's films to appear in high definition. What are the results?
Facts of the Case
There is very little here that people don't realize about the film, but for the few of you who actually have been living in a coffin, let me try to recount this as succinctly as I can. Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman, Immortal Beloved) fights during the Crusades, only to return home when he hears the news of his wife's suicide. He feels that this is God manipulating his feelings, so he renounces God and joins the darkest of dark sides. Years later, he finds out that the reincarnation of his wife is living in England under the name Mina (Winona Ryder, Mr. Deeds), who is engaged to Jonathan (Keanu Reeves, Constantine). So naturally he tries to leave Transylvania to find out if all this is true. There might be some crucifixes, along with the appearance of Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins, Fracture), but there's no garlic or some of the other common things that repel those who live on blood and appear in Anne Rice novels.
Admittedly, you are reading a review by one who's never really read the book or had any real proclivity or urge to watch anything related to Dracula, unless you count the occasional Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. But I know the basic concepts surrounding the tale. Needless to say that when you watch Coppola's interpretation of it, you can't help but appreciate the fact that he's trying to capture the spirit of the old Tod Browning film with Bela Lugosi. Using a lot of old camera trickery, you get the intimate feelings about how mystical Dracula has become since renouncing his beliefs centuries before.
It doesn't hurt that Oldman turns in a very convincing performance in the title role. I've said it before, I'll say it again; who else can say they've played Beethoven, Dracula, Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald? He takes these eclectic roles for the challenge, and he's quite convincing as a figure who has seemingly been spurned by those whom he did bidding for, and finds contentment in his new life. When he finds Ryder, those feelings seem to return, even after Van Helsing has appeared on the scene to thwart this desire. Ryder is also very good as Mina. She showed Coppola a copy of the script by James V. Hart (The Last Mimzy) as a way to mend fences after she left The Godfather Part III, and as Mina she is a woman who is on the verge of discovering her sexuality for the first time.
There has been some talk in the online community about how shoddy the 1.85:1 AVC MPEG-4 transfer has looked, with defenders leaning an eye towards the presumption that the previous Superbit transfer had been done without Coppola's approval. In a brief e-mail conversation with the producer of this DVD (and longtime Coppola collaborator) Kim Aubry, Aubry does confirm that the Superbit transfer was done without either his or Coppola's involvement. He also goes on to say that a new HD transfer was created using an interpositive found in Sony's vault. Said element was compared to a print of the film that Coppola and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (The Departed) had approved for the initial theatrical release of the film. Quoting Aubry, "this new HD master is much closer to the original final answer print that Coppola and Ballhaus made when the film opened at the end of 1992."
The PCM soundtrack is the more underwhelming piece, with largely muted dialogue and score functions during the feature. There are quite a few moments of panning through the surround speakers (which I expected, as the film did win an Oscar for Sound Effects Editing), but overall while there's nothing here that's hardly worthy of demo material by today's standards, it's acceptable. So to sum up, with the technical aspects of the film, I think that when you take into consideration Coppola's decision to employ so much turn of the century technical equipment and wizardry, the fact that Dracula looks the way it does is a natural extension of this.
The editions of Dracula to date have been barren in supplements, so it's nice to see that Coppola and Aubry bring some decent material to the table. First things first, starting with a commentary with Coppola. After a four minute introduction, Coppola's commentary starts. Always a good participant, he discusses his inspirations for taking on the material, and his desires to be loyal to the historical context of the character itself. And like his other commentaries, things do seem to be boil down into plugs for his winery and for his upcoming film, but he recalls the smaller support players in the film and has a few production stories. He does put in another good commentary here. Along with the commentary are a dozen deleted and extended scenes that run about an hour an a half. Notable among this material are an extended opening and closing, and some more character exposition on Renfield, including his breakdown and death. Some more scenes are included that show Dracula being creepier than he already was, so their excision seems logical enough.
From there are four featurettes, starting with "The Blood Is the Life: The Making of Dracula," a half-hour look at the film. There are on-set interviews with the cast and crew and they share thoughts on how the production transpired, and there's a lot of rehearsal and table read footage of the actors working things out, which is pretty cool to see. There are a few minutes of Coppola and Oldman bristling on how to approach a scene which is worth watching the extras for, to be honest, so check it out. "The Costumes are the Sets: The Design of Eiko Ishioka" is a 15-minute look at the costume design of the film, using test footage and interview footage with the costume designer of the above mentioned featurette and shows her intent on the design of the film, which is pretty nice to see. Next is "In Camera—The Naïve Visual Effects of Dracula," which shows the second unit director and Coppola son Roman as he shares some of the camera trickery that was employed in the feature. Roman shows the technical breakdown of some of the scenes and how they appear in the final cut. To see the level of historical and technical faithfulness is cool, that's for sure. The last one is "Method and Madness—Visualizing Dracula," which examines the previsualization and storyboards to get the film happening. Of the pieces here, this one is the weakest and not really worth the time. A teaser and trailer round things out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Most of the footage in the featurettes appears to be from on set trials and tribulations, which begs the question to Sony; what took you so long to ask Coppola and Zoetrope to do this? Aside from this, the thing that discouraged me about the film was the casting choice of Reeves. His place at this table, one of a surfer of sorts appearing in this fable and sporting a British accent is almost laughable, despite how serious he takes it. Long before he became the darling of science fiction and action film fans, he was doing things like this to gain some street cred and failing miserably.
Bram Stoker's Dracula represents a welcome step back into the older and more golden days of Hollywood and horror films. Coppola's decision to eschew computer generated effects proves to be a wise one, he creates a film that is both horror and spectacle, which is compelling to watch. The extras are quite informative and despite not being an according to Hoyle "next generation" disc, is still a good looking and decent sounding title. Definitely give this film a look-see if you haven't yet.
Oh, have I said that Monica Bellucci is in it? Yeah, that's what I thought. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction and Audio Commentary with Director Francis Ford Coppola
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