We're not making any accusations, but Judge Brett Cullum is a night owl with a penchant for red wine and a n aversion to garlic. You make the call.
Dracula: I have crossed oceans of time to find you.
Whether you call it Dracula or Bram Stoker's Dracula one thing is sure, the film version of the Stoker novel produced in 1992 is all dizzying romantic grunge directed unmistakably by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather). It is indeed more faithful than other versions of the tale to the literary source by Stoker, but Coppola takes his own liberties with the text. The original legend of Vlad the Impaler and a sweeping love story is laid over the narrative. It is done impressionistically with a calculated design and approach. The film plays out like a fever dream inspired by absinthe and too many romantic songs by the Cure. It's swoon worthy, silly, and glorious all at once—a triumph of style. This is the third time Bram Stoker's Dracula has found it's way to DVD after a bare bones normal and Superbit edition. The hook this time around is now we have extras. Is this new amped up version (also available on Bluray Disc) worth the triple dip?
Facts of the Case
The story opens with a prologue showing a vicious Transylvanian war battle fighting off Turkish invaders. We are introduced to the Dracula character (Gary Oldman, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) as a leader who loses his love when she dives to her death fearing he has been taken in battle. He curses God, and then is turned into a blood eating fiend. Then we enter familiar territory as Harker (Keanu Reeves, Constantine) arrives at Castle Dracula in Transylvania to finalize a real estate deal in London for the sale of an old seaside mansion. Little does the real estate agent know he has just sold his soul during the proceedings, and placed his fiancee in mortal danger. The vampire comes to London, and finds love in Mina (Winona Ryder, A Scanner Darkly). Only Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins, Beowulf) can help them now.
Interestingly enough the idea for Coppola to adapt Dracula for the big screen came in the form of an olive branch from Winona Ryder who felt guilty about walking out on the director for Godfather III. Ryder had received a script called Dracula: The Untold Story which Michael Apted planned to make into a television miniseries. She was so impressed she brought it to Coppola and said he should do it bigger and with her on board. Apted remained attached as a producer, and the project was put in motion quickly. Zoetrope studios (Coppola's own film company) was in dire financial straits, and the project seemed to be a great pop masterpiece that had box office appeal. Coppola got studio funding, and an edict to keep costs down. To achieve a more cost effective production they decided to shoot entirely inside MGM studios with no location filming, and this became a part of the conceit for the design. Coppola used special effects from almost every era of film, and that was his way of paying homage to the history of Dracula in the cinema. All of the illusions were done practically, and no CGI was utilized to execute the script's ambitious sequences. The film has an unusual feel as a result, a mix of the old Universal monster epics and a conventional live production. Everything was designed to be grand and large from the sets and costumes, and at the same time appear slightly false as if it was from a different era when movies were made as technicolor fantasy influenced by theatrical arts.
The cast is a rag tag melange of theatrical types designed for box office impact and a stage quality. Gary Oldman played Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy) and Beethoven (Immortal Beloved), so he represents the ultimate character actor to take on the vampire role. He commits to his part to such an intense degree it borders on camp or parody. It's like watching a theatrical performance much moreso than a film portrayal. Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) joins Oldman in going completely over the top in a duel of two great character actors. Oldman takes everything super seriously, and attempts to play each beat genuinely. In contrast Hopkins seems amused to be there, and turns Van Helsing into an intensely quick moving man of spontaneous conviction who is all too happy to fight darkness. Most all of the other actors follow their lead, and perform at the stage level with loud quirkiness and character detail. The exceptions are Winona Ryder (Heathers) and Keanu Reeves (Dangerous Liasons) who play their roles intended to suck in the teen audience as Mina and Harker. They are more contemporary in delivery, and perform smaller than those around them. Two big secrets of the cast include Coppola admits he put Keanu Reeves in the film solely to attract young women and because he was a personal friend of Winona's. The other well kept secret is on set Ryder and Oldman disliked each other to a strong degree, and Ryder raced through scenes to get away from her fictional love interest.
Technically things look good on this DVD. The sound mix is a nice five channel surround that works well. Excessive use of reds, blacks, murky lighting, and intricate camera work by Michael Ballhaus (The Departed, Gangs of New York) has always made the DVD translation of Dracula daunting to the format. Until now the best representation has been the Sony Superbit release which came closest to providing the most detail though it was debated whether this was the film's intent. The Superbit edition was somewhat controversial because nobody involved with the original production had any approval on what was done visually. Much has been made about this new edition which employs a master originally made for the high definition Bluray format, and finally we have a transfer with the input of the original team. Confusing to say, but this new collector's DVD is darker and clearer than the Superbit edition. Shadows are much more prevalent shrouding certain sequences, but skin tones and details are more easily seen as the colors do not run as hot. Sometimes it feels the color has been drained a bit (funny they did that to the '70s Frank Langella Dracula even more so), but clarity has been upped in its place. You'll see more from less if that makes sense. There has been a lot of controversy around the high definition transfer, because the image has always been purposefully soft and grainy to accommodate the special effects. The DVD transfer might be the optimal way to see the film, since it doesn't reveal the intentional flaws as readily. This edition does tweak a couple of minor things visually. The old style subtitles which appeared in white for the theatrical run are now a less stylized generic yellow. There's also a sequence where they've color corrected the lighting turning what was once a green light in to a more traditional white. It's a dark transfer that begs to only be viewed at night in a room with the lights extinguished, and it is quite lush and beautiful.
A Criterion laserdisc has always contained the best extras, and a PAL edition for DVD's Region Two has been the only place to find supplemental material on DVD for a while now. Bram Stoker's Dracula (Collector's Edition) offers two discs including one with the feature, and then a second full of documentaries and supplemental material. The film is presented with both a short introduction from Coppola as well as a wonderfully executed solo commentary. His input is fascinating covering everything about the film, and even some tidbits about hitory he recalls. Disc two gathers several featurettes including a making of documentary, a look at the costumes, examining the special effects, and how the film was visualized. Most of the interviews are from onset of the original production save for newly executed talks with Francis Coppola and his son Roman along with some of the crew. We don't get too much from the cast who is only seen in archival footage, but we do see them in rare rehearsal footage which is fascinating. There is a text article included as well discussing the film. Over thirty minutes of deleted and alternate scenes are included which are in various states of unfinished process. Two trailers are gathered including an infamous bloody teaser trailer which was deemed too intense for most theatres.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Coppola version of Bram Stoker's Dracula has a fair amount of flaws, and it feels it exists solely as the director's bid for a popular hit. It is far more stylized than reverent of the material, and sometimes the flourishes undermine the narrative. Seems everyone universally hates Keanu Reeves as Harker, and he does seem oddly stilted and out of place in the theatrical world Coppola constructed. He never catches on to the same pathos Oldman and Hopkins embrace which is intense and theatrical. That is a struggle even some audience members will have, the film is very over designed and purposefully over the top. I have to point out for all the claims of how faithful this script is to the book it does completely change the setup by using the Vlad history and the love story is something not found on the written page. All of this style and extrapolation sometimes comes off as silly, and that is in the end what prevents this Coppola fever dream from being the definitive Dracula which remains exclusively in Bram Stoker's book so far.
Dracula seems to come alive more frequently than any other film monster, and seems every decade gets a definitive version to claim as its own. This one is all about the '90s, and its the most well produced version of the story in terms of creating an elaborate world. It may not work on every level, yet you can't help admiring what was achieved. Coppola's exquisitely designed Bram Stoker's Dracula is a production full of homages to almost every incarnation of the story before its 1992 release. The director is a fan of cinema, and what we finally get with Bram Stoker's Dracula (Collector's Edition) is a DVD set that will thrill true cinephilles. It is a picture made by a man who has a passion for the history of film, and it's a joy to hear him discuss how that influenced him when making his version of this oft told tale. Coppola's Dracula is utterly unique in that all it sets out to do is seduce you with the visuals more than anything else. It succeeds in that respect quite well, and this DVD is the best way to experience that. Truly it's the extras that make the difference including the Francis Ford Coppola commentary, four new featurettes, and the thirty minutes of deleted scenes. Third time seems to be the charm for the Count and Coppola.
Guilty of being a worthy triple dip and truly a "Collector's Edition." This one is free to cross ocean's of time to find you.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Francis Ford Coppola
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