BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA
DVD - Image B Sound B+
BD - Image C Sound A Extras A+
starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves
screenplay by James V. Hart
directed by Francis Ford Coppola
MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN
DVD - Image D Sound B+
BD - Image B+ Sound B
starring Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter
screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont
directed by Kenneth Branagh
by Walter Chaw The first thirty minutes of Francis Ford Coppola's retelling of the Dracula legend are dazzling and assured: a self-consciously cinematic, fulsome display of technique and loud emotions--expressionism writ large against lurid backdrops and red, backlit shadow plays. It seems impossible that Coppola could keep this up for the duration of the picture, could see to fruition the kind of viable update/continuation of Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that the Akira Kurosawa film he helped produce, Kagemusha, with its sanguineous, medieval battlegrounds painted with heavy brushes, aspired to be. And sure enough, what begins as a clarion call settles into a somewhat familiar period costume drama spiced up now and again with racy sequences nonetheless sobered by the memory of the delirious hedonism of that opening, wherein we get Dracula's backstory as a hero of a holy war, repulsing Muslim invaders in Romania, turning to blasphemy when the vengeful Turks fool his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) into believing that her beloved has died on the battlefield, and gleefully chewing artificial scenery with toothy relish.
Distinguishing itself as "Bram Stoker's" Dracula, there is the pretense that what's on the screen will more closely approximate what was on the page--as opposed to other film versions, which were based, in large part, on the Deane/Balderstan play. The script by James V. Hart, fresh off Spielberg's Hook, reveals itself to be keen, Pan-like, on the idea of arrested development (and what is a vampire but, as Anne Rice sussed out, the world's coolest rock star: rich, handsome, foreign, a junkie, and a member of royalty?), but also so interested in Victoriana and its attendant veneer of tightly-wound dignity that it tamps everything down into the small hours of a wild costume party. But for a delightfully cheesy match-dissolve from a pair of bite marks to the glowing eyes of a wolf, too much of the picture's pacing is at the mercy of deadly performances from Keanu Reeves (as real estate agent extraordinaire Jonathan Harker), Ryder (now Mina, Harker's fiancé), and Anthony Hopkins as vampire hunter Van Helsing, a member in good standing of the Bad Accent Hall of Fame. (He sounds for all the world like Dr. Ruth with a rat stuck in her throat.) When Reeves is positioned in something that requires him to be himself at his most gloriously goofy, he manages somehow to come off as moribund and slack. (I don't know if he tries for camp and fails or simply lacks the wit to be self-aware in-character.) For people keeping score, this was one of the first times we wondered whether Hopkins was going to spend the rest of his post-Silence of the Lambs career cashing checks for being an Olivier-flavoured hambone. Ryder, similarly, doesn't appear to be in on the joke, thus the alternating high camp tones of Hopkins, Gary Oldman (as Dracula), and Tom Waits (as Dracula's bug-eating servant Renfield) vs. the stunned, over-serious, wide-eyed anxiety of Reeves, Ryder, and Sadie Frost as Mina's pal Lucy becomes the elephant in the velvet-lined sitting room.
That said, Reeves does get to say, "I have offended you with my ignorance, and I am sorry," and someone puts a stake in Frost: although the focus shifts fatally from Oldman too early and too often, essentially turning away from Coppola's own towering hubris to indulge in suffocating period lush, Bram Stoker's Dracula has just enough momentum to carry it through. It's a weak compliment we could likewise pay to Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (hereafter Frankenstein), hitting the scene two years later with Coppola and James V. Hart on board as executive producers. Taking co-scripting duties this time around is Frank Darabont, who, with the second sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street and the only sequel to Cronenberg's remake of The Fly on his resume, seemed more in line with this film's aspirations than with those of his mega-popular feel-good prison flick The Shawshank Redemption, appearing almost simultaneously to gift him with the crown of this generation's Frank Capra. Hindsight reveals that his work on Frankenstein is similarly sleek, though only Branagh's typical bodice-ripping direction disguises the fact that the film is really more Victoriana grotesquerie than Romanticist grimoire.
With the author's name again in the title, fair game to mention that the story behind the novel's inception is nearly as famous as the novel itself. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Percy's wife Mary, and a friend of Byron's, spending a weekend indulging in laudanum shooters, challenged one another to write scary stories--a challenge won, surprisingly, by meek Mary with her Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus. Sort of a dreary read, truth be told (the writers in her family were her husband and her mother), the novel has been "debunked" for a while as a mere parsing of Romanticist themes, to the extent that upon its initial anonymous publication, because of the similarity in style, the appropriation of tropes, and, arguably, the stray passage here and again, it was taken as the work of her husband. It's an interesting charge, given the subject of the book (the unearthing and re-assemblage of dead men to produce a new beast), that La Shelley was but a gifted seamstress--and it gains a little "middle" in the application that an ideological patchwork of sorts would be made in 1994 as something that is itself little more than a pastiche of serio-gothic clichés and cinematic styles.
Brilliant young medico Victor Frankenstein (Branagh), ruined by the death of his mother, resolves to solve the riddle of life. Emboldened by his association with a raggedy surrogate father figure in Woldeman (John Cleese), Frankenstein becomes a bad dad once he re-animates Woldeman's executed murderer (Robert De Niro), creating for himself an existential crisis. The myth of Prometheus, invoked by the source, has to do with a misfit breed that defies its progenitor, hence the story of Frankenstein follows the monster questioning what it is, desperate to know its maker, and finally committed to freeing itself from the torment of unnatural conception by severing, literally, the umbilicus that ties him to his master. Issues of knowledge ill-gotten, science vs. faith, men and their fathers, and the way that women present the problem of separation in filial relationships dutifully surface: it's a quintessential Romanticist text in its exploration of the divide separating innocence from experience, and the mood of it should be one part rapture, one part regret.
Branagh, then, is the man for the job. Already known by this time as a bold interpreter of Shakespeare and, in one intriguing skylark (Dead Again), a tongue-in-cheek master of the high noir melodrama (think William Wyler's The Letter with extra scissors), Branagh brought a sense of balls and humour to the perceived stuffiness of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The heir-apparent on stage in many senses to the Oliviers and the Derek Jacobis, Branagh, besides being a director used to indulging in grand excess, could himself be seen as the Promethean figure, seeking to bring fire to the great unwashed. His Frankenstein, consequently, feels more like Moby Dick--more like a literalized, visceral quest that highlights the cold of the arctic and the biological muck of birth (amniotic fluid awash with electric eels one of the stickiest, and finest, manifestations of the moment of conception) than like a metaphorical, philosophical one. He deviates from the text in spirit, if not in strict word, the same way that the St. Crispian's day speech in his Henry V is delivered beneath a grey sky in the mud, foreboding of what feels at that moment like a battle yet to be fought. Branagh's gift is immediacy--but maybe Frankenstein requires more ironic distance?
In any event, it's easy to be distracted by the thematic problems and overlook how diverting this garish bit of bombast actually is. Frankenstein is, like Branagh's best pictures, a dizzy hybrid of Saturday afternoon matinee popcorn schmaltz and an afternoon at the Globe. Despite its expansiveness, it's essentially tied to the stage--it's not a far reach to imagine, for instance, that at any moment Baron Frankenstein (Ian Holm) might cross to the proscenium for a quick aside to the audience. No emotion goes un-wrung, no gesture undelivered with the maximum of its kinetic potential, no word allowed to fall un-emoted to the full extent of its emotional payload. This is a film about sprinting to flip a switch, galloping to pour a glass of tea--about rending clothing and tearing flesh. It's Greek tragedy, and when its characters utter invocations to the gods in turn, it manages to feel cheesy in exactly the right way.
Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, a love triangle propels the piece. The Elisabeta corollary is Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter--the Brit prototype for Winona Ryder, as it happens), and the monster is of course Travis Bickle. You could argue with the casting here, since De Niro spouts in Brooklynese from beneath a ton of prosthetic ugliness, but there's something touching about his performance as a tinker toy with the decomposing mind of the "father" Woldeman and the body of his own murderer, pushing him forward into the role of the "son" Frankenstein's own offspring. The Creature's contradictions are legion and De Niro--the best actor of his generation before he started poking fun at his seminal performances in cut-rate comedies--manages to imbue lines like, "I am so full of love you would not believe--and also so full of rage. If I can not give the one, I will indulge in the other!" with the proper amount of menace balanced with sadness, indicated but not consumed by to-the-rafters cheese. He's obviously alien among the RSC regulars, achieving the same subtle effect of co-star Tom Hulce's earlier turn in Amadeus on the familiar Jolly Old sets and players. Without De Niro, Frankenstein, whatever its pyrotechnics, is suddenly boring.
Frankenstein is ostentatious, surprisingly gory (a still-beating heart ripped out, brass needles pounded into tender bits, autopsies and meat cleavers), and clamorous. Its symbols are large and obvious, too, and the complexities of the text, such as they are, are delivered with sledgehammer blows. I suggest that Frankenstein is a collection of movie clichés, but really it's a collection of broad old theatre entertainments: bawdy slapstick and careful choreography. Like the first thirty minutes of Bram Stoker's Dracula, its artificiality is its liberating factor and the point besides. It's self-aware, like its titular creator (like that creator's monster), and similarly driven by self-regarding gallows humour and a seemingly genuine desire to understand its sources through whatever grandiose prism it might apply to the problem. After all, what other choice does it have?
The problem of its own existence is raised again, sadly, by Sony DVD's new "Collector's Box Set" of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which showcases the latter in a poorly-cropped fullscreen presentation. The packaging boasts HiDef remastering for both titles and indeed the image is sharp and well-saturated, but I'm missing a third of the information Branagh and co. intended for me to see. I'm not interested in listening to three of the instruments in a sonata composed for a quartet and I'm not satisfied with seeing eight of Christ's apostles in "The Last Supper"; why anyone would want to watch a film butchered in this way I'm going to pretend is beyond me. The DD 5.1 audio is at least adequate (and loud) and there are a few trailers on the disc (for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Much Ado About Nothing, and Awakenings). While Bram Stoker's Dracula is offered in its original 1.80:1 aspect ratio in a transfer enhanced for 16x9 displays, a fullscreen offering on the same side of the dual-layer platter leads to compression artifacts such as blooming colours and edge haloes. For a picture as dependent on its visuals as this one is, it's a shame it wasn't treated with more respect--maybe Superbit is the only way to go in viewing the film at home. In any case, the DD 5.1 audio is again booming and, particularly in a late bit where the drab suitors race up the Carpathians, makes good use of the discrete channels. The two flicks are housed in thinpaks encased in a cardboard slipcover. Originally published: February 9, 2006.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA
by Bill Chambers Let's rip this band-aid off as quickly as possible: when I took the Blu-ray plunge, I never expected to encounter a video presentation as flat as that of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Having seen every home video incarnation of the film from the Criterion LaserDisc on, I've noticed subtle improvements with each new transfer, but the BD edition scarcely looks better than the Superbit DVD upconverted to 1080i. Mastered in-house at Zoetrope's mercurial facilities and purportedly approved by Coppola, the 1.85:1/1080p image has a fine layer of scum on it throughout as if to equalize the shots between opticals. Too, the reds of the prologue and Dracula's robe smear, while the colours of the London exteriors, though accurately pasty (at least according to the Criterion LD), have an unnatural translucency that makes them appear as though they were painted on with Ted Turner's brush. Shadow detail is virtually nonexistent, and there's even a bit of banding! Given that this release has "killer app" written all over it, it could deal the format a significant blow. On the other hand, the DD 5.1 audio (encoded at 640kbps) continues to impress, although the mix itself is beginning to date (it's fairly hemispheric); I can't as yet access the apparently-superior PCM stream.
Where this package really earns its stripes is in terms of extras. Bypass Francis Ford Coppola's video introduction and go directly to his unimpeachable feature-length commentary, wherein his lips seem to loosen as the track wears on. Basically recognizing this film and The Godfather Part III in the rear-view as crass commercial ventures, Coppola reveals that he handed Kenneth Branagh the reins to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein after deciding that these gothic horrors were impersonal and thus a waste of his time. (He goes on to criticize Branagh's film.) You also get to hear his views on why the mafia are like vampires and why Christianity is superior to Catholicism! I love this mellow yet cantankerous Francis; years of practice have finally turned him into Yoda. The yakker is just the tip of the iceberg, though: repurposing the Criterion interviews and B-roll (as well as remastering them in 1080p and recomposing them for 1.78:1), Kim Aubry has prepared a batch of featurettes to rival anything out of the Voyager Company. First up is "The Blood is the Life: The making of Bram Stoker's Dracula" (28 mins.), an engrossing overview of the production and Coppola's unorthodox working methods that features priceless footage of Gary Oldman suffering a complete communication breakdown with Coppola. Next, "The Costumes are the Sets: The design of Eiko Ishioka" (14 mins.) rationalizes Coppola's decision to hire a production designer by trade to do the costumes (originally there weren't going to be sets, just black backdrops) and hears from the Oscar-winning Ishioka, who catalogues a litany of East-meets-West influences like the oft-mentioned Klimt. A good piece, but I'm not much for wardrobe theory; your mileage may vary.
If the picture remains a point of pride for Coppola, it's due to the brilliant optical illusions engineered by son Roman, many of which are dissected in the Luddite lament "In-Camera: The naïve visual effects of Bram Stoker's Dracula" (19 mins.). Here, Coppola fils mentions that his research into primitive effects techniques ignited his well-documented interest in Mario Bava; cooked up largely from scratch, the segment aptly closes with the final shot of Bava's great Black Sabbath. (If nothing else, it's a cool thing to see in HiDef. Ditto the clips from Bava's Black Sunday and various Universal horrors.) Last but not least, "Method and Madness: Visualizing Dracula" (12 mins.) is about Coppola's preparation of what he terms a "score": a screenplay that encompassed all aspects of pre-production (including and especially Peter Ramsey's incredible storyboards), thus allowing everyone involved to see the forest for the trees. If nothing else, you're left itching to create something--anything. Also on board are a baker's dozen of deleted scenes (the thirteenth is actually a BD-exclusive Easter egg--and an outtake at that) sourced from a VHS workprint dub, most of them superfluous extensions save, notably, two bits of business aboard the Demeter, the death of Renfield, and an alternate ending that plays out fundamentally the same but in a lower key. Rounding out the platter: teaser and theatrical trailers for Bram Stoker's Dracula; a "coming to Blu-ray" promo; and the trailer for Ghost Rider.
Spreading these bonuses out over two discs, the simultaneously-released "Collector's Edition" DVD contains an additional rash of trailers plus a text-based article from a 1993 issue of CINEFEX while dropping a multitude of subtitle options. The movie proper looks about the same, yet one is more inclined to give the shortcomings of the (re)master the benefit of the doubt in SD. Originally published: October 1, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN
by Bill Chambers I'm very pleased by the way Mary Shelley's Frankenstein looks on Blu-ray, but I wonder what those who didn't see the film theatrically are going to think. The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is soft, fuzzy, and muted, just as it should be; anyone familiar with the work of Roger Pratt will spot the cinematographer's gauzy signet immediately. But with the DVD having been in fullscreen, this BD is an upgrade by default, and HiDef does render the image more tactile than any analogue format could. If I have an objective complaint, it's that there's a bit of banding in some of the fadeouts. Sony has chosen a peculiar batch of titles (this and Mike Nichols's Wolf) to inaugurate their switch in lossless audio formats from Dolby TrueHD to DTS, but the sound quality is, like the video, optimal despite aesthetic idiosyncrasies doing their best to make people with state-of-the-art systems feel cheated. The mix is cacophonous, then flooded with contemplative silence, then ratcheted-up to white noise again, typically discrete only in the academic sense. I found it a little tiresome at the York in Toronto (one of the city's few screens that pledged allegiance to Sony's awesome, endangered 8-channel SDDS playback system during the nascence of digital cinema) and found it so here as well. HD previews for Ghostbusters, Men in Black, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Da Vinci Code: Extended Cut, and the studio's commitment to Blu-ray round out the disc. Shame Kenneth Branagh sat this one out--he gives good commentary. Originally published: October 5, 2009.
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