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The Dracula Movies #10: ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (Francis Ford Copolla, 1992)

10 Feb

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Copolla, 1992)

For those that don’t know, I’m currently nearing the end of my Masters in Film and Literature, and my final thesis is concerned with the sanitization (‘defanging’ if you will) of the vampire in modern media; how and why the vampire has become a romantic icon rather than a symbol of the uncanny; what Freud described as unhiemlich. One of my core ‘texts’ for the project is Francis Ford Copolla’s 1992 film version of Dracula, which I’m presenting here as the latest of the on-going Dracula film reviews. However, as I’m so immersed in critically embracing it, it’s actually quite difficult to offer as generalised a review as I might have done with the others. With that in mind, I’ll probably have even more to say about this film at some point in the near future. In the meantime, however, I’ve already decided that its one of my favourite versions.

Bram-Stokers-Dracula-Dracula-Mina

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The Dracula Movies #9: ‘Dracula’ (John Badham, 1979)

6 Aug

From the moment the titles started to show, I could tell this was going to be quite a classy production. It also takes a few liberties with the book, which I’m not entirely satisfied with, but I grudgingly admit work quite well. It all depends on whether you prefer your version of Dracula to be more of a romantic anti-hero. Frank Langella’s take on the role is very much in this mould, and the fact that he’s a very dashing embodiment of the Count helps enormously.

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The film is quite well directed, with some great sets and creative, metaphorical touches (I love the view from the spider web at Carfax abbey, when Lucy visits. The moment that the Count has entered the room below, the spider in the web arrives at and obscures Lucy many feet beneath). There isn’t much in the way of genuine scares though, or bloody horror. This is a more sensual, even sexy version of the novel.

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The Dracula Movies #7: ‘Count Dracula’ (1977)

19 Jan

Count Dracula (Phillip Saville, 1977)

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So, onwards with our journey through the cinematic world of Bram Stoker’s Vampire Count, with a look at the BBC’s first adaptation, from 1977.  Sadly, I have to start on a negative. The one thing that lets down the BBC’s sterling archive of literary output more than anything else, in my opinion, is the medium of professional videotape. To a modern audience it makes the otherwise sublime look unfortunately cheap.
That problem was one I could see here, alongside some unfortunately dated video effects. Overall, however, this TV version stands strong against the more lavish or classic product.
Louis Jordan is a surprising choice to play the Count, but proves quite effective, using charm and manners as an effective and manipulative veneer. Also in the cast are a pre- Clash of the Titans Judi Bowker, and a pre-Emmerdale Susan Penhaligon, both of whom turn in very watchable performances. Frank Finlay is also more than fine as Van Helsing, but elsewhere the performances are not as strong. Richard Barnes’ turn as Quincy is often unintentionally corny, with a rather amusing American accent. Barnes’ role is actually a combination of the characters of Quincy and Arthur Holmwood ). Continue reading

The Dracula Movies #5: ‘El Conde Dracula’ (1970)

17 Aug

Crreeeeeeaaak!Thud! Aha, there you are! As I arise once again from my coffin, let us see what cinematic delight can quench our thirst! After Hammer’s seminal take on Stoker’s book in 1958 (and the long series that followed it), there was another adaptation by the BBC in 1968 (starring Denholm Elliot). This version is especially difficult to get hold of, and therefore has not been viewed by my good self. Interestingly it was screened on television the same year Hammer released Dracula has risen from the grave. Whether it could compete with Hammer’s lurid and sexually enticing blend of horror remains to be seen.

So, onwards to 1970, and the next film adaptation of Stoker’s novel:

Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula) (Jess Franco, 1970)

A very commendable idea in theory that is just poorly realised, Jess Franco’s take on Dracula is just a tiring mess of a motion picture. The whole film drags and even the standout parts, such as Christopher Lee’s more restrained and faithful portrayal, can’t really rescue the film from anything other than an intriguing curio. At first the film stays reasonably close to Stoker’s novel before becoming a bit of a muddled narrative. Early in the film, Lee’s monologue and the castle scenes were very watchable, and the scene with the brides taking the baby promised some genuine horror to follow. But as things progressed I found myself wondering what was happening on more than one occasion and Franco’s direction didn’t help (he’s a bit too over fond of his zoom lens, I have to say). Continue reading

The Dracula movies- The Hammer sequels

16 Jul

Perhaps for a modern audience, Britain’s Hammer studios, more than even Universal, have provided the visual shorthand for Stoker’s vampire villain in the minds of the mass collective. Their output ranged from the stylishly sublime to the tackily ridiculous, but they were never boring. Let’s watch…if you dare!

Like Universal studios before them, Hammer films followed up their initial Dracula novel adaptation with a sequel, which came in 1960, with a film that didn’t actually feature the Count himself, so the title was a rather misleading….

 Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)

….which was really a sequel for the character of Van Helsing, rather than Dracula.

But thankfully Van Helsing does return in splendid form, played once again by Peter Cushing , who encounters a rather feeble David Peel, probably cast for his looks, who plays a significantly less effective sub-Dracula type called Baron Meister, a vampire who’s own mother keeps him alive, but chained up at the decadent family castle. This is all until a well meaning visitor, Marianne, played by the beautiful Bardot-esque Yvonne Monlaur, sets him free.
Unfortunately, Peel is nowhere near as good as Lee, but luckily the film makes up for this is most other areas. It’s a very atmospheric movie with definite sinister undertones, and even a hint of an incestuous/Oedipus thing going on between the Baron and his mother, who even becomes one of his victims. Coupled with some great visual photography and Hammer’s usual attention to detail in their stunning set designs, this movie still has plenty going for it. Continue reading

The Dracula Movies #3: ‘Horror of Dracula’ (1958)

19 Jun

DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA) (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Hammer studios are often said to have re-made all the horror classics that Universal had such success with in the 1930s and ‘40s. While this is true to an extent, the treatment of the material is far different. This, of course, is what gave Hammer Horror its appeal and was arguably its raison d’etre. Everything was in colour, and the horror was bloodier and gaudier, at least by the standards of the time; but what of Hammer’s Dracula in particular?

Finally, a Dracula you can be really scared of.

Well, I have to say Terence Fisher’s Hammer version of Dracula is a very economical one, running at less than 80 minutes. Jimmy Sangster’s faster paced and ‘punchier’ adaptation of the Stoker novel necessitates the loss of much of the original story’s material, most notably Renfield, the Carfax estate and Dracula’s actual journey to and from Romania. While it’s always good to see these events (as they are an integral part of the story), Hammer’s version allows for this by re-editing the story to manage without them. Whether it should is another argument to be had I suppose. One of the first changes I noticed, for example, was Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula was to work as a librarian (a pretence to hide the fact that he is actually there to destroy Dracula; something which doesn’t happen until the end of the film, of course.)

Sex, fangs and blood. A winning combination every time.

It’s also more sexual and (as mentioned) bloodier than previous versions, although the amount of blood on show is paltry compared to the litres even Hammer studios would throw at us throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.

One especially pleasing difference with this version are the performances. The cast are generally very good, and there are few of the mannered, wooden performances seen in Todd Browning’s 1931 version, which was still very much seen as the definitive version when this film was released. Peter Cushing is wonderfully sincere and engaging as Van Helsing and Michael Gough offers a stoic cynicism, melting to humble purveyor of justice. Carol Marsh was also very good, and her turn as the vampiric version of Lucy is perhaps a turning point for the Dracula adaptations, for at last we get to see fangs! Hisssssssss!!!

Not quite the Van Helsing from the novel, but Peter Cushing made the part his own.

Speaking of which, Christopher Lee is a magnetic presence throughout the film, despite his lesser screen time. I’m not convinced this is his strongest outing as the Count (seven more were to follow, including another version of the novel, which we’ll come to in time). He certainly presents a strong template for future performers though, and his initial appearance is quite suave with a disturbing animalistic side emerging soon afterwards. Lee doesn’t get many lines in this film, and I do think that was a shame, but despite my reservations about that, the performance does work very well for this version.

I don't think it'll go an extra round.

There’s also a nice atmosphere throughout, although not quite as oppressive as the 1931 version, and the production design is pleasing. Dracula’s castle is a case in point, looking rather cleaner and more style conscious than most of Dracula’s homes! The whole film is perhaps more accessible for a modern audience in comparison to Browning’s adaptation, and particularly Murnau’s. There is some nice original dialogue and some pleasing attempts at a scientific angle to the ‘vampire problem’ in Van Helsing’s discussions, which a savvier modern viewer will perhaps appreciate. The whole production is, as I said, quite economical and takes some huge liberties with the source material, to the extent where it often borders on being a completely original story. However, despite this (and perhaps because of its original take on the tale) it is quite engaging and does its best to entertain, even if it is not particularly scary. Hammer would present more thrilling spectacles than this, but it’s still a very worthy addition to the Dracula canon and while not my favourite Hammer, I do hold it in high esteem.

The Dracula Movies…#1 ‘Nosferatu’ (1922)

14 Jun

First edition of "Dracula" (1897)

The myth of the vampire is a powerful one which has survived the ages, and is as potent and as relevant to our modern age as it ever was, perhaps due to the themes of sexuality and death, which like the vampire, never grow old. Key to the modern vision of the vampire legend is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, a remarkably readable tale of ancient horror entering a modern world. Along with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novel Carmilla, Dracula ressurected the vampire myth for the modern age. The impact of Stoker’s novel on the continued success of the blood drinking undead in fiction cannot be under estimated.

In 2007, with the help of a certain Carol Baynes, I wrote several reviews for “The Dracula Movies” for a cult TV and film website, monitored by Wayne Jefferies. I now proudly present revisions of those original reviews for this blog. I watched and wrote about every adaptation of Bram Stoker’s influential novel (with notable mentions for some of the many sequels and spin-offs along the way). Dracula is a potent story which has never been brought to the screen in the same way twice, and some purists would argue that it has never been faithfully adapted at all. All the same, Stoker’s tale of horror continues to enthral, and enough of it is in these adaptations to entice fans of the book. While I will not give an in depth study of the novel, we will discuss it along the way as we go through the many macabre celluloid representations of the Lord of the vampires- Count Dracula!

Penguin edition, 1990s

Before we look at the first film, a product of the 1920s, the first thing I really have to say is that silent films do not generally deserve their reputation amongst many modern viewers who hold a silly (but understandable) prejudice based no doubt on seeing jerky footage from history programmes and the inconceivable idea that a film could truly work without sound (or the sound of an actor’s voice to be precise). If that is the case you could not be further from the reality.

Many of the techniques and principles of motion picture photography found their genesis and arguably greatest evolution and experimentation during the silent era. It was a vastly important time that produced some genuine masterpieces of cinema; not just from the United States either. If anything, the pre-sound era found a world where Hollywood was in its infancy and world cinema had a chance to breathe and evolve. Many of the greatest pictures came from Europe actually (although that again is more a matter of opinion).
Anyway, without going off on too much of a silent film tangent, I do recommend you all take a fresh look at films pre-1930, if this is not already of interest. With an open mind you will surprised, entertained and perhaps stunned in some cases. I just lament the fact that many films have perished (the original Cleopatra springs to mind), but of the hundreds still around only a handful are on DVD and they are not always easy to obtain.

As for the first film from the Dracula crypt- Nosferatu , it is a classic of it’s time in my opinion. Not particularly a mainstream film, even in 1922, but a very important one, particularly in the horror genre.

 

 

Nosferatu ( F.W. Marnau, 1922).

F.W. Murnau’s silent film is the right place for us to start this exploration of cinematic Draculas, because it laid down many of the storytelling conventions adhered to in later adaptations. Elsewhere though, Nosferatu is radically different, and despite its vintage and archaic quality, could have good argument for being one of the scariest adaptations as death has legs and his name is Max Shreck. His performance, equal to the film making talent on show, is integral to the impact of this picture.


This expressionistic presentation is very much a German product of its day, and the whole film is far more of a visual experience than some versions. Some have gone as far as to decipher some perceived analogy in the way various scenes are presented. As often mentioned much German art probably proved an influence, and Max Shreck himself is the visual dark side of the vampire presented in Stoker’s novel- almost a leeching corpse. Some scenes apparently pay homage to the German expressionistic landscape painter Casper Fiedrich, and the film does have his surreal nightmarish quality, most particularly in the scenes set in Transylvania. Elsewhere Fuseli’s art is also referenced as Shreck’s blood sucking incubus lurks at the side of the lady’s bed.

So Nosferatu is a film that offers style and substance by making us think about the symbolism of what we’re seeing- a rarity with later versions. Some of that is open to interpretation, and perhaps we can dwell on those later.
What is clear is that Max Shreck’s Count Orlock is a fantastically creepy presence throughout the whole film (although his screen time is effectively slight). The contemporary audience would have probably feared him even more; bringing the plague to each town he visits (in a substantial change to Bram Stoker’s novel). Eastern Europe would have known the aftermath of WW1 and the influenza epidemic, and the presentation of death in the film could well have struck a chilling chord.

Overall, Nosferatu is looking its age (which is probably more down to the shoddy treatment the film had in the 1920s and ’30s with Stoker’s widow filing law suits to have all copies of the film destroyed. A long story we can take up later perhaps. The film effectively disappeared after the ’30s, before its ‘revival’ and reappraisal some 30 years later.) But despite it’s rough quality it still holds a magnetic appeal. It presents very strong images which stay in the mind long after. Witness Shreck’s uncanny and almost metaphysical rise from his grave, the arrival of the ghost ship into the harbour and the ascent of the vampire up the stairs to its prey, in arguably one of the most famous single scenes in all vampire films; shadowy claws several steps ahead of its form.
There is beautiful direction in all these scenes; beautiful, and also un-nerving. For a picture like this, a perfect emotion to incite.

The film presents an alternative re-telling of Stoker’s book it must be said, with a degree of simplification. This was maybe to cut down on the need for non-visual narrative, but Stoker’s novel is still followed quite faithfully. While the structure was setting a precedent for future productions, this film remains the only one I have seen so far to include the letters and manuscripts so integral to the structure of the original novel. Also worth mentioning is that this is the first film in which a vampire is seen to be vulnerable to sunlight (it actually destroys him). This idea was not in Stoker’s novel or in general vampire lore, but is now an integral part of the modern vampire myth, and this film is where it had its basis.


Elsewhere, there are a few scenes that don’t work. The fast motion effect in several parts looks odd to my modern eyes, and almost comical. The expressionistic acting can also be (slightly) over the top as well. The scene where Hutter announces his intention to visit the count is quite amusing. The reaction following the caption “I have to go onto Count Orlock’s castle” was followed by a group of expressions so vivid that I swear I could hear the gasp!
If I suppressed a laugh, it was understandable I suppose, but be clear on this- in a dark room nearly 90 years after the film’s release, I wasn’t laughing for long. This film can still command your respect and attention.

We will re-watch some great movies over the next few months, all based on Stoker’s great novel of an ancient evil in a more modern time. But one movie in, be assured, I have already seen the most important. Whether it translates as well to a modern audience is debatable, but its innovation and influence are undimmed.
I believe there is one true masterpiece in the collection of Dracula films that I will look at here, and this is it.