a

a

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Best Dracula of Them All?

I submit this piece as an early celebration of International Dracula Day “celebrated” by all those with a predilection for the creepy on May 26 – the publication date of Bram Stoker’s immortal original classic.

*

I met Dracula when I was six years old.

According to Hollywood lore, before shooting began each day for Universal’s Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi, who was playing the Count, would stand in front of a full-length mirror (for a vampire uncharacteristically casting a reflection), throw his cape over his shoulder, and bellow at the mirror: “I AM Dracula” in an effort to hypnotize himself into delivering the perfect performance as the vampire. While co-star David Manners attests to this, the story may very well be apocryphal, though mention of it is made in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Whether it’s true or not, Lugosi’s performance as Dracula is one for the ages. Today, it’s impossible not to imagine a tall, dark, Hungarian man in evening wear when one thinks of Dracula. Or simply vampires for that matter.

And, even if Lugosi did not succeed in casting a spell over himself, then certainly on his audiences. Purportedly when the star took the stage in the late 1920s playing the Count for the first time, women swooned and fainted. Nurses were on call armed with smelling salts to attend to those audience members with nervous dispositions, and in doing so; Dracula became a fixture of Broadway in the early days of the Great Depression. A film version was inevitable. Universal Studios – who had made a profit hand-over-fist in the 1920s with their adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera – bought the rights to both Bram Stoker’s novel and the successful play with the intent of casting “The Man of a Thousand Faces” himself, Lon Chaney, as the eponymous vampire. Chaney died before production could begin and Bela Lugosi stepped in front of the film camera to extend his spell over a whole new audience…




…Myself included. At the age of six, my Mother and I went to a screening of the 1931 classic at the local library as the Halloween season swiftly came upon us. Though I cannot remember every detail of that evening, I’m told many years later that I was enraptured by the film. Dracula (1931) may not hold up today as one of the greatest horror films of all time, but its influence cannot be overestimated. Without it – it is easy to argue – the modern horror film would not exist. Dracula proved to Universal that horror films were truly profitable and soon the Count gave way to Frankenstein’s Monster (and his Bride), the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and a myriad of others.

Today, 120 years since the initial publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula continues to have a hold on popular culture. In the wake of Bela Lugosi, countless other Draculas have graced the screen both big and small: Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Gary Oldman, and George Hamilton to name just a few. However, I believe that the finest Dracula film is the oftentimes overlooked 1979 Universal remake starring Frank Langella as Dracula. It is a film version which I believe does not receive the praise it truly deserves, as it may well be the Count’s finest hour on film. I suggest that we take a closer look.

*

Like Lugosi before him, Frank Langella began the role of Dracula on the stage. The production was a revival of the play from the ‘20s which had been penned by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Deane’s original, which had opened in England, had enough cheese to fill a French fromagerie - complete with thunder and lightning cues and bats dangling on the ends of fishing poles - but its success was enough to make it cross the pond and, after being polished up by writer and former journalist Balderston, proved to be just as commercially successful in the states.


Langella's Dracula surrounded by Gothic sets designed by
illustrator Edward Gorey

Langella’s performance in the revival was lauded widely at the time. His performance was nominated for a Tony and writer Gregory William Mank writes on his website reflecting on the experience of seeing Langella on Broadway in 1978: “It was amazing to watch Langella’s Count, capering before the Edward Gorey sets, skillfully playing Act I for comedy (to bait the audience), Act II as a mix of comedy and drama (to keep the audience guessing), and Act III as raw, red meat melodrama (which had the audience in near-hysteria).”

The success of the Dracula revival was surely enough to spawn a remake – or, perhaps, a reimagining – of the 1931 classic. I use the word reimagining as the 1979 film has little in common with the Bela Lugosi original or the Deane/Balderston play. True, there are scenes which are lifted from both sources (the confrontation between Dracula and Laurence Olivier’s Van Helsing being the most obvious example and one of the film’s genuine highlights), but for much its run, 1979’s Dracula feels very much like its own entity. Its plot feels original and unpredictable, partially down to the reshuffling of the cast of characters. Lucy is the central figure of this drama. As most ardent Dracula fans now, it was Lucy in the novel and most adaptations who is victimized by Dracula first and turned into a vampire. However, herein it is Mina who befalls that fate. And, to top it all off, Mina is now the daughter of Professor Van Helsing which adds extra gravitas to the vampire hunter’s hunt for the vampire.

To a Dracula purist, one may balk at all these changes. Furthermore, knowing that the plot never sets foot outside of England (Dracula was originally a sweeping novel beginning and ending in continental Europe), is set nearly a decade into the twentieth century, and knowing that the film features a sub-title proclaiming it to be a love story may very well put fans of the Count off of this film. However, for all its cosmetic changes to the plot and characters of the original, Dracula remains a fascinating film to watch. The very nature of its reorganized cast of characters and storyline lends the film an air of unpredictability which even some of the other finest Dracula films cannot avoid. Hammer’s 1958 Dracula starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee may have dispensed with its source material almost from the word go, but throughout the film one never doubts the idea that good will triumph over evil and Dracula will be vanquished. Dracula ’79 casts doubt upon the very essence of the story; something which cannot be said for many adaptations of the generations-old tale.




And, to address that point about the film being a love story, it’s hardly true. Though it’s obvious that Kate Nelligan’s Lucy is slowly falling for Langella’s Dracula, it is hard to sympathize with the Count. He never becomes a pathetic, sad figure in a way which robs him of his inherent scariness and evil. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for all its amazing in-camera special effects, costumes, and occasional bits of inspired acting, is guilty of this for sure; Dracula is supposed to be scary and by turning him into a romantic figure, he is robbed of what makes him so terrifying. Langella’s Dracula is quietly evil and, to be frank, his performance is liable to send a shiver or two up and down your spine.
*

Laurence Olivier as Prof. Van Helsing

The supporting cast helps to round out the film in no small measure and support Langella all the way through. Of special note is Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. Though I am biased by my admiration for all things even tangentially-related to Peter Cushing, I assert it as a fact that Cushing’s Van Helsing is the finest ever committed to screen. But, Olivier puts his own fascinating spin on the character. His sensitive, sad nature is at times quite brilliant, and the scene in which he is confronted by his vampirized daughter is both heartbreaking and scary all-at-once.

To provide some comic relief is Donald Pleasance as a sweets-chewing Dr. Seward, but Pleasance – the brilliant actor that he is – never allows his comic bits of business to overwhelm his character. As mentioned above, Kate Nelligan shines as Lucy. Her close-up in the film’s final shot is chilling in its ambiguity. (Oh, and eagle-eyed Doctor Who fans will spot Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as the asylum attendant, Walter.)

The cast on a whole does a brilliant job of elevating the story from what – at its heart, like the original Deane play, is a rather cheesy story – to being something with some depth and intrigue. As mentioned above, the scene of the vampire Mina is genuinely frightening even today, and the film’s finale is shocking in both its bold plot decisions, but for the open-ended nature of the conclusion. I would be doing anyone who has not seen the film a disservice by speaking about it more.

And, like any film which is scored by John Williams, the film’s score is fantastic. Its central theme is surely one of Williams’ most underrated compositions.

*


Even today, opinion is still divided on 1979’s Dracula. Roger Ebert spoke to the film’s elegance and how it “restores the character to the purity of its first film appearances,” but many have written the film off for some of its more dated aspects (and it is true – though it objectively looks good, there is little use in defending the “vampire wedding” scene as designed by James Bond title-sequence guru, Maurice Binder), and for Langella’s subtle Dracula.

While I think that the film on a whole is perhaps not the classical milestone of the Hammer Dracula film, or perhaps even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is an underrated gem to be sure. It’s a Dracula film which is interested in more than just fangs, stakes, and garlic wreaths. It’s a Dracula film with a brain and a heart.

It’s a film which proves that Dracula shall continue to be able to cast a spell over me. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

300 Words on "The Player" (1992)


There have been many movies which have satirized the oftentimes corrupt and corporate nature of Hollywood. Yet, few have done so with the same pitch-black, bone-dry comedy as 1992’s The Player; part The Big Sleep, part Sunset Boulevard, the result is a film which is fascinating to watch. The Player, though advertised as a comedy, is not a laugh-out-loud movie experience. Its comedy is subtle and not always broadly spelled out. The film’s funniest moments come in the scenes where outrageously bad movie pitches are being sold to executives with the straightest of faces by movie writers. These vignettes are truly the heart of The Player and, curiously, I found myself more interested in the film’s depiction of the studio-system movie-making machine than I was in the movie’s central mystery.

The Player is able to pull this off by being so extremely self-aware. Its final minutes border on the meta and, throughout, it feels as though everyone involved had their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. The movie opens, too, with one of the most beautifully-executed long-takes I have ever seen; complete with references to Rope (1948) and Orson Welles’ similar long take in Touch of Evil. The Player, at once, paints a picture of nearly everything that is great about movies, and nearly everything that is bad about movies.

Today, it seems that the message of The Player is more relevant than ever before, and the moment in which Tim Robbin’s movie exec off-handedly proposes remaking the Italian arthouse film, The Bicycle Thief, feels so incredibly real, it hurts. The Player is a cautionary tale about the nature of artistic integrity and inspiration; a movie which is not afraid to both pay homage to and poke fun at the institution of film. It’s a strange little movie, but it got me thinking, which surely separates The Player from the type of film which it fantastically parodies. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

300 Words on "Panic Room" (2002)


If there is one type of movie which I really enjoy it’s the “claustrophobic thriller.” From Hitchcock’s Rope to Wait Until Dark to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, each film is wildly different, but are similarly marked by their small casts and confined settings. Each film sucks me into the tension and palpable suspense and make for edge-of-your-seat viewing. David Fincher’s 2002 Panic Room is a film of this distinctive sub-genre and surely ranks as one of the best.

Panic Room takes the idea of this kind of thriller and beautifully executes it in a stylish, thoroughly modern way. The cinematography is, at times, simply breathtaking; panning through the walls and floorboards of the New York City brownstone which serves as the film’s main setting. This kind of opulence makes Panic Room feel rich and different; a film which uses the technology at its disposal to only heighten the tension and suspense and, for that, the movie should be applauded.

If it were only for its ingenious use of the camera, Panic Room could be put down as a triumph of style over substance, but its cast – headed by Jodi Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Kristen Stewart (showing more emotion on screen than ever)  - add to the film in no small measure. It’s the engaging performances from Foster and Stewart which help us to identify with their characters and make clear just what a truly terrifying situation they are in and help make Panic Room’s arguably over-the-top final act a bit easier to swallow.

While, to me, Wait Until Dark will forever be the finest example of this type of thriller, Panic Room comes close in achieving the same sense of claustrophobia and sheer terror which the 1967 film reached, and there were times when it felt as if Panic Room was deliberately paying homage to its predecessor. For edge-of-your-seat entertainment, Panic Room is surely a fine example. 

Friday, 12 May 2017

300 Words on "Halloween: H2O" (1998)


As I have made clear elsewhere, Halloween is, I believe, one of the finest – if not the best – horror films ever made. Its string of sequels started out as complimentary to the original, but soon found themselves muddled with plotless plot threads which did nothing but distance themselves from the original masterpiece. Twenty years after the release of the franchise’s first installment, Halloween: H2O did much to bring the series back to what made it so fundamentally good.

To call Halloween H2O a film which is on par with the original is a wild overstatement, but the movie should be lauded for the obvious care and attention which went into both paying homage to and building upon the original Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis is back in the central role of Laurie Strode and her performance is excellent. In fact, a large percentage of the film is devoted to her alone as she copes with the trauma which she has been living with for so many years.

The callbacks to the first Halloween also help enliven the film too. To my mind, however, the film’s best self-aware bit is the cameo by Janet Leigh as Norma, Laurie’s secretary, in a scene which pays homage to Psycho as much as it does John Carpenter’s slasher. But, beyond simply putting a new spin on elements of the first movie, Halloween H2O feels more like the original; the suspense and tension are palpable and some of the set-pieces are able to conjure up the same terror which the first movie generated effortlessly.

Halloween H2O is no masterpiece of horror cinema; it is still a flawed film, to be sure, but the obvious attention to detail and love for the source material which went into making the movie should most certainly be applauded. In the legacy of Halloween films, Halloween H2O is the definitive final chapter.