Posts Tagged ‘Dracula’

Dracula (2020) BBC mini Series ****

Dirs: Jonny Campbell, Paul McGuigan, Damon Thomas | Writers: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat | Cast: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, Morfydd Clark, John Heffernan | UK Drama | 270′

The BBC rejuvenates the Dracula story with this bracingly biting blood-splattered three parter that references all the usual iconography: crucifixes, coffins and cloaks – but adds multiracial underpinnings and fluidly sexual characters that include a strong female lead in Sister Agatha van Hellsing. The story wanders peripatetically through a Romanian castle, a nocturnal sea voyage aboard a ancient schooner and the nightscapes of contenporary London.

Writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat create a modern masterpiece that feels fresh, complex and surprisingly witty, sending up the vampire legend led by the dazzlingly daunting and dishy Danish actor Claes Bang who terrorises the living cast with a performance that blends condescending camp with arch horror. The cunning count doesn’t seem to mind whether his victims are male or female as long as they invite him to sink his vicious gnashers into their fresh supply of warm blood and tap their credentials into the bargain.

Dolly Wells is simply magnificent as the faithless Hungarian nun who in the opening scenes interviews the (by now) undead and decrepit Jonathan Harker about his experiences with the Count while in thrall to his dubious hospitality. The action cuts back to Transylvania 1897 where Dracula was  planning a move to Victorian London from the turreted terror of his creepy castle where he had perfected his English at every bite of his unsuspecting guest. The dark dungeons light up their sparklingly glib repartee: “You’re a monster”, screams Harker, the count retorts: “And you’re a lawyer, nobody’s perfect”. The following episode takes place on board the HMS Demeter bound for England and introducing fresh blood in the shape of a Romanian crew, a professor from Calcutta, a German Arch Duchess (whom he ravages, having perfected his German on another  deckhand titbit), and a lavender married couple, the husband falling prey to Dracula’s masterful charms. Needless to say, the Count “ absorbs” all their cultural attributes feeding off their jugulars with glib satisfaction only to wash up 123 years later on a Whitby beach in the present day where a tousled haired special branch Agatha meets him with all guns blaring from her Police vehicle.

Once in 2020 the narrative suffers a couple of blips with a collection of millennial characters that don’t pass master with what’s gone before. A Savile Row besuited Prince of Darkness minus his gothic backdrop struggles to retain his chilly persona, but Bang’s towering physique and his suave and sardonic allure restores our belief in his predatory nature, tempered with a cheeky line when he is momentarily confined to a Perspex prison cell: “I’m a vampire: why have you given me a toilet? Writer Gatiss finally gets his on scene moment of glory as Dracula’s dapper and deferential lawyer, a role he also created. The character of Lucy is less inspiring as a modern day source of sustenance for the Count, in the guise of a smug, selfie-seeking psychopath whose millennial magnetism and dusky draw is proved to be only skin deep, after she survives the grotesque cremation scene (most audiences will be crossing this off as an option in their own funeral arrangements). And Zoe (as Agatha’s great great niece) makes for a convincing modern day cancer victim, wasting away before our eyes, her wan charms creating soulful chemistry with the Count as she poisons him with her diseased blood in an inspired plot-twist. She throws down the gauntlet to her doomed lover, taunting him with the steely words: “You seek to conquer death but you cannot until you face it without fear”. So he capitulates by actually facing up to the challenge, walking into the brilliant sunlight his features flooded with its golden rays.  The final scene is both surprising and ultimately satisfying, serving both Agatha’s latent fantasies and Dracula’s atavistic longings. It’s a triumph that creates new hope for the legend while maintaining his gothic allure. MT

 

 

 

Dracula through the Ages | Halloween

D R A C U L A   T H R O U G H   T H E   A G E S : Leaves from Stoker’s Book 

First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s DRACULA is now seen as one of the canonical texts of Gothic literature, but it was only long after Stoker’s death that the work took on iconic status – thanks in no small part to the numerous films that proliferated as the Count’s cultural clout increased (there have now been over 200). To explain the appeal, one need only look at a list of possible readings: there have been almost as many interpretations as there have been films. In short, Dracula, as the archetypal vampire, can be made to reflect the fears (and the desires) of every generation.

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It was F.W. Murnau who, in 1922, gave the world its first great onscreen Dracula – even if, in an unsuccessful bid to escape infringing copyright, Murnau changed the Count’s name to Orlok and retitled it Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Stoker’s widow saw right through Murnau’s ploy and duly sued, causing the majority of prints to be destroyed. Luckily, one survived.

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Seen today, Murnau’s film has lost none of its power. Murnau shot much of Nosferatu on location, adding a contrasting sense of realism to the film’s expressionistic tropes, thereby creating an ominous, otherworldly foreboding. Right at the start we read that this is ‘a chronicle of the plague of Great Death’: unlike Dracula’s victims, Orlok’s do not become vampires – they die, and Orlok is their death. Murnau strips Stoker’s text of its erotic and religious force: here, Orlok is a metaphysical harbinger of death, an unstoppable force of nature. German cinema of this period is famous for its detailed mise-en-scène, and Nosferatu is no exception, but the film also makes startling use of montage. Not only does Murnau use parallel editing to increase tension, but the moment in which Ellen awakes as Orlok feeds on Hutter, their disparate locations joined together in a single eye-line match, is truly breath-taking filmmaking.

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Stoker’s widow, frustrated by unauthorised adaptations, sold the dramatic rights for Dracula to British playwright Hamilton Deane, whose adaptation was later reworked by John L. Balderston for Broadway. It was this play, rather than Stoker’s novel, that formed the basis for Tod Browning’s stodgy 1931 Dracula, a film that never quite transcends its drawing-room mystery origins – despite begin well shot by cinematographer Karl Freund, who had worked with Murnau back in Germany. The film’s theatricality extends to its hammy, stage-derived special effects, which add little dread to the proceedings. Bela Lugosi had played the role on Broadway, and his version of Dracula remains the most iconic and influential. An invention of Deane’s, this Dracula may be a far cry from Stoker’s heavily-moustached old man, but it’s also the version that has most thoroughly penetrated public consciousness.

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Taking its cue from Deane and Balderston’s play, in which Lucy ‘registers attraction’ to Dracula, Browning’s film has Lucy express her fascination to Mina, who will herself later receive a midnight call from the Count – much to the chagrin of her fiancé. With his thick accent and ponderous pronunciation, Lugosi’s Dracula is every bit the outsider, readable as both the invading immigrant and the suave, sexually appealing ‘other’.

It’s the latter reading that director Terence Fisher brings to the fore in his excellent 1958 adaptation for Hammer. Here, an ill and pale Lucy excitedly removes her crucifix, opens the doors, hikes up her skirt, and lies on her bed expectantly. Dracula is no invader, but a welcome jolt of sexual energy, a manifestation of the Victorian woman’s hidden (and unfulfilled) sexual desires. We are told that the crucifix symbolises good over evil, and that Van Helsing will succeed ‘with God’s help’. Once more, Dracula is the evil other, a force of adultery who needs to be dispatched so (holy) matrimony can be resumed. If the script at times owes little to Stoker’s original narrative trajectory, the film perfectly condenses his sprawling story and captures the spirit, the dread and the disgust of the original text.

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In 1979, Werner Herzog returned to Murnau’s Dracula-as-death symbolism for his dreamlike Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht. As the film’s opening images of mummified bodies help establish, this is cinema as memento mori. Lucy screams and wakes from a nightmare, but the phantom of the night is coming: death is unavoidable and cannot be escaped. A portentous dread hangs in the air, even throughout the later, joyous scenes of revelling plague victims. These scenes suggest that life can be given meaning only when placed under the shadow of death, thus rendering Dracula‘s eternal undead life both joyless and meaningless.

In the book, Mina begs the vampire hunters to feel pity for their prey, and Herzog makes this feeling manifest. Herzog’s ponderous, almost languid tone leads us to feel the profound weight of an endless life without love. Once more, the erotic undertones rise to the surface: Dracula wants love, and his lust for Lucy will ultimately be his undoing. Herzog’s vision is highly romantic, and therefore archly Gothic. Present too is the religious conflict: Lucy declares that ‘God is so far from us in the hour of distress’, and if the later use of the Host in combating Dracula seems to contradict this, it’s worth remembering the line ‘Faith is the faculty of man which enables us to believe things we know to be untrue’. There is no happy ending in Herzog’s godless universe, despite what we try to believe. Lethargic though it sometimes feels, this may well be the most philosophically rich adaptation of the material – and the one with the most monstrously mesmerising portrayal of Dracula himself.

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It’s perhaps significant that Herzog returned to Murnau as his source, given that Gothic derives from a return to – and a fear of – the past. Interestingly, two other significant adaptations have likewise drawn on early cinema for inspiration: Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Guy Maddin’s 2002 Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. In fact, Coppola’s film seems to draw as much on past adaptations as on the novel itself, pulling in shadows from Murnau, dialogue from Browning, bloody gore and bawdy sex from Fisher, and a sense of introspection from Herzog. The film uses a glut of early cinema techniques, resulting in a breathless barrage that feels closer to baroque excess than ornate gothic purity.

Coppola seems to delight in the carnal aspects of the novel, going beyond even Fisher in his uninhibited depictions of violence and sex. In an early scene, Mina studies an explicit illustration in the Arabian Nights. She calls it ‘disgustingly awful’, but can’t take her eyes off it. Here, Dracula is an embodiment of desire and openly represents an exciting alternative to the tedium of puritanical marriage. But with this excitement comes danger: this is the age of both civilisation and syphilisation, and the women will be condemned for their promiscuous exchange of blood. Coppola mines the AIDS metaphor for all its worth, and equates the rise in decadence and sexual liberation with the end of the old (Christian) world. If the film’s excess verges at times on the ridiculous, it nonetheless remains a richly delirious and intoxicating work.

Much like Coppola, Maddin furrows cinematic history to create an erotic work of kinetic excess, but goes one further by making his film silent. His sets are skewed, stylised and symbolic, his Dracula a story of female lust and male jealousy – but also of paranoia and xenophobia (an early title card reads ‘Immigrants – others from other lands’). Dracula is a foreign invader, come to steal our wealth and our women. Maddin reminds us that Dracula ‘has the brain of a child’ and fills his lair with money stolen from England, thus emphasising the racists roots of the novel’s portrayal of the immigrant outsider. Maddin’s film, based on an adaptation by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, makes literal the novel’s dances of death and attraction. For Maddin, Dracula’s dispatch at the hands of Lucy’s frustrated suitors serves not only as the removal of the alien body, but also as a reassertion of male dominance over female desire.

At the end of the film, the victors open the doors of Castle Dracula and walk towards the light of a new day. Inside, Dracula lies bent backwards, impaled on a phallic spike. Somehow, it seems there may still be life in him yet. After all, some things never die, and Dracula remains the King of the Undead. AB

NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (RE-MASTERED) AND NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY OF HORRORS (HD RESTORATION) IS AVAILABLE COURTESY OF EUREKA, as is NOSERATU THE VAMPYRE

HAMMER’S RE-RELEASE OF DRACULA IS AVAILABLE ON DVD

Dracula (1958) on blu-ray 18 March 2013

 

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Dracula (1958) *** On DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Terence Fisher

Script: Jimmy Sangster (Bram Stoker)    

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt

UK                                    84mins                     1958             Horror 

Terence Fisher came to filmmaking extraordinarily late, directing his first feature at the grand old age of 43, through the J Arthur Rank Studios. And he helmed a fair few films with some notable stars such as Jean Simmons, Dirk Bogarde and Herbert Lom.

However, his big break came when in 1957, Hammer Studios asked him to direct a remake of Frankenstein, aged 52. The Curse of Frankenstein was a box office smash, sealing his fate as the horror go-to guy for the rest of his career. This Hammer debut also created bankable careers of Cushing and Lee, who reunited for Dracula the same year, made also basically for peanuts.

John Van Eyssen plays Jonathan Harker, the man on a mission to kill Dracula under the pretence of being a librarian employed by Lee’s Count Dracula to catalogue his extensive library. When the cavalry fails, it’s Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing who goes in to clear up the mess. 

The film has definitely aged, in terms of style and content. The acting style is more theatrical than today’s tastes will allow for without parody and, by today’s standards, the content is staid, the effects naïve, but the power and commitment of the performances, particularly Cushing and Lee are undeniable. At the time of its release, this kind of horror with attendant bloodletting was revolutionary and caused quite a stir. Something almost unthinkable now, when one considers the gallons of blood used in Chainsaw Massacre 3D, or the Saw franchise.

It is however heartening to see that it has been singled out for restorative treatment for many more generations to enjoy. I’ve no idea what sort of condition the original was in and there are still a few places at which one can tell the film must have been in a parlous state, but in the main, it feels very fresh and clean. The two disk DVD has an armoury of extras, including alternative versions of the full film. I suspect in the end this may be one for the interested and the collector, but a fine piece of work nevertheless by filmmakers, cast and restorers alike.

A classic then, but a classic ‘B’ horror, not on a par with a Lawrence Of Arabia say, so not without interest, but it was never made to look classy. This is Hammer House of Horror’s Dracula, after all, for Satan’s Sake. AT

DRACULA IS OUT ON DVD AND BLU-RAY

FOUR BRAND NEW FEATURETTES.

DRACULA REBORN. New 30 min. featurette about the film’s creation and history, featuring, among others: Jimmy Sangster, Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss, Jonathan Rigby and Janina Faye (Tania in the film).

RESURRECTING DRACULA; New 20 min. featurette about the film’s restoration, from the BFI’s 2007 restoration through to the integration of “lost” footage, featuring interviews with key staff at the BFI, Molinare and Deluxe142. Also covers the February 2012 world premiere of Hammer’s interim restored version including “vox pop” interviews with fans after the event.

THE DEMON LOVER: CHRISTOPHER FRAYLING ON DRACULA  New 30 min. featurette.

CENSORING DRACULA; New 10 min. featurette on the original cuts to the film ordered by the British Board of Film Censors.

 


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