Monday, October 21, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Dracula (1979)

Who's in it?: Frank Langella (Masters of the Universe, Superman Returns), Kate Nelligan (Wolf, US Marshals), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Clash of the Titans), and Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, Halloween, Escape from New York)

What's it about?: Universal remixes elements from the novel into a lavish, gothic spectacle.

How is it?: Let's get the movie's big problem out of the way first and that's Dracula's costume. He looks like he's wearing a white turtleneck with a vampire cape from the Halloween aisle at Target. But there's nothing wrong with Langella's performance and he's an excellent, good-looking, suave, and charming Dracula. I believe it when characters fall under his spell. (His hair is too poofy to be believable in the nineteenth century, but oh well.)

The rest of the cast is good, too. I've read somewhere that Pleasance was offered the role of Van Helsing, but turned it down because it was too similar to Dr Loomis in Halloween. I agree and I'm extremely happy with him as Seward: a monster hunter, but sort of a reluctant one and certainly not the obsessed pursuer that Loomis and Van Helsing are.

Speaking of Van Helsing, Olivier disappears into that role. He's doing a convincing (to my ears, anyway) Dutch accent and his facial hair threw me off so that I had to actually go and remind myself who was playing him.

Kate Nelligan brings extra gravity to her role as Lucy. For some reason (that I'll have thoughts about in a second), Mina and Lucy are switched in this version, so that Mina is Dracula's first victim and Lucy is the one whom everyone's trying to save for the rest of the story. Because the movie plays up the seduction angle, Lucy doesn't try to resist in the same way that Mina does in the novel. Instead, she's intrigued by the gorgeous count and starts to fall for him, even though she suspects that something's not quite right. It's more similar to real-life romantic attraction than the novel or the Lugosi film are with their emphasis on Dracula's supernatural will.

And yet it never asks viewers to believe that Lucy is completely consensual in her attraction to the Count. That's a big problem I have with Coppola's version, but this '79 version walks the tightrope nicely. Dracula exerts power, so Lucy isn't just abandoning her commitment to Harker, but Nelligan plays her more or less as a woman who's heart and head are telling her different things and there's a real struggle as she tries to choose between Harker and Dracula. I believed her falling under Dracula's spell much more than I do in other adaptations.

About the switching of Lucy with Mina: It annoyed me at first, because I didn't see the point, but as the movie went on, I started to see how it affected the characters of Van Helsing and Dr Seward in a powerful way. Like in other adaptations, Lucy is Dr Seward's daughter, but in this one, Mina is actually Van Helsing's daughter. So when Van Helsing arrives in England too late to save his own girl, it adds a layer of tragedy and motivation to have him trying to save the daughter of his friend. Pleasence adds to this by being pretty helpless in the whole affair, while Olivier is acting the crap out of his failure to protect Mina and his determination to not let the same thing happen to Lucy.

Describing it that way makes it seem like Lucy's story is subservient to Van Helsing and Seward's, but the movie is concerned about them all. I felt the stakes in a way that's pretty rare for Dracula adaptations.

Rating: Four out of five Minas

Friday, October 18, 2019

Fairy Tale Friday | Fables, Part 6: Barleycorn Brides

Fables #18 is a standalone story that (like the Jack story in #11) abandons the fairy-tales-in-other-genres format and simply tells a story from the Fables community's past. There's a framing sequence in which a Lilliputian youth escapes the Farm and comes to the city to try to steal some magic barleycorn. He's caught, but when Bigby Wolf goes easy on the sentencing, the Frog Prince questions the decision. Bigby then relates the story of why attempting to steal the magic seed has become a rite of passage for Lilliputian males.

I won't spoil the whole thing, but it has to do with a bunch of male Lilliputians' escape from the Fables' Homelands after the mysterious Adversary took over, as well as the story of Thumbelina. It's a fun, adventurous tale and gives a tantalizing peek at the Homelands and the armies of the Adversary.

Another fun note about the issue is that it was drawn by Linda Medley, who was quite popular at the time for her fairy-tale-inspired comics series, Castle Waiting.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Who's in it?: Klaus Kinski (For a Few Dollars More, Doctor Zhivago, the 1970 Jesús Franco Dracula adaptation) and Isabelle Adjani (this is all I know her from, but she played Emily Brontë in the French film Les Soeurs Brontë that I'm all interested in now).

What's it about?: Werner Herzog remakes the 1922 silent classic, but with sound, color, and the original names of Stoker's characters (mostly).

How is it?: As much as I love Murnau's version, I was all about seeing an update. I don't know that I've ever actually seen a Herzog-directed film, but he's a legend and I do love it when he appears as an actor in various things, like Jack Reacher or that episode of Parks and Recreation. I also thought it was cool that he cast Kinski as Dracula after Kinski played Renfield in Franco's adaptation. So I was quite looking forward to this.

It was great going for a while. It moves slowly, but it's a rewarding quietness with lots of lingering shots of landscapes and beautiful, atmospheric music. It's a gorgeous film. And Kinski makes a surprisingly sympathetic Dracula even under all that horrifying makeup. He also has a temper and of course a very nasty thirst for blood, so I was never on his side, but there's an ironic humanity to him that I liked a lot.

Adjani is the film's standout though as the extremely sensitive and heroic Lucy. Like in Murnau's version, she's susceptible to premonitions and would be sort of maddeningly paranoid if she weren't so unbelievably sweet and of course right. As much as I love her and her heart though, I have a couple of big issues with the character.

First of all, the script insists on calling her Lucy for some dumb, nonsensical reason. She's clearly the Mina character from the novel. But that's the lesser of my problems. I'd heard that Herzog changed the ending from the silent version and even thought it sounded interesting, but when I actually watched it, I hated it. Like in Murnau's film, Mina (I still think of her that way) sacrifices herself to defeat Dracula and hopefully save her town. But Herzog robs the action of power by having it be effectively meaningless. Her act of courage is invalidated and I was left wondering what the point was.

Rating: Three out of five Minas

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Count Dracula (1977)

Who's in it?: Louis Jourdan (Anne of the Indies, Octopussy), Frank Finlay (the George C Scott A Christmas Carol), and Judi Bowker (the 1981 Clash of the Titans)

What's it about?: The BBC makes a faithful mini-series.

How is it?: Seriously, it's the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel. Cinemassacre agrees. (Thanks, Erik, for sharing that with me.) It only makes two major changes and they're both fairly benign. Mina and Lucy are sisters rather than just good friends, and Arthur Holmwood has been combined with Quincey Morris to become Quincey Holmwood, an American diplomat from Texas. That last one's an especially weird change, but all it does is let Morris out of the story (he's a cool character in Stoker, but superfluous) while still paying homage to him. Otherwise, the adaptation is so faithful that it even shoots on location in Whitby for the parts of the story that take place there.

Jourdan is an impressively suave and smart Dracula. He feels dangerous not just because he's a superpowered monster, but also because he really seems to know what he's doing. He has a plan, as of course, Stoker's version does.

Finlay may be my favorite Van Helsing yet. It's hard to beat Peter Cushing's awesome, dangerous vampire hunter, but that's not really Stoker's character. Finlay plays the literary version with competence, but also humor and a fantastic bedside manner.

Bowker's Mina is pretty great, too. She's the one version I've seen that portrays both the character's gentle naivety and her intense intelligence. She never crosses into buttkicking hero territory, but she's brave and figures out what's going on ahead of most of the dudes around her.

My one complaint about this version has to do with the look of it due to its being shot on video tape and the limits of its special effects. I appreciate that it uses video effects to try to convey some things that were missing from earlier versions, but some of them look silly to today's eyes.

Rating: Four out of five Minas

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | Seraphim Falls (2006)

Pax and I watch Liam Neeson hunt Pierce Brosnan in David Von Ancken's thriller (and probably parable) co-starring Michael Wincott and featuring cameos by Anjelica Huston, Wes Studi, Jimmi Simpson, and Xander Berkeley.

Also: a podcast recommendation, Wild West magazine, a couple of silent Jesse James films with James' real-life son playing the legendary outlaw, and this excellent primer on Hong Kong cinema.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Dracula (1974)

Who's in it?: Jack Palance (Shane, Young Guns, Batman, City Slickers), Nigel Davenport (The Island of Dr Moreau, the 1984 A Christmas Carol), and Penelope Horner.

What's it about?: Dark Shadows' Dan Curtis teams up with horror writer Richard Matheson for an extra gothic TV adaptation.

How is it?: Jack Palance sounded like an odd choice to play Dracula until I watched him and realized that his intimidating physicality is perfect for the role. He doesn't quite nail the accent, but it's not a problem. He's super dangerous in the tradition of Christopher Lee in the Hammer films.

Curtis and Matheson are a dream team of Dracula adapters and this film lives up to my expectations. In many ways, it's a remake of Hammer's adaptation with some cool stuff from the novel added back in. Like the Hammer version, it cuts out Renfield and all of Lucy's suitors except Arthur Holmwood, focusing on the team-up of Holmwood and a deadly, competent Van Helsing (Davenport) as they avenge Lucy's death and try to prevent Mina's. But unlike the Hammer version, this one gets the relationships right, with Holmwood connected to Lucy, and Mina as Lucy's dear friend (and fiancee to Jonathan Harker).

It also includes some elements from the novel that have been left out of the adaptations to date: for example, Dracula's using a wolf from the zoo to break into a house, or his forcing Mina to drink blood from his chest. Penelope Horner isn't especially memorable as Mina, which keeps me from loving it more, but generally speaking it's one of my favorites.

Rating: Four out of five Minas.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Fairy Tale Friday | Fables, Part 5: Storybook Love

It's called "Storybook Love," but the next arc in the Fables series isn't exactly a romance. Instead, it continues the intrigue of recent events spilling out of the "Animal Farm" and heist stories. Goldilocks, whose revolution was defeated in "Animal Farm" turns up again, hiding out with Bluebeard, whose treacherous nature was revealed in the heist story. When a Lilliputian agent and his mouse steed discover Goldilocks and Bluebeard's alliance, it sets off a chain of events that includes Bluebeard's having to push forward his time table for taking over the Fables community.

To get Snow White and Bigby Wolf out of the way, Bluebeard arranges to have a spell cast on them so that they think they're in love with each other. He also arranges a romantic getaway for them to a remote forest where Goldilocks tracks them in order to murder them.

It's a great story with lots of intrigue in Fabletown as well as the excitement of Snow and Bigby being hunted in the woods by a ruthless killer. Bigby even gets to revert to his impressive wolf form and show off some of the huffing and puffing he's so famous for.

And even though the love spell eventually wears off, the situation sparks some conversations between Snow and Bigby that reveal how they actually feel about each other. It's no romantic comedy, but it does have me starting to 'ship the couple even as a surprising turn of events drives a huge wedge between them.


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