Thursday, October 31, 2019
Who's in it?: Thomas Kretschmann (Blade II, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, King Kong, Avengers: Age of Ultron), Marta Gastini (The Rite), Rutger Hauer (Nighthawks, Blade Runner, Ladyhawke, The Hitcher), and Asia Argento (xXx).
What's it about?: Dario Argento puts his startling stamp on Stoker's story.
How is it?: Argento makes some interesting choices that I quite like. Instead of having Dracula try to increase his power by traveling to England, the story stays focused on a village near the vampire's castle. In the novel, the local villagers are afraid of the count and on their guard against him. In this version, he's using his wealth and power (political and supernatural) to influence the community and even help them in some ways. But then Jonathan Harker comes to town to work for Dracula as a librarian and when he goes missing, Mina comes looking and starts a chain of events leading to Dracula's downfall. It's a reminder that you can mess around with Stoker's story and still have a cool, valid take.
The cast looks great, too. Kretschmann is bland as Dracula, but the other major characters are all visually exciting even when their acting isn't so hot. Gastini is a lovely and intelligent Mina. The best though is Hauer as Van Helsing. That's inspired.
Sadly, the cheap CG effects are super hard to get past. And there's an especially weird bit where Dracula turns into a giant praying mantis for some reason. Argento goes like two steps into territory I can't follow him, but with believable effects and a couple of tweaks, I could see myself loving this.
Rating: Three out of five Minas
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Adapting classic literature for a younger audience - and keeping it faithful to the literature - is tricky business. Any kind of adaptation has its challenges, but taking a novel intended for adults of a century or two ago and making it exciting for modern kids is super daunting. Especially when that novel has a difficult narrative style and spends a lot of time building dread by prolonging events. And then there's the blood and violence.
Not that younger readers don't also appreciate lots of blood, but I imagine that some of their parents aren't quite as excited about their being exposed to it. Michael Mucci and Ben Caldwell had some hard choices to make. Fortunately, they made all the right decisions on All-Action Classics: Dracula and created an adaptation that's perfect for their audience - including grown-ups in the mood for a fast-paced, exciting version of Bram Stoker's story.
Caldwell's animation-inspired characters and settings look like concept art for what could be Disney's Dracula, though Mucci's script does anything but dumb the story down. The combined result isn't much like a Disney film, but the art has the same level of quality. Jonathan Harker and Mina actually have more of a Rankin-Bass look to their designs. They're fresher-faced and less exaggerated than the other characters, which is appropriate since they're the readers' entry to the story. They seem the most normal of the cast.
Renfield is fully convincing as both a kind, pitiful, old man and a violently energetic lunatic. Van Helsing is a comical old scientist with professorial facial hair and enormously bushy eyebrows. Dr. Seward is a thin, fragile-looking man. You can tell just by looking at him that when he moves he's very careful and measured.
Caldwell draws aristocratic Arthur Holmwood with classical, almost effeminate features. He looks like he's stepped off the side of an ancient Greek vase. Quincey Morris is a big-jawed Western hero with long, Wild Bill Hickok hair and a mustache to match. I want to read a whole series of stories about Caldwell's Morris. Lucy has dark, exotic features that make me believe all of these men would fall in love with her. Her looks also turn her into a hauntingly seductive vampire once Dracula's done with her.
And as for Dracula himself: Caldwell's version is probably my favorite representation of all time. He strikes just the right balance between seductive and menacing. A couple of the film versions have gotten that right, but so often Dracula is either horrendous and disfigured or dapper and handsome. Caldwell's design with its switch-thin frame and terrible, crooked teeth leans toward the horrendous, but Dracula's body language conveys a confident, powerful, compelling presence. This Dracula can seduce, but it's a seduction based on the vampire's awful will rather than romance. It's perfect.
The lettering helps with this image too. The tails on Dracula's word balloons don't point straight at him like everyone else's in the book. They curl and wind, suggesting a silky, hypnotic voice. And this is the book's greatest strength. Not just the lettering, but the ability that the lettering and the character design and the colors and everything else has to quickly tell you what you need to know about each of these characters. There's no need for long, tension-building scenes. The tension and the horror is all visual. That frees the script to just hit the action parts of the plot.
All-Action Dracula lives up to its name. Not that there aren't scenes of people talking, but Caldwell juices those up too with interesting details and animated facial expressions. Mucci uses very few captions - mostly at the beginning and end as the story ramps up and finally settles down again - and even then he's sparing about how much text he allows into a panel. There's nothing in comics I hate more than having to spend a lot of time reading captions on a page. Mucci doesn't make me do that, which is pretty impressive in a Dracula adaptation.
Since I first read All-Action Dracula and reviewed it for Comic Book Resources several years ago (a lot of this post is based on that review), Ben Caldwell and I have become pals. He was nice enough to send me some behind-the-scenes designs and other miscellany a while ago for me to post on the site. It's really cool stuff, so just click that link if you want to see it.
Rating: Five out of five Minas.
Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Pax and I examine the East-meets-West spaghetti western, The Stranger and the Gunfighter (aka Blood Money, aka El Kárate, el Colt, y el Impostor), produced by the Shaw Brothers and starring Lee Van Cleef and Lo Leih.
I also watch The Magnificent Seven's inspiration The Seven Samurai and Hopalong Cassidy while Pax reads Richard Matheson's Shadow on the Sun.
Monday, October 28, 2019
Who's in it?: Marc Warren (Wanted), David Suchet (Agatha Christie's Poirot), Stephanie Leonidas (Mirrormask, American Gothic), Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, The Guest, The Man Who Invented Christmas) Sophia Myles (Underworld, Thunderbirds), Rafe Spall (Prometheus, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Men in Black: International), and Tom Burke (The Musketeers).
What's it about?: The BBC creates the craziest version of the story yet.
How is it?: Apparently, I don't like any Dracula adaptation after 1979. This one weirdly inserts an English devil-cult that's actively working to bring Dracula (Warren) to London. They sent Van Helsing (Suchet) as their first unwitting agent, but when Dracula decided to keep him captive, they needed a new plan. Fortunately (for them), Arthur Holmwood (Stevens) is persuaded to help in exchange for their promise to use Dracula's powers to cure him of syphilis. He contracted it as an infant from his parents, but the revelation that he has it makes it impossible for him to marry Lucy (Myles) until he's healed.
When Arthur meets Lucy's friend Mina (Leonidas) and her fiancé, Jonathan Harker (Spall), Arthur hires Harker to go to Transylvania and bring back Dracula, knowing full well that there's danger involved. Harker goes missing, but Van Helsing escapes and follows Dracula back to England where he teams up with Mina to defeat the vampire. Helping them is Dr Seward (Burke), a friend of Arthur and Lucy who also happens to be in love with her.
The cast is really really good, especially Sophia Myles and David Suchet. Lucy is probably closest out of any adaptation to whom I imagine in Stoker's novel; updated slightly so that she has more intelligence and power. She's beautiful and sweet, but she knows that Seward wants more from their relationship than she wants to give and she handles that gently and firmly. As she does Holmwood's determination to keep postponing their wedding.
Suchet is a determined, half-mad Van Helsing; a whirlwind of a character who has all the passion and drive to defeat Dracula, but doesn't always know the best path to achieve that goal. I wish he was in a better version, but sadly, in spite of these bright spots, the plot is so mixed up that it's not at all Stoker's story, even in spirit.
Rating: Two out of five Minas.
Thursday, October 24, 2019
In addition to all these movie adaptations of Dracula, I've been reading a couple of comics adaptations as well. The first is from the Little Books Of Horror series written by Steve Niles and published by IDW. There were three volumes in the series, including a Frankenstein adaptation drawn by Scott Morse and a War of the Worlds adaptation with Ted McKeever.
The Dracula volume may be my favorite though thanks to the art by Richard Sala. Sala is one of those artists whose aesthetic I just really connect with. His stuff is gloriously gothic and sexy while also being funny. And it works especially well here with Niles' text.
Instead of going for a straightforward adaptation (as he does in the other Little Books of Horror), Niles reinterprets the story into a fun, adventurous take. It's entertaining and funny with Mina and Van Helsing teaming up to hunt Dracula back to Carfax Abbey, getting trapped by the Count, and then a huge, dramatic, last minute rescue by an unexpected other character. Not too faithful, but I love it.
Rating: Five out of five Minas.
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Who's in it?: Gary Oldman (Air Force One, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Batman Begins), Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Alien Resurrection, Stranger Things), Anthony Hopkins (Magic, The Silence of the Lambs, Thor), Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Point Break, John Wick), Richard E Grant (The Age of Innocence, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Logan), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Kiss the Girls), Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer), and Tom Waits (The Dead Don't Die).
What's it about?: Francis Ford Coppola attempts a faithful adaptation and fails spectacularly.
How is it?: It bugs me more than it should that this is called Bram Stoker's Dracula, because it really, really isn't. It gets the characters and their relationships to each other right and the casting is exactly correct, at least visually. When I picture Mina, I imagine Winona Ryder. Keanu Reeves makes a very good-looking Harker. And I have much respect for including the one and only faithful version of Quincey Morris (Campbell), a great, cool character in the novel, but one who's either dropped or merged with Arthur Holmwood in other versions.
Another positive thing is just how visually inventive and gorgeous the film is. To distraction, in some parts, but I appreciate the thought and artistry that went into the film's look and visual language.
But what I absolutely can't get over is the way the film makes Mina a consensual participant in an actual romance with Dracula. I hate that more and more with every viewing. There's at least one other version where Dracula believes that Mina is the reincarnation of his wife, but that's not what bothers me. It's that she acknowledges it and embraces it. The "Love Never Dies" tagline is shameful. Coppola's Dracula owes more to Anne Rice than Bram Stoker.
And that's not even getting into Van Helsing's (Hopkins) humping Quincey's leg. There are so many weird, unexplainable choices in this film and it kills me that the title presumes to herald it as Stoker's vision brought to the screen. The fact that I do keep rewatching it is a testament to its look and mood and Quincey Morris.
Rating: Two out of five Minas.
Tuesday, October 22, 2019
Things get spooky... for the vampires when they're hunted by Blade. But what does that have to do with Billy the Kid and Rex O'Herlihan the Singing Cowboy? David knows the answer, but Evan, Dave, guest Paxton Holley, and I have to guess.
00:01:15 - Review of Rustlers' Rhapsody (1985)
00:10:49 - Review of Young Guns (1988)
00:20:29 - Review of Blade (1998)
00:37:13 - Guessing the Connection
Monday, October 21, 2019
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Thursday, October 10, 2019
Who's in it?: Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), Herbert Lom (Mysterious Island, A Shot in the Dark), Klaus Kinski (For a Few Dollars More, Nosferatu the Vampyre), Maria Rohm (The Blood of Fu Manchu, Ten Little Indians), and Soledad Miranda (100 Rifles, Vampyros Lesbos)
What's it about?: Spanish exploitation director Jesús Franco tries to create the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel to date.
How is it?: It was advertised to me as "the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel ever filmed" and the tagline on one poster was "Finally! The Original Version!" Neither of those statements is true.
It's cool that Franco brought in Christopher Lee to play Dracula. Lee was in Hammer's 1958 adaptation of course, and had made a couple of sequels by the time Franco hired him. And since he went on to make several more sequels for Hammer after this, he's one of the most iconic Draculas ever. So it's cool to see him in this non-Hammer version. (It's also cool that Renfield is played by Klaus Kinski, who's not just a great actor in general, but also went on to play Dracula in Werner Herzog's version at the end of the decade.)
One of the elements in this that's very faithful to Stoker is Lee's makeup. He begins the story as an elderly, mustached count who gets younger as the story progresses. I've never been able to imagine a mustached Dracula that seemed cool to me, but Lee pulls it off. Of course he does.
The opening scenes at Dracula's castle are pretty faithful to the novel, too, but it all falls apart when the story shifts to England. Rather than waking up in a Transylvanian convent after his ordeal, Harker regains consciousness in an English asylum run by Van Helsing (Lom), with Dr Seward merely an assistant there who never plays an important role in the story.
Harker is soon visited by his fiancée Mina (Rohm) and her close friend Lucy (Miranda), so their relationships are all the same as in Stoker. And as in the novel, the asylum is next door to the ruined abbey that Dracula has purchased, which is how the count discovers and begins persecuting the women: first Lucy; then Mina. But while Lucy is engaged to a British lord, his name is weirdly Quincey Morris (Lucy's American suitor in the novel); not Arthur Holmwood. There's a lot that's true to the book, but already the film makes some weird changes.
The biggest flaw though is how the script abridges the story in a way that makes Van Helsing seem like a fool. He ignores or disbelieves crucial information for dramatic reasons that are very unlike the literary professor. For example, he doesn't buy Harker's story of what happened at Dracula's castle, even though Harker has bite marks to prove it. And later, when it's more convenient to the abridgment, Van Helsing claims to recognize the marks as Dracula's work. So there's a lot of his being clueless and then later saying, "Ah! Just as I suspected!" Sure you did, Doc.
Maria Rohm is beautiful, but generally forgettable and disappointing as Mina. She's as much a helpless victim as Lucy; merely a second chance for the heroes to defeat the villain rather than being an asset or even really a full character. Like a lot else with the film, I appreciate the effort, but Franco's version is ultimately unsatisfying.
Rating: Three out of five Minas.
Wednesday, October 09, 2019
Who's in it?: Christopher Lee (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Devil Rides Out, The Man with the Golden Gun, Sleepy Hollow, The Lord of the Rings, Attack of the Clones), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. Who and the Daleks, Star Wars), Melissa Stribling, and Michael Gough (Konga, Batman, Sleepy Hollow)
What's it about?: Hammer makes a lurid, action-packed adaptation.
How is it?: Originally titled just Dracula in the UK, but renamed Horror of Dracula for US release, Hammer's version takes a lot of liberties with the novel, but it's so good. Christopher Lee perfectly captures both the menace and the sensuality of the Count. Peter Cushing is excellent as the super-competent Van Helsing who always knows what to do and just needs to find Dracula so he can do it. And even though it's a huge departure from the book, I love that Jonathan Harker is Van Helsing's agent sent to Dracula's castle not as a lawyer, but as an assassin to destroy the vampires.
It simplifies the supporting characters by having Mina (Stribling) be married to Arthur Holmwood (Gough) with Lucy (Carol Marsh) as his sister. When Lucy is killed by Dracula (as in the novel), Arthur and Mina assist Van Helsing in taking down the Count. There's a Dr Seward, but he's just the local physician and doesn't play a real role in the plot. There's no Renfield and frankly I don't miss him. There's certainly no Quincey Morris, whom I do miss, but he's been cut out of every adaptation so far and I understand why. From a plot standpoint, he's superfluous.
Mina has been young and innocent in every adaptation so far, but Stribling's version is an aristocratic matron with confidence and power. Her concern for Lucy feels like the duty of an older sibling, not the love of a dear friend. I like that she's so capable, but one of the things I love most about the literary Mina is the combination of her great intelligence with the flaw of self-doubt. That's missing in this version.
Rating: Four out of five Minas
Tuesday, October 08, 2019
For the spoooky 13th episode of the Fourth Chair Army Invasion, Chad Young, Evan Hanson, and Rob Graham join me to assemble a super team of iconic horror movie actors. Who stars in this all-star screamfest? Who appears in cameos? What characters are they playing, what are they doing, and who directs this amazing piece of cinema history? Tune in and find out… if you DARE!
Monday, October 07, 2019
Who's in it?: Carlos Villarías and Lupita Tovar.
What's it about?: At the same time Tod Browning filmed his iconic adaptation with Bela Lugosi, Universal also produced this Spanish-language version from the same script and using the same sets, but with different actors and directors.
How is it?: For obvious reasons, it makes the same changes to the novel that Browning's version does, but I like it better in a lot of ways.
It doesn't have Bela Lugosi or Dwight Frye, which is a drawback, but Carlos Villarías makes his own, successful choices as Dracula and Pablo Álvarez Rubio is a perfectly good Renfield. Best of all, Lupita Tovar is a far superior, livelier Mina (renamed Eva) to Helen Chandler's stiff version and since that's always the character I'm most interested in, it lifts the whole production up for me.
There are also extended versions of some of the familiar scenes from the Browning version and even the scenes it has in common are often interpreted slightly differently. This is way more than just a curiosity for completists. It holds up on its own as well as provides a different lens to look at Browning's version through.
Rating: Four out of five Minas
Thursday, October 03, 2019
Who's in it?: Bela Lugosi (The Black Cat, Mark of the Vampire, Son of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Corpse Vanishes), Helen Chandler (pretty much just this), Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy), Dwight Frye (Frankenstein), and David Manners (The Mummy, The Black Cat).
What's it about?: The classic and most iconic version of Dracula, though not super faithful to Stoker.
How is it?: Based on a play rather than Stoker's novel, Tod Browning's Dracula is sort of a copy of a copy. It keeps a lot of the book's plot, but shuffles around the characters. For instance, it's not Harker (Manners) who goes to Transylvania to meet Dracula (Lugosi), but Renfield (Frye). That means that he doesn't escape Dracula's castle, but accompanies the count back to England and becomes hospitalized because Dracula has driven him insane.
Like in the book, Renfield's case is overseen by Doctor Seward. But the doctor isn't in love with Lucy as in Stoker's novel. Instead, he's an older widower and the father of Mina (Chandler). There is a Lucy who succumbs to Dracula's menace and becomes a vampiric woman in white, but she's not really connected to any of the other characters except that she's Mina's friend. She has no Arthur Holmwood to avenge her, so that job falls to Van Helsing (Van Sloan) and Mina's fiancé, Harker. But they're not so much vindicating Lucy as just protecting Mina by that point. Dr Seward completely falls out of the story by the end, but that's just one of many problems with how the story wraps up in its hurry to finish.
It's tough not to compare it to Murnau's Nosferatu from nine years earlier. The ability to add sound to movies was a great reason to do a new version of Stoker's story (with all the proper rights, instead of sneakily changing the characters' names) and Browning's style is distinct and creepy and brings some beautiful atmosphere. But Murnau's version is actually scary and Browning's never is. Murnau's Count Orlok is a true monster, from his very appearance to the strange powers that Murnau so cleverly gives him through special effects. Browning's version - the character at least is truer to Stoker's novel - is meant to be creepily charming. You don't realize he's a threat until it's too late. Which is cool, but Browning uses so little effects that even when Dracula is supposed to be frightening, it's mostly suggested by the way other characters react to him.
That can be effective sometimes, especially in the case of Renfield, who's easily the most chilling character of the film. Edward Van Sloan also adds to Dracula's menace as Van Helsing. The Van Helsing analog is a giant weakness of Nosferatu, but I always have a lot of fun watching Van Sloan work in Dracula, trying to first figure out who the vampire is (and initially suspecting Renfield), then playing a game of wills against Bela Lugosi.
I wish that Helen Chandler was a better Mina, though. If I haven't said it already, Mina is the heart of any version of Dracula and it's important to get her right. Nosferatu gives her a tragically heroic role, but in Browning's movie, she's just the MacGuffin that the other characters are all fighting over. She's not written very well, but she's played even worse by Chandler who never eases into the character. She always reminds me that she's an actress playing a role.
The movie is also dreadfully slow, but in spite of that and my misgivings about Chandler, I always enjoy revisiting it for its mood and cultural impact and especially for Lugosi, Frye, and Van Sloan. I should also shout out to David Manners' John Harker, who's mostly nondescript, but has a great moment when he throws down his newspaper in disgust and leaves the room because of Van Helsing's crackpot ideas about shape-changing, immortal blood-suckers.
Rating: Four out of five Minas.
Wednesday, October 02, 2019
Who's in it?: Max Schreck (Batman Returns), Greta Schröder (Der Golem)
What's it about?: This unauthorized German adaptation changes the names of the characters, the setting (England has become just another town in Eastern Europe), the ending, and even the metaphors.
How is it? (SPOILERS): I rarely judge film adaptations anymore on how faithful they are to their source material. And Nosferatu is a perfect example of why that is. It is very much not Bram Stoker's novel, but it's the most legitimately chilling, scary version of the story I've seen. It doesn't bother me that the monster is now an allegory for the plague instead of a metaphor for sexual seduction. And I don't even really mind the story problems created by messing around with some of the characters.
For example, Harker's boss from the novel is combined with Renfield to become a madman named Knock. In this version, Harker is named Hutter and his boss has not only been in contact with Orlok (Dracula), but apparently knows that he's sending Hutter to his doom when he goes to Transylvania. In the novel, Dracula doesn't begin to affect Renfield until Dracula arrives in England, but in Nosferatu, Orlok controls Knock from afar. The film never explains how this happens.
And then there's Professor Bulwer, the Van Helsing character, who has no purpose in the movie. Really, Van Helsing and Dr Seward almost don't exist in this version. Oddly, they're two separate characters (Van Helsing becomes Bulwer; Seward becomes a Professor Sievers), but they're generic, interchangeable characters with only minor lip service paid to Bulwer's having any experience in the supernatural. Bulwer certainly doesn't contribute to Orlok's defeat. That's 100% Ellen (the Mina character, played by Greta Schröder), who sends Hutter to find Bulwer just to get Hutter out of the house so that Ellen can do what she needs to do. Bulwer doesn't even directly interact with any other characters until that last scene and even then it's only to observe.
Some other changes are less of a problem. Hutter is mostly the same as Harker and his wife Ellen is an excellent version of Mina. Arthur Holmwood has become Harding, a wealthy ship owner who's a friend of Hutter/Harker. Hutter sends Ellen to Harding's to live while Hutter goes to Transylvania. Standing in for Lucy is Harding's sister (not his fiancée as in Stoker), Ruth.
Ruth/Lucy doesn't play as big a role in the movie as she does in the novel. Ellen/Mina is the main focus of Orlok's obsession. There's a hint that Ruth could be experiencing some weirdness, but Orlock is defeated before anything comes of that.
Like the novel, Ellen/Mina is the one who best figures out what's going on and understands how to defeat Orlok/Dracula. But in the film, Ellen learns that the only way to do this is to sacrifice herself, willingly letting the count feed on her until daybreak so that he's trapped and destroyed by the sun. It's a horrible, but emotional fate for her and I'm always moved by it no matter how many times I've seen the film. Ellen is such an interesting character: extremely sensitive and seemingly irrationally paranoid, but her fears are proved prophetic 100% of the time. She more than makes up for any issues I have with Knock and Bulwer.
And when I consider just how strong the visual style of Nosferatu is, I can't even see flaws anymore. Orlok is so utterly horrifying (thanks both to Max Schreck's performance and the way director FW Murnau shot him), that nothing else matters.
Rating: Five out of five Minas
Tuesday, October 01, 2019
I sat out last year's Countdown to Halloween. At least here. I was all about Halloween on my Tumblr and will be (and already am) again this year as well, but I missed having a bunch of horror stuff here.
I'm still not at the place where I'm comfortable doing a big theme that requires a lot of research, but I've been watching a lot of adaptations of Bram Stoker's Dracula lately. Enough to write about one of them every couple of days and get us to Halloween. So, H'bleh, everyone.