Saturday, October 31, 2015

For Halloween, finally watching my first BluRay

Not the first BluRay I've ever seen, dummy. The first one I ever bought.

That's right, five years and two months ago, when we bought our first BluRay player -- a moment that was memorialized in this post -- Bram Stoker's Dracula was one of the first two BluRays we ever bought. For the purposes of this post, I'm calling it the first, because a) I forgot what the other one was that we bought at that same time, until reading the above post, and b) Dracula was the first I inserted into our BluRay player, just to take a gander at the difference in image quality from the new format. (And if you read that post, you'll note that my first instinct was not to be particularly impressed.)

However, once my test was done, I never inserted BSD into my BluRay player again -- until last night. (While meanwhile, we've watched that other movie I forgot -- Where the Wild Things Are -- twice.) Thought Francis Ford Coppola's gothic pop horror would make a good nostalgia pick to usher me into Halloween weekend.

Oh, but it ended up being so much more than that.

Not only do I still like Bram Stoker's Dracula, I still love it.

Here are some thoughts:

The flaw in the diamond

As I was watching the movie, I had an idea about an imperfection making something more valuable, or essentially proving its value. But when I did a little looking around on the internet this morning, I couldn't figure out exactly what I'd been thinking of. I decided I must have been thinking about how most diamonds have a flaw, but part of that phenomenon is not necessarily that the flaw makes it more valuable. Well, I'm going to run with it anyway.

Keanu Reeves is the flaw that proves the perfection of Bram Stoker's Dracula. And I couldn't imagine the movie without him.

From the first moment he arrived on screen, I was reminded that this was one of those performances -- along with Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing -- that established the conventional wisdom that it's unwise to cast Reeves in a period piece. And there's no doubt that he struggles with the material a little bit. But it's an absolutely endearing struggle. It's kind of like you're watching your own child try to pronounce a really challenging word. You feel kind of proud, even if that pride is tinged with the knowledge that it's a child's best effort, not the expected result from a professional actor.

And yet I can't envision this film with anyone else in the role. I like that his Jonathan Harker is so blank. It makes the undeniably charismatic Gary Oldman all the more undeniably charismatic. And it really underscores the problematic choice faced by Mina (Winona Ryder, going the opposite of Reeves and chewing scenery from time to time).

Oddly enough, Reeves' most effective moment is his biggest. When Dracula brings in a screaming infant to feed the blood lust of the three succubae who have their way Harker, Reeves reacts to it with shrieking revulsion. The response is absolutely appropriate in context, and I would argue, perfectly modulated by Reeves.

The lushness. Oh, the lushness.

One of the reasons I selected this as one of the two BluRays we bought when we bought was that I have always considered this to contain some of the most lush, sumptuous and immersive art direction I've seen in a film.

After this viewing, I still feel that way.

In fact, I'm convinced that the only reason I gave a subdued initial appraisal of the BluRay's quality upon testing this movie back in 2010 was that the opening scenes, which all take place four centuries earlier when Vlad the Impaler was just a violent crusader for God, are intentionally a sort of muddy version of red. They are meant to show us a very different era, not the turn of the 20th century Transylvania and London we get in this film.

Everything else looks just as wonderful as I always remembered it, but really, even those opening scenes look wonderful. This is just a visionary production design. There's no two ways about it.

Throwing it all away

Speaking of those opening scenes, they gave me chills -- for a couple reasons, only one of which I'll delineate in this subheading.

I love how Vlad's transformation from a returning hero to a damned monster occurs within the space of about 90 seconds. I'm not talking about 90 seconds of screen time -- I'm talking about 90 seconds of Vlad's real life.

Vlad returns home from a war in which he has vanquished his enemies, wanting only to be reconnected with his wife, Elisabeta (also played by Ryder). What should be a sweet reward for his courage turns tragic when he discovers that vengeful Turks have sent a false report that Vlad was killed, causing her to plunge herself in the river to her death -- only hours before he got there, it would seem. He unleashes a pitiful demonstration of sorrow, but that sorrow turns to rage when the priests tell him her soul is damned because she committed suicide. They barely have time to make the sign of the cross before he is renouncing God, overturning a bowl of sacred water, stabbing a crucifix with his sword and forcing the statues in the area to cry blood.

It's perhaps the most epic crash and burn in the history of literary characters, and by the time it's over, it would seem that he has self-transformed into an immortal creature who sprouts fangs, can turn himself into multiple apparitions, and can convert others to his undead state.

You go, Vlad.

Coppola citing his influences

The other thing that gave me chills about the opening was a recognition of the first movie Coppola wanted to pay homage with this film.

In recounting this battle and Vlad's return from it, Coppola seems to very deliberately draw attention to Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. He uses an almost intentionally artificial design -- "stylized" or "storybook" are better ways to describe it -- featuring silhouettes fighting on a battlefield, then returning home via carriage to his castle. In the way these are shot perfectly from the side to make them look two-dimensional, they call to mind Laughton's use of the same technique in Night of the Hunter.

Then for the first time I also noticed Coppola giving his due to Dario Argento's Suspiria. It's just a small touch, but there are a couple times here that Dracula's eyes appear disembodied in the sky, looking down on events at which he is otherwise not present. This seems to be a clear reference to the eyes flashing in the darkness at the beginning of Suspiria, just before the mayhem of the opening scene finally kicks in.

All four of the times I've seen Suspiria have been since the last time I saw Bram Stoker's Dracula, and I also benefited from rewatching Night of the Hunter just a few months ago. So glad I had recent viewings of both films in order to have them in my mind when I watched Dracula.

Lest you think I am trying just to cram every interpretation into my own limited circle of familiar cinematic references, I should probably acknowledge that the eyes in the sky are just as likely a reference to Tod Browning's original 1931 version of Dracula, which relied heavily on close-ups of Bela Lugosi's eyes.

The camera. Oh, the camera.

The things DP Michael Balhaus is doing with his camera in this movie are simply enthralling. Just a few examples to illustrate what I'm talking about.

When we first meet Renfield (Tom Waits) in the sanatorium, he's crouched on the floor, looking upward at his master, who is hovering somewhere above him -- either for real, or in his imagination. When Renfield stands to full height, the camera also pulls up to keep his body about the same size in the frame. Then, when Renfield squats down again, the camera stays, meaning he returns to the size of a speck in the frame, indicating his physical insignificance relative to the vampire.

When the wraith in the chariot arrives to take Harker to meet Count Dracula, the camera zooms in on the bony hand that reaches out to usher him into the chariot. It's a wonderful effect because in that moment of creepy disorientation, you have no idea if that bony hand is about to wring Harker's neck.

The Dracula POV stuff is all awesome, when a slightly distressed version of the image moves forward in violent fits and starts as the wolf incarnation of Dracula scrambles through the underbrush and the grounds of the Weston estate, ready to feed on Lucy (Sadie Frost).

And then there are just the great individual shots, only one of which I'll mention because it's this one shot I always think of. It's the night when Lucy's suitors are standing guard to keep her safe from the monster, and Arthur (Cary Elwes) falls asleep in his chair. The way we know he's fallen asleep is that we see his arm fall slack, a snifter of brand falling to the floor and completing half an arc underneath his chair. For some reason, that single shot encapsulates everything I love about this movie.

The quotes. Oh, the quotes.

Back in college, when the movie first came out, I used to torment my roommate's golden retriever (in a way fully endorsed by his owner) by shouting "wind ... Wind ... WIND!!!!" It would work the dog into a frenzy, and we would both laugh hysterically. That's of course what Dracula shouts when he uses his powers over meteorology to expunge his grief over Mina marrying Jonathan.

But there are so many other lines of dialogue that I love and have reproduced in various contexts over the years.

In no particular order:

I love when Anthony Hopkins' Van Helsing shouts "Dracol!" I love that this movie never explains the various times that the word "Dracula" is pronounced with fewer than its total number of syllables, and not always the correct sounding vowels.

"Take me away from all this DEATH." The way Mina over-enunciates the word "death" is just awesome, and represents the pinnacle of Ryder going for broke with her performance.

"I have crossed OCEANS of TIME to find you." There's an ethereal ecstasy in Oldman's voice as he says the word "oceans."

"I never drink ... wine." Self-explanatory.

"I'm not a lunatic man! I'm a sane man fighting for his soul!" The first time you really realize that Renfield is not just completely bonkers.

"An autopsy? On Lucy?" "No, no, no, not exactly. I just want to cut off her head and take our her heart."

"How did Lucy die? Was she in great pain?" "Yeah, she was in great pain. Then we cut off her head, and drove a stake through her heart, and burned it, and then she found peace." (Anthony Hopkins is hilarious in this movie.)

"I starve! Feed me!" (Van Helsing never lets his work affect his appetite.)

I could go on

I've only scratched the surface. But my daytime duties now call to me, meaning I need to leave this wonderful tale of the night behind me.

Happy Halloween.

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