Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Blood is the Life

Dracula: They say you are a man of good ... taste.

I read Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" when I was in my teens.

That already had been many years when the movie adaptation came out 20 years ago today so my memory of some passages in the book wasn't as clear as it would have been if I had just finished reading it, but my overall impression was that the Dracula of the movie (under the direction of Francis Ford Coppola) was inspired more by passion than by a desire for blood — and that marked a departure from most of the movie Draculas and generic vampires who had come before.

Gary Oldman, in the same kind of understated way that he approached the role of Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's "JFK," played Dracula. Prior screen Draculas were very sexual beings — in a taboo kind of way; Oldman's Dracula, on the other hand, was mostly a loyal monogamist. He exhibited a clear sense of grieving for his late wife and longing for the film's heroine, the mirror image of his beloved Elisabeta (both of whom were played by Winona Ryder).

It was often hard for me to spot Oldman on screen, his appearance changed so radically.

When we first saw him, it was as the young and virile Vlad Dracula in the 15th century, flush with victory over the Turks, but he was soon plunged into despair when he found that Elisabeta, who had been falsely told of Vlad's death, had committed suicide. In his rage, Vlad renounced God, stabbed a cross, causing it to bleed, and drank the blood.

"The blood is the life," he muttered. It was a recurring theme.

Later, as the host of a young solicitor (Keanu Reeves) a few centuries later, Dracula appeared as a much older man.

Then, he was a wolflike creature, assaulting Ryder's host (played by Sadie Frost) on a dark and stormy night (really).

And then he was a young and suave man in London, pursuing Ryder (whose love interest, in her incarnation as the modern–day Mina, was played by Reeves).

In a memorable scene from that portion of the film, Oldman turned Ryder's tears into diamonds.

That was something the boyish Reeves just couldn't pull off. (And, for the record, his British accent wasn't at all convincing.)

You know, I always thought — at least until I saw this movie — that the Bela Lugosi version of "Dracula" was the truly goth production.

But as I watched Coppola's adaptation, it occurred to me that it was more goth than Lugosi's. Maybe it was the way it combined elements of "The Exorcist" and "Willard" in his confrontation with Van Helsing (played by Anthony Hopkins).

I just found it spookier — what with its variety of shadowy figures and otherworldly characters in the background of scenes.

Even the first time that I watched Lugosi's version, I giggled at lines like "Listen to them ... children of the night. What music they make." It just didn't send that chill down my spine.

But this movie did.

Coppola supposedly wanted lavish costumes to show off his cast, and he invested a lot of money toward that goal.

I guess it paid off. Eiko Ishioka won an Oscar for costume design. The movie also won Oscars for makeup and sound effects. All well deserved.

But the actors got little recognition, as I recall. Probably also well deserved.

With one often overlooked exception. I would be remiss if I did not mention Tom Waits' performance as the insect–munching Renfield.

Although I thought Dwight Frye was great in the role in the 1931 film version, Waits was better, striking just the right balance for portraying an unbalanced individual.

It was a bit of a thankless role — I'm sure Waits didn't mind, though — that really didn't see that much screen time, considering that "Bram Stoker's Dracula" was more than two hours long.

But when Waits was on the screen as Renfield, he really stole the show.

Now, if only Lugosi had been paired with Waits ...