Darke Reviews | Dracula Untold (2014)

Amongst my nicknames is Vampire Princess. My license plate says VAMPRE, I have well over 100 books involving, about, or otherwise tied to vampires. So to say I am an aficionado of all things vampire is an understatement. I’ve been reading about them since I could read. I have a moral (amoral?) obligation to watch any vampire film that comes to the silver screen. This means I see it all, even Twilight and Vampire Academy. When I saw the trailer for Dracula Untold I had a feeling about this film, but knew I would be seeing it anyway.

First time film director Gary Shore must have impressed Hollywood with the career he made directing commercials before to get this job. He is working with a script by first time writers Burk Sharpless (seriously…that’s his name) and Matt Sazama. The trio of novices have crafted a different origin story for our famous voivode. Dracula actually has more remakes and interpretations than any other character ever and this time, they focus on the conflict between the people of Transylvania and the looming shadow of the Ottoman empire. I realize now as I write this, the overall plot is very similar to 300 with the vampire aspect thrown in. They do some interesting things with the principle characters and the entirety of Act III was rather enjoyable. The dialogue is often corny but the actors do their best to deliver it within the serious tone the movie tries to keep.

From an acting standpoint much rides on Luke Evans as Vlad. I actually like Evans. I’ve seen most of his filmography – Clash of the Titans, Three Musketeers, Immortals, The Raven, No One Lives, Fast & Furious 6, and of course most recently as Bard in the Hobbit films. He is an action star and though his range is fairly limited he does some pretty good things with that range. This time he does carry the film and has to go from loving father and husband, to monster, to protector, to monster again. He wears righteous rage so well in this movie and still shows that he is learning to chew scenery. Co-star Charles “Tywin Lannister” Dance, is a master of it. I couldn’t stop giggling or making Vampire The Masquerade/Game of Thrones comments under my breath watching him. Sarah Gadon as Vlad’s wife Mirena brings a smile to my face in nearly every scene. Just when I think she will fall victim to so many annoying tropes, I remain surprised. Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark in Captain America) must have been cast from his time playing Saddam Hussein in the Devil’s Double.  The casting call must have been “we need a white guy who can pass as middle eastern.” “Hey can we get this guy?”. I am not saying he is a bad actor by and stretch, but there’s some whitewashing going on here in the casting and that I cannot approve of on some moral grounds.

On a technical standpoint. Is the Bat scene from the trailers ridiculous? Oh by all the New Gods and Old and the Lord of Light YES. It doesn’t make it any less cool looking. The transformation to bat and the uncovering of his vampiric powers are well handled and honestly do look really cool.  They are used effectively, practically, and rather coolly through each fight sequence. The camera work is good. The CG is not god awful. The vampiric reaction to silver and sunlight is handled in a way I haven’t seen before and enjoy what I saw. Music by Ramin Djawadi didn’t help with the Game of Thrones links in my brain. The pacing is really well done and there’s little fat on this movie.

TL;DR?

Let me be absolutely clear. This is not a good movie. Historical inaccuracies, geographic inaccuracies, costuming inaccuracies, the premise, and story all  combined present a rather silly reinvention of the Dracula films.

At the same time, it is also absolutely enjoyable. I was laughing. I was engaged. I was entertained. I probably wasn’t supposed to giggle through the first few minutes of the final act, but that doesn’t take away the fact that I was. I was getting more and more angry the longer the film went on during act I and finally realized that I need to stop taking this seriously. I had to stop expecting that there would be *any* similarity to real history beyond Ottomans and Vlad being in it. Once I embraced what the movie was doing I truly began to enjoy it. I like what it adds to the Dracula Mythos and vampires in general.

I even look forward to potential sequels from this. How strange is that?

So should you see it?

Well. If you want a silly fun actiony vampire movie? Yes. This is one of those beer and pretzels movies. It BEGS for it.

If you want a solid Dracula film, like we got with Oldman? Um No. just no. Save your money for halloween candy or something.

Darke Reviews | Dracula (1931)

Going back to the classics is fun. Watching how they were shot, how they were scripted and acted. Dracula is no exception to this. When I was a little girl my elementary school and the public library had books on some of the Universal Monsters. I devoured them with special attention to the Wolfman and Dracula, though unsurprisingly Dracula was the one that truly captured my attention then and forever. I tried to read the book around the same time, but as bright as I am told I was, the wording was too dense for me at the tender age of 7. I have long since fixed that and even managed to get my hands on the tome that is the Annotated version. So being able to review this movie, while not quite the best, it is definitive. All other Dracula and Vampire movies after owe something to this.

While not the first time the name graced the silver screen -I am not including the stage plays – , it was the first authorized time. Ok, there is also a little known Hungarian Film “Dracula’s Death” which has a character who thinks he is Dracula in it.  FW Murnau’s Nosferatu was the first film vampire, though this was unauthorized after a suit from Stokers widow and all copies were ordered destroyed. This can also be considered the first supernatural thriller, I will add the addendum, by American hands. Universal studios hit something special when they did it. Little known fact that a Spanish version of the film was shot simultaneously. Now you might be going “alright cool, they made a version in spain at the same time.” Yet, I return with “No! They filmed on the same set.” The american version shot on the stages during the day and the spanish version at night. The spanish version is sometimes considered technically superior and for the time a bit racier and sexier than its American counterpart.

The movie was directed by Tod Browning officially, though behind the scenes stories and comments made by cast and crew indicate there was either a total lack of direction or that Karl Freund, the cinematographer, stepped in. Browning was a go to director for studios having done dozens of films prior, including the Lon Chaney classic London After Midnight. His expertise was in silent film and outsiders. This explains much of the silence within the film and certain choices that were made. Freund for his part was just as important. Tracking shots , high camera dollies, and even the atmosphere within the movie are largely attributed to him. Horror movies in general owe so much to this, both good and bad.

Edna Mode does not approve.

Edna Mode does not approve.

 

Its hard to talk about a story and the writers since everyone knows it. Of course it is inspired by Bram Stokers novel from 1897. Stoker for his part had heard of the man Dracula and used him as a springboard with next to no research and never having been to Romania himself. This accounts for many of the descriptions of places and things within Transylvania not being remotely like how they’ve been filmed. His novel then was adapted for the stage, officially, by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston (Didn’t I mention him recently in the Mummy). Garret Fort has credit for a version of the play script. When it comes to the movie however, this one falls under the movie writer curse: 5 total writers, including the director. There are significant changes from the source material to this of course, no real change there from Hollywood, but the biggest and probably most impactful is the Lugosi look. Dracula was always described as off putting, yet here we have something and someone foreign and handsome.

 

 

Real vs Movie Borgo Pass

The Borgo Pass: Erosion the true terror of Dracula

Lugosi was not the first pick. He wasn’t even the second or third. The original choice was Lon Chaney who died, before production began, due to cancer. Called the Man of A Thousand Faces, his roles in Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame made him one an easy pick. I don’t know what he would have looked like in the make up, he was one of the rare actors who truly enjoyed the chair and the prosthetics. Lugosi however with his look, powerful and hypnotic eyes, and trade mark accent ended up with the role and the world has never been the same. Sadly the studio did not offer him a contract after the success of Dracula, as they did with Karloff on Frankenstein and he had trouble being seen outside of a certain genre after. Perhaps one of his greatest single work after shows the mans true talent for acting, The Black Cat, in which he starred  against Karloff himself.

The rest of the cast has Helen Chandler as the ever staring Mina, who was fantastic on stage but did not make much of an impact in movies. David Manners, who also appeared in the Mummy and Frankenstein as John Harker here. Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing. Seriously all this man plays is the Doctor who knows it all!  Dwight Frye though is the standout. His Renfield defined the role for almost a century to come. It was as problematic for him as it was for Lugosi in the work field after. He shows the widest range of acting in the film with his eyes, vocal pitch, laugh, and mannerisms are truly iconic.

Even the movie magic of the day was amazing. While obviously not a lot of it holds up today, some tricks like Dracula walking through a spider web really do. Today someone would use some half baked CG work and give us something laughable, this wasn’t. This was alien and new and creepy.

TL;DR?

I highly recommend any cinephiles to see this at least once in their life, if they have not already. If you are a fan of all things vampire like I am this is a must have in your collection.

If you want to see where it all began, absolutely watch this.

Modern movie goers will eye roll at the acting and some interesting flubs in the film, but it is a classic and worth watching – at least once

 

 

 

 

 

Darke Reviews | Nosferatu (1922)

The full title of course is Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. I thought I should conclude my every other day vampire review with the first (available) of the films to feature Dracula. As always I watch the film prior to the review and while I have two copies of this in my collection it never ceases to amaze even now 90 years later at what they were trying to do with film back then.

It’s worth mentioning this film was unauthorized. The studio that produced it could not and/or did not obtain the rights to the film. According to stories Stokers wife was sent a copy of a playbill advertising the film and demanded it be stopped and destroyed. The courts agreed with her and all the work prints were destroyed. Or at least thats what was thought, obviously as I am reviewing this tonight a print survived to allow us to enjoy now. Curiously the original film had changed the names of all the principal characters prior to its release to try to make them “original”. Makes me wonder why Vanilla Ice thought he could get away with it musically 70 years later.

The copy of the film I watched tonight had the title & scene cards changed back to their intended (and more accurate) formatting rather than the release versions. The infamous Count Orlock was once again Count Dracula. It is Jonathan and Nina (not Mina) Harker rather than Hutter and Ellen Hutter. Jonathan’s good friend Westenra and his wife Lucy vs the ‘original’ Harding and Annie. In researching this review I looked for IMDB, Wiki, etc, that had these more current credits and they are not in any of the main resources. The script however is available, which had them. I think I might have to make a point to get my hands on a non americanized copy.

The movie was directed by F.W. Murnau (Faust – 1926) who filmed on location in various places within his native Germany and eastern Europe. In the fashion of many modern directors Murnau actually rewrote several pages of the script for the ending of the movie. Unlike modern directors it was because the pages by scripter Henrik Galeen were reportedly lost. The film is without a single line of recorded dialogue and instead has orchestral music playing over the hour and twenty minute running time.

The acting is that of the stage; which is to say its completely over the top and meant to emote at a distant audience. The make up on the principals is designed for the same, where every color and line is made thicker and richer. Looking at it now it is admittedly ridiculous but when you consider how many people had worked in film by that point it makes sense. Max Schreck deserves special mention as the infamous Count. He enters and vanishes into the part in a way that some actors today could try to learn from.

Story wise there are significant variations from the Dracula you know and love, but the core is still there. Orlock/Dracula’s death is still an amazing piece of effects work for a film to attain in 1922.

For the TL;DR – go back and read. This is history.

Nosferatu is a cinematic classic. It is not scary in any way shape or form now. It is however worth watching for its aesthetic and historical content. I honestly wouldn’t expect most folks who aren’t vampire aficionados or film students to get through it, but I would say try.

This really is one of the ones that started it all.
There will be no review tomorrow, but Halloweens review wants you to Put..the Candle…Back.

Darke Reviews | Bram Stokers Dracula (1992)

Of all the literary creations out there, Romeo & Juliet, Holmes, Hamlet, Frankenstein, none come close to appearing on screen more than Dracula. The character as we know him was created by an Irishman named Bram Stoker in 1897. So few characters evoke such imagery in both European and American cultures as the name “Dracula”. Think for a moment of what comes to mind, what thoughts you have when you say that name. High Capes & Collars? Fangs? Bats? A gentleman? A Monster? Sex? Seduction? Blood? So many more thoughts and concepts come with that name. It is safe to say while Stoker did not invent the vampire, their legends date back to ancient Sumeria (trust me on this), he created the modern version. He took them from monster to seducer. He made them an incubus (or succubus depending on the writing) that we want despite the danger, rather than the unattractive corpse. Nearly every author in the vampire genre has been somehow affected by this seminal work.

As the inspiration and basis of so much that came in the century since I found it interesting when the trailers appeared and people began to freak out. Sure Keanu couldn’t hide his accent no matter how hard he tried and people joked “Whoa! Its, like Dracula dude!”. Almost no one had heard of this Gary Oldman guy. Hannibal Lechter is Van Helsing? That chick from Beetlejuice is in it; ok thats almost expected. The guy who made Apocalypse Now AND the Godfather is doing Dracula? What? All of that got people, but the fact there’s a shot in the trailer with him in the sun had people lose their minds. Sad to say folks, sunlight didn’t kill Stokers Dracula, only annoyed him and so many people didn’t know and didn’t want to believe it after 90 years of Dracula that is killed by the sun.

Lets talk about that decision, which probably lays at the feet of writer James Hart. This is the same man who gave us Hook, Muppets Treasure Island, Contact and this years Epic. Yeah that’s what I said too, this guy is all over the place. He does however show a keen understanding of what was so attractive about the original work and made a point to use so much of the style that he could. Granted there’s a lot added to it as well, partially him and partially the director, but all of it is successful.

That comes from the experience of having such an acclaimed director at the helm. Acclaimed and insane. I’ve read the stories of things he did making Apocalypse now. Yeesh. He is however a visionary and used that vision to give us things we have never quite seen in film before. Intelligently using color (mostly reds), sound, lighting, shadow and atmosphere to its fullest. He goads his cast of well know names to places they had never quite gone and probably for many will never achieve again – even 20 years later. It’s a near perfect atmospheric film that tells the story in word, deed and look. A $40 million dollar budget being doubled at the box office and 3 academy awards show other people noticed too.

Behind the scenes is important, but then there’s the cast. This film had one of the most amazing casts of its day where nearly every actor was known for something and those that weren’t have become infamous since. The weakest performance is of course Keanu as Harker. He is trying his best at the time, but really never quite delivers. This could be due to four movies released in the previous year (Point Break, Bogus Journey among them) and just being tired. Ryder on the other hand had built a career so far on being in dark or gothic films, such as Heathers, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands. She seemed to take to the role of the prudish, repressed Wilhemina Murray fantastically. Her accent work is fairly good and she carries the natural transitions of the character through the film. My biggest gripe is that she comes across more waifish than Stokers actual Mina who was more active in her part in the story. One cannot talk about the actors without mentioning the great Sir Anthony Hopkins. Probably one of the wildest portrayals of the character he also plays the most menacing. Much of the dichotomy comes from Hopkins performance where he devours scenery as the Count devours blood. The movie even hints at a specific background for VanHelsing that is not touched on much in other releases where there are clear ties between Dracula, the Brides and vanHelsing. A lot of that comes through in the performance as well; which only goes to show what happens with a master at the helm of the character.

In 1992 the name Gary Oldman was barely known to American audiences. Few people had seen Sid & Nancy or recognized him as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991). So when faced with the amazingly manic range of emotions, expressions and body language delivered people didn’t know what to think. Since then he has proven to be one of the greatest actors of our time. We see hints of his genius in how he can change at the drop of a hat and put every ounce of emotion into the performance that you feel for him through the film.

Many people also forget that Cary Elwes (Princess Bride, Saw) makes an appearance as Lord Arthur Holmwood. Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) plays American Quincy P Morris, who lives and dies as he did in the novel. It’s worth mentioning that the beautiful Monica Bellucci (Matrix 2, 3, BRotherhood of the Wolf) is one of the brides in only her 4th credited screen appearance.

The technicals are worth mentioning. I rant about post production computer imagery over practical effects all of the time. This film has almost none. Nearly every shot was done using elegant, if not old fashioned, camera tricks. Coppola actually fired the original FX crew when they said what he wanted couldn’t be done. Apparently he was right and they were wrong and the film was better for it.

TL;DR?

This is, excluding the Twilight series, the 4th highest grossing Vampire film ever. 3 of which involve the character Dracula. If you haven’t seen it – you must. While some of it may come across corny at times, it is one of the vampire greats and should be enjoyed for all it offers, good and bad.
Tomorrows review – I am going to let my readers request below.