Friday, October 14, 2005

Day 14: Dracula (1979)

Van Helsing: There is work… wild work to be done!

The story of Dracula, as Bram Stoker originally wrote it, was ultimately a story warning men that swarthy heathens from abroad will come to our homeland and pollute the purity of our blood lines by sleeping with our women. Additionally, these foreigners know things: secret, sexual things that we don’t, and so can seduce our women away right from under our clueless noses. Further, these vile creatures are so good at the act of seduction, our women will develop some kind of psychic bond with the thing and actually crave its company. What can we do against this threat but close ranks and make a circle around our women so they don’t succumb to the vile seductions of these beasts, the book asks? Indeed. I’ve seen quite a few filmed versions of the Dracula story, but this is the first one I’ve seen that actually seems to understand this subtextual essence and, what’s more, uses it to its advantage. In fact, up until the climax of the film, it plays counterpoint to these themes in the original material and, as a result, brings an air of freshness to this oft-told story.

Where this version of Dracula differs most from the countless other versions of the tale is in its main female character, Lucy. She’s pluckier than most women in Dracula movies and more enlightened. In our introduction to her, she’s reading a letter of acceptance to a law school. Her friend, Mina, makes a comment about her defiance of all the expectations men have for a lady. Yeah, this is your standard “spunky” and anachronistically-enlightened-woman character development stuff that we’ve all seen thousands of times (usually in the form of “why do I have to wear this corset???”... groan…). But as I watched the plot unfold and Lucy become enamored with Dracula, it occurred to me that Lucy’s enlightenment, however clunkily established, gave this character actual motivation to like Dracula. And this was, perhaps, the first time I’d actually seen that element of the story done right. No longer was Dracula just engaging in rape when he got the main guy’s girl, and she wasn’t so awed by his sexual prowess during the rape that she actually wanted to drink his blood. This is refreshing and smart.

(A little digression here: In Bram Stoker’s book, the main female character is named Mina. Mina has a friend named Lucy who is the first to succumb to Dracula’s bite. And, for some reason, this movie decides to focus on Lucy as its main female character. Whatever. No good movie has ever been made by being slavish to the book, right? But the movie gives Lucy a friend named Mina, and here she is the first to succumb to Dracula’s bite. Additionally, it is Lucy who is engaged to Jonathan Harker in this version. Basically, they just switched the names of the two original characters. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to make this change, but it confused me on more than one occasion due to my familiarity with the scores of other Dracula movies, as well as the book. I think it even confused the person who made the subtitles on the DVD, because, towards the end, as Lucy was struggling with Dracula and making whimpering noises, the subtitles read “Mina struggling”.)

Of course, this Lucy lusts for Dracula and leaps into his arms. She’s not interested in what her fiancĂ©e, Jonathan, wants for her. She’s smarter than he is and quite a bit more ambitious. She wants to be more than a wife, more than a mother, and, certainly more than a protected treasure. This is something that Jonathan is unable to cope with. It makes sense that the man who offers her, on the surface, the convention-defying pleasures she seeks (you think she’s getting oral sex from the doofus with the ratty mustache? I doubt it.) is the man who is so very rooted in old-school ideas that he physically remakes her to be the loving, devoted wife and mother he wants. This aspect of the movie was a lot of fun to watch, since it’s the first time this part of the story has ever made any sense to my late 20th century mentality.

But as progressive and smart as it is, the movie fails on its promise. When, at the end, Dracula is spiriting the partially vamped-out Lucy back to his homeland on a clipper ship, Jonathan and Van Helsing spring forth to rescue her, and there’s a Darwinian fight between the men and the vampire for reproductive rights. Lucy, now straddling the line between human and vampire, fights the two men, defending her new lover and her newfound status as wife and mother-to-be. Here, Jonathan slaps her, giving him the character moment of putting his woman in place (you do not sleep with Romanians while we are engaged, got that?!) and, the movie would tell us, the power to destroy Dracula. It’s a silly and disappointing choice, since Jonathan has been, mainly, a supporting character in the Lucy/Dracula narrative. The movie seems to be headed towards a conclusion where Lucy offs Dracula herself, but then reasserts the male protector image and all of that development of Lucy goes to waste. Ah well.

Anyway, subtext, shmubtext. The horrific stuff is nicely handled. There are a few genuinely creepy scenes (one in particular when Mina rises from the dead as a vampire). The effects in the movie aren’t exactly top-notch, but the actors take them seriously and, so, lend them an air of legitimacy. Frank Langella does a fine job as Dracula, playing the character like a soap opera star come to live amongst Midwesterners. He has an air of regal superiority that turns to a believable menace when he’s crossed, believable the same way you’d believe a member of royalty wouldn’t hesitate to kill some peasants in order to preserve their way of life. The mythology of the character is nicely tucked into the script too; there are glancing mentions of his past as a king, his unnaturally long life, and his species being on the brink of extinction. The movie doesn’t dwell on these things, so avoids the all-too-common poutiness of vampire tales of late. The score by John Williams is effectively tragic and romantic, though it’s far too overwrought at the beginning.

Curiously, this movie feels to me the way I always imagined a Dracula movie would feel when I was a kid. Dracula seemed like a real threat, very powerful, and nearly unstoppable. His lady vampire creations were as pale white and shiny eyed as I’d always imagined they would be. Purists will probably hate this movie since it eschews so much of the book, but the cuts rid the movie of a lot of unnecessary dramatic dead-weight (see Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula if you want to see how economical this Dracula is versus that movie’s near-unwatchable bloat). I particularly liked the way it toyed with the gender roles and the way it moved deftly over familiar material to draw new ideas from an old, old well. It’s interesting that a cross is the symbol used to ward this menacing foreigner away, since the cross symbolizes (among other things) the unifying aspects of Western society. Unfortunately, the film concludes that it’s a good thing when an English lad scares Dracula away from “his” woman’s womb using this symbol. That it’s his choice to make and not hers.

2 things this morning

I've been getting a lot of comments about my review of The Passion of the Christ. I'm not entirely surprised since that movie seems to attract controversy like Africa attracts missionaries. But...I'm bracing myself because tomorrow morning, I'm going to review a movie that will no doubt inspire even more controversy: Dr. Goldfoot & the Bikini Machine

Yesterday, I posted my review of Rasputin and wished that the voice of society in the film was more compelling than the voice bent on flaunting all societal conventions. I was thinking about it, and it occured to me that is the problem with too many movies (the Batman movies, for instance). In fact, I can think of only one movie that successfully shows us characters that defy society and characters that protect society with equal weight. Quick Change, with Bill Murray. Weird.