This review was requested by patron Mathom. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.
Here’s a recommendation for you if you like vampire stories (and, since you’re reading this post I’m going to assume that you’re at least on cordial terms with them): Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series. The first novel is set in an alternate universe where Dracula succeeded in bringing vampirism to Britain, married Queen Victoria and has become the Prince Consort. The rest of the books detail the history of this alternate Earth where vampires are everywhere with virtually every literary and historical character that Newman could think of nodding their head in at some point or other.
The fourth book in the series, Johnny Alucard, begins in the 1970s where Francis Ford Coppola is in Romania filming a biography of Dracula, who is dead by this point (or is he? Ooooooooooooooh). The whole joke is that the filming of this version of Coppola’s Dracula ends up mirroring the legendary clusterbollocks that was the shooting of Apocalypse Now, complete with storms, the military extras being called away to fight battles, Martin Sheen (Harker) almost dying during a scene and Brando (Dracula) being…well, Brando.
The filming of our universe’s Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Spooky Fun Time Emporium wasn’t nearly as hellish as all that, but it did arise from another legendarily troubled production; Godfather 3. Winona Ryder had been cast by Coppola to play Mary Corleone, but dropped out, leading to Coppola having to cast his daughter Sofia in the role. Ryder was worried that Coppola resented her for that (like the rest of the human race) so she brought him a script for Dracula that she had found as a peace offering. Coppola had been a fan of the book since he was a teenager and was taken with James V. Hart’s screenplay (I don’t know that the “V” stands for vampire, but I also don’t know that it doesn’t stand for that). Filming began in…
Sorry Team Bolts, if it seems like your movie is kind of an afterthought this time around, it’s because your movie is kind of an afterthought this time around. Whereas Dracula was one of the ten highest grossing movies of 1992 worldwide and a veritable icon of nineties cinema, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein…well be honest. You’d forgotten it existed, hadn’t ya? If this bout was decided on pop culture legacy alone, Bats would take it in a walk. But is that really fair? Did Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein really deserve to be forgotton? Did Bram Stoker’s Dracula really deserve to be acclaimed? Did you know that they actually had the stones to release a novelisation of the movie and call it “Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen”? All these questions, and more, shall be answered!
The whole selling point of these movie’s is that we’re finally get adaptations that are true to the original novels and that’s…sort of…true. In terms of basic story certainly. Frankenstein actually opens with a quote from Mary Shelley read by a narrator who is presumably supposed to be Shelley herself.:
“I busied myself to think of a story, which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature…and awaken thrilling horror. One to make the reader dread to look around. To curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”
Unfortunately, she lays it on so thick that it sounds like a supervillain monologue.
I was quite keen to see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because it has a reputation for being a stinker and yet I remember catching the second half on TV many years ago and thinking that it was quite good. Having watched the whole thing through I can see what happened. The movie is pretty much a stinker but it does the vast majority of its stinking in the front half, and all its best moments are clustered in the south end. It’s a movie that gets noticeably better as time gets on and the variance in quality from one scene to the next could give you whiplash. This movie, basically, has three problems:
- The direction.
- The director.
- How the movie is directed.
Screenwriter Frank Darabont called this movie: “the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen” and blamed director Kenneth Branagh entirely for the failure of the film. And, honestly, I think that’s fair. The script is over-written in places but actually remarkably strong and the cast is chock full of ringers (including Branagh himself as Frankenstein, though this is far from his best work). The problem really is the direction.
I get the feeling that Branagh was terrified that his background in theatre would leave him open to charges of the film being too stagey, which is why the camera keeps swinging wildly around whoever’s talking even when there’s no real reason for it to do so. The movie is at its best when Brannagh calms down and stops dancing around like a loon. The very finest scene in the film is just Victor and the monster having a quiet talk in a cave. No camera tricks. No lightning or booming music. Just two incredibly talented actors performing a very strong script. These quiet scenes become more and more frequent towards the end of the movie and as you watch you almost find yourself coming around to the thing. But “half a good movie” is not a good movie, and if the story of Frankenstein teaches us anything it’s that good bits don’t always make up a good whole. Also, while Darabont’s script is definitely better than Branagh is giving it, it’s by no means perfect. Darabont has a tendency not to trust his audience and undercut some otherwise excellent moments.
In the cave, the monster asks Victor about the people who were used to make him and Victor callously mutters that they were just “materials”.
Later, when Victor has agreed to create the bride, the monster brings Victor the body of Justine, Victor’s maid who was murdered by a mob who thought she had killed Victor’s little brother William. This is a woman that Victor was raised with and who he cared for deeply. Victor looks at the monster in unbelieving horror.
“Why her?” he whispers.
The monster fixes him with a cold glare. “Just materials” he says.
See? That’s a fantastic moment. The monster confronting Victor with his own cruelty and callousness, showing him the body of someone he loved to shatter the screen of dehumanisation that Victor has erected to allow him to commit his crimes against nature. Excellent stuff.
But Darabont can’t let it rest and then has the monster say “Your words. Remember?”
Yes Frank. We remember. It was less than five minutes ago.
But what about fidelity to the source material? That’s what these two movies were all about, right? Well, Frankenstein’s story follows the plot of the novel quite faithfully (though excising the long passage where Victor ends up in Ireland just so Mary Shelley can make it very, very clear that she thinks the Irish are a plague sent by God to punish a sinful world).
Meanwhile, Dracula is so faithful to its source material that we even get Quincy Frickin’ Morris! All my Quincy Morris fans, lemme hear you say “HEY!”
Hand on my heart, I can’t honestly tell for certain if Dracula is good or not but I’ll say this for it, it knows what it wants to be and if you don’t like it you can go whistle. It’s tonally consistent in a way that Frankenstein isn’t, and that tone is extra as fuck. “Lurid”, I think, is the word that sums up this movie. Everything from the costumes to the performances to the music (the menacing, stalking score by Wojciech Kilar is by far the best thing in the whole show) is operating on a ridiculous, gothic wavelength that is, make no mistake, very, very, very silly. But I hold it a sacred truth that the only bad movies are the ones you don’t enjoy watching and by gum it’s never dull, I’ll give it that. Like Frankenstein, it occasionally looks stagey but Copolla is better than Branagh at making the sets look like somewhere people actually live. In fact, Dracula’s staginess is an aesthetic choice. Copolla (unlike his Johnny Alucard counterpart) was dead set against filming on location in Romania and decided to film his version of Dracula like a contemporaneous film from the birth of cinema, with almost no exterior shots. At it’s best, the movie looks like a Victorian dollhouse, unmistakably artificial but no less beautiful for that.
Frankenstein, on the other hand, just looks cheap.
For all its pretensions to textual faithfulness, however, Dracula practically inverts the morality of the novel and presents Dracula as a tragic romantic hero cursed by a cruel God while Van Helsing and the Too Many Dudes are presented as cruel, hypocritical, perverse or puritanical. Problem is, the text that the movie is so faithfully following can’t really support this reading because it keeps too many of the literary Count’s actions in the script.
Short version: Your main character can be a tragic Woobie who deserves your sympathy, or he can be someone who feeds a baby to his coven of vampire groupies. He can’t be both.
While getting The Greatest Actor of All Time ™ to play the monster might seem like stunt casting (and it was definitely derided as that at the time), De Niro proves why, in a time long before Little Fockers, he was considered one of the all time greats. De Niro studied stroke victims to perfect his character’s awkward, shambling gait and he really brings home the awful tragedy of the creature’s existence. More than any screen version of the monster, this guy has it rough. Even the process used to create him is uniquely horrendous. No jolt of lightning this time around. Imagine waking up in an airless, lightless coffin filled with amniotic fluid and hundreds of electric eels zapping you in the dick. Hell, even the other Doctors Frankenstein would probably draw the line at that.
Technically, Robert De Niro plays two characters in this movie, the creature and the peasant whose body Frankenstein uses to create the monster. This peasant, incidentally, is executed after killing the doctor who was trying to give him a cholera vaccine because he was afraid it would kill him. I was going to make an anti-vaxxer joke about that but in the 18th century inoculation really was super dangerous (safer than cholera, but still) so we’ll give the dude a pass.
Gary Oldman, coincidentally, is also playing two characters but I don’t think he’s supposed to be. Oldman’s one of my favourite actors, hands down, and he is very, very good as Dracula…both of them.
See, sometimes he’s a hissing, Palpatine-esque villain with an accent so ripe you could serve it with crackers and wine. And in other scenes he plays it real low key. Really real. When he’s talking about his long dead love there’s no show boating, no grandstanding. It’s just intimate, heart-felt, honest. Beautiful stuff. And then suddenly he’s yelling about “AHTILLA WHOSE BLAHD FLAWS THROUGH ZEES VEINS!” and you’re like “WHO ARE YOU PLAYING YOU MANIAC?”
I get a distinct “Tim Curry in Congo” vibe from some of Oldman’s line readings and when I say a performance reminds me of Tim Curry, understand that that it is the highest compliment Mouse may pay a gentleman. But the fact remains that Oldman’s performance, much like the movie that surrounds it, is wildly entertaining but leaves you completely unsure of what tone and level of seriousness it’s going for.
De Niro, on the other hand, knows who he’s supposed to be, and he plays that guy consistently and excellently throughout the entire thing.
Go to reward craft over flash.
Branagh’s conception of Victor Frankenstein as a callow, Byronic hero is a good one and I’m more or less on board with the performance but the movie makes one very important change that I feel fatally weakens the character: In this movie, Frankenstein doesn’t actually figure out how to create the monster himself. Instead, he uses the research of his dead mentor Waldman (John Cleese playing against type to excellent effect) to create the monster and it’s strongly implied that Waldman actually succeeded in creating his own monster before Victor. Which is lame, right? Frankenstein should be a genius whose hubris led him to tamper in the very domain of God, not some stupid kid coasting on someone else’s hard work.
But if I have a few issues with Branagh’s Frankenstein, I take umbrage, sirrah, at what Copolla’s done with poor Abraham Van Helsing. Because Dracula is now a sad-eyed springer spaniel in a top hat who just wants wuv…
…Van Helsing has to be a cruel, callous, horny religious zealot. Even though, y’know, Dracula is still feasting on the blood of innocent young women and Van Helsing is trying to knock that shit on the head, the movie ties itself in knots trying to make him look as repulsive as possible. There’s one moment where Van Helsing gleefully yells at Quincey Morris:
“We are dealing with forces beyond all human experience, and enormous power. So guard her well. Otherwise, your precious Lucy will become a bitch of the Devil! A whore of darkness! Lucy is not a random victim, attacked by mere accident, you understand? No. She is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower. I dare say, a devoted disciple. She is the Devil’s concubine!”
And I swear to God, there’s a moment halfway through that speech where you can see Anthony Hopkins asking himself “What the FUCK am I doing?”
I don’t know, Tony. I don’t know.
The Dashing Young Men
I think this needs to be said right up front: Keanu Reeves is a damn fine actor.
Great presence, fantastic physicality, possibly the greatest action star of all time and by all accounts a gentleman and consummate professional to work with. Well sure, he’s great as John Wick and Neo, but can he do drama? Can he fuck. Watch A Scanner Darkly for his heart-breaking performance as a drug addict whose sense of reality is crumbling around him. Want to see his comic chops? Uh, Bill and Ted anyone? Oh, and there’s the little matter of him being one the great stage Hamlets of the 20th century. No, seriously. That’s true.
So yeah. Keanu Reeves. Serious acting chops. Cool? Cool. Okay.
JEEZY PETE’S HE IS TERRIBLE IN THIS.
For what’s worth, everyone knew and everyone’s really sorry. Reeves, Copolla, everyone. Reeves was completely burned out from doing too many movies. Copolla has said that he would have recast him after it became clear he couldn’t do the accent but he couldn’t risk delaying the production so they just tried to muddle through as best they could. Look, sometimes terrible things happen and it’s no one’s fault. The Black Death. The Hindenberg. Keanu Reeves in Dracula. Let us speak of it no more.
Looking at the rest of the Dudes of which there are Too Many, Carey Elwes has fun playing Arthur Holmwood riding in on a white horse after a hard day’s kicking my ancestors out of their filthy hovels. Confirming that the movie is less a faithful re-telling of the original novel than a Dark Fic, Richard E. Grant’s Doctor Seward is a bug-eyed loon running a Bedlam-esque nightmare of an asylum apparently designed by Tim Burton (whereas Stoker was at pains to present Seward’s hospital as a modern, humane institution).
And Billy Campbell is also there, playing Quincey Morris, who is also there.
As our Frankenstein this time around is a younger, sexier version…
As our Frankenstein this time around is a younger version, most of the story beats that would be given to Dashing Young Men are here taken by Victor himself. This leaves us with Tom Hulce as Clerval, who’s perfectly serviceable.
The Perpetually Imperilled Ladies
As we established in our last BvB, ladies love playing vampires and Sadie Frost and Winona Ryder are no exception. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Sadie Frost is to the role of Lucy Westenra what Christopher Lee is to the role of Dracula; absolutely definitive. I honestly doubt anyone will ever play this role as well as she does.
In fact, this is a rare horror movie where the ladies get the best of it. It’s a mad, mad, mad bastard of a film but there are definitely moments where it taps into something. Whereas Frost plays vampirism as a descent into pure, gleeful, unbridled sluttiness, Winona Ryder instead finds rage; lashing out against the stifling, suffocating strictures of Victorian society. There’s one scene where she fixes Dracula with this desperate pleading stare and hisses “Take me away from all this death.”
It’s not a great movie. But there are moments, guys. There are moments.
Frankenstein, likewise, also does rather well by its female characters by giving us an Elizabeth who (oh wonder of glories) ACTUALLY CALLS VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN ON HIS BS. Helena Bonham Carter is really quite excellent in the role and the script actually allows Elizabeth to feel like a real character with her own agency and inner life. Darabont’s script keeps Elizabeth’s death as in the original novel, but adds Victor re-animating her as the Bride, a change so perfect and obvious in retrospect that you have to wonder why Shelley didn’t do it herself.
It’s here, and only here, that Frankenstein succeeds as horror, when we see what Victor’s obsession has reduced his wife to: a scarred, voiceless, lobotomised child. Bonham-Carter sells the hell out of it.
Right up until she decides she’s had enough of this shit and dumps a lantern over her head and runs through the mansion setting it on fire. Which, of course, causes the whole place to explode because apparently those old timey lamps were full of napalm. Look, it was the nineties. If a movie didn’t end with everything blowing up, the audience rioted.
Are either of these movies actually, y’know, scary?
Both of these movies make me afraid, but the way a drunk woman dancing on a balcony makes you afraid. I’m worried they’re going to hurt themselves.
Dracula has one pretty decent jumpscare.
Frankenstein has the final scene with Elizabeth’s revenant realising what Victor’s done to her which is more creepy and upsetting than scary.
Frankenstein coming in hard with:
The Creature: Did you ever consider the consequences of your actions? You made me, and you left me to die. Who am I?
Victor Frankenstein: You? I don’t know.
The Creature: And you think that I am evil.
But Dracula counters with:
Mina Harker: How did Lucy die? Was she in great pain?
Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Ja, 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.
FINAL SCORE: Bats 5, Bolts 2
NEXT UPDATE: Unshaved Mouse is going on hiatus for a while as I start work on my next novel. See you all on 12 September!
NEXT TIME: I feel like this movie was made for me.