When Francis Ford Coppola's 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' hit theaters in 1992, it was during a particularly fallow period for the modern American horror film. The slasher craze that defined the '80s had long since played itself out, but it would still be years before 'Scream' would revitalize the genre in 1996 with its postmodern thrills and ironic humor. As a result, purely by virtue of its timing and its high-profile director, 'Dracula' was saddled with massive expectations that it would single-handedly "save" a genre long mired in schlock and return it to mainstream commercial viability and critical respectability.
Needless to say, that never quite happened. Though technically a moneymaker, 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' was met by moviegoers in 1992 with what might best be described as a collective shrug. Harkening back to the classic monsters of yesteryear, the film boasted lush visuals, sweeping spectacle and epic romance, but it seemed a mismatch for an audience reared on masked madmen crashing nubile young camp counselors in the woods.
Fifteen years on, it's interesting to revisit the film outside of all the hype that accompanied its original release. To be sure, it's still a flawed film, but taken on its own terms, it's not without its virtues as an intriguing take on a legendary literary tale.
Since everyone knows who Dracula is and what he does, it is ironically Coppola's largely slavish devotion to Stoker's original text that gives the movie a whiff of freshness, even today. Rather than try to put a new spin on an old premise, Coppola simply went back to the source text and amped up the psycho-sexual dynamics (the film ladles on the nudity, dream-like orgies and spurting blood), while also splicing in some "factual" backstory, with screenwriter James V. Hart explicitly basing his Dracula on "Vlad the Impaler," considered one of the most vicious rulers in history with a body count in the tens of thousands.
Although much has been made of Coppola's decision to "slum" in the horror genre (and to his credit, he certainly doesn't skimp on the red stuff), what's arguably most intriguing about Coppola's nosferatu (played by Gary Oldman) is that he is cast here as the ultimate fallen romantic. In fact, the film states its intentions plainly right from the head-bludgeoning prologue, where in typically bombastic Coppola style, Vlad returns home to finds his wife (Winona Ryder) dead from suicide after she received false word that he had died in battle. Her soul damned to spend eternity in hell, Vlad bellows "I renounce God!" as geysers of blood pour forth from a giant cross. Coppola's Vlad (as did Stoker's) will rebirth himself as a bloodsucker sheerly out of romantic retribution, with vampirism not just a metaphor for unbridled lust run amok, but also a perverse revenge on humanity itself.
While Oldman himself is always fascinating to watch (even when he's hamming it up, as he does to baroque excess here), unfortunately Coppola's other casting decisions are far less rewarding. I found Ryder too waifish -- overwhelmed by her corsets and the overabundance of period stylings, she seems unable to flesh out either of her roles as Elisabeta (Vlad's wife as seen in flashbacks) or her modern-day reincarnation Mina, the woman Count Dracula will seek to reclaim as his fallen bride. Still, Ryder is legions better than the woefully miscast Keanu Reeves, who is simply terrible as Elisabeth's would-be suitor Jonathan Harker. Surprisingly, even the usually-dependable Anthony Hopkins as vampire hunter Van Helsing just doesn't have the fire needed to really set up the kind of battle royale between the forces of good and evil needed to make the film's bloody climax truly invigorating.
But as disappointing as these performances are, they're not the reason 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' didn't redefine the horror genre as expected. The reason is it fails to do what every great horror movie must -- it never truly scare us. To be sure, this is a film of many virtues and is very much worth seeing for genre fans, whether it is to feast on the sumptuous visuals or to reveal in some pretty cool monster make-up designs. But like a fastidiously embalmed corpse, 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' is so enamored with the romantic, lyrical side of Stoker that it's too beautiful to terrify.
'Bram Stoker's Dracula' is the first of Francis Ford Coppola's films to hit high-definition on either format, which is notable in and of itself, since (as this site has previously reported) Coppola is the only top-tier filmmaker who oversees the production of his titles on home video purely in-house, via his state-of-the-art Zoetrope Studios.
Unfortunately, as cool as it is that Coppola is so involved, I've found the technical quality of Zoetrope's previous DVD releases to be a hit-or-miss affair -- for every great transfer like 'One from the Heart' or 'The Outsiders,' there are big-time disappointments like 'The Godfather Trilogy,' which I found shockingly poor in terms of video and audio. So I set my sights low going into 'Bram Stoker's Dracula,' and I'm sorry to say that even my meager expectations weren't exceeded.
Presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, simply put this transfer looks dated. The source is in OK shape, but is far from spectacular. Blacks are consistent, and contrast is perfectly fine (to the team at Zoetrope's credit, they haven't jacked this one up in an effort to make it look white hot), but the print is quite grainy and flat, with enough speckles of dirt and other blemishes that frankly I'm surprised it passed muster at Sony. Shadow delineation is also weak -- darker scenes are quite two-dimensional, and don't look much improved over the Superbit standard-def DVD version of the film. Softness is also rampant, and 'Dracula' never looks particularly sharp.
On the bright side, hues are quite vivid, from the crimsons and greens of Count Dracula's castle, to the deep, midnight blues of the London sequences. Noise, however, is present, so even here 'Dracula' is not perfect. Other pluses include a refreshing lack of edge enhancement (again, the transfer at least looks natural and film-like), and no discernible compression artifacts, such as banding or macroblocking.
These bright spots notwithstanding, I still found 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' to be a disappointment. I'm sure there will be many more Coppola high-def titles to come from Zoetrope, so I can only hope they are just revving up their engines.
Editor's Note: Visit our forums area to view a collection of screenshots comparing this Blu-ray edition to the earlier Superbit DVD edition.
'Bram Stoker's Dracula' is presented here in PCM 5.1 surround (48kHz/16-bit/4.6mbps), and while this is a perfectly fine mix, not unlike the video, it suffers from a somewhat dated feel.
Simply put, little appears to have been done to the source elements in their trip to Blu-ray. Although stereo separation is good, and dialogue is fairly well balanced in the mix, low bass and the overall fidelity is left wanting, with a less-than-expansive high end and a subwoofer that doesn't see much action. Likewise, surrounds have a restrained quality that never envelopes, while discrete effects are sporadic and flatly rendered, with weak imaging between channels.
Most disappointingly, I kept waiting for Wojciech Kilar's underrated, booming score to swell up in the rears and overwhelm me, but it never did. Much like the rest of this soundtrack, it's always hovering on the brink of greatness, but just never quite gets there.
'Bram Stoker's Dracula' has hit disc a number of times in the past, in both bare bones and Superbit editions on standard-def DVD, as well as a feature-packed Criterion Collection laserdisc. Both this Blu-ray edition and a concurrently-released new Collector's Edition DVD feature a brand new set of extras, although much of documentary material appeared in a different form on the Criterion laserdisc.
When the 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' Blu-ray first fired up in my Blu-ray player, I was greeted by the option to either watch the movie in traditional form, or "Watch Bram Stoker's Dracula with Francis Ford Coppola." Although at first I thought perhaps there was some new interactive or video commentary version, the prompt is simply a unique way to access a traditional screen-specific, audio-only commentary with Coppola (you can also access the track the usual way via the Settings menu, or via your remote's Audio button).
Note while the old laserdisc featured a group track with Coppola, screenwriter James Hart and Coppola's associate director (and son) Roman Coppola, this is a brand new solo track from the director, and it is truly excellent. Coppola is articulate, insightful and passionate, even fifteen years on. There is simply never a dull moment, and the level of detail is fascinating. Coppola hits every beat I hoped for, from his childhood fascination with horror movies and Dracula, to his introduction to the script (via Winona Ryder), through his decisions every step of the way in casting, production design, cinematography and special effects. The track runs the film's entire 122 minute run time, but to Coppola's great credit, it felt like half the time. This one's not to be missed by any fan of 'Dracula,' or any serious student of Coppola.
Expanding upon the commentary with surprisingly little redundancy, Zoetrope has also produced a new four part 72-minute documentary on the making of 'Dracula.' Culled entirely from interviews and footage created at the time of the film's production, this one goes well beyond your usual crap EPK -- Coppola had documentary cameras rolling every step of the way through the making of 'Dracula,' and the resulting material has that wonderful, fly-on-the-wall quality of the best video diaries. We also get on-set chats with every key cast member, including Ryder, Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost, Richard Grant, Cary Elwes and Billy Campbell. Zoetrope has even gone to the trouble of re-framing and remastering all of the doc's original footage in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, and despite some tight framing (heads look a tad clipped at times), the quality holds up quite well considering the sources are either 16mm film or non-DV video.
"The Blood is Life" (28 minutes) is the best of the doc's four segments. Coppola created a "workshop" type environment at his Napa Valley ranch during pre-production on 'Dracula,' reigning in all his actors for extensive rehearsals. This highly creative period -- which saw frequent contributions and changes to the script -- results in quite articulate comments from the cast, which adds greatly to the foundation Coppola sets up in his commentary. The depth here goes far beyond what we usually get on DVD and now Blu-ray extras.
The remaining three segments are more technical. "The Costumes Are the Sets" (14 minutes) highlights the work of costume designer Elko Ishioka (who won an Oscar for her efforts), and her designs are indeed a star in their own right; "In-Camera: The Naive Visual effects of Dracula" (19 minutes) is interesting in that Coppola and his team intentionally created many of the film's visuals using quite archaic techniques; "Method and Madness" (12 minutes) wraps it up by further dissecting Coppola's visual approaching to rendering Stoker's ideas, including a look at the more surreal aspects of the film's production design.
Next we have a collection of 12 Deleted Scenes, which I believe appear for the first time on this Blu-ray and accompanying Collector's Edition DVD. Running 28 minutes total, the majority are extensions of existing scenes, but there are a few sequences of note, including an on-screen death for Renfield, an escape for Harker that is left unexplained in the theatrical cut, and an alternate ending with an interesting final shot that further deepens the movie's religious subtext. Note that unlike the documentary, all of this footage is taken right from an AVID output and looks pretty crappy in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.
Rounding out the set are the Theatrical Teaser and Trailer for 'Bram Stoker's Dracula,' plus a spot for Sony's 'Ghost Rider.' All three promo spots are presented in 1080i/MPEG-2 and Dolby Digital 5.1.
Although it failed to live up to the weighty expectations of horror fans at the time of its theatrical release, fifteen years later it's easier to appreciate 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' as the beautifully mounted (but not at all scary) production it is. This Blu-ray release is a similarly mixed bag. The new supplements package is quite strong, but both the transfer and soundtrack fail to live up to the best high-def catalog releases. There's still enough of an upgrade here that die-hard Coppola fans will probably want to pick it up. All others, just give it a rent.