(On TV, July 2018) It’s amazing to realize how much standard Halloween iconography (“Halloween” being used here as “mainstream watered-down portrayal of horror”) can be traced back to a handful of 1930s Universal movies. In-between The Wolfman, The Mummy, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Dracula (released in 1931–1933, except for The Wolfman in 1941), you have the five classic monster archetypes and the associated iconography. A ridiculous amount of what has become associated with vampire movie portrayals is owed directly to Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula, down to the exaggerated vocal performance (equally taking from the theatrical and silent movie acting styles) and quotable material. It means that Dracula is still worth a look today … but those very same qualities also make it an overly familiar borderline-dull experience. Much like Frankenstein, the film moves through an intensely well-worn plot that was made just as well earlier (Nosferatu) and much later (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). That certainly does not make it a bad film (its legacy can still be found everywhere come late October), but it does nibble at some of the basic enjoyment of watching a film to see what’s going to happen: In this case, we know exactly what will happen and that makes it more like a repertory piece—even to first-time watchers! I’m still glad I saw it, but the rough early-1930s production values mean that if I’m going to watch something based on Bram Stoker’s original novel, I’m going to volunteer the rather entertaining Coppola version.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) My expectations were pleasantly exceeded by this Dracula’s grandiose and overdone take of Bram Stoker’s classic. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the film’s blend of pre-digital special effects, unabashed naughtiness, over-the-top direction (thanks to Francis Ford Coppola), melodramatic acting and scenery-chewing restlessness made it feel remarkably fresh even twenty-five years later. Adapting the epistolary Stoker novel will always be difficult, but Dracula gives it a spirited go, with a blend of various techniques to evoke the letters of the original, operatic visuals, dramatic dialogue and go-for-broke modernity. The special effects are made even better by the lack of a digital safety net, but Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins provide all of the film’s spectacle via consciously overdone acting. The film has far more sex appeal than I’d expected, laying bare the Victorian metaphors and double entendres that were in the novel, and making good use of Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost. (Plus, hey: an early role for Monica Bellucci.) The sour note here remains Keanu Reeves, earnest but sleepwalking though a role that demanded far more energy. Still, this Dracula is a lot of fun in its own devilish way, and it’s this eagerness to be as flamboyant as possible that makes the film still well worth seeing a quarter of a century later.