In one tidy package comes a pair of classic monster films: "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," respectively directed by Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh. Pairing them invites comparison, of course. But picking your favorite monster movie is a bit like trying to pick your favorite James Bond. It can be a subjective affair, especially if you consider the full range of films. Some will hold fast to the belief that nothing can ever top the mesmerizing eyes and cape work of Bela Lugosi or the neckbolts and stiff walk of Boris Karloff in the 1931 versions of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." And in truth, while other versions have met with some favor, both of those early performances and films were tough acts to follow.
Since then, many have tried, and many have failed, with filmmakers wrestling with ways to take the creatures out of the realm of monster fairy tales and into a more penetrating narrative reality that would have greater contemporary relevance. With this double-disc set, Sony has packaged two relatively recent efforts (1992, 1994) which returned to the original novels for inspiration. Call it a New Historical approach, but both directors seemed more concerned with staying faithful to the text and period in which the drama was set than playing to the level of expectations for audiences of contemporary horror films.
Having grown up during the Fifties' monster revival and worked on plastic models of the Lugosi and Karloff monsters as a youngster, I have to admit that I'm one of those who thought the originals so wonderful that few of the remakes seemed appealing. But I approached these two films fresh, having somehow managed to miss seeing them until now. One I found surprisingly overwrought, and the other surprisingly inventive.
Bram Stoker's Dracula (Film Value: 6)
If I didn't know that Francis Ford Coppola directed this film, I wouldn't have learned it from watching. Coppola goes ballistically Gothic, celebrating all of the excess that made Gothic novels and novellas so popular: the gaudily opulent lifestyles, the upper-class romances in chivalric tradition, the horrors and mysteries lurking behind every column and curtain, and an atmosphere that writers such as Edgar Allan Poe deliberately manipulated to raise every suspicion and every hair on a person's body. Many of the scenes in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" have a Bacchanalian feel, with a golden tint washing over them, especially the orgiastic scenes—and we're speaking literally here, folks. There's nudity which seems writhingly gratuitous unless you consider that the name of the game here seems to be creating an atmosphere of, as I said, Gothic excess.
Under Coppola's direction, Gary Oldman plays Vlad the Impaler slash Count Dracula with a melodramatic flair so worthy of silent movies that you half expect eerie organ music to crescendo every time he gesticulates wildly. The problem I had with his performance, and the tone of the entire production, for that matter, was that I was never really sure whether "Bram Stoker's Dracula" was intentionally campy or unintentionally so. I mean, I thought it was so over-the-top that it was tongue-in-cheek funny, but did Coppola and the others know it when they were making the film, or were they trying for a strict but serious Gothic interpretation?
The action opens with Vlad the Impaler leaving his Transylvanian castle to fight faraway in the Crusades. He returns to find that his beloved wife, thinking him dead, had hurled herself off the castle walls to her death. Not surprisingly, Vlad turns against the church that he fought for and curses God, vowing to embrace the dark forces. Blood gushes from inanimate objects in true Gothic fashion, and then it's a quick cut from 1462 to 1897 London. We're introduced to Keanu Reeves, who plays a bank attorney sent to Count Dracula to broker a real estate transaction that's never quite clear. What is clear, though, is that the agent he's replacing isn't well at all. In fact, he's gone quite mad. Something happened to him at that castle, but Reeves forges ahead anyhow.
What he finds when he gets to the castle is a grotesque (another Gothic tradition) old man reminiscent of the emperor in "Star Wars" who insists, with a capital "I," that Jonathan Harker remain for quite some time. Harker is engaged to Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), but things get complicated when the Count/Vlad sees in her the spitting image of his dearly departed Elisabeta (also Ryder, in the opening Crusades-era sequence) who's returned to earth to be reunited with him. Of course Prof. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) gets into the act as things get weirder and weirder, but I found the plot disappointingly familiar and the performances good but not great—which put the burden of my response to the film on the Gothic characters and atmosphere that Coppola cultivated. Those who are more approving of the film's excesses will respond to the movie's tone more positively, but I felt that it was caught, like Dracula himself, somewhere between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Film Value: 7)
Seeing publicity shots of Robert De Niro as the monster looking like a stitched-up version of an ugly rag doll was enough to make me suspect that this version of "Frankenstein" would be no match for that gruesome guy in green with the bad haircut who terrorized peasants with his arms outstretched as he lurched forward. But the funny thing is (though in retrospect, why would it be surprising?), De Niro does a credible job of carrying off a challenging portrayal of the monster as a more sensitive and perceptive creature. Shelley's novel was more than a fright-fest. It was also a morality tale full of existential questions, and Branagh's version incorporates discussions in which the monster considers his creation and his lot in life. He's far less primal than in previous cinematic adaptations, and that makes for a much more interesting creature—especially since he wants more than revenge from his creator. He wants answers. Branagh also opts to retain the frame of Shelley's original tale, in which the ship of a North Pole-bound explorer (Aidan Quinn) is stranded in the Arctic Sea in 1794, where they encounter the mysterious Dr. Frankenstein and their sled dogs encounter his monster. While some will find this opening and closing frame superfluous, Shelley felt (and I'm inclined to agree) that it's more than a device to emphasize the truthfulness of the central story. It reinforces the morality tale of an obsessed scientist willing to sacrifice more than he morally should in order to achieve scientific gains . . . or is it fame?
Gorgeous scenery (including one inexplicable "Sound of Music" picnic scene), superior acting, and inventive takes on the legend breathe new life into an old monster film. From scene to scene, there are some nice touches and interesting variations that make you sit up and take notice. It's fascinating, for example, to watch Frankenstein play Ben Franklin and hold hands with his family lying on the ground around a lightning rod so that they're electrified, not electrocuted when a bolt strikes. And as he pays a midwife to harvest amniotic fluid and fill what looks like a pressure-cooker bath for his creature, it holds our interest as much as the primate arm that was animated earlier. There are also some nice symbolic and associative cuts, as when Frankenstein sneaks into the courtyard to cut down a man who was hanged so that he could use him for "raw materials." The man has a peg leg, and as Frankenstein slices the rope and the corpse drops to the ground, there's a quick cut to a table in a tavern where a bottle of wine (shaped the same as that peg leg) is slammed on the table. Nifty little touches like that make for a fun experience.
As the monster goes through the routine of running off and hiding in the pig pen of a peasant family, then having an encounter with a blind man, it's so familiar that it invokes the whole range of Frankenstein experiences. The best parts of this film are the deviations from the legend, and thankfully there are enough of them scattered throughout the film to hold our interest. There are some bloody and graphic scenes, including a primative no-survivors Caesarian birth and plenty of skin being stitched and manipulated, but it's a monster film. What does anyone expect?
Both films are rated "R"—"Dracula" for sexuality and horror violence, and "Frankenstein" for horrific images.
Video: The video is a mixed bag. The plus on "Dracula" is that it's presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a full-screen (1.33:1) option. The minus is that while it's advertised as being mastered in High Definition, those orangey-gold washes and tints aren't terribly conducive to a sharp picture. There's more graininess and blurred edges than on the second film. I'd give it a 6. Unfortunately, "Frankenstein" is presented in 1.33:1 full-screen, but the quality is far superior. The picture, also mastered in High Definition, is extra sharp and the colors are vibrant. The location footage is superb, and the scenes reinforce how good this print and transfer really are. I'd give it an 8.
Audio: Both soundtracks have English dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround options, and 2-channel Spanish and French options. Subtitles for "Dracula" are in Spanish and Korean, while "Frankenstein" includes subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. The sound on both, particularly the 5.1, is strong and clear, with resonant bass and a nice balance of bass and treble.
Extras: Alas, there are no extras, but again, what more could anyone expect when two films are packaged together and priced reasonably.
Bottom Line: I rated "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" a 7 and "Bram Stoker's Dracula" a 6, but I could see, seriously, how others might flip those numbers, depending on their preference for the full-Gothic presentation of "Dracula" or the realism of "Frankenstein." For that reason, and because it's certainly a pleasure to get two films for the price of one, I'm rating this set a 7 overall. The plus for both films is that they've attempted to be faithful to the original novels.