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Introduction
Oh, how The Godfather must seem like such a long time ago. A full twenty years after the first Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s book came Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s endlessly filmed Dracula tale. Much like Branagh’s insistence for his Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Coppola sought to include the author’s name in the title so as to suggest a definitive cinematic version. Bats, breathless virgins and bloodlust alright, yet alas nary a glimpse of Christopher Lee nor Peter Cushing…

Dracula - Superbit Collection
Movie
Lowly clerk Jonathan Harker (Reeves) is approached by his boss with a tempting proposition; travel to Transylvania, have the mysterious Count Dracula sign the deeds to his various newly acquired properties in London before returning swiftly home for a chorus of “Jolly good show” and plenty of pats on the back not to mention a nice promotion.

Harker is eager to go and, with his impending marriage to refreshingly humble socialite Mina (Ryder) looming large, all the more keen to come home as soon as possible. However, upon his arrival in Eastern Europe, Harker notes that neither the Dracula family castle nor the Count himself (Oldman) are quite what they may seem. Harker is soon to learn his predecessor Renfield (Waits) rapidly lost his sanity having encountered Dracula, the count is apparently able to disappear then reappear at will and that three voluptuous nymphs locked in the castle’s dungeon like nothing better than to suck his blood.

It is when the count catches sight of Harker’s treasured picture of Mina that the naïve employee’s life becomes truly imperilled. Dracula firmly believes that the London resident possesses the spirit of his beloved wife who, falsely fearing her lover lost in the crusade campaigns, ended her own life some four centuries previously. Thus the aged aristocrat seeks to regain his youthful form and ensures Harker’s imprisonment so that he may arrive in England, win Mina’s heart and soothe his tortured soul.

A stranger in a strange land, Dracula sets about his task under the identity of one Prince Vlad but arouses the suspicions of psychiatric practitioner (Grant) who has been treating the mental disorder of Renfield. Called in by his friend and former student, famed haemo-affliction specialist Abraham van Helsing (Hopkins) is joined by a weakened Harker, having escaped the seductive succubi, who plan to expose Dracula’s nefarious plan to a smitten Mina before it is too late.

Dracula - Superbit Collection
Of course, all the above suggests a full-blooded gothic thriller. Indeed, Coppola squeezes every last drop out of his budget with some outstanding visual styling cues, sumptuous sartorial designs (fully deserving of their Oscar statuette) and some mighty make-up jobs for Gary Oldman. Yet what emerges is an entirely anaemic storyline in which articulate moments of the popular myth, engendered by the book and subsequently rehashed by countless Hammer productions (among others), are overwhelmed by the relentless flood of flashy sequences.

The expansive opening prologue establishing Dracula’s morbid motivation is the equal of anything in John Boorman’s excellently ethereal Excalibur but the template for the tragic anti-hero s swiftly blown out of the water by Coppola’s handling of the count as silly and decidedly non-threatening spectre. Oldman, under innumerable layers of latex, manages a marvellous feat in giving a human dimension to a character who goes through several radically different incarnations (and accents) but even after getting his teeth into the performance he succumbs to the exigencies of the flaccid plot.

Such is not to submit that there isn’t an awful lot of talent on offer here, each actor, for one reason or another, never getting to grips with what he or she should be doing. Richard E. Grant gets short-changed by a superfluously scripted morphine addiction that is never adequately explained, Bill Campbell is baulked by an impossibly bushy fake moustache, Cary Elwes constantly trips over his clipped English twang while Anthony Hopkins serves up the full smorgasbord of tics, mannerisms and scenery chewing accent undulations as to echo an equally embarrassing turn in Amistad.

Dracula - Superbit Collection
Here the few female players leave rather less of an unfortunate aftertaste. Winona Ryder has her cut glass English society inflection nailed from her first scene, even though she has little to do but whimper from one situation of jeopardy (be it emotional or physical) to another, and Sadie Frost overcomes some irredeemably asinine dialogue as the doomed Lucy.

Yet perhaps the greatest participant in the production not fulfilling their potential is Coppola himself. It’s difficult to believe that this is the same director that once made Apocalypse Now or The Conversation, (even though this is still a class apart from Jack). In fact, the aforementioned reference to Branagh’s treatment of a classic horror novel is particularly pertinent since many of the same flaws are present in both projects. The scattershot approach to the shooting style allied to the slack scripting that neglects to establish certain story threads or adequately pay off others and the lack of narrative causality to explain why characters perform key plot actions makes for a demanding watch.

Again akin to <Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein[/i] however, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is troubled by too many ideas (particularly the mercilessy mining of the succubic blood disorder as AIDS allegory) spoiling an intrinsically decent film where a little restraint, most notably in the Catholic idolatry trappings, would have gone such a long way. As such, it is unfair to disparage the movie for being drained of its essence under the weight of such overwhelming ambition. Indeed, in this way it is perhaps not an over-simplification to suggest that Dracula is the one character afforded ample exposition as his methods and motivation, unconsciously or not, most closely resemble those of Coppola himself. A failed attempt at an elusive absolute telling of the tale then, but an estimably entertaining one at that.

Dracula - Superbit Collection
Video
Columbia Tri-Star’s ‘Superbit’ range promises to provide the all-singing all-dancing presentation of key titles on DVD. Bereft of any extras whatsoever, this edition of Dracula does display a marked improvement over the previous release.

Colours are much more stable (which is a mercy considering the amount of claret regularly splashed across the screen) and blacks are much deeper in the numerous night sequences. The light grain from such scenes is almost entirely removed and shadow detail benefits too from the higher bitrate afforded the anamorphic transfer. In all, very good indeed.

Audio
Likewise the audio trapping receive a welcome sprucing up also. Sporting a 768kbs DTS track, this is where Dracula really comes into its own as a home cinema release. Channel separation is outstanding from the four corners of the room, none more so than during the opening period where Harker is imprisoned in the castle. Even though Oldman is not physically apparent on screen, exceptional DVD sound design allows his whispering presence to sequentially run through each speaker in a 360 degree movement.

Among all the ever-present hushed voices, whistling of the wind or rattle of claws in the soundtrack, dialogue is resolutely decipherable from the centre speaker, even during the extended stagecoach chase or the ponderous voiceover passages.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a sterling addition. At 448kbs it does lack a little of the DTS’ clarity in both susurrations and shrieking tensile sounds but it’s still a belter all the same ably essaying the grand guignol of the movie.

Extras
Absolutely none.

Dracula - Superbit Collection
Overall
As a movie it’s a disappointment, on the verge of the crushing considering Coppola’s formerly divine talent and touch behind the camera, but the richness of the cinematic textures make this ripe for Columbia’s Superbit process. A definite cut above from the original release, if one can make do without the extras, this should sucker in plenty of vampire film fans who want the best quality blood for their money.


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