In our last full episode, we tackled a movie that I practically shouted with joy when I suggested it for our schedule. As I said in the episode itself, I love this movie. I own it, I’ve watched it a million times, I think it’s a delight. Are there flaws? Sure, but I would like to argue here that most of those flaws make the movie more interesting in their failures. That and how it’s campy nature, intentional or unintentional, should be celebrated.
We name-dropped the Merchant Ivory films and for those of you who don’t know, they’re deeply cheesy period pieces (and occasionally literary adaptations) that were a big deal in the early-to-mid 90’s. They essentially corralled as many classically-trained English actors they could find, sew them up into sumptuous costumes, and let everyone play to the cheap seats. That influence definitely lives in this movie, but for one key element that I think makes it much more fun: the long shadow of Hammer Films horror movies.
Hammer horrors were bonkers, but they also epitomized a classic telling of horror tales. They mined spookiness less from jump-scares and more from frightening imagery. They would also indulge in some serious gore now and again, but I find that many of their images succeeded for being bold and sometimes a little crazy.
It’s my firm and ardent opinion that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the essential child of these two things. While unmistakably modeled on the Bela Lugosi classic, the movie itself is so 90’s and possesses a campiness that makes it’s lineage more complicated in my eyes. What could’ve been a very staid, laced-up Merchant Ivory-alike becomes a stranger, much more daring creature with a healthy infusion of operatic Hammer Films.
Look no further than the arc of Winona Ryder’s Mina. She starts off the movie a breathless, aggressively virginal ingenue who’s all wide doe eyes and shocked gasps. Hanging around with her best friend (and my personal role model) Lucy hasn’t changed her much and you get the sense that Lucy probably tried. She’s saucy, bubbly, and fun with her shameless flirting and copy of the Kama Sutra. It’s around the halfway mark that Mina encounters Count Vlad and becomes a smoldering sex-pot. Seriously, take a look.
The transformation is a little on the fast side; I exclaimed out loud during my most recent watch, but I love it. It tracks the trajectory of the movie as it goes from very theatrical period piece to full-on bananas blood-opera. It’s this willingness to play with a formula and inject something wild and inventive into it that I find so attractive.
What also must be pointed out is the special effects. Almost everything you see done in this movie was practical effects. Even a shot of a train running over a bridge with an open diary imposed in the background. Even the transformation scenes. Even the scene of Monica Bellucci rising through the world’s craziest bed.
The imagery of this movie is also so stunning to me. It offers you a smorgasbord of delights in one shot and then strikes you with a gorgeously simple one. The colors pop with luscious saturation in some shots and flicker with faded sepia in others. The costumes, the sets, the general mis-en-scene is exciting, sometimes evoking a freaky doll-house and other times looking like a vivid dream. There’s a motif of dreaminess in this film where colors will sometimes fuzz and bleed and motes of light seem to whir past. It allows the movie to take more risks and leaps and to tell this story that way is so intriguing and interesting that even when it doesn’t quite work I’m still enthralled. This visual vocabulary is so adventurous that I can’t but love it. They even did something as weird and inexplicable as making Lucy’s wedding/burial gown inspired by a frilled lizard. I mean…
That’s ballsy and crazy and I love it to death.
I’ll close this lovefest by reiterating something I brought up during the episode. This movie probably couldn’t be made today. It’s so earnest and ridiculous and an amazing wellspring of camp. There’s something so vulnerable about how bravely weird this movie is and I think that should be applauded. Camp, true outrageous camp, struggles to exist today in quite the same form. That’s a bit of a shame and I think that’s why this movie was worth a watch. Is it always perfect? No, but there’s something to experience in it that I don’t think should be missed. Love it or hate it, I invite you to watch this deliciously 90s camp gem with some spectacular sights to show you.