Horror and Thriller

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Theatrical poster to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. From Wikipedia.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Screenplay: James V. Hart

Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Starring: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Anthony Hopkins

Language: English

Running Time: 127 Minutes

Year: 1992

Prince Vlad Dracula in 1462.

Prince Vlad Dracula in 1462.

In 1462, Prince Vlad Dracula of Wallachia (Oldman) is at war with the Ottoman Turks and leaves his wife Elizabetha (Ryder) at his castle when he goes to war. While he is gone, the Turks deliver a false message carrying news of Vlad’s defeat and death, to which Elizabetha responds by committing suicide. Dracula returns victorious, but is crushed when he finds his wife has killed herself and cannot be given a Christian burial. The warrior then renounces God and vows to return from his death with the powers of darkness to avenge her. In 1897 English solicitor Jonathan Harker (Reeves) travels to the Eastern European region of Transylvania to help the mysterious Count Dracula (who we know is Prince Vlad) purchase property in London. While Harker is at Dracula’s castle, the count’s eye is captured by the sight of Jonathan’s fiance Mina (also portrayed Ryder), who the vampire believes to be the reincarnation of his long dead wife. The young Harker is kept prisoner at Dracula’s castle while he goes to London to rejuvenate and win the heart of Mina, but not before Dutch scientist Abraham Van Helsing (Hopkins) discovers that there is a vampire in their midst.

At the time of this film’s release in 1992 there had been many onscreen portrayals of Dracula. The most well known being Max Schreck (1922’s Nosferatu), Bela Lugosi (1931’s Dracula) and Christopher Lee for the Hammer horror films (beginning with 1958’s Dracula). For the first time since 1977 (in Count Dracula, starring French actor Louis Jourdan), we see the illustrious vampire count portrayed as written by Irish novelist Bram Stoker.

Old Dracula.

Old Dracula.

Gary Oldman portrays Dracula masterfully as both man and beast. He makes him sympathetic while still allowing the character to maintain his role as the villain. Oldman’s performance is at times very unnerving and frightening, but he is always interesting to watch. Just as in the novel, Dracula gets younger and younger as he drinks more blood. This is a fact not portrayed since Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970). Gary Oldman’s elderly makeup, and his more monstrous forms (like that of a demonic bat-like creature and a wolf-man) are very convincing. Gary Oldman’s appearance was clearly modeled after Vlad Tepes (or Vlad the Impaler), who is commonly said to be the real life Dracula (and is portrayed as such in the film).

Young Dracula.

Young Dracula.

Winona Ryder also does a very good job in the role of the troubled Mina, who is both worried about her missing fiance and her newly arising feelings for Prince Vlad (whom she does not know is actually Count Dracula). While the portrayal of Mina in this film is much more realistic than what is written in the book, I still think Mina we see in the books is a better character (for an accurate portrayal of Mina as written by Stoker, watch Philip Saville’s Count Dracula).

Anthony Hopkins, still riding on the shockwaves produced by his Oscar-winning performance as cannibalistic serial killer Doctor Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, portrays a rather eccentric version of Professor Abraham Van Helsing. I think Hopkins did a good job as far as giving a good performance, but I don’t like his portrayal of Van Helsing. I’m all for an eccentric Van Helsing, but I believe he took eccentric a bit to far for this character. We do get some chuckles out of his performance (such as when he describes in detail the death of Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra while at dinner with her and Jonathan).

Now here is the performance everyone expected to be terrible: Keanu Reeves. The only purpose casting him in this movie serves is unintentional comic relief. The main part that comes to mind when I think about his dreadful performance is him, in a very wooden manner, delivering the line, “It’s the man himself! Look, he’s grown young!” upon seeing a youthful Count Dracula when he returns to London. Thankfully, the good performances are enough to forgive the utterly disastrous casting of Keanu Reeves.

The frightening and beautiful Sadie Frost as the vampire Lucy Westerna.

The frightening and beautiful Sadie Frost as the vampire Lucy Westenra.

The only members of the supporting cast that are worth mentioning are Sadie Frost as Lucy Westenra, Mina’s best friend and Tom Waits as the insane RM Renfield. First we’ll go into Lucy: she’s a bit of a slut for her time and is the total antithesis of the stereotypical chaste Victorian woman. She makes hilarious sexual innuendo about the size of the knife of one of her suitors (Quincy Morris, played by Billy Campbell). She’s very likable and a stunning beauty. When she becomes a vampire, she is one of the scariest you’ll see on film. Her innocent-natured flirting turns into a kind of Satanic-seduction, all the while she is wearing this reptilian looking wedding gown, causing you to forget that this was the fun-loving and romantic Lucy beloved by her friends and family. Musician Tom Waits is quite simply one of the best Renfields’ since Dwight Frye took on the role in the 1931 Lugosi film. His pseudo-religious petitions to Dracula for eternal life are brought forth in a very ecstatic manner. It’s difficult to believe that this man once had a capacity for sane thought. I’ve never seen Tom in anything else, but there is no question lingering in my mind that he’s a great performer.

Besides the performances, one of the primary things that sets this film apart from other Dracula adaptations is the erotic tone. This is a very fitting choice on the part of the director and screenwriter. Stoker’s novel has been read by many as a tale of sexual escapism for Victorians, and this is transferred perfectly into the film. The drinking of blood for a vampire is an act of both pleasure and is a part of procreation for them, much like sexual intercourse is for humans. There is a scene when Mina drinks blood from the Count’s chest, and he reacts as if he’s having the ultimate orgasm. The very voluptuous female vampires also help a lot with the sexual tone of the film, from Dracula’s brides sexually assaulting Jonathan to a near vampiric-Mina trying to seduce Van Helsing.

The costumes and effects in this film were another thing that set this film apart from other Dracula movies. The most notable costume in the movie has to be the old Dracula’s flowing red gown with golden dragon symbols imprinted on the front (a reference to Vlad the Impaler being a member of the Order of the Dragon). This is certainly the most well-dressed Dracula that’s been put to film! Another one of my favorite pieces from the movie is Dracula’s armor that he wears in the prologue scene, which some have affectionately dubbed the “licorice armor”. Eiko Ishioka received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her work on the costumes in this beautiful film. The special effects in this movie were achieved with no use of CGI. This was a return to classic special effects, and because of this the film is much more convincing. Dracula undergoes many transformations and not just from old to young. Dracula also morphs into the monstrous forms we mention earlier. Despite my knowledge that such creatures do not exist, the realism of these guises of Dracula defy your sense of reality versus fiction.

I highly recommend this film to fans of the vampire and/or horror genres. With the exception of Keanu Reeves, the film is very well acted. It’s also well written and well staged. This is probably Gary Oldman’s best and most terrifying performance as the infamous vampire Count Dracula. I hope you’ll give the movie a chance and enjoy!

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The Wicker Man (1973)

Theatrical poster for the film.

Director: Robin Hardy

Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer

Based on: Ritual by David Pinner

Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Eckland, Ingrid Pitt

Running Time: 88 minutes (Theatrical Cut), 94 minutes (Final Cut), 99 minutes (Director’s Cut), 101 minutes (VHS Cut)

Language: English

Year: 1973

Edward Woodward (right) as Sergeant Neil Howie questioning the islanders about the missing Rowan Morrison.

Geraldine Cowper as Rowan Morrison.

The Wicker Man follows a devoutly Christian policeman named Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward, famous at the time for his role in the British espionage series Callan) as he goes to a Scottish island  called Summerisle, famous for it’s fruit and vegetable exports, in order follow up on the report of a missing child named Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). As he gets acquainted with the people, he discovers that they are followers a form of Celtic paganism and is appalled by their religious practices. This leads to confrontations with the island’s leader: the mysterious Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee, at the time mainly known for his role as Hammer Film Production’s Count Dracula) and to his suspicions that Rowan has been victim of human sacrifice.

At the time of this film’s release, it was butchered by the censor’s, resulting in the widely circulated 88-minute Theatrical Cut. Since then, it has been released on VHS for the most complete, yet rare 101-minute cut. A Director’s Cut, which is 99-minutes long has also been released on DVD in the United States, but on DVD and Blu Ray in the United Kingdom. The most recent release is the Final Cut, which is 94 minutes long and is considered by Robin Hardy and fans of the film as the definitive cut. I have only seen the Theatrical Cut and the Final Cut, and I also agree that the Final Cut is the superior version of the film. Hopefully I’ll get around to seeing he other versions of the film at some point! When released for the first time, the film was overlooked and not well-regarded, but it was later restored and re-released in 1979 and became a cult phenomenon. Christopher Lee, who has appeared in more films than any other actor in history, frequently refers to The Wicker Man as his greatest film and also describes his performance as Lord Summerisle as his greatest performance.

While you will very likely go into this film for Christopher Lee, you will come out wondering who gave the best performance in the film between he and Edward Woodward. It’s a joy seeing Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle play a game of cat and mouse with each other. To most people, Howie will come across as quite unlikable because of his visible disgust at the pagan practices of Summerisle’s inhabitants, but you can’t deny that Edward Woodward did a great job in the film. Christopher Lee’s performance as Lord Summerisle  is very different from his performances as Dracula, Saruman, or Count Dooku. Summerisle is not openly a villain, and will come across to most viewers as more likable than the protagonist. The role of Summerisle was written specifically with Lee in mind, who was growing increasingly tired of playing Dracula for Hammer.

Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor (left) with Lindsay Kemp (right) playing Alder, her father.

The supporting cast is not to be overlooked either. You have Diane Cilento (at the time Mrs. Sean Connery) as the local schoolteacher, Miss Rose, Britt Ekland as Willow MacGregor, the landlord’s daughter, and Ingrid Pitt in a small role as the local record keeper. Diane Cilento’s role as Miss Rose was a very interesting one. She spends a lot of the movie annoying Sergeant Howie and offending him with her teaching the children the sexual areas of their religion. She comes across almost as subtly menacing as Christopher Lee’s character. Ingrid Pitt had a very small role, but did good with what she had. The one everyone who sees this movie will remember is Britt Ekland (married for a time to Peter Sellers) as Willow, mainly due to her nude dancing in an attempt to seduce Sergeant Howie.

Christopher Lee (left) as Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward as Sergeant Neil Howie.

The film’s primary theme is the conflict between Christianity and paganism. Christianity being represented by Sergeant Howie, and Lord Summerisle representing paganism. Some people have viewed this movie as anti-Christianity, anti-paganism, or anti-religion in general but this has been denied by Robin Hardy. It isn’t hard to imagine how someone could come away with that point of view. Lord Summerisle, as mentioned earlier, comes across as much more likable than the Christian protagonist. Some people have even come to see Sergeant Howie as deserving his fate for his attitude towards the islanders, but this is somewhat hypocritical. Anyone from a Judeo-Christian nation like England or America (whether they were believers in Christianity or not) would be appalled by Summerisle’s religious practices. In his first night at the island, Sergeant Howie hears people publicly sing lustfully about Willow MacGregor and sees mourners weeping naked at the resting places of deceased relatives. Howie is even more shocked when he figures out that the children are being taught about phallic symbols and such things in the context of Summerisle’s neo-pagan religion. As a believer in Christianity, I would try to be nice to the people of Summerisle as possible but would have a hard time, especially when I discovered that it was open season for human sacrifice when the crops go bad! Some reviewers have noted that Sergeant Howie’s attitude towards the pagan religion of Summerisle is similar to that of the Christians who first came to the UK when it was ran by pagan societies like the Saxons and the Celts. The religious theme of the film seems to also extend to the “hip” vs. “square” (establishment vs. anti-establishment) conflicts that were going on in the 1960s and 1970s. Sergeant Howie is blatantly establishment, as we’ve…well…established…earlier.

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, praying to a pagan god, preparing to sacrifice Sergeant Howie within a wicker man.

Hopefully you’ve seen the movie before, because I’m gonna ruin it for you if you haven’t. In a shocking twist, Sergeant Howie discovers that his entire search for Rowan Morrison was a game being played on him by the villagers. After finding Rowan during Summerisle’s May Day celebration, apparently being prepared to be sacrificed, and “saves” her, Lord Summerisle announces to him, “The game is over.” The scene was so well-acted by Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward, you could just feel Sergeant Howie’s heart sink into horror as he discovers his fate. Rowan Morrison was simply a decoy to get Howie to come in order to be sacrifices, as Lord Summerisle puts it, Howie is the “right kind of adult” to be sacrificed to Summerisle’s deities in order to bring the crops back. Their religion asked for a man who came to be sacrificed of his own free will, had the power of a king (represented the law), and was a virgin. This was easily one of the most shocking and brilliant twists I’ve seen in any film to date. Howie brings up a frightening point when he tells them that their crops won’t grow back, and he says that they might end up having to sacrifice Lord Summerisle (who seems to wet his pants when Howie points it out). Howie preaches to the people of Summerisle when he is thrown into the wicker man and tells them that God was the one who causes their crops to waste away, he spends his last moments tearfully praying and as his last words shouts, “Daniel!”, while the people jubilantly dance around the burning figure singing about spring. This death scene will leave any viewer with a very disturbed feeling in the pit of their stomach for days after watching.

Lord Summerisle showing Sergeant Howie his estate while discussing the history of the island.

One question I have always had after first seeing the movie is whether or not Lord Summerisle truly believes in the religion of the island. He explains that his grandfather, an Atheist scientist, came to the island and was attracted by it’s volcanic soil and he developed a strain of fruits to grow their and brought back the “old gods” to the people in order to get them to work for him. Summerisle explains, “What my grandfather began out of expediency, my father continued out of love. He brought me up the same way – to reverence the music and the drama and the rituals of the old gods. To love nature and to fear it and to rely on it and to appease it where necessary.” Howie appeals to Summerisle to tell the people that sacrificing him will not make crops grow and Summerisle simply says, “But I know they will!” When Howie says they would have to sacrifice “the king of Summerisle”, he gives a disturbed facial expression briefly before saying, “No they will not!” It’s interesting that you can either view Lord Summerisle as being a victim of being raised in a society where human sacrifice is the norm, or you could view him merely as a greedy man who is willing to kill to prosper. When they show Summerisle’s estate, you can clearly tell that he reaps the benefits of the fruit and vegetable exports of the island. Either way, Lord Summerisle is a terrifying character, along with the rest of the islanders. The people of Summerisle seem so normal and friendly, but they have no complaints about killing innocent people in order to appease their gods.

Should this be the point at which religious tolerance could justifiably be waved?

All in all, I strongly recommend viewing the film. While I don’t consider The Wicker Man a horror film, I will refer to it as such anyway when I state that it is probably my favorite horror film as of now. It’s truly unique in it’s message and atmosphere. Few horror films have tackled the topic of religion in such a brilliant way. Just do yourself a favor and avoid the remake! I would highly recommend investing in a Blu Ray player if you have not already and buying the Final Cut on Blu Ray, as I never realized how great of a film this was until I watched that version of it. Enjoy!

 

 

Hannibal: Season 1 (2013)

Poster for “Hannibal” Season 1.

Developed for television by: Bryan Fuller

Based on: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Starring: Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Lawrence Fishburne, Carolina Dhavernas, Hettienne Park

Episodes: 13

Running time per episode: 42 minutes

Network: NBC

Year: 2013

Language: English

I have been a huge fan of the Hannibal Lecter series ever since I first watched a great chunk of the 2001 film Hannibal (starring Anthony Hopkins as Lecter and Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling) on AMC and enjoyed it immensely. I then proceeded to read Thomas Harris’s prequel story Hannibal Rising, which details the development of a young Hannibal into the cannibalistic serial killer we see in the original trilogy, and I later watched the rather mediocre (but still enjoyable) film adaptation starring Gaspard Ulliel in the role of Hannibal Lecter. After that, I watched the rest of the films (including Michael Mann’s superb 1986 thriller Manhunter, adapted from Red Dragon). When I heard in the spring of 2012 that they were developing a TV series for NBC about Special Investigator Will Graham’s relationship with Dr. Lecter, I was quite excited. The excitement only grew when I heard that they had cast Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (famous for playing Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale) in the role of Hannibal. The first role cast was that of Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, but I was not familiar with him. The show was also being developed by cult-favorite Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies), who I also was not familiar with.

Here are some things you need to know before watching the series: this show is not in the same canon as the films, but takes place in the “Fullerverse” (which includes this, Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Mockingbird Lane).  Also, the first season (and the soon to be released second season) are about Will Graham and Hannibal’s relationship before the latter’s capture. This relationship was not present in the books, but adds an interesting depth to the characters. The idea of Hannibal and Will being friends and colleagues before Lecter’s capture originated in the 2002 film Red Dragon. This show is not derivative of the films, but makes references to both the films and the books which are usually quite amusing. The show has a very different atmosphere from the Anthony Hopkins Hannibal adaptation series, as well as Michael Mann’s Manhunter.

Mads Mikkelsen (left) as Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy (right) as Special Investigator Will Graham in “Hannibal” Season 1.

Here is my synopsis of the series (with as little spoilers as possible):

Criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is tortured by his ability to empathize with anyone, including psychopaths. His mental and emotional instability made him unable to become a real FBI agent, but they continued to use him as a consultant until he decided to become a teacher at the academy. Will is eventually asked by the head of the BAU, Special Agent Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne) to help him catch a new serial killer who has arisen: the Minnesota Shrike. Will reluctantly agrees. They are soon stumped by the killer’s psychology, and through the advice of Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), famed Baltimore psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is brought into the investigation. No one suspects that Dr. Lecter is a serial killer himself. Hannibal is instantly fascinated by Graham’s “pure empathy” and believes that he can help him catch the Shrike. Hannibal does this primarily by doing a Minnesota Shrike copy-cat murder, which gives Will everything he needs to figure out who the killer is.

While Will is initially not interested in Hannibal’s proposal for friendship, he and Hannibal begin a friendship and find the Shrike: Garret Jacob Hobbs together. Hannibal manipulates events so that Will shoots and kills Hobbs after he kills his wife and injures his daughter Abigail (Kacey Rohl). Will then becomes Hannibal’s unofficial patient as he struggles with feelings over the shooting of Hobbs.

“The scales have just fallen from my eyes.”- Will Graham to Hannibal Lecter

Over the course of the season, Will and Hannibal become closer friends and develop father-daughter relationships with Abigail Hobbs, who gravitates closer to Hannibal. This causes friction between them and Jack, who suspects that Abigail was involved in her father’s murders. As more killers are caught, Will and Hannibal’s friendship becomes more and more deadly as Hannibal tries to “help” Will find the killer inside him.

This is easily the best material we’ve had based around Hannibal Lecter in a long time, and I believe it to be the best. The characters, while different from what we’ve seen before in the films, are very faithful to the books. This holds true especially for Hannibal and Will.

Edward Norton (who portrayed Will in Red Dragon) utterly failed to capture the tortured aspect of the character. The tortured side of Graham is only seen when he is visited by Jack Crawford in the beginning of the film. This aspect of the character seems to be totally dropped for the rest of the film (only resurfacing a few times, usually while Will visits Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal). William Petersen brought out the tortured aspect of Will, but failed in capturing his vulnerability. Hugh Dancy managed to make Will strong, but still mentally and emotionally tortured, as well as being very vulnerable and neurotic.

William Petersen (top) as Will Graham in “Manhunter” (1986) and Edward Norton (bottom) as Will Graham in “Red Dragon” (2002).

Anthony Hopkins was the Bela Lugosi portrayal out of all of the Hannibal Lecter’s. He was larger than life and creepy, but also came across at times as rather hammy. Brian Cox (the Hannibal “Lecktor” of Manhunter) was subtle and intelligent but did not seem anywhere near as refined as Anthony Hopkins did. Mads Mikkelsen perfectly captured the subtle manipulator in the Hannibal character, as well showing his noble upbringing and intelligence. Like Anthony Hopkins, Mads Mikkelsen is very fun to watch (even though Mikkelsen is much more subtle). While the things he does are terrible and he is much more evil than Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal, he is actually much more likable. You can’t help but get a few laughs whenever he makes cannibal puns and when he cooks the rude in S1E7 (Sorbet). I skipped Gaspard Ulliel because he portrays Hannibal at a completely different stage of his life.

Anthony Hopkins (top) in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Brian Cox (middle) in “Manhunter” (1986). Gaspard Ulliel (bottom) in “Hannibal Rising” (2007). All portraying Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

The relationship between Hannibal and Will (Mikkelsen and Dancy have great chemistry), as well as their relationships with those around them, are the hallmarks of the series. While the murder investigations and the criminal profiling are important parts of the show, the show is first and foremost a character study. Lawrence Fishburne’s portrayal is an example of the masterful character development that is shown in the show as he juggles catching serial killers, worrying about Will, and coping with his wife Bella’s (Gina Torres) recent cancer diagnosis.

The acting and casting is top notch. I can’t picture anyone else playing the roles as effectively as the current cast. I knew that Mads Mikkelsen would be good, but I didn’t think he would usurp Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal (in my mind) as the best portrayal of Thomas Harris’s character. Hugh Dancy took me by surprise and nailed his role as Will Graham in a way I never expected also, as he played the Will Graham from the Red Dragon novel almost perfectly. The guest stars have given delicious performances as well. Eddie Izzard and Gillian Anderson are the ones that primarily come to mind, but Lance Henricksen also appeared in a small role in S1E9 (Trou Normand) as a serial killer. Eddie Izzard’s character, murderer Dr. Abel Gideon, was easily the best guest villain in the season for me. Gillian Anderson’s Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier has the fascinating privilege of acting as Dr. Lecter’s psychiatrist and is also a very suspicious character.

Eddie Izzard as Dr. Abel Gideon in “Hannibal” S1E6 (“Entree”).

Gillian Anderson as Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier in “Hannibal” S1E12 (“Releves”).

The entire scope of the first season was so intense and epic that I was dreading getting to the finale, and I am still in dread waiting for Season 2 to premiere. I’ve never seen a premier or a finale in a show that gripped me as much as in Hannibal. I was immediately invested in the characters, especially Will Graham. The performances and scores add volumes to the intensity.

If you enjoyed the Hannibal films and books, like crime shows, or miss Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan slicing through his victims, I highly recommend you give the show a viewing. The show is currently out on DVD and Blu Ray and Season 2 premieres on February 28. Prepare to embrace the madness!