Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dracula {2006} – review


Director: Bill Eagles

Release Date: 2006

Contains spoilers

When I write a review I try and do one of two things. If it is a film with interesting twists, or a new film, I try and only spoil a little of the plot. If it is an older film, one which is very well known or contains fascinating lore or a very familiar story then I will examine it in more detail. This new version of Dracula, whilst changing the story drastically, is, of course, based on a story rather familiar to fans of the genre. This means I am going to examine it in detail and spoilers there will be aplenty. I apologise now for those who missed it or in countries that have not yet seen its release. You may want to look away. Just to note, by the way, this is not a BBC production but an ITV production for the BBC.

David Suchet as Van HelsingWe begin with Abraham Van Helsing (David Suchet) in a castle. The lighting in the castle is wonderful, a green lighting effect that summons thoughts of mystery and yet decay. Van Helsing reads and then goes to bed. Shadows move and we see through the eyes of something. A vampiric face, indistinct in the quick flashes and cuts, lurches out of the night. Van Helsing screams but it seems his cross protects him. We cut to a castle exterior view.

It is an unusual start but shows us that Van Helsing is aware of vampires.

Arthur and LucyArthur Holmwood (Dan Stevens) meets Lucy Westenra (Sophia Myles) at Westenra House, he is slightly bumbling as he plucks up the courage to ask her to marry him. Though he never gets the words out she says yes. We cut away to Castle Holmwood in Whitby and hear a voice cry “Where’s my boy?” we see a man, though not his face, he is strapped to the bed by long restraints and a doctor injects him.

One of the problems I had with this version comes out in these few scenes. There are many fast cuts between (and within) scenes and, whilst I guess it was an attempt to increase the pace, it did annoy me.

Holmwood visits Jack Seward (Tom Burke) and says that he has asked Lucy to marry him. He is keen to ensure that their friendship continues as he is aware of Seward’s feelings for her. We discover later that Seward introduced them. Seward is almost dismissive of the news as though trying to ignore it and suggests eating but Holmwood has been summoned to Whitby, he hasn’t seen his father (Benedick Blythe) for five or six years.

the ravages of syphilisOn arriving at Whitby we realise that the man is Lord Godalming (Arthur’s father) and we see his face, ravaged by disease. Fast cut to hammering him in his coffin and then to Arthur with Doctor Blore (James Greene). Blore confirms syphilis killed his father and suspects that his mother, who died when he was three, committed suicide as she knew she had the disease. He also suspects that Arthur has it, contracted at birth, and says he should call off his wedding. A month later Arthur goes to visit a man named Singleton (Donald Sumpter) at Chelsea and we see (in a fast cut) Dracula examining maps of London centred on Chelsea.

A garden party is being held. Jonathon Harker (Rafe Spall) arrives to meet Mina Murray (Stephanie Leonadis), an old school friend of Lucy’s. He is late as he stopped by the University and he has passed his solicitor’s exams. Arthur is making a speech and talking about marriage in a year but Lucy will hear of no delay, the plan was to marry that summer. Harker is introduced to Arthur who asks him about his firm.

Rafe Spall as HarkerHawkins (Ian Redford), Jonathon’s boss, meets with the young solicitor. He has been contacted by Singleton and they are to conveyance several properties for him and then Jonathon is to take the papers to Count Dracula (Marc Warren). Jonathon travels to Transylvania and reaches the castle. The sharp eyed will notice it is the same castle that Van Helsing was in.

Dracula as we first see himNow I intimated earlier that it is unusual to see Van Helsing’s past experience with vampires but we now realise that the experience was with Dracula himself. When we see Dracula he is ancient, withered looking with fingers like talons and a slouched posture. It is an unusual but interesting look.

Harker mentions Hawkins and we cut to a morgue where his boss’s body is. Harker is taken to his rooms and mentions that he wishes to catch the coach at six the next evening. Unusually, for Dracula tales, the coachman will approach the castle! Dracula is busy the next day and wants to conclude business in the evening. The delaying techniques have started. Worryingly, back in England Mina is questioned by the police. Hawkins was shot at his desk and there are no papers concerning a Transylvanian client.

When dealing with their business Dracula is more concerned about the distances between his houses and Singleton’s home. It is quite refreshing to see Dracula buying more than one property, however, rather than falling back on tired old Carfax! sniffing hairHarker has a sealed letter from Singleton. When Dracula opens it there is a single ticket in the name of Jonathon Harker. He asks Harker how old he is and whether he is married. He shows Dracula Mina’s picture, which has a lock of her hair. Dracula sniffs the hair and sees Mina. I found his interesting, it brought sharply into focus the fact that Dracula is a hunter as, though the contact is supernatural, it is done via smell.

Singleton confrontedIn Chelsea Holmwood confronts Singleton and the sordid plot begins to come into focus. He asks why Singleton killed Hawkins and the man answers matter of factly that no trail must lead to the Brotherhood and, indeed, Holmwood who has bought the properties for Dracula. When Holmwood declares that it was murder Singleton questions if it was any worse than sending Harker – he is not going to return. The reason Holmwood has done this is that he has heard that the Brotherhood’s religion of eternal blood can offer him a transfusion that will cleanse his tainted, diseased blood. Singleton confirms this but states that Arthur must be inducted and that will take more funds.

The Brotherhood was an interesting concept. England, at the time, did have occult societies. Rumour has it that Stoker was friendly with members of the Golden Dawn, though not a member himself. We will hear more of the society later, whom Van Helsing names using the word undead, but it fits neatly with Hammer’s concept of the Cult of the Vampire.

Harker is still in Castle Dracula and the Count has used the time to learn much of English society, In his cratereligion and empire (rather than language). In England Mina sleeps fitfully as in Transylvania Jonathon hears a whispered voice calling his name. We notice he has fang marks on his neck. He investigates the castle and finds the Count in a crate, covered in insects, his eyes snap open. Jonathon races to his room, at one point seeing the vampire feeding on himself. He reaches his room and is grabbed. Mina awakens. The fact that Mina seems to feel Jonathon’s danger is reminiscent of Nosferatu. We see Dracula, he is younger, he has the lock of hair and Harker is dead. The younger Dracula is interesting. The hair-do might seem a little outrageous but I did like the look generally. With a combination of the look and the mannerisms that Warren affects we get a very Byronic version of the Count – okay it owes more to Polidori than it does to Stoker, but it works.

Lucy and Arthur are married and Lucy invites the very worried Mina to go to Whitby with them. Holmwood actually walks out of his own wedding reception with Singleton. Seward follows them to Chelsea and spots Singleton in a window dressed in occult regalia. the captain of the DemeterInside Arthur is inducted into the brotherhood via a blood ritual. He makes it clear that he wants Dracula back wherever he came from when he is cured and that Lucy is in Whitby for her own protection. At this point, of course, Dracula is on the Demeter and already the captain is strapped to the wheel. There is a lore change here. Dracula does not travel with native earth but unhallowed earth and to me it made more sense as unhallowed earth would be perfect for a vampire, native earth is somewhat more arbitrary.

In Whitby things do not go well. Lucy wants to be with her husband but he spurns her and becomes angry often. I did like what they did with Holmwood in this version; he was a nasty man in some respects but did all he did out of a need for love and out of fear. It is fear that causes his anger, fear of infecting Lucy, fear of death and madness but it was also petty – he did not do the right thing (ie not marry her). He was a very flawed character.

Singleton arrives at Whitby; the Demeter has sailed past London and is heading for the Yorkshire town. Suddenly the house is in uproar as the ship looks to beach. The next day they discover only the crate and the captain at the wheel. No one else is aboard. Tdrinking winehe manifest shows one passenger, Jonathon Harker, and Mina hears this. She goes to the cemetery and sees Jonathon, however it is her mistake (she thinks) as it is Dracula holding her hair. As they speak he looks to her neck, but he also sees her cross which saves her. Lucy approaches and then invites the Count to dinner. Both Lucy and Mina speak to Dracula of wanting death – it is an invitation of sorts. Note that Dracula drinks wine, so no comment about not drinking it in this version.

Dracula's strength is revealedThat night, when Arthur discovers Dracula in his home his anger explodes. He sends the ladies away and confronts the man. Dracula makes no secret of his desire for the women and at one point lifts Arthur by the neck, showing his strength. When the household is in bed he comes back. He goes to Mina first but she is saying the rosary which holds him at bay and so goes to Lucy and we have the finest scene of the movie.

fantastic sceneLucy and Arthur (still clothed) are in bed. Lucy becomes aroused in her sleep and then a hand moves up her from beneath the covers. Dracula takes Lucy physically and then bites her. He then lifts her to him, cuts his chest, and makes her feed. At the end she falls back sated. What I love about the scene is the sleeping Arthur, the cuckold, oblivious to what befalls his wife.

Arthur threatens SewardSeward is called and wants to know why Lucy is not at a hospital. She needs a transfusion and, as Arthur will not let her leave, Seward tells him to roll his sleeve up. Of course he refuses and pulls a gun on Seward forcing him to transfuse from himself. Singleton interrupts (Seward recognises him) and, as they speak privately, tells Arthur that he does not know what he has unleashed – a strange line given that Singleton is the disciple, it just didn’t seem to fit. That night Arthur sits vigil but falls asleep, dropping the rosary he held, and Dracula enters the room. In the morning Lucy is dead and buried, later, at Highgate. Seward is convinced Arthur killed her.

not really suicideDracula has gone to Singleton’s. He snaps, very casually, the neck of a disciple and then forces – with his mind – Singleton to take out a gun and kill himself – this leads to what I believe is a plot hole later. It does, however, display Dracula’s evil which is so casual it becomes darker perhaps than often portrayed.

Seward goes to Chelsea and finds the bodies of Singleton and the disciple as well as the occult paraphernalia. Searching the house he enters the cellar. There are crosses, made of twigs, hung up and murals of lost souls and vampires.Van Helsing is found In the cellar he finds, kept like an animal, Van Helsing. Van Helsing says they have to leave. Dracula will be hunting but he will return. They speak to Mina, Seward has obviously already heard his tale, and Van Helsing (hesitant at first to tell a woman) explains that he was employed as a folklorist by the brotherhood to investigate vampires. He found a vampire, though he had believed it was all superstition. His cross protected him and he was released eventually so he could take a message to the Brotherhood. The vampire would come to them if invited but wanted property, scared of what happened to Van Helsing they sent an innocent to the vampire (Harker) and locked Van Helsing away. Seward believes that Arthur was fully implicit but Mina says Lucy and Arthur's problem with the marriage was it wasn’t consummated (Seward takes this as further proof as they were keeping her virginal for their depraved rites). They make one mistake, they do not mention Dracula’s name (which Mina would know) and Mina refuses to believe in vampires. I had one main problem with the plot relayed in this scene, why on earth would Van Helsing have conveyed the message?

Seward confronts Arthur and the truth of the syphilis comes out. The three prepare to confront Dracula, at dawn when he is weakest, but first they must deal with Lucy as Van Helsing realises she must have drank his blood. One line I hated here was about faith and science. Van Helsing says, “Faith is everything. Future generations will laugh, yes laugh, at our science but not at our faith.” This shows a distinct lack of understanding of Stoker’s work. For me Stoker believed in science, the book is a parade of scientific achievements – he would never have suggested that the cutting edge (for the time) science would be something that would be laughed at.

Lucy stakedAs the three go for Lucy, Dracula manages to get to Mina. He is about to bite when Arthur stakes his wife and Dracula feels it allowing Mina to escape. Unfortunately the Lucy scene is a major part of the book and I felt that this version was severely underplayed and over way too quick. It is interesting, however, that Dracula states he could smell Mina’s purity in her hair.

Hand from the earthMina eventually listens to Seward and will not be left alone so all four go to Singleton’s home. Seward realises that the body of Singleton has gone and he, Mina and Arthur go to the cellar to look for a grave (as the grave of a suicide is unhallowed ground). Van Helsing is too afraid to enter the cellar. They find Singleton’s half buried body and Mina looks over him when a hand shoots from the earth. This is the plot hole I mentioned. Singleton was forced, against his will, to shoot himself. To me that makes it murder, not suicide, Dracula may as well have pulled the trigger. Thus this is not the grave of a suicide, it is not unhallowed earth.

Holmwood's fateDracula knocks Seward out and grabs Mina. Arthur shouts take me and Dracula lets her go and then, in a moment of wonderful brutality, rips the man’s head off his shoulders. Mina’s scream awakens the bravery in Van Helsing’s heart but she is grabbed by a foe that can teleport it seems, as he is almost simultaneously before and behind her.

Dracula dissolvesVan Helsing rushes in with cross, Dracula releases Mina and Seward stakes him from behind. Van Helsing asks if he got the heart and Seward (a Doctor remember) confirms he did. Dracula melts away.

There is a scene of a funeral for Jonathon and Mina talking to her lost love. back to being oldThe actual coda following this I hated. Van Helsing goes home, Mina and Seward walk off to find food and we see beggars and, amongst them, Dracula as he was when we first saw him in Transylvania. So Seward missed the heart and there is opportunity for a sequel. I know Hammer brought Dracula back several times, but part of the joy was seeing how they did it. This seems too pre-planned, it has no neat resurrection scene and seems to indicate Dracula has a new trick of being able to dissolve as though he were dead.

The film has plus and minus points. The lighting, especially in the castle, was beautiful and many of the sets sumptuous. That said there were cell and blood visuals that felt like CSI:Vampire and the fast cutting was, to me, a directorial problem as I have mentioned a few times.

The story changes I didn’t mind – other than the issues such as why would Van Helsing carry Dracula’s message and how could Singleton be a suicide? I liked how the story changes modified characters such as Arthur. There were some nice changes in folklore also, such as the unhallowed earth, which made really good sense. blooded DraculaThat said, book purists will hate the changes. I still, myself, hope to see a fully accurate version of Dracula but the changes here were no more extreme than in some other productions. Oh, seemingly Dracula is 900 years old – not the first time he has been made to be much older than Stoker suggested, however. There was one omission in story that I would have like to have seen kept in the adaptation and that was the brides in castle Dracula. The brides are one of the best (minor) aspects of the story and dropping them entirely felt a little hollow.

The acting was generally competent enough, though I wasn’t overly convinced by either of the lead female actresses. Dracula with MinaThis probably had more to do with the fact that they were given so little to work with, the film really did concentrate on the male characters. Only two performances really stood out. David Suchet was excellent as Van Helsing but, because of the story changes, woefully underused. Marc Warren brought a Byronic malevolence to the character of Dracula that was great. I had worried before I saw the film, I thought perhaps he was too young to play the role but to me he worked well. At times he was very softly spoken but that just added to the air of evil. I have read complaints that he was not in the same league as Lee, Lugosi or Oldman. Unfair, I think, to compare him to icons, especially as his version of the Count was so utterly different.

It is, ultimately, the fast cuts which really irked me (and the coda, to be fair). It felt too MTV, too much like flaws were being hidden; it also led, for characters like Harker, to a lack of development for the characters. This pushes me, ultimately, to aim for 6 out of 10 as a score. Above average and worth seeing (certainly a better Christmas programme release than the normal holiday material) but ultimately flawed. Incidentally, the DVD was touted as a director’s cut, it isn’t and there are no extras.

The imdb page is here.

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