Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Sadie Frost
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Trailers
As faithful readers of this site probably know by now, "Bram Stoker's Dracula" is one of my favorite film, and one I enjoy revisiting over and over again. I do not consider it a guilty pleasure, but enjoyment of a piece of art. Some critics dismiss the film as being poorly conceived, but let me tell you that these writers clearly have not a single creative or lyrical bone in their bodies as overlook the movie's biggest achievements – it's visual beauty, its marvelous tapestry of colors, emotions and old-school style.
Since its release, Francis Ford Coppola's artistic and dazzling approach to the classic gothic tale about the bloodsucking prince of darkness has found a place in the hearts of many film fans. Never intended to be a traditional horror film, it is a very beautiful version of the story, heartfelt, emotional and romantic, while also remaining one of the most faithful adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel – although it still strays quite a bit.
A Special Edition of this film had been rumored to be in the works for many years and has been long overdue, as the previous DVD versions were all bare of any extras. So it was with eager anticipation that I awaited the release of this film in high definition, complete with a number of bonus materials, and everything put together by Francis Ford Coppola's own Zoetrope studios. Well, sadly not all is gold that glitters and we are a good bit away from the ultimate home video incarnation of this film, I am afraid to say.
"Bram Stoker's Dracula" is not the usual monster movie you would expect at first. Instead, it's a very romantic story, portraying the vampire count as a tormented being with emotions that, like his body, never die. Suffering from his existence, Dracula is tracked by his nemesis Dr. Van Helsing and hunted down for a climactic finale in the yard of his own castle. The lush and colorful production design, shot almost entirely on sound-stages, combined with the vivid and sometimes surreal imagery created by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, made this movie a cinematic feast in 1992 — a feast not only for genre lovers. Don't be fooled, however; despite all its splendor, romance, and charm, Dracula still retains its horror roots with plenty of blood and gore.
The movie starts before the actual novel from 1897 takes place, showing Dracula (in true powerhouse performance by Gary Oldman) as a Romanian knight fiercely battling the Turkish Empire. A false letter from the Turks sends his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) to her premature death. Leaving the battlefield after a premonition, Dracula finds his beloved wife in a pool of blood and condemns life and God Himself in a very spectacular, blood-soaked cinematic moment.
Four hundred years later Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves), an aspiring real estate broker travels to Transylvania in order to sell an old London abbey to Dracula. Chased by wolves and strange glowing mists, he finally arrives at the towering castle, only to find a weird and seemingly frail old man. Soon enough, he finds out that this man has more power then he could have possibly imagined. When Dracula finds a picture of Harker's wife Mina (Winona Ryder), he sees his lost wife Elisabeta in her and decides to travel to London, leaving Harker back at the castle at the hands of some of his lascivious vampiric minions. The rest is almost history and features some of the most memorable moments in movie history, including Anthony Hopkins's brilliant portrayal of Dracula's nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing. Focusing mainly on the romantic aspect of Dracula's tormented soul and his eternal love for his wife and her reflection in Mina, this movie has a completely different tone than any other incarnation of the vampire theme.
"Bram Stoker's Dracula" is definitely a tough nut to bust when it comes to capturing all the details and delicate shades of the movie. Coppola's production is rich and colorful, reveling in shades of blood-red and night-blue, while often shifting the tonality of the entire image from warm earth tones to more frivolously saturated stylized shots, all the way to cool blues.
In high definition you would expect all these fine hues and tinges to be perfectly reproduced and I am sure they would if it weren't for one major flaw in the transfer. It is too dark. I have seen this film countless times in theaters and vividly remember the tones, the contrast and image information evident in the prints I saw so I was kind of disappointed to see that this transfer blocks most of it out, simply by washing up everything in an overly black presentation. Where once was image detail is now nothing left but murky shadows, where once was rich color, in many instances now we have a toneless shade. Where once was definition and finely tuned contrast, we now have an expressionistic look of a lithography.
I am not saying it is a horrible transfer – the film is indeed still very enjoyable – but it is sadly once again not the stellar presentation fans would have liked to see. The lack of definition caused by the overly dark transfer is compounded by the movie's soft look. Again it is a bit disappointing to see that this movie looks more like a wonderfully upconverted DVD than a true 1080p high definition presentation.
All that aside, the print is clean and clear and presented in the movie's proper 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Grain is at a minimum, though evident on occasion. It adds to the film's deliberately vintage look however and is not at all distracting. Color reproduction as such is solid and well delineated without bleeding.
On this Blu-Ray Disc version of "Dracula" you will be treated to a 5.1 channel PCM encoded audio track, and when I say it is a treat, I really mean it. It is an exceedingly aggressive mix that may make you jump for the remote control at times but overall it is powerful and rich. Dialogues are a bit undermixed for my taste as many of the actors speak barely above a whisper at times and it creates a bit of an imbalance in the overall mix. But other than that, boy are you in for a ride. With a deep bass extension the track is creating some pounding moments while the soundfield itself is wide and makes constant use of the surround channels. The whispering surrounding Harker in the castle, the snarling of the wolves, and galloping of the horses and not at the very least, Wojciech Kilar's remarkable score are all beautifully integrated to engage the viewer. The high dynamic range of the tracks give the movie the necessary punch to make it the ultimate experience and the wide frequency response help to make Kilar's menacing celli even more foreboding while the crystal clear violins and choirs help to build tension for the movie's breath-taking finale.
Now, finally, we have the chance to revisit the film with bonus materials and it contains a selection of interesting supplements, indeed. First up is a commentary track by director Francis Ford Coppola and if you're a fan of the film, you simply cannot afford not to listen to it. The disc is a bit misleading as it asks you upon start of the movie if you want to view the film "with Francis Ford Coppola" creating the impression that you're getting a video commentary when in fact it is an audio commentary, but from there, it is an amazing ride filled with information insights and anecdotes.
Equally insightful are the newly created featurettes found on the disc. "The Blood Is The Life" is a general making-of featurette, but unlike most of today's fare, this is really a behind the scenes look at the making of the film. With plenty of on-set footage, occasional talking head interviews and a wealth in information, this is what making-of featurettes used to be like before they became part of the fast food culture. It is however, for the most part the 1992 making-of featurette that was used to supplement the theatrical run of the movie, and has been edited only very slightly.
Eiko Ishioka's award winning costumes are revisited in a separate featurette as well offering a very close and personal look at the wardrobe and the approach she took to designing the costumes for this film, making the costumes the center of the production design. The nice thing about this featurette is that you get the chance t osee many of the itrictae details of these costumes that are not as evident in the movie itself. Of course, hearing Eiko talk about her work and Coppola's intentions is wonderful, also.
One of the absolute highlights of the disc is the featurette "In-Camera: The Naïve Visual Effects Of Dracula." Don't be fooled, there is nothing naïve about the effects or this featurette as it dives head-on into the remarkable approach the filmmakers took to visual effects on the movie. Without going digital, all visual effects in the film have been created optically, in-camera. It is an art that has been completely lost since the dawn of optical printers with "Star Wars" and of course the more recent digital revolution. To see filmmakers go 100 years back in time to create spectacularly looking visual effects that are composed live on the set is simply staggering, especially considering that these effects are every bit as good as their digital counterparts.
"Method And Madness" is a close look at the visualization process of the film, how the look and production design was approached. Altogether these are some of the best and most insightful featurettes I have seen in a very long time and best of all, they are all presented in high definition!
To out the lid on things, the disc also contains twelve deleted scenes running over 30 minutes in length. Brace yourself for some cool moments as you get to see footage that could just as well have ended up in the final film. Sadly they are presented in 480p standard definition only and are of pretty poor image quality.
In a world where movies have become brainless fare for immediate consumption with a throw away sentiment, films like "Bram Stoker's Dracula" stand out as shining examples that there still are filmmakers out there with strong visions and ideals. No matter how many times I've seen this movie, I always walk away with something new and I always walk away impressed and deeply gratified. This is art! Just like an intricately layered picture of Leonardo DaVinci. Just like there are people who do not see the appeal of a DaVinci, there are people who do not see the qualities in "Dracula" and frankly, I pity these people, because they are missing out on some of the most remarkable artistic expressions of mankind.
For everyone else, get this disc. The transfer may be a bit dark and soft, but the overall package easily makes up for that.