Sunday, October 29, 2006

My First Encounter with Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula

* Click the above link to direct yourself back to Nathaniel R's Vampire blog-a-thon hub. Also, this post is not so much about the film itself as it is about how it pushed me to take an unhealthy interest in vampire lore, ghost stories and everything else paranormal. Prepare for a widly inarticulate, brief post (and a tardy one... apologies.)

I seem to have a very shoddy capacity to retain memories from my childhood (actually, I have trouble with remembering what I did last week), but for some reason, I can recall my introduction to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) with great clarity. I was on a trip to Canada to visit my relatives (my family lived in Dubai at that point), and a quiet, unoccupied Saturday night at home prompted the parentals of the house to visit the video store. Of course, two titles would have to be rented: something more suited to mature tastes, and also a film that would entertain (read: distract) the kiddies at another television. My five-year-old cousin and I were tagged along in the car ride over, and we were allowed entrance inside if we agreed to pick one cassette between the two of us and a candy treat each (no more.) The appearance of the shop itself is worth mentioning: instead of the requisite pornography section singled off in a secluded room, this "Jumbo Video" store had a corner dedicated solely to horror titles. The moderate-sized room resembled a movie set: cobwebs hung from the ceiling, grinning skulls leered from the brownish-green walls, and the video cassettes were lined up on a series of cascading shelves (resembling an old, decrepit library collection.) My cousin and I repeatedly approached and fled the scene, daring each other to see who could stay inside the ghoulish abode longer. Understandably, neither of us could spend more than a few seconds peeking at the chamber through our fingers. This may seem incidental to our discussion of vampires here, but the mood was immediately set for that night...

Back at the house, my cousin and I were given strict instructions: we were not to come downstairs to the basement (where the forbidden film was to be screened) at all, excepting an emergency. Although Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was entertaining enough for my eight-year-old brain, I could not help but wonder what was so inappropriate for my eyes. Although I begged my mother to be included in the audience, she knew that the content would be too disturbing. This did not stop me, however, from sneaking down the steps of the staircase, peeking at the television screen; it was at least an hour before I was caught. In that span of time, my senses were assaulted unlike they had been before: the shocking and unrelenting display of gore, foreign sexuality, (un?)dead bodies, eroticism, violence and rage took me aback. Although I likely did not understand ninety percent of what was happening, I still carry vivid imprints of several scenes in my head: Renfield grotesquely munching on live spiders, Harker taking pleasure in that inhuman orgy, and Lucy finally meeting her grisly end at the teeth of Dracula's wolf form (can a burst jugular spray that much blood in so many directions?) It was a terrifying, but oddly thrilling experience - in a way, Coppola's film contained all things off-limits to a child my age. Actually, I remember re-watching the film with my sister months afterward, only a little more brave this time around, and asking her why Mina and Lucy kiss passionately (pictured above) during the supernatural thunderstorm heralding the Count's arrival in London ("But... they're girls!")

And thus, the spell was cast. Eiko Ishioka's Oscar-winning costumes, Wojciech Kilar's bone-chilling score and the performances of Gary Oldman and Sadie Frost in particular simply blew me away. Never had I encountered a movie so beautifully and meticulously crafted; such eye candy remains unmatched for me even today, perhaps with the exception of Tarsem's The Cell (also featuring stellar work by Ishioka.) But Coppola's film should be regarded as more than an otherwise frivolous platter of rich production values and shocking scenes. This adaptation of Stoker's text literally throbs with passion and intensity - yes, not unlike the flow of fresh blood through the veins of Dracula's victims. True, not all of its risks pay off in the end, but the film never fails to command my attention every time I revisit it.

Although I did not get to finish the film that night as a little boy, I still had nightmares for weeks afterwards about bloodthirsty wolves entering my bedroom to gnaw at my neck. At the same time, I was fascinated by the alien and exotic environments explored in the film. I was familiar with the character Dracula in the form of sanitized incarnations: Count Chocula of the sugary cereal and Sesame Street's Count von Count. But this was an introduction I would never forget.


Boyd van Hoeij said...

Nice story! I first saw the film when I was thirteen. It had just come out on video as well (this is 1993ish) and I remember the video rentel clerk saying to me every time "Sir, you are aware you have already seen this film?" and me thinking "Duh! That's the whole point of this exercise! To discover more and more about this film." I haven't seen it now for quite a bit, but it still stands as one of most important formative films of my film-crazy brains.

JavierAG said...

Loved it! Now I'm staring at the screen wondering what movie corrupted *me*, and I can't see it! :(

(Don't worry, I sometimes forget what I did a few minutes ago, let alone last week. I have the memory of a fish, basically).

Ali said...

Boyd - What a judgmental employee! When I worked at a video store, I only judged the customers inside my head! :) The great thing with DVD is now you can own the film and watch it whenever you like.

Speaking of DVD, I wish they'd relese a special edition of this. I know FCC recorded a commentary for a laserdisc version a couple of years ago.

Javier - "Corrupted" indeed. A lot of things changed in my life that night.

Maybe the film that corrupts you still hasn't come along yet. Dum dum dum...

glam said...

lovely story! i have some vivid memories of the first screening as well. during the movie i got a fever and that made for a pretty intense viewing experience.

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