The DVDs Audiences Forgot: the modern vampire film

If ever there was a genre that deserved to have jokes made about it, it is the vampire film. Spawned by Bram Stoker's seminal novel, Dracula, which in itself was a mixture of mythological horror stories and a wry satire on contemporary libertines, the most famous early vampire picture was Murnau's Nosferatu, which was an unofficial adaptation of Dracula (and led to Stoker's widow suing Murnau for plagiarism, as well as leading to the film Shadow of the Vampire, a wry speculation on what might have happened if Max Shreck, the lead actor, had been a real vampire.) Afterwards, such films as the famous- if absurdly dated and frequently dull- Bela Lugosi 1931 adaptation and the altogether more successful Hammer adaptation with Christopher Lee in 1958 have invaded our screens; in turn, this has led to an influx of films about vampires, which have been anything from stylish and witty(The Hunger and Near Dark) to utterly appalling (Vamp comes to mind, and one rather wishes it didn't). There are, thankfully, a glut of good vampire films, but two of the most high-profile of recent years have, unfortunately, fallen into disrepute; therefore, I shall try to put the case for their re-assessment…

Bram Stoker's Dracula
If Francis Ford Coppola could politely be said to have a 'chequered' career, there is no denying that the extraordinary Apocalypse Now is widely seen as his last great film, with such works as Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married and, of course, The Godfather part 3 being regarded as the work of a master long past his peak. However, Bram Stoker's Dracula represents something of a last hurrah for everyone's favourite film director-cum-wine producer, being a stylish, intelligent and often surprisingly adventurous adaptation of Stoker's novel that both respects the basic storyline in a way that few other versions of the book have ever done, and imbues it with a nightmarish quality that again brings Apocalypse Now to mind, although in a more 'conventional' way.
After an incredibly convoluted production, where the film was apparently being edited differently virtually every day (a rumoured thirty-eight different cuts of the film exist, with several of the more sexually explicit ones going for sale in bootleg versions on Ebay), the film eventually opened to extremely good business but fairly weak reviews; most of the critics justifiably sneered at the obvious flaws, such as Keanu Reeves' disastrously miscast performance as Jonathan Harker, but they also tried to argue that the film was in some way 'perverse', presumably not realising that such an accomplishment was Coppola's intention all along. For the film is certainly perverse; the links between blood, sex, AIDS and death are unpleasantly literal at several points, and the themes of extreme sexual obsession often feel closer to those of Paul Verhoeven than Coppola, who had never previously shown any great interest in the kind of dark sexual material that the film is soaked in. However, it is directed with great verve, with Coppola using numerous stylistic devices that do a highly effective job of bringing Stoker's novel to cinematic life, from setting the film entirely on purposely artificial-looking sets to the use of tricksily effective camera movements. Wojciech Kilar's nightmarish score also works extremely well at building an atmosphere of dread and terror, as a great horror score should of course do.
Unfortunately, the film has now largely sunk into obscurity, with the oft-rumoured director's cut yet to materialise on DVD; there is a Criterion laserdisc which is an extended version of the film, but it is still an abridgement of what has been claimed by some to be a masterpiece on a par with The Godfather; as it is, however, the film is best viewed as a fascinating and often successful mixture of mainstream horror trappings and some deeply disturbing undercurrents. It helps that the film has a superb cast, even if few of the actors are really giving it their all; that said, Tom Waits is a fine Renfield, Richard E Grant is great fun as the drug-addicted Dr Seward, and Gary Oldman is magnificent as Dracula, who is shown in a variety of guises, from the conventionally Byronic libertine of popular imagination to a repulsive wolf-like creature. Columbia has released the film on a Superbit DVD in America, with excellent picture and sound but no extras, and on a standard R2 release, which comes with slightly less good picture and sound but a very strong 30 minute documentary, which is an interesting look at the film's production, incorporating some surprisingly candid footage of Oldman clashing with Coppola. In the meantime, we must wait and hope that a superior version of the film is one day released.

Interview with the Vampire
Although, speaking strictly, this is supposed to be a column focusing on underrated films, I'd like to bend my own rules and include halves of films occasionally, if they're presented on sufficiently good DVDs to justify such blatant infringement. Interview with the Vampire first attracted attention with the casting of Tom Cruise- the American poster boy incarnate- in the role of the vampire Lestat, the intellectually complex, androgynous and rather camp anti-hero of Anne Rice's much-acclaimed series; needless to say, Rice was furious, screaming 'Tom Cruise is no more my Lestat than Edward G Robinson was Rhett Butler!' (Guess she never saw the casting tapes for Gone with the Wind, then…) Of course, when she saw Neil Jordan's film, she soon retracted her statements as publicly and humiliatingly as she had made them in the first place, but a great deal of the damage had been done.
In fact, Cruise is possibly the best thing about the film by some distance, other than a freakishly sophisticated performance by Kirsten Dunst as his plaything-cum-nemesis. The story itself divides neatly into two distinct parts. The first half of the film, which concerns the bizarrely twisted relationship between Lestat and his protégé Louis (Brad Pitt) is utterly superb from beginning to (unfortunate) end, with Jordan's script mining the insanely horrible events for quite bizarre black humour; it's as if Barry Lyndon had been sped up at about ten times the pace, and Kubrick had decided to introduce some black comedy moments of vampirism instead of the slow, measured depiction of human frailty and emotion. Rice's novel, although highly successful on its own terms, doesn't bring out the hilariously camp aspects of two vampires living together, which here resembles nothing so much as a bloodsucking, 18th century version of Morecambe and Wise as they bicker about murdering poodles and seducing old women. If the entire film had continued in this vein, there is little doubt that Interview with the Vampire would undoubtedly have been one of the great comedies of our time.
Unfortunately, once the plot sidelines Lestat, the film becomes decidedly less interesting, taking itself far too seriously (apart from a very funny Stephen Rea cameo) and ending up with a very contrived climax that all but screams 'Sequel!', which duly followed in the shape of the dire Queen of the Damned. However, a great hour of filmmaking is still more than most films manage, and so the picture is well worth a retrospective look. The best DVD version currently available is the reissued R1, which not only contains DTS sound (from the brief period of Warner reissuing some back catalogue titles with DTS and extras), but also has very strong picture quality and some excellent extras, including one of Jordan's few DVD commentaries and a good 30-minute making-of documentary, which looks at the film's production with input from most of the cast (apart, unfortunately, from Cruise), Jordan and an apologetic Rice. If you can find it cheaply enough, it's well worth getting, if only for the hilarity of a blonde Cruise saying, in his best Frankie Howerd manner, 'God kills indiscriminately, and so shall we.'

Next week
A look at two of the most underrated achievements of Martin Scorsese, which will inevitably be handicapped by the fact that After Hours and The King of Comedy have yet to materialise on DVD…

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