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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Bram Stoker's Dracula/Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Bram Stoker's Dracula/Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Sony Pictures // R // December 26, 2005
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted January 14, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

It seems like a reasonable enough idea: release a special collection that brings together Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, two modern versions of the classic stories that purport to go back to the original novels for inspiration. In fact, it's a good idea, except for two not-so-little problems. First problem: while one of the films is very good, the other is a disaster. Second problem: while the horrible film is presented in its original aspect ratio, the good film is butchered with a pan-and-scan version (even though the original separate release of Frankenstein included both the pan-and-scan and widescreen transfers).

Let's take a look at the two films included here.

Bram Stoker's Dracula

In the leading position in this two-pack is Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 vision of the classic Dracula. I'd heard some very critical comments about the film, but I wanted to reserve judgment until I'd seen it for myself. After all, it did have a solid-looking cast, with Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, and Anthony Hopkins in key roles, and while I don't think Keanu Reeves has a whole lot of depth as an actor, I don't automatically assume, like many do, that he's going to do a terrible job in a movie. And with Francis Ford Coppola directing, I figured that the film was bound to be an interesting experience: after all, this is the same filmmaker who created The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.

Well, I was almost right. Dracula is "interesting." (Note the scare quotes.) It does deserve credit for being distinctive; the back-cover copy that breathlessly says "once you've seen Bram Stoker's Dracula, you'll never forget it" is quite right, although not quite the way the filmmakers intended.

Right from the start, Dracula is flamboyant to the point of absurdity. Everything is done to excess, from dramatic gestures to flamboyant costumes to the overall artistic design of the film, which features some quite surrealistic elements. When it's done right, it can be extremely effective to go "over the top"... but it has to work right; it has to strike the right notes. In Dracula, the over-the-top style is repellent rather than engaging, pushing the viewer out by its absurdity rather than creating a compelling story that demands suspension of disbelief.

Oh, and Keanu Reeves' attempt to do a British accent is a disaster. Not even the most willing suspension of disbelief will help there.

And the script. Ouch. Yes, it does preserve the overall story structure of Bram Stoker's original novel, but in its transformation into a screenplay, something horrible happened. The dialogue ranges from stilted and awkward to downright ludicrous, making it extraordinarily difficult for the actors to make any of the scenes work well. An example of one of the low points of the film comes very near the beginning, when we see Mina and Lucy together for the first time. They're giggling over... a Kama Sutra-like book of pornographic pictures. And then Lucy goes on to lay on the sexual double entendres while she flirts outrageously with a suitor. Yes, these are supposed to be well-brought-up young ladies in Victorian England. Yes, this would make Stoker roll over in his grave. No, none of that would matter if the scene actually worked... but in ramping up the inherent sexuality in Dracula to levels where it's plainer than the broad side of a barn door, Coppola makes it ludicrous rather than sensual.

In the end, Bram Stoker's Dracula should never have had the author's name attached to it, because it bears only an incidental resemblance to the original novel. The overarching theme of "love never dies" brings in a lot of invented backstory about Dracula's Romanian past and the tragic loss of his wife, and amounts to absolutely nothing of merit. The other changes in the personalities of the characters don't improve the story, either. The film would still be a disaster even if it weren't claiming to be a return to the original novel... but as it is, it's made even worse by the fact that unsuspecting viewers might be misled into watching this, thinking it's genuinely close to Bram Stoker's story.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Kenneth Branagh's version of Frankenstein, on the other hand, is everything that Coppola's Dracula is not - starting with the fact that it's a good movie.

Even more than Dracula, the story of Frankenstein has been made into something completely different in popular culture. For instance, there's the general misconception that "Frankenstein" is the name of the monster, when really it's the name of its creator. Then there's the fact that Shelley's original story is full of complex themes about the search for truth, the limits of knowledge, the vulnerability of innocence, the dangers of reckless experimentation, and the need for family... all of which generally disappear in the film versions of the novel.

Branagh's 1994 film version sets matters to rights, giving us a film that's faithful to the book in an intelligent way: it's not blindly following the story page by page, but it's true to the most important elements of the story structure, plot, characters, and themes. While there are a number of changes from the book, Branagh's version really does merit being called Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and it's a better movie for it.

It's clear right from the outset that this is no ordinary Frankenstein thriller: the film opens (as indeed the book does) with a ship bound on an exploratory voyage to the North Pole. Trapped in the ice, the captain is startled to encounter a stranger struggling across the arctic wasteland. His name turns out to be Victor Frankenstein, and he has a story to tell...

From that frame story, then, we flash back to Victor's childhood and follow him through the tragic and horrifying events that ensue, all the way up to the conclusion in the frozen north. The world of Frankenstein is recreated in lavish and accurate detail, giving us a believable and richly textured 19th-century world. The scientific basis of Frankenstein is underscored, as the film manages to show the current state of knowledge in medicine and the sciences. It was a time when vaccination was just becoming known, and when electricity and its role in the body was being experimented with, while at the same time old theories from the days of alchemy were still plausible. The scene of animating the monster is given more emphasis than in the original novel (and I suspect that getting Branagh to run around shirtless on-screen was probably a factor in designing the scene that way) but it works.

Branagh gives the character of Frankenstein a kind of manic energy that matches perfectly with the Victor Frankenstein of the novel. We can believe that this is someone who loves passionately, who throws himself into his work, who is in fact brilliant, but at the same time is oblivious to the consequences of his actions. Robert DeNiro might seem like a strange choice to play the monster, but only to viewers who aren't familiar with Shelley's novel: the monster really is articulate and eloquent. It's essential to the story that we come to see the monster as a being with feelings and thoughts, one who could have been something better if not for the careless prejudice and ostracism of the rest of humanity.

The DVD

The Dracula/Frankenstein collection is packaged with each film on a separate disc in its own ultra-thin plastic keepcase, with the two cases inside a thin glossy paperboard case.

Video

Let's start with the major problem. Frankenstein is presented here only in a butchered, 1.33:1 pan-and-scan transfer, rather than the original widescreen transfer. The original single-disc release (apparently now out of print) contained both the original 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen version, and the pan-and-scan version. Considering that the DVD is otherwise identical to the single-disc release (the image quality is the same, and the menu screen is exactly the same) it appears that the widescreen version was simply dropped from the disc when it was produced for this set. The image quality is otherwise perfectly fine, but there's no way I'd suggest watching this engaging film with more than a third of the image missing.

Ironically, while Dracula is vastly inferior to Frankenstein in terms of film quality, it gets better treatment on the disc. The original widescreen version (1.85:1) is included, and is anamorphically enhanced. (A pan-and-scan version is also included, though I don't know what would possess anyone to watch it; the visuals are about the only decent thing about the movie.) The image quality is quite good, with rich colors and satisfactory contrast.

Audio

Frankenstein appears here with its original choices of Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0. The 5.1 track handles the material quite well, creating a nice surround experience and delivering the dialogue with clarity. The 2.0 track is also clean and clear. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included. Dracula also sounds quite good here, with a solid Dolby 5.1 surround track as well as a Dolby 2.0 option.

Extras

These are bare-bones transfers. The only special feature is a theatrical trailer for Frankenstein.

Final thoughts

It's ironically appropriate, I suppose, that this collection is truly a Frankensteinian mix of good and bad. We get one good movie (Frankenstein)... butchered by a pan-and-scan-only transfer, even though the original single-disc release was in anamorphic widescreen. The other movie (Dracula) gets a respectable transfer, but it's a terrible movie. It's easy to say "skip it" for this so-called collector's box set. Bram Stoker's Dracula is skippable on its lack of merits as a film, and while I would highly recommend watching Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, you'll want to search out a copy with its original widescreen transfer. Save your money: skip this set.

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