First off, I do not hate this movie. There are things I like about it, I find some parts funny, but there are obviously bad aspects to it. However, I’ve always found something enjoyable about it even if it is a mess of a movie. As anyone who has regularly read my reviews knows very well about the summer of 1989, where movies were concerned. It was massively huge with numerous blockbuster contenders hitting almost every week, but Star Trek V, despite being projected to do very well, really took a nose dive at the box office. It was one of the bigger disappointments of that summer in relation to its projected success. The main reason for its failure? The ego of William Shatner, who was the film’s star, writer, and director, who took on a project he didn’t have the skill to deliver based on the studio’s restrictions and his own misconceived vision. Even Gene Roddenberry went on record calling the film “apocryphal,” and most simply regard it as if it never happened. There are undeniable reasons for that, but I seem to be one of the very few that gains some entertainment value from this movie.
On Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace, a renegade Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) has taken three ambassadors hostage with a radical plan. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise-A, which has ship-wide malfunctions, are recalled from shore leave for a rescue mission to the planet, but the distress call attracts the attention of a Klingon Captain intent on making a name for himself by engaging a Starfleet vessel in combat. The rescue mission goes awry when it is revealed that Sybok has used a unique telepathic ability to draw the hostages under his sway. Matters are further complicated when Spock (Leonard Nimoy) reveals that Sybok is his half-brother, also a son of Sarek. Sybok and his followers thus seize control of the Enterprise to fulfill his lifelong search for the fabled planet of Sha-Ka-Ree where he believes all life began, and that God himself waits for them. Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy struggle to regain command of the Enterprise from this apparent madman before they reach the supposedly impenetrable Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy. However, what awaits them on the other side is not what any of them expected.
This definitely had a peculiar behind the scenes scenario for such a problematic film. Star Trek V had the second largest budget of the franchise up to that point, and so, it wasn’t a matter of a lack of money for director William Shatner to achieve his vision. Instead, it seems to come down to both a mishandling of the budget as well as terrible timing all around. Industrial Light & Magic was responsible for the visual effects work on the films since The Wrath of Khan, but when this film went into production, ILM was hard at work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Constraints of time and money meant the filmmakers of Star Trek V couldn’t wait for them to be available, nor could they contend with what Spielberg and Lucasfilm were paying ILM to secure their expert services. It’s also slightly ironic since both films were distributed by Paramount Pictures, and released within about two weeks of one another. So, Shatner and Paramount had to go with a lesser effects company, and the lower grade results are obvious. They simply do not measure up to the dynamic and gloriously cinematic quality of ILM, and this further impacts the overall level of quality of the movie. Shatner had wild ideas for this film that were axed either in scripting by the studio, or simply because they could not be achieved with the resources he had. Apparently, none of these ideas were anything better than what did make it into the film, and in most cases, were far, far worse. The biggest of which was instead of encountering an evil entity claiming to be God, they would literally meet God himself, and do battle with the real Devil. As bad as you thought it was, it was intended to be terribly worse.
This film is indeed bad with foolish concepts that shouldn’t exist in a Star Trek story, and has some terrible comedy. It also portrays much of the regular cast in a very uncharacteristic fashion. With the loyalty they’ve shown, especially in The Search For Spock, it is difficult to accept that they would so easily turn against Kirk in favor of Sybok’s telepathic therapy. So, why do I enjoy this film at all? Camp value. I do find some of the comedy funny in a very ridiculous and cheap way. Yes, it is badly written low brow, broad comedy, and it is surely not the context I would want the crew ever depicted in again. Yet, when I take the film as a lower grade feature, I can just indulge in the camp value of it all. I find myself quoting lines from this probably more than any other Trek film. Where the humor of The Voyage Home was very situational stemming from the “fish out of water” context of the film, here, it is just out of place, awkward, and silly. While I do enjoy it, I can still look at it objectively and critically. Simply put, William Shatner did not demonstrate good screenwriting abilities on this film. I will grant that it is very incompatible to have comedy of this sort in a film about finding God. Shatner tries to balance broad comedy and serious drama, but that is just not a combination that mixes.
However, while the film is wrought with out of place humor and silliness, there are some excellent dramatic and character moments found throughout. I like Kirk, Bones, and Spock sitting around the campfire talking about how Kirk knows that as long as he has his friends around, he knows he won’t die. They have saved each other’s lives so many times that this does resonate for me, and is quite a good moment of depth and insight into James Kirk. He says he’ll die alone, and that was something that always stuck with me. Thus, making his ultimate demise in Star Trek: Generations even more of an insult. The scenes between Spock and Sybok have some fine dramatic substance as their shared history is played out. And undeniably, the scene where Sybok has McCoy relive the death of his father is the most powerful scene of the film, and possibly DeForest Kelley’s most profound acting in all his tenure as Leonard McCoy. In these moments, Shatner, as director, does get the dramatic side of the film down nicely, and is definitely helped by very strong acting talents. Still, they are not enough to raise the film up to respectable standards since there is so much low grade junk weighing it down. They are mere glimpses of a stronger and more tonally consistent film that could have been, if handled by better talented filmmakers. I may enjoy the film, but certainly, I will never deny that it is filled with a lot of crap.
Case in point is that what thin semblance of a plot there is doesn’t make much sense. It’s hard to fathom why Sybok would choose such a worthless rock of a planet like Nimbus III, a failed public relations stunt of peace, to launch his quest from. Obviously, he had a starship transport him to the planet in the first place, and so, he had the means to secure interplanetary travel at some point. There was no express need for him to travel to Nimbus III just to hijack a ship. I mean, there are far easier ways of obtaining a starship than taking ambassadorial hostages on a desolate planet no one gives a crap about. Thus, all Sybok really needs from this planet are followers to bear witness to his quest, and he chooses the dregs of the galaxy. This doesn’t seem like the most efficient or credible plan to me. Beyond that, the most that is going on is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy trying to take back control of the ship, but by the time they have the chance, Sybok’s already arrived at his destination. From there, it’s just a matter of exploration and survival. The entire subplot of the Klingon Bird of Prey hunting the Enterprise is more of a minor action plot device, and doesn’t feed into anything substantive. The themes of religion and finding God also aren’t really explored by any of the characters, except for Sybok, and he does tend to come off like a fanatic or cult leader. That is entirely intentional, but it also diffuses the poignancy of the topic. No one takes the issue seriously because he is viewed as a delusional person who is risking lives for his own fanatical validation. More time is spent on discussing who Sybok is, and the power that he possesses than his belief in finding God at the center of the galaxy.
I also have to criticize the idea that the Great Barrier has been perceived as impenetrable. The key idea is perception. I can’t wrap my head around how everyone is dead-on certain that no ship can survive entering the Barrier when no ship has ever tried, nor have they acquired any data on it to support such a claim. All they know is that no probe has ever returned, which hasn’t stopped starship captains from entering into the unknown before or since. Everyone considers it dangerous, tantamount to madness and suicide to try, yet the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey traverse it without even the slightest problem. Even taking the film by its own warped logic, if passage through the Barrier is merely a matter of belief that it is an illusion, that still doesn’t explain how the Bird of Prey was able to make it through. If the ships had to survive some danger to pass through that ominous barrier, then I could say that these fears were justified. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The idea simply doesn’t hold any credibility.
Furthermore, the physics of space travel are completely screwed over as it would take decades for the Enterprise to reach the center of the galaxy even at top warp speeds. Of course, the most lauded criticism of the film is why would Starfleet send Captain Kirk out on an important hostage rescue mission in a ship that is falling apart. Starfleet does say there are other ships in range of Nimbus III, but no experienced commanders. So, it wouldn’t be difficult to put Kirk and his crew on one of those vessels for a temporary assignment. It also doesn’t make sense that the fleet would build a brand new Constitution class starship when two films ago, which in the chronology of Star Trek was maybe a couple months ago, the original Enterprise was essentially called old and obsolete with no plans to refit it for continued service. The original intention was that the Enterprise-A was rechristened as such from the U.S.S. Yorktown, but this film screws that idea over completely. The idea of the Enterprise-A being a shambles is simply to remove the convenience of using the transporter to rescue the hostages, or allow for an easy escape for our heroes when the evil entity turns on them. Still, you can have the transporters be inoperable without the entire ship being a disaster. Of course, it’s also there for more moments of humor when turbolift doors won’t open, or the Captain’s electronic log book, which is independent of the ship’s systems, goes kaput. The U.S.S. Enterprise presented here is as much of a mess as the film itself.
Now, there is foolishness and stupidity abound in this film that really cannot be taken seriously because it hardly takes itself seriously. I’ve barely gotten started on the criticisms this film deserves. I could go on and on about the inanities and stuff that doesn’t make sense, and normally, I would keep going for quite a while to really scrutinize it all. However, this has already been detailed by SFDebris in his Opinionated Trek Movie Guide videos. I almost didn’t go forward with this review for fear that most of what I would say would just be a retread of his review. He essentially covered it all in excellent fashion. However, what pushed me forward with this was sharing what I do enjoy about the film, despite its flaws. I can enjoy the badly conceived and poorly executed aspects of the film while still finding genuine merit in a few areas. What originally motivated me towards doing a review at all was giving credit to one aspect of the movie that I have never heard anyone offer before. That is the performance of Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok.
The filmmakers originally wanted Sean Connery for this role, but again, due to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they had to look elsewhere. However, unlike the visual effects, they did not end up with a low grade result. Luckinbill instills great passion and theatrical zeal into the role. He is very charismatic, making Sybok a personality to contend with. He’s not out to destroy or seek vengeance upon anyone. Instead, his threat is based in his radical ideology, and that required someone not intimidating but vibrant and intelligent. He didn’t need to be cunning and lethal like Khan, but a man who views himself as enlightened but is perceived as a con man, similar to the televangelists that inspired the character. Yet, Luckinbill makes the character interesting and compelling as well as sympathetic by the end. When Sybok realizes the error of his ways, he takes responsibility for his arrogance and ego, which creates a great character arc. I think Sybok has a good ending which redeems his character, but unfortunately, its poignancy is overshadowed by the remainder of the climax with Kirk seeking to escape the evil entity. Luckinbill created a fascinating character through his performance that I actually would’ve loved to have seen more of. I think exploring Sybok in more depth would be a great thing in this actor’s talented hands. If placed in a better film, I think both Laurence Luckinbill’s performance and Sybok himself would have gained more praise, but far too often, a marvelous performance is overlooked due to the quality of the film it appears in. Luckinbill carried a lot of weight on his shoulders with this movie, and I think he carried it with more ease, grace, and integrity than anyone else in the film. While the script written around Sybok is certainly not the smartest or most logical, the character himself is given a credible life by this actor, and I think he deserves a lot of overdue praise for what he did.
The other performances are especially mixed. Even with much of the humorous content, I do feel that Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly do a very solid job, maintaining far more integrity than the script would suggest they could. Much of why the humor amongst them and Shatner works any bit as good as it does is because of their long standing chemistry. They’ve always worked beautifully together, and that goes a long way in this turbulent film. James Doohan is certainly entertaining handling the cheap humor pretty decently, and just being his charming Montgomery Scott self. I do genuinely laugh at his comedy moments. However, the rest of the main cast doesn’t have as much to work with, either good or bad, and thus, doesn’t offer much for me to comment on. Cynthia Gouw, however, puts in an entirely disingenuine performance as the Romulan Ambassador. Her line deliveries lack any substance, and she comes off like a hollow shell of a person with her light airy voice and naïve smile. There is no acting ability in what she does. She just smiles and looks pretty for the camera, which makes it no wonder that she was a model before attempting to be an actress. The usually great David Warner is criminally wasted in the role of St. John Talbot, the Federation Ambassador on Nimbus III. There is nothing in the role for him that is worthwhile. The only fortunate result from this is that this introduction into Star Trek allowed for him to take on two far more impressive roles in Star Trek VI and an excellent and powerful two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Beyond this point in this cast, it just becomes far too one dimensional to even bother mentioning. Captain Klaa fits solidly into a Klingon stereotype, but he is nothing more than that. He’s just on a shallow quest for glory.
Now, yes, I must address William Shatner as an actor here. There is an obvious ego trip going on in front of and behind the camera. This doesn’t necessarily lead to a bad performance from him, but you can definitely see how the film is designed to raise James T. Kirk up while pushing everyone else down. Shatner is entirely capable of delivering great performances, but it does take the right director to know how to wear Shatner down to get it out of him. Nicholas Meyer, director the second and sixth Star Trek movies, says on one of his commentary tracks that he had to run many takes with Shatner to get the right one. This was, as he said, because Shatner would start out trying to act like a big star in the spotlight, but as the takes went on, he’d get more worn down by the process and then give the more natural and real performance. That’s where Meyer would find the gold, and I imagine Leonard Nimoy had a similar process on the previous two Trek movies. When Shatner is directing himself, it’s inevitable that more of that big star ego will show through, but there are several moments of solid dramatic acting from him. It’s not a terrible performance at all, but it could’ve used more wrangling in, more molding to shape it properly. Regardless of the acting, there is just no denying how overly focused this film is on Kirk. Shatner takes every opportunity that he was allowed to separate Kirk in any way from the rest of his crew. Either by them betraying him, or simply being at odds with Spock or McCoy, Shatner wanted Kirk to fight this all on his own, but that simply is uncharacteristic of especially those two to abandon Kirk at all. Whatever logic he had to break, or characterizations he had to betray, Shatner was going to focus that spotlight on himself as much as possible. Thus, that is the film’s crucial failing.
Now, I never realized this myself, but a friend of mine pointed out that Star Trek V is actually the film that’s actually the most like the television series. The lower grade effects, the slight corniness, and the use of the rocky California desert as some generic alien planet are purely straight from the original television series. The storyline has the feel of something from the original series as well, in concept, anyway. Encountering strange larger than life entities like in The Squire of Gothos or The Doomsday Machine, passing through cosmic barriers like Where No Man Has Gone Before, and the Kirk action sequence along a rocky landscape like in Arena all tie the movie strongly to the roots of the television series. Granted, the writing of this film is a long way off from the best standards of the series.
The last thing to really give note of is composer Jerry Goldsmith’s return to the franchise here, and he brings all his original themes back with him. The great opening fanfare, which had become the theme for The Next Generation by now, and the excellent Klingon theme return in great fashion. It’s a very good score that is quite to my general liking, but Goldsmith just had terrible luck by being saddled with the two most critically bashed films of the series so far (the other being Star Trek: The Motion Picture). He wouldn’t return to Trek again until First Contact due to the critical and commercial failure of this movie.
Despite my own personal enjoyment of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I cannot defend it as a whole. There are admirable parts to it, but they are grossly overwhelmed by all the negative qualities present. I happen to enjoy this on a campy, bad movie level, but there is hardly anyway I forge a set of conditions under which I could generally recommend it. You’re either going to like the movie for the low grade work that it is, or you’re going to hate it, passionately. There were plenty of problems surrounding the development and execution of this film, but they do not excuse much at all of the end result. William Shatner believed he could make this movie work with his objectionable story, and the studio mandates of making another “fun” movie like The Voyage Home. He failed miserably, and this nearly killed the film franchise entirely. A better director never would’ve touched this film with Shatner’s script, and a better screenwriter would’ve scoffed at the film’s concept. I can certainly see why people revile this movie so much, but for me, there are far worse Star Trek films in existence than this one. However, others have thoroughly scrutinized those movies in far more depth than I can get to, and I have nothing new to say about any of them. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some critical statements to make about one of the more highly regarded films in the franchise, though.
Prince of Darkness is certainly one of John Carpenter’s stranger and more underappreciated films. It’s the second installment in what Carpenter calls his “apocalypse trilogy” (which includes 1982’s The Thing and 1995’s In The Mouth of Madness). Simply put, this film is about the coming of the apocalypse, and the arrival of the Prince of Darkness – Satan himself. This is one seriously eerie and creepy film, but it has the slowest pace of any Carpenter film I have seen. I believe this film comes as an acquired taste. It can take multiple viewings to really enjoy it fully, as it did for me.
A group of scientists, students, and priests – led by Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) – have come to study a mysterious canister which has been sealed away in the basement of a Los Angeles church. The eerie green liquid inside this canister proves to be supernatural as it defies gravity, leaking upwards to the ceiling, and soon, it’s discovered that it is self-organizing as part of a living intelligence. This has made way for changes to occur in nature that herald the coming of something evil. And those who come into contact with this liquid are transformed into mindless undead slaves of Satan himself. Outside the church, the homeless and derelicts of Los Angeles become powerless against the influence of hell. The few human beings inside the church are trapped – barricading themselves inside with threats all around them. Theories are abound as to what is happening and philosophies about heaven, hell, and all of creation. But whatever forces are at work, these few people must not only survive these servants of hell, but also prevent the coming of the Prince of Darkness from the other side.
If you choose to watch this film, I suggest you get things as dark and as quite as possible, put in the DVD, get that surround sound just right, and get ready to experience one of the most haunting, frightening films ever. This is possibly the most taut and suspenseful Carpenter film of all-time. The master of terror gives us a film that nobody should easily be able to forget. The score from John Carpenter & Alan Howarth is absolutely mesmerizing and powerful. Right from the beginning, it sucks you into a creepy and absolutely ominous world, and doesn’t let go until the end credits have finished. It’s an absorbing, killer work of musicianship that compliments the film marvelously.
The effects here are great. There’s nothing here as complex as in The Thing (which Rob Bottin really delivered something groundbreaking), but there’s plenty of scary makeup work and visuals to unsettle any audience. There’s such apocalyptic biblical imagery here – including swarms of creepy crawly critters – that it will have you squirming and jumping from your seat. John Carpenter wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym “Martin Quartermass,” and man, he does just such an amazing job eliciting such haunting emotions. The film has such a suspenseful power that it could ONLY come from John Carpenter.
That pseudonym is only one of several that Carpenter has employed in his career. He uses them because he feels uncomfortable with his name plastered all over the credits as if it’s an egotistical thing to take so much credit. Me, I believe in everyone getting the credit they deserve for the hard work they do. The fact of the matter is that I know who Martin Quartermass, John T. Chance, and Frank Armitage are, and it is still John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.
The cast is full of Carpenter regulars such as Donald Pleaseance (Halloween, Escape From New York), Victor Wong & Dennis Dun (Big Trouble in Little China), and Peter Jason (They Live, In The Mouth of Madness). Also, Jameson Parker from TV’s Simon & Simon is in a lead role as well. It’s very much a Carpenter style cast in that he doesn’t cast big stars, but a lot of strong character actors that give the film a textured diversity. I really enjoy all their talents, and they all put in fantastic efforts. John Carpenter has always been great in the casting department (probably best displayed in The Thing). We even get a cameo from shock-rocker Alice Cooper, and he contributes the title song from the album of the same name. The song only appears in a small scene, and via a guy’s walkman radio. In any case, it’s always nice to see Alice appear in a horror film via an acting role or as a musician. He has no lines, but appears creepy enough as one of the derelict servants outside the church. Overall, this cast gives a lot of life and character to this slow-paced film.
In a way, this is different from most Carpenter movies, mainly in pace. He’s always made very smart pictures, and his horror has never been something you can entirely shut your brain off for. And while Prince of Darkness is full of atmosphere that drives every horror element forward, it is much more an idea and philosophy driven screenplay. There are very few action set pieces as the danger and horror are played through tense atmosphere and chilling visuals. It’s a film that crawls in under your skin slowly, and requires you to stay mentally aware of what’s happening for it to have the proper effect.
There’s a good deal of discussion in the film about philosophies regarding dreams, death, hell, religion, and so forth. This adds to the psychological aspect of the film since it revolves around such supernatural or paranormal phenomena birthed out of an ancient evil covered up by the church. With the film having such a wide ensemble cast, they have plenty of room for differing opinions and beliefs, but don’t let this make you think the film gets bogged down by it. Not at all. As they uncover more truths, it enhances the fearful and foreboding atmosphere of the film. There is a haunting evil taking form in their presence, and it is slowly consuming them either physically or psychologically.
In everyone’s dreams, they see a transmission from the future of a dark figure exiting the front of the church they are all holed up in. They get only bits and pieces, but they all share it getting a little more each time they fall asleep. It is another piece of the foreboding doom that lies ahead of them, and it is immensely effective.
Prince of Darkness definitely has similarities to an old style zombie film where a group of mismatched people have to fend for their lives against an undead army. However, Carpenter just pushes it further with so much more substance and unsettling visuals. This really is a nightmare come to life. A constant theme in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy is some sort of force consuming humanity and deteriorating it into something entirely inhuman. In The Thing, it’s an actual alien life form that perfectly duplicates any organism it infects which could eventually wipe out the human race. With In The Mouth of Madness, reality is twisted and distorted to where people become psychotic and homicidal in the wake of ancient evil reclaiming our world. In Prince of Darkness, it’s sort of a bridge between the concepts. As an ancient evil slowly claws its way back into our world, it also consumes nature and humanity until they become entirely mindless, inhuman servants. Coming from three different screenwriters on three different films, that is an entirely fascinating conceptual arc.
This film is undoubtedly one of John Carpenter’s finest works. Some don’t take a good liking to it because of its slow, slow pace, and its focus more on suspense than physical intensity. Whatever the case, I find it to be a masterwork worthy of inclusion to anyone’s DVD collection. The cast is very good, fun at times, but solid always. The score is pure gold, a powerful accomplishment for Carpenter and Alan Howarth. As in any Carpenter film, the cinematography is stellar, and the direction is absolutely phenomenal! If you genuinely want to get creeped out to the max one dark, lonely night – this is the one film to watch! I won’t say that Prince of Darkness is a perfect film as the pace can be a detractor to its potential. Part of good tension and suspense is momentum, and it’s not entirely consistent here. However, it is a great flick, and I will give it a great 9 out of 10. If nothing else, the ending will grab you like only a John Carpenter film can!
Where do I start in reviewing such a masterpiece? Francis Ford Coppolla directed what is generally considered the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, and for most people’s money (including mine) Gary Oldman (JFK, Léon The Professional) delivers the most definitive and frightening incarnation of Count Dracula. This all can easily be attributed to James V. Hart’s screenplay being so rich in character, dialogue, and respect to its source material. Coppolla delivers quite the intriguing visual experience, and while many of the effects are dated by today’s standards, they fit in well with the style and tone of the film.
The tale of Dracula is one of love that endures through death. Dracula (Gary Oldman) was once a soldier fighting the Turks in war, and was a man of faith. Unfortunately, despite his victory over his foes, the Turks brought word of Dracula’s death at their hands, and his dearest love, Elizabeta (Winona Ryder) is stricken with such unbearable grief that she plunges to her death. When Dracula returns to learn this, he is driven into a maddening rage. He cannot understand how his God would allow this injustice to happen. He renounces God, shuns him, and practically declares war against him. Dracula vows that he will rise again from his own death to avenge the death of his beloved.
Flash forward to some centuries later, and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent out to meet with a mysterious Count in Transylvania after one R.M. Reinfield has gone wholly mad. The Count is set to move into a new estate in England, and Mr. Harker is there to deal with the final paperwork and such. Jonathan must leave his beautiful wife-to-be Mina (Winona Ryder), but the Count becomes aware that his beloved has been reborn as Jonathan’s own. Harker is very mystified and weary about the strange happenings at the castle all throughout this land of Transylvania, and soon, he falls prey to the Count’s evil. Dracula soon begins his quest to reclaiming his eternal beloved, but as he moves in closer and closer, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is brought into the mix. Dr. Jack Seward (who has been overseeing a clearly certifiable R.M. Reinfield) calls him in, being an old student of the Professor. Soon, Van Helsing deduces the supernatural happenings, and concludes it is the work of the undead, a nosferatu, a vampire. Soon, the hurt begins, and there is much carnage left on the path to the ultimate confrontation between the living and the undead. The story comes together in a very unique way, and very fitting for this strange tale of love that will never die.
The creature effects here are outstanding! The creatures of the night are given a massive life of their own, and will frighten you to a great extent. The makeup effects on Oldman are stellar as well, making him look to be a very elderly Count, or the wonderfully young Prince Vlad. The transformations the character goes through are simply amazing, and just on these levels, it beats out all other cinematic presentations of Dracula (or most any other vampire). From wolves, to giant man-bats, to god knows what other unholy abomination. Coppolla and Columbia definitely spent their money well on the makeup effects. As stated earlier, the visual effects are rather dated, but they fit well into the overall look and style of the film. However, they were all created practically, in-camera without any optical or digital composites. Coppolla details this well in the special edition DVD release.
I’m really eager to speak about the acting in this film, but not for the reason you may think – Keanu Reeves. Okay, I happen to be a Keanu fan. I’ve seen many of his films from Bill & Ted to Point Break to The Matrix to Constantine to Street Kings, but frankly, hearing Keanu trying to pull off a genuine English accent is bad cinema, really bad. And him working off of Gary Oldman for most of the film only makes him appear worse than he’s being. Keanu can deliver a fun and/or interesting performance in the right film, but this just doesn’t play to his style. Reportedly, Coppolla cast Reeves just so he’d have a “hot young star to appeal to teenage girls.” Why he felt that was required, I don’t know, and again, I have nothing but respect for Keanu, but this just wasn’t his kind of role. Anyway, onto the strong performances. Gary Oldman is where it all lies here. A Dracula film hinges on the power of the actor in the title role, and you couldn’t get any better than Oldman. The man has proven his diversity in countless films, and is absolutely one of the greatest actors of our time. He plays the infamous undead Count with such insidious charisma and lust. As the elderly Dracula, he is very creepy, eerie, and devious. He plays it up so well that it’ll make your skin crawl. As the young Dracula who attempts to illicit the love of Mina (Winona Ryder), he’s very mysterious, seductive, and still rather creepy. All in all, it’s a masterful performance, and it baffles me why Oldman wasn’t nominated for an Oscar or a Golden Globe. He did win Best Actor at the Saturn Awards, though. Joining him on the darker side of things is Tom Waits as the delusional and especially crazed Reinfield – a wonderfully satisfying performance. He certainly brings a special flavor to his few scenes acting as a prophet of doom (kind of like Crazy Ralph in Friday The 13th, only completely out of his mind).
On the protagonists’ side, we have the ever impressive Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, The Mask of Zorro) as the venerable Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Hopkins’ performance is quite lively and jovial, but overall powerful. It’s a clever and endearing performance, and despite the character’s unorthodox, verbose style, he really makes himself a favorite. He portrays a very interesting adversary for the immortal undead Count of Transylvania. While Hopkins easily has the hero lead, you also have great talents such as Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Saw), Richard E. Grant (Warlock), and the female lead in Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands, A Scanner Darkly). Winona does a fine job in this role which requires strength, fear, vulnerability, and simple beauty. She’s the object of obsession for Count Dracula, and she is the woman he has renounced God for, and has forced himself into eternal damnation over. All of these marvelous talents are well handled by the very seasoned Coppolla who is no stranger to star studded cast overflowing with sharp talent.
The score from Wojciech Kilar is absolutely awesome. It’s practically operatic, and very dramatic stuff. It’s grand, it’s powerful, and scary all at the same time. It’s an absolute wonder to experience, and makes the film even better than it was. This music is so haunting at times, and frankly, this is how a classic horror film should sound. I can’t say anything negative about it because it makes the film so much larger than life. It enhances everything on screen.
The costume design is as intricate and detailed as you would imagine. It has depth and character to it as well as grace, and in other parts, a very strange appeal. Oldman’s wardrobe is especially impressive and has become iconic. Every character is aided and enhanced by their wardrobe, and it helps breath further life into the picture. In addition to the fantastically exhaustive production design work, it gives the picture a sense of texture, personality, and history.
All in all, every part of this film makes it live and pulsate with power. Aside from Keanu, all the performances are masterful, the makeup effects are absolutely amazing, and I challenge you to find a more intense classic horror film score than this one! Overall, this is one solid, taut, and frightening film from a master filmmaker in Francis Ford Coppolla. If you’re looking for a genuinely scary, haunting, and chilling horror film – you absolutely cannot go wrong here. Frankly, I do not have the knowledge to compare this to every other Dracula film that’s come around, but general consensus has left this fine film with a strong reputation that has endured. I am glad to contribute to that with a solid endorsement for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.