I don’t think any of the sequels to The Howling have a good reputation, and that’s quite clear from this very first one. You cannot take this movie seriously, which goes under either the subtitle of Your Sister is a Werewolf or Stirba Werewolf Bitch, neither of which can be taken very seriously either. However, you can have a vastly inferior sequel that is surely not a good film still be a greatly entertaining one. If you want to trade scares for some stupid werewolf action then Howling II might be for you.
After countless millennia of watching, waiting and stalking, the unholy creatures known as werewolves are poised to inherit the earth. After newscaster Karen White’s shocking on-screen transformation and violent death, her brother Ben (Reb Brown) is approached by Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee), a mysterious man who claims that Karen has, in fact, become a werewolf. But this is the least of their worries as to save mankind, Stefan and Ben must travel to Transylvania to battle and destroy Stirba (Danning), the immortal queen of all werewolves, before she is restored to her full powers!
I honestly don’t know how this film was approached as a sequel to The Howling. Practically no effort is put into making it feel or look like a natural continuation of that story in that world with those characters. Howling II can only be described as seemingly taking place in the B-movie alternate universe of the first movie to where artistic brilliance and visionary storytelling is replaced with as much “new wave” music inspired flash and cheesy goofiness as possible. Just how they recreate the ending of the last film as a lost piece of news broadcast footage says enough with horrendous makeup effects and an actress who bares zero resemblance to Dee Wallace. Sadly, that’s just a taste of what’s to come.
Some of the editing in this movie is just bad. Certain sequences are choppy, have little coherence to the action that is occurring, and frankly, just comes off like a perplexed mess at times. The plot is much the same. Much of it is rather laughable changing werewolf lore for silly reasons. These werewolves apparently have no vulnerability to silver, and titanium must be used. Of course, stakes through the heart and holy water being some of the weapons of choice here clearly reek more of a botched up vampire screenplay than a werewolf one. So, yeah, this wasn’t a screenplay with much thought put into it, but how stupid this thing is along with some of the performances simply turns this around to being entertainingly bad. The first movie really did, reportedly, throw out a lot of what was in Gary Brandner’s novel, and if his work on the screenplay for this film is any indication, it was likely all for the best. The quality of this sequel is not built on its execution, but the script itself and the ideas it conjures up. You really can’t watch Joe Danté’s original movie followed by this and see any correlation of tone, concept, or artistic quality between them. Howling II is simply pure 1980’s cheesy entertainment value. Scares don’t factor into it, just a lot of jovial laughs because the movie is played so straight.
As ludicrous as the film makes itself out to be, when you have Christopher Lee unloading all of this exposition it’s hard not to buy into it all. With Lee being as stoic and imposing ever, the silliness of the movie is simply enhanced to higher levels of awesomeness. Whether he’s Count Dracula, a Dark Lord of the Sith, Saruman, or anything else, Lee sells every role he takes on with total earnestness and theatricality. That is no different with his performance as Stefan. Of everyone here, he plays it the most dead straight, and is the most awesome because of it. However, when he was cast in Gremlins 2, Christopher Lee apologized to director Joe Danté for having starred in this silly sequel to his remarkable film. That’s some class right there.
Mostly going for broke through his enjoyably non-dimensional acting talents is Reb Brown. His reactions to Stefan’s exposition is probably the same as the audience’s – total, eye-rolling disbelief. It makes for some funny moments, but it’s really when Reb delves headlong into his guttural screams as he blasts away with a shotgun at this film’s sad excuses for werewolves that his base level entertainment value comes to light. A good performance? Not by a long shot, but like so much here, it’s all a lot of bad junk that compiles into a raucous fun time.
Of course, rounding out the cult following cast is Sybil Danning who is here simply to add a busty sexy appeal, and she surely excels at that. However, the werewolf sex scene in this film is purely gratuitous while being entirely unappealing to look at. Whereas the first film made it a great melding of eroticism and primal terror, this sequel just throws in a sex scene for the hell of it and decides to glue a ton of cheap furry makeup on the actors. Aside from Danning ripping off her top, there’s nothing worth seeing in this sequence, and you can stick around for the end credits to see that bare-breasted moment repeated a total of sixteen times.
The werewolf effects in this sequel are not close to being even second rate when compared to Rob Bottin’s amazing work on the first film. They are cheap and often cheesy. Most times, the filmmakers try to disguise them through all the terrible rapid fire, incoherent editing, or by having people be chased by a steadicam point of view shot. Unfortunately, there’s no real hiding substandard quality like this. These bad makeup effects, along with a couple of cheap visual effects, are yet another thing that makes this movie as enjoyably bad as it is.
I suppose the one genuinely good thing in Howling II is the new wave rock main theme by Babel, which is repeated every few minutes. It’s a really catchy tune, and so, it’s not at all a burden to hear again and again and again. However, what score there is beyond that isn’t much worth noting. I’ll also say that the movie is fairly well shot with some good production values and art direction. So, it’s not a poor film to look at. It really is just some of the sloppy editing that makes so much look incompetent.
Like I said, there is nothing here that is remotely scary, but when the shotgun blasting, titanium stake stabbing, and magic wielding action begins, it’s quite enjoyable in all its over-the-top cheesiness. Seeing Christopher Lee and Reb Brown standing back-to-back gunning down crappy looking werewolves is about as much fun as it sounds. Howling II is a terrible sequel to the visionary original, but if you take it as it is in being a film that feels like it exists in an entirely different universe than the first, you can have a lot of fun watching it. It’s just pure B-movie indulgence.
And so, the story of vampire bloodlust and creatures of the night lurking in shadowy Romanian locales from Full Moon Features continue! As with all the sequels in this franchise, this film picks up exactly where the second one ended, and was designed that way with both the second and third films being shot back-to-back. Bloodlust: Subspecies III continues to build upon its characters and arcs with fantastic success. Where the second film had essentially all the setup, this film has a lot of pay-off, but does feel a little lacking since it is focused more on resolution than development. Yet, it would not be the final sequel.
Radu (Anders Hove) has been destroyed, and Michelle (Denice Duff) has been captured by Radu’s vile mother, Mummy. Mummy uses sorcery to bring Radu back to life, then magically transports them back to Castle Vladislas to escape their mortal pursuers: Michelle’s sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner), Mel Thompson of the US Embassy (Kevin Blair), and Lt. Marin of the Bucharest police (Ion Haiduc). Radu’s obsession with Michelle undermines his power over her. She manipulates him into teaching her the secrets of vampire existence and how to harness her vampire powers. Once she learns to survive on her own, she intends to destroy him, but Michelle’s plan is put into jeopardy when Rebecca and her allies plan to storm the castle to rescue her from Radu’s clutches.
This film definitely amps up the horror factor a little in interesting ways. It mainly stems from Michelle’s further seduction to her vampire bloodlust which is beautifully orchestrated by Radu. She begins to embrace being a vampire, but is unable to fully sever her humanity. She feasts on the blood of the innocent, but cannot condemn her own sister to a similar gruesome fate. Denice Duff beautifully portrays the painful inner turmoil of Michelle as her emotions are ripped and pulled in so many directions. She looks gorgeous, sexy, and seductive as this femme fatale vampiress, but it’s that vulnerability which seeps through that makes her compelling and heartbreakingly sympathetic. While she does seem like an inconsistent character going back and forth from subservient to adversarial, it sort of works with all that confusion and inner turmoil she’s dealing with.
Unexpectedly, the film gives us this peculiar moment of depth between Michelle and Radu. Near the break of dawn, she wants to see the sunrise, and she inquires about what can kill a vampire. She does so because she wants to die. Radu then offers his creepy, undying love to her, but she scorns him with her eternal hatred. She hates what he did to him, but there remains a constant struggle within her. She hunts and quenches her thirst for blood, but she loathes what she has become. Some of this sounds kind of odd because Radu is the furthest thing from a romanticized vampire. That role was more akin to his now dead brother Stefan, but in the context of the film and series, this is a surprisingly ambitious moment. The film could exist without such a scene, but it adds extra layers of depth and emotion to both characters that I really admire.
And Anders Hove is given even more depth and material to expand Radu with. There’s this almost tragic quality to him by now in what he’s done to his entire family, and Michelle is now all that he has left to claim as his own. Yet, Hove still delivers the ghastly horror and nightmarish creep factor superbly. I just love how he continually tempts Michelle with indulging her vampire urges and desires. Despite showing more emotional qualities, he is still a ferocious, bonafide evil vampire which is the core of his appeal.
I think Kevin Blair gets a little stronger material to work with this time out. He gets to be more physically involved in the action, and be more assertive and proactive in the plot. It’s still not a great performance by any means, but Mel becomes a more purposeful character in this film than the last one. And of course, Melanie Shatner continues on in a nicely solid performance as Rebecca Morgan. She was such a strong and enjoyable part of these two films that it is a terrible shame that both hers and Kevin Blair’s characters were unceremoniously written out of the fourth film.
However, in this film, I really came to enjoy Lieutenant Marin. Regardless of any ADR work done on him, Ion Haiduc does a very entertaining and quirky job with the police investigator. He’s got some light-hearted chemistry with Blair and Shatner. Marin is a bit of a pesky detective keeping a tight watch on Becky and Mel throughout the film, and having some lightly humorous interactions. It’s not one of those performances that takes you out of the seriousness of the film. Marin isn’t quite convinced that vampires are prowling Romania, and so, he has a bit of a preposterous perspective on the events that are unfolding. Yet, he is persistent in his investigation if only due to the peculiar nature of everything that’s occurring.
Now, with these two sequels being shot back-to-back we get a very consistent technical quality with make-up effects, cinematography, and production values overall. So, it would be a little redundant to discuss them here, but in short, it’s all very solid stuff. This sequel seems to be even visually darker with more heavy shadows, and fewer daylight scenes. That is further enhanced by the great remastering job on the new DVD and Blu Ray releases. And in the effects department, we are treated to the most elaborate and pleasing “demise” of Radu yet as our heroes attempt an escape at dawn, but of course, a resurrection is hinted at before the end with the appearance of the Subspecies themselves.
Writer and director Ted Nicolaou did a very fine job helming this franchise and steering it into a fascinating and entertaining direction. These could’ve easily just been dry, low grade fare, but genuine effort was put into these films to make them enjoyable, creepy, and interesting. The crux of it all really is the evolving dynamic between Michelle and Radu. It is what drives the stories forward, and the actors in both roles put their all into it. While the supporting cast is not all as great as Duff and Hove, there’s still decent qualities in the stories and characters to keep the movie entertaining. Full Moon really loved their franchises, and were always leaving enough of a door open for another direct-to-video sequel. Michelle’s story is not fully resolved in this film, but it would take a few extra years before we were treated to another sequel.
Watching these films again makes me realize that while there is bloodletting and ghoulish, artistic visuals, the Subspecies movies aren’t designed for high fright factor, but more for entertainment value and atmospheric, moody creepiness. They are fun vampire films with some well executed emotional depth and interesting vampire lore that are beautifully shot and set in the heart of Romania. The addition of a slightly humorous CIA specialist helping Becky and Mel storm the castle ended up being less than important to the plot, and more of a facilitating element to get Mel inside Castle Vladislas as Radu’s captive. So, it has throwaway elements here and there, but in general, Bloodlust: Subspecies III really pays off everything pertinent that the series has built up at this point. I will get around to a review of Subspecies IV: Bloodstorm, but that is quite an unusual film with peculiar quirks to it.
The advantage of a sequel, sometimes, is to take what you did the first time and refine it. You can build upon the ideas and story you established in the first outing. That is the case with the Subspecies franchise. The first film was good, but fairly basic in its story, technical quality, and ideas. Starting with this first sequel, we have a wider expansion on all of this with superior production values, and a building of characters and storylines that make this a far more fascinating world to explore.
The centuries old conflict that has plagued the villages of Transylvania explodes into bloodshed. The mad vampire Radu (Anders Hove) becomes obsessed with Michelle (Denice Duff), who loves his half-mortal brother Stefan. In his quest to possess Michelle and the sacred relic, the Bloodstone, Radu destroys Stefan as he sleeps. Michelle steals the Bloodstone and escapes from Radu’s castle. She finds a lair beneath a theatre in Bucharest and stalks the streets in torment, torn between her fading humanity and her growing thirst for blood. She phones her sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner) and begs her to come to Bucharest to help her. With the aid of Mel Thompson (Kevin Blair) of the US Embassy and Romanian policeman Lt. Marin (Ion Haiduc) she hunts for Michelle in the shadows of the sinister city. Radu, desperate to regain the Bloodstone, seeks help from his monstrous mother, the ageless sorceress Mummy, who demands that he destroy Michelle before she destroys him. Rebecca becomes Radu’s unwitting pawn in the race to find Michelle and the Bloodstone.
The superior quality of Bloodstone: Subspecies II over its predecessor is obvious right from the opening scene. What were low quality video composite effects before are vastly superior visual effects that integrate much smoother with the live action elements. The Bloodstone itself is also given a higher grade revamp. The make-up effects are more refined giving extra texture and detail to Radu’s ghastly visage. And we get Radu’s severely decayed witch mother that creates a very creepy visual that nicely complements Radu himself. These are a gruesome pair that reek horror throughout the film. While I don’t have facts to reference, it would seem that Full Moon put some extra money behind this sequel to give it a little more polish and technical enhancement. Even the score is more impressive. It has more haunting qualities that forge a mysterious atmosphere. The use of synthesizers feels more natural and high quality compared to the first film. Overall, it’s just a more lush, richer score that really envelopes the film nicely.
The cinematography of Vlad Paunescu is a marked improvement here with many more camera moves adding to the film’s dramatic quality. He still uses the Nosferatu-esque silhouette of Radu stretching across buildings to great effect. There’s plenty of creepy, moody, atmospheric lighting in abundance here as Radu lurks in the shadows. They highlight such an excellent, chilling presentation for these creatures of the night. Plus, there’s just great use of subtle angles to give a sense of scale to the Romanian landmarks and practical locations. Instead of being confined to a small, quaint eastern European town, Subspecies II delves us into Bucharest with a lot of gorgeous scenery to envelope the film in, and the visuals take advantage of that substantially.
In the role of Michelle, there was a casting change to Denice Duff, and I feel she was a very good fit for where these sequels took the character. She’s a much more vulnerable, troubled, and emotionally shaken character after having been turned into a vampire. This creates a compelling weakness in contrast to Radu’s bold, frightening, and powerful presence. She might seem like the token cowering female in a horror movie, but the dynamic we get between Michelle and Radu becomes very interesting. This character we care so much for is pulled into the sway of the villain, and is unable to break free of it. While Laura Tate’s Michelle was portrayed as a much stronger woman, I don’t have a problem where Ted Nicolaou took her here. As the film progresses, Duff’s Michelle Morgan succumbs to her vampire nature more making it increasingly difficult to resist the bloodlust. And of course, as she descends into the sway of the vampire, she becomes a very beautiful, alluring sight.
In turn, the role of a stronger female is given to Michelle’s sister Becky, portrayed by Melanie Shatner who is indeed the daughter of William Shatner. She has confidence, spirit, and courage which allows her to become a solid, assertive protagonist. While Michelle struggles with her own vampiric compulsions and temptations, Becky attempts to find a way to save her alongside a small group of characters. Kevin Blair, who was Nick in Friday The 13th, Part VII: The New Blood, does a fairly solid job as Mel. He holds his own just fine, but doesn’t have an opportunity to standout amongst the crowd.
And again, Anders Hove delivers a wickedly excellent performance as Radu. He seemed to up his game a little bit here now that Radu had a stronger storyline to follow. He’s still as skin crawlingly creepy as ever, but seems more forceful, more powerful than before. The presentation of Radu from a cinematography standpoint is far more stunning and ghoulish than before, and its only further aided by the improvements in his make-up design.
Now, this sequel is not heavy on the horror and bloodletting, but instead, focuses more on the mood and atmosphere while building up its story. We do get some moments of horror and gore sprinkled throughout, and there is a very prominent air of mystique and lurking horror through most of the film. However, Bloodstone: Subspecies II was designed to be one half of a whole as it was shot back-to-back with Bloodlust: Subspecies III. I think the story and script Nicolaou put together is very good giving us enough emotional investment to carry us forward on both Michelle’s and Becky’s journeys. It has a bit tighter pace than the first film, and more plot elements to propel the 87 minute film forward.
Following suit with their twentieth anniversary release of Subspecies, Full Moon has done a high definition remastering on the first two sequels, and the improvements are immediately noticeable. This is a beautiful widescreen presentation where the heavy shadows are now deep blacks with solid contrast that still allows for a lot of detail to show through. While the film has a limited and grounded color palette, the amber glows of daylight and fire are rich and strong. I have the DVD release, and this is a very clean print that still looks like 35mm film. I’ve read that the Blu Ray releases for both sequels are even superior to that of the first film, likely much to do the higher production values of both movies.
Director Ted Nicolaou also took over screenwriting duties for the sequels, and did take things in a bit different direction with characters and plot. While it required a little bit of a concept change here and there, I think it was for the better. Bloodstone: Subspecies II feels like the overall strongest film of the franchise. While it doesn’t have the pay-off that the next film will have, by design, the building of plot and character elements make this more interesting than the first film, and that allows for more to be going on in the film than we get in the third movie. The fourth movie, which I will review once that gets its remastered home video release, has many peculiar qualities to it, and so, if asked which Subspecies film appeals to me the most, it’s likely Bloodstone: Subspecies II.
Talk about old favorites from the VHS era of direct-to-video movies. Subspecies came to us from Full Moon Entertainment which was all about that market with franchises like Trancers and The Puppet Master. However, this was my taste with a Romanian shot vampire film. I think I was mainly exposed to this franchise when they used to air on the Sci-Fi Channel back in the late 90s. Those were my early days of horror, and thus, Subspecies remains a sentimental favorite. Full Moon produced four films in this franchise over seven years, and in 2011, they re-released the first film in a Digitally Remastered 20th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-Ray. Previous DVD releases were from the original VHS masters, and so, it’s nice to finally watch the film in a generally more appropriate widescreen presentation. I will say that this is not a film for just anyone due to a few reasons which I will get to after the synopsis.
The evil vampire villain Radu (Anders Hove) returns to his hometown Prejnar, after spending years in exile. He confronts and murders his father, the King (Angus Scrimm), and steals the precious Bloodstone which is said to be bleeding from all saints. It gives whoever drinks from it greater vampire power. Meanwhile, two American schoolgirls team up with a local girl for work on Romanian culture. Radu becomes attracted to them and begins to stalk them through the shadowy town. However, he runs into trouble when his half-brother Stefan (Michael Watson) helps and protects the girls from Radu’s grisly intentions.
Okay, first off, I do have to address the glaring blotch on the quality of the film. You have to remember that this was a low budget direct-to-video movie from the early 1990s. You’re going to get some bad visual effects, and I couldn’t help but laugh in enjoyment of this. The good is that they are brief, and mostly at the very start of the picture. These involve the Subspecies themselves, the little creatures that are spawned from Radu’s own self. It’s probably stop motion animation coupled with a low grade video composite shot. However, most subsequent shots of the Subspecies are far, far better with a proper optical film composite process, but there are still a few of those ugly ones later in the movie. Those bad shots are cringe inducing, and really require you to have an acquired taste for this sort of thing. As much as I wish they had been, the digitally remastered DVD doesn’t fix any of this. They just restored the original film print for a digital video presentation, and it does look vastly better than it ever has before. If you can sidestep these brief moments of low grade effects shots, you’ll find a rather enjoyable vampire film fronted by one of the best vampires ever committed to cinema.
The whole cast feels very authentic. This is both due to the straight forward writing and fine casting. The regular cast doesn’t have any true standouts, but they do all add to the flavor of the film. Since this was all filmed in Romania, director Ted Nicolaou cast some local talent that is exceptional. It might be low budget, but the acting is truly not low quality. Laura Tate does a nice, solid job as Michelle, but the sequels would recast the role with Denise Duff who seemed to be better suited for where the sequels took the character. Michael Watson is very good as Stefan. He is the tall dark stranger that is able to capture the ladies’ hearts. Watson makes Stefan charming but mysterious. He has his secrets to keep, but is not an evil individual. He shows grief for his now dead father, and fears his treacherous brother Radu. Watson has fine low key chemistry and presence which serves the character very well. Of course, we get a solid cameo appearance by Angus Scrimm as King Vladislav. There was no better choice of who to play opposite Anders Hove at the beginning of the picture than Phantasm’s own Tall Man.
For my money, there is hardly a more vile, vicious, horrific, or creepy vampire in all of cinema than Radu Vladislav. The make-up design is astounding creating a pale, nightmarish visage that actor Anders Hove sinks deeply into, and there are definite elements of Nosferatu in here with his elongated fingers and the more uncommon fang design. These make Radu’s shadowy figure unmistakable, and that silhouette is used to excellent effect throughout the movie. Also, that scratchy, strained, lusting voice sends chills up one’s spine. Hove plunges himself fully into this role with a sadistic, salacious, and deliciously evil performance. Radu is a creature with no conscience or morality. He is consumed by his lust for power via the Bloodstone, and gains so much vile pleasure in everything he does. His presence alone captivates an audience’s attention. I like that he’s not romantic, but carries that aura of vampiric bloodlust seduction. He’s not the handsome mysterious stranger that one would fall in love with, like Stefan. It’s purely that enthralling vampire bloodlust which draws his victims in. Radu is such a rich character that there was obvious fertile ground still left to explore with him, and so, intentionally leaving the ending open for the sequels was a fine choice. He is truly one of the best vampires in cinematic history that most people have never known about.
The film is very nicely shot especially with the Castle Vladislav interiors. Amidst the perfectly shadowy interiors, fiery torches accent each scene there. The cinematography of Vlad Paunescu shows off the Romanian setting very well with some very nice wide shots of landscape and the castle itself. We get a strong sense of its size and imposing nature. Obviously, with a film of this level there aren’t many fancy or elaborate shots, but what we are given services the overall tone very well. It’s very competently shot presenting some atmospheric and frightening visuals that effectively tell the story. There were several composers who worked on the film, and I’m not sure why. It is all a generally synthesizer based score that is not elaborate, but generally good and nicely conceived. I’m sure, had the budget allowed for it, a full orchestral based score would’ve elevated the atmospheric quality of the film exponentially.
The story itself is quite simple and straight forward. Screenwriters Jackson Barr and David Pabian gave us something that didn’t try to be more than what it could be. Ted Nicolaou maintains a steady pace for a decently satisfying 80 minute film. As is usual, the sequels would get more ambitious with their stories and plots, and delve us further into the mythology of the characters. For this first outing, I think everyone did a good job. There are some scares in the film, but by today’s standards, they’re fairly tame. Such moments are certainly your standard vampire fare, but they are well executed never going for cheapness or silliness. Nicolaou keeps a consistent dramatic tone throughout the film, and treats the horror aspects with respect. Considering the marvelous age of computer generated digital effects we have now, it’s hard to look back to such a low budget film from the early 90s, and say Nicolaou probably made the best quality film he could with what he had. However, I think that’s just about the truth. I have no reference for what exactly the budget was on this film, but I think it’s very safe to say it didn’t exceed six figures. Usually with effects films of this time I compare them to Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Jurassic Park, but there is no way anyone could rationally make such comparisons between a low budget direct-to-video movie and two multi-million dollar summer blockbusters. Full Moon used what they could afford, but I’m sure some of the results probably left something to be desired even in 1991.
I would never say that Subspecies is a great film or a perfect franchise, but it’s vastly enjoyable. It has its high marks, especially with Anders Hove’s amazing and consistent work as Radu, but it’s surely restricted by its direct-to-video budget. A fifth film in the series has been prevented from happening due to Full Moon’s decline in budgetary resources. Nicolaou and Hove are game for another sequel, but want to have the proper budget to do justice for the script they have. Normally, one would say that making another sequel fourteen years after the last sequel would seem unlikely, but with a company such as Full Moon where all they really do are cult movies and direct-to-video features, anything is possible. Their niche audience is there for the long haul. Again, this is not a film for just anyone. I strongly believe you would have had to have grown up in this era of low budget VHS movies to endure those low grade video effects. I know everyone’s seen bad digital effects, but this is a whole different type of experience. I’m sure the gradual pace of the film would not appeal to many modern audiences, either. However, if you are a fan of these kinds of films, Subspecies is definitely worth checking out. I genuinely think experiencing some of Anders Hove’s Radu is greatly worthwhile. Even if the movie itself holds no weight with you, I believe this horrific and stunning character certainly has that potential.
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.