From the Archive: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

keanu.png

This was written for The Pointer, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Other headlines in the same issue, published in November of 1992, include “Videos produced on Point’s award winning recycling,” “Freeze tuition costs!” and “Do you know where your deer tags are?”

With lush imagery and stunning special effects, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is unlike any other horror film you’re likely to see. The blockbuster hit flaunts the fact that it’s the most faithful adaptation of the 1897 Bram Stoker novel, but the story itself seems secondary to the grandiose staging and the swirling, dizzying visuals.

The film casts Gary Oldman (“Sid and Nancy,” “JFK”) as the notorious Count Dracula and portrays the vampire as a tragic figure. Dracula is less a monster and more a sympathetic figure who renounces the church after a priest declares that his wife will not be allowed into Heaven because she took her own life. As the nineteenth century comes to a close, Dracula is locked away in his Transylvanian castle, appearing as a withered old man to a law clerk (Keanu Reeves, his weaknesses as an actor in full display) who has journeyed from London to help the Count process some property purchases.

The Dracula we see in these scenes is a marvelously crafty creature, lapping blood anxiously off of a shaving razor or being betrayed by his own shadow, which creeps along as a separate entity, trying to throttle the clerk when Dracula’s anger rises. Oldman successfully makes the transition into portraying Dracula as an alluring, romantic man as he travels to London in an attempt to win the affections of the clerk’s fiancee (Winona Ryder), who looks exactly like his former wife. Through the lens of director Francis Ford Coppola, Dracula is a sensual beast, filled with enticing danger and capable of anything, even deep compassion. In this film, the vampire is more complex than the average night stalker.

Yet it is the trickery of the camera that seems to fascinate Coppola more, as he lets the character be buried in a muddled, at times incomprehensible, story that is often made worse by Coppola’s desire to make practically every scene change into an experimental meshing of images. The further the audience gets distanced from the story and the characters, the more difficult it becomes for this film to be scary, or even mildly disturbing. The film’s unwillingness to try to jolt the audience with cheap shocks is a welcome change from the usual horror fare, but even as scenes portray twisted, bloody madness, the film is never able to become as unsettling as it aspires to be. In fact, it can’t even send the least frigid chill up the spine.

Coppola creates a grand Gothic darkness, but the effect is minimal. The film holds us at a distance, allowing us to marvel at the images without letting them become intense or disturbing. The visuals are so overwhelming that the film’s simplest pleasure wind up being what works best: the tender moments between Dracula and his beloved, or the wryly perceptive performance from the great Anthony Hopkins as Abraham Van Helsing, the vampire hunter. Francis Ford Coppola may have crafted a big screen, dreary nightmare, but he’s eliminated the unpredictable frights, leaving only the disjointed confusion.

 

One for Friday: Marshall Crenshaw, “Whatever Way the Wind Blows”

crenshaw.jpg

In my earliest couple of years at the college radio station, I mentally differentiated between those artists who completely belonged to us kids — those that I could see as rough contemporaries — and those who were, for lack of a better term, “adults.” This wasn’t always based purely on chronology. The Cure, for example, released their fourth studio album at around the same time Marshall Crenshaw released his first, but it was the Detroit native who I automatically slotted into a sort of college rock elder statesman role. After all, the Cure were still crafting songs that spoke directly to the moony longing of my teenaged soul. It was Crenshaw who was releasing records that shimmered with a level of maturity that seemed distantly unobtainable to me.

Part of my perception was certainly based on external influences. Crenshaw’s albums were reviewed as if they were stately sonic dispatches offering a reasoned counter-argument to brash ruffians banging out more aggressive rock sounds. In a sense, his releases were made for those music critics who’d been at it for twenty years or more, who still wanted to love the melding of guitars, bass, and drums, but were starting to feel like some of it was too darn loud. Crenshaw was a smart, tuneful songwriter, and a kindly empathetic interpreter of others’ songs. That his efforts in the latter category sometimes smoothed out a song’s jagged kinks, as with his cover of Richard Thompson’s “Valerie,” only made him more appealing, no doubt, to rock critics of a certain age.

That take on “Valerie” appears on Good Evening, the Crenshaw album that arrived as I was closing out my first full year as an ever-dazzled member of a college radio station staff. I really liked the record, but I’ll admit there was a thread of self-congratulation to it whenever I added a track from it to one of my playlists. I was a real grown-up, by gum, and I could play real grown-up records. Of course, that sentiment strikes me as silly these days, and not just because Crenshaw then was a full decade younger than I am now. Fine music has no age range attached to it.

Listen or download –> Marshall Crenshaw, “Whatever Way the Wind Blows”

(Disclaimer: I believe Good Evening to be out of print, at least as a physical item that be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner than compensates both Mr. Crenshaw at the proprietor of said shop. Crenshaw’s got a respectable bustle of “greatest hits” kind of compilations devoted to his work, so it’s possible the track shared here crops up on one of them. Even so, I mean no fiscal harm to any worthy parties — I don’t really include Warner Bros. Records in tat constituency — and will gladly remove the music file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Daley and Goldstein, Dougherty, Letterman, Ritchie, Silverstein

Vacation (John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, 2015). Like any Freaks and Geeks devotee, I’m rooting for Sam Weir as he transitions from actor to one half of a comedy filmmaking team, but this thing is hideous. A supposed continuation of the Vacation franchise, it’s more of a lazy remake of the 1983 Harold Ramis film, replacing what minor vestiges of wit it carried with hollow raunch. There’s nothing inherently wrong with raw, audacious comedy, but there’s still an obligation to actually structure humor. Instead, Daley and Goldstein have a kid hurl blue insults at his older brother and the mere fact that he’s cursing like Redd Foxx on a bender is meant to be enough to send the audience into gales of laughter. It’s so bad that it plays like accidental anti-humor.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Guy Ritchie, 2015). This attempt at turning the nineteen-sixties spy-craft television series into a modern franchise is an incredible bore, no matter how much Ritchie tries to goose it to life with his trademark flittering-attention-span editing techniques. As co-screenwriter, he also owns the convolutions of the plot, which keeps doubling back to explain things that weren’t all that mysterious or interesting to begin with. The film is structured as a period piece, allowing for the easy preservation of the the original show’s Cold War angle of an unlikely partnership of a U.S. agent and Russian agent working together. That doesn’t instill the hoped for added tension, though it does open up Armie Hammer to employ a full-on moose-und-sqvirrel accent, which would easily be the most annoying part of his performance if not for the character being hampered with the most ludicrous anger management issues since Marty McFly flew off the handle whenever anyone called him “chicken.” Putting Alicia Vikander into a series of smashing mod frocks is about the only thing the movie gets right.

Krampus (Michael Dougherty, 2015). Drawing from the famed German folklore baddie, the filmmakers behind this effort were clearly trying to hit the elusive sweet spot Joe Dante’s Gremlins hit thirty years ago: sorta scary, sorta frenetic, sorta satirical, sorta Christmasy, sorta funny. Instead, it’s a plain mess. The best that can be said for the talented performers stuck in this, such as Adam Scott and Toni Collette, is that a realization of the production’s woeful quality seems to be slowly but clearly dawning on them in certain scenes.

The Car (Elliot Silverstein, 1977). Six years before Stephen King published Christine, there was The Car. This nineteen-seventies horror flick rarely progresses beyond its basic concept of a haunted car terrorizing a small community, but it does hold all of the cheeseball pleasures of the era, led by a overtly macho lead performance by James Brolin. Presumably meant to add to the film’s mystique, Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey was cited as a creative consultant, a surprisingly prevalent little side business for him at around this time.

Goosebumps (Rob Letterman, 2015). The famed series of young adult horror novels by R.L. Stine have sold well over a quarter of a billion book worldwide, but finding a way to properly being them to the multiplex has proven tricky for Hollywood executives. Their unique solution involves making Stine himself a character in the movie, with his imaginative creations running amok in a humble Delaware town. Jack Black plays the author with the expected comic brio and the movie is full to bursting with vivid yet appropriately tamed down gruesomeness. It never becomes more than a modestly enjoyable diversion. For this kind of film, though, that’s not bad.

My Misspent Youth: Marvel Team-Up Annual #4 by Frank Miller and Herb Trimpe

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I committed to superhero comic books in the early nineteen-eighties, I was immediately enraptured by the connectivity of the Marvel universe. While the storytelling practice has reached levels of pure tedium these days, marked by supposed “event series” that pile as many costumed figures as possible into plots as hopelessly ensnarled as the wires behind a media obsessive’s entertainment center, there was still a frisson of excitement to be had back then when unlikely compatriots crossed paths. Even so, I was never a regular reader of Marvel Team-Up, the series built around such convergences. (I did read Marvel Two-in-One, but that was clearly attributable to the monthly presence of one Benjamin J. Grimm rather than excitement over the prospect of rotating crime-fighting partnerships.) I suspect even my youthful self saw the team-up series as a contrivance, developed out of the necessity of adhering to the title’s conceit rather than urgent storytelling inspiration and opportunity. The Annuals, though; those were different.

I’ve expounded on the pleasures of old Marvel Comics Annuals previously. Arriving in the summer months, when both spare time and spending money were presumably more plentiful among the pint-sized customers, these were titanic tales were too big and special to be contained in the regular monthly mag. They required the breadth of a double-sized spectacular, set aside in its own numbering system. Holding the promise of big, bombastic stories, often with multiple guest stars, the Team-Up Annuals were irresistible to me. And the issue I read to raggedy fragility was Marvel Team-Up Annual #4, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by Herb Trimpe.

I’d need to consult a relevant Bullpen Bulletins page to know for sure, but it’s entirely possible I was further enticed to grab this issue because it was written by Miller, already hitting a remarkable stride early in his run as the scribe (and artist) in a defining run on Daredevil. The Man Without Fear was one of the characters featured in the ad hoc team of heroes, and it was one of his old villains taking on the antagonist role in the issue. Before later comic books and an exceptionally well-crafted appearance in a Netflix series cemented the notion that the character should be primarily referred to a Kilgrave, his alter ego moniker nabbed unimaginatively from Crayola box still stood.

Our heroes would be battling the Purple Man. The first to encounter the violet-hued villainy was none other than the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who tried intervening when the Purple Man instigated a street brawl. Using his mind control powers, the Purple Man commanded the web-slinger to hang upside down from a lamppost and recite Shakespeare. When Spider-Man fumbled through a couple of lines, confessing to a pitifully lack of knowledge of the Bard’s works (Peter Parker was an egghead, but devoted to science instead of literature), the Purple Man asked what might suit him better.

mtua 1.JPG

This was precisely the sort of little detail I loved in the Marvel comics of the era: the consistency of the characters’ quirks. Some writer had decided Peter Parker would be an Elvis Costello fan, undoubtedly inspired as much by the vague physical resemblance between the two as anything else, and it carried through across multiple titles, stories, and creators.

Looking back now, I’m equally delighted by little flourishes that would only be deployed in a joking, ironically knowing way today, such as the use of an official logo when new characters enter the story.

mtua 2.JPG

Since the good guys are teaming up, it only makes sense that bad guys would also form alliances. In this instance, the Purple Man winds up working with the Kingpin, in part because the hefty mob boss proves uniquely immune to the uniquely pigmented sociopath’s powers of persuasion.

mtua 3.JPG

Somewhere out there, there are fans of the Marvel Streaming Video Universe (if that is indeed a piece of terminology that can be used) who are longing to see this scene acted out by David Tennant and Vincent D’Onofrio. Given the elusive nature of mortality in superhero adventures, that is not outside the realm of possibility.

With the adversarial teams set, the plot moves forward to the inevitable huge confrontation. The Purple Man is employed by the Kingpin, and Spider-Man, Daredevil, Moon Knight, Power Man and Iron First have assembled in order to save the day. Of course, the Purple Man’s powers help him to draw together an unwilling army of civilians.

mtua 4.JPG

Elsewhere in the issue, the heroes discovered that a quick splash of cold water was enough to jolt someone from the Purple Man’s sway, so the angry mob is finally dispatched through aquatic means. Similarly, as dreadful as the villain’s irresistible influence may be (and this story hews remarkably close to the eventual chilling depiction of the character found in the Jessica Jones series), he’s also someone who can ultimately be bested by strategic use of earplugs and a gag.

mtua 5.JPG

It’s hardly the most dramatic conclusion, but it provides the welcome satisfaction of heroes saving the day. That it required a team-up to accomplish this goal only made it more exciting, or so it seemed to at least one eleven-year-old who plunked down three quarter to add this issue to his collection.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Laughing Matters: “Cheers,” The Dime Bet

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Once, while bemoaning a generation’s regrettable reliance on television rather than books as a conduit to learning, the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut had to allow for an exception to his complaint. He famously noted, “I would have rather written Cheers than anything I’ve written.” Obviously, this is no faint praise, given than it emanates from the author of some of the most justly revered novels of his era. I could go on at length as to why Cheers should still be prohibitive favorite in any discussion of the greatest television comedy of all time (ground I’ve at least skidded across previously in this digital space), but for now I’ll simply acknowledge that I’ve routinely returned to this clip in the past couple weeks, any time I needed some rejuvenation. And it’s worked every time.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Now Playing: Everybody Wants Some!!

wants.png

Everybody Wants Some!!, the new film written and directed by Richard Linklater, is being officially pitched as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, the belatedly beloved sophomore effort from the filmmaker. Dazed and Confused was something of a dud upon it’s release, in 1993, but its stoner humor was perfectly suited to the languid development of a cult following, cultivated in dorm rooms and high schoolers’ rec rooms from coast to coast. Like its tangentially related predecessor, Everybody Wants Some!! is a squirrelly period piece, notching ahead a couple of calendar years, to 1980, as Jake (Blake Jenner) arrives at a Texas college where he’s a pending freshman under a baseball scholarship. He’s assigned to one of the houses on the outskirts of campus, stocked with teammates equally disinterested in academia and fully invested in the hedonistic behavior that has been a staple of college-set films since at least the point when Pinto and Flounder first wandered into the Delta Tau Chi house.

The additional commonality with Dazed and Confused is the conviction to avoid a true plot at all costs. There are a couple of story threads — the most prominent is a mildly implausible courtship with a pretty theater and dance major named Beverly (Zoey Deutch) — but the film mainly moves on its own lackadaisical wavelength, exploring the boozy recreational activities and minor character skirmishes that take place in the few days between arrival on campus and the start of classes. Luckily, Linklater is better at this meandering style than most. It suits his humanistic curiosity and plays to his capacity for finding the quietly profound within the mundane. When Everybody Wants Some!! is invested in exploring the ways living as a young adult is an ongoing experiment in identity, trying on guises as an effort to draw others in, it is generally successful, making up for its more rickety stretches with stealthy swells of insight.

There’s another key effort from Linklater’s filmography that casts a long shadow on Everybody Wants Some!! That’s Boyhood, which will likely wriggle in the margins of the director’s new works for quite some time. In effect, Everybody Wants Some!! begins where Boyhood ends: the arrival at college. Where Boyhood‘s Mason seem poised to gently and gracefully begin anew, the new film shows what happens when youth implodes and there’s nothing productive to take its place, especially for the male of the species. Linklater, who himself arrived at college as a student athlete at around the time the new film take place, may very well be looking at this masculine mayhem with nostalgia, but it all struck me as the rollicking epitome of dunderheaded aimlessness. The transition between boy and man requires a stop as a human disaster, the film implicitly argues. If that’s not the film’s deftest thesis, it’s probably its most convincing. Hold tight, fellas. Someday the confusion will lift.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 208 – 206

208 elephant.jpg

208. King Crimson, “Elephant Talk”

Sure, there are many ways the King Crimson single “Elephant Talk” lives on, but perhaps its most unique legacy is lending its name to a groundbreaking web-based fan site. Well before most were adept at relating addresses with a well placed @, King Crimson fan Toby Howard started a newsletter meant to be distributed via email. Dubbed “Elephant Talk,” the first issue was distributed in the summer of 1991. That eventually led to a website of the same name, which further evolved into a wiki-style platform years later, after some twelve hundred plus issues over fifteen years, all still available online for intrepid explorers. As the lead track on the 1981 album Discipline, “Elephant Talk” represented the reintroduction of King Crimson after a multi-year layoff. Initially, Discipline was the name guitarist Robert Fripp intended to give to a new band he was pulling together. After a few gigs as Discipline, he relented to his own legacy, choosing to continue under the King Crimson moniker. One of the new members of the band was guitarist Adrian Belew, fresh off a tour with the Talking Heads. Also charged with lead vocal duties, Belew settled in as the group’s lyricist as well, initially opting for a highly democratic approach. It was in the composition of “Elephant Talk” that he realized that sort of creative generosity may not be the best route. He explained, “One day, when I was formulating this thought about putting together just singular words for ‘Elephant Talk,’ I went to the other guys in the band and I said, ‘You got any favorite words you want to throw in here?’ Robert was saying, like, ‘inalgedenomic’ and all these crazy words that I really couldn’t imagine myself singing. So after that we agreed: yeah, if I want to sing, I should sing what I feel like singing.” Like most King Crimson songs, “Elephant Talk” didn’t have any discernible success on the commercial charts, but the band did play it live on the Saturday Night Live knockoff Fridays.

207 killing.jpg

207. Echo & the Bunnymen, “The Killing Moon”

Most people agree that “The Killing Moon” is the best song by Echo & the Bunnymen. Ian McCulloch, the band’s lead singer can be counted among that number. In fact, from the jump he was immodest about telling anyone who’d listen that it was one of the great songs of all time. In an 1987 interview he boasted, “I still think ‘The Killing Moon’ is worth a whole album. Even now, nobody has released anything like that. And it was so easy to write. I can’t believe people can’t write like that. Actually, I can. I think it’s the best song by a group since the sixties. The best ballad, at least.” The lead single from the band’s 1984 album, Ocean Rain, the song supposedly came to McCulloch in his sleep. He reported awoke with the song’s key lyrics (“Fate up against your will/ Through the thick and thin/ He will wait until/ You give yourself to him”) fully formed. The lyrics allude to humanity’s helplessness in the face of higher powers, with McCulloch sometimes coyly noting that they could be referencing either God or the Devil, depending on one’s predilections. More specifically, the song is about the notion of lives being entirely predetermined. By some measures, “The Killing Moon” was the band’s most commercially successful single, their second to make it into the U.K. Top 10.

206 dream.jpg

206. The Teardrop Explodes, “When I Dream”

Rumors persist that “When I Dream” was written about Courtney Love, even though timetables suggest it is somewhere between unlikely and impossible. The future Hole frontwoman did indeed log some time in the household of Julian Cope while he was presiding over the band the Teardrop Explodes. She later termed herself as something of a mascot to the band, while Cope dismissively referred to her in his autobiography as merely “the adolescent.” Cope himself repeatedly denied Love to be a muse, and specifically took aim at her in a 1992 print ad, which read in part, “Free us from Nancy Spungen fixated heroin a-holes who cling to our greatest rock groups and suck out their brains.” There wasn’t really a need for Love’s unique talent at stirring up drama, anyway. Cope was quite capable of that on his own. Just a couple years into the existence of the Teardrop Explodes (its name drawn from typically florid prose found in the panel of a Marvel comic book), Cope had already orchestrated acrimonious personnel changes and started the long, steady progress of alienating others in the Liverpool music community. At least the band was on the upswing in terms of commercial success. Released as a single from the band’s debut album, Kilimanjaro, “When I Dream” was the first single from the Teardrop Explodes to find a place, albeit a modest one, on the U.K. charts.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.