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 Thread Rating: 17 votes, 5.00 average.
Old 07-25-2006, 02:24 PM
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Default Bram Stoker's Dracula: Superbit



Reviewer: Paff
Review Date: January 11, 2002

Released by: Columbia Tri-Star
Release date: 12/11/2001
MSRP: $27.96
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: Yes



The digital signals that make up the sound and video on the DVDs we watch are long complicated series of bits; simple 0s and 1s. Those two digits can be assembled into the most amazing images and enveloping sound. Columbia has introduced the world to "Superbit". Did they invent a third digit? Well, no. Instead, they've devised a system that increases the rate at which the information is transmitted, thus the possibility of even more detailed video and realistic sound. So maybe the technically correct term is "SuperbitRATE", but that just doesn't quite have the same pizzazz, does it? Anyway, they've applied this new technology to the 1992 big-budget big-studio big-name adaptation of Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Just how much of a difference does Superbit make?

The Story

inline Image Bram Stoker's Dracula begins with a very non-Bram Stoker prologue. In it, we find Dracula's (Gary Oldman) origin. Supposedly, he was a Romanian knight, who returned victorious from battle, only to find his beloved Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has killed herself. This sends Dracula into such a rage, that he renounces God forever and will rise from his own grave.

inline Image Harker is now a prisoner in Dracula's castle (but with three lovely naked girls to keep him company), as Dracula travels to London. Mina is staying with her wealthy friend Lucy (Sadie Frost), who is soon attacked by a savage wolf-like creature. The attack leaves Lucy quite ill. Mina then meets a man calling himself Prince Vlad (c'mon, you know who this really is…), and the two begin an odd courtship. The relationship suddenly ends when Mina gets a letter from Jonathan (who has escaped the castle), and goes to Eastern Europe to marry him.

Lucy's condition is getting worse, and the doctors call for the services of Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), a professor who specializes in the study of communicable diseases. Van Helsing suspects Lucy's ailments are not quite natural, and that vampirism may be to blame. Soon she'll remove all doubt as to her illness, and everyone will realize Dracula is the cause of it all.

inline Image The title of this movie is Bram Stoker's Dracula, and while it's probably the most faithful film adaptation of the 1897 novel, it feels a little more like Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. The influences of the film are more visual and cinematic than literary. Truly, if you really want to experience Bram Stoker's Dracula, you will have to go to a bookstore and buy Bram Stoker's Dracula. Of course, since Stoker's novel was almost entirely composed of journal and diary entries, letters, and news clippings, it's practically unfilmable as written. Coppola had to determine the essence of the story, emphasize the acts that translate to cinema best, and eliminate that which a filmmaker cannot convey.

inline Image Perhaps the most glaring difference between the novel and the film is the romance between Dracula and Mina. This was barely touched on in the book, yet the film is more like a love story than a horror movie. Dracula's seductive nature is not as obvious in the novel, and thus Coppola had to bring the romance to the forefront. Luckily, Oldman and Ryder play the couple nearly flawlessly. The concept of Mina being a reincarnation of a lost love was first seen in F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic Nosferatu. Coppola was definitely influenced by Nosferatu, as you'll see several nods to silent films throughout the entire movie. There are also references to (and even a picture of) Vlad Tepes, who was supposedly the real inspiration for the Dracula character.

inline Image Tackling the Dracula tale yet again was quite a daunting task. I mean, how many versions of this story do we really need? However, this is a big-budget studio film, with a production rarely given to a horror movie. Be prepared for amazing special effects and striking visuals. Again, this is more Coppola than Stoker. It's almost too polished to be a horror film, but we're also talking about a classic gothic novel. It's a standard of 19th Century literature, not just another book on the shelves next to Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Coppola had to make a film that would be accepted outside of the horror genre, a mainstream movie; just the same way as Stoker's novel is considered a mainstream work of literature.

One often overlooked aspect of Stoker's book was a perversion of Christianity, and very few (if any) filmmakers have attempted to tackle this subject. Stoker actually presented Dracula as a Christ-like figure, surely a controversial facet in 1897. Coppola addresses this parallel at the climax of the film, and while even those who haven't seen this movie will most likely be able to predict Dracula's fate, I'll let the viewers draw their own conclusions from this final controversial scene.

inline Image The biggest strength of the film might just be it's cast. Everyone involved gives an amazing performance. Well, almost everyone. Keanu Reeves isn't the most animated actor today, so imagine what he was like ten years ago. When his Jonathan Harker is under the spell of the three nubile vamp-ettes, his wooden performance (no, not THAT wood…) is actually believable. The rest of his screen time is rather dull, and he plays second banana to any other actors in the scene. Winona Ryder may be a bit hammy and overacting at times, but her innocence (as her lawyer will attest) is perfect for the Mina character. Anthony Hopkins is a much more grandiose and ribald Van Helsing than the restrained Peter Cushing, but that's a lot closer to Stoker's original intent. Finally, has Gary Oldman EVER given a less than outstanding performance? Dracula is both a monster and a seducer, and Oldman perfectly captures that dual nature as well as, if not better than any of the multitude of actors who have tackled the role. In one performance, he possesses the monstrousness of Max Schreck, the seductiveness of Bela Lugosi, the domination of Christopher Lee, and even the desperation of Udo Keir.

I'm not sure if this is my favorite adaptation of Dracula. It's gorgeous, that's for sure, but it's a little too extravagant for my tastes. It succeeds more as a gothic fantasy and love story than as a horror movie. Perhaps it's because I've seen so many vampire movies in the past, which usually bear little resemblance to Stoker's characters, that I don't find myself as drawn in to the "true" story. But every frame is a visual treat, and Bram Stoker's Dracula provides a nice touch of class to an often-ridiculed genre.

Image Quality

inline Image This was my first experience with Columbia's new Superbit line. I did a quick check, and the bitrate indeed was a lot higher than any other DVD I've seen. Also, there was no noticeable layer change. But aside from that, I really didn't notice any difference between Dracula and any other well done anamorphic DVD. The dark reds and blues, which usually cause trouble on an NTSC monitor, are good, with little to no oversaturation. I compared the video with the Columbia special edition laserdisc from 1993, and the DVD offered more stable colors and slightly better detail, but that's to be expected. Columbia also released this on DVD in 1997, with a 5.1 soundtrack but no anamorphic enhancement. I tried to obtain a copy of this disc to compare, but it's long out of print and hard to find. I'm sure that the Superbit DVD is much better, but I can't say for sure if it's better because of the Superbit enhancement or not. I'd like to emphasize that in no way am I suggesting this is a poor transfer; in fact, it's excellent. But it did not stand out from other anamorphically enhanced discs, at least on my 4:3 monitor.

Sound

Bram Stoker's Dracula got a brand new audio mix, in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. This is a VERY active mix, maybe too active. I listened to the DTS track first, and I noticed it was slightly "fuller" than the Dolby Digital track. But what really irked me about the sound was that it was way too "cooked." Some of the surrounds that were added, like the waterfalls during Elisabeta's suicide, added a richness that enhances the film. And everyone will love the scene in Renfield's cell that features a buzzing fly that circles all around the listener. Unfortunately, someone decided that almost every single scene needs to have swirling sounds coming from all five speakers. What started out as a cute addition soon becomes extremely distracting. This excess surround use seems more pronounced on the DTS track, so even though I think the DTS has a richer sound, I'll probably listen to the Dolby Digital track on future viewings. In fact, the over-the-top sound mix is so annoying, I might even sacrifice the better video quality and watch the laserdisc just to have a more appropriate sound mix. Attention sound engineers: Show some restraint.

Supplemental Material

inline Image The Superbit process uses almost all of the disc's space for sound and video, thus there are NO extras. No trailers, nor the 30 minute documentary from the Columbia special edition laserdisc. And don't even think to ask about the extras from the Criterion laser. While I understand the space issue, I'm not sure I really understand Columbia's logic with Superbit in general. There has been recent talk of how the special edition DVD may be a thing of the past, due to increasing production costs, as well as consumer indifference to the extra features. But if you're appealing to the average consumer, do you really think that they'll even notice the slight improvement in sound and video that Superbit provides? I'm a rather experienced viewer, with high-tech calibrated gear, and I didn't notice much of a difference. I'd rather have supplemental features than Superbit enhancement. So basically, average fans won't care, and loyal fans will decry the lack of extras. Who then, is Superbit intended for?

Final Thoughts

Bram Stoker's (or Francis Ford Coppola's) Dracula is an incredibly ambitious and gorgeous film. While not a direct translation of the novel, it's still as close to the original text as any film can get. Fans of the film have long been wanting a special edition with some of the supplemental features that appeared on both the Columbia and Criterion laserdiscs. Unfortunately, here Columbia decided to offer an edition with beautiful video but an overdone sound mix, and absolutely none of the desired extras. Since those extras did not appear on the earlier DVD either, I still think there has yet to be a definitive DVD version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Needless to say, anyone with those old laserdiscs should hold on to them for the time being. This Superbit DVD is the best version picture-wise (I don't like the new sound very much), but I hope Columbia will consider an anamorphic (non-Superbit) special edition in the future.

Rating

Movie - B+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - C-
Supplements - N/A


Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 2 hours 10 minutes
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1
  • English DTS 5.1
  • English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai Subtitles

Supplements
  • N/A

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