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« 111 days 'til Oscar | Main | Thor and Lady Bird Reign at the Box Office »
Monday
Nov132017

The Furniture: 25 Years Trapped in Castle Dracula

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula turns 25 years old today. It is, appropriately, not dead. Not that a film can die, exactly, but this one has held onto its toothy vigor with particular success. Even the ridiculous way Keanu pronounces “Bewdapest” still charms. Eiko Ishioka’s Oscar-winning costumes seem simultaneously ancient and way ahead of their time. The same goes for the Oscar-winning makeup, which transforms Gary Oldman across centuries with bewildering commitment. The visual effects, which went unnominated, remain thrilling, a dizzying phantasmagoria of cinematic shadow-puppetry.

But I’m here to rave about the only nominated category that the film didn’t win. Production designer Thomas E. Sanders and art director Garrett Lewis were nominated, but they lost to Howards End. Hard to argue with that, of course. Yet their work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula is just as worthy in its complexity, engaging with the material deep within the extravagance and color. Sanders and Lewis demonstrate a creativity well beyond the Gothic castles and thick cobwebs of the genre’s lesser films, shining a newly bloodstained light on this most famous of vampire stories.

The home of the monstrous count itself is a perfect example. Dracula lives in a decaying tower, but a fraction of his former seat of power. It hovers over a cliff in a remote corner of Transylvania, all but removed from the eyes of the living. It cascades upwards, every story more mangled than the last...

We are given but a brief glimpse of its earlier days, superimposed into a fantasy of reincarnation that seduces Mina (Winona Ryder). Its current form is less than a shell. Like Dracula himself, its imposing public stature has been banished to the shadows.

But it is also not entirely extinct. Its energies flicker, darting around visitors like the flames that circle its mammoth courtyard.

Inside, one gets a better sense of how this building manages to stay erect. Dracula has installed enormous metal beams to reinforce the structure. They loom above his halls, a strange intrusion of modernity in this 15th century palace.

Dracula is dead but not dead, forced to feed off of the blood of the living for survival. He cannot simply sit among the stones in peace, collecting dust. Instead, he must lash out into the world and use it to buttress his eternal bones. The industrial beams of his castle convey this precisely.

They are not the only anachronism, either. The decor, at least upon closer inspection, signifies a variety of periods and styles. The sculpture alone is a conundrum, a hint at a life of malevolent adaptation.

This is why Carfax Abbey is a perfect London residence for Dracula and his crates of Romanian earth. It is but the broken hull of a convent, now perverted by the frenzied and unregulated experiments of 19th century asylum psychology. It is a horrid blend of Gothic revival architecture and industrial science, its barred windows and caged masks serving a similar purpose to the metal beams of his home.

It also makes for quite the contrast to the lives and ideas of his victims. These Victorians presume to hold dominion over nature, arranging it into hedge mazes and boxing it away into greenhouses. Mina’s sitting room is an excellent example, full of potted plants that mimic the meticulously arranged garden outside.

 

They, the living, have turned the cycles of mortality into décor. They have domesticated death. 

One oddly light moment involves one of Lucy’s suitors tripping over the head of a polar bear rug. The beast is caught in a forever-silenced roar, not even given pride of place in this over-stuffed salon.

Does this presumption of dominion over nature, life, and death make them more or less capable of resisting the will of Dracula?

Well, it depends on how naively they understand their own power. Van Helsing, at home in the anatomy theater, prepares for the worst. Harker, riding through the craggy wilderness in a beautifully upholstered train car, has no idea what is waiting for him in those mountains. It’s all a matter of perspective, where one sits in these fantastically conceived designs.

previously on The Furniture

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Reader Comments (13)

Dracula has never been given enough credit for the technical marvel that it is. Everyone gets wrapped up in the bad accents and campy feel.

Plus, probably a Top 5 Oldman performance

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I don't think it won visual effects. It won sound editing.

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Daniel -- this is one of your best pieces. Love the insight into the modern buttressing and especially the thematic resonance of their attempts to dominate nature with the civilized interiors with so many 'wild' things crammed into them.

November 13, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Pedro,

You're right! I read that part of the IMDb page far too quickly, I'll fix that.

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Walber

I gather from the gray appearance of the screen caps you're using the 2007 transfer artificially brightened, which was darkened purposely to replicate blacker than blacks.

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I do like this film as I think it's Coppola's best film since Rumble Fish.

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

One of my favorites and so happy you covered this!

November 13, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

This is such a cool looking movie- Coppola was obviously having fun paying tribute to the classic film special effect

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Like "Dick Tracy", great film, not very good movie. I do wish Coppola would try for another classic blockbuster.

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Not to mention the super eerie n cool Annie Lennox's Love Song for a Vampire! Shame it was not nom fir Best Song..

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

@forever1267

You shut your mouth! Dick Tracy is a freaking masterpiece

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I hated this when I saw it in the cinema on first release, though I could recognise the gorgeous craft on display. But Keanu is so bad in this and I wasn't much of a fan of Gary Oldman in it either. At the time I thought Sadie Frost was best in show. But I should probably give it another shot - 25 years have passed (!) after all.

November 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

It's been a while since I have seen this movie and now I see so much that I missed! I (like most other probably) usually focused on the costumes since they are so familar and yet otherworldly. Your piece shows how much work, detail, and history went into creating the environment in the film.

November 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom

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