Summer of ’92: Vampires and Bats

Vampires and Bats

This is the first chapter in this year’s Summer Series, which looks back at a weekly double feature of the movies released in 1992 (the year I was born). This week, the movies in discussion are Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Hollywood’s only God is money. I think at this points we can all agree on that. After all, it was the ridiculous amount of money that Tim Burton’s Batman made when it was released in 1989 that allowed for a movie like Batman Returns to be made. I’m not talking about the fact that movies have to make money in order to have sequels, but that the mountains of cash Burton made for Warner Bros. gave the studio executives the confidence to let the director have complete creative control in the making of the follow-up movie. The result, as you would expect, was that Batman Returns is not a Batman movie as much as it is a Tim Burton movie.

And not only that, Batman Returns may very well be the most Burtonian of all Tim Burton movies. According to the auteur theory, if a director is an auteur, a single image would be enough to identify a movie’s director. Well, every shot of Batman Returns screams Tim Burton. This was the director’s fifth feature, and by this point he had very much established what his style looked like. He had managed to put a couple of signature visuals -pale faces, black and white stripes, grotesque makeup- into all of his movies, but the power given to him after the success of Batman gave him the opportunity to relish from top to bottom in the imagery of one of his biggest influences: German Expressionism. It even seems as if that were the only reason Burton directed the picture, because there is no denying Batman Returns’s DNA is pure expressionism. It starts on the script level, where the character Max Schreck (played by Christopher Walken) is named after the star of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatuand is most apparent in the production design (always the most auteurist aspect of all Burton’s movies), which is highly inspired by the genre, especially Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

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Similar city landscapes in Lang’s Metropolis and Burton’s Batman Returns

But visuals and winking inside jokes are not the only way Burton made Batman Returns his own, if he was going to make this movie, he was going to make it about the most consistent recurring theme in his filmography: lonely weirdos that are cast away by society. This is why, Batman barely appears on screen for the first 20 or so minutes of the movie, and why, despite being the title hero, he is essentially a supporting character. He doesn’t really have a character arc to speak of, since he spends most of the movie trying to stop a couple of villains that actually do. The first of these villains, and the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist, is Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. The Penguin (Danny DeVito), a character that Burton -along with writers Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm-basically reinvented for the movie.

In the comics, Oswald Cobblepot is an aristocrat that also happens to be a criminal boss. He is nicknamed ‘The Penguin’ because he is short and has a long nose, so he kind of looks like one. In Batman Returns, however, Oswald is a deformed man that actually looks like he is part bird and part human. As an infant, he is basically a savage little monster that eats the Cobblepots’ pets and can’t be tamed. That is why his frightened parents put him in a basket and throw him in the river, not knowing that years later, their son would emerge from the sewers of Gotham city as the villainous Penguin. Danny DeVito’s performance is as grotesque as the character’s makeup design. His acting is grand and over the top, not letting a single line go by without him chewing on it first. For this, he was nominated for a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie award, which is ridiculous, because even if the performance is far from good taste as possible, he commits to the characterization that the movie requires like few other performers would have (including Jack Nicholson, whose work as The Joker in Burton’s Batman is the quintessential example of an actor phoning it in).

The most relevant aspect of the changes made to The Penguin, though, is that Burton turned was a pretty conventional villain and tailored him into a typical Burton protagonist. At first glance, his story is the same as that of Burton’s most iconic protagonist, Edward Scissorhands. Both are helpless creatures that are cast out of society for being different, whose only real quest is for acceptance. The difference is that The Penguin is actually vengeful and angry. He is actually a psychopath. On the other hand, however, we have the film’s other villain, Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who starts out as a clumsy secretary who is pushed to her death by evil Max Schreck before being mystically revived into a… well, a Catwoman. She is initially presented a crazy, anarchic, villainess, but by the end of the movie turns into somewhat of an anti-hero. We end up rooting for her, not in small part because Pfeiffer is completely fantastic in the role.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito in Batman Returns

Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito in Batman Returns

All of this brings me to the second movie in our double-feature. It might have been the rise of youth culture, the “outsider” attitude of generation x, or the moans of grunge rockers, but something in the early nineties gave rise to an interest in anti-heroes, or at the very least, to tell stories from a point of view other than the hero’s. Because for all intents and purposes, the characters we are rooting for in the novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker, are Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray, the couple whose marriage is threatened by the immortal Count Dracula. In his film adaptation, however, Francis Ford Coppola was more interested in the the titular vampire (played by Gary Oldman) as a doomed romantic figure, who sees Mina (Winona Ryder) as the reincarnation of his long-gone medieval wife.

This is a post-modernist approach to the story that makes complete sense as a movie that would have been made in the nineties. Or now, for that matter. After all, this is the time in which Wickedthe revisionist musical take on The Wizard of Ozis the biggest hit on Broadway. This is also the time in which Tim Burton himself gave a similar ‘reincarnated love’ spin to his movie version of the television show Dark ShadowsAnd the time in which, the idea of a musical starring Dracula as a romantic hero was one of the best running jokes of the hilarious Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The culture has developed a fascination with looking at villains as misunderstood and tragic characters that probably started with the Romantic movement of the 19th Century, and reached its pinnacle with the coming of age of goth kids like Burton.

However, for all I know, Coppola was not a goth kid, and his take on Dracula is not the teen-angsty revisionist tale that it might sound like from my description. While Burton was at the top of the world, coming off from one of the biggest hits of his career, Coppola had come to a point in his career where he was making jobs-for-hire instead of passion projects. Case in point, his last movie before Dracula was The Godfather Part IIIThe adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel was brought to him by Winona Ryder, who was supposed to star in Part III but unexpectedly dropped out of the project. Surely the presence of Ryder (who had starred two years earlier in Burton’s aforementioned Edward Scissorhands), and the romantic twist on the story were the elements that secured the movie’s finance, but I bet few people were expecting the film that Coppola ended up making.

Coppola is quoted as wanting to make Dracula, which was released under the name Bram Stoker’s Dracula, feel like an “erotic dream”, something that is always a little icky to hear coming from a fifty-something man, no matter how prestigious a director he is. That kind of judgment aside, Coppola definitely did his best to make the movie as erotic and surreal as possible. Like Burton, he too used a lot of German Expressionistic influences. This is logical, since Murnau’s Nosferatu is both an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, and one of the most influential and popular films to come from the genre. Throughout the movie, Coppola uses expressionistic lighting and montage techniques typical to the silent films of that era instead of more modern effects -like computer generated images- to juxtapose images and create other kinds of otherworldly images.

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Examples of the German Expressionistic influence, including a nod to Murnau’s Nosferatu

All of this, of course, in service of an unapologetically erotic vision. The sexual undertones to the vampire myth, a creature that penetrates his victims using his fans, has always been present. In this sense it’s worth it to note how vampires are, most of the time, praying on victims of the opposite sex. Dracula is full of images of the vampire kissing women’s necks, and ladies being kept awake at night by nightmarishly erotic visions. Everything is over the top, including the performances. This, of course, isn’t surprising when your cast includes Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. There are moments when this aggressive approach works perfectly with the material, as in the sequence in which professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) faces off young Lucy (Sadie Frost), after she has been turned into a vampire by the Count. For the most part of the movie, however, everything just seems ridiculous. The problem is that this version of Dracula is perfectly suited to be a camp classic, but has little humor to itself. There are a couple of funny moments, but the overall feel of the movie makes it seem like Coppola was taking this very, very seriously.

How am I supposed to take this image seriously?

How am I supposed to take this image seriously?

That ends up being the difference between Batman Returns and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both are blockbusters helmed by auteurs with a very specific vision in mind, but whereas Coppola’s insistence on making an “erotic dream” sucks the life out of a movie that could have been hugely entertaining, Burton’s relative lack of respect for the source material he is working with (I doubt he has ever read a Batman comic in his life), lets his movie be the vessel for such a playful and lively performance as Michelle Pfeiffer’s as Catwoman, which, again, in its comical sensuality is fantastic on too many levels to count. At the end of the day, though, both movies have a strong directorial vision that seems to be absent from today’s blockbuster cinema. Gareth Edwards’s recent remake of Godzilla was a nice exception, but just coming out of the news that Marvel fired Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, it seems like Hollywood just wouldn’t give up money to make movies as idiosyncratic as these.

Next Week’s Double Feature: A Few Good Men and Strictly Ballroom 

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