RIC MEYERS: Bram Stoker’s Ninja
I’m sure you’ve noticed that the holidays are getting earlier every year. As an ex-mall Santa, I know that I had to report earlier and earlier every season, to the point I was in my big red throne practically the day after Halloween.
And speaking of Halloween, Rob Zombie’s needless remake of John Carpenter’s movie of that name showed up in theaters more than a month before the holiday arrived this year. So is it any wonder that it’s not even close to all hallow’s eve and the horror DVDs are already beginning to haunt shelves?
Thankfully, one of my favorites so far is the two-disc Collector’s Edition of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula – a very cool package for the very theatrical 1992 movie. One of the reasons so many people liked it (and so many other people didn’t) is encapsulated by one of the very first things the famed director says in the first of four new behind-the-scenes docs. It also stands as one of cinema’s great Freudian slips.
“The whole question of ego…I mean, evil…,” Coppola says, trying to explain the attraction of the much-adapted, much filmed bloodsucker. That sets the stage for the whole ego-driven enterprise, which can be really enjoyed in retrospect once you see how many ideas and creativity they bathed it in. Following the half-hour “making of,” there’s fun ‘n’ interesting docs on Eiko Ishioka’s bold costumes, Roman Coppola’s imaginative special effects, and the entire production’s striking visual approach. You ever notice that the best Dracula movies have the strongest Van Helsings (my favorite’s being Hammer’s Peter Cushing and the BBC’s Frank Finlay)?
But I digress. Anyway, the real revelation for me were the more than half-hour of extended and deleted scenes, which I think improved the film mightily, especially the alternate opening, closing, and excised travails of the abundantly criticized Keanu Reeves. Although his limited acting is the film’s soft core – in a great cast which included Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Cary Elwes, Winona Ryder, Bill Campbell, Richard E. Grant, Tom Waits, and Sadie Frost – his character’s struggles add an important weight to the tale.
The other major criticism at the time of the film’s release was that Bram Stoker’s Dracula clearly wasn’t, as Coppola and company folded in all sorts of other influences, not to mention his historical inspiration, Vlad the Impaler. Virtually every member of the cast and crew tries to rationalize the title, while, within minutes, admitting how many other sources they were cribbing from.
Finally, Coppola himself puts it to rest with a neat variation on the audio commentary the DVD calls: “Watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Francis Coppola.” He simply states that he liked putting the original author’s name above the title, no matter what he wound up doing with the script. That’s part of his filmed intro, which leads seamlessly into his entertaining and informative commentary that weaves Hollywood history, world history, and his encyclopedic knowledge of filmmaking.
The whole thing is just another example of how the DVD special edition format makes movie watching totally cool. And speaking of totally cool, there’s ninja. Ninja almost never fail to buoy any movie they appear in (they were the only great thing about The Last Samurai, as far as I’m concerned). I’ve many a fond memory of my friends crying out “ninja!” in unison whenever they appear.
But once upon a time they weren’t cinematic jokes. Prior to their degradation in cheap exploitation junk like Enter the Ninja, they were author Eric Van Lustbader’s best-selling novel fodder, an important ingredient in 007’s You Only Live Twice, and true movie heroes in their country of origin, Japan. In fact, for years people were asking me what was the best ninja movie they could see. That would be the landmark 1962 Japanese film, Shinobi No Mono (a.k.a. Band of Assassins), but the only way it was legally available was on a DVD produced in Hong Kong, which had some of the worst English subtitles I ever tried to read. At one point a character says “let’s go scare him,” which was translated as “let us go forth and scarify him."
But now, finally, AnimEigo’s Samurai Cinema division has released Shinobi No Mono in its original glory, with brand new, accurate, subtitles. In fact, they offer several degrees of subtitling, including full captions (including signs and cultural footnotes). And, while there wasn’t enough budget to create docs, there’s a whole list of excellent program notes illuminating the real history of the ninja, the making of the ground-breaking movie, the stars, the ninja experts who consulted on the film, and most of the real historical personages the film portrays.
They also have a very nice “Image Gallery.” On most DVDs, I find these pics superfluous, but on such an excellent, obscure, film, the photos are far more absorbing and unusual. For anyone who’s even mildly interested by ninja, this historically accurate, politically astute, psychologically valid, intrigue and action-packed movie is a must-have. I’m also happy to report that, if the film itself isn’t enough to feed your ninja need, you should check out the unofficial website for it.
Hopefully you’ll never look at ninja the same way again … because you never see real ninja, silly.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.