Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: 1992

Dracula

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
KEY ACTORS: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 73%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
✔️ This passes the Bechdel Test as Lucy and Mina talk about other topics than men…but really not often!
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. It’s too ridiculous and I don’t get it.
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast – I love Keanu Reeves but his accent is too terrible and Gary Oldman, well, just no.
❌ And it’s not sex positive. In fact, its incredibly sex negative, particularly regarding women. Independent women with a free sexual spirit are punished – and deserve it!
❌ There’s also nothing to fantasise about. The idea of a man who has waited across time for you may be an old fashioned romantic ideal, but it felt really non-consensual here and unwanted.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this includes discussions of abusive relationships and non-consent]

Poster for Dracula, showing a screaming gargoyle of Dracula’s face

I was 15 at the turn of the century, which meant that I was absolutely the perfect age for Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I was 12 for the first season and avidly watched it every year so I was 17/18 by the time of the fifth and sixth seasons. I mention these seasons specifically because these were the ones where I fell in love with Spike and developed some pretty strong feelings about Buffy and Spike’s violent sexual energy. He was so so hot. The ultimate bad boy, an angry and dangerous man with a leather jacket and bleached hair, who loved that damaged girl. Angel was always a bit meh in comparison – was I too young for him or was Angel just too much of a nice guy? Spike was everything.

I mention this because this early supernatural crush means that I’ve never doubted that vampires are hot! They fulfil a very particular fantasy that plagues many women of a ‘damaged, morally questionable young man who nevertheless can serve as her protector while she reforms him.’ I describe yearning for this kind of love with this kind of partner as a plague because it’s really not healthy – vampire stories are just brightly painted supernatural versions of those damaging relationships where we are drawn to the drama of a dangerous lover, kid ourselves that our love will fix them and stop them treating us like crap, but instead run the risk of falling into potentially abusive patterns. These lovers may not be vampires, but they can still drain you if everything that keeps you alive.

I’ve written before about the abusive control used by Fifty ShadesChristian Grey and his character was inspired by a vampire, Edward Cullen in Twilight. Even Spike is not really a better role model either – his behaviour in the early series is hardly something I’d want to use as a model for my own relationships and later, when he is reformed and his love means that he does recover his soul, he just becomes the exception that we all cling to when really we’re just experiencing the rule.

Because vampires are hot, but also (because?) they are dangerous. Not because they drink blood and kill; the idea of a vampire is dangerous because of what it says about female sexual agency. And, no surprise, it’s not a good message.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! I chose 1992’s Dracula (or Bram Stoker’s Dracula to give it its full name) because it is renowned for being overtly sexual and erotic. I’d seen it years ago and, honestly, I’d thought it was too ridiculous for words, but after hearing a podcaster gush about how hot it was and how attractive Gary Oldman is, I thought I ought to give it another try.

Image from Dracula showing young Dracula dressed as a dandy, wearing a top hat and round purple glasses

Dracula is very faithful to Bram Stoker’s novel, even maintaining the epistolary style with letters and diary entries marking time. It begins in 1492, telling the story of a young, heartbroken count (Oldman) whose bride has just killed herself. In his grief, he calls on demonic forces to avenge her and curses himself forever. Jump forward 400 years and Jonathan Harker (Reeves), a lawyer from London, is sent to Transylvania where he meets a creepy old man who traps him in his mysterious castle, leaving him at the mercy of his three horny wives who fuck and feed on him. Meanwhile, Dracula travels to London to find Mina (Ryder), Harker’s fiancée who Dracula believes is the reincarnation of his bride. Once in London, and looking more like his younger self, he wreaks havoc, killing a young woman, Lucy (Frost), and turning her to a vampire for no apparent reason, kidnapping Mina and prompting a chase across Europe where he is eventually killed.

From a film buff perspective, Coppola made some really interesting choices for the cinematography, deciding to use only traditional practical effects and utilising actual magic tricks in some places. It’s no surprise that among its Oscars win for costume and make-up was one for sound effects. These techniques give the film a very real but knowingly dated feel that I quite liked. It feels appropriate for 1897, a time when cinema was first beginning.

Sadly, from a feminist perspective, I stop agreeing with Coppola’s creative choices. I’m sorry for those who rate this film as I really did not like it! It’s so over the top that it’s essentially a caricature and is only a hair’s breadth away from actual farce. Disconnected shadows mimicking strangling Harker and Dracula admitting that he doesn’t drink [dramatic pause] wine feel straight out of Leslie Nielsen’s spoof movie, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Image from Dracula showing Oldman in full elderly vampire make up, bouffant white hair and long fingers with his hands dramatically over his face

But my main concern with his exaggerated style comes when looking at the sexual content. Because Coppola chose to make his Dracula a dramatic romance, rather than a horror, and ‘his accent on romance has dissipated Dracula’s single overwhelming force: evil.’ Are we supposed to sympathise with Dracula? Understand his plight? His horrific and frankly abusive actions in the novel or other retellings were more palatable somehow when he was clearly the enemy but he envisioned here as a tragic hero.

Problems with this characterisation arise because I can completely ignore everything supernatural about him, and Dracula is still fucking creepy. ‘Many women are flattered when a man says he has been waiting all of his life for them.’ Roger Ebert claims, ‘But if he has been waiting four centuries?’ It’s creepy! It’s manipulative and creepy and patriarchal and I don’t get it. How is this romantic? Maybe Dracula is a horror movie after all!

Except there are no jump scares, no tension or dread. At its core, this is much for of an erotic film. For example, Harker becoming a meal for the vampire brides is definitely an orgy – three beautiful women, including Monica Belluci, are topless and writhing all over him, kissing his neck, tearing off his clothes and biting his wrists and neck. There are long, lingering shots of licking tongues and at one point, I’m almost certain they’re feeding off his cock – shots of belts being removed are followed by a vamp woman kissing down his stomach, at which point Harker jumps up screaming. Is he screaming because someone has bitten his cock, or because he is being sexually assaulted?

Image from Dracula showing Reeves on the bed with three vampire women kissing him

Dracula himself also feeds in a very sexual way. When feeding on Lucy, he either is in the form of a wolf, mounting her like he’s fucking her – a ‘literal sexual predator’ – or he appears as a mist, covering her writhing body as she struggles and moans beneath him, sounding more and more orgasmic as her transformation progresses. Oh, and her tits are out too. Even Mina, straight-laced and conservatively dressed Mina, becomes more naked as Dracula’s hold over her increases. She becomes more wild, more bedraggled, which of course needs gaping clothes.

Image from Dracula showing Dracula in his wolf form mounting a scantily clad Frost

Now, my issue isn’t really with the nudity – although it does feel gratuitous and there’s not enough male nudity in response. In fact, so gratuitous is the nudity that Roger Ebert describes it as ‘an orgy of visual decadence, in which what people do is not nearly as degraded as how they look while they do it.’ But I mainly take issue with this choice as at only serves to exaggerate the already concerning sexist tones that are implicit in the Dracula story, creating an ‘overt, intentionally discomfiting’ sexual atmosphere.

As I alluded to above, the study of vampires has long been the story of female desire and how terrifying it is to men and the patriarchy. Talking to NBC, Anne Stiles, an assistant professor of English literature at Washington State University, described how obvious the ‘sexual undercurrents’ were in the original novel: ‘You have penetration, an exchange of bodily fluids. He has mesmeric powers. He is very seductive. It’s an easy, veiled way to write about sex without censorship.’

And the moral judgement associated with having sex and being sexual is made clear through the two female characters, Mina and Lucy. Mina is modest and chaste, wearing dresses with high necklines and holding out for marriage; Lucy has a more ‘aggressive sexuality,’ wearing more revealing clothes, dreaming about sex and flirting with her three suitors. The simple act of courting three suitors invokes judgement from Mina, and so the audience who are experiencing events through Mina’s words. Lucy is supposed to be shocking, indiscreet, even indecent, and so she is punished.

Image from Dracula showing Mina and Lucy, and their differing levels of exposure

In ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers,’ Sady Doyle argues that Lucy’s transformation into a vampire symbolises the transformation from girl to woman, and Lucy’s sexual desires certainly become more explicit the closer she becomes to being a vampire. She is no longer flirting with faux-innocence and innuendo; Lucy is asking directly for what she wants and who she desires. So, obviously, she’s a monster now. She’s terrifying. The girl needed to be saved, the woman needs to be destroyed.

It’s also never explained why Dracula chose to transform Lucy into a vampire. He could have just fed on her – but again, it feels like an unnecessary risk when there are so many other random people in London who wouldn’t draw such attention. Unless you take Van Helsing’s (Hopkins) view that she was asking for it. Lucy was outrageous and sexual and flirty so she called Dracula to her; she deserved what happened to her. Oh, rape culture, so good to know that it still existed in 1992 (and 1897 for that matter!).

Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Hear me out, young man. Lucy is not a random victim, attacked by mere accident, you understand? No. She is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower. I dare say, a devoted disciple. She is the Devil’s concubine!

Except that Lucy never expressed a wish for Dracula or for the darkness or the Devil. She was just flirty with a high sex drive and the privilege of enough independence to choose how she wanted to live her life and who she wanted to marry, which is terrifying to the patriarchy.

The other aspect of the vampire sexual cannon that Coppola maxes out here is the idea of the dominant vampire and helpless victim. Whether using mind tricks or just their animal magnetism, the vampire’s victims feel compelled to follow, compelled to wander out into the night and into the arms of their attacker. This, again, gets my feminist hackles rising as it’s intended to rob women of their own sexual agency. ‘It’s the idea that women can’t be blamed for desire,’ can’t be blamed for falling under the spell of a more powerful man who is ‘virtually unassailable in terms of power, and generally intellectually superior due to the centuries of wisdom he has accumulated.’ Women can’t be blamed but they can be still be punished, because giving in to their desire is accepting the demonic influence of sex. It’s not our fault, we’re too weak and inferior to cope with such strong emotions. Urgh…

An image from Dracula, showing Mina drinking blood from Dracula’s chest

But even beyond this, the use of mind control has huge implications when considering whether Mina in particular consents to what Dracula does to her. It’s pretty clear that Jonathan doesn’t and I’m highly suspicious of Lucy’s ability to give informed consent, although I guess she could be so horny that she follows a random wolf-like stranger into the garden on the promise of sex, but I don’t believe Mina fell in love with Dracula in any kind of normal way. He forces himself upon her, he stalks and manipulates her, she feels his presence everywhere. When she finally capitulates, does she love him? Or is she under his spell?

The final feature of Coppola’s Dracula that makes me angry is the explicit connection that Coppola makes between being a vampire and AIDS. 1992 was a difficult time in the history of HIV and AIDS. The AIDS epidemic had been spreading throughout the 1980s and by the early 90s, the virus was known and the method of transmission was known, which meant that the stigma associated with HIV was also in full swing. AIDS was a disease that predominantly killed gay men, intravenous drug users, and other groups of people who were vulnerable and marginalised. Treatment options at this time were limited at best. Being diagnosed with HIV was synonymous with developing AIDS as there was no way to prevent the progression of disease. Sufferers became increasingly unwell, becoming thinner and weaker, almost as if some unseen force was sucking their life away until they died.

And it’s all about blood. Blood and penetration, and sexual indiscretion. ‘Does Dracula have AIDS?’ asked a panel of AIDS experts, in an early example of clickbait; ‘I’m not living in the dark anymore’ stated an AIDS leaflet from Illinois that used Dracula as its figurehead and warned against going ‘batty’ over someone. As the AIDS crisis escalated, it was suggested that Dracula could be ‘more terrifying as a political metaphor for the spread of contaminated blood.

Coppola makes sure the connection is forced home by including clips of microscope images of blood cells when Dracula is feeding and talking about infected blood – vampirism is a blood-borne illness, he seems to be insisting, passed on by these hyper-sexual dominating monsters who prey on those who are weaker or infect those with a rampant and uncontrolled sexual desire who willingly taste his blood. ‘Love and blood equals…oo-er, death’ mocks a review in the Independent, such is the clumsy, overloaded nature of the analogy. To which I say, fuck you. Even in 1992, we knew better than this. Fuck you for perpetuating stigma by suggesting a link between AIDS and evil, fuck you for belittling the suffering of AIDS victims by insinuating blame or weakness. Just fuck you.

Actually fuck you to this entire film.

I cannot believe that 1992 was so long ago that these exaggerated patriarchal depictions of female sexuality or clumsy metaphors for the dangers of sex were acceptable. Is it satire? Is it farce? Frankly, I hope it is – otherwise it’s just offensive.

Sorry. This one isn’t for me…

Next week: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Basic Instinct

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven
KEY ACTORS: Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Jeanne Tripplehorn
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 6.9
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 53%

SEX SCORE: 3/5
Fails the Bechdel test – none of the female characters speak to each other – and it generally portrays women very poorly…
✔️ I’ve not seen this for years but it definitely stands up to a rewatch and I’d be happy to watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
✔️ I do think the cast are fuckable but this point comes with a caveat. The sex is hot and Sharon Stone is HOT but I really don’t rate Michael Douglas – as an actor or as an attractive lead. I don’t know why but he does nothing for me. And yet…
✔️ It did inspire fantasies – luckily for my husband, not fantasies of murder or manipulation but of sex that hot and of being a women who was in control her own pleasure. Who wouldn’t want that?
❌ But is it sex positive? Yes, it’s hot and explicit and kinky and mainstream and all about female pleasure but it’s kind of homophobic and the women are awful and sex is used as a weapon or threat and there’s the infamous story about Stone not consenting to the upskirting and I just can’t give it the mark…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (rent £2.99, buy £5.99)

I have decided to streamline this list and only mention Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime and any other free streaming services. A full list of availability can be found at JustWatch.com

[Content warning: discussion of non-consent and rape]

The poster for Basic Instinct - Michael Douglas looking over to the right with Sharon Stone glaring over his shoulder

I don’t really have a story to tell about watching Basic Instinct for the first time. It was sometime in the last 15 years and I saw it mainly because it was a film that I felt I ought to have seen. I knew all about the interrogation scene but very little about anything else. I saw it, I was fascinated and enthralled by the sex, but didn’t think much else of it – it was ridiculous, exaggerated, pulpy, and I don’t remember it being any good. I’d wanted to see it again for a long time, mainly to see if the sex was as hot as I remembered, but had never quite got around to it. It was low down on my list of rewatches.

Basic Instinct is essentially a murder mystery story. A rockstar is stabbed with an ice pick when having sex and killed, in a method eerily similar to that described in a trashy novel written by his girlfriend, Catherine Tramell. She is the prime suspect, but is this book the perfect alibi? The murder is investigated by an unstable and hot headed cop, Nick, who falls under Catherine’s spell and, well, all hell breaks loose. It’s tense, there are plot twists every two minutes, and I thought it was kind of stupid. Not bad, in the same way that Under Siege isn’t bad. Just stupid.

Except that I can see now that I completely missed the point! For its many flaws, which I’ll get to later, Basic Instinct is absolutely note perfect satire. Satire of the film noir genre, of the femme fatale trope, of everything Hitchcock made but definitely of Vertigo. It subtly but definitely mocks cops, detective movies, the 80s/early 90s (the dancing in the club is just too much), and I’d even go as far as to say that it is personally mocking Michael Douglas. How else do you explain that ridiculous green v-neck that he wears to the club? Combined with that ‘sexy-angry’ face that he wears throughout the film, he is a caricature of himself and that scene may be exactly when I stopped believing him as a heroic figure. And all in all, it’s clever. It’s really fucking clever.

I should have expected it. From RoboCop to Starship Troopers and all the way to ShowGirls, Verhoeven makes cutting satires that slice straight through whatever he is trying to expose but his satire is never obvious. In fact, it’s possible to watch the film, think it’s ridiculous and never understand his purpose (as I did with ShowGirls, a film on my list to review soon!) but the movie is so much better when you do!

Basic Instinct is also important as it marked a turning point in cinema history, ‘hitting America like a tidal wave of cynical hedonism run rampant.’ The indulgent excesses of the 80s were fading and we were moving into the steadier safer 90s, and here was a movie about excess and greed and sex but which had 80s yuppie hero Michael Douglas being brought down by the sexy and dangerous newcomer Sharon Stone rather than triumphing. It’s seedy, it’s gritty. It’s a film without heroes, without a good guy, without a clear moral conclusion and one that brought sex and kink and bisexuality to the mainstream in a way that changed everything that came after it.

And, of course, the sex was all that anyone talked about. It was all I remembered after all! Somehow managing to keep an R-rating in USA (avoiding an NC-17 was seemingly a bigger deal there as it was given an 18 certificate in the UK without much fuss), it has some of the most explicit and realistic sex that I’ve seen on screen outside of porn. Roger Ebert describes the sex scenes as belonging to ‘that strange neverland created by the MPAA’s Hollywood morality,’ showing what is allowed rather than what is good. He claims that trimming down hard-core sex to get a lower rating ends up being less erotic than more subtle, implied action,but I don’t think I can agree. The film buff in me knows that walking that ‘ratings line’ was necessary for the satire to work, over exaggerating the pleasure and hedonism, but as a horny kinkster, I also know it’s just hot!

Stone leaning back as Douglas kisses the front of her neck. Both are naked.

Sex under a mirrored ceiling? Hot. Tying wrists to the bed head to restrict your partner’s movement? Hot! Having your partner look up at you from between your legs as he eats you out? So so hot!! And the sex looked realistic enough to be believable. Everyone having sex with Catherine Tramell, Sharon Stone’s character, looked like they were having a really great time! It was sweaty and exhausting and parts of it at least showed sex that I recognised. Hot. Just hot.

Thinking about all the sex does reveal one of the major conflicts that I have with this movie. Is it sex positive? I concluded that it wasn’t in the end, but it wasn’t an easy decision. There is a lot to be said in its favour! For a start, it’s an erotic thriller where both of the main actors were over 30. Sharon Stone was 34 when it was released and Michael Douglas was 48. It also places female pleasure in the front and centre of the plot. Catherine does what she does and fucks as she fucks because it gives her pleasure. She doesn’t feel tied to old-fashioned expectations – ‘I wasn’t dating him. I was fucking him’ – and she is definitely in control of her body.

Stone looking up at Douglas

But, and this particular but comes up a lot when I’m thinking about positives for this film, she’s a complete psycho. [Edited in October 2019: I’d forgotten that I’d described Catherine this way as I’ve written in later weeks about how I dislike the common movie connection between mental illness and being evil. I’m sorry this one slipped through – Catherine is manipulative but, from memory, had no mental health diagnosis.]

It’s difficult to really take any positives from Catherine’s character because she’s such a terrible person. She’s the closest this movie has to a baddy! She’s manipulative and calculating. To quote from the film, ‘she’s evil. She’s brilliant!’ She’s much, much cleverer than anyone else but we’re not supposed to aspire to be her – she’s a warning to us all about the dangers of smart, sexual women.

Thinking about it, there are actually no women in this film who aren’t portrayed as at least a few sandwiches sort of a picnic. They’re either convicted murderers, stalkers or frankly unhinged. To me, it doesn’t matter that all the men are idiots and, my god, are they stupid. It’s not enough. Portraying women in this way is just perpetuating the patriarchy.

And I can completely understand why there were protests from gay rights activists about how lesbians and bisexual women are portrayed. Roxy, Catherine’s lover, is jealous, possessive and homicidal, confirming a long-standing Hollywood trope that lesbians are somehow evil, and it is really no comfort that all of the other characters are despicable too. Roger Ebert claims that protestors should ‘take note of the fact that this film’s heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive’ as if that would silence their arguments. Sadly, I fear this just reveals his privilege – being mocked or ridiculed or defamed is no big deal when society in general accepts you and doesn’t question your existence and rights.

Stone and Sarelle, with their arms around each other

Beth, Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character, is another character that particularly suffers to elevate Catherine. She’s a psychologist whose opinion is frequently sought but she never seems to a professional scene when she isn’t being overridden by a male colleague, or by Douglas himself. I don’t know why they gave her character such an intellectual career unless Verhoeven was deliberately trying to show her as a lesser women than Catherine.

Tripplehorn looking at Douglas, who is looking elsewhere

I also can’t mention Beth without mentioning her sex scene with Nick. Unlike the other sex in the movie, I did not want this type of sex but it was no less recognisable. Angry, fierce, entirely for his pleasure and in a consent grey area that looks decidedly rapey to me. Yes, she was there for sex but was she there for sex like that? Was this meant to highlight her weakness or emphasise Nick’s power? I can’t quite fit it into the rest of the plot, except perhaps to reaffirm that Nick is a twat but extra confirmation really wasn’t necessary!

Talking of non-consent brings me around to the infamous interrogation scene. What extraordinary cinema! It’s such a perfect scene – Catherine, dressed in white and looking stunning under the lights, holds every man in that room in the palm of her hand. She may be the suspect but none of the policemen could control her. She is in charge of everything; confident, slick, upfront about sex, teasing the increasingly sweaty men who are trying to intimidate her. In this context, the leg-crossing scene is the ultimate power play and it’s fucking hot. She’s taunting them with her sexuality, so close and yet unreachable.

A gif of Sharon Stone dressed in white and sitting with her legs crossed, rubbing them against each other

But IMDB reports that Sharon Stone had no idea that she would be so exposed when filming, which is frankly horrifying. According to Stone, Verhoeven asked her to remove her underwear as it was causing a shine on the camera and she agreed ‘under the assumption that her genitals weren’t visible,’ only discovering the truth at an early preview. What the actual fuck? Talk about a violation! Verhoeven’s version is slightly different, claiming that Stone changed her mind about the shot and asked for it to be removed, but he refused. I’ve got to be honest – this is no better! It’s still a massive violation!! Particularly in scenes with such a sexual content, she surely should be in control of how her body is used? Urgh…

As usual, I could witter on and on about everything that interested me about this film but I’ll finish with a subject that I could write 2000 plus words on alone – how the influence of Alfred Hitchcock is just flooding through this film. He’s there in the intense creepy music, in the car chases and shots within cars that were so clearly filmed in a studio. Thinking of Vertigo in particular, he’s there in San Francisco, in the clifftop scenery and long rolling avenues. And he’s there in the blonde heroine.

So much of Catherine’s style appears to be straight from Kim Novak’s wardrobe but they also share that typically Hitchcockian trait being icy cold and calculating. Hitchcock blondes are ‘beautiful and eye-catching, sure, but they also project the qualities of independence, poise, range, determination and, most significant, mystery.’ Hitchcock is said to have felt that blondes were ‘less suspicious’ than brunettes, which allowed him to create a duality of character – outwardly classic, beautiful, cool and internally conflicted, mysterious and aflame. He felt there was a ‘greater shock’ when a blonde is deceitful, further adding to the intrigue of his plot. Of course, it is possible that he was justifying a personal preference and there is much to suggest that Hitchcock had a very strange relationship with the women in his movies, but his legacy is certainly felt in Basic Instinct.

All the women are blonde and hiding a mysterious and potentially murderous past, apart from Beth who is the more traditional doormat of a women and is a more domestic brunette. Except, of course, when Beth’s history with Catherine is revealed and she becomes a suspect in her own right. Photos of her back then show a blonde woman.

Fancy that.

Next week: Secretary

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.