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Trading Card Set of the Week – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Topps)

September 18, 2013

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I want you to bring me, before nightfall, a set of postmortem knives.

An autopsy? On Lucy?

No, no, no. Not exactly. I just want to cut off her head and take out her heart.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s innovative, bizarre and at times flat as week old soda early 1990s horror film, was and is a veritable cinematic cornucopia. It’s a horn of plenty of good and bad: of stellar acting and of bad acting, of stunning visuals and campy line recitals, of posh and gore. From the opening sequence, with impaled Turks in silhouette and the titular Count wearing bizarre meat armor, you know you’re in for what will at least be a strange interlude. The vampire of vampires may have had better incarnations onscreen, but never one quite like this. It was a new take on the character, though one that stuck close to the narrative structure of the original tome, fittingly so since the author’s name was right there in the movie title.

Dracula, long a subject of comic book tales, was perfectly suited for a comic adaptation — even in this strange instance. The company that got that license? Not Marvel, who had given more life to the undead fiend than anyone else over the years (even reviving the dead undead), but Topps, whose bubble gum card portfolio was at that time was bleeding (no pun) over into comics. The adaptation miniseries featured art by Mike Mignola, and the deep shadows always present in his work were perfectly suited for Vlad Dracula’s nocturnal milieu — and with the equally deep colors, said art foreshadowed the look of Mignola’s Hellboy, a character who would debut the very next year.

Of course, in marvelous corporate synergy, Topps uncorked a Dracula trading card set to go right along with the newsstand fodder. Why the hell not. Presenting Topps’ Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  

Much like the Batman Returns Stadium Club set that we’ve reviewed here before, the cards are slick, glossy, and with nice shiny foil emblazoning the title on the card front. (Though the Dracula cards don’t have the Stadium Club imprimatur, they might as well be.) In this case, the foil is blood red instead of gray, with a droplet running down the side of every card. Cheers! To give you the feel, let’s go through the bright lights of the cast, and a few of the cards that fill out the bulk of the set.

First up is Gary Oldman, a great actor by any measure, and one who was largely under the radar until this movie. His goofy old man (…) makeup and two-bun hair in his Transylvanian abode remains one of the big takeaways of the whole movie (I recall Sinbad doing a bit on it), and Oldman did a great job of handling the noble/grisly duality of Dracula. Here he is in his dapper London guise:

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Winona Ryder was for a time the eternal child bride, a little wisp of an actress who seemed destined to play young, delicate, porcelain-like ladies for the rest of her life. (It was jarring to see her as Spock’s mother in the 2009 Star Trek. Time swallows us all.) That’s what she was here, first as Vlad Dracula’s ill-fated wife, then as her spitting centuries-later image, Mina Harker. (I think she played the exact same character in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, if by another name.) She’s loathsome in this, a vacillating twerp easily succumbing to Dracula’s wiles, despite having a pretty good inkling that the guy violated her best friend while in the form of a wolf. In fact, both of the female leads are so annoying you want to drive stakes into their hearts before they become vampires. Anyway, here she is, in one of those little hats that look like they’ll blow away if you so much as breathe on them:

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Anthony Hopkins was Anthony Hopkins Professor Van Helsing, and he fully embraced the absurdity of the whole enterprise, including delivering the marvelous deadpan quote that opened this post. This was early on in his Hannibal Lecter career explosion, a wave he’s still riding to this day:

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Ah, Keanu Reeves. His performance in this film remains a stunningly awful milepost on his career. It’s actually stunning that anyone would ever put him in another movie after his turn as Jonathan Harker, the young solicitor who travels to Dracula’s castle, gets trapped by Dracula’s brides, makes his escape back to his beloved Mina, gets cuckolded, has his hair turn prematurely gray, then rides along as Van Helsing and their partners travel deep into Dracula’s home territory. His line reads are like something out of a bad high school play. You’d like to think that his stiff, affected presence is intentional, a take on what was expected of young lawyers in that era’s London society, but that’s doubtful. He just stinks. Oh, and his accent is terrible. But here he is, in his youthful Bill and Ted glow:

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Richard E. Grant, who plays Dr. John Seward, one of the three suitors of the ill-fated Lucy, isn’t a big name. He’s one of those countless actors whose face you recognize, then rack your brain to remember what else he’s been in. I’ll tell you one thing besides Dracula he’s been in: the impossibly brief but brilliant BBC show Posh Nosh, which was an utterly brilliant send-up of class pretension and dopey cooking shows (chastise the eggs…). For that he deserves our eternal gratitude. And he got to wear the biggest bow tie in the world for Dracula:

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Cary Elwes was in The Princess Bride, which is pretty much all that a vast swath of the public needs to know about him. He was also in Glory. And an episode of Seinfeld. (Do I love her? Yes.) And the not-picked-up Wonder Woman pilot from a few years ago. He’s Sir Arthur Homwood in Dracula, the man who wins the hand of the horny, dim-witted Lucy Westenra only to have her turn into a pale-faced monster who he has to kill for all eternity with a stake through the heart. Poor guy. I don’t know Elwes, but I like him — maybe it’s the moustache wax:

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Many of the visual highlights come — in spite of Reeves — during Harker’s sojourn at Castle Dracula. Oldman’s accent is thick as stew, and the shadows on the walls (achieved by practical effects) have minds of their own. There’s menace always lurking, especially as Harker shaves, nicks his delicate man-skin and the good Count can hardly contain himself before sneaking a lick of the blade — commemorated here:

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Dracula takes roughly 800 forms during the movie’s runtime, some seemingly for that very reason so often the bane of hacky filmmaking: Just Because. Here he’s supposed to be a wolf-man, though he looks more like King Kong:

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The card backs continue the blood-splatter motif from the front, with text explaining the front’s image and another pic. Coppola storyboarded the whole movie from start to finish, and in many respects the film springs more from those than the script, as it owes so much to its visual momentum. Here’s one — and I have to quibble with the assertion that “Keanu Reeves brings the character of Jonathan Harker to life” text:

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The back of the set includes of good chunk of cards featuring some of Mignola’s artwork from the comic mini. Here’s the aforementioned meat armor, which is a perfect subject for his style:

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There are no chase cards, but there were associated original cards packaged with the Dracula Topps comics, four with each issue (16 in total), which shared the same general design as the regular set. Each foursome had one photo card with the foil, while the other three were foil-less artwork, from Mignola, John Nyberg and Mark Chiarello. To wit:

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The movie was odd, but was a box office and critical success. I rewatched it recently, and it holds up in its way — though Reeves’ performance remains unspeakably bad. Laughably so. The cards are decent a decent souvenir, both of the movie and of a kind of horror that seems quaint today, in the best sense of that word. They aren’t that hard to find (though getting the sixteen comic cards with a set is slightly more of a challenge), and aren’t expensive at all. If you’re a fan, then they might be a nice thing to get, look at, then toss in a drawer. Or a coffin.

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