DraculaFest: NBC’s Dracula

I suppose it’s no surprise that, given the sheer volume of adaptations, some network at some time would attempt a Dracula series. It finally happened as a joint venture between Sky Living in the UK and NBC in the US. Dracula (2013) aired ten episodes before shriveling in the sunlight. Needless to say I approached with low expectations, choosing to watch the pilot before committing to the entire run. As it turns out, I made it through the short first–and only–season and wouldn’t have minded more. Nothing classic, but not a bad attempt at expanding the story and exploring a new direction for this well-worn movie monster.

The light bulb is on.

Suck it, Tesla.

In the 15th century, Vlad Tepes aka Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is condemned by the Order of the Dragon for embracing technology and committing heresy against God. The order kills his wife Ilona (Jessica De Gouw) and curses Tepes by turning him into a vampire. (I’m not sure turning your enemy into an immortal monster is the best punishment, but different strokes.) Centuries later the scientist Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann— hey remember him as Dracula in Argento’s Dracula 3D? No? Never mind) discovers Dracula’s sealed tomb and frees the vengeful Count. Apparently the Order has been busy in the intervening centuries and now controls much of Europe. Van Helsing wants revenge for his dead family and sics the freed vampire on their sorry asses. The pair travel to London and construct a long con to bring down the Order of the Dragon, which controls the oil industry that’s driving Britain’s economy. Aided by his executive assistant R.M. Renfield (Nonso Anozie), Dracula constructs a new persona for himself: American inventor Alexander Grayson, whose revolutionary geomagnetic energy powers wireless light bulbs and threatens to destroy the oil industry–and the Order of the Dragon along with it. The secret society sends their own ace huntswoman, Lady Jane Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit) to seek out and destroy the new vampire in town. And Dracula’s own plans begin to unravel when he meets Mina Murray (DeGouw again), who–all together now–is revealed as the reincarnation of his lost love, Ilona. Will Dracula shame Nikola Tesla and bring cheap energy to the world? Will Lady Jane discover the man she’s shagging is also the vampire she’s been hunting? (What, Jane, no mirrors in the house?) Will the Count and Van Helsing bring down the Order before killing each other?

Well, we’ll never know. That’s the problem with investing time in a TV show that never truly made it out of the gate. In fact, how many TV series in all have delivered a complete and satisfying narrative? The gradual reveal of backstory works well throughout the series, except it means we never discover how (or why) Dracula made a genius-level technological discovery. We see only glimpses of what Dracula’s been up to for centuries, or how Van Helsing ran afoul of the order himself. And we don’t discover the fate of Mina’s friend Lucy (Katie McGrath) following her fatal encounter with Dracula, or that of Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) after losing Mina to the same nemesis.

Don't piss him off.

Just received word of the ratings!

Dracula as tech CEO? A lot of the ideas at play seem preposterous. I spent the first few episodes trying to decide if show-runner Cole Haddon had strayed so far from the source material as to make it unrecognizable. Whenever the story veered off the path, however, someone would receive a bite to the neck or a cross to the forehead and remind us we’re dealing with Stoker’s characters. Yes, much of it remains silly; Lady Jane ranks just below Lois Lane on the oblivion scale and should probably reconsider the whole vampire hunting gig; Dracula doesn’t seem like the most likely high-stakes businessman. But the production values are high and the acting is overall quite decent. I especially enjoyed the rapport between Grayson/Dracula and Renfield, hanging out by the fireplace with brandy snifters as they sort through recent complications. The characters fulfill quite different roles than in the novel, but show signs of approaching their archetypes as the series progresses. It’s hard to condemn a show for offering a new spin on a story that’s been rehashed dozens and dozens of times over the past century. Shame about that whole cancellation thing, though.

NBC’s Dracula earns a respectable 1.25 out of 2 fangs out. Bram Stoker may be turning over in his grave, but he needn’t rise to avenge his name.

Next time: The British are coming! Again!

DraculaFest: The Return of Dracula

Horror

Horror

The Return of Dracula (1958) is the sort of movie you don’t really watch or even know about unless, for some bizarre reason, you decide to blog every Dracula movie you can get your hands on. Released by United Artists, it is not a sequel to Universal’s Dracula–or any other Dracula film for that matter. The return in the title seems to simply reference the reappearance of Dracula in America after several centuries of ravaging Europe. This film suffered the grand misfortune of releasing months before Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, which launched Christopher Lee as the definitive Dracula of that era and left this film in the dust.

No one likely wonders why. I find it hard to believe, in a way, that Return and Horror arose at the same time. Filmed in black-and-white with the notable exception of one splash of blood, The Return of Dracula seems downright quaint in comparison to Hammer’s technicolor gore. Set in small-town California and rife with Leave it to Beaver-style family drama, it seems unspeakably polite with its offscreen murders and Halloween socials. (People bob for apples in the background while our heroine struggles against Dracula’s mind control, for gosh sakes!) It’s reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but somehow less sinister even with a vampire at large.

Aspiring Czech artist Bellac Gordal (Nobert Schiller) boards a train bound for America to seek his fortune while staying with his cousin’s family in California. Unfortunately, he shares a private car with Count Dracula (Francis Lederer), who drains his blood and assumes his identity. It’s unclear whether Dracula wished to go to California or simply took the opportunity when it arose. They also never explain how a train gets from the Balkans to the United States. But arrive it does in the sleepy town of Carleton, where the Mayberry family awaits their estranged relative. (Speaking of Mayberry, Sheriff Andy Taylor would fit right in here, but that show wouldn’t launch for another two years.) Dracula takes up residence in their house, posing as Cousin Bellac (which they continue to call him throughout the film, in case anyone mistakes him for another Bellac, I suppose). Mother Cora (Greta Granstedt) frets over whether the new guest likes melted cheese on his asparagus. Daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) finds herself fascinated by Cousin Bellac’s eccentricities. When family friend Jennie Blake (Virginia Vincent) becomes ill and dies, then vanishes from her casket, suspicions arise. Somehow an immigration agent (!) (Charles Tannen) gets involved as well as the local Sheriff (John McNamara) and a “reverend doctor” (Gage Clarke)–whatever that is. Rachel makes the terrifying discovery that Bellac is a vampire, then more or less ignores that information and hangs out at a Halloween party with her boyfriend, Tim Hansen (Ray Stricklyn). Eventually Dracula calls Rachel to the cave where he’s keeping his coffin, and Tim follows her. They ward off Dracula using the huge, dime-store cross Rachel is wearing around her neck. (She went to the costume party dressed as a Grecian goddess, but with a huge cross around her neck. Yeah.) Suddenly we hear a scream off camera and discover that Dracula has fallen through the flooring into an old mine or something and somehow got staked through the heart on the way down. THE END. Seriously, that’s the end: Dracula tripping and laying at the bottom of a pit with a stray piece of wood through his chest. It’s like the writer got bored about four pages from the ending and just cut it off, no muss no fuss.

Scariest moment ends with the opening credits.

Scariest moment ends with the opening credits.

Francis Lederer doesn’t do much with the role of Dracula/Cousin Bellac. I blame the meager role rather than the actor, for Lederer held a major role in the kick-ass German Expressionist silent film Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks. Don’t bother with this flick, go and find Pandora’s Box instead. This isn’t a terrible film, but it’s clear why Horror of Dracula won this shootout. Return‘s single splash of red blood in an otherwise monochrome movie seems silly at a time when Christopher Lee painted the screen red with every vivid victim. This film seems like it wants to scare, but just doesn’t commit. The title card featuring a shadowy figure with disembodied eyes is genuinely unsettling, but it promises scares that never materialize.

Gee Wilikers! The Return of Dracula earns .25 out of 2 fangs out. Only for the completist or the very bored.

Up next: The Count invades the boob tube!

DraculaFest: Blood for Dracula

And here we are, back in the ’70s again. They really loved their vampires in that decade. The biggest surprise to come out of the sheer volume of disco-era Dracula projects is the variety. These aren’t just copycats, but original interpretations. And this is no exception. To put it mildly.

Ain't easy being green.

Ain’t easy being green.

Blood for Dracula (1974) is also known as Andy Warhol’s Dracula, though it’s directed by Paul Morrissey, a member of Warhol’s Factory. A joint French-Italian project filmed in Italy, the Italian title translates to Dracula is Searching for Virgins’ Blood, and… He’s Dying of Thirst! That tells you a lot about what we’re getting into. Fasten your seatbelts if you haven’t dropped acid recently–it may be a bumpy trip.

Count Dracula (Udo Kier) is an aging, decrepit shell of himself who relies on his devoted servant, Anton (Arno Juerging) to survive. He piles his coffin and wheelchair atop his auto and the pair head for Italy to find religious families to prey on. You see, the Count requires the blood of virgins to extend his life, and he’s surrounded by sluts in his native country. I know, I know. He arrives in Italy and uses his title and supposed fortune to insinuate himself into the lives of the Marchese de Fiori (Bicycle Thief director Vittorio DeSica! Why isn’t he directing this?) and his family. The Marchesa (Maxime McKendry) is all too eager to marry off one of their good Catholic daughters to a nobleman and invites him to stay. This doesn’t sit well with Neanderthal handyman Mario Balato (Joe Dallesandro), who has no desire to compete with another stud horse. Balato has deflowered the two middle sisters and looks forward to raping the youngest. (Yes, he uses the R word. In conversation.) Unfortunately, Dracula chooses to feed on the two unchaste sisters (Dominique Darel and Stefania Casini) and winds up on the floor, prostrating himself before the porcelain goddess. “The blood of these whores is killing me,” he famously declares as he regurgitates their tainted blood. He really should avoid Vegas.

Anyway, Balato of all people figures out that Dracula is a vampire and rapes the youngest daughter (Silvia Dionisio) to save her from the Count. Gee, thanks. Dracula continues the war of attrition by feasting on the spinster eldest daughter (Milena Vukotic), but flees at the first sight of Balato wielding an axe. The handyman pursues Dracula into the courtyard, chopping off his limbs one by one and then staking his writhing torso. The spinster falls on Dracula’s stake out of remorse–sharpened on both ends, apparently, for maximum efficiency–and Balato and his young paramour return to the house, where she will presumably fix him a pot pie or something.

Axe me no questions.

Axe me no questions.

Some believe true art must offend. Warhol and Company work so hard at assaulting the viewer’s sensibilities, however, it’s hard to raise more than an eyebrow. The faux-pornographic sex scenes are a shagadelic relic of the past, and rape is a rusty tool with which to poke us in the eye. The whole thing feels a bit lazy on the blasphemy scale. It’s too bad, because Udo Kier’s performance saves this flick from unwatchability. His creepy, ailing and petulant aristocrat is a Dracula we haven’t seen before or since, and he lends a satisfying creepiness to the role. I’m at a loss to explain Joe Dallesandro’s top billing as the lumbering, pimp-handed MRA poster boy. His status as a Warhol superstar surely rests on someone’s pervy wet dream, or a particularly bad acid trip. Claudio Gizzi‘s score and Kier’s Dracula keep things interesting for a while, but like a bad trip, it goes downhill fast.

Goodbye again, ’70s. Blood for Dracula earns 0.5 out of 2 fangs out. These bores are killing me.

Next time: Boppin’ back to the ’50s.

DraculaFest: Argento’s Dracula 3D

I know what you’re thinking. Has any movie with 3D in the title ever been worthwhile? Likewise, a film with someone’s name prepended smacks of self-indulgence. Can Argento’s Dracula 3D (2012) break the curse?

Well, it’s not a complete waste of time.

Caption

Do I have blood on my teeth? I can’t use a mirror.

If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, trust your intuition. This film earned the benefit of a doubt as the brainchild of horror legend Dario Argento, creator of giallo classics like Suspiria and Inferno–not to mention producer of one of my all-time favorite films, Dawn of the Dead. He knows his horror. If this film fails to live up to that pedigree, it’s somewhat salvaged by a sly sense of humor. The soundtrack’s theremin wail recalls low-grade Hollywood horror of the ’50s and ’60s, and several odd choices throughout the story indicate that Argento is having fun, with healthy sides of boobs and blood. If you ignore the no-budget effects and avoid looking for much logic, it can be fun to watch. To a point.

We begin outside a small village in… Transylvania? Germany? Italy? I never figured that out. Fair maiden Tanja (Miriam Giovanelli) ignores the gathering storm that has shuttered the village to wander into the deep woods for an illicit booty call with her married boyfriend–who, despite his marital status, appears to live alone in a cabin out in the deep woods. You know what, if I question every ambiguity we’ll be here all day. Let’s just accept that details are vague and breeze through this. After a naked, full-bodied romp–this is an Italian film, after all–she heads home and gets picked off by an owl who happens to be Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann). She is avenged just in time for the arrival of Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde). As in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, Harker accepts a position as Dracula’s personal librarian. Like his Hammer counterpart, he proves none too bright and the Count brings his book-filing days to a close in short order. His wife, Mina (Marta Gastini), arrives in town and quickly grows suspicious of the Count’s continued excuses for Jonathan’s absence. She’s staying with her friend, Lucy (Asia Argento), who’s secretly been trysting with the Count; he bites her behind the knee instead of on her neck to avoid detection, the clever dog. Thanks to a candle-lit nude sponge bath (see: Italian film, above) Mina discovers Lucy’s bite mark. She calls in professional vampire hunter Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer). After much bloodshed and many gross prosthetic effects, the pair dispatch all of the vampires, including Dracula, whose ashes scatter in the wind to form a cheesy wolf-head pattern before disbursing.

Oh, and at one point Dracula turns into a giant, eight-foot praying mantis and decapitates Lucy’s father.

Katy did what, now?

Katy did what, now?

See, until the giant mantis I wasn’t sure how much of the cheeky humor in this flick was intentional. Once that CGI monstrosity ambles up the staircase and sinks its mandibles into the old man, there is no longer any doubt that this is intentional schlock cinema. I have to say it’s one of the more memorable scenes in all the Dracula films thus far, for right and wrong reasons. Dracula never appears as a bat, but does eavesdrop on a town meeting while posing as a swarm of houseflies. This lack of self-importance saves the film from being utterly forgettable.

German actor Thomas Kretschmann makes a strange Dracula, standing ramrod stiff and growling sotto voce lines. His odd and understated performance is the antithesis of Bela Lugosi’s theatricality. Despite red-alert levels of blood and carnage, this Count never seems terrifying, even when disemboweling an entire room full of village conspirators. The rest of the cast points to several missed opportunities. Asia Argento makes a great Lucy, both before and after death, but her early demise is disappointing. Likewise, Rutger Hauer sparks interest as the vamp-killing Van Helsing, but he appears far too late to have much impact. Had we seen more of that pair, the film could have been much better.

Credit where due, though. Argento introduces a unique element to the story: the villagers have formed a pact with Count Dracula that allows him the occasional neck snack in return for his help in ensuring the village will prosper. How exactly he does this is never fleshed out, but it’s an interesting idea that should have been explored. Unfortunately, Drac wipes out all of the village elders at the first whiff of second thoughts. Another promising thread cut short. That could serve as the thesis statement of this film.

Argento’s Dracula 3D earns 0.5 out of 2 fangs out. A missed opportunity not helped by that extra dimension. But did I mention the praying mantis?

Up next: More italians! More Germans!

DraculaFest: Dracula ’79

Help, we’re stuck in 1979 and they won’t stop making Dracula movies! Since we’re on a roll, I figured I should remain in the Disco Era and knock out the third major vampire flick in a row of that year, in an effort to figure out what was up with the Count overkill.

And for my next trick...

And for my next trick…

Studios copy each other all the time. Happily, the ’79 Dracula hat trick is no mere case of the me-toos. Turns out all three films present a unique take on the story and characters, and all three have a valid reason for existence. Nosferatu, the Vampyre stakes out the art-house horror niche and Love at First Bite is a broad and silly comedy. That leaves Universal’s Dracula (1979) reboot to represent the sweeping, studio-system blockbuster. Almost 70 years after the original Dracula launched the Universal Monsters, the studio returned to its roots and constructed a new vision of their famous fiend. While the screenplay by W.D. Richter credits the same Hamilton Deane stage play that inspired the original, I was pleased to find that director John Badham reconstructed the tale from the ground up, creating more than a simple reshoot of the classic.

We discover this in the opening scene, as Badham dispenses with the entire first act of the book–the part that Herzog lingered on–to place Dracula at sea and en route to England. The storm-tossed ship arrives on the shores of Whitby with a mutilated crew and the requisite puzzling boxes of earth. The sole survivor, Count Dracula (Frank Langella), takes possession of a ridiculously over-the-top gothic castle on a lonely pinnacle outside of town (No red flags yet? Anyone?) with his insane manservant Renfield (Tony Haygarth). The Count wastes no time ingratiating himself with the locals, especially Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) and Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan). Mina’s sudden death brings her father, Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) to investigate. He discovers the Count is now targeting Lucy, which doesn’t sit well with her fiancé, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve). Unlike in his other movie incarnations, this Count is not only after blood. He swaps hemoglobin with Lucy but also shags her rotten to a dramatic score, red mood lighting and some odd shots of a bat flying around. He promises eternal life for Lucy, who runs off with him to sail back to Transylvania. Meanwhile, Van Helsing is forced to stake his own baby-stealing, resurrected daughter in the heart as she wails, “Papa…” That can’t be easy. Despondent, Van Helsing chases after Dracula and manages to board his ship before it sails, dragging Harker along for the ride. Van Helsing is killed, but not before throwing a hook into the Count’s back, allowing Harker to hoist him above deck so he bursts into flames. Lucy appears freed, though she smiles at the site of Dracula’s cape fluttering away into the sea.

Papa don't preach.

Papa don’t preach.

This film does not want for big-name talent. Badham joined following the smash Saturday Night Fever and later directed War Games. John Williams provides a memorable score, riding high from his Oscar-winning music for Star Wars. The high-profile cast turn in memorable performances. Langella’s Dracula is the epitome of the late twentieth century trend toward romanticizing vampires, as charming as he is deadly. Though the film amps up the romantic angle, unlike Coppola’s love-struck Count there’s an air of danger and inherent wrongness to the whole thing. We aren’t asked to root for Lucy and Dracula as a standard couple and forget all the killing and baby-stealing going on. And the film doesn’t neglect the horror angle, providing several genuine scares. As a result, it works on its own merits. Occasionally it suffers from Hollywood bombast; in addition to the over-the-top castle, Dr. Seward (Halloween‘s Donald Pleasance) runs an asylum that resembles a crazy factory floor with inmates running wild on multiple floors. There’s a touch of unintentional hilarity when Dracula attacks Harker in bat form, causing Harker to writhe around on the floor in a manner reminiscent of Ed Wood‘s octopus scene. Overall, however, it stands as a bold retelling that could have easily been a simple, boring rehash.

Dracula earns 1.75 out of 2 fangs. Not a bad batting average for 1979 overall. And now we are well shut of the Seventies for a while.

Next time: Viva l’Italia!

DraculaFest: Love at First Bite

What was it about 1979, anyway? Apparently that year saw the release of no fewer than five Dracula films, three of them from major studios. With that much output, reason dictates that one of them had to be a silly parody. Et voilà!

Studio 666

You are the dancing count.

Love at First Bite (1979) emerged at the exact same time as Nosferatu, the Vampyre and Universal’s Dracula remake, and it goes without saying it lies on the lighter end of the spectrum. It certainly bears little resemblance to Werner Herzog’s frightfest. It’s helpful to remember that Airplane! arrived the following year. This film is very much in the same comedic vein. Pratfalls, double entendres, gratuitous extended disco dancing, you get the picture.

Count Vladimir Dracula (George Hamilton) is driven from his castle in Transylvania by the Communist regime and arrives in New York City with his faithful servant, Renfield (Arte Johnson). While engaging in Manhattan hijinks the Count runs across supermodel Cindy Sondheim (Susan Saint James) and–say it with me now–discovers she is his lost love reincarnate. He pursues her with a variety of magical parlor tricks that have nothing to do with being a vampire, which draws the ire of her would-be beau, Dr. Jeffrey Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin). Luckily the good doctor is a Van Helsing descendent, though not as adept at chasing vampires as his famous ancestor. Many shenanigans later, Dracula vampirizes–‘zat a word?–his true love and they fly off together as bats.

Here's sun in your eye.

Here’s sun in your eye.

Of course, a plot summary is more or less pointless in describing a film like this. It’s parody and slapstick and ribald humor roughly pressed into the shape of a Dracula story. As these pursuits go, it’s fairly well done and even laugh-out-loud funny in places. After a fun opening with a few well-placed zingers (“Children of the night–shut up!”) the pace drags as the Count and Renfield conduct a two-man road show. Hamilton and Johnson are essentially Hollywood Squares novelty actors, and are directly aping their Universal forebearers, Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. They’re adequate. Things pick up considerably with the arrival of Saint James as a glamorous but slovenly model, sardonic and self-deprecating in amusing ways. Benjamin also works well as her loony boyfriend, bumbling through several attempts to destroy his competition with a garlic necklace, a Star of David and a can of kerosene. Writer Robert Kaufman manages several good riffs on Dracula standards (“I don’t drink…wine and I don’t smoke…shit,” says Dracula when Cindy offers him booze and a spliff.) As with Blacula, a few cringe-worthy stereotypes mar the fun. For the most part, however, this is a pleasant enough way to spend ninety minutes and change. If you enjoy parody movies, this is your jam. Me, I don’t mind one every now and again.

Love at First Bite earns .75 out of 2 fangs out. A trifle, but a pretty funny one.

Up next: The Spirit of ’79 continues!

DraculaFest: Nosferatu, the Vampyre

Werner Herzog and Count Dracula, together at last. Has any pairing ever made more sense? The Prince of Darkness and the King of Existential Despair. It’s hard to imagine a world in which Herzog would not adapt this story.

Pardon my reach.

Pardon my reach.

Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979) is more a remake of Murnau’s silent classic than an adaptation of Stoker’s novel. It’s faithful to its unlicensed predecessor, though lapsed rights allow Herzog to revert to the characters named in the book. While Dracula in name, the central character deliberately pays homage to Count Orlok, down to his rodent fangs and cauliflower ears. But he is no longer silent. The joint French-German production shot two versions, one in English and one in German. Unlike the twin Universal films, the same cast speak their lines in each language. Herzog declared the German version definitive, but I’d say they’re about equal. Though the German is more appropriate to the location, you don’t miss much in English.

Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz, star of many a Hitler meme), travels from his native Wismar, Germany to the castle of Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) for the standard real estate transaction. Many versions of Dracula rush through the scenes in Transylvania in order to focus on the Count’s invasion of modern culture. But Herzog lingers on Harker’s lone journey through narrow crags and foggy mountain passes and on his introduction to the vampyre in his home setting. As in Nosferatu, this Count is no deceptive charmer. He zooms from pleasant to creepy in a matter of minutes as he lunges after Harker’s bleeding thumb. Dracula bites and enslaves Harker, then boards a ship with his coffins full of rats. (Red flag, stevedores! Just saying.) When Harker returns to Wismar he is pale and insane, much like his employer, Renfield (Roland Topor). The Count arrives shortly after, but is rebuffed by Jonathan’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), who quickly grows suspicious of him. Dracula’s rat army carries the plague to Wismar, decimating the population as Harker’s condition worsens. Unable to convince Dr. Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast)–or anyone, really–of the Count’s true nature, Lucy pulls the old seduce-him-until-the-sun-comes-up routine that worked so well for her predecessor. But come now, did anyone expect a happy ending from Werner Herzog? In a twist ending that Shyamalan would kill for, Harker frames Van Helsing for the Count’s murder and assumes his mantle, riding off on horseback to continue spreading the rat plague.

Still not convinced you need to sail from Transylvania to Germany.

Still not convinced you need to sail from Transylvania to Germany.

Herzog delivers a deliciously creepy take on Murnau’s unofficial story. Shots of bats flying in slow motion and stacked, mummified corpses provide atmosphere. The surreal landscape of plague-shattered Wismar adds to Lucy’s alienation as she pleads with the sick and insane to listen to her warning. Klaus Kinski transforms into perhaps the most disturbing take on Count Dracula; his soft-spoken, almost shy demeanor seeks sympathy even as his misshapen appearance repulses. French star Isabelle Adjani is, without question, the most compelling heroine of any Dracula film. This Lucy is defiant and determined to rid herself of the Count from their first introduction. “Good night,” she says to Dracula, dismissing him with a wave of her crucifix as he slinks away. She also serves as Herzog’s mouthpiece with several hilarious philosophical musings that could have come from the downbeat director himself: “God is so far from us in the hour of distress”; “Do you think it is possible that we are so insane that one day we will all wake to find ourselves in straightjackets?” For every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud over Werner Herzog, and he never fails to amuse with the depths of his despondency.

Those Germans do know their horror. Ein weiterer Klassiker! Nosferatu, the Vampyre earns 2 out of 2 fangs out. Two rat’s teeth dripping with bubonic ennui!

DraculaFest: Dracula 2000

Oof. Well, I wanted a palate cleanser after a series of revisited classics, something new and shiny to comment on. Consider my palate expunged.

Fangs are so last century.

Fangs are so last century.

I knew better than to expect much from Dracula 2000 (Any movie that includes the year in the title can’t help but sound like a Ron Popeil infomercial.) It’s wretched even by lowered standards. And not in a vampy, campy or so-bad-it’s-good way. I’d have happily accepted a glob of queso fundido as an antidote to more serious versions. But hey, if you’re gonna go there, at least deliver the goods. Apparently the full title of this flick is Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000, but Craven is an Executive Producer–which I’m pretty sure means he accepted a check so they could prepend his name. I hope that’s the case, for it would be a shame if someone of his caliber had a hand in the actual production.

Director Patrick Lussier and writer Joel Soisson can’t decide what type of movie to make. For the first fifteen minutes it’s a heist/caper tale in which a team of… guys with guns and flak suits (don’t bother with more than that because they disappear shortly) raid a vault expecting a fat paycheck but only succeed in opening Dracula’s sealed coffin. Think Ocean’s 11 with oceans of blood. Oops. Then we shift into drama mode and discover that the vault’s owner is none other than Abraham Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer), still kicking vampire ass after a century or so of prolonging his life using Dracula’s blood. He has some tense moments with his protégé, Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), who’s here to draw brooding youngsters into the theater. They realize the freed Count is after Van Helsing’s daughter, Mary (Justine Waddell), because revenge. It’s unclear if Mary has been leading a prolonged life or or was conceived by a 100+ year old man. I know. Don’t think too hard on it. We’re only about halfway there.

Who didn't get a date to the Vampire Prom?

Who didn’t get a date to the Vampire Prom?

Then we shift into softcore Skinemax mode for some quasi-sexytime while Dracula seduces and puts the bite on some modern women–because what is Dracula without his trio of undead brides? Jennifer Esposito, Jeri Ryan and Vitamin C (?) chew the scenery, and a few random necks, while spouting sexist claptrap like, “You Brits like to sweet-talk and you Brits like to romance, but all I wanna do is suck!” As tensions rise cast members one-up each other by shouting groan-inducing puns and wannaba catchphrases: “Never fuck with an antiques dealer!” You see the jump scares coming from several hundred frames back (whenever the camera follows someone as they back up, of course) and the bon mots fall flat more often than not. A few of them are fun, like Dracula’s update of his own catchphrase: “I never drink… beer.” Too few and far between.

From there we head to New Orleans, for no reason other than to feature some gothic architecture and religious kitsch. In case the pounding, growling Nu-Metal soundtrack isn’t enough to chain the film to the late ’90s, Dracula goes looking for Mary in a Virgin Megastore. (Remember those?) Nathan Fillion does nothing whatsoever in a cameo as a priest(!). From here on out it’s pure action movie madness. Several wisecracking battles later, the film finally reveals its big twist: Dracula is really Judas Iscariot, who was refused death after betraying Jesus Christ! The movie makes sure you figure this out before the Big Reveal, as Mary tries to figure out why Drac hates all things biblical and especially silver (wink wink). Something something, Dracula/Judas bursts into flames and Mary keeps watch over his ashes until the inevitable sequel.

This is New Adult Dracula, featuring an unrecognizable, pre-300 Gerard Butler as the Prince of Darkness. He’s part Ramone and part romance cover, adequate for what’s required but never convincing as a 2,000-year-old tortured soul. He’s not frightening, but neither is the rest of the film. It’s a horror movie that seems to have misplaced the horror.

Turning Judas into a vampire could have worked. Christopher Plummer as an aging Van Helsing should have worked. And yet, here we are. A bad movie was made with King Leonidas, Baron von Trapp, Sherlock Holmes, Mal Reynolds and Seven of Nine–a statistical improbability. The humanity!

Dracula 2000 earns 0 out of 2 fangs out. Get this vampire some dentures! And let us never speak of this again.

Next time: The only direction is up!

DraculaFest: Drácula

As experiments go, few compare to a side-by-side review of Dracula and its companion piece, shot simultaneously on the same sets with a different crew and in Spanish. At first Drácula (1931) seems to share so much with its English counterpart they are indistinguishable in all but language. A few differences persist, however. Conventional wisdom among critics seems to consider the Spanish version superior. As we shall see, it’s not that simple.

Caption


Son las criaturas de la noche. ¡Qué música tan maravillosa!

Storywise, both films work from the same script, adapted here by Baltasar Fernández Cué. Aside from a few name alterations (Mina becomes Eva, her fiancé swaps out Jonathan for Juan) this version serves up more of the same. When you’re talking about a cinematic classic, that’s not such a bad thing. Many differences boil down to camera placement, editing and the work of the cast. Drácula–hooray for diacritical distinction!–makes better use of the iconic sets, lingering on the massive stairs to examine cobwebs and allowing the actors to succumb to the negative space. Though legendary cinematographer Karl Freund didn’t man the camera for the night crew, the Spanish film benefits from his lighting setups and use of shadows. (Interviews indicate the alt-cast even hit the same marks on set as their English counterparts.) George Melford directs with a sure hand, holding his own against Tod Browning. The ending improves on the abrupt cutaway that marks The End of the English film, following Juan and Eva up the winding staircase and away from their tormentor. So far, so great.

The Spanish cast brings energy to its production, improving on several of the roles. Lupita Tovar enjoys herself as the ingénue Eva, torn between the vampire and her family. Barry Norton and Carmen Guerrero give more life to Juan and Lucía as they hassle with Eva in her struggle. The youngsters fare better than in Dracula. Pablo Álvarez Rubio offers a very different take on the madman Renfield that works fine, though it doesn’t quite match the seminal performance of Dwight Frye.

Who wants cake and ice cream?

Who wants cake and ice cream?

The only serious flaw in Drácula is, unfortunately, a doozie: the Count himself. Carlos Villarías mugs, apes and bulges his eyes as if entertaining at a children’s birthday party. Decades later he looks and acts disturbingly like Steve Carrell. He is neither scary nor menacing, which amounts to a serious problem. While Lugosi also played it over the top, he constructed a persona that worked so well it etched into the collective memory for generations. Villarías’ theatrics strike a very different chord; just try not to crack up when he gazes into that cigar box mirror, looking like he’s discovered a herniated disc. To be fair, it’s the overwrought style of the silent era, valid at the time but increasingly comical as film found its voice. In this central regard, Drácula falls flat in comparison to its English cousin.

Oh, that and no armadillos. The possum still scurries around the crypt in the Spanish version, but for some reason the armadillos didn’t make the cut. Heresy!

Drácula holds it own with Dracula in several important ways. Both are horror classics, and we are blessed with the opportunity to see what two production crews do with the same sets and material. A goofy Dracula is pretty hard to overcome, however, so the Spanish version remains a bit of a flawed masterpiece.

Drácula earns 1.5 out of 2 fangs out. ¡Muy fantástico!

Up next: Is Dracula Y2K compliant?

DraculaFest: Universal’s Dracula

So, this is the one. When someone asks if you’ve seen Dracula, they’re more than likely referring to Universal’s Dracula (1931), the film that launched a memorable era of movie monsters and defined vampires to this day. Universal had been making horror films–like The Man Who Laughs and The Hunchback of Notre Dame–for years before they turned to Stoker’s novel. But Dracula launched Universal horror into the stratosphere and made its central figure the first of a team that would come to be known as the Universal Monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Varsity horror!

Caption

Always hits his eye light.

Classic films don’t always hold up to modern scrutiny. But, even now, it’s clear why Dracula captivated audiences and launched a cinematic dynasty. Director Tod Browning and writer Hamilton Deane switched from adapting the book to the contemporary stage play when their budget went south, but made few changes to the source material. Renfield replaces Jonathan Harker as the Count’s visitor to Transylvania. Mina is repositioned as Dr. Seward’s daughter. The Count never makes it out of Carfax Abbey in the final act, simply staked by Van Helsing while still in his coffin. Otherwise, the story remains familiar.

I mentioned the liminality of the Hammer films but was surprised to find similar ambiguities in this version. London clearly lives in the ’30s–with the post-flapper fashions and fancy motorcars–even though it doesn’t particulary feel like London. Dracula’s Transylvania, by contrast, seems stuck in the novel’s Belle Époque, all peasants and horse-drawn carriages. An amusing assortment of vermin overrun Dracula’s castle, including a possum (!), two armadillos (!!) and odd bugs crawling out of miniature coffins. (One assumes a vampire has no reason to fear rabies or leprosy.) The ambiguous setting creates a timeless feel that preserves the atmosphere to this day. Cinematographer Karl Freund no doubt deserves a lion’s share of credit for importing German Expressionist sensibilities to Hollywood. I love the use of Swan Lake as the opening theme, not an obvious choice but still somehow unsettling. This hodgepodge of influences keeps the film from feeling dated, unlike many versions to follow.

Who let the armadillos out?

Who let the armadillos out?

And then there’s the acting. For ill or good, Bela Lugosi‘s Dracula is the Count that springs to mind when you hear the name. His appearance and performance encode all the traits associated with Dracula and vampires in general: the widow’s peak, the tux and cape, the jazz hands, the overwrought Slavic accent. Although parodied without mercy for almost a century, this Dracula holds fast as the One True Count, embodying the character more than the novel itself. Edward Van Sloan provides a memorable Van Helsing in chunky spectacles, but Dwight Frye steals the show in the film’s other iconic performance as the fly-eating Renfield. Charles K. Gerrard and Joan Standing are entertaining in walk-on bits as the maid and the asylum orderly. Helen Chandler, David Manners and Frances Dade are adequate but forgettable as Mina, Jonathan and Lucy. The trio, Americans all, don’t even attempt British accents, which adds to the un-London factor. (Based on later attempts, perhaps that was wise.)

Atmospheric more than terrifying today, this remains a classic. The webbed columns of Carfax Abbey and the infested ruins of Castle Dracula inspired untold horror movies to come. Later adventures of the Universal Monsters descend into parody; once Abbot and Costello show up, you know the horror’s over. Still, the legacy of this film is hard to overestimate. I doubt a majority of the later DraculaFest flicks would even exist without this, the Dracula Handbook.

Dracula earns 2 out of 2 fangs out. Another classic!

Next time: En Español!