Dracula: “Learning from Mis-Stakes” – AD 2015 (Part Two)

Dracula Untold - The Puppet Master Vampire


The second part of a look at how the Prince of Darkness is currently faring on screens small and big.  Even while NBC’s primetime Dracula (does Downton) was staked to death, the undead icon still found time to pop up in familiar crypts and unexpected tombs.  Perhaps his most important moment in the 21st century was close at hand: in the heart of Hollywood, dark plans were being written in ancient blood… Dracula Untold.

A Scrape of the Wing

Not the only Drac-on-the-box…

IN THE FIRST PART OF AD2015, NBC’S DRACULA MADE A COMPLICATED STAB AT CREATING A NEW KIND OF DRACULA. Despite that show’s many flaws that, ambition can’t be faulted. The setting and intent were true to the themes of Bram Stoker’s novel, even if it managed to rob itself of many definitive parts of the legend.  Still, that wasn’t the only Drac-on-the-screen. The errant aristocrat had suffered the ignominy of being voiced by Adam Sandler in the 2012 animation Hotel Transylvania. Elsewhere, far from his routes in the Carpathian Mountains, 2013’s Dracula 2012 matched the Prince of Darkness’ tale to Indian folklores.

Dracula doesn’t really have a safe crypt at that network

On television, other incarnations returned from the dead – especially Eddie Izzard’s glorious interpretation of Grandpa Sam Dracula in Bryan Fuller’s 2012 Munsters revival Mockingbird Lane. Darker and more developed than Al Lewis’ 1960s version, his is predatory, homicidal, occasionally revelling in his feral powers and undoubtedly the count with a plan. Amid the violence and dark comedy, there was time to make sure that Grandpa had many of the same undead ‘skills’ Stoker gave him over a hundred years before.

The fact that it was again the NBC network that wavered over Fuller’s direction and decided not to pick-up the series suggests that Dracula doesn’t really have a safe crypt at that network. The silver lining to that incredibly premature cancellation was that Fuller was then free to create marvellous modern horror Hannibal for the network instead; that’s one form of copious blood-letting they obviously don’t mind.

Elsewhere the count took various cameo roles in 2013, including a vivid guest spot for a sadistic Vlad Tepes on Fox’s Da Vinci’s Demons. Just across from that Wales-shot series, the rejuvenated Hammer studios talked about Dracula a bit, but as with Herr Frankenstein, so far haven’t been able to find the fresh approach to the legend they insist on.  All in all, it looked like the future may be a little more modern…. Until that theory was quickly debunked by ABC’s modernised fusion of gothic and romantic horror icons.  2013’s Gothica fell at the pilot stage, although there was to be greater success in that mash-up, Abbot and Costello approach over on cable…

Penny Dreadful (2014 – )

When you’re dealing with the undead there’s no rush

As described in Frankenstein AD2014, John Logan’s Penny Dreadful is a sublime study of the scientist and his creation. But while that father and son exploration may rise to the top, this show’s really all about the glorious entangling of gothic’s finest.  And despite it resembling a mash-up monsters, it’s no comedy. Quite definitely, in its own highly stylised way, it’s not bloody funny at all. And while Penny Dreadful spends its time fusing its heroes and anti-heroes into a league of really extraordinary gentlemen, it’s happy to leave the true evil as a vague shadow in the background. After all, when dealing with the undead there’s no rush.

Frankenstein AD2014 found that reanimation sub-plot is riveting, especially the dwelling third episode where Logan crafts one of the finest Frankenstein adaptations ever put to film. But here the young and talented doctor is drawn under the erratic leadership of Timothy Dalton’s Allan Quatermain-esque Sir Malcolm Murray. And while Van Helsing enjoys a memorable cameo thanks to the peerless David Warner, in one of the series’ red herrings the aged haematologist proves more relevant to Frankenstein than any other gothic rival although something larger is stirring in the shadows…

Vampires may be clear aggressors from almost the first scene and while it’s never named, the dark and unseen force at the root of all evil can’t be anyone else but the Big D.  And the clues aren’t exactly subtle. Yet it is Murray’s daughter, Mina of course, who has fallen to that dark and great power. But her ‘kidnapper’s presence is felt almost exclusively through its horrific effect on others. The several vampires that are seen are hideously deformed, powerful creatures that rest like feral nosferatu should. They owe more to Blade than Stoker and as with NBC’s Dracula they provide a challenge that the London police can only label as Ripper cases.  Their appearance and nesting homicide unravels the mystery of Egyptian myth and prophecy that seems entwined with the affliction. It’s a warning, a warning that something very bad is coming.  On the way, there’s no only Van Helsing and Mina, but clear allusions to the Dracula myth. Mid-way through the series a vampire obsessive appears named Fenton, fulfilling a role akin to Renfield in the novel.

Best of all, Penny Dreadful confidently respects its serial structure. While NBC’s Dracula left the dangling temptation of something new, and the unfortunate sense of a wasted season, Penny Dreadful leaves almost every character developed and primed for a second round. And all that time, the big bad has quietly taken form without losing a drop of mystery.  Enhanced but not spoiled. Even Fenton reveals more about the darker urges of his captors (The Murray brigade) than his master.

Occasionally we see glimpses of this great vampire’s true power and it’s impressive – including projecting or teleporting his ‘followers’ great distances. But still, as he’s never named, this force for bad sits at the opposite end of the blood-splattered spectrum to NBC’s Dracula, in spite of the many similarities that come with Victoriana. It’s fortunate that Penny Dreadful has the chance to continue its story and that the gamble not to reveal the true menace has the chance to develop… We can only presume that he who is never named is the Prince of Darkness and we’ll see more of him in 2015.

Dracula Untold (2014)

Stan Lee is a bigger influence here than Stoker

Dracula’s clearly been as busy as ever, especially as he was brought into conjunction with other horror giants. But at the end of 2014, it wasn’t Penny Dreadful or even Gothica that set the tune of The Monster Mash going in Hollywood.

Universal Studios shocked into recalling their glory decades

In the wake of Marvel’s incredible success in creating a shared universe on screen, Universal Studios were shocked into recalling their 1930s and 1940s glory decades. I imagine in the cavernous dining room of a castle, the walls lined with Wallachian drapes, the tables overflowing with blood red wine… After all, if comic characters could do it, why not horror characters. And Universal had a shared universe already to go… Pull in the hugely successful tricks of another franchise, the other bat man of Hollywood, and everything pointed towards Dracula as the lynchpin.

This time the idea was to go right back to the source, like say, er, Captain America. Drawing deep on his roots as Vlad the Impaler, the result was not only Dracula’s biggest and boldest move to reclaim the screen, but perhaps its riskiest at the time. NBC’s Dracula had remodelled the latter Dracula into an antihero while Penny Dreadful kept him at a very long arm’s length. In seeking to reawaken the dormant franchise, Universal chose to explain more than ever before.  Having abandoned mystery on a canvas large enough to carry multiple franchises, could this Prince of Darkness also manage to hang on to the central appeals of Stoker’s novel?

It’s not a promising start when the film opens like a high budget BBC advert. It kicks-off with some vivid imagery of a boy who comes to earn the mantle of Dracula, failing to avoid worrying similarities Dracula 2000.  That may not be such a bad thing; but it’s not quite what killer franchises are built on.

The slide from hero to anti-hero to villain is a difficult one, but along with NBC’s take it suggests a trend.

Given its historical focus, or at least the bits it clings on to in all earnestness, perhaps that’s the right tack. Crafting an origin story for Dracula, here the real-life son of the dragon is forced to makes a deal with an ancient vampire to gain the destructive and all-consuming powers that can save his kingdom from the huge, unreasonable and approaching Ottoman army.

The slide from hero to anti-hero to villain is a difficult one, but along with NBC’s take it suggests a trend. Possibly a latter day response to horror slashers and the adoration that audiences have shown for Hulk-like antiheroes: there must be a way to make the Count approachable! The problem is in the intent.  If Universal are to achieve an Avengers-style force from this Captain America ‘First horror icon’  take, it’s not sharp enough. In fact, the end result is far too simple and less than the sum of its parts. Particularly when the jump to the modern day that concludes the film rings all too familiar.

Despite the difficulties, framing the doomed and inevitable trail of Vlad could be incredibly compelling. The film make a significant stab to spell out how this warlord was carved from adversity into a peaceful and fair ruler and it helps to have Luke Evans aboard adding some strong thesp to proceedings. But again, the casting may support the origin but takes the character even further from the Dracula of Lee or Lugosi. Evans key role is to look the part and bridge the gap between fact and fiction in a gothic Transylvania that already carries the threat of oncoming war. And that’s far before thousands of bats make their presence felt.

“What kind of man crawls into his own grave in search of hope?”

Those mammals herald Vlad’s first encounter with Charles Dance’s ancient vampire, a cave dwelling nosferatu who not only takes the role of the other villain of the piece but really represents the film having its cake and eating it.  Dance chews up his false teeth, telling Vlad of the Roman mystics who prophesied the vampires… A ready built legend waiting for someone to take its place. Several story elements failed to make it through the months since the film was conceived as Dracula: Year Zero some eight years ago.  While this Master Vampire clearly hails from Roman times the intention that he is Caligula himself fell away.  Perhaps it will resurface in a franchise, along with other haunting and supernatural witch elements that failed to make the final cut.  But for the moment, Dance’s character is one of creepy exposition.  Dracula’s subsequent ‘montage’ realisation of what’s at stake hits at the film’s heart.  He’s not just an affected ruler, husband or family man; he’s the practising Christian family man, faced with unreasonable demands from a vastly superior force he plays hock to. 1,000 boys to swell the Turkish ranks and a personal slight to boot, it’s far from mythical weak motivation.

Even when the Sultan bestows the awesome title Lord Impaler on Dracula it’s difficult to convey the true depth of the threat, personal or national. Still, we are forced to accept that Vlad has no choice but to return to the Master Vampire.  It may all be a little rushed, but then there’s an army on the march and a need to get CGI involved.

“Why spill blood if not for the pleasure of it”

When you have Dance, you may as well use him. The Master Vampire lays out several other points while he sits in the cave of exposition. We come to learn that there’s a strategy to being a monster and Vlad’s complicity would not diminish or rid the ancient one of his powers; rather it would release him from the cave to avenge himself.  So again, back in the territory of NBC’s Dracula. There, Vlad was hamstrung by the need to be anything else but the Dracula we all want to see.  Here the Master Vampire provides a helpful breakdown of a vampire’s powers – generally dark, with dominion over all creatures and complying with established rules such as the drinking of the vampire’s blood – but that just serves to reinforce that Dracula isn’t the original.  It’s an unusual predicament, but Charles Dance is actually the Dracula this film is crying out for.

“Let the Games Begin”

In comparison to the ancient vampire’s immortal game of revenge Dracula’s travails seem rather petty. Still, it’s a path he must embark on as the music rises and Dracula undertakes the ritual of transformation.  But while the fact that he must actually die is nice and correct, there’s little threat to it. And it’s a rather perplexing point when Dracula is given a three day get out clause. It’s best not to let that get in the way of one of the film’s highlights though.  Dracula’s instant origin is effective, setting its comic book agenda on its embroidered sleeve.  The burning silver, the power, the rapid healing, enhanced hearing of spiders spinning in their in webs, night vision, super speed, animal metamorphosis.  We’re not even 30 minutes into the film so thank goodness the Ottomans have got their march on already.

There are rich tapestries hanging in Castle Dracula, both real and metaphorical. But once the master of the castle is transformed the film is compelled to act out the action film rather horror. Stan Lee is a bigger influence here than Stoker, and he’s not alone.  It’s not long before we Dracula in conflict, taking out an army single-handed as the Turks are repelled, 1000 men killed. And then The Lord of the Rings then kicks in through a post-battle pilgrimage. With all those influences buzzing around the real shame is that it’s stuck with such a solemn and mirthless script.  Half character study, half historical epic, a little fantasy, a very little horror – no one seems to have attempted to draw out the romance or the gothic. Or perhaps it was just lost along the way.

Framed in his own three day resurrection, the Easter timing is too gratuitous.

In modern Dracula, it’s difficult to escape the love that sits somewhere near vampiric lust. By reaching back into history, the way Dracula’s transformation figures within his marriage should be a key point.  It’s certainly prominent when fangs appear mid-coital at 36 minutes, but his wife Mirena is incredibly understanding of what her husband has done.  It’s just slightly more developed than the Christian exploration. Framed in his own three day resurrection, the Easter timing is too gratuitous.  Dracula Untold is a light exploration of sacrifice, although Evans does his best with the trips to the alter, praying for the power to endure just one more day and then enjoy time with his son as he expresses his lack of regret. In that oddly comes a gleam of exactly what Dracula should be.

“Never leave us again, papa”

The story soon descends to helm’s Deep-like defence. And as the Ottoman forces grow near once more, the rumours of the Impaler’s dark magic grows.  At base-camp, monks disown Dracula, his people turn on him and… Another more obvious problem becomes painfully becomes unavoidable. We know the outcome; this Dracula won’t die and there’s little danger that can involve the audience.  And in the midst of all the action and conflict journey of this man just isn’t enough.

“You are alive because of me”

And so with an insurmountable army ahead of him he falls to happenstance and when at the end-game he deploys bats as an incredibly powerful weapon.  The army bashing is all the popcorn, but it’s the threat to the wife and child of this immortal figure that brings the drama and any level of involvement.  It may be a Gladiator style fall his wife undertakes, it may been a cloying romanticism, but it’s made better by Dance, itchy with anticipation and the irresistibility of vengeance – just as we know it should be.  And it’s the impossible final words of his wife that trap Dracula in legend and vengeance.  All that’s left is for him to offer his blood to lieutenants and dons his full Wallachian garb. It’s a moot point whether the motivation of love and revenge makes for stronger narrative during the third act as it’s a driven, personal vendetta.  Fortunately this sultan isn’t stupid and very keyed up on vampire lore. Fortunately there’s one trick left, and swarming into bats, the Dark Lord fully takes his mantle and drinks his enemy’s blood.  And so was Dracula rebooted.

Oddly, by sacrificing himself and saving his son, Dracula ruins and creates some referential touches. It’s his son who takes up the rule at his castle, with the Count we all know presumed dead and far away.  But on the way it’s fittingly Dracula who enacts the first proper staking; if not the Impaler then who else?  Saved by the light of the cross and employing the fire of sunlight he also leaves himself open for classic rejuvenation at the hands of an acolyte who just cannot let his legend die.

It’s a shame this horrifically cuts to a horrifically modern day, although it’s no shorter than the excerpt that concluded Captain America: The First Avenger. There’s little action, well unless romance and inexplicable vengeance is your thing.  In the present day Vlad finds the reincarnation of his wife, Mina while he’s stalked by a marvellously recuperated Charles Dance.

Could this rejuvenation work? Critics would say no, while over $200 million at the box office suggests it might. It’s not a heady start, but then neither was Batman Begins. And with Luke Evans striding around the modern day there’s no chance of reclaiming the crown of Lugosi. That’s been given up, with Charles Dance framed as the big bad as Dracula take son the comic book and action blockbuster.  When it comes to the Master Vampire, we can only hope that this doesn’t signal another Last Action Hero.

What started in 2007 as the proposed Year Zero from Alex Proyas had indeed twisted and turned over the years.  Above many influences, the Northern Ireland set and presence of Paul Kaye reflect the unavoidable advent of Game of Thrones. There’s no doubt that Dracula and the mighty House of Universal Horror should throw up a franchise greater than this suggests.  It’s certainly better than I Frankenstein, but it’s no glorious return to horror.  And the most impressive part may be that the film’s takings are fairly impressive for a dulled film that tries too hard to do everything.

The Dark Prince of Darkness.  In 2014 and as we walk into 2015 it seems that Dracula was trying to be anything but.

Previously: Dracula faces his toughest challenge yet on prime-time NBC

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