DraculaFest: The Hammer Sequels, Part 1

Hammer Films followed up Horror of Dracula with eight other sequels throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Here’s my take on the first half of that creeptacular catalog.

Brides6The Brides of Dracula (1960): A better title might be The Brides of Some Other Random Vampire, for Dracula does not appear here and is mentioned as dead before it begins. The return of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing takes some of the sting out of Christopher Lee’s absence. Young teacher Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur) finds herself without lodging and accepts an invitation from Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt). Marianne discovers the Baroness’ son (David Peel) shackled in another room and takes it upon herself to free him. Too bad the young baron is a vampire who uses the opportunity to kill his mother and embark on a biting spree in a nearby village. Bummer. Good thing Van Helsing arrives and runs into Marianne, who is clueless about the evil she’s wrought. Interestingly, Baron Meinster manages what Dracula never could and bites Van Helsing (!), who promptly cures himself with a hot brand and a sprinkling of holy water. Why doesn’t this work for any other victims? A harrowing chase ends as Van Helsing arranges the blades of a windmill into the shadow of a cross, which is more than the young vampire can bear. Hilarious. Dracula’s absence is keenly felt but, perhaps because of this lack of Drac, Hammer focused instead on story for once, and it’s not all that bad. Drags in the middle, though. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966): Christopher Lee returns! As does Horror of Dracula director Terence Fisher, which accounts for why it’s more stylish and tense than later outings. Out of the blue, Dracula has a servant named Klove (Philip Latham), who lures a group of travelers to Dracula’s castle in hopes of reviving the Count. Klove murders Alan (Charles Tingwell) and scatters his blood on Dracula’s ashes, reviving the titular vampire. His wife becomes supper as the other couple–Charles and Diana, I shit you not (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer)–flee to a neighboring village. They seek the aid of Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a poor substitute for Van Helsing, and are betrayed by fly-eating Renfield stand-in Ludwig (Thorley Walters). The final battle results in another silly and unsatisfying end for Dracula as he falls through some cracked ice, because now running water also kills vampires. Of course it does. Next he’ll probably die by smearing peanut butter on his face. Despite the dumb and abrupt ending, this film stands up to the original Horror in ways the other sequels do not. Welcome back, Mr. Lee! 1.25 out of 2 fangs out.

dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave-the-first-stakingDracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968): Church workers discover the body of a woman hanging in the belfry, drained of blood. This can only mean Dracula has returned! Except he’s still frozen in ice from the last film, so he couldn’t have done it. Logic–who needs it? The local monsignor (Rupert Davies) climbs up to Dracula’s castle and performs an exorcism, sealing the door with a huge and gaudy crucifix so the vampire can not escape. Except he’s still frozen in ice down the hill, so he’s trapped outside instead. Oops. A silly accident breaks the ice and frees Dracula, who’s pissed that his castle has been sealed and embarks on one of his signature rampages. The priest and our young hero Paul (Barry Andrews) trap the Count and drive a stake through his heart. Except the movie conveniently updates the vampire death ritual to also require a prayer now, and Paul is an atheist. Wah wah. His lack of faith allows Dracula to survive and remove his own stake. Too bad Dracula ain’t an atheist, too, so none of this religious memorabilia would work on him, right? Hijinks ensue until the Count falls off a cliff and somehow lands on the gaudy crucifix from before, impaling himself right through the heart. Shades of Return of Dracula! The whole thing is hokey as hell, and Peter Cushing is sorely missed, but it’s more fun than a lot of the later Hammer joints. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970): A trio of bored old men leave their families at night and seek adventure in brothels and taverns. Sinister occultist Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates) appeals to their love of danger and enlists their help in resurrecting Dracula. Okay? They purchase the Count’s remains from a merchant who happened to show up as Dracula died and turned to dust at the end of Risen. (I guess the Monsignor and Paul just walked off and left him struggling on that crucifix?) Courtley drinks Dracula’s reconstituted blood and convulses on the floor. The old men freak out and have second thoughts–imagine that!–and beat him to death with their walking sticks. Somehow Courtley’s corpse turns into Dracula, who swears revenge on the old men. It’s an interesting premise even if it is rendered ineptly. The men are themselves so heinous to their families that Dracula becomes a sort of avenging antihero; you may even cheer as one or two them get taken out, crossed off Dracula’s to-do list. (“The first!” “The second!”) Drac leaves most of the killing to young lasses in his thrall, including Alice (Linda Hayden), the daughter of the most psychotic of the old men. A young man named Paul (Anthony Higgins)–déjà vu, but no, this is apparently not the young Paul from the last film–decides to decorate Dracula’s lair with church memorabilia. The Count returns home, freaks out over all the religious paraphernalia, and promptly turns to dust. What? Anticlimax of the century. The potential of the premise drifts away in the second act much like vampire remains in a stiff wind. .75 out of 2 fangs out.

Next time: Hammer’s back half, in more ways than one.

DraculaFest: The Universal Sequels

I decided I couldn’t close out DraculaFest without revisiting the many movies both Universal and Hammer Films pumped out in the wake of their respective Dracula successes. To that end, here are some quick takes on the remainder of the output of these two studios. Today it’s Universal!

draculasdaughterDracula’s Daughter (1936): This direct sequel to the classic Universal Dracula is, surprisingly, Lugosi-free. It picks up right after the first film with Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only returning actor) accused of murder. Gloria Holden gives a memorable and unsettling performance as Dracula’s daughter, Contessa Marya Zeleska, fighting her own vampiric nature to no avail. Irving Pichel steals the show as Sandor, the Countess’ sardonic servant, who never misses an opportunity to voice his disapproval. A thoroughly unnecessary screwball romance between two side characters derails the suspense a time or two, and the Van Helsing plot goes nowhere at all, but Zeleska and Sandor make a fun duo. Not quite a classic, but worth it for any fans of Universal horror. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Son of Dracula (1943): Boring! I’m not sure why it’s called Son of since the main character appears to be just, erm, Dracula. He’s cleverly masquerading as Count Alucard, because that’s DRACULA SPELLED BACKWARDS! Get it? Wink, wink. This is reiterated time and again in case you don’t figure it out. Dracula has become a grifter who marries an heiress so he can run her Southern plantation, Dark Acres. Why? So he can leave the Old World to live in a “younger, more virile” country. Proto-‘Murica, y’all! Lon Chaney, Jr. cuts a lackluster figure as the Count and should stick with Larry Talbot. We don’t get to see Dracula insinuate his way into Southern society, or seduce Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) for her sweet digs; we only witness the aftermath and watch people standing around talking about it incessantly. A few moments spark interest, but then we’re back to the melodrama and contemplating fast-forward. Watch only to avoid election coverage. 0.5 out of 2 fangs out.

house_of_frankenstein_002House of Frankenstein (1944): This is more like it–the type of film Universal horror does best, ticking all the boxes. Mad scientist and sniveling assistant! Cursed monsters and the women who love them! Villagers with torches and pitchforks! Insane plots best left unscrutinized! Boris Karloff eschews the monster role to play Dr. Niemann, the latest in a string of mad scientists trying to carry on the work of Victor Frankenstein. He concocts a preposterous plan to punish his enemies by resurrecting various monsters to do his bidding: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. It goes about as well as you’d expect, with a final, frenzied orgy of revenge that sees all of the characters kill each other off. Makes little sense, but who cares? Pure cinematic fun! J. Carrol Naish is Daniel, a Notre Dame-like hunchback who pays a steep price for beating a (not quite) dead horse. In strictly Dracula terms, it sure ain’t the Count’s finest hour. John Carradine does little with the role, and Dracula gets offed like a chump in the first reel, never to return. Lon Chaney, Jr. reverts to the Larry Talbot role and proves he should stick with fur over fangs. The only slight disappointment is the lack of a proper dust-up between the three inconic monsters, but it’s plenty of fun anyway. Too bad Drac gets such a poor showing. 1.5 out of 2 fangs out.

House of Dracula (1945): These sequels sure have a template, don’t they? A direct sequel to House of Frankenstein, this one follows Dracula’s attempts to be cured at the hands of Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens). John Carradine returns as Count Dracula and once again leaves little lasting impression. As before, Dracula gets taken out early, like a chump (in his own movie! And in the same way!), though he does last a bit longer this time. Again, Chaney’s Wolfman takes center stage and proves he’s the Casanova of this troupe with another romantic subplot. And again, Glenn Strange‘s Frankenstein Monster comes to life at the very end and wreaks havoc until everyone dies. Except for Larry Talbot, who is cured of lycanthropy and becomes the only Universal monster to receive a happy ending! The hunchback this time around is a female nurse named Nina (Jane Adams) who believes Dr. Edelmann’s promise of a cure–again, in vain. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, the endless supply of hunchback lab assistants or the correlation made between deformity and monstrosity. As with the last film, the monsters never really meet and just carry on parallel plotlines. Is it so much to ask for an honest-to-goodness monster brawl? No Karloff this time, and he’s sorely missed. Not as much fun warmed over again, but there’s an undeniable glee anytime this many horror icons appear in one film. 0.75 fangs out of 2 fangs out.

Annex-Abbott-Costello-Abbott-and-Costello-Meet-Frankenstein_01Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): Today it’s easy to forget how the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello dominated the box office throughout the ’40s. This is the first of their Meet series and, despite the title, includes the entire trinity of Universal horror. Once again Frankenstein receives top billing even though the film is largely about the struggle between Dracula and the Wolfman. (No, I’m not gonna touch the whole “the monster is not Frankenstein” argument. This is a Dracula review, and I don’t have a horse in that race.) Bela Lugosi returns as the Count for the first time since the original; it’s also the last, barring a few cameos. Though hammy and theatrical, his is the iconic Dracula performance, and it’s nice to see him return–if only for a comedy. Abbott and Costello perform their usual shenanigans, mostly revolving around myopic vision and misunderstandings. Lon Chaney, Jr. provides great physical comedy as the Wolfman, culminating in a dive off the balcony to seize the Dracula-bat in mid-air! We finally get to see these classic monsters interact a bit, as Dracula controls the Frankenstein monster for much of the running time, and Larry Talbot decides to try and stop them for some reason. It’s a fun romp without much sense to it, which is what you’d expect from this type of flick. It’s the last we see of these icons for a while, and a serviceable send-off at that. 1 out of 2 fangs out.

Final thoughts: I’m not sure why Universal plays musical chairs with the creature actors in these sequels, but it makes for confusion and inconsistency. Five movies, four different Draculas. And Karloff playing a random scientist opposite the monster he made famous? Why? Despite this, the background players remain strangely consistent. Lionel Atwill plays a police inspector in five of the Universal films, each the same basic character but with a different name. Where exactly is this village that always becomes the center of monstrous disruptions? Villagers in lederhosen, British-style bobbies, and lots of American styles and accents. Welcome to Warnerland!

After jump-starting the Universal Monsters franchise, Dracula quickly takes a backseat to the likes of Frankenstein and the Wolfman. He never quite achieves the heights of his original outing. Still, there’s an undeniable sense of fun in the Universal ouevre, a trait sorely missing in most horror. We remember them fondly with good reason. As a whole these films represent lightning in a bottle, never recaptured again.

Next time: Please, Hammer, don’t hurt ’em!

DraculaFest: Old Dracula

From one end of the spectrum to the other. BBC turned Dracula into an adolescent schoolboy who just wanted to play well with others. Makes sense that someone else would experiment with turning Count Dracula into an aging, lecherous creeper. And you know what? Someone did!

Raincoat optional.

Raincoat optional.

Old Dracula (1974) features David Niven, of all people, as a dirty old vampire–Hugh Hefner with fangs, if you will. A thoroughly Seventies concept, and one that should remain in that decade. Let me just declare up front that this film has finally cured me of watching random Dracula films. I’m planning a handful of summary posts to pick over the numerous sequels from Hammer and Universal, and we’ll leave it at that. Let all unknown quantities remain unknown, for this film proves that Dracula has been done to un-death. That said, let’s strip the flesh from this carcass.

It’s the Swinging Seventies, and spry old Count Dracula trades on his infamy by hosting groups of tourists at his castle, celebrating vampire kitsch. The kicker? The Count’s a genuine bloodsucker and he extracts blood from tourists to fuel his own experiments. He and his servant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) seek a perfect match to transfuse the Count’s comatose wife, who has been laid low for decades by blood from an anemic peasant. A transfusion from a black tourist transforms the Countess into a black woman named Vampira (Teresa Graves)–because yeah, that’s exactly how blood works. This development leads to a predictable litany of racist humor right up until the final frame. Go, Seventies. Vampira is done with sleeping and wants to go out disco dancing, but the Count is a wet blanket despite (or perhaps because of) ogling Playboy centerfolds at every opportunity. Woohoo, Seventies. Dracula enlists a young tourist named Marc (Nicky Henson) to collect new blood samples from nubile lasses in an attempt to restore Countess Vampira to her white skin color. Oof. Several incomprehensible developments later, Vampira bites Dracula and turns him black, too, so they can fly off to Rio in time for Carnival. No, I’m not making any of this up. Drugs, bare breasts, psychedelic music, David Niven in blackface. You know whether this is your decade or not.

Like shooting fish in a coffin.

Like shooting fish in a coffin.

I’ve commented before on Seventies films and their language and attitudes. Some find them offensive while others feel they’re refreshingly honest. I consider them an awkward mixture of the two, and too self-conscious to be enjoyable. Not that there’s much to like here sans offensive humor. British director Clive Donner and writer Jeremy Lloyd truly laid an egg with this one. Niven slums his way through the material with some charm, but no explanation is given as to why the Count is elderly. I expected some sort of comment on ageism, but the main reason appears to be that David Niven was somehow blackmailed into taking the role, so Dracula became elderly. The film’s never bad enough to merit enjoyment, it’s just bad without qualification. Skip. If you jones for some Niven, go find a Pink Panther film instead.

And with that I’m closing the door on random Dracula movies. I’ve seen enough duds in a row recently to convince me we’ve found the gems and are left with coffee grounds. I plan on blasting through the various Hammer and Universal sequels before driving a stake through this project, but otherwise we’re ready for sunrise.

Old Dracula squeezes out 0.25 out of 2 fangs out. Pulse is dropping rapidly.

Next up: The sequels!

DraculaFest: Young Dracula

Nope, this is not the sequel to Young Frankenstein Mel Brooks should have made. It’s an attempt by the BBC to reimagine Stoker’s horror icon in a kid-friendly comedy. Hey, it ran for five series. They must have done something right.

Eat your heart out, Olan Mills. No, really.

Eat your heart out, Olan Mills. No, really.

Young Dracula (2006) aired on CBBC until 2014. Obviously, it’s not so much a Stoker adaptation as a spinoff featuring Count Dracula and his two precocious children. Full disclosure: I did not watch all 66 episodes, nor did I need to. (Series 5 hasn’t even made it across the pond as of this post.) A handful of episodes throughout the run told me everything I need to know. I include this for the sake of completion since I am quite obviously not the demographic for this show. That said, it’s a capable enough family dramedy that forges its own path through familiar territory.

Transylvanian natives have driven the Count (Keith-Lee Castle in a rock-n-roll dandy interpretation) out of his castle and all the way to England seeking a reprieve from persecution. He drags along his estranged daughter Ingrid (Clare Thomas, aka Young Sharon Osbourne) and young Vlad (Harry Potter aspirant Gerran Howell), appointed heir to the Dracula legacy. Vlad harbors no desire to suck blood and only wishes to lead a somewhat normal life among the residents of their new home, the small Welsh town of Stokely. Along for the fun are their boil-infested butler Renfield (Simon Ludders) and Vlad’s pet stuffed wolf Zoltan (Andy Bradshaw). The Count desires Vlad to take his place as the Chosen One–this was 2006 before Chosen One narratives died a merciful death. With no desire to prey upon his neighbors, Vlad sets out instead to broker peace between the vampires and the slayers, a group of humans devoted to hunting and destroying their kind. Usual hijinks ensue; neighbors grow suspicious of the new family in the creepy old castle; a goth neighbor boy named Robin (Craig Roberts) befriends Vlad; the shop teacher is revealed as the slayer Van Helsing (Terence Maynard)–wood shop, natch, perfect for crafting stakes. Throughout it all Vlad manages to appease his father without succumbing to the lure of blood. As usual the British manage to fit in more adult humor than you’d ever see on Disney Family or Nickelodeon, so parents can watch without much cringing.

Repello Muggletum!

Repello Muggletum

The tone grows notably darker after the second season, following a three-year hiatus. Proper villains emerge, like Elizabeta (Kay Wragg) and her son Malik (Richard Southgate), who plot to usurp the Dracula title from the Count and his heir. Vlad maintains his attempts at peaceful co-existence with humans and slayers alike, and even gains a love/hate relationship with classmate Erin (Sydney White). Any related gore happens offscreen, but it remains satisfyingly dark without traumatizing the kiddies. As with almost every genre tale for children in the past fifteen years or so, the Harry Potter influence looms large. Many convenient shortcuts are taken to ensure story options; Vlad does not manifest his powers, for instance, until his sixteenth birthday–which allows him to attend school without bursting into flames. I can’t really poke holes in the story without looking like a jackass, however. As a platform for an entertaining kid’s show, it works. Series 5 remains unreleased in the US, so I can’t relate the ultimate fate of Vlad and his cohorts. Something tells me he doesn’t assume the vampiric throne and begin a thousand-year reign of terror, though.

Young Dracula earns .75 out of 2 fangs out. Kids should enjoy it. And adults just might, too.

Next up: Opposite end of the spectrum!

DraculaFest: Dracula 3000

I’ll just admit up front, I’m slumming it with this post. I had no doubt what was bound to be in store with this flick, and I watched it anyway. With Casper van Dien and Erica Eleniak fronting the cast, you know what you’re getting. With that out of the way, let’s get through this.

Sort of like a man, only boring.

Sort of like a man, only boring.

Surprisingly, Dracula 3000 (2004) is not a sequel to Dracula 2000 (except in terms of quality). It’s Dracula meets Alien. That’s the premise, and I imagine it was the pitch that got someone a tiny budget to squeeze this out. This is not speculation. In fact, the movie goes out of its way to alert you to its dual influences. Titular vampire aside, Van Dien’s character is a starship captain named Van Helsing, Alexandra Kamp is a crew member named Mina Murry, and the crew discover a derelict spaceship named Demeter that is from the planet Transylvania in the Carpathian System. Heh. Likewise, Van Helsing’s ship is named the Mother III, Eleniak’s character is a surprise cyborg named Ash, and they spend much of the movie running down industrial corridors to get away from a Steadycam operator. See? Dracula meets Alien. Practically writes itself.

Okay, so it’s intentional cornball camp. Is it so much to ask it at least be fun? At first, it seems there might be a glimmer of ironic humor. Then it just goes on too long and loses the plot along the way. And everything blows up, the end. No, really. In keeping with the spirit of 3000, here are some random events that transpire throughout the film. Udo Kier of Blood for Dracula fame slums his way through a series of warning transmissions from the original captain of the Demeter. Coolio becomes a vampire early on and chews much scenery with his plastic fangs. When the puzzled crew ask Ash what a vampire is (!) she solemnly explains, “It’s sort of like a man, only far more evil, if you can imagine that.” Crucifixes have apparently gone extinct as well, and the crew wonders what to with the “plus sign” found on a dead body. Langley Kirkwood‘s Dracula appears very little, and it’s just as well because he resembles Bob from Accounting dressed up for the annual company Halloween party. (I thought maybe, because we’re in space, they’d at least try a different spin on the character. But no, he’s straight out of a Spirit costume store.) Thank god for pool cues, because apparently they are the only items still made from real wood in The Future.

Dirty pool.

Dirty pool.

So yeah. No surprises here. I went in with rock-bottom expectations and still managed some disappointment. Surprise! Both of the Dracula films with 1000’s in the title suck mightily! I sense we’re nearing the end of DraculaFest, if these bitter dregs are any indication of what’s left. It’s a safe bet that any must-see classics lie firmly in the rear-view mirror. I have a few more I want to cover, but at this point we’re staying together for the sake of the kids.

Dracula 3000 earns a dreaded goose egg, 0 out of 2 fangs out. In space no one can hear you snore.

Next time: Back to the boob tube.

DraculaFest: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

And now for something completely different. Vampires! Canadian ballet! Avant-garde filmmaking! Black and white with red all over! One thing is for sure, we aren’t in rote sequel territory.

It's dangerous to hold back a sneeze.

It’s dangerous to hold back a sneeze.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) is a film adaptation of a stage production by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Director Guy Maddin has created a number of excellent short and experimental films, many carrying the traditions of silent cinema into the modern era. He produced this feature in cooperation with the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Rather than simply document the ballet company’s production, Maddin turned the performance into a faux silent film replete with period special effects and intertitles. These techniques move the film away from a standard dance documentary and transform it into a beast all its own.

I approached this one with high hopes based on critical raves and my own love of silent film, and I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed. I’d assumed the film mainly recorded the choreography of the stage production; instead it uses the ballet company’s sets and moves as raw material for the formation of a heavily stylized and edited avant-garde movie. Close-ups, wipes and quick edits pull focus away from the dancers’ movements. Color tinting and histrionic title cards (“Immigrants!”) reframe the story and add new elements. The result is a strange hybrid that at times seems to struggle against itself. Pages doesn’t seem all that interested in its own dance choreography, cutting the dance performances to ribbons. On the rare occasions that dances play out for an extended period, such as in the downfall of Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) or during the pas de deux between Mina (CindyMarie Small) and Harker (Jonathan A. Wright), I found myself wishing to see more. During the jump cuts and effects sequences, I found myself wondering how the ballet company had handled those scenes live. That we don’t get to find out feels like a missed opportunity.

5 crosses from the Romanian judges!

5 crosses from the Romanian judges!

On the other hand, Maddin uses surreal production values to imbue the film with subtext often missing from Dracula movies. He emphasizes the invasion literature roots of Dracula and uses the casting of an Asian Dracula (Wei-Qiang Zhang) to amp up the xenophobia. Strong erotic staging explores the relationships between monster and victim. In an unexpected and amusing twist, the titular virgin’s diary belongs to Jonathan Harker, not his hot-to-trot fiancée. Well played. Other elements don’t work as well. Why is Dracula stealing money? Seems kind of petty given his other agendas, and it’s never explained or given any context. And why does Van Helsing (David Moroni) back his enemy into a corner and then purposely undo his own work? For that matter, most of the action in the final act confused the hell out of me. Somehow it ends with Dracula impaled in midair, but how we got there I couldn’t quite say. I suspect choppy editing that refuses to follow the choreography is mostly to blame. The film breezes through Harker’s initial encounter with Dracula in flashback, relying on quick cuts and campy title cards to fill in the gaps. (“Infants for supper?” “Vampyr harem!” “Trapped in a devil’s lair!”) It’s amusing, but feels like a shortcut.

Ultimately Pages works on a few levels better than others. Maddin’s other films are well worth a look if you can find them, but I don’t feel that his cinematic techniques are a particularly good fit for documenting a ballet production. I want to watch the stage production in its entirety, and I’d like to see an avant-garde film that doesn’t just shove dancers into the acting roles. In this case, two films may well have worked better than one.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary earns a respectable 1 out of 2 fangs out. A flawed but intriguing experiment. And something different, which ain’t easy to do after almost two dozen Dracula flicks!

Next time: Drac to the Future!

DraculaFest: Dead and Loving It

Mel Brooks. Leslie Nielsen. Harvey Korman. Do I even need to write this? Anyone mystified at how this will turn out?

My neck, my back

My neck, my back

Dracula: Dead and Loving it (1995) is the successor to Spaceballs, a send-up of Dracula timed to ride the coattails of Coppola’s film. It’s silly, irreverent and not all that concerned with telling a story. But then, you knew that. Arch acting, pun-laden screenwriting, it ticks all the boxes you’d expect from a Naked Gun/Blazing Saddles crossover. The only question that really matters in a situation like this is, of course, is it laugh-out-loud funny?

In spots.

It’s hard to imagine Leslie Nielsen as a serious actor before Airplane! turned his career on its head. Here he continues the “don’t call me Shirley” schtick he perfected with the Zuckers; surprisingly, he’s not the most over-the-top Dracula out there. But you don’t need to see the film to imagine his performance. Ditto Brooks as the latest Van Helsing and Korman as Dr. Seward, who believes in the enema as a cure for all ailments. This legendary trio deliver what you’d expect of them, but only Peter MacNicol seems to be having fun as the demented Renfield. Then again, the character of Renfield borders on parody even in the most austere productions.

Same bat-time, same bat-channel

Same bat-time, same bat-channel

Somewhat surprisingly, Loving It veers in the opposite direction of Love at First Bite and follows the standard Stoker narrative for the most part. Things get off to a rocky start with a mundane setup, then pick up as the count moves to England and the other loons get introduced. We get a few laugh-out-loud moments: Dracula attempting to mind-control both Lucy (Lysette Anthony) and her maid at the same time (“No, you sit down!”); Renfield gobbling insects while Seward looks away. The overall effect, however, is not enough yucks per minute. Considering the film’s only value is in its hilarity, it’s strangely muted at times. It does continue the Dracula parody tradition of extended ballroom dancing sequences, which is interesting considering dancing is nowhere to be found in the original. A few of the sight gags provide chuckles, like the vampire bat sporting Inspector Drebin’s head. As Nielsen antics go, I prefer the Zuckers’ willingness to wallow in the mud for a good laugh. (Top Secret! is a classic! I went there!) Loving It is a bit too polite for its own good and feels like it’s pulling its punches by remaining firmly in “take my wife, please” territory.

As with Bite, you already know whether you’ll be watching this one. And you pretty much know how much you’ll enjoy it, too. Dracula, Dead and Loving It ekes out .5 out of 2 fangs out. Funny in places, but not really my cuppa.

Next up: New territory!

DraculaFest: BBC’s Dracula

Three decades after their first foray into Transylvanian vampirism, the BBC try again with a joint venture between BBC Wales and WGBH Boston. The result weighs in a full hour shorter than its predecessor, at ninety minutes, and foregoes the fastidious adaptation route in favor of new subtext and plot deviations. Let’s see how they fare this time around, shall we?

Alcohol mandatory

Alcohol mandatory

Dracula (2006) feels no need to remain true to Stoker’s work. It introduces several new elements into the story and changes focus, placing a marginal character from the novel at the center of the conflict. Whatever criticisms one might level at this production, it’s a Dracula we haven’t seen before. If the end result is a bit uneven, the adventurous spirit–and concise editing–of this attempt stand in refreshing contrast to the steadfast but mundane style of the older adaptation.

Arthur Holmwood (Dan Stevens, pre-Downton) discovers his father is dying of syphilis, passed on by his deceased mother to both father and son. Engaged to marry Lucy Westenra (Sophia Myles) but unable to consummate their relationship, he turns in desperation to a shadowy occult group whose leader claims he can purify Holmwood’s tainted blood. It’s sort of a Doctor Strange/Ancient One relationship gone horribly wrong. The cult leader, Singleton (Game of Thrones’ Donald Sumpter), arranges to bring Count Dracula to England to cleanse Holmwood’s diseased blood. (Because Dracula is a blood whisperer, I guess. It’s a bit vague.) Jonathan Harker (Rafe Spall), the fiancé of Lucy’s friend, Mina (Stephanie Leonidas), is hired by Arthur to travel to Transylvania and deliver property deeds to Count Dracula (Marc Warren). Unfortunately Harker becomes a blood snack for the Count, who is reinvigorated by fresh blood and sheds his terrible white wig and pancake makeup for a more youthful appearance and heads to London.

Holmwood becomes upset that Dracula killed Harker and now refuses to stick to the plan. He rants about foreign trash and makes the situation all about the injustices he’s suffering. (No modern parallels there at all, eh?) Dracula goes on a killing rampage, causing the cultists to question their methods of worship. Too late! He finishes them off and keeps rolling. Meanwhile, Lucy’s friend-zoned former schoolmate, Dr. John Seward (Tom Burke) wonders why Lucy has become so pale and strange-acting. During his investigation he runs into Abraham Van Helsing (Poirot himself, David Suchet), an employee of the cult who uncovered their vampirism and now lives in squalor. With hell breaking loose, Arthur confesses the truth to Seward and Van Helsing. The trio pursue the vampires, staking Lucy before Dracula rips Arthur’s head off. Ouch. Seward and Van Helsing tag team Dracula until he’s staked from behind and dissolves into dust. But not so fast! As they ride off into the sunset and Seward begins hitting on Mina (fast rebound!), we see a homeless man on the street who appears to be Dracula, back in his bad wig and pancake make-up. A fate worse than death.

All this because of one man’s reluctance to deal with an STD. Be responsible, kiddies!

Get thee behind me, syphilis!

Get thee behind me, syphilis!

It sounds a little silly, I know. And I guess it is. But it works for the most part. Arthur Holmwood is as much a villain as Dracula in this version, supporting monstrous acts in order to preserve his upper-crust entitlement. Dracula’s M.O. has always been the exchange of bodily fluids, and this storyline takes the romantic vampire angle into icky territory. Though not quite ingenious, it’s a much-appreciate wrinkle in a story that’s been told ad nauseum for almost a century. The acting is a mixed bag, I’m afraid. Marc Warren makes a strange Dracula, an unlikely cross between Evan Peters and Tommy Wiseau. (“You’re tearing me apart, Mina!”) The makeup does him no favors. Leonidas’ Mina is brittle and wide-eyed, conjuring little sympathy. The others work fine. Suchet’s appearance as Van Helsing threatens to liven things up, but it’s essentially a throwaway role in the final moments of the film. Too bad. Still, this version attempts something new and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Dracula earns 1.25 fangs out of 2 fangs out. Not a classic, not a clunker.

Next time: We descend into parody. Again.

DraculaFest: Count Dracula

The ’70s just won’t let go. Here we are again as the British chime in with the first of their two adaptations of everyone’s favorite Slavic vampire. Count Dracula (1977) first aired on BBC 2 in the UK and never received a theatrical release. It’s well-known (to the extent it is known) for its unswerving devotion to Bram Stoker’s novel. No wireless light bulbs or California towns or armadillos or giant praying mantises for this production. This is tradition with a capital T.

Caption

More like Vlad Tepid, amirite?

There’s little need to recount the story, since those even remotely familiar with Dracula know it by heart. Every scene from the book appears here. Every scene. Every. Scene. This version clocks in at two hours and thirty minutes, by far the longest I’ve watched so far. Many of the classic renditions–Universal’s Dracula and Murnau’s Nosferatu among them–barely clear the hour mark. Brevity it not only the soul of wit, but also of Dracula movies it seems. Certainly 2:30 isn’t all that epic for movies in general, but it’s a lifetime among the undead. I’m not sure whether to attribute it to Dracula fatigue or having too much going on lately, but it took me three evenings to slog through this film. And, despite the grousing, it’s fairly well-made. It just doesn’t offer even a single surprise to hold interest. Such faithfulness would serve many literary adaptations well, but not of a story we’ve seen dozens and dozens of times already. It’s a competent film with competent acting and directing. Nothing stands out, other than the long running time and some loopy early-video special effects. Every fifteen minutes or so the story pauses for a series of psychedelic Chroma-key/Video Toaster effects that probably seemed groovy at the time but now smack of retro Black Sabbath videos.

Louis Jourdan is great in general but makes for a low-key, low-energy Count Dracula. His understated performance reminds me of the stoic Count from Argento’s Dracula 3D. It’s the Prince of Darkness, for crying out loud! Any subtlety is lost along with the plastic fangs, so you may as well have fun with it. He’s fine, but nothing to write home about. No one else makes much of their roles, either, adequate but not all that memorable. The lone exception might be Jack Shepherd as the doomed Renfield. Frank Finlay‘s Van Helsing seems a bit lost, but when he finally confronts Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) and ends her caterwauling, all is forgiven. Richard Barnes delivers a truly atrocious Southern-fried accent as Lucy’s fiancé Quincy, but I suppose he’s avenging all those horrific British accents Hollywood has inflicted on the world.

Special affectations

Special affectations

This review sounds harsh, but I suspect I would have enjoyed this production a lot more had it not been the seventeeth Dracula film I’ve watched in the past few weeks. I doubt this will wind up as anyone’s favorite, but those looking for a traditional retelling of the book without the camp or gore of other productions will find a lot to like here. There just isn’t much to make it stand out in a sea of Draculas. I may have lashed myself to the wheel like the skipper of the Demeter in order to finish it, but that has more to do with Peak Dracula than any indictment of the film. Just don’t expect any big surprises and this might be the traditional Count for you.

Count Dracula earns 1 out of 2 fangs out. Keep calm and bring a deep bowl of popcorn.

Up next: BBC gets a do-over!

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!