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.


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!

DraculaFest: The Return of Dracula



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.


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!