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: 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!