Van Helsing (2004, Stephen Sommers)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Paris, the Vatican and mostly Transylvania – 1887 and 1888.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a totally new story using some of the people from the book, though in the eponymous character’s case the similarities end with his surname. Hugh Jackman’s Gabriel Van Helsing has a muddled backstory – he can’t remember his early life and there are hints he may be immortal (or an angel). He’s an agent for a secretive sect called the Knights of the Holy Order, an evil-fighting organisation made up of all the world’s religions (or at least the famous ones). Count Vladislaius Dracula, meanwhile, is played hammily by Richard Roxburgh. Like in the novel, he has a trio of Brides. Unlike in the novel, they can fly and seem to spend half the film hovering in mid-air looking angry. The CGI effect when they’re in a half-woman/half-bat mode is really crummy.

Best performance: David Wenham from The Lord of the Rings is quite fun as Van Helsing’s superfluous sidekick, Carl.

Best bit: The atmospheric black-and-white prologue, which goes to town with references to the Universal horror movies of the 1930s.

Review: This Gothic monster mash-up sees Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster, Jeykll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper and the Hunchback of Notre Dame all ticked off in the first 10 minutes. The Wolfman turns up later too. It also has steampunk technology and comic-book zip. But despite these ingredients, it’s incredibly *empty* filmmaking. The tone is the biggest problem. The film isn’t witty enough to be escapist, not scary enough to be a horror, and not dramatic enough to be engaging. And the plethora of action scenes feel so arbitrary. Things happen, characters react, but it’s all pretty meaningless.

Four gas-powered crossbows out of 10

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Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966, Terence Fisher)

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Setting: Kalsbad in what is now Germany, 10 years after the events of the 1958 Hammer movie Dracula.

Faithful to the novel? In effect, it’s a sequel to the events of the book. Four travellers from England are warned to avoid a certain castle, but arrogantly ignore the advice. Dracula himself – once resurrected – has no dialogue. Actor Christopher Lee claimed it was because the character’s scripted lines were so dreadful he refused to say them, but writer Jimmy Sangster said he deliberately didn’t give the Count any dialogue. Late on in the story, there’s a Renfield-like character called Ludwig, who eats flies and is under Dracula’s thrall.

Best performance: Francis Matthews is okay as Charles Kent, the heroic lead. He’s forthright and earnest, but fun too.

Best bit: The impressive special effects as Dracula is resurrected through a series of smart dissolves. We see him go from nothing to full-bodied in seemingly one shot.

Review: After clips from the first film in the series act as a kind of ‘Previously on…’, we get a story high on atmosphere but low on drama. Howling wind is liberally dubbed onto scenes and the tension is eked out as much as possible – but there’s precious little plot.

Six coach and horses out of 10

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy vs. Dracula (The WB, 26 September 2000, David Solomon)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Sunnydale, California, in the year 2000.

Faithful to the novel? This opening episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season pits our heroine and her friends against Dracula, who’s suddenly arrived in town. It’s a new plot, but there are a lot of echoes of the book. The Count (played by Rudolf Martin) is delivered to his new home in coffins full of dirt. He can transform into wisps of smoke, a wolf and a bat. (When he turns into smoke while Buffy’s trying to stake him, she complains: “That’s cheating!”) Dracula easily bends Xander to his will; Xander thus becomes an equivalent of book character Renfield (even eating insects). Buffy is seduced while in a kind of waking dream and is bitten on the neck. Also, Giles has an encounter with a trio of Dracula’s Brides. The original idea for the episode was for Buffy to fight a master vampire *akin* to Dracula. But then executive producer Joss Whedon pointed out that the character was in the public domain…

Best performance: Nicholas Brendon’s very funny as the enthralled Xander, who flips between bitterly moaning about his lot and being subservient.

Best bit: A lot to chose from – mostly the comedy moments. When Dracula portentously introduces himself, there’s a beat before an excited Buffy says, “Get out!” When Xander meets Dracula he mocks his accent and does an impression of the Count from Sesame Street. He later nonchalantly locks girlfriend Anya in a cupboard. But the highlight is Giles’s reluctance to be ‘saved’ from the sexy Brides: “My shoe! Silly me, I’ll just pop back…”

Review: This is by no means one of the best episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (my favourite TV show, incidentally). I can think of a dozen straightaway that are better, while two online rankings I saw put it 100th and 65th. But it’s a reflection of the show’s high quality that it’s so entertaining. This is witty, playful and inventive stuff, full of character comedy and emotion-driven plotting. Smartly, each of the regulars has a different reaction to Dracula turning up: Buffy is excited by the danger, Willow thinks he’s sexy, Xander feels jealous, Giles feels left out, Riley feels threatened, and so on. The episode is having great postmodern fun with the clichés of the myth, but it’s far from just a spoof. Superb.

Eight big, honking castles out of 10

Countess Dracula (1971, Peter Sasdy)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Seventeenth-century Hungary. The real Elizabeth Báthory, on whom the lead character is based, lived from 1560 until 1614.

Faithful to the novel? The connection is beyond slim. The story is inspired by Elizabeth Báthory, a serial-killing countess who is reported to have tortured and murdered hundreds of young women. After her death, the rumour circulated that she’d bathed in the blood of her victims. This film dramatises that notion, adding in the supernatural twist that the baths make Ingrid Pitt’s Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy young again. At the end of the film, a disgusted villager calls her ‘Countess Dracula’ (solely so the film can have a more marketable title, it seems).

Best performance: Lesley-Ann Down, later of Upstairs Downstairs, plays Elisabeth’s daughter, who has to be hidden away while Elisabeth grows young and takes her place. Countess Ilona then gets a bizarre Stockholm Syndrome subplot with a mute thug.

Best bit: A prostitute says she’ll never go near the castle, fearfully recounting the rumours that the Countess is a witch who sold her soul to the devil. When offered 50 koronas, however, she says, “Oh, well. I was never one to listen to gossip…”

Review: Most of the usual Hammer Films cliches are on show here – villagers, superstitions, noblemen, horses, gushing blood, cleavages, nudity, taverns, castles, woods… (The one glaring omission of course is vampires.) But the film has a real lack of oomph at times. It an unsettling story, potentially full of horrific psychology, but sadly doesn’t pack much punch. Ingrid Pitt is reasonably good as the fruit-loop lead character, especially when she de-ages – the character goes from a Phyllis Pearce lookalike to a tit-tape-sporting floozy in the first 15 minutes. All her dialogue has been distractingly dubbed by another actress, however.

Five travelling circuses out of 10

Dracula Untold (2014, Gary Shore)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Transylvania, 1462.

Faithful to the novel? No. It’s a prequel/origin story, based on the notion that Dracula actually *is* the historical figure Vlad the Impaler, rather than – as Bram Stoker intended – just inspired by him. And it’s a hugely fictionalised take on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (c1431-1477). The real one was a mass-murdering psychopath. As played by Luke Evans, he’s a family man who’s willing to become a vampire so he can defend his people from some nasty Turks.

Best performance: No one’s any good, frankly. Zach McGowan from Black Sails crops up in a nonsensical cameo that seems much more important than it probably is. Given that the film is meant as the opening gambit in a ‘Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe’ series, perhaps it’s setting up something for a future film.

Best bit: Vlad’s final mano-a-mano fight with Dominic Cooper’s bad guy, Turkish sultan Mehmed II. It’s a well-choreographed scene. Silver coins, which are toxic to the vamp Vlad, scatter all around them as they brawl.

Review: This film is reaching for the historical sweep and grandeur of, say, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven or Robin Hood. But those films have a much deeper sense of story and character. Dracula Untold has plenty of style – a bullet-time prologue, moodily shot fight scenes, authentic-looking locals – but every character is underwritten and bland or a hammy stereotype. Pretentious, clunky dialogue doesn’t help. Neither does a whopping great big plot hole: newly vamped Vlad wipes out a thousand-strong army in no time… but then says he and his people must go and hide rather than take on the Turks. Sex is also pointedly absent from the plot, never a good sign in a vampire story. The Master Vampire pours his blood into a broken skull fragment for Vlad to drink from, which avoids any of that troublesome subtext. It’s a load of ropy old nonsense, with a silly sequel-baiting coda.

Four Broke Tooth Mountains out of 10

Count Dracula (BBC2, 22 December 1977, Philip Saville)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Much the same as the book – Transylvania, London and Whitby. The plaque on Lucy’s coffin tells us it’s 1892.

Faithful to the novel? Astonishingly so. It’s perhaps the most sympathetic retelling of Stoker’s story. There are a few changes but they’re all sensible improvements… The story now has a prologue scene of Jonathan saying goodbye to Mina before he heads abroad. Dracula always looks the same age. Mina and Lucy are sisters rather than just friends. And Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris have been economically merged into one character: an American called Quincey P. Holmwood.

Best performance: Susan Penhaligon is fantastic as Lucy Westenra, especially once the character has been affected by Dracula – her transformation and death are horrific and unsettling.

Best bit: Jonathan Harker’s vivid, nightmarish encounter with Dracula’s Brides uses every video-editing trick under the moon. It’s a marvellous sequence, full of dislocating cuts, the sound dropping out and being mixed oddly, and the image decaying like it’s been copied dozens of times. Chilling stuff.

Review: This magnificent 150-minute TV movie was shown on BBC2 in 1977. There’s a dramatic title sequence, which sets the scene: dark, moody, Gothic and scored not by music but by the sounds of a storm. The whole film is pure horror, in fact, and the number of unnerving scenes mounts up. Dracula’s brides eat a baby. Harker finds Dracula and his brides in their coffins. Dracula seduces Lucy in the dead of night. Lucy slowly transforms into a vampire. Vampire Lucy menaces people in a graveyard. Vampire Lucy is staked in her coffin. Renfield is beaten to death. Mina goes mad after Dracula seduces her while Jonathan sleeps beside her. Mina drinks from Dracula’s open chest wound. The sense of terror is extraordinary for a BBC drama shot in a television studio. It also gets out on film, though – most notably to the real Whitby, where locations from the novel are used for the relevant scenes. If there’s a downside, the film can’t solve the problems inherent in Stoker’s novel: that the characters are cyphers and that the plot peters out with a limp climax. But a decent cast – especially Louis Jordan, who’s *mesmerising* as the Count – make up for any failings, while the stylish direction adds depth and texture to everything.

Nine hairy palms out of 10

My 10 favourite albums

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Rubber Soul (The Beatles, 1965)

Abbey Road (The Beatles, 1969)

Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd, 1975)

The Queen Is Dead (The Smiths, 1986)

The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses, 1989)

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (Oasis, 1995)

Moseley Shoals (Ocean Colour Scene, 1996)

A Maximum High (Shed Seven 1996)

OK Computer (Radiohead, 1997)

United By Fate (Rival Schools, 2001)

I love Warehouse 13. Adore it. Totally.

WAREHOUSE 13 -- Season: 2 -- Pictured: (l-r) Saul Rubinek as Artie Nielsen, Joanne Kelly as Myka Bering, Eddie McClintock as Pete Lattimer, Allison Scagliotti as Claudia Donovan -- Photo by: Justin Stephens/Syfy

Well, not *totally*. Here are 10 rubbish things about it… (SPOILERS AHEAD.)

  1. Leena is really boring. Her role in the team was usurped once Claudia came along in episode four, yet she hangs around for four seasons and doesn’t contribute much.
  2. Product placement might have been a necessary evil, but is often really distracting. In season two, Myka keeps shoehorning in mentions of Twizzlers for no apparent reason.
  3. The pilot episode has a character called Daniel Dickinson, who’s Pete and Myka’s boss at the Secret Service. However, despite the actor being credited throughout season one he only appears in two further episodes. He’s then brought back – for one scene, with no dialogue – and killed off in season two. The show generally abandoned the interesting connection between the Warehouse and the real-world authorities.
  4. The mooted spin-off show about HG Wells solving mysteries in Victorian London never happened. The ‘backdoor pilot’ episode (season three’s 3… 2… 1…) is a doozy, but sadly a series didn’t follow. It would have been ace.
  5. Claudia gets increasingly smug the longer the show goes on. At first, she’s energetic, enthusiastic and a comic-strip character come to life. By the time of season four, though, she’s self-obsessed, vain and quite annoying.
  6. In season four, we meet a character called Nick and the actor uses an absolutely atrocious English accent.
  7. Myka’s cancer. The diagnosis comes out of nowhere, then the storyline is rushed through and dumped quickly.
  8. The fact Claudia has a brother is all but forgotten about in the final season. It’s revealed that their sister didn’t die years before and is still alive, but he seemingly can’t be arsed to jump on a plane.
  9. Pete and Myka getting together. Urgh. Nope, never bought it. We’d had four and a half seasons of the most brilliant platonic male/female friendship on television, then as soon as the show gets axed a romance is forced upon the characters in the space of two episodes. You can almost see the doubt in the actors’ eyes.
  10. At the end of a generally wonderful final episode, a laughably self-indulgent scene sees executive producer Jack Kenny cast himself as the boss of a future Warehouse.

See, I didn’t even MENTION the fact they kept using Toronto to stand in for places such as London, Moscow, Paris, Cardiff, Watford…

Carry On Columbus (1992)

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In 1492, a Turkish ruler learns of an explorative voyage to the Indies, which might rob him of income from trading taxes. So he sends an agent to infiltrate Christopher Columbus’s crew…

What’s it spoofing? This film came out 500 years after Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and found the American continent. He wasn’t the first European to do so and he never actually set foot on what is now the USA (he bounced around the Caribbean and South America), but the anniversary was still big news. Two other films on this subject came out in the same year as this final Carry On movie: Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise and John Glen’s Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. None of the three did very well.

Funniest moment: Marco warns Chiquita not to fall into the water as there are sharks nearby. “Will they eat me whole?” she asks. “No,” he replies, “I’ve heard they spit that out.”

The Big 10:

* Jim Dale (11) returns for his first Carry On since the 1960s to play Columbus – he did it as a favour to director Gerald Thomas.

Notable others:

* Rik Mayall has a fun, petulant cameo as Abdul the Benevolent, the Sultan of Turkey (“NEEEEEXT!”).

* Nigel Planer, Mayall’s Young Ones co-star, plays his lackey, the Wazir.

* Tony Slattery appears as Baba the Messenger, who trots out the old “I have come hotfoot”/cut-to-his-feet-giving-off-steam joke.

* Burt Kwouk plays a trader called, um, Wang. THIS WAS THE 90s, PEOPLE!

* Sara Crowe might be the best thing in the film: she gets the arch tone perfectly as skilled-but-naive Turkish agent Fatima.

* Martin Clunes plays Martin, a dim customer in Columbus’s map shop.

* Peter Richardson sounds like he’s dubbed all his own dialogue himself for the role of Columbus’s brother, Bart, who draws the maps for his shop but keeps putting naked mermaids on them.

* Alexei Sayle – another Young Ones veteran – plays Achmed, the Sultan’s man in Lisbon, who accompanies Fatima on her mission.

* Bernard Cribbins plays Mordecai Mendoza, a former Jew who’s now a Christian. He has a map of the far west so comes along on the voyage.

* Leslie Phillips is King Ferdinand; it’s the actor’s first Carry On appearance in 32 years. The role was first offered to Frankie Howerd, but he died just days before production began. Bernard Bresslaw was then asked to step in, but he said no.

* June Whitfield is the Queen of Spain. Both Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor turned the part down.

* Maureen Lipman plays Countess Esmerelda, a Spanish noblewoman with two pretty daughters who ends up on the ship by accident. She gets to reprise Joan Sims’s ‘the count’ gag from Don’t Lose Your Head.

* Jon Pertwee’s fourth Carry On cameo is a doddery old man being married off to one of Esmerelda’s daughters.

* Holly Aird and Rebecca Lacey play the daughters, Maria and Chiquita. The former flirts with Burt.

* Lynda Baron pops up for about five seconds as a local woman.

* Richard Wilson plays Don Juan Felipe, an inspector appointed by the king to oversee the voyage.

* Julian Clary plays Don Juan Diego (“I’m Juan too!”), a jailer who’s bored with his job so joins Columbus’s crew.

* Keith Allen appears as the ship’s cook, Pepi the Poisoner.

* Daniel Peacock plays Tonto the Torch, the Andalusia Arsonist.

* Jack Douglas has a role smaller than most of his 1970s characters: Marco the Cereal Killer (so named because he beats his victims to death with a sack of Rice Crispies).

* Don Henderson is likewise barely on screen; he plays the bosun.

* Peter Gilmore’s 11th and obviously final Carry On character is the governor of the Canary Islands.

* Chris Langham, Charles Fleischer and Larry Miller are reasonably funny as the incongruously savvy and civilized natives who Columbus and co find in the Americas. They have New York accents and attitudes.

Top totty: Whatever happened to Sara Crowe?

Review: With so many of the old guard dead or unwilling to return, this restart of the series – after a 14-year gap – introduced a much-hyped ‘new generation’ of talent. It basically boils down to a few people who had been around for a decade by this point and a hotchpotch of jobbing comedy actors. If there’s any significant change to the Carry On formula it’s in the flashes of Monty Python-style surrealism. But there’s still a surfeit of corny jokes, a plethora of cultural stereotypes and far too many cultural stereotypes standing in for corny jokes. It *is* rubbish, there’s no denying that. But it’s no worse than the sludge being produced at the end of the 1970s. Go in with low expectations and it raises a smile occasionally.

Four cigars out of 10

Carry On Emmannuelle (1978)

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The wife of the French ambassador comes to see him in London and shags around…

What’s it spoofing? The Emmanuelle series of erotic films. So far there’d been Emmanuelle (1974), Emmanuelle 2 (1975) and Goodbye Emmanuelle (1977); another four followed after this spoof. The Carry On team changed the spelling to avoid legal issues. Also influential, one assumes, were the sex-comedy series Confessions of a… (1974-1977) and Adventures of a… (1976-1978).

Funniest moment: Leyland asks hard-of-hearing footman Richmond, “You for coffee?” He replies, “No, thanks. I’m staying here.”

The Big 10:

* Kenneth Williams (26) stays loyal to the series through thick and increasingly thin. He plays Emile Prevert, the French ambassador to the UK. After a parachuting accident, he can no longer adequately pleasure his wife, so she spends her days seeking thrills elsewhere. This was the actor’s final Carry On appearance – he died on 15 April 1988.

* Joan Sims (24) plays Mrs Dangle, the household’s cook. This was similarly Sims’s last Carry On. She died on 27 June 2001.

* Peter Butterworth (16) plays Richmond, the ancient footman. Emmannuelle is also Butterworth’s final work on the series – he died on 16 January 1979, just two months after this film opened.

* Kenneth Connor (17) plays saucy chauffeur Leyland. Again, this is Connor’s Carry On swansong – he died on 28 November 1993.

* The producers had hoped Barbara Windsor would play four distinct roles – each of the women featured in three fantasy flashback scenes, as well as a nurse. Depending on which source you favour, however, either the filming dates clashed with an overseas holiday or Windsor refused to do the film because she thought it was pornographic.

Notable others:

* Suzanne Danielle is the film’s lead – the sex-mad, inhibition-light, worry-free Emmannuelle Prevert. She’s not awful, but it’s a pathetically written role. Her character in Cannon & Ball’s 1982 film The Boys in Blue isn’t much better. No wonder she gave up acting and married a golfer.

* Larry Dann (who’d also been in Carry On Teacher, Carry On Behind and Carry On England) plays Theodore Valentine, a shy guy who has a quickie with Emmannuelle then develops an obsession with her.

* Jack Douglas refrains from any twitching to play the Preverts’ butler, Lyons.

* Beryl Reid plays Theodore’s fussy mother.

* Bruce Boa appears as the US ambassador. In the actor’s near future were turns in Fawlty Towers (“Would you make me a Waldorf Salad?”), The Empire Strikes Back and Octopussy.

* Joan Benham from Upstairs, Downstairs cameos as a woman at a dinner party.

* Steve Plytas – who three years earlier had played drunk chef Kurt in Fawlty Towers (“But he didn’t have Manuel as a model, eh?”) – is an Arabian party guest.

* Claire Davenport plays the large lady Leyland picks up in a pub. Davenport is yet another Fawlty Towers alumnus: she’d been in the episode The Germans in 1975 (“He means *the drill* hasn’t started yet.”).

Top totty: Tricia Newby plays a nurse who gets her tits out in order to excite Kenneth Williams’s libido. The actress also had to flash them in Carry On England.

Kenneth Williams says: “Gerald Thomas [director] gave me lunch. He talked to me about the Carry On Emmannuelle script; it sounds pretty dirty. ‘We really miss old Sid James,’ he said, ‘he was cuddly & warm’ (you could have fooled me) ‘and there are so few like him.’ Then he saw Jimmy Tarbuck at another table and said ‘He’d got that quality!’ & I said ‘Yes! he is cuddly & warm & I think he’s smashing…’” – Monday 19 December 1977 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p553)

“Read the revised Carry On script. If anything, it’s worse than before & the dialogue clumsy, inept and not a good joke anywhere. Peter [Eade, his agent] said ‘They are willing to pay you six thousand but if you want a car they will dock it from your salary.’ I said no thanks, and told him ‘Better settle for 5,750 and have them do the car at their expense.’ I’m not having my money whittled away in such an unforeseeable fashion.” – Thursday 30 March 1978 (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, p557)

Review: This movie was made in four weeks – four weeks! – and it really shows. It’s a bizarre, witless, unpleasant, aimless folly. And it’s strangely unerotic. Sex is suggested or off-screen, while there’s no more nudity than any of the previous few Carry Ons. (If seeing Kenneths Connor and Williams is states of undress is your thing, though, then this is the film for you.) The big change is that characters talk openly about wanting or having sex. Innocence has become in-your-face. Innuendo has become in-your-end-oh! It’s pathetic. The best thing about the whole enterprise might be the jaunty, Bee Gees-style theme song.

One Concorde out of 10