Dracula by Northern Ballet (2020, David Nixon)

DBNB

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Castle Dracula and England, the late 19th century.

Faithful to the novel? This 100-minute ballet performance, filmed at Leeds Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre on 31 October 2019 and broadcast on BBC4 on 31 May 2020, sticks closely to Bram Stoker’s general storyline but condenses it down into key beats. English solicitor Johnathan Harker (Lorenzo Trossello) travels to a far-off land, where he meets an elderly creature called Dracula (Riku Ito) in order to conclude some kind of business deal. The demonic Dracula torments him, and even causes Jonathan to dream about the woman he’s left behind at home: the virtuous Mina Murray (Abigail Prudames). Harker is then visited by three overtly sexual women (Rachael Gillespie, Sarah Chun and Minju Kang). They’re close to feeding on his blood when Dracula intercedes and takes Johnathan for himself. The transfusion leads to Dracula looking young and virile, and he’s now played by principle dancer Javier Torres. (This detail from the book, of the Count initially appearing old and de-aging as he drinks blood, is almost always ignored in adaptations.) Dracula then departs, leaving Jonathan a prisoner. Back in (presumably) England, Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) is being wooed by two suitors: Dr John Seward (Joseph Taylor) and Arthur Holmwood (Matthew Koon). She chooses to marry the latter. (The novel’s third would-be husband for Lucy, the American Quincy P Morris, does not appear in this version.) Meanwhile, Dracula is toying with a troubled prisoner called Renfield (Kevin Poeung), who we then learn is a mental patient of Seward’s. The vampire is also inveigling himself into the lives of Mina and Lucy. Lucy soon dies after being drained of blood by Dracula, despite the efforts of Seward, Holmwood and their friend Van Helsing (Ashley Dixon). After she has risen as an Undead, Van Helsing has her staked and beheaded. The men then seek out the evil Dracula, but the Count goes after Mina in revenge…

Best performance: ‘One of the most difficult things to get as a dancer is, I think, that connection to the audience,’ said Torres around the time he played Dracula in this televised performance. ‘You can be an amazing dancer, you can do amazing tricks, amazing jumps and turns, but if you do not connect with the audience your job is, kind of, pointless.’ Torres’s vampire certainly has the amazing tricks, jumps and turns. As an example of pure dance, his grace and power are unquestioned – whether in seducing a victim or climbing down a wall. He also swishes his Dracula cape around with confidence.

Best bit: While Harker is trying to resist the flirtatious Brides, his fiancée Mina appears on the other side of the stage as a portrayal of his innermost thoughts. She dances innocently, in contrast the sultry Brides, which nicely dramatises the torment and temptation Johnathan is going through.

Review: Ballet is actually mentioned within the first few pages of Bram Stoker’s novel. Travelling through the unfamiliar lands east of Vienna, Jonathan Harker describes some local women in his diary: ‘Most of them had big belts with a lot of strips of something fluttering from them like the dresses in a ballet, but of course there were petticoats under them.’ This throwaway reference aside, it’s debatable whether the Gothic masterpiece is a suitable story to adapt for the medium. Stoker’s tale is full of simmering sexuality and evil threat, aspects that can be conveyed through body movement alone. But with no dialogue in a ballet performance, the storytelling lacks connective tissue. Watching Dracula by Northern Ballet, for example, surely requires prior knowledge of the storyline to fully appreciate what’s going on. The BBC4 broadcast begins with captions, giving an overview of the plot, but a new viewer will surely be missing out on a lot. Nevertheless, this production has a long and successful history. The Canadian choreographer-director David Nixon first staged a ballet version of Dracula in 1999 while artistic director of the BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. He’s since restaged it for the Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds since 2005. The performance as filmed by the BBC on Halloween 2019 uses minimal sets designed by Ali Allen, stark lighting by Tim Mitchell, and a selection of pre-existing music by Alfred Schnittke, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arvo Pärt and Michael Daugherty. It’s shot in an unadventurous proscenium style, with occasional close-ups. The dance craft is impressive, of course, especially the way power struggles are dramatised through movement. The staging also emphasises the sexuality in Stoker’s story. But some scenes test your patience, as does the cast’s self-congratulatory finale: an elaborate bow-taking ritual that lasts for two full minutes. You don’t get *that* in the movies.

Six cages out of 10

My 13 favourite Draculas

I first read Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in the early 1990s and it soon became a favourite. As today (Tuesday 26 May 2020) marks 123 years to the day since the book was published, I thought it would be fun to list some of the best film and TV adaptations. Let me know in the comments section below if I’ve missed off your favourite…

13 Dracula (1979)

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A fairly faithful retelling of the classic story, though it favours the plotting used in a 1920s stageplay over Stoker’s original. Frank Langella is a suave, sexy, fangless Dracula, and the film – while a bit humourless – has a romantically Gothic tone. Smoke billows, the score swells, characters look longingly… It’s like watching an epic music video at times, but it seduces you.

12 Love at First Bite (1979)

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Also from 1979 is this George Hamilton-starring comedy, which sees the Count evicted from his Transylvanian castle and move to New York City. The humour is deadpan, likeable and often very funny.

11 Blacula (1972)

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Count Dracula himself only appears briefly in this Blaxploitation spin on the myth. The focus is his successor: Mamuwalde, an African prince turned vampiric in 1780 then awoken in 1970s LA. The premise is hokey, but actor William Marshall makes sure Mamuwalde always has dignity and grace. The film is also one of the earliest ‘Dracula’ stories to include a subplot about a modern woman being the reincarnation of a vampire’s long-dead love. Now common, it doesn’t appear in Stoker’s text. The following year, Blacula got a sequel co-starring Pam Grier. Scream Blacula Scream is slower than the first film but is more confidently made.

10 Dracula (1931)

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Probably the most influential telling of the Dracula story ever filmed, this Universal Pictures classic doesn’t totally stand up as a piece of cinema. The acting creaks, the pace flags and the action can be flat. But its iconography – especially a cape-wearing and heavily accented Bela Lugosi as the Count, and his cobweb-strewn castle – became enshrined in popular culture. The film was, of course, the start of a long-running sequence for Universal. Made concurrently with Dracula was a terrific Spanish-language equivalent starring Carlos Villarías – Drácula (1931) – then several sequels to Lugosi’s version followed. The Count was absent from the decent Dracula’s Daughter (1936), then played by Lon Chaney Jr (Son of Dracula, 1943) and John Carradine (House of Frankenstein, 1944, and House of Dracula, 1945). Lugosi returned in the fun crossover Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974)

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Not the feeble version with the same name directed by Francis Ford Coppola in the 1990s, but an enjoyable 70s TV movie starring Jack Palance. It’s an abbreviated adaptation of the novel, which also throws in some cute amendments to the story. The most long-lasting of which is the same idea that had coincidentally been used in Blacula in 1972 – here, it’s Lucy Westenra who is the unknowing reincarnation of Count Dracula’s long-dead partner. (This film also codified the notion that Count Dracula is the historical tyrant Vlad the Impaler made immortal. That hadn’t been Bram Stoker’s intention.) Palance is terrific, never forgetting that Dracula is a monster but simultaneously making him sympathetic.

Dracula 2000 (2000)

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It’s schlocky, but this revamp for the new millennium has a postmodern awareness of the genre, which means it’s also a lot of fun. Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) was the executive producer and his knowing fingerprints are everywhere – from the pure horror to the contrasting comedy. The new storyline also gives Dracula (Gerard Butler) an interesting Biblical backstory. It was followed by two lesser sequels: Dracula II: Ascension (2003) and Dracula III: Legacy (2005).

7 Dracula (1958)

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A rejigged adaptation of the novel, which makes some intelligent cuts and is quite pacy by the standards of other Hammer Films productions. It upped the amount of pain and pleasure on show in the Dracula myth – this is a film of rich, red blood and repressed sexuality – and, most notably, it introduced the world to Christopher Lee’s looming, patrician portrayal of the Count. Just like the 1931 Universe film, Hammer’s Dracula led to many sequels, sadly of varying quality. Peter Cushing, who had played Van Helsing in the original, headlined The Brides of Dracula (1960); then Christopher Lee returned in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), Scars of Dracula (1970) and Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). After a reboot (see below), Cushing also starred in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). The sadist-tinged Taste the Blood of Dracula was the best of these, while the 1974 kung-fu crossover is fun too.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

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The character names were changed in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass copyright law, but this influential silent film is still the earliest screen version of Dracula we have. (There was an Hungarian film the year before called Dracula’s Death, but that was a new plotline and now seems to be lost.) The eerily demonic Max Schreck plays Count Orlok, one of cinema’s most memorable monsters, while FW Murnau’s direction is a blueprint of German Expressionism. Every scene has darkness and danger in the shadows. Fifty-seven years later, Werner Herzog directed a creepy remake called Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). It’s an acquired taste. 

5 Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy vs. Dracula (2000)

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The story goes that the writing team behind the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer were busking ideas for a new villain – a one-off vampire who was powerful and famous and had a certain cache. They needed someone like Dracula. Then Buffy creator Joss Whedon said, ‘Why not Dracula? He’s public domain!’ Bringing the character into the world of BTVS, even for one episode, served a purpose within the show’s story arc. The heroine Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) was questioning her vamp-fighting destiny, so why not test that against the genre’s most iconic villain? But like so much in Whedon’s show, the idea is also a huge amount of *fun*. It’s a typically witty, playful script, and the regular cast have an absolute blast, both respecting and poking fun at the Dracula cliches. Playing the Count is Rudolf Martin, who coincidentally had another Drac-related credit in the same year: he starred as Vlad the Impaler in the forgettable TV movie Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula.

4 Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

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An oddball choice, perhaps. This is a behind-the-scenes drama set during the shoot of 1922’s Nosferatu, and stars Willem Defoe as that film’s leading actor, Max Schreck. The perverse twist is that, in this version of events, Schreck isn’t just playing a vampire – he actually is one, and has been promised victims by Nosferatu’s ambitious director, FW Murnau (John Malkovich). It’s a surreal idea, and it really flies. The cast are terrific, there are some brilliantly unnerving moments, and the story contains layer upon layer of subtext. Fact/fiction, life/death, film/reality…

3 Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

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The seventh film in Hammer’s Dracula cycle is, in fact, not a sequel but a reboot that moves the Count into the very vivid present day of the early 1970s. It’s a time when London was still swinging and youth culture was all about coffee bars, music you could dig, wild clothes, and generally having a good time. The film may have been mocked at the time (and since) for these stereotyped flower-power characters, but that does it a disservice. Dracula A.D. 1972 is enormously likeable and vibrant, but it’s not all about partying kids. The storyline – which sees Christopher Lee’s long-dead Dracula resurrected and Peter Cushing playing a descendent of the Victorian Van Helsing – has darkness and plenty of threat too. The sequence in which Caroline Munro’s Laura and Christopher Neame’s Johnny Alucard take part in the occult ceremony that calls forth the Count stands as one of the most strikingly impressive in any Dracula film. (A.D. 1972 was followed by a less successful sequel, 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.)

2 Dracula (2020)

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Made by the creative team behind the BBC1 hit Sherlock, this recent adaptation is openly aware of previous Dracula adaptations and has a cineliterate love of the genre, but it is also completely its own beast. The script smartly, but not in any way reverentially, carves up the Stoker story up into three equal parts. Episode one is the most traditional, telling the story of Jonathan Harker’s terrifying time at Castle Dracula, but still plays around with the material in interesting ways. The middle episode then takes the vampire’s voyage aboard the Demeter – less than five pages of the novel – and expands it into a Agatha Christie-style chamber piece of paranoia and claustrophobia. The final instalment is the most daring of all, pulling a fearless storytelling trick as we follow the Count’s adventures in London. At the centre of everything is Claes Bang giving a dominant performance as a hugely charismatic yet still monstrous Dracula, while Dolly Wells is also extraordinary as a clever, sarcastic character called Sister Agatha. This is funny, scary, intelligent and exuberant storytelling of the highest order. (The 2020 series was the third version of Dracula made by the BBC. The first is mentioned below, while in 2006 there also was a fairly bloodless and confused one-off.)

1 Count Dracula (1977)

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Made 43 years before the Claes Bang version, the BBC’s first attempt at Dracula is not only one of the most faithful adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel (the few minor tweaks are improvements). It’s also highly seductive and stylish in its own right. Made in the classic format of 1970s television (multi-camera studio for interiors, polished film work for locations), this 150-minute story contains plenty of surreal imagery, unorthodox direction and horrific scenes. But these are not examples of showing-off; each moment supports and enriches the storyline. Louis Jordan is an excellent Count Dracula, all charm and unflappable grace but still menacing, while there are also excellent performances from Frank Finlay as Van Helsing and Susan Penhaligon as Lucy Westenra. For the sections set in Whitby, the production filmed in the Yorkshire town itself – staging scenes on real locations that Bram Stoker knew well and included in his novel.

Since 2015, I’ve been attempting to watch and review as many Dracula-related films and TV episodes as possible. You can see a list of my efforts here.

 

A Taste of Blood (1967, Herschell Gordon Lewis)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s the modern-day (1960s), mostly in Florida but with a diversion to London.

Faithful to the novel? This obscure slice of trash cinema is a sequel to Bram Stoker’s story, set nearly a century later. (The earlier events are dated to before September 1883.) In 1960s Miami, businessman John Stone takes delivery of a parcel, which contains two bottles of what seems to be red wine. They come with a note telling John that he is the last surviving descendant of a Baron Vada Khron of Moldavia, and therefore now the master of Carfax, a ‘sizeable estate in Purfleet, a suburb of London’. (Dracula’s English home in Stoker’s book is indeed a house called Carfax in Purfleet, but Purfleet is actually a town in Essex about 35 miles from the centre of the capital.) John samples the wine and undergoes a transformation. He is now a vampire with detailed knowledge of his most famous forebear, Count Dracula, and soon sets about tracking down the descendants of Dracula’s killers. This involves a journey to London, dramatised by stock footage of Tower Bridge and Piccadilly Circus as well as scenes featuring some truly abysmal English accents (from both the cor-blimey-gov’nor and upper-crust categories). We learn about the first two deaths via newspaper headlines – ‘Philip Harker brutally slain’ and ‘Dr Wayne Seward found foully murdered in laboratory’ refer to the progeny of the novel’s Johnathan and Mina Harker and their friend Jack Seward. We then see John seek out the current Lord Godalming, which is the movie’s first on-screen death. As he pounces, John turns a ghoulish blue; his lordship is soon covered in red. Back in America, the vampire next targets Sherri Morris, whose ancestor was the book’s American character, Quincy P Morris. Then a Dr Howard Helsing (obviously part of the Van Helsing clan) shows up, fearful for his life having learnt about the other deaths…

Best performance: Our Dracula descendant, John Stone, is played by the 6’2″ Bill Rogers. His CV is a list of forgotten B-movies such as as 1962’s Santo vs the Vampire Women, 1963’s Six She’s and a He, and 1970’s Flesh Feast (IMDB synopsis: ‘A ring of Nazis in Florida is in possession of the body of Adolf Hitler, and plan revive him so they can take over the world.’). In A Taste of Blood, what he lacks in naturalism and charm he makes up for in imposing posture and a certain vague similarity to Christopher Lee.

Best bit: There are occasionally artful moments, usually involving smoke machines and expressionist blue light.

Review: This project was originally called The Secret of Dr Alucard and naively intended as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr before producer/director Herschell Gordon Lewis got hold of it. Lewis was immensely proud of his movie, calling it his masterpiece, and was keen to laud its relatively high production values. But that word ‘relatively’ is key here. Lewis was an independent who ploughed his furrow in the cheaper end of the filmmaking field. He started off making soft-porn throwaways, then moved into ‘gore’ pictures – all were aimed at undiscerning drive-in audiences. Like the rest of his output, A Taste of Blood is low-budget and feels bodged-together. It’s a two-hour film that was shot in just three weeks, with lots of simple setups, virtually no close-ups, lots of stock music, and members of the crew doubling up to play small roles. So here ‘high production values’ basically means that the interior locations are reasonably well lit. The story is simplistic, the drama scenes drably directed, the cast is appalling, and even the gore now seems quaintly tame, coming as it did before the 70s boom of blood-and-guts films like Dawn of the Dead.

Four dirty pictures out of 10

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)

ForgettingSarahMarshall

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: LA and Hawaii in the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all – this isn’t an adaptation or even a horror film. Instead, it’s a romcom whose inclusion in this blogging project is solely down to a throwaway gag that sees the lead character writing a Dracula musical. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was released during a noughties vogue for movies produced by Judd Apatow which centred on immature characters struggling with the trials of everyday life. Toying with gross-out humour and using the improvisational skills of their casts, the phase had kicked into gear with the out-and-out comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), then included the watchable The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), the decent Knocked Up (2007), the sublime Superbad (2007), the funny Bridesmaids (2010) and several others before its popularity petered out. Forgetting Sarah Marshall tells the story of Peter Bretter (played by Jason Segel, who also wrote the script). He writes the incidental music for an ersatz-CSI TV drama, but is thrown into despair when he’s dumped by his actress girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell). We follow him as he plummets into depression then decides to go on holiday to Hawaii, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he ends up in the same luxury hotel as Sarah and her new beau, the English rock singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Best performance: It’s a cast with a lot of US TV comedy connections: Segal from How I Met Your Mother, Bell from The Good Place, Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live as Peter’s brother, Jack McBrayer from 50 Rock as a newly-wed at the hotel… Even Paul Rudd – once best known as Mike from Friends – has a small role as a surfing instructor. When Peter arrives at the Turtle Bay resort, he meets receptionist Rachel Jansen. She’s a stunningly gorgeous young woman who takes a shine to him, despite his self-pitying neuroses. Rachel is played by Mila Kunis (the voice of Meg in Family Guy, to keep the TV comedy theme going), who’s able to fulfil the function of the male lead’s object of desire and yet also feel like a self-assured character in her own right.

Best bit: When Peter attempts to hit on Rachel, he boasts that he’s writing a rock opera but is then immediately sheepish when she asks what it’s about. ‘Dracula,’ he says without conviction. ‘And eternal love. That’s the theme, but I think the two kind of go hand in hand.’ He also says that his dream is to stage it with puppets. (Jason Segel is an admitted Muppets fan. Roping in puppet experts from The Jim Henson Company to help with this film led to him co-writing and starring in a reboot of the Muppets movie series in 2011.) Later in the evening, Rachel forces Peter to sing a number from his musical on stage in a crowded bar. He’s nervous, saying that out of context the song might not work, then launches into a plaintive piano ballad which he sings in an affected Broadway manner. Sample lyric: ‘And if I see Van Helsing, I swear to the Lord I will slay him/Take it from me, but I swear I won’t let it be so/Blood will run down his face when he is decapitated/His head on my mantle is how I will let this world know.’ As their relationship develops, eventually becoming sexual, Rachel urges him to finish writing the opera. Back home in LA, he does just that – and the film’s climax is built around a well-received performance of Taste for Love: A Dracula Puppet Musical at a small theatre. Peter and the other puppeteers are visible on stage, a la Avenue Q; the characters are clearly modelled on the Jim Henson idiom. It’s silly but sweet.

Review: There aren’t that many laugh-out-loud moments here, and the story never takes you by surprise, but this is an amiable-enough romantic comedy with a good cast. The Dracula musical – based on a real incident in Segel’s past – adds an oddball tone to all the conventional storytelling. It works well, especially when we see the triumphant performance. (Incidentally, Jonah Hill as a hotel worker who idolises Aldous was such a success in his scenes with Russell Brand that the actors later teamed up for spin-off: the more overtly funny film Get Him to the Greek, in which Brand reprised Aldous Snow and Hill played a new character.)

Seven little holidays with Hitler out of 10

Avengers: Secret Wars – Why I Hate Halloween (2017, Micah Gunnell)

AASWWIHH

An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Initially known as Avengers Assemble before some season-specific rebrands, this animated show for children is a spin-off from the phenomenally successful series of Marvel movies. It uses many of the MCU’s characters and puts them in very similar situations, though the TV show forms its own fictional continuity. Beginning on Disney XD in 2013, there have so far been five seasons totalling 126 episodes. This episode – a kind of Halloween special – was first broadcast on 8 October 2017 during season four, which formed a story arc called Secret Wars. However, the events actually take place during season three (Ultron Revolution). We begin on 31 October in an unspecified year (modern day) at an underground base in Manhattan. Events then move to a safe house in Rutland, Vermont (codenamed, ironically, the beach house).

Faithful to the novel? No, it just uses the title character. As the episode begins, the Avengers – Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, Thor, Iron Man – are invading a secret base under New York City which is a home for the fascist cult Hydra. They find a scientist called Whitney Frost, who has been experimenting with vampires in order to create super-soldiers for Hydra’s evil plans, but when the vamps – animalistic creatures more like humanoid dogs than anything else – attack, Hawkeye takes Frost to a safe house. They’re soon attacked by Hydra goons, and then someone knocks on the door. No one appears on the CCTV camera aimed at the porch, but when Frost opens the door standing there is Dracula (voiced by Corey Burton). He’s an arrogant, silky-voiced, tall, well-built man with light-blue skin and white hair. The character had actually been a recurring bad guy in this show’s first season. He wants to punish Frost for meddling in the affairs of the vampires: ‘She must be chastised.’ The heroic Hawkeye protects her.

Best performance: Whitney Frost is voiced by Wynn Everett, the actress who played a different version of the same character in the superior live-action TV show Agent Carter. Nice touch.

Best bit: When Hawkeye smugly points out that Dracula can’t enter the safe house unless he’s invited, Dracula simply orders his vampire hordes to tear the house down.

Review: Unlike the parent film series, this episode gives a lot of screentime – and some personality – to the character of Hawkeye. Frost calls him the ‘weakest’ Avenger a couple of times, a gag that reflects how the character in the movies has failed to pop in the same way as his colleagues, but it works in context here as this episode is all about him stepping up and doing his job well. It’s action heavy and nuance light, but fast-paced and enjoyably flippant.

Six back-up quivers out of 10

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1978, Albert Band)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: This film’s original title when released in the US was the more prosaic Dracula’s Dog.

Setting: In this slice of trash cinema, we begin in a land that goes unnamed (‘the old country’), though it’s fair to assume it’s Romania. Then after a voyage across fogbound seas, events play out in Los Angeles and near a lake in San Bernardino County, California. The bulk of the story takes place in the modern day, though we also see brief flashbacks to a few centuries earlier.

Faithful to the novel? No, not at all. This film is set many years after the events of the book. (Stoker’s novel is not mentioned, but one character refers to ‘all those Dracula pictures’ made by Hollywood.) As we get underway, an army bomb-clearance team accidentally uncovers the Dracula family tomb. We see stones for Count Igor Dracula and Countessa Eva Dracula among others. A dopey soldier then pulls a stake from a long-decayed corpse and resurrects… not Dracula, but Dracula’s dog! The vampiric pooch – a Doberman pinscher called Zoltan – then removes the stake from another coffin’s inhabitant and reawakens his owner, Veidt Smit (the craggy-faced Reggie Nalder). Together the pair set off in search of the last surviving descendant of Count Dracula… That turns out to be an American called Michael Drake (Michael Pataki), who’s currently on a camping holiday with his wife, two kids and their brood of dogs. (That’s right: the ‘last surviving descendant of Count Dracula’ has children. Think that one through, movie!) Meanwhile, a Van Helsing-type investigator called Vaclav Branco (played by a slumming-it José Ferrer) is on the case and follows Smit’s trail to America, where he locates Michael and imparts lots of vague exposition.

Best performance: Michael is played by Michael Pataki, a kind of cut-price Darren McGavin who later appeared in slasher films such as Graduation Day, Sweet Sixteen and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. His character comes across as a decent, affable family man.

Best bit: When awoken from his coffin, Zoltan has a flashback to when he was mortal, a soft-focus sequence that brings to mind that time Bouncer the dog had a dream in Australian soap opera Neighbours. Count Igor Dracula is angry when Zoltan gets in the way of him attacking a sexy woman, so he morphs into a bat and bites the hound – turning him into a vampire dog. The movie doesn’t seem to have any clue how ridiculous any of this is.

Review: The B-movie producer Albert Band had a CV that includes such tantalisingly hopeless titles as Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, TerrorVision, and Zarkorr! The Invader. For Zoltan, Hound of Dracula he also slid into the director’s chair and the result is predictably sloppy, crass and forgettable. Made by a team with a greater sense of irony, this could have been campy fun. Instead, it’s a straight-ahead horror flick that’s not ‘about’ anything in the slightest. The rotten-to-the-core storytelling soon gets muddled up in its own absurdity, the flat line-readings become tiresome, and despite a cute trick of reflecting light into Zoltan’s eyes the film is never scary or even unsettling. (Even when snarling, in fact, you can see the dog looking off-camera for approval from his trainer.)

Four berets out of 10

Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000, Joe Chappelle)

DarkPrince

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The ‘present’ scenes are set in 1476 in Turk-occupied Romania. (The name Romania is used on screen but is an anachronism.) We then see lengthy flashbacks, beginning with Vlad Tepes’s birth in 1431. The story also drifts across the border into Hungary.

Faithful to the novel? This made-for-television movie was first broadcast in America on Halloween night 2000. It’s yet another Drac-drama that posits that Stoker’s fictional Count is really the historical dictator Vlad Tepes (1431-1477), aka Vlad Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. The fact that this connection was never Bram Stoker’s intention – the author simply borrowed the real-life figure’s name and it’s doubtful he knew much more about him – has not stopped dozens of films and TV shows running with the idea. As the story begins, the powerful 15th-century warlord Vlad Tepes has been combating Ottoman Turks who have invaded his country. But after he allies himself with a Catholic king of Hungary (played, rather oddly, by Roger Daltrey of The Who), he’s questioned by a panel of Orthodox churchmen. The bulk of the film is then told in flashback as Vlad explains his actions over the years.

Best performance: Vlad is played by German actor Rudolph Martin, who coincidentally played a fully formed Dracula in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer shown just a month before The Dark Prince. When the character is born, a nearby religious statue begins to cry blood – so rumours spread that he’s the antichrist. The adult Vlad denies this, but in flashback he suffers hardships as he grows older: his father is killed by his enemies; his brother is kidnapped and brainwashed. As he leads a fightback against the invading Turks, Vlad uses all this angst to justify turning into a barbaric ruler. As Prince of Romania, he kills his own countrymen, drinks their blood and impales them on spikes. Charming. Some fear him (including his wife, who goes insane when she realises what he’s capable of); some rally behind him. He’s eventually murdered by his brother, but – perhaps because he’s been excommunicated by the church – he then rises from the grave as a godless soul, condemned to walk the earth forever… (The unsaid implication: he’s now Dracula the vampire.)

Best bit: Attempts are made here and there to imbue this film with some new ideas. For example, it uses its framing-device-and-flashback structure to suggest that some of the ideas surrounding Vlad are simply myths. He’s badly hurt in battle and seems to die, so his aide begins to construct a coffin; but then Vlad recovers, leading some watching soldiers to assume he’s been resurrected.

Review: Despite some decent production values, this is humourless drivel played out by a cast stuck in second gear. The lack of a central sympathetic character means it drifts along and fails to grab your attention.

Four loafs of bread out of 10

Drácula (1931, George Melford)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Castle Dracula in Transylvania; aboard a ship on the open seas; London. Renfield mentions that he was called to the bar in 1928, so we’re in the 1930s.

Faithful to the novel? The story of the production of this Universal Pictures film is both famous and fascinating. It’s a Spanish-language movie produced at the same time and on the same sets as the more famous English-language version starring Bela Lugosi, with this movie’s crew working at night while the main unit slept. Doubling up like this was an occasional practise in the days before post-dubbing dialogue was possible and it allowed the studio to release the same title in different territories. Using the same script and sets, therefore, the Spanish film Drácula has the same storyline as the English version; both were adaptations of the Dracula stage play so the plot only loosely follows Stoker’s book. See my earlier blog here for more details.

Best performance: Eva Seward (played by Lupita Tovar, an actress who lived to be 106 years old, dying only in 2016) is a noticeably more spirited and charismatic character than her counterpart in the Lugosi movie.

Best bit: During production, the Spanish version’s crew kept a keen eye on what the other team were doing and often saw ways of improving the action. One example comes when Van Helsing realises the mysterious foreigner newly arrived in London is a vampire. In both films, the doctor spots that Dracula has no reflection, but look at how the two shots work compositionally. In Tod Browning’s English-language version (left), the debt owed to the stage play is obvious: we’re looking at flatly arranged actors, the mirror is small in the shot and actor Edward Van Sloane has to turn away from the camera to look at it. However, when the same beat was filmed for the Spanish film (right), we can see the shock on the face of Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) and at the same time the mirror is large and significant in the frame.

Review: If you know the Bela Lugosi movie, it’s an uncanny experience to see different actors performing the same actions on familiar sets. And in some ways the comparison does the more famous film no favours. This lesser-seen Dracula is visually more competent and ‘modern’; the action flows a bit more smoothly and the creepy scenes get under your skin (often by using silence to generate tension). But while director George Melford was popular with his cast, the fact he himself didn’t speak Spanish can’t have helped with the performances, which to this non-Spanish-speaking reviewer sometimes seem stilted and uncertain. One exception is Carlos Villarías, who is effective as Conde Drácula. Uniquely among the cast he was allowed to watch footage of the other film because producers wished him to imitate Bela Lugosi. In the end, he maybe gives the better performance.

Eight London newspapers that apparently print their front-page stories in Spanish out of 10

Son of Dracula (1943, Robert Siodmak)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Contemporary America.

Faithful to the novel? This is the third movie in Universal Pictures’ Dracula series, following the Bela Lugosi original and its 1936 sequel. So we’re a way past the plot of Bram Stoker’s book (which actually exists in this story). The enigmatic foreigner Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr) has been wooing an American heiress called Kay (Louise Allbritton) and arrives at her New Orleans plantation just before her father dies. Suspicion obviously falls on the mysterious visitor, with Kay’s sister (Evelyn Ankers) and local doctor Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) especially keen to work out what happened. (Brewster had already clocked the oddity that Alucard’s name spelt backwards reads Dracula. The film presents conflicting evidence on whether the character is meant to be the Dracula from the original film resurrected or – as the title suggests – his descendant.) Before they can crack the case, however, Alucard marries Kay and takes over as master of the plantation. Then, in a rage, her ex-boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) attempts to shoot Alucard but accidentally hits Kay – and seemingly kills her. When she later turns up, we realise that she’s been turned into a vampire…

Best performance: When Universal first put a Dracula movie into production, horror icon Lon Chaney was their first choice to play the vampire. However, he died of cancer in August 1930 and Bela Lugosi was cast in his place. Now, Chaney’s son – who was then well known as The Wolf Man in another Universal series – takes over the role. Sadly it’s a pretty neutral performance, lacking either menace or romance. He wears a cape but doesn’t attempt an eastern European accent. Much better is Frank Craven as Dr Brewster. He’s the story’s Van Helsing equivalent, the man who takes up the challenge of investigating and defeating the vampire threat. As he doesn’t have Van Helsing’s prior knowledge of the undead, he calls in a Transylvanian called Professor Lazlo (J Edward Bromberg) to provide the plot exposition.

Best bit: There are several instances of Dracula or Kay morphing into or from the form of a bat or a cloud of smoke. The special effects are very impressive.

Review: The functional direction and under-rehearsed performances are a shame, as the story has the potential for Gothic grandeur. A mysterious outsider enthralling a vulnerable young woman and taking over her family’s rambling estate could be straight out of a Victorian melodrama. But rather than tension or drama, most of the movie’s atmosphere comes from Hans J Salter’s stirring incidental music. In the film’s favour, a nice twist comes when we learn that, rather than a meek, naïve victim, Kay has been manipulating Alucard. She pretended to fall under his spell so he would turn her and grant her immortality, then her plan was to dispose of the Count and live forever with her true love, Frank.

Six earthbound spirits whose bodies comes to life at night and scour the countryside, satisfying a ravenous appetite for the blood of the living out of 10

Scooby-Doo! and the Reluctant Werewolf (1988, Ray Patterson)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Modern-day America, then Castle Dracula and its surroundings in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? Nah, course not. The character of Scooby-Doo – a semi-anthropomorphised Great Dane – was created for American kids’ TV in the late 1960s. Initially conceived as a sidekick for a human gang of amateur crime-solvers who investigated spooky goings-on, he became the star of the 1969/70 animated series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and then appeared in a plethora of further series, one-offs, direct-to-video specials and live-action movies. This special was produced in 1988. As usual, Scooby (voiced by Don Messick) is hanging out with his owner/old buddy/old friend/old pal Shaggy (Casey Kasem), a stoned slacker who never seems in total command of his surroundings. The pair are accompanied by Scrappy-Doo (also Messick), Scooby’s puppy nephew who had been added to the format in 1979 but proved controversial so tended not to be used after this special. (The other famous members of the gang – Fred, Daphne and Velma – aren’t involved.) In his spooky, Gothic castle in Transylvania, Count Dracula needs a werewolf to take part in a motor race where all the drivers are monsters. Voiced by Hamilton Camp, Dracula is green-skinned like a corpse, has a Bela Lugosi accent and a cape, and can transform into a bat. Sunblock 500 also means he can be out in the daylight. Luckily, a prophecy has predicted that a man in America – who we recognise as Shaggy – is about to be transformed into a werewolf so the Count order two sidekicks called Brunch and Crunch to kidnap him. Meanwhile, Shaggy and Scooby are competing in a car race of their own; they’re cheered on by Shaggy’s ‘adoring but liberated’ girlfriend, Googie (BJ Ward), who’s then on a date with him when that night’s moonshine ‘turns’ him. Eventually, after Brunch and Crunch have nabbed the trio and taken them to Castle Dracula, Shaggy is convinced to take part in the Monster Rally, racing against various other monsters. However, Dracula wants him to lose, so starts to sabotage his attempt…

Best performance: As well as Dracula, there are some other stereotypical monsters involved in the story – Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, Swamp Thing, some witches, a skeleton called Mr Bonejangles, a Mummy, a version of Jekyll/Hyde. But the most entertaining character is Brunch, a hunchbacked dwarf who wears a monocle, has a thin moustache and speaks like David Niven. He’s voiced entertainingly by Rob Paulsen.

Best bit: Dracula’s sexy assistant, Vanna Pira (Pat Musick), acts like a game-show dollybird when she talks about the prizes available to the Monster Rally drivers.

Review: Draculas – whether the actual Count, his relatives, or people using his image as a disguise – have cropped up a lot in Scooby-Doo stories over the years. A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts – the 11th episode of original series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? – saw the regular characters visit a spooky castle and encounter the famous vampire (or so they think). Later, in an episode of The New Scooby and Scrappy Doo Show (1983) called Who’s Minding the Monster?, Scooby and his pals are hired to babysit the Dracula family’s children in Frankenstein Castle. The following year, A Halloween Hassle at Dracula’s Castle – the eighth episode of The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries (1984) – has the gang invited to a party hosted by monsters who need help because they’re being haunted (or so they think) by the ghost of Dr Van Helsing. Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School is a 1988 TV movie that sees Scooby, Shaggy and Scrappy work at a school for the children of various monsters, including Dracula. An episode of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (1988-91) called Dog Gone Scooby features a cameo from the Count. And Music of the Vampire, a 2012 direct-to-video film, is set at a vampire museum run by a guy called Vincent van Helsing (as well as having another character called Bram). So The Reluctant Werewolf is not doing anything stonkingly original. It’s a very silly and very throwaway animation that, while passable fun, sadly outstays its welcome. A very thin story is stretched out to 90 minutes, and the Wacky Races-style Monster Rally really does seem like it’s never going to end. But there are some funny moments along the way.

Six bat burgers (a little undercooked) out of 10