Demons (2009)

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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: London, the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a spin-off, really. This short-lived TV series – one of ITV’s responses to the BBC’s Doctor Who – tells the story of teenager Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke). He’s the last descendant of the famous vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who was actually a real person and not just a character in Bram Stoker’s book. Because of this lineage, Luke has a duty to ‘smite’ the various ‘half-life’ creatures (vampires, demons, harpies, etc) who live unseen in London. Luke learns all this from his American godfather, Rupert Galvin (Philip Glenister), who explains the mythology and guides him in the fight. He also introduces Luke to another person who was dramatised in Stoker’s novel: Mina Harker (a haughty, humourless Zoe Tapper), who looks about 30 but is immortal due to being infected by Count Dracula’s blood in the 1890s. She’s now a famous pianist, blind, and has a visionary sixth sense. In the first episode, Luke’s sarcy friend Ruby (Holliday Grainger) also gets caught up in proceedings and joins the team; she fancies Luke but he doesn’t realise. Later on, there’s another explicit connection to Bram Stoker when Mina’s son, Quincey, shows up. He was born near the end of the novel but is now a murderous vampire.

Best performance: Not this show’s strength, acting. The regulars can’t bring any life to the scripts, while guest stars such as Mackenzie Crook, Richard Wilson and Kevin McNally are often in League of Gentlemen-style make-up that encourages comedic playing. Philip Glenister is especially disappointing. Galvin was written as a Texan, but the actor opts for a soft, generic American accent and you can see the lack of conviction behind his eyes.

Best episode: Probably episode four, Suckers, which features some heavy connections to the book Dracula. We see flashbacks to a younger Mina during the First World War (when she deliberately turned her ill son into a vampire to save his life), while Luke is given a copy of Bram Stoker’s novel. He can’t be arsed to read it, though, so Ruby does it for him. When she reaches the final page she realises that Quincey is Mina’s son… but never mentions that another character called Quincey, who the son was named after, features in the novel from page 57 onwards.

Review: No one sets out to make a bad television series, but this is really, really crummy. It’s a British photocopy of the American TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a young hero having to juggle school with secretly fighting demonic monsters. (He also has a foreign mentor called Rupert G and a mum who doesn’t know what’s going on; can call on the help of a sexy immortal; and uses a library as a base of operations. Joss Whedon is owed royalties.) But Demons feels like a series made by people who neither understand nor have a passion for the genre. Shows as good as Buffy support their strangeness and mythologies with strong characters, genuine emotion and a balance of action, drama and humour. But here there’s never any sense of the stories or the characters or the situations existing organically. Everything feels mechanical and soulless and hackneyed. It’s all effect, no cause. (Oh, and the fight scenes are often rubbish.)

Three scenes filmed at Highgate Cemetery out of 10

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Dracula (BBC1, 28 December 2006, Bill Eagles)

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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 1899, which is a little later than in the novel. The locations include the fictional Castle Holmwood and the genuine graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Whitby; the fictional Westenra House and the genuine Harley Street, Chelsea and Highgate Cemetery in London; and the fictional Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? This TV version of Stoker’s novel is another one of those vaguely faithful adaptations that nevertheless makes many changes.
* For a start, the first character we meet – in a spooky prologue – is Abraham Van Helsing (David Suchet). He doesn’t appear in the book until nearly a third of the way in.
* The lead character here is a secondary character in the novel. Arthur, aka Lord Holmwood (Dan Stevens), is a wet fish who quotes poetry at girlfriend Lucy Westenra (Sophia Myles). Nevertheless she agrees to marry him.
* This disappoints Arthur’s pal John Seward (Tom Burke), who fancies Lucy too. The novel’s third suitor, the American Quincy Morris, has been dropped.
* Arthur then travels to his childhood home, Whitby, to see his insane, dying father. He also learns that the syphilis-related condition that soon kills his dad is hereditary… (Why Arthur was being called Lord Holmwood while his father was still alive is not addressed. In the novel, his father is not insane and dies ‘off stage’.)
* A month later, looking for a cure, Arthur visits a mysterious man called Singleton (Donald Sumpter). Together they plot to bring a “magician” to England so he can use his knowledge of blood transfusions to cure Arthur…. The character of Singleton was created for this film. Being Dracula’s ally in the UK, he takes the place of the lunatic Renfield from the novel.
* We then meet Lucy’s friends Jonathan Harker (Rafe Spall) and Mina Murray (Stephanie Leonadis). Jonathan is a newly qualified solicitor who’s soon given a job. He’s told that a client called Mr Singleton has an associate on the continent who wants to buy some London property, so Jonathan travels to Transylvania to meet the secretive nobleman Count Dracula (Marc Warren). He looks very old – a detail from the novel that’s almost always abandoned in adaptations – and insists that Jonathan stays longer than planned. We get the usual scenes of Harker being trapped in a scary castle and being unnerved by his host’s demeanour, but in a break from the book’s plot he’s then killed rather than escapes.
* Cut back to England, and Arthur and Lucy are getting married in the rain. Lucy’s joy is short-lived, though, because Arthur chooses to go off with Singleton rather than be with her on their wedding night. This lack of interest in sex makes John suspicious so he tails Arthur, who takes part in a bizarre religious ceremony.
* Meanwhile, Dracula is travelling to Britain on board a ship called the Demeter.
* The next day, Arthur sheepishly turns up in Whitby and gives Lucy a necklace. She responds by grabbing his crotch, but he resists because of his secret syphilis.
* The Demeter beaches at Whitby, but the crew have vanished and Jonathan’s corpse is aboard. The only cargo is a box of earth. Lucy and an in-mourning Mina soon encounter Dracula, who now looks younger and doesn’t have an issue with daylight. Arthur is angry that they’ve all become friends and demands that Dracula does what he was brought to England for: cure Arthur. But the vampire openly says he’s more interested in the women of the house.
* We’re told that Dracula is 900 years old (it’s quite refreshing that no connection is made to Vlad the Impaler) then see that he can transform into a bat.
* During the night, Dracula uses his hypnotic vampire abilities to sexually abuse Lucy while Arthur sleeps in the same bed. He forces her to feed from his chest.
* Lucy subsequently falls ill, so Arthur calls in medical doctor John. He says she needs a blood transfusion, but it doesn’t work and she dies. She’s buried in Highgate Cemetery, which also features in the novel (if disguised with a fake name).
* Now that Dracula is in the UK and feeding, he doesn’t need acolyte Singleton any more so kills him. John, still on the case of what the fuck is going on, finds the corpse in a room full of ritualistic paraphernalia then searches the cellar underneath. There he encounters Abraham Van Helsing, a gibbering lunatic who’s been imprisoned because he knows a lot about Dracula. (He dodged death because he has a crucifix round his neck.)
* Van Helsing explains that Singleton and Arthur are part of the Brotherhood of the Undead, a cult who arranges for vampires such as Dracula to come to Britain. John then travels back to Whitby to confront Arthur.
* Dracula, meanwhile, targets Mina in London.
* Having cleaned up both his clothes and his mind, Van Helsing tells Arthur and John that they must view Lucy’s corpse. They creep into her crypt at night and find the coffin empty. Luce then appears standing behind them; she’s a vampire so attacks her husband and taunts John. Arthur must stake her. As he does so, we see that elsewhere Dracula is simultaneously hurt.
* The men find the Count at the Brotherhood’s HQ. He murders Arthur – by twisting his head off! Then Van Helsing distracts the vampire with some Christian rhetoric (which is very reminiscent of dialogue from The Exorcist) so that John can stake him. Dracula dies.
* In the final shot, we see a seemingly resurrected Dracula living rough on the streets of London…

Best performance: David Suchet as Van Helsing. It’s little more than a cameo – like a big famous actor showing up for a day’s work on a low-budget movie – but at least it’s an interesting performance.

Best bit: How good Sophia Myles looks in a nightgown.

Review: One of the crowns of the BBC’s Christmas schedule in 2006, this 90-minute TV movie falls very flat indeed. It has no life to it; no blood coursing through its veins. By shuffling the book’s plot, it also leads to some odd storytelling. Arthur is the lead character, but is quite unlikable and selfish. The focus then shifts to Jonathan, who meets Dracula barely a few minutes after being introduced and is killed off very quickly. The script also changes the motivations of several characters, notably Arthur. The story is now about his hubris, rather than the savagery of Count Dracula. Admittedly, it’s an interesting idea that Dracula targets our group of characters because one of them made a deal with the devil. In the novel, he more or less picks them at random. But the biggest problem with this film is a general sense of going through the motions. The cast lack energy, the script lacks distinction, and the direction is boring. It’s very difficult to care about anything that’s happening. There’s also precious little discussion of vampirism; it’s just assumed that every character and every viewer knows all about it. As BBC adaptations go, this is not a patch on the 1977 effort.

Three garden parties out of 10

Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Lovebirds Mickey and Mallory Knox go on a three-week, 52-victim killing spree…

What does QT do? Tarantino’s draft of Natural Born Killers, based on an earlier script by his pal Roger Avary, ended up in the hands of director Oliver Stone. Stone heavily rewrote it with colleagues David Veloz and Richard Rutowski, leaving Quentin with just a ‘Story by’ credit. Tarantino wasn’t involved during production.

Notable characters:
* Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Wilson Knox (Juliette Lewis) are the couple at the heart of the story. They meet when he shows up at her house delivering meat, and they soon kill her parents and go on the run. They become media darlings, though Mickey is disappointed that the TV show covering them gets lower ratings than a Charles Manson special. As with True Romance, this film is about a couple who are so in love they don’t care about anyone else. But unlike Clarence and Alabama, Mickey and Mallory are total wackos. Harrelson and Lewis certainly don’t hold back in their performances.
* Ed Wilson (Roger Dangerfield) and Mrs Wilson (Edie McClurg) are Mallory’s parents, who we see in a sequence presented as a 1960s-style studio sitcom. Ed is a slobbering monster who abuses Mallory, and her brother, Kevin (Ross Malinger), is actually her son. Mrs Wilson is played by Grace from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
* Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) is a TV journalist on a current-affairs show called American Maniacs (‘Hosted by Wayne Gale, written by Wayne Gale, produced and directed by Wayne Gale’). It sensationalises Mickey and Mallory’s crimes and features staged reconstructions of them killing people. Gale has a mullet and possibly an Australian accent (it’s very hard to tell).
* Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) is the corrupt, prostituting-killing cop on the trail of the Knoxes. After he catches them he writes a book about it.
* Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) runs the prison that features in the film’s third act. He has a 1970s suit and a 1970s tache. Jones hams it up something rotten.

Returning actors: Tom Sizemore had also played a cop in True Romance. Stand-up comedian Steven Wright, who’d voiced K-Billy in Reservoir Dogs, has a small role here as an expert interviewed on Gale’s TV show.

Music: It’s almost non-stop. There are tracks playing for virtually the entire film. Incidental cues tend to be overblown and melodramatic, while the best use of a pre-existing song is Rage Against The Machine’s Bombtrack. A scene is really well timed to its murmuring bass riff.

Time shifts and chapters: We start with Mickey and Mallory already on the rampage – a newspaper headline tells us they’re just killed six teenagers – then 10 minutes into the film we cut back and learn how the couple met and fell in love. Later on, after Mickey and Mallory have been arrested, there’s a jump to a year later.

Connections: According to Tarantino, the cop Jack Scagnetti is meant to be the brother of Mr Blonde’s unseen parole officer in Reservoir Dogs.

Review: Here’s a sample of the cinematic techniques used in this movie – slow motion, sped-up footage, off-kilter camera angles, point-of-view shots, shots played in reverse, black-and-white shots cut into colour scenes, colour-tinted shots, negative images, film scratches, videotape footage, Super-8 footage, 16mm footage, CCTV footage, stock footage, animation, on-screen captions, subtitles projected onto actors’ bodies, clips from commercials, disorientating editing, obvious rear-projection, an entire sequence presented as if from an old studio sitcom (laughter track and all) and segments from a TV news show. It’s *exhausting*. Early on, you subconsciously expect the film to calm down, but it’s constantly gimmicky and tricksy. And with no variety or nuance, it becomes very boring very quickly. The second quarter, in which the Knoxes meet a Native American who gives them hallucinogens, is especially tedious. Yes, there’s satire going on – the journalists are ruthless, the authority figures have no morals, the public is entertained by mass murder, everyone’s a moron – but it’s like a drunk pontificating in a pub. Even if the points are valid, you just want the ranting to stop. Every now and again there are flashes of Tarantino dialogue or wit, but then comes along more ultraviolence, brutality, incest, torture, vulgarity… A mess.

Three prison riots out of 10

House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C Kenton)

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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: Somewhere vaguely European, maybe around the turn of the nineteenth century. This is an entry in Universal Pictures’ series of horror movies all set in the same continuity, so we’re not too far away from what had been established.

Faithful to the novel? No. Dr Gustave Niemann (Boris Karloff) and sidekick Daniel (J Carrol Naish) escape from prison and seek revenge on Bürgermeister Hussman, the guy who imprisoned Niemann. Along the way they murder a travelling showman and take his place – the show includes an exhibit of the bones of Count Dracula. So Niemann resurrects Dracula (John Carradine), who does his bidding. The vampire seduces a woman called Rita (Anne Gwynne) and murders Hussman (Sig Ruman). Niemann then exposes the count to sunlight, killing him. The story continues without any Dracula-related-ness. The doctor ends up in Castle Frankenstein and finds both Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr) frozen in ice.

Best performance: Elena Verdugo’s not too bad as Ilonka, a gypsy girl who gets dragged along with the story and forms a love triangle with Daniel and Talbot the Wolf Man.

Best bit: The opening in the prison.

Review: Well, it’s not very good, sadly. It starts off spookily enough, with dramatically lit scenes and plenty of foreboding. But you soon realise the plot is just an excuse for dragging classic monsters into the same story. It gets sillier – and more boring – the longer it goes on.

Three stinky, slimy dungeons out of 10

Dracula 3000: Infinite Darkness (2004, Darrell Roodt)

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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: The year 3000. Deep space, on board a ship called the Demeter that’s been found drifting in the Carpathian System.

Faithful to the novel? No, although there are some deliberate echoes. The plot sees the crew of a salvage space ship called Mother III board a large derelict (which seems to be Soviet for some reason). The leader of the team is Abraham Van Helsing (Casper Van Dien), while his five-strong crew include characters called Arthur Holmwood (Grant Swanby), who’s a tech guy in a wheelchair, and navigator Mina Murray (Alexandra Kamp). Away from the source material, Coolio plays a guy obsessed with getting high on dope. The characters soon find the skeleton of the captain, which is tied to a chair in an echo of the sea captain from the book. The captain is played by Udo Kier from 1974’s Blood for Dracula and 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire. We see his log entries from 50 years previously, but the characters don’t. After a lot of wandering about, Count Orlock (aka Dracula) shows up. He’s the last of the vampires and has been woken up by the Mother III crew. Our heroes have never heard of vampires, so have to Google the concept. An on-screen history of the mythology includes mention of Lord Ruthven (from the 1819 short story The Vampyre), the original Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s book and the lead character from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871-72 novella Carmilla.

Best performance: No one’s any good. Erika Eleniak at least wears a tight vest and leather trousers as Aurora. The character is later revealed to be a robot on a covert mission, sorta like Ash in Alien. However, rather than go psycho, her twist is that she used to be a ‘pleasure bot’… and at the end she offers Tiny Lister’s character some free sex. So the film can add misogyny to its many flaws.

Best bit: Um. Let’s see. Er. I’ll get back to you on that one…

Review: This low-budget Alien rip-off was released on DVD in 2004, and it’s shot like a TV show, with ‘drama’ done in big fat close-ups. It’s not scary or especially violent; the dialogue is crass; the performances are awful; and the action is very poor. It’s all so incredibly shallow. No one seems that bothered about what’s going on, or that their colleagues are getting killed. Dross but it passed the time.

Three moon cycles out of 10

Omen IV: The Awakening (Fox, 20 May 1991, Jorge Montesi and Dominque Othenin-Girard)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

US Congressman Gene York (Michael Woods) and wife Karen (Faye Grant) adopt a baby girl from an orphanage, but as Delia (Asia Vieria) grows up a number of strange deaths begin to occur…

Best performance: Michael Lerner shows up in the second half as a private eye called Earl Knight. The actor refers to his character as a ‘low-rent Columbo’ on the DVD extras, and that’s not far off. He’s fun and has a lot more life to him than anyone else. That is, until…

Best death: Moments after posting some vital information to Karen, Earl is looking in some shop windows. He sees a toy crane, then a small model of the Nativity scene. He has a vision of the baby Jesus turning evil and starts to panic. In a cut, it’s suddenly raining and a dazed Earl stumbles through the town. He then has a vision of macabre, ghostly people singing the incidental music to him. Meanwhile, a crane on a nearby construction site swings a wrecking ball into action. Earl is clutching his heart and sweating, but comes to a rest outside the building site. He begins to calm down. However, in the background the enormous crane is silently turning towards him. The wrecking ball gains momentum, smashes through an office, and – in a super-slo-mo POV shot – heads directly for Earl…

Pilot: Fox had another attempt at The Omen on TV in 1995. A one-off episode staring William Sadler, Brett Cullen and Chelsea Fields was broadcast on 8 September. Richard Donner, the director of the original movie, put his name to it as executive producer – but quickly denounced the episode as garbage. A series didn’t follow.

Review: “I’ve got an idea,” some executive at the Fox network must have said. “Let’s take the Omen franchise and turn it into a lacklustre TV movie!” Almost everything in this film reeks of daytime-soap dreariness. The story heads down a predictable road – Delia starts to act oddly, threats to her are killed off, we find out she’s the daughter of Damien Thorn – and it’s very hard to care about anything that happens. It doesn’t help that the cast is largely bland and the film was clearly shot on a budget. (Despite the story being set in Virginia, it was filmed in Vancouver – so even though the events take place over a long period, it’s *always* wintery!) The script also references a large number of non-Catholic beliefs – Native American culture, tarot, auras, healing crystals, general New Age mysticism, cults – but never uses them for anything interesting. This general lack of attack might be because of a troubled shoot: the producer wasn’t happy with the first director so replaced him halfway through. In the film’s favour, the switcheroo plot twist – that Delia is actually a bodyguard and the Antichrist is Karen’s newborn son – is inventive and works well. But overall this is rotten.

Three snakes out of 10

Blade: Trinity (2004, David S Goyer)

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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. A brief prologue is set in the Syrian desert, then the bulk of the film takes place in an unspecified US city.

Faithful to the novel? Dracula is the villain of the piece, though he’s only loosely related to Bram Stoker’s character. At the start of the story, a group of vampires find him buried in the Middle East. He’s initially a monster, but once he’s fed he starts to look human (and is played by Dominic Purcell). “No one really knows” his origins, we’re told. But we’re also told that he’s ancient, from Sumaria, was the original vampire, and has never evolved. Dracula is just one name he’s had; he now prefers Drake. He can also walk about in daylight and change his appearance. All vampires burn away to dust when killed, like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Two vampire hunters have the surname Whistler – as does a notably similar character in a key episode of Buffy. The Blade comic-book series used the name first.) A vampire-hunter called Blade (Wesley Snipes) gets involved with a team who want to track down Dracula and use his DNA to destroy other vamps (one is played by Ryan Reynolds, another by Jessica Biel). They call themselves the Nightstalkers.

Best performance: Despite rotten dialogue, Ryan Reynolds is doing an okay job at being a smartarse.

Best bit: In a creepy scene, a blind character walks through a room unaware of the dead bodies at her feet.

Review: It starts with an arch voiceover telling us that previous movie versions of Dracula are full of shit. Well, vampire hunters in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This is the third film in the Blade series (and the only one to use Dracula). It assumes you’ve seen the first two, with only light reinforcement of the set-up and character history. It seems Blade is some kind of ‘hybrid’, but it’s never explained what that means exactly. The film really is a load of old nonsense. A huge amount of effort has gone into the action sequences and fight scenes, but areas such as character and story seem unimportant. It also has a leaden fetish about guns and weapons. One female vampire is said to have her fangs in her vagina – that gives you some idea of the tone.

Three powerful UV lasers out of 10

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

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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: There’s a prologue set in Transylvania in 1462. We then cut to London, 1897 (‘Four centuries later,’ a caption helpfully tells viewers with poor maths). The film is littered with mentions of dates, a way of echoing the novel’s use of diaries, letters and newspaper articles. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is on his way to Castle Dracula on 25 May. On 30 May, diary entries from Harker, Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dr Seward (Richard E Grant) are read out as voiceover. We hear extracts from the log of the Demeter dated 27 June and 3 July. Having arrived in the UK, Dracula (Gary Oldman) rises from his coffin on 7 July. Harker’s finally escaped the castle by 12 August. On 17 September, he returns to London. And Harker’s diary tells us that he and his colleagues are chasing the count across Europe on 28 October.

Faithful to the novel? At the time of the film’s release, much publicity was made of it being an unusually unswerving adaptation of Stoker’s text. It is roughly the same story. However, *lots* of things have been changed, such as:

* Dracula actually is Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century psychopath who enjoyed torturing his enemies. Stoker certainly took inspiration from the historical figure when researching his novel, and Van Helsing suggests a connection between the two men – but this movie began a vogue for making it much more literal.

* Mina is the reincarnation of Vlad’s lost love, Elisabeta, who committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking Vlad had been killed. When he learns what she’s done, Vlad seemingly just decides to become immortal so he can avenge her death. (He blames God rather than the Turk who lied to her.)

* Once the story moves to the Victorian era, the role of Renfield (Tom Waits) has been changed: in this version he was a solicitor who visited Dracula and came back insane.

* Unlike the novel, the film presents events in chronological order, so Harker’s experiences at the castle are intercut with Mina and others back in Britain.

* Something that *is* faithful to the book is that when Harker first meets Dracula, the vampire appears to be elderly and only becomes visually younger as he feeds. It’s a detail that’s often ignored in adaptations. Oldman’s old-man make-up makes him look like the Emperor from Return of the Jedi.

* Dracula is buying 10 properties in London, not just Carfax Abbey.

* It’s possible Whitby is ignored. The Demeter lands at a seaside town with vertiginous headlands, but the rest of the UK action appears to all take place in London. Lucy’s mother is also absent from this version.

* Mina’s friendship with Lucy (Sadie Frost) is a touch more salacious: they get giggly while looking at sexually explicit drawings in a book, while they share a cheeky kiss at one point.

* Dracula can move around in the daytime.

* Newly arrived in London, Dracula spots Mina and recognises her as the reincarnation of Elisabeta. A newly invented subplot sees them then have an affair of sorts, which runs parallel to his pursuit of Lucy. The story’s chronology is rejigged significantly around this section.

* Dracula is often in the form of a wolf, and even becomes a big human/bat type monster.

* When under Dracula’s influence, Mina seduces Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He’s well up for the kiss-kiss, but pulls away when she tries to bite him.

* Mina kills Dracula.

Best performance: Richard E Grant is probably the best of a bad bunch, playing a half-klutzy, half-junkie Seward.

Best bit: Jonathan Harker’s more-sexual-than-usual encounter with the Brides (one of whom is Monica Bellucci).

Review: Francis Ford Coppola had impressive form when it came to making great cinema out of a potboiler novel. But the magic dust he sprinkled over The Godfather got blown away by a stiff breeze here. The movie certainly looks good, especially in inventive sequences such as the puppet-show-like flashbacks. There are plenty of impressively in-camera special effects. And the notion of Dracula’s shadow having a mind of its own is a neat idea that very nearly works. But this is a terrible film. The cast are appalling – most notably the horrendously miscast Keanu Reeves – while it gets thunderingly boring about halfway in. Ideas get set up then abandoned and there are also lots of jarring oddities, such as Victorian gentlemen not spotting that a woman’s breast is exposed, which make you question how firmly focused Coppola’s directorial eye was. The film also loses at least two marks for codifying the dreary cliché that Dracula is Vlad the Impaler.

Three beheadings out of 10

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995, Mel Brooks)

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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.

Setting? It begins in Transylvania, 1893. Dracula arrives in London soon before 30 November (which is said to be a Wednesday – it was actually a Thursday). The action then possibly moves to Whitby.

Faithful to the novel? Kind of. It’s Thomas Renfield (Peter MacNicol) rather than Jonathan Harker who travels to Castle Dracula, where he meets the Count (Leslie Nielson), who wants to buy Carfax Abbey in the UK. There are two busty Brides in the castle (Darla Haun and Karen Roe), who try it on with Renfield. Dracula hypnotises him and he becomes the vampire’s slave. The two of them travel to England on a ship called the Demeter. Dracula seeks out Dr Seward (Harvey Korman from The Star Wars Holiday Special), who runs the sanatorium next door to Carfax (both buildings are said to be in Whitby, despite the action seeming to take place in London). He also meets Seward’s assistant, Jonathan Harker (Steven Weber), and Seward’s daughters, Lucy (Lysette Anthony) and Mina (Amy Yasbeck). Dracula seduces Lucy; when the others notice her bite marks, they call in Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Mel Brooks) of the London Hospital. But they can’t stop Dracula killing her, so when she rises from the grave, Jonathan has to stake her. The Count then targets Mina, so they men hunt him down. He turns in to a bat (with Leslie Nielson’s head!) but is killed when idiotic sidekick Renfield accidentally shines daylight on him.

Best performance: Lysette Anthony is the only one playing it anywhere near ‘real’.

Best moment: The key story beat from the book where Dracula’s houseguest (Renfield here, Harker in the novel) innocuously cuts himself is given a silly twist: despite being a paper cut, the blood *gushes* all over the place. The same joke is repeated later when Harker stakes Lucy – only this time there’s even more blood. Buckets of the stuff.

Review: Very puerile stuff. It’s really badly directed, mostly badly played, and gags fall flat all over the place. There are lots of Americans doing awful British accents. It’s limp, tired and a waste of time. Toothless.

Three closed windows out of 10

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984, John Korty)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Towani family crash their space cruiser on the forest moon of Endor, and the two children go missing…

WHICH VERSION? This TV-movie spin-off from Return of the Jedi was shown on ABC on 25 November 1984. Over here in the UK, it got a cinema release (in May 1985). I first saw it on VHS back in the day. For this review I watched it on a DVD released in 2004.

GOOD GUYS

* Narrator (Burl Ives). Yes, we get a narrator – a necessary evil, given that most of the characters can’t speak English.

* Jeremitt Towani (Guy Boyd) is the father of the human family who have crashed on Endor. We see him and his wife early on, searching for their kids, but then they’re menaced by a giant monster called the Gorax…

* Catarine Towani (Fionnula Flanagan) is Jeremitt’s wife.

* Deej (Daniel Frishman) is an Ewok whose has builds a skin-glider – a primitive hang glider made of, um, skin – so he can fly above the forest to look for two missing sons. While up there, he spots the crashed space ship.

* Wicket (Warwick Davis) is a character carried over from Return of the Jedi (although, this seems to be a prequel). He wants to help dad Deej on his search, but gets left behind. He later strikes up a friendship with the Towanis’ daughter, Cindel.

* Weechee (Debbie Lee Carrington) and Widdle (Tony Cox) are Deej’s other sons. The trio investigate the crashed ship on the way back to the village. It seems deserted at first, but then they discover…

* Cindel Towani (Aubree Miller) is the five-year-old daughter of the human family. When taken in by the Ewoks, she collapses – so everyone heads off to a special healing tree to find medicine. She and Wicket become friends.

* Mace Towani (Eric Walker) is Cindel’s hotheaded brother. He’s a kind of Luke Skywalker figure who’s initially hostile towards the Ewoks, but calms down when they overpower him and tie him up. Essentially a decent lad, he cares about his sister’s wellbeing more than his own. Despite the Ewoks’ hospitality, though, he and Cindel do a runner in the middle of the night and go and search for their parents. They get chased by a stop-motion monster, but the Ewoks show up and save them. Together, they all form a caravan that crosses a desert and a mountain range, then reaches the Gorax’s fortress. Mace uses a magical stone to zero in on his parents’ whereabouts, then after some Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-style obstacles, they find Jeremitt and Catarine locked up in a cage.

* Logray (Bobby Bell) is an Ewok leader who uses a zoetrope-type device to show Mace and Cindel where their parents are being held. The Ewoks then choose to help on the rescue mission – but not before Logray bestows on them some totems of ancient legendary Ewok warriors. (The character was also in Return of the Jedi.)

* Chukha-Trok (Kevin Thompson) is an Ewok who lives in the woods and joins the team but doesn’t survive the mission.

* Kaink (Margarita Fernández) is an Ewok princess the caravan meets along the way.

BAD GUYS

* The Gorax is a behemoth of Endor, who captures the Towani parents and keeps them in a cage.

* There are various other monsters, including a rubber giant spider that Wicket kills.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The skin-glider sequence.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: There isn’t any.

MUSIC: The score is by Peter Bernstein, who’s doing a sugary take on the Star Wars house style. It quotes Return of the Jedi at times.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I saw this on video in the 1980s, when I think I assumed it was a fully-fledged Star Wars films. (Forgive me: I was about six.) This was my first viewing of it in nearly 30 years.

REVIEW: Much more of a kids’ film than the parent series, this even has a narrator who sounds like he’s telling a bedtime story. It’s simplistic and earnest, while the middle section has a huge amount of padding. Aubrey Miller, the girl who plays Cindel, is especially tiresome: all her close-ups feel like take 73 of an insert that’s had to be shot piecemeal for performance reasons.

Three life-monitors out of 10