Dracula Untold, Dracula undying, Dracula overdone?

Dracula Untold bites the UK box office this week, but are we reaching vampire overload, James wonders...

Drac is back (in, erm, black, but we’re not going to crank AC/DC because it’s cliché, it’s anachronistic in this medieval setting and it might be mistaken as a reference to Iron Man). If you go to your local cinema this weekend you can see Dracula Untold which has Luke Evans vamping it up as the latest incarnation of the most infamous bloodsucker in cultural history.

Once the movie has been seen the title should be changed to ‘Dracula Told’ because then it won’t be a story ‘Untold’ but, ah, I digress. The important thing to know is that audiences are going to get to enjoy a new movie expanding the Dracula mythos and this one has a lot to offer cinemagoers getting into the horror mindset in the Halloween month.

We’re going to watch the talented and lovely Luke Evans wrestling with his dark side. Furthermore, Dracula Untold has a solid supporting cast moving through an acutely macabre period setting, and Dominic Cooper and Sarah Gadon are in the mix alongside Charles Dance as the vampiric Emperor Caligula. (Really, any film that has Charles Dance as Vampire Caligula is surely worth seeing for that alone.)

With supernatural shenanigans going down – enter Baba Yaga and gypsy magic – and visual effects rendering a vivid picture of an ancient world gripped in warfare and fantastical action, Dracula Untold is an alluring entity. Even more than the promise of Charles Dance as Vampire Caligula, however, it’s the premise that is probably the most powerful draw. Dracula Untold: what secrets are yet to be shared? What do we not yet know about a literary legend whose name resonates through the ages? 

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We’ll find out with this new quasi-adaptation as it goes back to before Bram Stoker’s novel to showcase Vlad the Impaler’s inauspicious metamorphosis into monstrous familiar form. It’s something we haven’t seen much on screen, in spite of the sheer quantity of diverse Dracula flicks that have been made over the decades.

Off the top of my head, only Francis Ford Coppola’s take (official title: Bram Stoker’s Dracula) has ventured into that territory and really left a resonant mark. The opening sequence where Gary Oldman gets swept up in grief-rage, desecrates a crucifix and drinks a lot of blood is probably my favourite moment in Coppola’s lurid, operatic vision of Vlad. Now, with Dracula Untold we get a similar fresh re-spin of the vampiric awakening stretched out to feature length with even more action and supernaturalist verve.

The working title for the new blockbuster helmed by first-time director Gary Shore was ‘Dracula: Year Zero’, and I’m excited by that notion or, indeed, ‘Dracula Origins’ or ‘Dracula Begins’. There’s a reason that moviemakers keep on constructing film narratives that are origin tale. We’re obsessed with backstories and there’s a certain thrill in the beginning of a journey or in the becoming a bit ‘special’.

Perhaps there’s something subconscious or psychological behind that, like a Freudian desire to feel ‘birth’ again. Or maybe it just makes sense from a narrative point-of-view in that it establishes character and ensures the audience’s empathy and identification with the key protagonist. Regardless, Dracula Untold gives us that opportunity to grapple with the growing pains of a mortal transmogrifying into immortal terror with immense, otherworldly power. 

There’s plenty of scope for that story and I’d say that Dracula deserves this treatment. The beauty of Bram Stoker’s magnum opus is in the eerie mystery surrounding its eponymous character – a figure shrouded in mythology only fleshed out by the mixed accounts and experiences of a variety of first-person narrators whose testimonies combine for an epistolary novel. So much is left to the imagination, and that has allowed a multitude of filmmakers and actors ample space to visualise Dracula in their own unique fashion.

Many have tread the well-worn ground covered in the source novel – from Jonathan Harker’s trip to Transylvania to the chase climax via a bad boat journey, some asylum freakouts and a few blood transfusions overseen by an eccentric Dutchman with a thing for garlic. Before we get cynical on this enterprise (we’re coming to that shortly), Dracula Untold deserves credit for a creative approach that aims to eke out a new angle on a very familiar albeit eternally fascinating character.

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Having done the whole thing with various Van Helsings time and time again – the best one being Peter Cushing, I reckon – it’s refreshing to reach right back for a sort-of-prequel and spend more time with Dracula rather than his more contemporary victims. It’s not the same-old story and Dracula Untold has set itself up asits own beast offering the Impaler in a different flavour.

The medieval setting is a bonus, and if the writers, director and cast are handling their material with skill and confidence, gothic horror enthusiasts will be savouring a work that augments the legend and possibly adds something new rather than rehashing or undermining what is well-established. 

Alternatively – in the most extreme, from a perspective that is pushing maximum scepticism – it could be an uninspired cash-in on an existing brand name that adds nothing and means very little either as blockbuster entertainment, as a work of art or as an extension to the massive mythology that surrounds Dracula.

I don’t believe that that’s the case and I don’t fear the very worst, but I’m aware that others will be eyeing up Dracula Untold with that kind of attitude. It’s an understandable attitude, and if this fresh fang feature lacks any vitality, entertainment value or sense of inventiveness critics will savage it. The savaging will be accompanied with an unholy amount of puns and pithy wordplay, and the best of the worst will be “Another dull Dracula do-over? Bloody hell. Count me out.” The worst of the worst will be “It sucks.”

Here’s the sharp pointed truth that pierces the heart of all romantic idealists (like me). The film industry is cynical because it’s a commercial sphere concerned with making money. Movie producers – both mainstream and independent – want to turn a profit so they’ll make decisions and greenlight projects with that goal in mind. Giving audiences something popular, accessible and instantly recognisable – something that’s comfortable and not challenging – is one effective way of pulling in big box office numbers without much effort.

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There are many advantages to working with existing properties and big names. There’s less need for a massive marketing drive and studios don’t have to grind as hard to establish their characters and created world in the minds of audiences. Consumers already have a fair idea of it all, and that’s true in the case of Dracula even if they haven’t seen either version of Nosferatu and don’t have the foggiest idea who Renfield is or, for that matter, Bela Lugosi. 

Dracula Untold is more likely to draw in folk than a film called ‘Birth of a Vampire’, even though the latter sounds like a bloody exciting night out at the flicks. That (un)hallowed name has a hold over popular consciousness and that’s both down to the literary legacy and the cinematic heritage. It’s probably fair to state that, in the modern age, the force of the title is mostly due to iconic screenworks that continue to cast shadows and haunt us almost a century after the character’s first motion picture manifestation.

Though an unofficial adaptation, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu – starring Max Schreck as a Dracula named Count Orlok – still terrifies and stands beautifully hideous as a masterpiece of German Expressionism and one of the vital originators of horror cinema. Likewise, Tod Browning’s Dracula of 1931 – with the great Bela Lugosi bidding thee welcome – raised the Universal Monsters banner and blazed the trail for horror in Hollywood.

Hammer’s own Dracula cycle – the Prince of Darkness now brought to (after)life by Sir Christopher Lee – similarly dragged horror cinema into visceral new technicolour era and fuelled the studio’s rise to power as a genre-leader. From there, the fresh adaptations continue to come – each taking Stoker’s story and twisting it for different creative ends, whether it be the dreamlike romanticism of Coppola’s vision, the Blaxpolitation attitude of Blacula or the spoofery of Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead And Loving It.

There are so many more – over two hundred adaptations or riffs on the myth of which I’m most upset that I’ll never have the chance to see the lost 1967 Filipino crossover Batman Fights Dracula. Still, as much as I and others enjoy the repeat revivals and revisitations to the legend, you can’t help but wonder if Dracula is now overdone.

At a total of just over two hundred movies and TV shows, only Sherlock Holmes appears to have racked up more screen appearances, and I’m pretty bored of that guy with his pretentious powers-of-deduction, arrogant self-aggrandising, silly hat and opium-habit. Will I and others soon come to feel the same way about the Transylvanian terror, if we aren’t already indifferent?

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Immortal as he is, Dracula never dies – in spite of multiple stakings we’ve got as evidence on film – but he can die at the box office if Drac-apathy sets in. The recent cancellation of NBC’s own TV re-imagining with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the lead role may be a sign of that. Then again, the popularity of the re-commissioned Penny Dreadful – which draws upon Dracula lore in the mix of its vintage horror lit ensemble mix – suggests otherwise. Regardless, those two are small-screen serials and it’ll be interesting to see how Dracula Untold fares as it flies into movie theatres.

As I’ve already noted, as a Dracula feature it has an advantage in that it isn’t a straight do-over of the Stoker story but it’s still possible that overexposure to the eponymous vampire may have a perishing effect on its reception. A key question for connoisseurs of the Count’s countless (well, somewhere over two-hundred) iterations: have all these adaptations and representations diluted Dracula’s power and does he still have the ability to excite, tantalise or terrify anybody anymore? Does Dracula still have any bite in the 21st century or have we effectively defanged him and made the gripping mythos into something hackneyed?

The answer, I suppose, can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis and depends on the filmmakers and – most crucially – the actor portraying the most infamous of all fictional (?) vampires. You can do a hell of a lot with that hoary old monster, and Dracula is a great role for inspired creators to get their teeth into.

Nonetheless, no matter how distinct and artistically brilliant each individual new version is, we can’t escape the fact that this guy’s constant comebacks are now cliché. Listen to them. The children of the night? No that’s AC/DC’s Back In Black on your mental soundtrack as you encounter another Dracula screen return. 

Bad Vlad isn’t a lone monster here though, for Frankenstein and his Creation – figures conceived by Mary Shelley in the early 19th century – endure in similar fashion. Also rebooted, (literally) rebuilt and thawed out afresh over and over, ‘The Modern Prometheus’ story has been adapted to screen over sixty times (according to my brief researches) in an array of ways for various purposes, just like Dracula.

Looking at the latest spins on Shelley’s work, dystopian action I, Frankenstein found few friends and may be considered something of an ill omen ahead of Dracula Untold‘s arrival. Still, the Creature is alive (“It’s alive! It’s alive!”) and well in pop culture, operating as part of the Penny Dreadful world and returning to screen in next year’s Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy playing the epitomic mad scientist with Daniel Radcliffe as his Igor).

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Then somewhere down the production line we’re going to get a new Frankenstein and, indeed, a new Dracula from Universal Studios as they reboot their classic monsters for the 21st century and combine them all together for a Marvel-style cinematic universe. The sheer notion of this is both blowing my mind and confusing my heart. I, personally, am all up for a mass monster mash but can’t help but feel apprehensive about Universal’s scheme. 

Is this a plan spawned from creative desire or simply a push towards mega-profit off the back of famous names? Is this going to harm both the legacy of the 1930s-’40s heyday and the literary legend of all the iconic characters involved? Only time will tell and, once again, it depends a great deal on the artists involved and the motivations driving them. Coming back to Dracula, as a fan of Stoker’s fiend I optimistically hope that moviemakers adapt him with sincere intentions, and not as ‘Dracsploitation’.

The truth is that this isn’t the only bloody brilliant bloodsucker narrative knocking around. You don’t always need to fall back on D, and a swift stroke across horror cinema history reveals a magnificent host of vampire tales of varying hues, nuance and style – from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr right up to Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive via George Romero’s Martin, Tony Scott’s The Hunger and Park Chan-wook’s Thirst. Oh go on, add Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, From Dusk Till Dawn, Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy and various versions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to that quick hitlist as well.

I could go on, but you get the pointy-point (it’s another bloody stake to the heart). Still, in spite of the rich vein of vampire flicks – more than enough to slake the thirst of any bloodsucker fiend – the fact remains that pop cultural works pegged on the Dracula legend will always get more instant attention and, most likely, reach audiences and reap the subsequent rewards. Only the Twilight series and adaptations of Anne Rice novels really compete with Dracula’s predominance, and all of them have literary roots accounting for their considerable success.

Dracula’s popularity isn’t without foundation and I and others will eagerly return to its dark charms over and over. As such, I’m going into Dracula Unborn with an open mind, eager to embrace a fresh vampire flick that gives me two-hours of cinematic thrills and takes creative liberty with classic literary legend. I mean, it has Charles Dance as Vampire Caligula so I don’t see how it can be bad.

Even so, I can’t help but wonder if this sanguinary source has run dry now. After this, I think we’ve definitely got to the point where it is ‘Dracula Told’ and maybe it’s time to finally close the coffin lid on this character once and for all and find another bloodsucking figure to be our go-to-ghastly succubus of choice. Hmmm. Maybe that figure should be Charles Dance, Vampire Caligula…

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James Clayton is one of the children of the night. What sweet music he makes. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’s last column here.