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An Act of Vampiric Penance Part II

Bram_Stoker's_DraculaSo here I am, part two of my penance… trying to argue what’s wrong with Bram Stoker’s Dracula without getting too hysterical or only spewing venom.

Anyway, first and foremost– I don’t like the look of the film.  It’s a personal thing, and that’s an answer my film prof would never accept.  I guess I find the vivid color and id-black shadow combination rather distracting.  It worked in Batman the Animated Series, but not for a live-action movie.

Secondly, the premise.  Dracula does not need to be anyone other than Dracula– even dear old Vlad the Impaler.  (Making him Judas Iscariot for Dracula 2000 was even worse, but we’re not talking about it.)  He is the world’s most famous vampire and can, if you’ll pardon the expression, bloody well stand on his own without the Turks, Crusades, impalings, and other crimson disjecta membra that the old monarch was famous for.  Dracula the vampire was a person who led such a horrible life that he was cursed in death to become a vampire– sure, there’s plenty of room for imaginative backstory, but that’s not what the focus should be on.

Thirdly, well, I have to pick on my S.O. here.  His defense of the movie was that it was “an original take on a story that has become stereotypical.”  Well, he was right inasmuch as that the story has always been stereotypical, no matter who was telling it.  In 1931 the white actresses for the Lugosi version wore fairly high-necked, long-sleeved dresses, while the Latina actresses for the Spanish language movie wore slinky, low-cut numbers.  Going back to the original novel look at the “natives” of Transylvania– the peasants, the gypsies, the Slovaks.  Plenty of stereotype there, and the 1992 film is guilty of perpetuating it.

And speaking of stereotypes– let’s talk about the women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Yes, Dracula is looking for his lost love instead of preying at random; that trend started in the ’70s.  Yes, Mina finishes the vampire off.  Orson Welles already did that, admittedly for radio, in the 1930s!  Then there’s the quasi-canon Nosferatu movies– in both of which did the Mina character do the vampire slaying.  Don’t talk like Francis Ford Coppola was the first to do it!  And the vampiresses…. there’s a way to play up the erotic side of vampirism without turning it into porn, but this movie certainly forgot how.

Every female vampire is the most broad, disgusting, sexist stereotype of what a “slut” is… the brides, Lucy, and even Mina, with their heaving bosoms (which aren’t always covered), constant moaning and squeaking, making out with each other….

And now I come to van Helsing.  Now, in Coppola’s defense, comedy-relief in Dracula movies has a very checkered past.  In 1931, it was dreadful.  In most of Terrence Fisher’s Dracula movies (with the exception of Horror of Dracula) the comedy fell flat.   And I don’t even remember what was supposed to be funny in the 1979 movie– maybe just how repulsive Harker was.  I don’t know.  But back to van Helsing– making him the comedy relief in this movie was just a mistake.  When Mel Brooks says something like, “She was in pain, so we cut off her head.”  It’s funny.  Not necessarily so when the movie is meant to be all dark and serious.  Then there’s the matter of having van Helsing sniff Mina and begin waltzing her around when the first met, and do that weird undulation when he tells Quincy that Lucy is “the bitch of the devil.”  If it’s meant to show that he’s not so different from Dracula, it doesn’t quite work, and it rather undermines his position as the expert.  I won’t go into how Mina nearly seduced him.

Now for the Count himself.  This movie is just confused about what it wants to do with the old bat.  Is he young or old?  Is he a wolf-bat or human?  Is he evil or tragic?  Is he appealing or repulsive?  They never pick one.  Yes, he changed ages in the novel, but it was basically 50-50: old in Transylvania and young again in England– consistency that this movie lacks.

Finally, my biggest complaint.  Dracula is a rapist.  I mean, yes, we all sort of knew that (what else is biting someone on the neck and forcing them to drink your own blood), but this movie, I feel, crosses a line by having him, and his brides, sexually assault their victims, too.  We’re obviously supposed to feel repulsed when the wolf-bat creature rapes Lucy, but the other instances of that, like with the brides, or what Dracula does in human form, seem exploitative.  Hypnotism and magic do not equal consent, and I’ll return to my earlier porn comment.

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Top 10 Vampires #4 Barnabas Collins

There's more here than meets the eye.

There’s more here than meets the eye.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows had plenty of critics.  I skipped that party.  In fact, I love this movie.  It probably helps that I was fresh from watching as much of the old soap opera as I could stand in the months before the film was released.  People who disliked the movie seemed to find fault along two lines: Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins and making Caroline Stoddard a werewolf instead of Quentin Collins.  As I burned out on the soap before Quentin showed up (Barnabas took three episodes to get across his living room, after all), I can’t speak to that, but as to the vampire, well… read on MacDuff.

What I’ve noticed, is that people who nostalgically talk about Dan Curtis’ old TV show is that they’ve forgotten how much of a bastard Barnabas Collins could be.  When he first appeared he was quite frightening: beating Willy Loomis with his cane for slight offenses, keeping Maggie Evans imprisoned in the basement of his home until she promised to marry him, turning Caroline into a vampire (which took years!)….

With that in mind, a lot about the movie makes a lot more sense.  Anyway, for those who need a refresher… it opens with Barnabas’ narration of how he came to be turned into a vampire by his spurned lover, Angelique, a witch, and imprisoned in his coffin for a couple centuries.  Now, in 1972 Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters on the train to Collinsport to take a job as a tutor for the young David Collins.  Workers accidentally dig up Barnabas, who, is too thirsty to not kill them all.  Returning to Collinwood, the ancestral home, he finds that the family has fallen upon evil days.  The two servants are useless.  The brother is worse than useless; the doctor is a leech, and the kids are… strange.  Elizabeth, the matriarch, has her hands full, and is inclined to dismiss Barnabas as a fraud, but when he shows her his father’s secret treasure room she accepts his story and allows him to stay.

Barnabas tries to adjust to 70s life and become human, via blood transfusions from Dr. Hoffman, but he also knows he is a fish out of water and sometimes uses his vampiric powers to achieve his means– such as hypnotizing an old sea-dog (played by Christopher Lee!) into quitting his job with Angel Bay Fisheries and working for the Collins family.  In addition to being rather self-aware– he asks for help and follows the received advice, for better and for worse– he can still be brutal and violent.  He kills the construction workers and a group of hippies, along with Dr. Hoffman when he realized she was using his blood to turn herself into a vampire.  He keeps the audience off-balance because he breaks the rules.  Will he succeed or die (such as it is) trying?

The end result is a very clever, fun movie that still gives its audience a good kick every so often with its darkness.  This is, in no small part, aided by its most unusual vampire who provides a surprising amount of funny comedy relief, but also a lot of scares, too.  The slaughter of the construction workers is quite unsettling– particularly the way Barnabas asks the foreman for forgiveness before biting him; an exchange like that could become a snickerfest but remains dark.  His appearance hearkens back to Count Orlok in Nosferatu (look at those fingernails!), but with a modern twist.  I wouldn’t call Barnabas “so old he’s new” but he’s something like that, and he’s a remarkable breath of fresh air amongst all the Twilight stuff and deluge of zombies.

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Top 10 Women in Horror Movies #10 Ellen Hutter

Ellen Hutter

Slaying vampires before it was cool.

The Clerk’s Wife… Ellen Hutter… Mina Harker… she’s been called by several names in the film’s near-century existence (and near non-existence), but the brave heroine of F.W. Murnau’s  1922 picture, Nosferatu, starts this list.

Nosferatu is one of the iconic vampire films of all time, and the word “vampire” could probably be dropped from that sentence without affecting its truth value.  Most horror films, films noir, and nearly everything made by Tim Burton owe a debt to this movie, director, and the style he employed– German Expressionism.  It was also a blatant copyright dodge.  The studio wanted to make Dracula without paying royalties to Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, so they changed the names, gave the vampire a thing for rats and the plague, and released it.  She was not fooled, and won the resulting lawsuit, which decreed that all copies of the film be destroyed.  In the 1970s, a few resurfaced.

The Dracula storyline is the same.  The clerk goes to sell property to the count, realizes he’s a vampire, and remains a prisoner while the vampire wreaks havoc on his unsuspecting new neighbors until he is eventually destroyed.  Frau Hutter (played by actress Greta Schroder) is the biggest difference between the two stories, especially when contrasted to Universal’s later take on the story.

She senses her husband’s danger.  She takes charge of the ugly situation in Wisborg by doing her research on vampires and sends her husband, Thomas, to fetch the expert, Professor Bulwer.  After he is gone, she does what needs to be done– offer herself to the vampire, Count Orlok, and keep him in her house long enough that he will be destroyed by the dawn.  She has set things up that Bulwer can deal with the fallout and take care of Thomas.  Now try to imagine any legal incarnation of Mina Harker doing that.

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