Monday, September 28, 2015

DRACULA 2000 (2000), DRACULA: ASCENSION (2003), DRACULA: LEGACY (2005)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In addition to warning any readers that I'm going to disclose plot-points here, I'll add a personal revelation. My reaction to this series-- or at least, to the first film in the series-- is first and foremost the reaction of a religious comparativist. Thus, though I was reared in a Christian religious tradition, these days it doesn't bother me to see a work of entertainment play fast and loose with the tropes and narratives of Christian belief, as it might annoy others.

DRACULA 2000 and its two direct-to-video sequels are all directed by Patrick Lussier and co-written by Lussier and one of his producers, Joel Soisson. The recently deceased Wes Craven is listed as a producer on the series, but I doubt Craven-- for whom Lussier worked as an editor-- had any creative input. Although the creators probably hoped to launch a series like that of Craven's Freddy Krueger, their emphasis is more on action than on horror-- though as it happens, there's enough narrative emphasis on the pathos of the monster to keep the stories from sliding into the category of adventure, as one sees in 1998's BLADE and 1999's THE MUMMY.

The first entry in the series, while flawed, stands head and shoulders above its sequels, thanks to the audacity of its concept. The ending of Bram Stoker's novel is altered to reveal that (1) in 1898 Abraham Van Helsing overcame but did not destroy the body of Dracula, because Dracula was a unique type of vampire resistant to ordinary means of disposal, (2) for the next hundred years Van Helsing kept Dracula's comatose form imprisoned in a special vault, while the vampire-hunter gave himself a qualified immortality by infusing himself with the vampire's blood, and (3) Dracula's origins extend far further back in history than his masquerade as a Romanian count, for he's actually the Biblical Judas Iscariot, cursed to walk the world as an immortal until such time as God forgives him for his part in Christ's execution.

As a reshuffling of Christian tropes for the sake of entertainment, this is pretty ingenious. The writers may have been inspired by a verse in the Gospel of John that possibly contributed to the legend of the Wandering Jew, though none of the Gospels are directly referenced: Soisson and Lussier merely state that God's immortality-curse upon Judas is the true reason that the vampire hates the touch of silver (because Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver) and any Christian paraphernalia. Of course, this doesn't quite explain why other vampires, who don't have those associations, share the same antipathies, though the script does assert that some mysterious "essence" is transferred from Dracula to others, whether he bites them or whether they infuse themselves with his blood. On the other OTHER hand, there's nothing in the Judas narrative about beheadings, so it's a safe bet that all scenes in which vampire-hunters kill bloodsuckers by chopping off their craniums are directly indebted to Stoker.

DRACULA 2000 features many other "quotes" from Stoker. The reborn Dracula ravages everyone on board the cargo plane that takes him to America-- specifically, New Orleans-- just as the original reduced the cargo-ship Demeter-- the one carrying the vampire's coffin to England-- to a ship of death. Soisson and Lussier also touch on the novel's "good girl/ bad girl" dichotomy. They keep the name Lucy for one of Dracula's first victims, who is also a friend to the film's version of Mina, Mary Van Helsing-- this time the daughter of Dracula's nemesis, rather than the wife of vampire hunter Jonathan Harker. Given all the Christian connotations, the use of the name "Mary" is surely no coincidence, though Mary Van Helsing is not portrayed as a virginal paragon, as Mina Harker is in the Stoker novel. If this Mary is like any character in the Christ-narrative, it would be Mary Magdalene, who has had "seven demons" exorcised from her body by Christ in two of the four Gospels. Judas-Dracula's corrupts rather than cleanses this Mary, though it's an additional irony that from birth Mary has been bonded to Dracula because she was conceived after Abraham Van Helsing had been using Dracula's blood for many years. Thus as soon as Mary encounters Dracula "the bad father," she must struggle against her sense of bondage to the vampire, and as with Mina Harker the struggle has more to do with sexual ambivalence than with a purely spiritual crisis. It's also psychologically noteworthy that though Abraham is killed, Dracula doesn't do the deed himself, but has the old vampire-hunter slain by Dracuala's figurative offspring, three modern-day women turned into bloodlusting brides. Unlike Mina, though, Mary actually gets fabulous super-powers after being turned by Dracula, and she uses them to battle Dracula much more physically than the retiring Mina of the Stoker novel. In essence, the psychological constellation of Mary, her real father Abraham and her symbolic father Dracula is the core of DRACULA 2000. That said, the writers don't stint on the BLADE-style action, for the senior Van Helsing also receives aid from a doughty young man named Simon, whose motto is "Never fuck with an antiques-dealer!" I'll forbear to comment on possible Christian meanings of the name Simon, since the movie-character really isn't anything but a convenient tough guy.

As much as I love genre films in all their permutations, I have to admit that I'd have liked to see the Judas-Dracula idea executed by talents who could've got more mythopoeic mileage out of the concept. But one takes what one can get.





Perhaps because the first film was a failure in its general release, the two sequels downplay a lot of the Christian mythology.  Though Mary and Simon pledge to guard against Dracula's recrudescence  at the end of 2000, they vanish from the narrative without explanation. Dracula, whose body has been burned by the sun's rays after Mary "hung him out to dry," remains whole enough to be delivered to a morgue in New Orleans. Two morgue-doctors, Elizabeth and Luke, discover that the dead body is that of a vampire when Elizabeth pricks her finger on one of Drac's fangs. After Elizabeth reveals this big secret to her boyfriend Lowell, Lowell talks Elizabeth and Luke into spiriting the body to an out-of-the-way house, so that they and their friends can experiment on the vampire and see if its fluids can be used for curative purposes. It will later be revealed that Lowell, who is handicapped, hopes to use the vampire's essence to cure himself, much as Abraham Van Helsing retarded his aging in the earlier film.

Meanwhile, a kick-ass Catholic priest, Father Uffizi, is on the trail of the reborn Dracula, intending to destroy him and any of his vampiric spawn.  In flashbacks he consults with an older priest, and they refer to the Count as "the Betrayer," but no further allusions to the legend of Judas appear here or in the next film. The older priest tells Uffizi that despite the Betrayer's many crimes, the only way to banish his evil is to give him absolution, thus freeing his soul from vampirism-- a very different form of "imitatio Dei" than the one with which the first film concludes.

Elizabeth and her friends experience many problems trying to experiment on Dracula: one friend is killed, Elizabeth becomes bonded to the monster because of receiving his essence through the finger-prick, and one of the experimenters injects himself with Dracula's blood. Luke belatedly has misgivings about trying to profit from the exploitation of ultimate evil, and he finds new ways to bind the vampire with medieval superstitions (faced with a knotted rope, a vampire must undo all the knots; faced with scattered seeds, a vampire must stop to count them all). However, in due time Dracula gets free just as Father Uffizi makes the scene. Elizabeth declares her allegiance to the vampire-lord and the two escape Uffizi, leaving the film on a cliffhanger scene.




ASCENSION is merely middling entertainment, clearly patterned after hundreds of horror-films in which foolish mortals trifle with forces beyond their control. That said, though most of the characters are flat stereotypes, ASCENSION at least allows for a few Faustian themes. LEGACY, however, is just a lot of thud and blunder, as Uffizi teams up with Luke and they both run around various beautiful Romanian locations hunting vampires. This time, because Uffizi has been infected by Dracula's vampirism, the church doesn't sanction his mission, and he goes vamp-hunting on his own recognizance, though he continues to wear the priestly collar.

During the duo's quest, a European reporter named Julia joins them, with the result that she and Uffizi form a romantic attachment. There's a little character-conflict in that Uffizi doesn't want to fall in love, despite no longer being restrained by a priest's injunctions, and this mirrors Luke's desire for Elizabeth, and to liberate her from the evil Count. Eventually Dracula is defeated. Only at the very end do the scripters dip into the Christian myth-bag once more, for though Uffizi slays Dracula, he doesn't manage to overcome his own curse, and at the end he's seen with a vampiric Julia sitting in his lap-- a clear quotation of Michelangelo's "Pieta," which shows the slain Christ lounging in the lap of his mother Mary.

On a final note, it's interesting that the scripters found a "Doctor Who"-like method of accounting for changing the actor playing Dracula in each film, stating that whenever the vamp regenerates, he automatically changes his face. This doesn't really make any sense, but does make it easier to watch the transitions between Gerard Butler, Stephen Billington and Rutger Hauer.

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