Netflix’ DRACULA (2020) – New Mini-Series’ Take On Stoker’s Novel Difficult to Digest

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DRACULA (2020), a three-part miniseries available now on Netflix, is brought to us by the same folks who brought us SHERLOCK (2010-2017), which starred Benedict Cumberbatch.

Their take on Bram Stokers’ iconic novel, one of the most revered horror novels in the English language, and one of my personal favorites, is one that pushes the envelope at every turn, so much so that for Dracula purists like myself, the end result is not easy to digest.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like DRACULA. I did. Or, at least parts of it.

But there were more parts that I didn’t like, aspects that made it clear that the series’ makers were sacrificing story and truth for ingenuity and chaos. In short, the goal here seems to have been to make as many dramatic and in-your-face changes as possible to make this a fresh and original take on the tale. The trouble is, at the end of the day, there’s not a whole heck of a lot left that resembles Stoker’s original novel.

This in itself I don’t have a problem with. I’m open to re-imaginings. The problem with this reboot is the bold changes get in the way of the story, and that’s never a good thing. It’s like being aware that an actor is acting. Here, it clearly seemed that changes were being made just for the sake of being different. In short, I think the filmmakers were simply trying too hard.

DRACULA opens with a very ill Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) at a convent being interviewed by Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), who wants to know as much as possible about his experience at Castle Dracula. Now, in Stoker’s novel, Harker does convalesce in a convent after he escapes from his horrifying ordeal at Castle Dracula, so I thought this was a neat way to open the mini-series.

The events at Castle Dracula then unfold as Harker recounts his story, and it’s in this telling that we first meet Count Dracula (Claes Bang). This is all well and good until it’s revealed that Sister Agatha’s last name is Van Helsing, meaning that in this interpretation, Van Helsing is a nun.

Okay. Stop right here.

Van Helsing is a nun.

Let that sink in for a moment.

My first thought was, okay, a bit dramatic, but I can live with this. I’m on board. I’m ready for this interpretation. But it doesn’t stop there. Van Helsing in this DRACULA is hardly the Van Helsing we’ve seen before. Sure, she’s Dracula’s adversary, but barely, and like other aspects of this version, as the interpretation goes along, it becomes unrelatable, and that simply gets in the way of good storytelling.

So, Part I is mostly the tale of Jonathan Harker’s ordeal at Castle Dracula. Part 2 covers Dracula’s voyage on the ship the Demeter on his way to London, and then Part 3 gets wild and crazy. Without giving too much away, if you’re familiar with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) you know which direction the third episode takes.

There’s no doubt that Claes Bang’s interpretation of Dracula was meant to be fresh and original, and it is definitely unlike previous takes on the character. Bang’s Dracula has a wise-cracking quip about everything, and he seems to have walked off the set of a Marvel superhero movie. He’d be right at home exchanging barbs with Iron Man and Doctor Strange as he battled them for supremacy of the world. In short, I didn’t like this interpretation. For me, Dracula works best when he is flat-out evil, which is why I’ve always enjoyed every Christopher Lee performance. His Dracula is always evil.

That’s not to say that Bang plays Dracula as a nice guy. His Dracula is definitely a villain, but he’s just a little too colorful for my tastes. That being said, Bang does deliver a powerful performance which grew on me with each episode. So, for me, it’s a case where I thought the actor did a tremendous job but the writing tweaked the character too much for my liking.

Likewise, Dolly Wells does a nice job as Sister Agatha Van Helsing, but again, the writing took this character and did things with her that diminished her impact. For starters, Van Helsing simply isn’t as powerful a presence here as Dracula. That in itself is problematic.

I can’t say then that I was a fan of the teleplay by Mark Gatis and Steven Moffat, where changes seem to have been made solely for the purpose of being different without taking into consideration how it would affect the story. Still, it’s an incredibly ambitious screenplay. There is just so much thrown into this mini-series. That in itself is impressive. But sadly most of it didn’t work for me.

The rest of the cast is okay. The only other cast member who stood out for me was Lydia West as Lucy, who shows up in Part 3. When Dracula finally meets Lucy in Part 3, it makes for some of the most compelling moments in the entire miniseries. I loved this part, mostly because of West’s performance here, as she and Bang share some sensual chemistry, but sadly, this sequence doesn’t last all that long, so as good as it is, it’s far too brief.

Then there’s Mina, here played by Morfydd Clark. Mina is a central character in the novel, and she’s always been one of my favorite characters in the novel. Few movie versions have ever done her justice. In the novel, she’s probably the strongest character, but in the movies, she’s generally reduced to being a victim who needs to be saved by Van Helsing. In this version, she’s barely a blip on the proceedings, which is too bad.

I did like the way this one looked. A lot. Especially the look of Castle Dracula in Part 1. Evidently it’s the same castle exterior that was used in the original NOSFERATU (1922). How cool is that?

I also enjoyed the homages to other classic Draculas, especially to the Hammer Draculas. Early on in Part 1, Dracula is depicted as an old man, as he is in the novel, and the look here resembles Gary Oldman in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). Later Dracula’s guise resembles Christopher Lee, and then in Part 2, while he’s on the Demeter, his costume mirrors that of Bela Lugosi. I appreciated these touches.

And for Hammer Film fans, there’s an Easter Egg for DRACULA A.D. 1972, and for HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), specifically that film’s classic finale. So I give credit to directors Johnny Campbell, Paul McGuigan, and Damon Thomas for these moments.

But overall, DRACULA struggled to hold my attention. I found its dramatic revisions distracting and far less captivating than the story told in Stoker’s novel.

And while I can comfortably say it was not the version for me, I have a feeling that somewhere down the line I’ll watch it again.

Some day.

 

When I’m ready to once more entertain the notion that Van Helsing is a nun and Dracula a comic book villain.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973)

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Far out, man!

The early 1970s was such a groovy time the vampires just couldn’t keep away.  Dan Curtis’ THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) unleashed a superhuman vampire onto the streets of 1972 Las Vegas, while Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) resurrected Dracula (Christopher Lee) in 1970s London.

Likewise, the black exploitation films BLACULA (1972) and its sequel, SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973), the film we’re looking at today, revived a vampire in 1970s Los Angeles.

When you hear the name Blacula, you no doubt laugh.  You shouldn’t.  The BLACULA films, in spite of their campy titles, are no laughing matter. They’re actually decent horror movies.

I’ve always enjoyed the two BLACULA movies, and like Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972, they were dismissed back in the day as silly 1970s schlock, but they have aged well.  In fact, they’ve gotten better.

For me, the main reason the BLACULA movies have aged well and the number one reason to see them is the performance by William Marshall as Blacula.  Marshall was a Shakespearean trained actor and it shows.  With his deep majestic voice, he’s perfect as the noble vampire, Prince Mamuwalde.  In a way, it’s too bad these films came out in the early 1970s and Marshall had to star in a film called BLACULA because he easily could have portrayed Stoker’s Dracula, and had he done so, he’d be in the conversation as one of the screen’s better Draculas.  And that’s not to take anything away from Marshall’s Mamuwalde character, because he’s a memorable vampire in his own right.  It’s just that you don’t often hear Marshall’s name in the conversation about best movie vampires. Perhaps it’s time that changed.

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM continues the story of  Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall), the vampire introduced in BLACULA.  In that film, Mamuwalde, an African prince, was bitten by Dracula and then locked in a coffin where he remained until he was resurrected by an antique dealer in 1972 Los Angeles.

In SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, he’s revived yet again, this time by voodoo.  In fact, voodoo plays an integral part in this movie’s plot.  The voodoo scenes in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM reminded me a lot of similar scenes in the first Roger Moore James Bond movie, LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) which immersed Bond in early 1970s culture.  I told you the early 70s was a happening time.  Even James Bond got in on the action.

Anyway, in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, cult member Willis (Richard Lawson) vows revenge against his fellow cult members because he feels slighted at not being chosen as its new leader.  He decides to use voodoo to resurrect Blacula thinking the vampire can exact revenge for him, but things don’t go as planned as Blacula has other ideas and quickly makes Willis his slave.

The young woman who does lead the voodoo cult, Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier) crosses paths with Blacula who immediately takes an interest in her.  He seeks out her help, as he wants her to use her voodoo skills to perform an exorcism to free him of his vampire curse.  But Lisa’s boyfriend Justin (Don Mitchell) and the police arrive, spoiling the moment, and Blacula vows revenge.  Now seeing Blacula as a threat to her boyfriend, Lisa changes her tune about the vampire prince and uses her voodoo powers to combat him.

As far as vampire stories go, the one that SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM  has to tell with its voodoo elements is actually pretty cool and quite different.  You don’t see that combination of vampirism and voodoo very often.  The screenplay was written by Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, and Maurice Jules, and it tells a pretty neat tale.  The dialogue is standard for the period, with lots of early 70s groovin and hip jargon.  You expect to see Kojak or Starsky and Hutch racing to the crime scene.  In fact, Bernie Hamilton who would go on to play Captain Dobey on STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) has a small role here.

Bob Kelljan directed SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, and he’s no stranger to 1970s vampire movies, as he also directed COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971), two films that also featured a vampire in modern-day Los Angeles, Count Yorga (Robert Quarry), and these films actually pre-dated THE NIGHT STALKER, which is often credited as launching the vampire-in-modern-times craze of the early 1970s.

There’s some pretty creepy scenes in this one, as William Marshall makes for a frightening vampire, and when he gets really angry, he suddenly breaks out in wolf-like make-up. There are also some entertaining scenes featuring Blacula on the streets of L.A., and one in particular where he tangles with some street thugs.  Needless to say, things don’t turn out so well for the thugs.

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Blacula (William Marshall) getting angry in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973).  You won’t like him when he’s angry.

Is it as frightening as THE NIGHT STALKER?  No, but Blacula’s scenes are as scary or perhaps even scarier than any of Christopher Lee’s Dracula scenes in DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

Again, William Marshall does a fine job as Blacula.  Marshall also appeared in the demonic possession film ABBY (1974) and went on to appear in many TV shows during the 1970s and 1980s. Probably the last film I saw him in was the Mel Gibson version of MAVERICK (1994) in which he had a bit part as a poker player.  Marshall passed away in 2003 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.  He was 78.

Pam Grier is also very good as Lisa.  Grier has and still is appearing in a ton of movies.  The last film I saw her in was THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012), and arguably her most famous role was in Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997), an homage to her own FOXY BROWN (1974).

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Pam Grier and William Marshall in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973).

Also in the cast is Michael Conrad as the sheriff.  Conrad would go on to fame for playing Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on the TV show HILL STREET BLUES (1981-1984).

But it’s William Marshall who gives the most biting performance in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM.  Marshall is thoroughly enjoyable as Blacula/Prince Mamuwalde, and his work in both BLACULA films is noteworthy enough to place him among the better screen vampires.

So, don’t be fooled by the title.  SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM is more than just a silly 1970s exploitation flick.  It’s well-made, it has an engrossing story that implements voodoo into its vampire lore, and as such it’s all rather refreshing.  It’s also done quite seriously.  It’s not played for laughs, and William Marshall delivers a commanding performance that is both dignified and frightening.

If you haven’t yet seen SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM or the first BLACULA movie, you definitely want to add them to your vampire movie list.  They’re part of a special time in vampire movie history, when the undead left their period piece environment and flocked to the hippie-filled streets of the 1970s.

Get your voodoo dolls ready.  It’s vampirism vs. voodoo!  It’s SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM!

Just watch where you stick those pins.

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SHOCK SCENES: DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings – Part 4

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SHOCK SCENES:  DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings

Part 4

By

Michael Arruda

Welcome to Part 4 of our look at the endings to the Hammer DRACULA series, where we examine how Dracula met his demise in the various Hammer Dracula movies. Previously we looked at the endings to the first six Hammer Dracula pics.  Here in Part 4 we’ll look at the rest of the series.

And remember, if you haven’t seen these films, there are major spoilers here, so proceed with caution.

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DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)

Dracula meets the 1970s!

After the success of the Dan Curtis film THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), the movie that introduced reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) to the world and had Kolchak hunting a vampire in present day Las Vegas, Hammer decided that for its next Dracula movie they would take Dracula out of the 19th century and put him in the heart of present day London, which at the time happened to be 1972.

DRACULA A.D. 1972 also marked the return of Peter Cushing to the series, as he played Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendant of the original Van Helsing.  On paper, it  sounded like a neat idea.  In reality- mostly because “modern day” at the time was the groovin-yeah-baby year of 1972, the film really doesn’t work- at least not the way Hammer intended.  THE NIGHT STALKER, it ain’t!

However, that being said, in spite of it being lambasted by critics and doing poorly at the box office, DRACULA A.D. 1972 is actually a pretty fun movie.  I’ve always really liked this one.  The dialogue is so over the top and overdone, it’s a hoot!  It’s like watching an episode of SCOOBY-DOO.

It’s also a lot of fun seeing Peter Cushing return to the series as Van Helsing, even if he is playing one of Van Helsing’s descendants.  As usual, Christopher Lee doesn’t have a lot to do as Dracula, but he makes the most of his few scenes.

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Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) isn’t doing her grandfather any favors when she removes the knife from Dracula’s (Christopher Lee) heart during the finale of DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Unfortunately, the ending isn’t anything to brag about, even with Cushing’s Van Helsing battling Lee’s Dracula once again.  Compared to the ending of HORROR OF DRACULA, the ending to DRACULA A.D. 1972 is slow and tired.  There’s a brief chase, this time with Dracula chasing Van Helsing, a brief scuffle, and then an all too easy death scene where Dracula falls into a pit of wooden stakes, set up there earlier by Van Helsing, although how he would know Dracula would fall inside is beyond me!  This is followed by the obligatory and not very impressive Dracula-turns-to-dust scene.

Far out, man!

Not really.

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THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)

Immediately after the release of DRACULA A.D. 1972, Hammer went into production with their next Dracula movie, THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) which again starred both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and once more took place in the 1970s.

The attempt was made to improve upon DRACULA A.D. 1972, and so in this film the hippies are gone, and instead Dracula acts likes he’s a villain in a James Bond movie as he tries to take over the world with the help of other devil worshiping dignitaries. When Scotland Yard investigates and learns about the satanic cult, they turn to their resident expert, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

It’s a fairly interesting plot, but it’s all rather flat, and I’ve always enjoyed DRACULA A.D. 1972 more.  Because DRACULA A.D. 1972 performed so miserably at the box office, Hammer decided not to release SATANIC RITES in the U.S., until that is, five years later when it was released under the ridiculous title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE in 1978.  The only good thing about the delay was I was 14 at the time, and when it opened at my local theater, it provided me with my first opportunity to see a Hammer horror film on the big screen.  Cool!

The ending to SATANIC RITES is actually a bit better than the ending to DRACULA A.D. 1972.  The confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing is a bit longer this time.  It starts in a fiery house and then continues outside, as Van Helsing leads Dracula into the woods where he is able to get Dracula caught in a thorn bush.  See, in this movie, thorns are representative of Christ’s crown of thorns and as a result are fatal to vampires.  At least Hammer always remained creative!  Of course, what would a Dracula movie be without a good staking, and so Van Helsing drives a stake through Drac’s heart for good measure, which leads to the undead king’s umpteenth disintegration scene.

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Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) prepares to do battle with Dracula in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973).

The best part about this ending is that after Dracula disintegrates, all that is left of Dracula is his ring, which hearkens back to the ending of the first film in the series, HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) where Dracula’s ring also remains after his disintegration.  In HORROR OF DRACULA, Van Helsing does not take the ring, and when Dracula is resurrected in DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) he wears it again.  This time around, at the end of SATANIC RITES, Van Helsing does take the ring, symbolizing that this time Dracula is truly done for, which is appropriate, since this was the final Christopher Lee film of the series.

I say final “Christopher Lee” film in the series because even though Lee said his days as Dracula were over, Hammer wasn’t finished, and they would bring back Dracula for one more movie, without Lee.

 

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THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

This is one weird movie.  After the commercial failure of their previous two Dracula movies, Hammer decided that Dracula in the 1970s was not a good idea, and so their next vampire tale would once more be a period piece. THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES was originally not going to be a Dracula film at all, but simply a vampire movie, but this horror-martial arts combo was co-produced with The Shaw Brothers Company who insisted that since their Asian audiences loved Dracula, that Dracula had to be incorporated into the movie.

And so an introduction was filmed with John Forbes-Robertson hamming it up in thick Joker-like make-up as Dracula, where we see his spirit enter into that of an Asian warrior who had visited Dracula’s castle.  Dracula wants to seek out new blood in the Far East, and now inside a new body, he is able to assemble an army of Kung-fu vampires— the seven golden vampires— without people knowing who he is, except that old nemesis Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is also in the Far East and hot on his trail!

 

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One of the seven golden vampires in THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974), Hammer’s final Dracula movie.

There are martial arts fights galore in this very unique film that somehow actually works.  It also has a fantastic music score by James Bernard.

Unfortunately, the ending is rather lame.  After all that choreographed martial arts fighting, Dracula returns to his old body where he is promptly done in— in very undramatic fashion- by Van Helsing.  It’s a very weak way to end the series.

Aside from the ending,  THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES is actually a pretty enjoyable movie.  And even though he’s not really involved in the fight sequences, Peter Cushing still enjoys lots of screen time as Van Helsing, and as always, he’s excellent.

Look also for the inferior yet worth checking out re-edited version entitled THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA (1974).  This version was originally released in the U.S. as an exploitation flick.  It’s fun to compare the two.  THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES plays out like an elegant atmospheric A-List Hammer vampire movie, whereas THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEETS DRACULA plays like a choppy incoherent blood fest shown at the Drive-In after midnight.  Same movie, different editing.  It’s fascinating to watch these two versions back to back.

So, that about wraps things up.  Thanks for joining me on this four part look at the various Dracula demises in the Hammer Dracula movies.

Join me next time for another SHOCK SCENES when I’ll we’ll look at other memorable scenes in horror movie history.

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