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More Biting Commentary...
by Lucius Shepard
March 2001

Ever think how it would be if things sounded in life as they do in the movies?

A dog barking would sound like Godzilla with a toothache. Handguns would use amplifiers, not silencers, and folks like Brittany Spears and N'Sync would have to be summarily executed.

But not even Dolby Digital Reality could prepare you for the sonic excesses of Dracula 2000. When this Dracula hisses, it's like somebody released the air brake on an 18-wheeler. When he farts, it's like a rip in the space-time continuum (though breaking wind would have been fitting in context, the count doesn't actually do so in the film. I'm extrapolating here). If magnificently inappropriate noise were a criteria of filmic excellence, Dracula 2000 would be the greatest vampire movie of all time, and not a bad video game, a babe-rich environment designed for 11-year-olds whose notion of female perfection is the thought of Jeri Ryan dressed in Underalls.

Hmm . . .

Of course you know going in that any movie with a date attached to the title is going to be product. We're probably going to see lots more of this. Like for instance:


The Man in Black Is Back . . .

. . . this time he's strapped . . .

Loathsome as this may sound, it would nonetheless be preferable to Ethan Hawke's recent ninety-minute version of the play, a project that only serves to cement young Hawke's position as Hollywood's resident arts idiot.

The reason for these digressions is that I have little to say about Dracula 2000 apart from, "I went to see it and I am ashamed." But a few words about the story would, I suppose, not be out of place. Years ago the original vampire hunter Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) bagged the evil count and for some dumbass reason locked him away in a vault that occupies the basement of a London book store now belonging to his great grand-something (also Christopher Plummer). Burglars come ("What you reckon's in that coffin, Alf?") and free the Bitemeister, who then goes off to search for Van Helsing's daughter. . . .

Okay. That's enough.

You have to feel for Christopher Plummer. The guy must have serious tax problems.

Responsible for the direction is one Patrick Lussier, who—judging by his breast fixation and gaudy post-rock style—comes from the spawning ground of MTV, which previously has given us such auteurs as Tardem Singh (The Cell), Antoine Fuqua (Replacement Killers), and Michael Bay (Con Air, The Rock, Pearl Harbor).

A list to conjure with.

I was once accosted in a bar by a drunken pre-med student who proceeded to tell me the truth about vampires. He'd figured it all out. I don't recall a great deal of what he said—I'm not terribly interested in the metabolisms of fictional creatures (personal note to my stalker: Stay calm. I believe in your vampire). But I do remember him saying that given the fact vampires spend half their time in a vegetative state, half in an accelerated condition that affords them inhuman strength and inspires the fiercest of appetites, their digestive processes would likely be a gross parody of the human, producing incredibly vile liquefied wastes and ghastly breath. He went on to extend this chain of logic ad nauseum, but I had already gotten his point: the undead are a skanky bunch. The original cinematic vampire, Nosferatu, conformed to the pre-med student's model, but Bela Lugosi's poetic Valentino-esque take on Count Dracula—elegant pomaded blood junkie in white tie and tails—was a complete departure. These seminal images have developed over the years into two sharply divergent filmic strains, the latter incarnated by Anne Rice's tortured decadents, the former by the seedy Darwinism of Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, with its lowlife vampire "family" living like murderous cockroaches in the contemporary Southwest.

Like most things—like the economy, our chances for survival as a species, and Madonna's bustline—Hollywood vampire flicks have suffered a decline. In recent years, only Blade with its comic-book smarts and high-octane pacing made a respectable entry. One would have to look back to the aforementioned Near Dark to find a classic of the genre; and before that we would have to return to the 60s and George Romero's horrifyingly mundane Martin, which treats of a teenage vampire without fangs forced to chloroform and then cut open his victims. Francis Ford Coppola's attempt to revive the gothic form, Bram Stoker's Dracula, would have benefited had Mr. Coppola understood that at least half of the Nineteenth Century did not look as if it were set dressed by Rembrandt, and that a gothic atmosphere is best achieved by understated dramatics and a subdued, even crepuscular palette. John Carpenter's Vampires . . . Faugh! A total waste of Thomas Ian Griffith. Interview with a Vampire? Two words—Tom Cruise. Then we have the also-rans: Vampire's Kiss with Anne Parillard; A Vampire in Brooklyn with Eddie Murphy; Modern Vampires (Caspar Van Dien on a blood rampage); Children of the Night, in which redneck vampire Karen Black in all her voluptuous decay is kept chained in the attic by her husband and whines, "Gettin' little tired of eating leeches!" I'm certain I'm overlooking loads of gory trash, but who cares. The Future? More of the same. Though I must admit to having some nostalgia-driven interest in The Omega Man remake (despite Arnold's Schwarzenpresence), and I'm intrigued by the forthcoming Teething, which supposes a vampire baby born to normal parents.

At least day care will be no problem.

Last year while I was taking part in a discussion about Blair Witch 2 on a web chat (I had an hour free, okay?), Shadow of a Vampire was mentioned as a film some hoped might bring new vitality to the genre, and I looked forward to seeing it. I eventually watched the movie in the company of a friend, and afterward she turned to me and said, "Boring shitty pretentious." Well, I simply could not agree. To be considered truly pretentious, a film director must overindulge his vision and sense of style; since Shadow's director M. Elias Erige is sadly lacking these qualities, I think it more accurate to say that his film aspires to pretension. "Boring" and "shitty," I'm all right with. I note that Shadow was awarded the Bronze Horse at the Stockholm Film Festival, which is impressive on the face of it; but I have sufficient respect for audiences in Sweden to make me wonder if this isn't some sort of booby prize.

Technically, the film is a mess. The cutting verges on the professional, some of the worst I've seen, and the cinematography . . . It's as if Erige tried in the main to limit himself to techniques available in the 1920s. If that's the case, then maybe I'm wrong about the pretension thing (I believe an analysis of the film would reveal this is not the case, yet the camera work has such a static character, the result is the same as if it were). It's hard to recall a movie with this much art-house juice that was so ineptly crafted. It's equally hard to recall a script with so much wasted dramatic potential. The focus of all this incompetence is the shooting of F. W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu, and that choice of focus was a serious mistake.

Gods and Monsters worked because the emphasis was not on Frankenstein but on the man who directed the film. Moviemaking involves a good bit of tedium, and instead of ranging peaks and valleys of tension and release, Erige's story kerflop kerflops along just like the film in Murnau's rickety camera. Most of the mayhem occurs off-camera, a strategy both inoffensive and ineffectual.

The best thing about "Shadow" is its premise that Max Shreck, the lead in Nosferatu, was an actual vampire. Great start. But Erige does nothing with it. His approach to narration is that of a man who tells a successful joke at a party and then spends the next 90 minutes explaining why it was funny. Characters are stated, not developed. Most of the cast are there to carry spears or be eaten. Of Murnau (John Malkovich) we know only that he is arrogant, a sexual omnivore, and shoots dope. Of Shreck (Willem Dafoe) we know even less—he's a vampire who has a prior relationship with Murnau. Shreck should have been the focus of the film, its real subject. When he peers intently at the grainy black and white raw footage of a sunrise, we want to understand everything he is feeling; but Erige's interests apparently lay elsewhere, and Shreck remains for the most part unexploited. unexplored, and unexplained.

Willem Dafoe is a terrific actor with excellent range, and I have no quarrel with him receiving awards; but if truth be told, this is not an awards-caliber performance. He does an accent, he makes Mandarin gestures, he mugs. The make-up, which is outstanding, does the rest. Had Gilbert and Sullivan done a vampire operetta, Dafoe's Shreck would be right at home. As for Malkovich, one of the finest actors of his generation, this is not a shining moment. His accent wanders, and his devotion to the role seems shaky—which is understandable, since it appears to be designed solely as a commentary on the megalomania of all directors, another joke that grows tiresome. The upshot of this woeful mismatch of talent and material is that I had more fun hating Dracula 2000 than I did staring dully as Shadow of a Vampire bellywhomped and went splat.

It's conceivable that another great vampire film may yet be made. I'd like to see one that eschewed the rococo and did without door closings that sound like guillotines and footsteps like the Tread o' Doom, and concentrated on the dark animal aspects of a solitary monster, showing us his biological requirements and some of the small moments of his life. A figure not altogether deromanticized. Defrocked of his cool cape or shades or whatever, but not—not entirely, at least—of his human sensibilities. A character who must change as he lives. Generally speaking, though, vampires may be a played-out proposition. They've done a prolonged term as the romantic emblem of our fears concerning the afterlife, and the new millennium offers replacement terrors more relevant to the contemporary nightmare. However, vampires may retain value as satiric devices. A corporate vampire would be fun, humorous in its implicit redundancy. A vampire on Ecstasy would be a trip, and Vampire on Ecstasy isn't a bad title. Then there's my own vampire script, which has the working title Dark Pretender. Or maybe The Pretender would be classier. (I know there was a TV show with a similar name, but that's so over!).

Here's how it goes.

A powerful vampire runs for president and wins by turning a plurality of voters. The nation thrives. Private negotiations with world leaders, they're a snap now. Just one little bite and those ol' trade agreements get signed tout suite. Economy's rosy, world peace is starting to happen, and there's a bright golden haze on the meadow.

So the Pres knocks off an intern now and again . . .

What the hey!


And what if that plan succeeds?

Wellsir, along comes another vampire president out of the great Southwest, and he's got a new vision for America. Aided by his loyal minions in Florida, he'll take care of them hellspawns. Imagine this digital poster. The White House superimposed over a bone-white full moon. Then the whole thing washes red.

Very sexy.

This could get green-lighted. No lie. It's got enough sizzle to attract a major star, and is sufficiently generic to please the bean counters. And it's got an important message, too. One that speaks to the heart of all our problems, and makes plain the only thing we know for certain about real vampires:

They rule.