Untelling Dracula: Untold

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Dracula: Untold is a teachable moment for film criticism. The critic scores are abysmal across review sites, and most audiences will say it was terrible. Problem is, it wasn’t terrible. It was just really, Really, REALLY mediocre.

The formal elements were all there. Strong acting, beautiful mis en scene, exceptional cinematography bordering on experimental, visceral action, etc., etc.

Simply put, the movie had an abysmal script. It told when it should’ve shown; it used hamfisted gimmicks to raise the stakes; it was, at times, unintentionally funny; it rendered the origin mundane; it didn’t know which characters were important; it failed its Universal Monster Continuity end tag; and worst of all, it failed to highlight why Dracula remains such an interesting and complex character, despite that being the whole point of the movie.

So how could the script have been improved AND kickstarted the Universal Monster Continuity?

1. MAJOR ELEMENTS

The origin story in Dracula: Untold had comparison working against it. Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 featured Dracula as Judas Iscariot -the man who betrayed Jesus Christ- which accounted for his weaknesses to holy objects and to silver. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula depicted Dracula as a Holy Crusader who committed the ultimate blasphemy when his fiancée committed suicide. Dracula Untold, however, just has some cave-dwelling vampire turn Vlad into a vampire. Wasted opportunity if there ever was one. Dracula may not be the first vampire in Stoker’s novel, but in the movies, that’s a MASSIVE part of his allure.

Still everyone’s favorite Dracula, right?

Dracula’s motivation, flirting with the powers of darkness to save loved ones, is an inherently sympathetic angle, and the former warrior backstory works in a big way, but the rest isn’t as interesting or as singular as it could be. We don’t need him to have a complex relationship with the villain, but we certainly need him to have one with his people, his family, God, and himself. This isn’t about the villain; this is about the icon that Vlad will become.

Finally, this isn’t a superhero story. In the movie, Dracula discovers that he can become a swarm of bats with more joy than Man of Steel’s Superman has in learning he can fly. The end tag suggests a very regal and well-adjusted Dracula when this isn’t where the story goes. We have to believe, right from the start, that this is a person who could become a monster and all that entails. The capacity for evil has to be a central part of their identity and their decline –not ascent- into damnation. This has to end in a dark place.

Going from there…

2. THE PAGE ONE REWRITE

Jesus, that poster’s beautiful.

Vlad Tepes is a former crusader of Roman Catholic Church with a dark history of war crimes (LOTS of impalement). Having been given a Papal Indulgence (assurance from the Pope that he’s pardoned for all past sins and WILL be going to Heaven), he lives a peaceful life as the beneficent ruler of medieval Transylvania. He attempts to be saintly and just, but it’s clear, especially when he metes justice, he’s harsh. Almost cruel. When the Turkish army threatens to invade his lands and enslave his people, he first turns to the Roman Catholic Church for answers. The Vatican proves useless, preferring to stay out of military affairs now that the Crusades have proven costly and ineffective. Vlad prays to God for answers, but God doesn’t answer. Terrible things continue to happen to Vlad’s people.

Enraged and desperate, Vlad turns to the only power left: those of darkness. Vlad summons Satan, begging for the power to wipe out his foes. Satan offers him infinite power at a cost: he’ll have obscure weaknesses, and he’ll have insatiable thirst. If by the time three days passes, he has supped on human blood, he’ll gain more power, but the curse will be permanent and Satan will have leave to unleash darkness will upon the world. This last part is important for later.

Let’s be honest, Charles Dance would probably play a great Satan.

Vlad accepts and is soon kicking ass like the best of him. He attempts to do so with honor, as a man of God, but the dark impulse and his true nature win out, leading him to commit one horrific atrocity after another on the battlefield until his family and his people –those he sold his soul for- are utterly terrified of him and begin to plot his death.

Naturally, Vlad’s enemies also react in kind, summoning Satan to help win their battles. Satan, however, doesn’t even want to bargain with them. He doesn’t need to. Instead, he simply tells them to mock Vlad with signs of his own faith (Crosses, crucifixes, etc.), and he will be brought to heel. As will his people.

Suddenly Vlad, unstoppable force of darkness, is exiled from his own people and helpless against the tide of Turks invading his land. To add insult to injury, the God he loyally served in the crusades is now a tangible presence against him –sapping his strength and giving leave for his enemy to kill, torture, rape, and pillage as they see fit. In a moment of unspeakable rage and indignation, Vlad gives into the thirst, slaughtering and drinking the Turk leader.

Satan bellows in triumph, escaping from Hell to walk the Earth, bringing with him the forces of darkness. Deep in Egypt, a tomb begins to stir. On the English Moors, a prince bitten by a wolf begins to convulse. In South America, fishermen are dragged to their deaths by a scaly creature with human arms… you get the idea.

Every goddamn one of them and maybe more.

And Vlad’s power? Increases exponentially. He summons a storm to that wipes out whatever of the Turkish horde he isn’t at that moment massacring. When the rains stop, and he’s alone on the gore-drenched battlefield, all he really wants is to return to his people— but they’re not having him. They want him dead. Now. Dracula begs his wife and child to accept him, but they refuse, terrified by what he’s become… by what he’s always been. Enraged, Dracula promises the people of Transylvania an eternity of fear and sorrow, that he is of the House of the Devil and that he shall feast forever on their blood. With that, he escapes into the night, leaving only carnage in his wake.

The people of Transylvania attempt to rebuild and go on with their lives, using crosses and the like to protect themselves, but night after night, someone inevitably dies by Dracula’s crimson kiss. His wife and son, though, go untouched, and are eventually put to the stake, presumed to be in collusion with him. Further enraged, Dracula creates other vampire slaves, making Transylvania itself and its nearby lands a realm of the dead, locking in its dwindling populace. Learning of his crimes and his blight upon existence, the Roman Catholic Church revokes Dracula’s Papal Indulgence, removing his final shred of hope for any kind of happy ending.

Dracula sits in his Gothic castle, surrounded by his three vampire Brides, his loathing for God and humanity keeping him alive all these years… but so does love for his long-lost wife, evidenced by a tattered tapestry of his family hanging from a lonely wall. He swears that he’ll rebuild his family and reclaim his lost love … at any cost.

That’s when an hideous old man shambles into Dracula’s throne room. He’s well-dressed enough… but there’s something off about the wrinkles in his face… they’re all horizontal. He demands Dracula aid him in the fight against the coming darkness, but Dracula wants none of this –he wants the solitude of his castle. He’s waged enough war and enough misery on the human race. Refusing to leave, the Ancient Stranger attacks Dracula, and the two tumble out of Dracula’s stained glass window –into the streets of modern London. The Ancient Stranger’s clothes and skin have wafted away, revealing a skeleton draped in papyrus –that’s right, the Mummy. He fights Dracula to a standstill, saying that if they mean to continue controlling the world, they need to contact “the others.” They’re not strong enough to combat this force individually, but together… together they might stand a ghost of a chance.

Bill Nighy? Candidate for PERFECT Dracula, btw.

2.5 FULL DISCLOSURE

I stole my proposed end tag from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.

Plagiarism, naughty, I know, but this is purely hypothetical. I’m not using this for personal gain, but to highlight that it’s possible to make an exciting, multi-purposed end tag –one that’s better than just Dracula hitting on a chick and being stalked by Charles Dance smirking about letting “the games begin.”

Because that tag is stupid and pointless.

3. SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Fucking metal, that’s what.

My proposed counter-outline addresses several flaws in Dracula: Untold.

It strips away the pointless medieval politics and strategizing that were, if we’re honest, a half-assed rip of Game of Thrones.

It frames Vlad the Impaler as a person who is guided by deep-seated beliefs that extend beyond the prototypical love of one’s family, and also deepens his character as his beliefs are systematically shattered. This, in turn, enhances the Faustian element of the script which was, in the original movie, a quarter-assed. Naturally, this helps make the story more solidly action/horror. In the same turn, it allows the villain to have a real way of combating Dracula instead of laughably blindfolding his troops to zero effect or –even more laughably- fighting Dracula in a pointlessly elaborate room of silver coins.

It establishes Dracula’s relationship with his people and gives some time for him to be seen as the classical ruler of Transylvania, neither of which were attempted in the original movie.

It organically establishes Dracula’s strengths and weaknesses, as he would naturally discover his abilities, not be painstakingly told them through tedious exposition.

Finally, it establishes a shared continuity using an organic unifying element that creates a seamless world, invites future stories, and suggests the kind of characters we might expect to see. The end tag with the Mummy works on a few levels: it hints a longstanding rivalry between the two, which could be a plot point in a supposed Mummy movie; it shows that time has passed, and that future movies could take in the modern age, as is Universal’s agenda; it suggests a major adversary, which has already tangibly been revealed in the form of Satan; and it’s a greater call to action –Dracula enlisting the other Universal Movie Monsters is WAAAAAY more interesting than being told “Dracula’s living in 2014 now, and he’s just trying to get laid.”

4. WHY DIDN’T THAT HAPPEN?

Calm down. It wasn’t great for the audience either.

Rumor is, the Dracula Year Zero (Dracula: Untold’s working title) script had been floating around for years, and Universal finally decided to pull the pin on it. Problematically, half-way through production, they decided they wanted to launch their own shared universe to grab some of that sweet Marvel money, but without scrapping anything they’d already shot. Even more problematically, not everything in Dracula: Untold was as gen. audience friendly as they wanted, leading previously shot less-than-thoroughly-safe on the editing room’s floor. Some hasty reshoots later, it was still a story, but very rickety and devoid of soul or purpose. I guess you could say the “shared universe” gambit paid off; Dracula: Untold recouped its budget on its second worldwide weekend. Still, it’s unlikely to ever be more than a forgotten modest success.

As always, the big takeaways are that you absolutely need watertight script before going to production, and you absolutely need to have passion behind the material. Audiences can sniff it out in a second when you don’t.

Better luck on the 2016 Mummy reboot, I guess.

Then again, Kurtzman and Orci are writing it…

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Van Helsing: The Dark Continent

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Van Helsing (2004) is insanely underrated. Seriously people hate on it all the time, and yet nobody seems to have an adequate reason why.

For those that haven’t seen it (it’s tons of fun), Van Helsing stars Hugh Jackman as the titular character, an amnesiac charged by the Catholic Church to hunt down monsters –chiefly the primary Universal Horror monsters, Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), the Wolfman (Will Kemp), Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley), and a couple others. He’s sent on special assignment to Transylvania to break the curse over Anna Valerious’s (Kate Beckinsale) family, who’ve been barred from Heaven by Dracula. On this quest, Van Helsing discovers Dracula’s insane plot that threatens the entire world.

He’s especially threatening this dude’s neck.

It’s a rollicking steampunk horror action extravaganza blanketed under tons of camp. It knows its plot is the stuff of Saturday morning cartoon shows and that its romance is equally cheesy, and by God, it wears it well.

That’s not to say the movie’s blameless, however. Dracula reveals that Van Helsing is an ancient immortal with whom he’s clashed before in a head-scratching beat that has no dramatic or narrative impact; rather than facing Dracula himself, Van Helsing turns into a werewolf and tears Dracula to pieces in a complete and utter demolition of conflict; Anna Valerious goes from badass leader to helpless maiden in distress thanks to easy writing; and finally, Ann dies after the climax to raise unnecessary stakes and to hit home that yes, she went to heaven, ergo Van Helsing’s mission is complete. I can see how these elements could take a person out of the movie, just as I could understand how many wanted a dark, brutal horror movie. That said, it wasn’t like The Mummy (1999), identical in tone and direction, hadn’t won audiences over worldwide, setting the tone for this thing.

For me, though, Van Helsing’s a nigh-perfect storm of things I love: classic monsters, James Bond action, metaphysical & moral quandaries, zippy camp, and old-school Transylvania. At the time of writing, it’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a Castlevania movie, and dammit, that’s got to count for something.

So I waited for a sequel.

Ten years later, I’m still waiting. Upon news of Universal’s shared continuity horror universe leading up to a Van Helsing reboot, I got the most mixed feelings I’ve ever had.  New Universal Horror movies? Awesome. Written and guided by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman of Transformers 1, 2 & 3 fame?  Not so much. Having read its script, Dracula Untold (2014) has potential to be an great movie in its own right, but my hopes of a true sequel to Van Helsing are all but completely dashed.

So what better time to show the sequel pitch I wrote a few years back?

1. THE RULES

What would be the next adventure Van Helsing could have, using the remaining high-profile Universal Horror Monsters that would be an organic continuation of his character?

The answer? Quite an epic one.

2. VAN HELSING: THE DARK CONTINENT

ACT ONE

Our story begins in the heart of Africa, 1890, where smugglers plunder an Egyptian tomb for their contractors. They remove a Sarcophagus and a lapis-lazuli-encrusted golden Ankh. As they leave, the Ankh falls into the Sarcophagus, blowing it open in a burst of dust and papyrus. A desiccated creature drains all the life from one of them and disappears into the night. The Lead Smuggler watches, his chest heaving in terror.

Hey, who wouldn’t be pissed?

Elsewhere, in London, Van Helsing stalks a creature through an opera house. He enters the theater’s depths, where comes face to face the Phantom of the Opera (reimagined as a literal phantom with a banshee-like scream). The ensuing battle blows them all the way through the dressing rooms and to the main stage where Van Helsing finally slays him. To his surprise, Actresses shriek over the Phantom’s steaming body, grieving the loss of the greatest voice –and truest lover- who ever lived. Van Helsing attempts to explain that the Phantom had been a homicidal maniac, but they refuse to listen. He returns to Vatican City, confused. There, the Cardinal -the M to his James Bond- informs him of his next mission: protect shipments leaving Africa from creatures of unnatural size and shape. Van Helsing visits the Cathedral’s secret workshop, gearing up for his journey and once more taking Carl, his bumbling monk sidekick and Q to his James Bond, along for the ride.

Voted in high school “Most Needing Braces.”

Meanwhile, a clipper ship taking off from the coast suddenly gets taken down by an unseen horror. The Lead Smuggler watches from the shore, furious.

ACT TWO

Van Helsing and Carl travel to Africa’s western coast, where they encounter the Smugglers loading caged animals and barrels of jewels onto vessels. Van Helsing and Carl learn from the Lead Smuggler the many problems facing their shipments. As they make comments about how he plays chess with himself, he indicates what each country wants (exotic animals for European menageries; diamonds for America; and “work horses” [slaves] for darker parts of the world). Van Helsing doesn’t react to this last part. At the mention of enormous animals, the Lead Smuggler indicates that the Church didn’t brief them well enough -that they awakened something terrible in the pyramids. As if on cue, the warning sounds. Van Helsing and Carl race outside to find Gill-Men (Creatures from the Black Lagoon) slopping out of the water, attacking the Smugglers.

“I’m sorry, honey. I’m just not feeling it tonight.”

In a pulse-pounding battle, Van Helsing slays the creatures, but only sees further desolation in the eyes of the Natives. One of them babbles at him to which a Beautiful Native translates “You have slain many of the Great River’s sacred warriors. They were but a few. Now they are no more.” The Lead Smuggler congratulates Van Helsing, suggesting that they follow the desert horror that fled into the jungle. When Van Helsing inquires about the Beautiful Native, the Lead Smuggler doesn’t know what he’s talking about; she’s not there.

Van Helsing and Carl travel up Africa’s eastern coast by clipper ship, not seeing the massive dorsal fin trailing them. Along the way, a giant great white shark -Jaws- (Hey, Jaws is totally a Universal Horror Monster) attacks them, destroying the ship. Van Helsing barely manages to kill the creature, allowing his and Carl’s narrow escape. Carl can’t take his eyes off it, floating dead in the water. Carl’s happy it’s dead. Van Helsing… he’s not so sure. The instant they hit the jungle shores, though, they’re surrounded by Tribesmen with spears.

Don’t like it? Just wait until he’s finished with Quint.

As they’re carried off, Van Helsing sees the vibrant community of villagers, happy in their freedom. He and Carl are taken to the Beautiful Native from earlier, the Queen of the Nile (a female reimagining of the Mummy), who demands to know why Van Helsing and Carl seek to aid the Smugglers/Slavers. Van Helsing details his calling to slay unnatural beasts, but the words sound hollow to him. When the QotN reveals that the ankh gives her eternal life and control of the enormous animals, Van Helsing frees himself and attempts to slay her with every tool at his disposal. Her magic holds him at bay until she knocks him unconscious and leaves him and Carl tied to poles to be sacrificed to their jungle guardian.

Admit it, you saw this one coming.

Tied to stakes, Van Helsing and Carl argue over killing the QotN to halt the supernatural monsters. Carl’s for it, Van Helsing doesn’t think it’s so black and white. Carl just thinks he’s saying that because he doesn’t want to get his ass kicked again. The trees rustle under the movements of a gigantic monster; Van Helsing steels himself; Carl wets himself. A colossal silverback gorilla (King Kong was totally RKO’s monster, but Universal now owns the rights) bursts from the trees, preparing to devour them, when shots ring out: the Lead Smuggler and his Smugglers invade the village, saving Van Helsing and Carl. The Smugglers waste no time and shackling the Natives. Kong fights to protect the natives and the QotN. Freed, Van Helsing attempts to join him, understanding that Kong’s intentions, but before he can enter the fray, the Lead Smuggler knocks out the QotN, the Natives, and Kong with chloroform.

Didn’t see that one coming, though, did you?

Van Helsing stalks onto the Smugglers’ clipper ship only for the Lead Smuggler to congratulate him for securing such a massive bounty and protecting their interests. The Lead Smuggler snaps the Ankh off the screaming QotN’s neck and wears it proudly as his trophy. Van Helsing, leaves, enraged. He sneaks to the holding cells where he talks with the QofN about King Kong, knowing the ape’s fate: poaching. Van Helsing frees her and King Kong. Van Helsing, Kong, QotN, and Carl ravage the ship in a fiery escape, finally jumping off the boat and swimming to shore with Carl on Kong’s back. The Lead Smuggler recovers from the attack and unleashes a barrage of cannonballs -one of which hits Kong in the heart. Van Helsing mournfully holds Kong’s hand as he dies. That’s when things get worse: the QotN is drying up, appearing ever more Mummy-like. She reveals that the Ankh is the only thing keeping her alive. Without it, she, her magic, and all that stands between her people and slavery will die. The enormity of this devastates Van Helsing. But before the trio can form a plan, the Traders land, holding the heroes at gunpoint. The Lead Trader holds a knife to the QotN’s neck, demanding that Van Helsing come with them.

ACT THREE

“So what do you think, Carl?” “I think we might be screwed.”

Back at their base camp, the Smugglers torture Van Helsing and drop Carl into a tiger pit for consorting with demons and turning their back on civilization. The QotN, nearly collapsed to Mummy-dust, fights within her chained sarcophagus, a trophy to be delivered to Rome for the highest bounty. Carl desperately tries to outwit the Tigers, employing what few tricks he has. The Lead Smuggler taunts Van Helsing, telling him all he has to do is slay the “Native Witch,” and all is forgiven; after all, only slaves were lost in the shipwrecks. Van Helsing refuses, and –freeing himself from his bonds- lashes out at the Lead Smuggler, throwing the fight into the camp. In the resulting scuffle, the Ankh falls from his neck.

The QotN seizes the moment and bursts forth from her sarcophagus with the last of her strength. She crawls for her Ankh, shining so tantalizingly on the ground. Carl manages to free himself from the Tiger pit and turn the Tigers on the Smugglers, knocking over an oil lantern in the process. Van Helsing and the Lead Smuggler have an epic Pirates of the Caribbean-scale duel as the colony burns down around them. Just as the QotN grabs the Ankh, the Lead Smuggler slashes her hand clean off. He holds her at knife point, telling Van Helsing that if Van Helsing won’t do the civilized thing, he will. He slits the QotN’s throat.

Completely a Mummy by this point though, the QotN tells the Lead Smuggler that he can’t slay what’s already dead. She muckles onto his lips, sucking away his life essence, regaining her former beautiful and slaying him in the process. Carl’s rather proud of himself for escaping the tigers, but he keeps his distance from them. They’re eating the Smugglers.

The QotN offers Van Helsing the Ankh, asking if he now plans to destroy her. He is a monster-slayer, after all. He returns the Ankh, telling her to defend her people, but never to step out of line. Or he’ll come for her. She says she hopes he will, and she kisses him. Despite Carl’s protests that they slay her, he and Van Helsing leave Africa, although Van Helsing has no plans of ever returning to Vatican City. Not when they’d have him slay things just for being different.

Have Crossbow, Will Travel

SIX MONTHS LATER, in the swamps of Louisiana, dirty cultists chant over a familiar-looking idol: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! I’a, I’a, Cthulhu fhtagn!” (Yeah, yeah, Universal never adapted “Call of Cthulhu,” but maybe they should have) The idol glows with evil power, its eyes opening—only for it to explode in an echoing gunshot. Van Helsing swings out of the foliage. “Not on my watch.”

Goddamn right I went there.

3. RESURRECTING VAN HELSING

“Van Helsing: The Dark Continent” works in a few ways: it continues its predecessor’s undernourished themes of moral ambiguity and of who is/isn’t a monster, which allows Van Helsing to deepen as a character. Obviously, he and Carl are still fairly stock, but that’s the point; they’re pulp action characters, similar to a James Bond. They grow only so much as their extremely plot-driven movies allow.

On another level, it uses the Phantom of the Opera, the Gill-Man, Jaws, King Kong, and the Mummy for a thematic through-line of beauty. Each of these creatures are wonders in their abilities, their evolution, their size, or their magic and mystique. If we’re to cast doubt on Van Helsing’s crusade, we’ve got to empathize with them over the Smugglers/Slavers, who are our true villains. Setting everything in Africa naturally ties most of these monsters together and highlights a subcurrent theme of Western/European Imperialism. Being that Van Helsing starts on the Smugglers’ side, his transition is a little more tangible.

Yeah, we didn’t use the Invisible Man, but that could be an easy fix. Maybe the Lead Smuggler drinks a jungle potion or uses the Ankh’s power to become “an invisible god.” He could still have the sword fight with Van Helsing -the protagonist just fighting a floating blade- but that wouldn’t look half as cool.

Finally, it opens the doors for a third movie, which could see him at odds with the Catholic Church, where he could take on wacky stuff like angels, the Four Horsemen, and hell, maybe God –after all, we burned out all the major Universal Monsters, unless we want to open the doors to the Cthulhu Mythos. Any of this could shed light on Van Helsing’s origin and thematically address society’s decreasing dependence on God and religion.

4.  THE LAST NAIL IN THE COFFIN

So, yeah. Van Helsing. Underappreciated camp classic. So when you’re putting your Halloween movie marathon together, and you’re trying to decide whether to watch The Lost Boys (1987) or Interview with a Vampire (1994) for the umpteenth time, dare to dance on the wild side. There’s nothing quiiiiite like it.

And if that doesn’t work for you, try Deep Rising (1998). It’s a cinematic masterpiece.

No seriously.