Friday, June 20, 2008

Alucard – review

Director: John Johnson

Release date: 2008

Contains spoilers

Does the world need another version of Dracula? Does the world need an indie, low budget version of Dracula? You see, despite the reversing of the name, this is the Dracula story. The back of the DVD box proudly proclaims “The truest telling of Bram Stoker’s novel ever to reach the screen.” And, despite the fact that the film has modernised the story and moved Dracula’s relocation destination to the (one presumes) fictional city of Nilbog, it is the most novel accurate version of the book I have watched.

Unfortunately this is a weakness in the film as well as a strength, and I’ll explain in a moment, but it does mean I do not have to slavishly go through the plot as the plot is well known. It is also a long film, coming in at 156 minutes and, to be fair, given the budget that must have been on hand this is a very brave effort – no one can take that away from the film.

The juxtaposition between Stoker’s Victorian vision and the modern is interesting in places. We begin with Jonathon Harker (Liam Smith) travelling to Transylvania and he is in a mini-van rather than a coach. He keeps his diary on lap-top. As the film began I was not convinced by Smith’s performance as he interacted with the Romanian locals but the narration was good, if a tad audio book.

He is transferred, at the Borgo pass, to a coach. I felt the coachman (Joe Huddleston) looked right and was struck by the fact that they left the blue fire moments in. However the film did make an interesting divergence from the book here by referencing the blue fire but not following through. Instead Harker slept and dreamt of a cemetery scene, a vampire bride and a wolf that were clearly lifted from Dracula’s Guest.

On arriving at Alucard’s castle he meets, of course, the Count. Now Alucard (as he is referred to through the film) is played by two actors. As an older version he is played by Hal Handerson and when he becomes younger he is played by Dino A. Muminovic. Mumonovic’s role is actually very minor – Alucard is a presence seen occasionally and we concentrate very much on the actions of the hunters. Handerson, in his role within the castle, is truly playing the role in the film and has an interesting, bushy bearded look.

The film makes the Count’s appearance as a vampire quite subtle, in that Harker catches flashes of almost a cat’s eye more than anything. Obviously a use of contact lenses, it is clear that later, for both Mina (Rebecca Taylor) and Lucy (Mariah Smith), contact lenses were also employed at key times. To be honest it made good use of limited budget; red eyes for the vampirised Lucy, vivid blue for the hypnotised Mina and the count’s ecliptic pupil’s were effective without having to go over the top and ruin the effect through budgetary constraint.

When we move forward to Nilbog we see that we have the standard characters from the novel. Dr John Seward (Jay F Barber), Quincy P Morris (John Johnson) and Arthur Holmwood (Karthik Srinivasan) are Lucy’s suitors. Van Helsing (David Harscheid) is called in when she becomes ill. However it is in this part of the film that the cracks really begin to show and the main problem is within the original story versus the modern setting, most specifically in the dialogue.

I am not talking here the unfortunate error when Lucy speaks to Mina and calls her Lucy – that was an error slipping through 2 ½+ hours of film. For the most part the dialogue is lifted from Stoker with a few minor amendments referencing the modern world (cell phones and laptops etc). This doesn’t work. The genteel dialogue Stoker used was fine for a Victorian setting but simply does not work in the modern world. Of course a narration indicating that Lucy's act of turning down a suitor made her cry, whilst the image on screen was full of smiles, was unfortunate also.

It isn’t just in the formality of the dialogue, which worked within a Victorian setting but not in the modern, but also in the social etiquette. We hear Lucy talk of keeping her love of Holmwood secret and the dialogue is proper Victorian etiquette, whilst we see the lovers kissing in a lift. The mix did not work, indeed the entire suitor scenario was only suitable for another time frame. Perhaps Johnson aimed for a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ effect, where the modern and Shakespeare’s dialogue contrasted – if so it didn’t work.

This failure to update the text irked in other ways. We are in fictional Nilbog (presumably in the US) and yet all too familiar English place names are used; Whitby, Exeter, Piccadilly – and this jarred. Van Helsing does the old multi-transfusion trick on the ailing Lucy. We are in modern times, he would have got her to hospital and he certainly would not have transfused without blood typing… plus there is no way that the three suitors would have all had her blood type. The horror when Van Helsing suggested that he ‘autopsy’ Lucy was ridiculous – a sudden death in one so young would necessitate an autopsy now-a-days.

Sometimes the effects are unfortunate. To be fair some work really well – I have mentioned the subtle use of contact lenses that precluded the need for more expensive effects. There is a wall crawl in the first section that is done using a close up and lighting combination that, whilst it is clearly hiding the lack of budget, works all the same and we can forgive, and even applaud, this.

On the other hand, the scene in Carfax with the rats shows where ambition became drowned in lack of budget. The half visible overlayed rats, of low number, looked poor and the scene is one that could have been gladly dropped and only a very few would have missed its presence. Yes it was novel accurate, no it wasn’t really necessary. Especially when we consider that some scenes were missed all together.

Take the Demeter. We have reference to it listing and reference to the storm – and an unfortunate effect around the newscast regarding the storm – we even have Swales referenced. However the entire scene was dropped in all other regards. It was shot, I believe, as the credits list a Swales character and the Captain of the Demeter but the scene vanished all together other than a view of a very small craft through binoculars.

The finale is most unfortunate. The chase of the gypsies seems speeded up ala ‘El Mariachi’ and this doesn’t work at all – if anything it adds a Benny Hill quality that is mood spoiling. The battle with the gypsies, whilst bloody, clearly betrayed the budget with the gypsies coming across more like black clad ninjas than peasant mercenaries. The gypsy girl in black mini skirt was more Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in both dress and action, than Dracula.

The sound was impressive, however. There are a few glitches but the balance – for the most part – worked. Sound effects were not too high in the mix and the ‘Dead Can Dance’-esque themes worked well. The violin theme, when Renfield (John Vanpatten) was in shot, was a little too loud in mix, but not overbearingly so. The rap over the credits was unfortunate, but as credit music it is almost irrelevant – I wouldn’t have heard it if not searching actors’ names.

The acting was less impressive but this might have had a lot to do with the actors struggling around dialogue that was, for the setting, unnatural. It had a tendency at that point to edge towards stagy, perhaps an amateur play. I was impressed with Vanpatten as Renfield in the main, though I wonder again – in the modern/Victorian juxtaposition – how the entire concept of over 100 years of psychiatric research had become lost to medical knowledge. There were also script/directorial issues here. Why did Renfield eat bugs when he was vowing off them as Alucard was close, indeed why eat a worm? Why was the sparrow wriggling with maggots? Renfield would only eat live creatures – for their life – and the state of the sparrow indicated it had been dead for some time.

Settings were curtailed by budget. The castle looked, for the most part, quite good but the asylum, for instance, never felt as it should be. This was just a budgetary issue, however, and could be overlooked. Some of the external night shots were too dark (as were some interior shots) but they were not too intrusive to the experience.

This was brave – there is no doubt about that – but one is left with the feeling that Johnson bit off more than he could chew. One should not mock ambition and this was the closest anyone has gone to making a novel accurate version of the story but without the budget in place to make this a period piece they should have considered making definitive changes to dialogue and events in order to make it fit into the modern world. Brave, but far from perfect: 3.5 out of 10.

At the time of review I can find no imdb page.


Anonymous said...

I see you are a LAMB now. Sounds like we are part of some weird secret society with arcane rituals and hand shakes.

I like Mexican wrestling films too though I have not seen any since I was a kid in San Antonio Texas.

I have a youtube page with some uploads I have done and uploaded a a couple Santos trailers there if you want to check them out:

Man, I just wish I could see some of the films you review here. totally decadent. I showed my wife your blog and she was curious. She is not "like us" and sort of suffers through my movies. I am trying to get her to a guest spot on my blog once in a while. She is Chinese and I would like to hear her take on some of our western cinematic achievements, such as the Gore Gore Girls or The Corpse Grinders. She said she would like to, so lets see....

Bill from the Uranium Cafe

Anonymous said...

i'm not sure how i missed this one, but it looks like something i need to see; i see everything!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Bill... we are both on the lamb, rather than on the lam as it were! I believe we have to roll our trouser legs up!

My wife also suffers through many on my movies though she has developed a soft spot for Santo she'd hate this film.

Sir Jorge, you sound as obsessive as I ;) lol. This is fairly new on the US market - bless Amazon marketplace and the ability to get US films through it - as you'll have seen it hasn't even got an imdb page yet.