Sunday, August 16, 2020

Dracula the Messiah: Part One – the Deceiver – Review

Director: Gregory Motton

Release date: 2020

Contains spoilers

This is the first of a trilogy of films, based around the novel of Dracula and quite ambitious in scope – this part, which takes us up to Dracula making landfall in Britain, is around 2-hours.

From this first entry, it seems that they form an undoubtedly brave production. They are flawed, certainly, but are worth a look for what they do offer. The first thing to mention is that this is a black and white production and, whether it was meant or not, the tone reminded me of the necrorealism movement. A Russian art movement, the primary example in the vampire genre is Daddy, Santa Clause is Dead and concerns itself with dark humour and themes of death, decay, and the transformation of the body. Now, to be fair, the vampire genre does theme itself, at the very least, on death and transformation of the body to a greater or lesser extent. However, that theme of death is key here.

the King and the spear
So, the film starts with scenes from Wallachia circa 1447 and we see the (sickly) King Basarab Laiota (David Stirrup) who speaks of the usurper Vlad (Philip Blair) and his atrocities. The film slips into a dream like state throughout, where reality and fantasy converge and collide, and so we hear about a boy with a lance, and see the king held at bay with the lance that drips with blood (it isn’t named as such, but perhaps it is the Spear of Longinus). Flipping from that scene he orders his knights, and the people, to hunt Vlad down. The actual killing of Vlad is low key – with a single knight and an injured Vlad killed – but it works. As he dies, Vlad calls on Satan.

Simon Usher as Hawkins
Cutting forward to 1889 and we see a woman (Åslög Von Ros) in a lake, observed from the show by a man – Dracula. His costume gives the appearance, to me, of an orthodox priest but the crucifix he wears is inverted. Over in England, Mr Hawkins (Simon Usher), is giving final instructions to Jonathan Harker (Brendan Kjellberg-Motton) about the trip he is to take to Count Dracula. It is interesting, of course, that the choice was made (whilst keeping Vlad Ţepeş' Wallachian association) to move the action from Transylvania to Moldovia. It is also interesting, when we see Hawkins on his own, that he is in league with Dracula and a Satanist and has no care for the fate of the emissary he sends. I’ll go into their philosophy later.

Åslög Von Ros as the woman
Next we get Jonathan’s carriage ride and here we get one of the main issues with the film. Whilst it is gorgeously shot, many of the scenes are ponderous, overly long and drag the pace of the film to a standstill. Indeed much of the length of this part is offered through meandering scenes that cry for an editor’s judicious cuts. The carriage has to stop for a woman (also Åslög Von Ros) who gets in the carriage. She wears a veil and suggests that she is going to visit her sister, who is described as backwards and wanders the woods. Whether it is this woman, or her sister, who is called Lilith (as per the credits) is unclear in this film but the second film lets us know that the sister is Lilith and is also referred to as daughter of Satan.

Brendan Kjellberg-Motton as Harker
The woman alights from the coach and walks into the wood. She comes across the small shelter (from where her sister prostitutes herself) but is soon attacked by Dracula, who strangles her. The carriage stops and drops Jonathan on the road, he claims they have been going in circles. He walks into the woods, eventually finding the body of the woman. After he passes her, Dracula comes and carries the body away, unseen by the solicitor. Jonathan then, eventually, reaches the castle and meets Count Dracula.

Philip Blair as Count Dracula
It is here that the next issue with the film comes in. The sound recording is inconsistent, dialogue is sometimes overwhelmed by environmental sounds and often low in the mix against music. I’ll mention here the more contemporary (original) songs. Where the film relies on a classical score mostly it does introduce songs, which ape Bob Dylan in timbre, whose lyrics are very literal around the scene and which do not fit. At all. The songs, of course, are a stylistic choice – the recording and mix issues are a real shame.

Dracula and Harker
So, Dracula and Harker talk and, as well as openly suggesting his great age (Harker assumes he speaks about ancestors), Dracula soon lays out his philosophy. He sees God as the enemy, as God has decreed that all creatures must die. From the Hawkins dialogue we see that they wish to remove death (via vampirism) and it is implied that Hawkins lost a loved one early. Dracula goes as far as suggesting that God feeds on the deaths of his creations, gaining life from those deaths. This is the crux of the version and it is also this that, along with the timbre of the photography, firmly brings the necrorealism to mind.

And yet the film remains ponderous. There is a full psychosexual aspect with the sister in the woods who prostitutes herself, lying still (death-like) as peasants’ rut with her and also feed from wounds in her limbs. Dracula himself feeds repeatedly from her and a sign by her shelter says “I give eternal life and death – 1 krone per mouthful”. At one point we see her walked away on a leash and crucified by her customer, before sex, but the viewpoint shifts back to the shelter where the crucifixion appears to be a fantasy in her mind. Related to this theme, at one-point Harker directly asks Dracula why he destroys women – the answer conflates lust and destruction and suggests that he destroys as God does but before *she* has created. It adds a misogyny to his philosophy.

the brides
It is worth mentioning the brides. Down to two, one of them would seem to be the veiled sister (now without veil) and the other appears to be the image of Mina (Charlotte Rogers), who we have seen back in England with Lucy (Olga Brook), as they speak to Mr Swales (David Motton). We see the younger feeding on Jonathan and then the two nonchalantly (at first) dismissed by Dracula – though in answer to the question of love this Dracula is equally dismissive and says “What is love among us”. Later we see the younger apparently dashing the baby in the sack to pieces. His reaction to the brides, and the way he has devolved them with vampirism from those who are the cradle of life to violent child killers, matches the thoughts he expressed about women.

the  younger bride
So, this is really interesting but it is not an easy watch due to the pacing issues and the sound issues. The performances for Dracula and Harker were perhaps too understated but, strangely, that worked for the tone of the film. Yet I do not want to sound too harsh. Clearly a lot of thought and work has been put into it, there is a vision here that is unique amongst productions of Dracula. How it will hold up across the three parts remains to be seen and, despite the effort required, I will certainly be watching the whole vision. For this part, 5 out of 10 seems fair – balancing a distinctive vision and some lovely photography against the ponderous moments and poor sound.

At the time of writing there was no IMDb page. The film is on YouTube here. My thanks to Zahir, who spotted the film.


stevAlban said...

I did go and have a look after reading your very interesting review. I didn't have a problem with the pace, but maybe I like ponderous. I pondered along with it. It sort of hits you on another level, its more like a dream. I watched bits over and over so for me it was EVEN longer! Its like one of those crazy old films from the 20s, but you can sleep through those and then wake up mind-altered. The songs? – I''m like a dead bird nailed to a tree. Fairly original I thought, and fitted ok , just wasn't period. But yes, those recordings did sound like they were at the bottom of a bucket. True enough, this is the opposite of the BBC one that you scored 8. Is there a number that is the opposite of 8? Maybe 2? I would give this one that number. Weird stuff. Gets my vote though.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hey stevAlban, thanks for stopping by.

These things are always subjective and I take your point with the songs, but as well as not being period I think they tended to overwhelm the visuals.

Overall, this is a really brave production and nothing can take that away from it, and I'm glad it gets your vote :)