Alarm bells should always be ringing when you come across a film that is ‘presented’ by a well-known director. Usually this indicates that a) the film isn’t directed by said visual auteur, even though their name is smack bang on top of the title, b) the studios were not confident enough in the film itself so rubber stamped a well-known director to get bums on seats and finally, c) it won’t be as stylish as you would have expected from a well-known horror icon.
Although Dracula 2000 (or Dracula 2001 if you’re from the UK) was not directed by Wes Craven, compared to the multitude of terrible vampire flicks churned out around the late 90’s and early 00’s, Dracula 2000 isn’t all that bad. It has some pacing faults, MTV-style editing and some poorly miscast actors, but this bloodsucking offering stands out by genuinely doing something unique and different, amid all the Buffy’s and Blades of the time. There are some very neat twists found within the film, not all original, and the overall tone seems to pay homage to the Hammer Films Studio’s movies of yesteryear. The final revelation stands out as one of the most interesting concepts for the Dracula lore, from an otherwise saturated genre, but we’ll get to that soon.
As we close on the fiery garbage pile of this year, we’re looking at all things apocalyptic, and you may feel that vampires don’t necessarily fit into this category. When you think of the apocalypse the first things that spring to mind are Mad Max style wastelands, shuffling zombies or a worldwide virus that could potentially shut everything down.
Hang on a second…
Tales of horror, no matter how primitive, are allegorical by their very nature. Imagine if you will, the patient calmly talking to the psychologist about a fever dream – the patient wakes up one day and looks in the mirror only to see all their teeth crumble like dust in the reflection. Horror movies are the same, they’re usually talking about one thing but meaning another. The element of allegory is there only because it is built-in, impossible to escape. Horror appeals to us because it says in a symbolic way the things we’re afraid to say outright, the things that scare us to death in a safe environment. Sure, you may watch the screen through latticed fingers covering your eyes, but it still allows you to have that healthy purge of the things you dread the most happening to characters onscreen.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in this instance, has various themes playing throughout its narrative – immortality, the inevitability of death or our own mortality, sexual awakenings and sexual ambivalence, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that these alone are the boiled down archetypes running throughout the novel. I’m sure you would be able to find dissertations and essays focusing on just one of these themes throughout the internet, but today dear reader, I only want to present one to you befitting the topic of this month: the vampire as a virus.
Yes siree, there’s one scene in Dracula 2000 that resonated with me upon viewing it in our current pandemic situation that caused for some rumination. Dracula (played by a pre-fame, smouldering Gerard Butler) has turned three women into his vampire brides (played by Jennifer Esposito, Colleen Fitzpatrick and Jeri Ryan). They’re in New Orleans, during a Mardi Gras parade and in the third act of the film, Mary Heller-Van Helsing (Justine Waddell) is walking through the crowds, watching the brides of Dracula freely suckle on hapless revellers’ necks as she makes her way to confront the big bad.
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“[…] this bloodsucking offering stands out by genuinely doing something unique and different, amid all the Buffy’s and Blades of the time.”
The people being turned into lesser familiars are never heard of again. There are no scenes showing them being staked through the heart, turned back into human form, or simply disintegrating when daylight breaks the next morning. The only logical conclusion is that once the brides of Dracula have feasted, these poor unfortunate souls would also crave blood and would turn other people into doomed victims.
Just like a virus, they would multiply. If anything, looking through the gaps in our fingers onscreen has strangely become the normality of day-to-day life, with people staying in their homes (not much unlike a coffin) only being allowed out at certain times (just like vampires) and craving Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream at strange moments of the day. That last point might just be me, however.
But enough about that, as it’s not all doom and gloom. Let’s look twenty years to Dracula 2020.
Despite its brazen, unmitigated use of Virgin Records as product placement throughout the film, director Patrick Lussier’s Dracula 2000 ranks as one of the better vampire epics about Bram Stoker’s bloodsucking evildoer. It bounces some of the common threads you would already know of Stoker’s magnum opus into a modernised MTV-centric era, but Joel Soisson and Lussier have done a commendable job of adapting Stoker’s novel whilst retaining the flavour and vigour of the original.
Most of the traditional book characters return, though some are slightly altered in the process. Aside from Dracula, Van Helsing is back and so is Dr. Seward, but Seward gets the short end of the stick in this adaptation. Indeed, he appears in only one scene before the vampires give him a swift exit. As it turns out, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) is a man with a deep, dark secret, and he now operates the Carfax Abbey as a museum of antiquities. (Dracula purists would see the tip of the hat to this reference, when Dracula immigrated to England, he chose Carfax Abbey as his destination where he would reside.) Dracula has been kept in the abbey’s vault for centuries under the watch of Van Helsing in London. Thinking that there must be something valuable in the highly protected vault, a group of thieves break into the abbey and bypass the sophisticated security system, only to find a metallic coffin.
Assisting Van Helsing is Simon Sheppard (Jonny Lee Miller of Trainspotting) who acquires antiques for Van Helsing. There’s supposed to be a mentor/father like subplot between these two characters but unfortunately this doesn’t resonate so well throughout the script. There’s a scene where Simon explains to Van Helsing’s daughter that he was a bit of a tearaway when he was younger, and it was Helsing Snr. that put him on the righteous path, but it just seems tad shoehorned in with all the action occurring. Johnny Lee Miller, although English, puts on a very weird cockney type accent that seems discombobulated with everything else going on. He’s not really given much to do in this, apart from turn up at certain times, have a fight scene and be the white knight for Van Helsing’s daughter.
Meanwhile, Van Helsing’s secretary, known only as Solina (Jennifer Esposito of Crash), violates his trust and is the mole that brings in the thieves to rob the place. This was a little twist that I didn’t see coming, thinking that she would be one of the main protagonists, rather than an antagonist. Primarily, she believes that Van Helsing’s state-of-the-art security system must be guarding valuables, so she and the apparent leader of the gang, Marcus (Omar Epps) are considerably distressed when all that they find are ancient skulls and a silver casket. This is where the pacing issue comes into play for Dracula 2000 – the first half an hour plays out more like a heist film than anything else – there are booby traps within the abbey that kills two of the thieves, and although I guess it’s setting up the tension for the inevitable release of Dracula into the world, it seems a little slow paced and detached from the rest of the film.
Marcus and his remaining surviving bandits load the coffin onto a plane and fly to New Orleans, but their transport crashes into a Bayou when Dracula escapes from captivity. Being hungry, ‘ol Dracs decides to make an in-flight meal of the crew (and who wouldn’t…I mean he’s been in limbo for hundreds of years.) A pre-fame Butler plays Dracula with all the ruggedness you would expect from his later rom-com/action movies, so if you like your Dracula looking at the camera in a ‘come hither,’ type of way, then I guess this is the interpretation for you. He says little in the whole running time of the film and comes off less scary and more smouldering than anything else. But as mentioned, it depends on how you like your type of bloodsucker in your vampire flicks.
“[…] the first half an hour [of Dracula 2000] plays out more like a heist film than anything else […]”
He doesn’t waste any time though, hitting the streets of New Orleans in search of Van Helsing’s estranged daughter, Mary Heller-Van Helsing (Justine Waddell). Mary has been experiencing hallucinations about a tall, dark stranger in her life, and it becomes apparent that she shares some type of bond with Dracula. This is where Dracula 2000 excels, delving into the deeper themes and ideas that have made Stoker’s novel so timeless: the blood exchange in both book and film acts as a metaphor for heredity, for the inherited taint of evil that each human (but especially, here, Van Helsing and his daughter Mary) must fight against. It’s a pity that this wasn’t expanded upon in the film: the dangers of familial influence and blood inheritance, so significant to Stoker’s portrayal of the battle of good vs. evil on an internal level, but nonetheless it’s a different take on what we’ve seen onscreen before and makes a welcoming breath of air to a somewhat tried and tested formula.
At the finale, we learn Dracula is (plot twist) Judas Iscariot of Biblical fame. This is an interesting interpretation of the myth of Dracula. As any fan knows, Dracula, like any other boogeyman of the era has his weaknesses. Stake to heart, silver, etc. But what’s interesting is to why Dracula exists. After betraying Jesus and earning his thirty pieces of silver, he attempts to commit suicide, but the rope snaps and he’s left as an immortal. It’s not made entirely clear whether this was some type of curse bestowed upon him, or some divine retribution, but it’s a new take on the mythos and one that is quite original in its premise.
Director Patrick Lussier keeps the blood and gore to a minimum, although there are quite a few amusing decapitations thrown in for good measure, and New Orleans looks appropriately Gothic as the setting. There are some scenes that seem a little comedic (the fight scene between Simon and Marcus, for example) and there’s an ethereal feeling that the whole tone of the movie shifts imperceptibly from one scene to the next. From the quippy, moan inducing one liners after Simon dispatches of a vampire, are we meant to take this as a light-hearted take on the Dracula mythos?
The heist scenes from earlier on don’t really support this, but then certain actors seem to chew the scenery with their newfound vampiric powers…floating love scenes add in a pinch of lust and desire, but you never really get the feeling that it’s connecting – it’s merely window dressing. Butler plays it straight as the count, performing with the seductive version of the character rather than the terrifying. Lussier brought back this monster for two other sequels, if you still have a hunger for it after the credits roll. Butler sat out Dracula II: Ascension and Dracula III: Legacy where the late Rutger Hauer took over the role.
The decision to set the film in the present day (or…the year at the time it was made, 2000) will jar some fans of the novel, and like the most recent BBC dramatization of Dracula, you’ll either dig it or you won’t. There is a romanticism feel of the Victorian era we all associate with Dracula that gets lost here, but again, this decision works for the story, reminding us that for all our elegance and sophistication we think we have, we can’t be sure that the old evil creatures of folklore won’t snag our legs from under the bed. This was exactly the sensation Stoker himself worked so hard to create. For his vampire to scare us, we must believe that he can exist in our world.
And who would have believed in 2000 that a virus twenty years later would make us all stay inside our houses, like vampires in their coffins?