Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Remembering and Reimagining Dracula

I'm watching the 2006 Dracula on Masterpiece Theater. At first I thought that  this was another case  of me reading a book a long time ago and not remembering a good part of the plot. This happened with Oliver Twist. I remember the scene where Bill Sykes is hunted down and killed like a dog very clearly, but when I watched the Masterpiece Theater version, I was surprised to find that it had a large role for a character named "Monk". Who was this Monks fellow, and why didn't I remember a thing about him? Did they just make this stuff up? Oliver Twist didn't need an evil cousin for Oliver. A quick check on Wikipedia revealed that I had forgotten a good part of the plot of Oliver Twist, or more disturbingly that the copy I'd gotten from the library was abridged and that I had read the book without realizing it!
To this day I'm not sure why I don't remember Monks.
So, when I started watching the new Dracula, I was baffled.
I don't remember Holmwood as having Syphillis! I remembered that the novel had sexual undercurrents but in typical victorian fashion, I remembered them as being rather frustratingly masked in quaint melodrama. All in all, my impression of the book was that it was rather trite. Idealistic women are attacked by a menace from the mysterious east. Brave and manly English men will try to save their idylic maidens through donating large quantities of blood through archaic surgical methods, but to no avail. One woman is brought back to life as a sensual vampiress. The manly gentlemen hunt the beast to his lair and drive a stake through his maiden-corrupting heart.
I didn't really realize that the story could be reinterpreted as an allegory for Victorian attitudes towards sex until I saw the brilliant, wordless ballet "Dracula, Pages from a Virgin's Diary".
While "Pages from a Virgin's Diary" was clearly a fantasy on the theme of Bram Stoker's novel the new Masterpiece Theater version goes as far as to reauthor parts of the story but keep the original title.
Lucy's Westenra's husband, Holmwood has "the syff". He'll do anything to avoid passing it onto the pure Lucy, and anything to avoid the horrible death that his father and mother endured as a result of the disease.
So, Lucy marries him and experiences extreme sexual frustration as her husband avoids the bed and joins a mysterious cult that promises him brand new syphillis-free blood and immortality.
Guess who the cult is bent on importing to England in a ship full of dead men?
Speaking of which, that guy playing Dracula looks really familiar....oh, God. It CAN'T be.

A quick search on IMDB shows....Marc the role of MONKS in OLIVER TWIST.

Anyway, MONKS....sorry.....Dracula shows up and, in what seems to be a nod to Buffy, Lucy invites him in.  It doesn't take too long for him to suck Lucy's blood, transforming her from  frustrated newlywed to undead sexfiend vampire-beast.  He then proceeds to mack on Mina while Holmwood and the some other guy who was into Lucy find a hobo hiding amongst Satanic altars in what appears to be the Holmwood Manor's wine cellar who says his name is Van Helsing. Turns out the death cult duped Mina's squeeze, Harker into taking some real-estate deeds to Dracula in Transylvania.  Van Helsing was the realtor who started the deal and managed to get out of going back to close it.

Anyway, there is very little suspense leading up to the eventual staking (innuendo may or may not be intended) of undead Lucy and Monks, but a whole lot of people get killed who shouldn't and the fate of the death cultists isn't really tied up. Also, because it's a modern horror movie, it has to have the two seconds of twist at the end that nullify the activities of the last hour and a half. The undead corpse opens its eyes. The TV flickers on and evil Sadako's hand reaches over the rim of the well. The serial killer escapes from prison. You know what I mean.

I might be being a bit harsh on the movie. I liked the idea of Holmwood having syphilis and needing dracula to relieve him of it, though I thought the whole death-cult thing was a bit cliche. I agree that any interpretation of Dracula needs to make clear the sexual undertones of the book, but I thought this movie handled it a little inelegantly:
The story does keep the basic skeleton of events of Bram Stoker's original. Harker goes to Dracula's castle, finds disturbing things about his host and escapes. Dracula bites Lucy. Lucy's two lover-boys try to save her. Dracula goes after Mina. Lucy comes back, gets staked. Van Helsing is a crusty old man who beleives in dead vampires and the missionary position and he and the men go hunt down Drac and stake him too.
Everything in between is made up, though, and a lot of the players are killed off and their roles taken by other characters who had a bit part or none at all in the book. I say that this reimagining is inelegant because the screenwriters could have underlined the sexual aspects of the story without rewriting it.
There is a reason that Stoker's work is a classic. As antiquated as its narrative sometimes is, it handles sexual repression in a very subtle and masterful way. To make a work of the same name that rearranges and cobbles stuff into the plot is in my mind arrogant. It's saying "I can do better than that". If you're arrogant, you've got to have the chops to back it up, and the screenwriters here don't.
Aside from my philosophical beefs, though, the addons feel clunky and out of place. As I said, the death cult subplot isn't tied up and is pretty cliche. I also couldn't figure out how Drac and all those Satanic symbols ended up in what seemed like someone's root-cellar. Van Helsing was chastity's badass, but now he's not even an expert on Vampire, but a hobo who got sent on an errand to deal with Dracula.


Gina said...

That's interesting about the syphilis connection. A friend of mine has done some research on the history of horror, including the theory that Dracula represented the fear of syphilis. Intriguingly, even the PBS series website touches on this! Strange that they would give the disease to one of Dracula's non-victims, then.

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