Dracula Untold (2014)

Okay, I’ve linked to this before, but check this out. This is the trailer for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Note the over-the-top action, etc. etc. etc.

Now behold Dracula: Untold:

I’ve also pointed out the similarities here before, but having just seen the film I’m struck again by how easily it could slip into the current Castlevania mythos. Much of the elements are there already, and the plot could actually be seen as a halfway point between the original Castlevania storyline and the Lords of Shadow reboot.

None of this is necessarily bad. I love Castlevania. I just think the resemblance is uncanny, to the extent that I wonder if the filmmakers behind Dracula: Untold are fans of Konami’s venerable series.

In the film, Luke Evans is Vlad the Impaler, the prince of Transylvania–which of course doesn’t quite make sense. The historical Vlad was the prince of Wallachia, but it doesn’t matter because vampires. Vlad, who in the film was raised as a soldier by the Ottoman Turks and later returned to rule his homeland and totally not at all plot his revenge, finds himself placed in the awkward position of having to tell the Sultan that the Sultan cannot have what the Sultan wants. And what the Sultan wants is 1,000 boys to bolster the ranks of his army, including Vlad’s own son. So, you know, that’s not something Vlad supports. So there’s some grunting and some posing and Vlad kills some Turks, which is bad because of course this means WAR.

But wait, before that, Vlad and some of his soldiers discovered that there’s a vampire who lives up in the mountains. It happened at the beginning, we already knew about it, so it is not a deus ex machina, guys, okay. Jeeze.

So Vlad decides to make a deal with the devil. Or actually, he decides to make a deal with the guy who made a deal with the devil, and he gets some cool batsy powers out of it, but has thereafter to sip the most dangerous wine. Which is blood. Or, well, he will, if he can’t go three days without feeding on somebody–at which point the “Master Vampire” will be free to roam the earth again, and he, Vlad, will become a full-fledged vampire. GUESS WHAT HAPPENS.

There’s not a great deal more to it than that, I’m afraid. The plot is quite thin, mostly an excuse to string together cool action sequences and angsty posturing. But actually–and I’m as surprised as you by this–it all kind of works. At least, it does if you’re already invested in the Castlevania brand of Dracula shenanigans. Which I am.

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*Stare* *Frown*

Evans is actually a good choice for Dracula in the Casltevania vein–if they ever did a serious film version of the games, he would be a natural choice. He manages the stoic, tragic hero bit fairly well (not that there’s much substance to the role), and he pulls off the action scenes as convincingly as could be hoped in such a CGI-heavy film. The only thing he’s lacking is the facial hair.

*STARE* *FROWN*

*STARE* *FROWN* *BEARD*

Let’s be clear here: this is a ridiculous movie. It is, like most mainstream studio films, cinematic junk food. But it does vampires in a way that few recent films (or any media) have, namely, in the Castlevania way, which I like. In case you hadn’t heard. The script is fairly weak throughout, with lots of anachronistic English-accented dialogue and heaving bosoms courtesy of female lead Sarah Gadon, but everybody does their best with it, and it comes together as a fun, if shallow, action film with a few hints of darker stuff beneath the glitzy surface. The darkness, by the way, is mostly courtesy of Charles Dance as the “Master Vampire,” the conveniently local elder monster who gives Dracula his powers in the first place.

I feel like I want to give it a solid three scoops out of five, but for the sake of consistency with my other reviews, I’m knocking it down to 2.5. Because, again, Dracula Untold is not really a good movie by any stretch. But it’s entertaining, and that should be worth something. If you’re in the mood for a slick, insubstantial romp with some cool vampire imagery, this is the way to go.

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Guest Post: The Hellbound Heart (1986); Hellraiser (1987)

Hello, Mike again, here to report on the more lucid ravings of the one-eyed madman I keep chained in my storage space. After my last piece for this blog I have decided to keep up the trend of writing on horror stories/novellas/novels that have been turned in to movies. And boy howdy, does it turn out that a lot of bad stories have been turned in to worse movies.

Speaking of both of those things: Clive Barker.

Barker almost has his own corollary to Rule 34: If it exists, Clive Barker has written a sadomasochistic short story about it. Barker came to prominence in the mid-80’s writing a series of short horror stories, many of which have been turned in to very shitty movies. OK, and one pretty awesome one, which may be a topic for another day.

His most enduring work in terms of cultural influence, and the one I’m here to talk about today, is The Hellbound Heart, first published as part of the anthology Night Visions in 1986. You probably know it better by the 1987 movie version Hellraiser. Hellbound would later be the subtitle of the second Hellraiser movie, but we’ll get to the sequels in a bit.

The story opens to a fellow named Frank Cotton, a hedonist who has traveled the world fulfilling every carnal desire imaginable, leaving him incapable of feeling pleasure. We know by page 2 that this story doesn’t make any sense in today’s age, because I don’t care what depraved stuff he’s into, a Craigslist account would keep him busy until he dies from chafing and dehydration. Anyway, rather than go to Thailand like a normal white guy suffering from a midlife crisis, he hears rumors about something called the Lament Configuration, an artifact said to bring infinite pleasure. Protip: Anything with “Lament” in the name probably isn’t out for your best interests. Also, he finds it in Germany. Just sayin’.

Frank opens the box, and for some reason is surprised when it unleashes the Cenobites instead of… I don’t know exactly WHAT he was expecting to come out of the box, but what he got was this:

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I know he was going for scary, but what he achieved was Human Plinko Board.

…And he said sure, sign me up. I mean, I tell people I’m up for anything, but if this thing tried to pick me up at a bar and asked if I was looking for a good time I would politely decline, go home and seriously reexamine my life. The Cenobites try and tell Frank that what he gets may not be what he expects, and that once he signs on the dotted line he’s theirs, lock, stock and blood-filled barrel. But this is a horror novel, so he takes one look at the horrifically disfigured creature covered in severed tongues and can’t wait to drop his pants. The rest of the novel is iron-hooked, skin-wearing demonic torture for all. Rule 34 indeed.

Like some kind of deranged hipster, Barker was in to torture porn before it was cool. The man practically invented schlock horror. Almost all his stories are over-the-top violent and gruesome. Hardly a page goes by without someone getting skinned alive or their eyes pierced or having their children eaten while they watch. The bitch of it is that this is what makes them all virtually unfilmable. The gore is so extreme that any attempt to film them with a straight face is laughably inadequate. Seriously, go watch Rawhead Rex. I’ll wait.

Back? Will you ever unsee the prosthetic wobbling penis-y monster? No? Awesome. Welcome to my hell.

So is Hellraiser really any better than the rest of Barker’s cinematic abortions? Yes, but only because the bar is so low it’s buried under the continental shelf and the mole people keep whacking their shins on it. Most of the monsters in Clive Barker’s other movies are just generic heaps of hilariously bad prop parts and teeth. With the Cenobites (which is a word for religious people who live together in a community) the monster design people let themselves go wild and twist the human form into things that were both disturbing and interesting.

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Pictured: A great disguise, apparently.

Also, the demons (at least in the short story) weren’t really the bad guys at all, Frank was. They were more like facilitators: they came when Frank called, warned him before they gave him exactly what they said they would, and only attacked the protagonist because Frank was wearing his brother’s skin as a disguise. Once Frank was exposed, the Cenobites took his body and soul and went away and left the others alone. And they were kind of idiots. They’re supposed to be trans-dimensional demi-gods of pain and suffering, but they’re fooled by Frank wearing a meat suit. All this time it turns out that Leatherface was a master of disguise.

Oh, and the movie sequels. The sequels that cemented Hellraiser as a horror franchise. The sequels that put Pinhead in the pantheon of horror movie legends like Jason, Freddy and Mike Myers. The sequels that are so bad Clive Barker himself has disavowed them. Think about that. The man who wrote, produced and directed Lord of Illusions thought Hellraiser: Inferno and its successors violated his sense of artistic decency. That technically makes them a war crime. I won’t delve any further into them here, but the last 5 have been direct to DVD, so I think that’s all that needs to be said.

So how does The Hellbound Heart stack up? It’s OK, I guess. By Barker standards it’s kind of tame. Some good visual imagery, but amongst his flayed body of work it’s really stock. It did give us Pinhead, even if he was barely mentioned in passing in the actual story. No, seriously, he’s in three sentences in the beginning: “Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy-the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated.” Hard stop, cut the checks. The actor who played Pinhead in 8 of the 9 movies was given the choice of playing either him or the Engineer, who was the leader of the Cenobites in the novel and just looked kind of shiny. He eventually got so good at putting on the makeup himself he got credit in some of the films as an assistant make-up artist.

And Pinhead really is the lasting legacy. Amongst the jokey villains of other ’80’s slashers like Freddy, Chucky and the Leprechaun, Pinhead was a refreshingly no-nonsense character. He wasn’t there to crack jokes and kill pot-smoking teenagers, he was there to drag your sorry ass off into an alternate dimension filled with 31 flavors of pain. Pinhead existed solely to look terrifying while standing next to increasingly bizarre-looking sidekicks. His tone was calm and businesslike. It’s as if you were up against Satan’s lawyer. Which, to be fair, is way more horrifying than anything Wes Craven ever did.

Also, and this is an absolutely true statement that my wife will confirm, to this day I avoid puzzle boxes just in case.

I’d give it 3 ice cream cones pierced with hooks and screaming in unending agony out of 5.

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