Improvising telling but subtle details on the fly is tricky, especially if the players catch you off-guard. They’ve suddenly flown to Iceland to follow a lead you hadn’t prepared, and now you’re scrambling not only to get back ahead of the Agents, but also get a handle on where the overall campaign is now going. With all that to think about, atmosphere and description suffer, and your NPCs become bland stick figures who meet the PCs in, I dunno, an office or somewhere.
Using motifs – ideas that recur in different forms throughout the campaign – can help with this. It’s the classic “constraints breed creativity” trick – if you’ve got to somehow associate Random Icelandic Dude with blood in the players’ minds, that’ll give you a starting point to riff from and get you off the blank page of the mind. Maybe he’s a farmer, and he’s just slaughtered a lamb when the PCs arrive. He’s a surgeon. He’s wobbling and pale because he donated blood this morning. He’s got ketchup on his face. Anything that suggests blood works.
There are two other benefits using motifs. Firstly, they’re a device to add a feeling of cohesion and consistency to a work. Used properly, they make a campaign with a lot of side trails, dead ends and random weirdness seem more like an actual polished story in retrospect. More importantly (from the rat-bastard GM point of view, as opposed to the lit critic in me), motifs are great for retroactive revelations. If, later in the campaign, you need to reveal that the Icelandic farmer is a minion of Dracula, you can retroactively decide that the blood on his hands was human blood from the hitch-hikers he killed! That bat beating against the window at Hillingham House wasn’t a bit of spooky atmospheric description – it was Dracula himself, spying on the Agents! Every motif can be a trapdoor. Everyone’s a suspect.
Use motifs as modifiers – instead of coming up with a new NPC/Location/Object, take an existing one from the Director’s Handbook and work the motif into your description. Associate one or two themes with each major faction in your campaign. You might push the Dracula-Blood connection, and reserve Rats for Edom’s spies and thieves.
Major motifs lifted straight from the novel:
Associations: Vitality/health/strength/lifeforce, family & lineage, hearts, passion, wine (through Jesus Christ), stains (guilt), injuries (‘shedding blood’ as a badge of honour).
- Visible scrapes, bandaged wounds (“cut myself shaving this morning, you see”)
- Red jewellery or clothing (“in the Whitby gloom, her red scarf looks like blood gushing from her pale neck”)
- Small bloodstains on collar, cuffs or shoes (“one of the kids had a nosebleed – the washing machine didn’t get it all out”)
- Eating a rare, bloody steak (“my doctor says it’s bad for me, but who wants to live forever”)
- Breath smells metallic (“she’s beautiful, but her breath turns your stomach when she gets close to you”)
- Phobia of blood (“It makes me feel faint – please don’t make that Medic roll in here.”)
- Drinking red wine (“a rare vintage, laid down by my grandfather”)
- Cuts themselves while talking to the Agents (“she gets so pissed at you she knocks her glass off the table with an angry gesture. As she’s picking up the pieces, she cuts her finger open on a jagged fragment.”)
- Bloodstains on the ground in or near the location (“looks like someone had a fight outside the office last night – the ground’s dark with dried blood that wasn’t washed away by the morning’s rains”)
- Dark red walls (“you can almost hear the decorator saying it’ll make the room feel warm and cosy. It makes you feel like you’re inside a hunk of raw meat.”)
- Red stains or marks. (“The old pipes spit out rusty, reddish water.)
- Inherited property. (“It’s been in my family for generations. This place is in my blood.”)
- Sound like a distant heartbeat (“some piece of machinery in the basement’s making this rhythmic hammering noise, thump thump thump thump, and the vibrations go right up your spine and echo in your ribcage”)
- Nearby medical facility (“there’s a blood donation van parked in the car park of the community centre across the street”)
- Reddish colours, stains or markings (“the diary’s written in dark red ink”)
- Bloodsucking things nearby (“after wading through the leech-infested marsh, you find the buried box”)
- Emotional reactions (“your blood runs cold when you look at the portrait”)
- Inherited object (“to think that Quincey Harker once wielded this knife! It fires up your blood!”)
- Evocative hiding place (“you find the diary inside an old winepress in an outbuilding”)
Bats and Rats
Associations: Filth and disease, nocturnal predators and scavengers, hiding in holes and caves, unclean animals, eating insects
- Rat-like features (“she’s got very prominent front teeth, like a rodent”)
- Skulking demeanour (“he’s in a corner of the bar, so well hidden you nearly miss him.”)
- Gnawing or scavenging (“he starts burrowing through the piles of reports and letters on his desk. It looks like this guy’s a total packrat.”)
- Disconcertingly good night vision (“even though you’re hidden in the dark shadow of the hedge, he looks right at you and sniffs the air, like he can smell you”)
- Pet rat or bat (“I found it in the garden this morning. Poor thing was starving. I’m feeding it with an eye-dropper.”)
- Taste for cheese. (“It’s an excellent variety of Edom. I’m sorry, Edam.”)
- Visible mouse hole in the skirting board (“You can’t help but notice a small hole behind the desk, littered with chewed scraps of paper”)
- Mouse droppings on a surface (“the kitchen hasn’t been cleaned in years. Mouse droppings and worse in the cabinets.”)
- Scratching in the walls (“you try to sleep, but there’s a mouse running around the walls near your bed. It sounds like it’s trying to claw its way inside your skull.”)
- Rats crawling over garbage. (“There’s a back door in a garbage-strewn alley. Rats look up at you with brazen curiosity as you pass, utterly unafraid of you.”)
- Animal brought in to keep the rats down (positive spin: “a small terrier bounds into the room, something tiny and furry caught in its jaws. It shakes its head violently and there’s an audible snap a the rat’s neck breaks. The dog drops the body at your feet.” Negative: “a white cat, more like a furry rugby ball than anything else, snores lazily on the couch, ignoring the mice darting across the floor”).
- Bats crashing into windows or beating against them is a classic, and always good for a jump scare. Players are a cowardly and superstitious lot.
- Stored with rat poison (“you find the gun under the sink, behind some black bin bags and a box of rat poison”)
- Unusual interest from bats (“as you leave the graveyard, you see a huge number of bats settling in the nearby tree. Suddenly, there’s a thump as one of them flies low and slams into your briefcase, as if it knows what’s inside.”)
- Animal tooth marks on the object. (“The coffin’s been chewed by rats.”)
- Animalistic decorations (“you can’t find a printer’s name or publisher on the book, suggesting it was privately printed. There’s a little symbol on the spine that might be stylised bat.”)
- Evoke animal imagery when describing it. (“Thick grubby electrical wires, like a cluster of rat tails,run into a brass port on the underside of the machine.”)
Associations: Illusions, trickery and sleight of hand; deception; vanity and the ravages of age, espionage and double agents (‘wilderness of mirrors’), parallels and counter-examples, reversals.
- Seen first in a mirror (“he stops to look in his reflection in a shop window”)
- Mirror shades (“the border guard is wearing mirrored sunglasses”)
- Has a hand-mirror or very shiny surface to hand (“he has the annoying, childish habit of angling his watch face to catch rays of sunlight and bouncing them around the walls and into your eyes”)
- Dopplegangers & duplicates (“you see an older, heavyset man with thick brows, wearing overalls. It’s only when you get closer that you realise it’s a different man. It’s not the Russian.”)
- Mirroring body language (“she leans forward, copying your stance. Psych 101, creates a feeling of shared experience and promotes bonding and trust. Damnably effective when you look like she does, too.”)
- Shadow duplicate of Agent (“The name’s Hayward. You must remember me. I was the year behind you at Cambridge, you know, and was on the Bucharest desk after you too. Our paths diverged after that, of course – I never left the Service.”)
- Prominent mirror in room (“the lobby’s huge, but the full-length mirror running down one wall makes it feel like you could meet an aircraft carrier here for coffee without inconveniencing anyone”)
- Reflected or symmetrical structure (“her office is in the east wing, just across the quad. The only building is a copy of itself, so much so that when you look across the courtyard, you see three figures much like yourselves in the corridor opposite.”)
- Still, reflective water (“The pond outside Carfax Abbey is long gone, but water pools on the Meath road in much the same place, reflecting the wintry skies.”)
- Broken mirror or glass. (“The windows around the back are all cracked. Looking for a place to peer in, you’re momentarily arrested by the sight of your own reflected eye staring back at you.”)
- Silvered or glassy surface. (“It’s art,” she says doubtfully.”The owners like it.”)
- CCTV Cameras (“The security post has a bank of monitors showing all the feeds. You can see yourselves crouched in the corridor outside the post.”)
- Fake or duplicate item in same place (“he collects 19th century maps, so it’s only after sorting through a dozen Austro-Hungarian surveys of the mountains do you find the annotated version you seek.”)
- Hidden behind a mirror (“searching the bathroom, you find a syringe behind the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet”)
- Copy of original document (“the original files are gone, but you dig up a photocopy.”)
- Wrapped in silver foil (“the inner crate is lined with some tin-foil-like substance, interleaved with swatches of ballistic cloth”)
- Image of Agent or key NPC (“A sketch of your own face stares out at you from the first page. It must be a sketch of your great-grandmother. The resemblance is uncanny.”)
Other motifs from the novel: Revenants and the Un-Dead, Superstitions vs. Technology, Stories Told Indirectly
If you hang around my social media presence (or Ken’s, whose twitterings are to mine as Dracula is to a small fruit bat), you may have seen this funky diagram floating around.
It’s a map of every (or nearly every) node in the Dracula Dossier and the connections between them. I ostensibly built it as a proof of concept to show that you can start anywhere in the campaign and theoretically fight your way through that chain of clues all the way to Dracula, but mainly because I had gone a bit mad from cross-referencing annotations, which is why it looks like something you’d find in Renfield’s cell.
(It’s done, by the way, in Scapple, a very simple mind-mapping program. There are doubtless other more powerful and/or cheaper apps that do the same thing – I know people who use Campaign Cartographer – but Scapple was both easy and already on my machine, so I went for the lazy option. There’s a free trial of Scapple if you want to play with these maps – and it even exports straight into Scrivener for all your Edom-fanfic needs.)
That crazy mish-mash of a chart is utterly useless as a reference, of course, but mapping the nodes visually can be a handy tool for the harried Director. Here, for example, is a snapshot of a campaign that’s just started.
The players have decided to investigate annotation CU120. That annotation references the Jewelled Dagger, the Satanic Cult, Carfax, and Dracula’s safehouse network. Last session, the players began by using their contacts in Sothebys to research the provenance of the dagger. They then poked around Carfax and the old safehouse network, where they ran into the MI5 Agent and got warned to stay away from matters that don’t concern them (Make Inquiries on the Edom response pyramid). Unperturbed, they guessed that there might be hidden, unmapped tunnels leading to the cellars of the old Carfax building, and spend Network points to obtain ground-penetrating radar gear from the Seismologist.
So, what’s likely to happen this session? What should the Director prepare for? They haven’t followed up on the Satanic Cult lead yet, but if they do, the Psychic will probably come into play as an occult expert or the heir to the cult. If the Agents question him, he’ll point them at Coldfall House.
The Seismologist is currently just a background character who provided them with useful gear (dropping “canon” NPCs in as Network contacts is a fantastic way to enmesh the players in the world of the Dossier), but as soon as they realise he knows something about Operation Edom, he can point them to his old work colleague, the Retired Computer Boffin.
The Mole Hunt Who’s Who
Here’s a map of who-knew-who (or who was “supposed” to know who) during the 1977 mole hunt.
You’ve got Cushing right in the middle, as the liaison between Five and Six. He’s got all his contacts and experts in London on the left side of the map, and the ongoing mess in Romania on the right. (Look at the Sculptor, off on her own unconnected to any other node – she’s a wild card in the investigation, a backchannel to connect any other two nodes.)
You can use these maps to plot different facets of the investigation. For example, say one of your players is really excited by the prospect of black magic, of forbidden tomes and underworld sorcery, and another one wants to get into the investigation of the war on terror and keep things relatively low-key and gritty. By pulling a selection of appropriate nodes into a map, you can find places where these two spheres of interest intersect, so both players get what they want out of the campaign. Here, I’ve grabbed a bunch of campaign elements that I know pertain to either the occult or terrorism, and smeared them across a canvas to see what suggests itself.
Right away, we’ve got a clear line of inquiry that runs from the DIFC Tasker through Holmwood and the British intelligence establishment through the Black Site stuff in Bucharest and into Al-Qaeda in Rum. We can hook in some occult elements along the way – maybe AQIR have gotten hold of an earthquake device (presumably, the one left behind by “Van Sloan’s” team in 1940. And that Spirit Board, sitting in the middle of the map – it’s tantilisingly close to the “Black Light” Black Site. The idea of interrogating people from beyond the grave could be fun, and reminds me of the Dead House in Munich.
We also have a bunch of smaller clusters or wholly unconnected nodes. Has the Archaeologist uncovered the Scholomance? Is the Caldwell Foundation operating out of the British Library? What’s the deal with the Bookseller?
Here’s a more evolved version of the same map, and the Satanic Cult comes to the fore.
You can see how they’re pulling the strings on both sides of the war on terror. Through Philip Holmwood (Minion version) they can influence Edom’s choice of targets. Through the Tour Guide, they’ve put the Medievalist (now an AQIR sympathiser) in touch with the Bookseller who supplied the Earthquake Device. The Caldwell Foundation is carrying out its own investigation, using the Psychic as a double agent – but the Cult are making arrangements to flip the Psychic by providing him with his longed-for copy of Le Dragon Noir. Maybe if the Agents can intercept the Smuggler, they can stop their plan and keep the Psychic on the side of the angels.
The Archaeologist is still off to the side, not really linked into the main plot. That’s fine – I can drop hints and foreshadowing relating to him that might never pay off, or I can bring him onstage later on if the campaign’s heading for a big setpiece involving the Scholomance or Zalmoxis. Similarly, I’ve left the Enigmatic Monsignor floating – I’m suddenly taken with the idea that the Black Site Interrogator’s off-the-books dabbling in necromancy have plunged him into religious terror, and the Agents could flip him by posing as priests and reawakening his lapsed faith. (Glancing at his writeup, I note that Ken has serendipitously given him an older brother in the priesthood – I might retask the Enigmatic Monsigor for that role).
Note the Arms Runner’s connection to Leutner Fabrichen and from there to the Syrian General. If the players get bogged down, I can have them run into the Arms Runner, giving them another avenue of investigation that’ll lead back to my main plot.
The other key map to your campaign, of course, is the Conspyramid. As you play through, keep building the Conspyramid from the bottom up as a tool for pacing. For example, here’s how part of the Conspyramid might look in this case.
I’ve added the Romanian Ministry of, er, Cult-ure as a Level 3 node to bridge the gap between the Tour Guide/Bookseller and the Cult itself.
(The upcoming Dracula Deck of cards works great for this sort of visualisation, too, if you don’t want to spend hours entering every node into Scapple again after forgetting to save the first two times, he muttered bitterly. Here’s a Scapple document containing every single node, also available in XML.)
Horror of Dracula (1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Dracula: Christopher Lee
Consider this film (just called Dracula in the UK) the anti-Coppola Dracula. Relentlessly modern (it was the first Technicolor vampire film) and breathlessly paced yet luridly Gothic to the core, carving to the heart of Stoker’s novel while discarding its plot almost entirely, it would be a great Dracula movie for those reasons alone. But it has in addition three advantages that no production has had before or since: Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, and Terence Fisher’s sure, bold direction. Fisher’s sincere Christian vision, of Dracula as a fundamental story of good vs. evil, permeates the film. Lee’s Dracula both tempts and terrifies, fully animal and entirely demonic — all in only 7 minutes of screen time. Cushing brings Stoker’s multi-dimensional Van Helsing more than alive as well: pious scientist and plague-fighting philosopher, faith and reason joined. Cushing also depicts Van Helsing’s human tenderness and innate leadership qualities with economy and confidence, throwing into stark contrast his more-than-surgical strain of violence. To Fisher, the best of men can still be a beast; the worst of demons is all too attractive. But throughout, Van Helsing and Dracula remain almost polar opposites and their war is a war — is the War — for all humanity.
The film is not perfect, of course. The now-primitive day-for-night shots make exteriors chancy, the comic relief at the border hangs an unfortunate lantern on the claustrophobic setting (instead of countries across a continent from each other, civilization and Hell are in neighboring postal codes), and Hammer’s idiosyncratic love-hate relationship with the British class system mars the narrative of middle-class heroes reducing an undead aristocrat to dust. The third-act turn (taken from the cursed Deane-Balderston play), in which Dracula’s hiding place turns out to be the Holmwoods’ cellar, works thematically but not narratively. But across all that, Fisher shoots a realistic nightmare, building shots from parallel rising action, and filling the frames with color and natural motion — the wind effects in this movie alone should be mandatory viewing. Like Cushing’s Van Helsing, Fisher’s lens combines realism and even irony with faith and violence, that latter quality incidentally unleashing Christopher Lee to become a great actor and a generation’s dream of Dracula. Horror of Dracula, I submit to you, is the greatest Dracula movie ever made.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Here to catalogue books (and your comments and responses) and kill vampires, it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order the glorious sunlight that is hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
We couldn’t wait to see photos of the Dracula Dossier books, and so many kind backers indulged us by posting their photos on their own social media pages, on the Dracula Dossier Facebook page and on the Dracula Dossier GMs-only Google+ group. They’re so artful and fun, we couldn’t resist sharing them with everyone! Thanks to everyone who agreed to let us share their images.
In October 2015, Kenneth Hite created the 30 Days of Dractober – taking you on a tour through the cinema de Dracula! Every day he looked at one film version of the legendary story, from the classic NOSFERATU to the, um, less than immortal DRACULA 3000. Hit the Hammer highlights, the Lugosi limelights, and more — with suggestions on adapting any or all of them for your own vampire games – in advance of The Thrill of Dracula, where Ken shows you how to build new yet mythic stories about the King of the Vampires or about your own creatures of the night, tuned for thriller adventure, cosmic horror, or even intense personal drama. Here are the links to the full 31 DAYS OF #DRACTOBER:
Count Dracula (1970)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1973)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Drakula Istanbul’da (1953)
Count Dracula (1977)
Blade: Trinity (2004)
Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
The Return of Dracula (1958)
Scars of Dracula (1970)
Buffy vs. Dracula (2000)
Dracula’s Curse (2002)
House of Frankenstein (1944)
The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)
Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Dracula 3D (2012)
Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002)
Dracula 3000 (2004)
Dracula Untold (2014)
Horror of Dracula (1958)
Dracula Untold (2014)
Director: Gary Shore
Dracula: Luke Evans
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a shooting star! It’s a FIST OF BATS! This latest effort by Universal to revitalize their once-glorious monster universe franchise casts a cape-bedecked Vlad the Impaler as half combat-god Batman (“sometimes the world doesn’t need a hero … sometimes it needs a monster”) complete with silly post-Coppola rubber armor in a closet, and half death-from-above Superman complete with a Kryptonite-like weakness for silver. And let’s be honest with each other: the Supervlad parts of this movie are pretty bat-tastic. Considered solely as cut scenes, the forest-hunting bits and battle footage work well, the big impaling scene is Hammer Gothic (but too short), the FIST OF BATS redefines “out there”, and the final fight between Vlad and Mehmed the Conqueror (avert your eyes, history majors and/or people who can use Wikipedia) in a veritable Scrooge McDuck tentful of silver coins manages to be both spectacular and original. As a Dracula: Year One effort it also checks some boxes while performing the vital service of adding a completely screwy new turn to the mythos, in this case Charles Dance as Vlad’s nosferatu sire (intriguingly named “Caligula” in the script) trapped in a Carpathian cave literally lined with crushed human bones.
The actual script, not so much. Leaving aside the “brilliant warlord who never bothered to raise an army or teach anyone to guard a perimeter” problems perhaps necessary for proper superheroics, there’s at least one major scene missing (how do the Turks get into the monastery? how does Mehmed learn Vlad’s weakness?) and a crippling laziness at the story’s Braveheart heart. Turning epochal psychopath Vlad Tepes into Batman is bad enough, but making him William Wallace to boot is a bridge too far (and too well-trodden) even for a comic book movie. These decisions obviously weaken any pretense that Vlad is actually history’s (or legend’s) Vlad the Impaler, but they also weaken Universal’s notion that this pretty-boy superdad ever turns out to be, y’know, Dracula. In fairness to Evans, he’s never asked to play Dracula by the film, which walks back the one truly awful thing he does — raise an army of vampires from his Wallachian followers to gut the Turkish army — almost immediately. This is supposed to be the Faustian story of an evil warlord who finds even worse evil waiting, or failing that, of a good man who becomes a monster. Instead, it’s the story of a good father who gets a FIST OF BATS and somehow it doesn’t cheer him up. Although it makes me pretty happy.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Glutted on a skull-full of nosferatu blood (and on your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order 24-karat hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Director: F.W. Murnau
Orlok: Max Schreck
To sum up: F.W. Murnau illegally adapted Dracula, changing the names (Harker becomes Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina becomes Ellen (Greta Schroeder), Dracula becomes Orlok) and location (1890s London becomes 1838 Wisborg, Germany) while adding an apocalyptic plague element missing entirely from the novel. This fooled nobody, and Florence Stoker sued him into bankruptcy. The court ordered all prints of the film destroyed, which fortunately didn’t happen. The Murnau-Stiftung restored version from Kino Lorber is on Amazon streaming, and is in better shape than many other silent films of the era.
Critically, what else is there to say? It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple. Only its court-enforced obscurity allowed the Lugosi-Browning version to become the default cinematic Dracula, and with its return from legal un-death it has infused not only Werner Herzog’s direct remake (and the 2000 E. Elias Merhige satire Shadow of the Vampire) but Coppola’s free-roaming shadows, Maddin’s Freudian interiors, Argento’s insectile atmosphere, and Tim Burton’s fever-dream Gotham City. Max Schreck’s ratlike, pestilential Orlok serves as a skulking anima to the dominant seducer-Dracula, remaining always in the shadows of the archetype to become the Other to even the vampiric Other. Scriptwriter Henrik Galeen was Jewish and production designer Albin Grau a Crowleyite, but when you create a cinematic Other in the Weimar 1920s, you wind up with a hook-nosed Easterner spreading poison into the pure heart of Germany. Bram Stoker was a lifelong philosemite, and even he sipped from the anti-Semitic well for the novel. Galeen and Murnau also charged Stoker’s subtext of an impotent Harker vs. an omnipotent Dracula by infusing Ellen’s sacrifice with notes of erotic longing and eagerness missing from the novel’s Mina. Weirdly, Grau also Otherizes the occult: the Hawkins-Renfield blend Herr Knock (Alexander Granach) corresponds with Dracula in sigil-bespangled Enochian letters only to go mad, and the “Paracelsian” Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) remains almost entirely useless during the film, unlike his model Van Helsing. The end result is nonetheless, as I said, a masterpiece. As Roger Ebert wrote, Nosferatu “doesn’t scare us, it haunts us.”
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Restored by later cinephiles (such as our commentors and responders), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order carefully storyboarded hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Dracula 3000 (2004)
Director: Darrell James Roodt
Dracula: Langley Kirkwood
A Warning to the Curious: This is the worst film I have watched for this project. By far. Compared to this movie, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is Unforgiven. IMDB users have rated it the 37th worst film of all time. It is not “so bad it’s good.” The cheese promised by a film “starring” Casper Van Dien, Erika Eleniak, and Coolio (a holy trinity of terrible cable) is rancid and stale. Nobody cares at all. Even with two robots and a chunky Midwesterner making fun of it in the corner, it would be nearly unwatchable. Filmed on what may well have been a derelict freighter or abandoned factory or both (do spacecraft in the year 3000 have concrete floors? 1960s radio equipment? VCRs?) weirdly bedecked every so often with Soviet imagery, its lighting and sound convey no menace. The script is outright insulting, although it does convey a certain sweaty, herbed-up feel of junior-high D&D games complete with a discussion of the planet “Comptonia,” full of hos and weed.
Don’t worry, the rest of the references aren’t that subtle, or that well handled. For example, ship’s knowitall Arthur Holmwood (Grant Swanby, determined to lose the acting contest to Van Dien) discovers that Captain Van Helsing (Van Dien, determined to remember his next line) is descended from the vampire hunter who killed Dracula a thousand years ago. (Shouldn’t the knowitall be Van Helsing and the captain be Holmwood? Yes, but compared to swapping Lucy and Mina around this is admittedly a minor change.) They agree the chances of such a meeting at random are astronomical, it must be a setup or a plan! But when Van Helsing confronts Dracula (traveling under the name Orlock, perhaps out of embarrassment) with his identity, Dracula doesn’t care any more than the audience does. So you’re saying the script intends to indicate divine action in bringing them together to destroy Dracula? Of course not, because that might be interesting. Despite a very odd insistence that nobody in the film recognizes a cross (“religion was banned 200 years ago” they unsplain to each other) the whole topic is dropped unceremoniously, along with the whole hunt for Dracula, once Van Helsing-Dien is vampirized. Instead, the surviving crewman “Humvee” (Tiny Lister) and the android Aurora (Erika Eleniak) go off to have sex until the ship blows up. Which Dracula somehow prevented Udo Kier (!) from doing 50 years ago, but apparently even he agreed that this movie had to be stopped.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Expanded from this early version (stuffing your comments and responses into its tank top), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order pre-recorded hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Director: Tod Browning
Dracula: Bela Lugosi
Is it possible for a film to be simultaneously iconic and bad? Not “iconic for being bad” but plain old iconic — establishing the rules for cinematic Draculas to respond to or rebel against for the next century. In the first act of Dracula, Browning (and cinematographer Karl Freund) and Bela Lugosi combine their talents to present a Dracula inextricably tied to the past, to the Gothic, to aristocracy and queasy seduction, to brutality, to unnatural sex and inverted Christianity. All of these things (except mayyyybe the seduction) come straight out of Stoker, but Lugosi dials down the novel’s animalism and plays up the mesmerism (following the path of the stage play he’d performed the lead in for years) and scriptwriter Garrett Fort introduces the — iconic — line “I never drink … wine.” Even after decades of camp and detournement, Lugosi’s authentically Transylvanian accent still sells that line along with Stoker’s classic “children of the night” and the play’s “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime …” dis of Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). The play provided the evening clothes and opera cape, but it was Lugosi’s decision on stage and in film to code Dracula as a mentalist or magician, and to play him as a “Valentino gone slightly rancid” in Dracula scholar David Skal’s memorable phrase. Even Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman bow to Lugosi’s performance in their own, and Frank Langella purely updated Lugosi’s seducer to the 1970s.
The lesser parts have also felt the Browning chill: Dwight Frye’s unhinged Renfield has almost completely erased the novel’s genteel madman; David Manners’ (or rather the script’s and director’s) bland Harker has likewise nearly expunged the novel’s heroic lover. And here’s where we must take notice of the second half of the question, because Dracula is a bad movie despite its legendarily perfect first act. Browning wrested control from Freund but didn’t care enough to use it: shots become static and stagy, the actors are lost or falling back on instinct, whole plot lines ignored (Lucy isn’t staked in the film) or stepped on (Dracula is staked off screen). Why the movie drops dead 20 minutes in remains an open question: was Browning drunk, a silent director out of his element, pining for his dead muse Lon Chaney Sr. (who would have played Dracula had he not died of cancer in 1930), or sabotaged by a junky script based on the stage play and by Universal’s Depression-era penny pinching? The end result is a film as incompatible with itself as its famous armadillos are with Dracula’s castle, a film trapped between terrifying life and stultifying death.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Surrounded by armadillos (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order mesmerizing hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002)
Director: Guy Maddin
Dracula: Zhang Wei-Qiang
This Guy Maddin film, originally intended for Canadian TV but given a theatrical release thanks to its rapturous critical reception, is simultaneously by far the most audacious and nearly the most textually faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Foregrounding the novel’s subtexts of immigration panic, absentee landlordship, and “the Eastern Question” along with its more often cited wellsprings of female sexuality unleashed, it also takes the opportunity to incorporate little-used novelistic elements such as Mrs. Westenra’s role in her daughter’s death, Quincey Morris, and Dracula “bleeding money” when stabbed. Oh, and it’s a silent, expressionist ballet with a Mahler soundtrack (First and Second symphonies) and lightning-fast neo-Eisensteinian editing (by deco dawson, also credited as “associate director”). But then I said “Guy Maddin film” up front.
If you haven’t seen any Maddin films, this may not be the place to start. (Try Careful, or The Saddest Music in the World, first.) But there’s something to be said for just diving right in, the way Maddin does with this project. Given Mark Godden’s pre-existing adaptation of Dracula for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Maddin made the decision to make a “silent film that just happens to have dancing” rather than a dance movie, and to re-adapt the source material to suit his own idiosyncratic filming and visual styles. Maddin sends his cameras into the midst of the ballet, blending the dancers’ language of gesture and motion with silent film’s language of blocking and emotion into a roller-coaster of expressionism-squared. Zhang’s Dracula is emotion incarnate, mirroring the newfound lusts of his victims and then overmastering and devouring them. Color tints or washes, stark intertitles (often taken directly from the novel’s text), and sudden changes in lighting and resolution create discrete cinematic moments that nonetheless flash by like images in a zoopraxiscope. Maddin claimed to have only read the first half of the novel, and to not even like ballet, and yet he creates a dreamlike tour de force worthy of consideration alongside Murnau or Herzog while exceeding them textually and perhaps even poetically.
The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a “first cut” essay on a cinematic Dracula. Filled with polluted blood (and with your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order red-tinted hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!