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The Macabre Brothers share an affinity for bargain-bin horror films. It’s actually more like an addiction – hardly a month goes by without one of us wasting $5 on some dubious DVD title. Such impulse buys may not deserve a full review, but like porn, they’re worth a quick and shameful glance. In Basement Ramblings, we answer your most meaningful question: Is this month’s piece of crap worth the price of a Big Mac?

By Phil

A DVD cover that manages to combine Hannibal, Queen of the Damned and Star Wars in one. Just an indication of things to come.

The DVD cover, which manages to combine HannibalStar Wars and Interview with the Vampire in one package. Just an indication of the unfocused film to come.

The premise: Set in turn-of-the-millenium New Orleans – it picks up within hours of its predecessor, Dracula 2000 – the film follows a group of young, sexy med students doing boring, bookish med student things with their wheelchair-bound professor. Life gets interesting when a goofball EMT named Luke (Jason London) brings the charred body of Dracula to the crippled dude’s girlfriend, Elizabeth (Law and Orders’ Diane Neal, one of many “I recognize that person” actors). After a mysterious caller offers the two a cool $30 million for the body, a scythe-wielding priest (Jason Scott Lee) arrives in town to hunt down the Count. An ill-fated attempt to revive the weakened vampire drags the students, their prof and the priest through the Big Easy’s curiously empty streets and buildings, ultimately leading to a ton of beheadings and needle sharing.

Where I found it: In my Christmas stocking last year, as part of a “Wes Craven Presents” disc with Dracula 2000 and the final installment in the trilogy, Dracula III: Legacy (2005). Apparently, Mom takes my fetish for DVD-bin garbage to a whole new level, indulging in not one, but three titles at once. If I’m a hopeless junkie, she’s my willing dealer.

Why it caught my eye: I’d heard of Dracula 2000 during its brief box-office run, and while I was mildly curious about Wes Craven’s take on vampires, I never got around to watching it. I had no idea the film spawned two sequels, both with subtitles just vague enough to be disappointing and oddly offensive.

Turns out, Wes Craven was little more than an executive producer for the first film – let alone the writer or director – and he’s credited for jack shit in the later installments. (The Hydra-like Weinstein brothers, who somehow found time to be involved in all three films, must own the rights to his name.) That realization dulled my interest pretty radically, but meh – smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

What works: The opening scene is a doozy. Sure, the generic European cobblestones are as unbelievably barren as the New Orleans back-alleys to come, but the cat-and-mouse scene sets an immediately visceral and fun-loving tone that the rest of the film struggles to maintain. It also harbors one of writer/director Patrick Lussier’s few inspired moments – the dark, foreboding figure chasing the nubile young woman is actually the good guy, while she’s the blood-sucking hellspawn – and sets up Jason Scott Lee’s priest as one helluva badass with a fetish for removing heads. He’s essentially a low-rent Blade with a clerical collar, but wouldn’t the priesthood be so much sweeter if the church ordained heavies to take out vampires? That’s the world I one day want to live in.

dracula-ascension1

One of several ill-fated vamp junkies, moments before his decapitation by whip. Sweet.

Anyway, Lussier (who directed and wrote all three films in the trilogy) does a decent job of eking the most from the film’s miniscule direct-to-DVD budget. While those abandoned streets and close-cropped shots are initially distracting, the restrictions lead to unexpectedly creative set design, like the abandoned manor where Dracula is brought to life in a bathtub of blood, or the drained swimming pool where he’s later chained beneath sunlamps. Granted, a vast mansion on a secluded plantation may not be wildly original – Interview with the Vampire (1994) did it lusher and sexier – but it’s presented in stark, atmospheric fashion, with surprisingly imaginative cinematography. If nothing else, the film is a pleasure to watch.

And truth be told, Dracula II would be pretty damn entertaining as a YouTube supercut, a 10-minute clip of the sweetest kills, bloodbaths and vampire fuckery, all edited together into something as lightweight as the material requires. The same could be said for a lot of ho-hum horror films, but the highlights of this flick are just passable enough to deserve it.

What sucks: I’ll use the same supercut idea to explain why the majority of Dracula II can be cut with little ceremony, even at an already lean 85 minutes. Take the promising elements at play: vampires, bathtubs of blood, killer priests, a modern-day Dracula, imaginative beheadings, New Orleans, sexy med students. Now, bury those in an infinitely dumb script that requires characters to yell what they feel, veers inexplicably from dramatic to bizarrely comic, and disguises utterly nonsensical twists as revelatory and vital. In short, the story makes no goddamn sense, and that’s after I buy into the idea that a group of educated 20-somethings believes the secret to longevity can be found by injecting vampire blood directly into their veins like some cadre of homeless, herpes-riddled junkies. A quick and dirty YouTube edit seems more enticing by the second.

dracula-ascension2

Cinema’s most feared vampire, just hanging out in the tanning bed where he spends most of the film.

But the problems run deeper than a script in need of several dozen revisions, finally tracing back to the entire reason for this film: Dracula. Unlike the fun (albeit lightweight) twist in the opening scene, Lussier’s feature-length “twist” takes an intriguing premise and completely botches the execution: For most of the film, Dracula is essentially a helpless prisoner. This conceit turns the film into a chamber play with vampires, where tension and suspense come from figuring out who will crack and a) inject the Count’s blood, or b) set him free. And it could’ve worked – in different hands. By chaining his title character to various walls for more than an hour with little to do but look pathetic, Lussier defangs one of cinema’s most cunning baddies. The best vampire films are about smoldering sexuality and the allure of fear – Bram Stoker’s original Dracula was equal parts vulnerable and dangerous, occasionally weakened but rarely out of control – and this film is woefully in need of both. When Lussier’s Dracula escapes (spoiler!), it seems more like an accident than part of some master plan. The film abruptly ends soon after, and all I could do was shrug at what could’ve been.

Verdict: An unexpectedly competent action/horror hybrid brought down by a needlessly hacky plot and several non-starting ideas. It can be breezy and fun if you have nothing better to watch, but I’d rather zone out with Blade II.

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