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?
The premise: After the king of fang jockeys had his way with modern-day New Orleans in the mildly entertaining Dracula 2000 and haphazard Dracula II: Ascension (2003), Dracula III: Legacy takes the trilogy to the Count’s legendary stomping grounds, the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. The film opens five years after Dracula escapes with a new, blonde-haired concubine, as wisecracking EMT-turned-badass Luke (Jason London) and legitimate badass Father Uffizi (Jason Scott Lee) scour Eastern Europe for their nemesis. To confront this evil and rescue Luke’s abducted quasi-lover, the unlikely duo ignore a volatile civil war that roughly resembles the ’90s-era conflicts in Chechnya and Bosnia. (An early sign of the film’s creaky, out-of-touch mentality, but I’ll allow it.) Although he’s rarely seen, Dracula is apparently in his war-torn element, turning lowly villages, circus performers and hidden rebel militias into blood-sucking slaves for nightly orgies at a posh, mood-lit castle. As fun as that sounds, Luke and Uffizi are hell-bent on stopping it all, beheading vamps and saving British film crews en route to a final showdown with the Count.
Where I found it: In my Christmas stocking on the same three-in-one “Wes Craven Presents” DVD as Dracula 2000 and Dracula II. If I remember right, that same stocking also held a bag of Reese’s Pieces and pack of peppermint 5 gum. My mom is scary good at feeding my addictions.
Why it caught my eye: After watching Dracula II (read the review), I had extremely low expectations for Dracula III. Truth is, the “play” options for both films are on the same screen menu, so at least I didn’t have to change discs. Asking for that sort of effort would’ve killed this experiment before it began. Also, still no Wes Craven, even in a minor producer role.
What works: For all his baffling plot choices and ham-fisted dialogue, writer/director Patrick Lussier knows how to craft a powerhouse opening scene. Like the alluring first frames of Dracula II, this film begins with Luke and Uffizi hunting two Euro-punk vampires through a creepy, shadow-filled train yard. The cinematography is spot on, the timing is pitch perfect, and Lussier masterfully shows how space can be used set an overall mood. This goodwill sours quickly, but several scenes throughout show what could’ve been, including a funny/freaky fight between Uffizi and a vampire clown on stilts. Yup, it happens.
On a purely visual basis, Dracula III looks unabashedly like its predecessor – if the two were unrelated, I’m sure there’d be some kind of creative property suit – but that’s almost to be expected. Like the Lord of the Rings films, the final two installments in the Dracula trilogy were shot back-to-back in Romania. Even if this makes absolutely no sense for the story at hand, it gives Dracula III the chance to wander through the foreboding mountains and claustrophobic forests where modern vampire mythology was born. The film never taps into that elusive sense of history, but it makes the case for a better use of the Carpathians in the future. In the hands of someone like, oh, Ti West (2009’s incredible The House of the Devil), the battered tropes of a vampire flick might feel fresh and even frightening.
Speaking of soaring above trite material, Dracula III is salvaged ever-so-slightly by Rutger Hauer’s campy take on Dracula. As the third person in three films to play the Count – Gerard Butler and Braveheart’s Stephen Billington did the dubious honors before – the legendary character actor channels Roy Batty, the dangerous replicant he played in Blade Runner. (Taken verbatim from my notes: “BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH Dracula is Rutger Hauer! Now, that was a reveal worth holding onto….not in the narrative sense, but in the way you keep an ace-in-the-hole until late in the game.”) Although Butler and Billington had no more than four combined lines in three hours of Dracula films, the white-haired Hauer makes up for that incongruous silence, hurling taunts and blabbering philosophically during his too-short battle with Uffizi. As with the rest of this trilogy, the scene is devoid of all tension and surprise, but it’s still a guilty pleasure to watch Hauer wield a broadsword while Lee goes kung-fu with whatever he finds in Dracula’s chamber. Makes me want to watch Blade Runner, or maybe a Bruce Lee flick, or maybe some as-yet-unfilmed combination of the two – with vampires. Ti West, you out there?
Footnote: The final twist is equal parts clever and clumsy, inevitable and nonsensical. In essence, it’s a thesis statement for the whole damn trilogy. Even if Lussier had no clue he was doing so, I give him credit for unconsciously commenting on his own mediocrity.
What sucks: Like Lussier, I feel as though I’ve treated this film (and the entire Dracula trilogy) a bit harshly. They aren’t blatantly offensive or unbearably painful, but sometimes, calculated mediocrity is almost worse than straight-up suck. I sincerely hope the set designers and cinematographers are doing better things, and actors like Hauer, Lee, London and the rest certainly aren’t strapped for cash. These films are teeming with talent – even Lussier shows signs of inspiration – but the whole is far from the sum of its parts.
Why does Dracula III disappoint in the worst kind of harmless way? A final example: Early in the film, Uffizi ruminates on Dracula’s many forms, faces and reincarnations, telling Luke how even the church doesn’t know how vampires began. These blood-soaked legends are different from culture to culture, but the promise of immortality pales in comparison to eternal slavery and suffering at the hands of a sadistic Count.
Uffizi’s impassioned speech is surprisingly eloquent – Lee takes his time getting to the point, and the scene is better for it – but the underlying logic doesn’t jive with the world Lussier created in his previous two films. If Dracula can never die, why do Uffizi, Luke and a slew of vamp hunters try so hard to destroy him? This incongruity is never explained or acknowledged, even as it becomes the emotional and narrative core of the entire final film. Lussier’s take on Dracula doesn’t play by his rules, and in a fantasy world, that’s a cardinal sin.
Verdict: A mediocre conclusion to a mediocre trilogy. Before pop culture moves on from vampires, I hope at least one genre director releases a more thoughtful, articulate take on the Dracula legend.