Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the people behind some quality Doctor Who, Jekyll, and Sherlock bring you an updated vampire story.
Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) is being interviewed by a very interesting nun, Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), and her assistant (Morfydd Clark). Harker reveals that he was brought to Transylvania to help finalize plans by a Count Dracula (Claes Bang) to move to England, but he was trapped by the Count, who it turns out is a vampire, which you probably guessed because I can’t imagine you not knowing who Dracula is. Vampire stuff ensues.
So, I’m giving a content warning here: This show is pretty damn gross. It includes things that you probably never wanted to see if you have a queasy stomach. It didn’t bother me much as a veteran of ‘Nados both Clown and Shark, but it might gross out a lot of people. While vampires have been very visceral in the past, some of the stuff in this series goes out of its way to be more unnerving and it’s probable that Dracula actually exaggerates it to make himself more terrifying and dramatic.
The series makes the interesting choice to start off by being fairly faithful to the book and then deciding, only after we think we know where this is going, to diverge wildly. The focus of this series is on the relationship between Dracula and Sister Agatha, a refreshingly bold and snarky character for a horror series set before the 1990s. She spends most of her time on-screen exploring Dracula’s powers, mocking him, or threatening him, despite the fact that he can easily murder her without any effort. While she is fascinated with him because he’s a vampire and a sign that the supernatural is real, he is fascinated by her boldness and refusal to fear death.
Claes Bang’s performance as Count Dracula is a relatively new take on the character because he acquires the traits of the people on whom he feeds. As such, the character actually morphs and changes over the course of the series, sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently, to reflect the attitudes, desires, and sometimes even mannerisms of other characters. The fact that it is fairly subtle is actually to the show’s credit, because over-emphasizing it would seem gimmicky. The show does actively demonstrate that Dracula gathers information by drinking blood, however, which proves to be an interesting power that isn’t usually explored in this manner (aside from Hellsing). Dolly Wells’s performance is equally interesting, because she seems almost as sociopathic as Dracula at times, but it’s always based around destroying him.
The set pieces are extremely elaborate, ranging from a very well-designed version of Castle Dracula to a passenger ship that seems to be almost as labyrinthine at times. The costumes, likewise, are well-done. The dialogue is pretty solid, although it doesn’t stand out compared to other series by this team.
The downside to the show is that it never quite figures out how it wants to handle Dracula. It takes some shots at vampire mythology, but mostly holds them up even though they “don’t make sense.” Dracula is supposed to be a complicated character who can be sympathetic while also being horrifying, but he’s so focused on enjoying himself at times that it’s really hard to be either. I think he has more than enough screen time to get there, but it just doesn’t come together as strongly as it should. Still, the scenes of him trying to one-up his enemies are pretty fun.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed the series quite a bit, but I admit that it is not going to be most people’s cup of tea. At times it’s dumb and kind of gross, but it is consistently those things so I can suspend the right amount of disbelief. The biggest problem with reviewing it is that I don’t want to give too much away, because the fact that it starts so traditionally before quickly going in its own direction is one of the strengths of the series. I’d say watch the first episode
Yesterday, The Adventure Zone podcast did a Halloween special which had a reference to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that I just couldn’t stop laughing at, even though it was so straightforward. But, either way, I decided to do a bonus review of Castlevania in their honor.
Netflix decided to take a shot at every other studio out there by adapting a video game and, despite all of the past history of adapting video games to a narrative (Phoenix Wright notwithstanding), did it really well. Admittedly, the history of adapting video games to television (particularly cartoon series) is much stronger than to the big screen, but those were mostly aimed towards children. This is very much aimed towards people who played the original Castlevania games on the NES, all of whom are now adults.
Vlad Tepes Dracula (Graham McTavish) is… You f*cking know who Dracula is. Well, he’s out there Dracking it up when he is visited by a young woman named Lisa (Emily Swallow) who wishes to be a doctor and believes that Dracula would be the person who would know the most about human medicine, as he has collected books for centuries on every subject and read them all. Not only is she correct, surprisingly, but her resolve towards science and medicine takes Dracula off-guard and he ends up falling in love with her and marrying her. She tries to teach him of the positive traits of humanity and he begins to soften.
Unfortunately, twenty-ish years later, Lisa is accused of being a witch (because she’s a doctor and a woman) and is burned at the stake. This leads Dracula to declare that he will spend one year creating an army of the damned, after which he will kill everyone in Wallachia, the kingdom that murdered her. The phrase “Y’all done f*cked up now” comes to mind. Sure enough, one year later, he kills everyone in the town in a gruesome fashion and declares war on humanity. All the noble houses get blamed, including a house known as Belmont.
A few months later, Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), the last of a line of monster hunters, is broke and drunk in a city that is besieged by the forces of darkness every night. The clergy (who started this whole mess) have used this as an opportunity to take power in the area, claiming to be the only force capable of repelling the evil, and blame a group of traveling magic users called the Speakers for Dracula’s assault. Trevor saves some of the Speakers and is told by the Elder (Tony Amendola) that there is a “sleeping soldier” beneath the city who may help save them. The Elder’s granddaughter already sought the soldier but has not returned. Trevor goes below the city and finds a cyclops guarding a crypt. Trevor slays the monster, which releases one of his petrified victims, the Elder’s granddaughter Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso). The pair continue and eventually discover the sleeping soldier is none other than Dracula’s half-human son, Adrian Tepes or “Alucard” (James Callis), who was wounded fighting his father a year prior. The three join forces to stop Dracula’s army from wiping out humanity.
If I just watched Season 1 of this show, I’d say it was only kind of good. The first season has some great character designs, good action sequences, decent dialogue at some points, and the Bishop (Matt Frewer) is one of the most deeply despicable characters on film, overshadowing Dracula as an antagonist. However, the show doesn’t really hit its stride until Season 2, when you start to have Dracula’s War Council interacting and Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard bantering. All of the dialogue suddenly gets sharper and better, mostly because of all of the conflicting philosophies and backstories.
The show is, so far, an adaptation of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, something that was a great decision. It’s the first game chronologically, except for Castlevania: Lament of Innocence which doesn’t have Dracula in it, and was the first one to have multiple characters, giving the writers more to work with. I was surprised that they cut out the character of Grant Danasty, the pirate from the game, but maybe he’ll come back later. Still, even without him, we’re not short on great characters on either the hero or villain sides. As with most good series, most of the characters aren’t morally black and white, they’re all fairly flawed and driven by their own wants and histories. For example, two of Dracula’s Generals, Hector and Isaac (Theo James and Adetokumboh M’Cormack), are humans who have decided to side against humanity because of their personal histories, and Isaac’s backstory in particular will just hit you right in the heart.
The animation style is a tribute to one of the most popular games in the series, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which gives it a strong anime influence, but still with a lot of gothic European character designs. The fight scenes look like elaborate video game cut-scenes, which is exactly what they should look like. The combat involving Alucard is particularly impressive, because his fighting style is literally impossible to do in reality.
Overall, I hope that they keep this series going. There are so many more interesting stories that can be told in the Castlevania universe. They’ve set up several more at the end of Season 2, and Dracula literally always comes back in the games, so they can reuse him as much as they need.
This movie is magical. I have loved it from the first time I saw it probably 20 or so years ago. In a lot of ways, this movie encapsulates one of my most basic philosophies of media: A movie can do anything, as long as it is consistent in the amount of disbelief it asks the audience to suspend. While the monsters in this movie are clearly just people wearing cheap costumes, that’s as a tribute to the old horror movies that the kids in the film are obsessed with. The movie asks you to just go with it because it’s fun, and dammit, that’s enough of a reason to go with it.
So, the Monster Squad is the story of a group of kids who are big fans of old-school monster films, mostly the Universal Monster films from the 1930s-50s and the Hammer films of the 50s-70s. The kids are the Monster Squad, not the actual monsters, despite the monsters also being in a squad. Or perhaps the monsters are the squad, but then the kids also take the name at the end of the movie…. There are many mysteries contained within this film.
So, the movie begins with Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) fighting Dracula (Duncan Regehr) and attempting to cast him into Limbo. However, Van Helsing fails and is trapped within the other world himself.
100 years later, Van Helsing’s diary ends up in the hands of newly teenaged Monster-phile Sean Crenshaw (Andre Gower). In what is one of the most unbelievably excellent moments in film history, and one that films regularly skip over, Sean finds out that he can’t read the diary, not because it’s encoded, but because it’s in German (Actually Dutch, but why would Sean know the difference?). You know, the language that Van Helsing would naturally write in, because he’s Dutch in the book. Out of basically every Dracula adaptation, this is one of the only ones that actually bother to point this out when reading his diary.
Sean and the rest of his friends, Patrick, Horace, Rudy, Eugene, and occasionally Sean’s 5-year-old sister Phoebe (Robby Kiger, Brent Chalem, Ryan Lambert, Michael Faustino, and Ashley Bank) go to see the local Scary German Man (Leonardo Cimino), who, as it turns out, is a kind old man who is happy to translate it from Dutch. Also, he was a former concentration camp prisoner. See, the scary figure actually was kind and himself a victim of cruelty. I wonder if this theme will come back in the film?
The Diary describes an amulet that is composed of concentrated good energy. It helps keep the balance of good and evil in the world. However, one day out of every 100 years, it becomes vulnerable to destruction, which would unbalance the world and allow evil to run rampant. However, on that same day, the amulet can be used to balance all supernatural evil from the world, by casting it into limbo. And, darned if that day isn’t pretty soon. How surprising.
The Amulet was hidden in the US by the apprentices of Van Helsing so that Dracula couldn’t find it, but now, Dracula is coming. He summons his most vicious monstrous assistants: The Mummy (Michael MacKay), The Creature who may or may not be from the Black Lagoon (Tom Woodruff Jr.), The Wolf Man (Carl Thibault), and three school girls (Mary Albee, Joan-Carrol Baron, and Julie Merrill) who are made into his vampire brides. Dracula also breaks into a military plane carrying the remains of Frankenstein’s Monster (Tom Noonan), who he assumes will join his army. However, the Monster, being part human, doesn’t like Dracula that much. The monster wanders off into the forest where he encounters Phoebe, who befriends him. The rest of the Monster Squad meets Frankenstein and determines that he is not evil, but kind, misunderstood, and a victim of cruelty. … I feel like I wrote that before.
Meanwhile, the Wolf Man, when he’s human, is also not a fan of Dracula, and he keeps calling the police, who, of course, ignore him for talking about monsters. However, Sean’s father Del (Stephen Macht), is assigned to investigate all of the weirdness happening around town. He doesn’t believe any of it to be supernatural, of course.
Dracula and the monsters actually are occupying the building where the amulet is found, but the room it’s contained in is so littered with wards that no evil being can enter. The kids break in and steal it, and manage to avoid getting caught by Dracula. However, Dracula responds by following them back to their treehouse and… BLOWING IT UP WITH DYNAMITE.
No, really, in what is one of my favorite movie moments, Dracula doesn’t do the traditional “sneak into your home and attack you personally” thing, he just starts chucking explosives. He’s immune to being blown up, why the hell wouldn’t he do this all the time? It’s brilliant. However, it does draw the attention of Sean’s dad, who finally sees Dracula and believes in the supernatural explanation for recent events.
The team have to find a female virgin to read the incantation to banish evil, and it must be on holy ground, so they drive to a cathedral with their older sister Lisa (Lisa Fuller). However, because it’s a cathedral, not a 7/11, it’s closed at midnight. However, they decide to read it on the stoop, as a work-around, since the entryway is technically holy ground. Lisa begins reading, but the spell fails, because Lisa had figured that the stuff she did with one of her exes “didn’t count.” Apparently the universe draws a different line than she does.
So, naturally, they realize that the 5-year-old Phoebe is a virgin, and the German man helps her read the spell. Meanwhile, Dracula and his monsters have come, so the kids face off against the monsters. What follows is a simultaneous invocation of monster lore (like pointing out that they need a silver bullet to kill a werewolf/no one knows the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Weakness) with a mockery/common sense takedown of them (alternate solution: hit him in the groin really hard and blow him up with dynamite. Doesn’t kill him, but slows him down a lot/ Bullets work really well on fish). Eventually, they manage to kill all of the monsters except for Dracula, who arrives late.
Dracula, unfortunately for the kids, doesn’t really screw around, and just starts killing a ton of the police with ease. He finally reaches Phoebe, and threatens her, however, Frankenstein’s monster shows up and spears Dracula with a wrought-iron fencepost as the portal to Limbo opens. Dracula grabs Sean, who manages to stake Dracula through the heart. However, this doesn’t actually kill him, but at the last moment, Abraham Van Helsing emerges from the portal and pulls Dracula in with him.
Frankenstein then goes into the portal willingly, knowing that he doesn’t belong in the world of humans, and the portal won’t close without the monsters being on the other side. Phoebe gives him a stuffed animal to remember her.
Soon, the Army shows up, ready to fight the monsters, but Sean informs them that evil has already been slain, presenting the General with a business card referring to them as “The Monster Squad.” Roll. F*cking. Credits.
What’s crazy is that I love this movie mostly for the reasons that other critics seem to hate it. First, it has a ludicrously high body count for a movie starring kids. Dracula is not the traditional portrayal; here he is decidedly more vicious and ruthlessly efficient. He’s not out to seduce lonely housewives or whatever, he’s here to take over the world, and to get rid of the people in his way. He has super-strength, invulnerability, and is immortal. He just dynamites his enemies, because that’s simpler than having to find a way to be invited in. This is one of my favorite Dracula performances of all time.
Second, all of the monsters look like guys in costumes. Well, no sh*t. That’s what they are. The movie is a tribute to the costumes of the old horror movies. But they’re damned good costumes. Until The Shape of Water came out, this was my favorite-looking Fish-man (Abe Sapien is his own category).
Third, the plot’s generic. Well, yeah, but they use the generic plot to explore within it. And they play around with it enough to make it fun. Plus, the details are actually kind of nice. Van Helsing’s Diary isn’t in English. Cathedrals aren’t open at Midnight during the week. “Virgin” isn’t exactly clearly defined, because they don’t say whose standard it is. Nothing in mythology about the Creature from the Black Lagoon says you can’t just shoot him. These are great things that the movie points out, it’s like they intentionally were trying to avert some of the more common tropes of these horror movies.
Ultimately, I think this movie is underrated. I really do. I like the fact that it’s ALL of the Universal horror monsters together. I like the fact that Frankenstein is portrayed sympathetically. I like the fact that Dracula is just an unstoppable killing machine when he wants to be. I like the fact that the US Government knows enough about monsters to send in a huge number of soldiers and tanks to deal with them. Is it the best movie? No, but it’s damned fun and it delivers exactly what it promises. Honestly, this is one of the best homages to classic horror, and I hope it keeps getting seen.