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DRACULA WEEK DAY 5: Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000

Dracula 2000Director: Patrick Lussier

Writer: Joel Soisson & Patrick Lussier

Cast: Gerard Butler, Christopher Plummer, Jonny Lee Miller, Justine Waddell, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Esposito, Omar Epps, Sean Patrick Thomas, Danny Masterson, Lochlyn Munro, Tig Fong, Jeri Ryan, Shane West, Nathan Fillion

Plot: Matthew Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) is an antique dealer in London in the year 2000, and constantly attempts to downplay the tales of his grandfather Abraham, who supposedly inspired the vampire hunter character in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. His secretary, Solina (Jennifer Esposito), helps her boyfriend, Marcus (Omar Epps) break into Van Helsing’s vault. They set off a series of traps, killing several of the thieves in the process. The survivors steal a silver coffin, which they take with them as they flee to New Orleans. Van Helsing and his apprentice Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) pursue them. On the way over one of the thieves, Nightshade (Danny Masterson) opens the coffin to find a corpse covered in leeches. The corpse rises and attacks him, slaying two thieves to regain a healthy, human form – Dracula (Gerard Butler).

In New Orleans, at Mardi Gras (because in Hollywood, Mardi Gras happens every day of the year in New Orleans) we meet Van Helsing’s daughter Mary (Justine Waddell) and her friend Lucy Westerman (Colleen Fitzpatrick). Mary, who has been having nightmares, finds herself with an unexplained psychic link to Dracula. She turns to Father David, (Nathan Fillion) an old friend who knew her late mother, hoping he can help her uncover the secrets she carried with her, but he knows nothing that can help her. Van Helsing arrives in New Orleans to see news of a plane crash in a nearby bayou, and sees the silver coffin among the wreckage. Reporter Valerie Sharpe (Jeri Ryan) is on the scene of the crash – and soon becomes one of Dracula’s new brides. Simon and Van Helsing find the bodies of Marcus’s crew, only to find they’ve become vampires.

Van Helsing tells Simon that Dracula cannot be permanently destroyed, even by the normal methods of killing a vampire (stakes, silver, sunlight). He has spent his life seeking a way to kill the beast, to no avail. What’s more, he’s not Abraham Van Helsing’s grandson, he is Abraham, having prolonged his life by leeching Dracula’s blood and injecting it into himself. All he knows is that Dracula hates God and Christianity, presumably lining him up for a correspondent’s job at MSNBC. Dracula seeks Mary, but instead encounters Lucy, who he bites. Mary sees a flash of Lucy’s assault just as Simon approaches her with the promise of explaining why her mother took her across the world to escape her father. As she leaves, he’s attacked by Marcus, but slays him.

Van Helsing tracks Dracula to Mary’s house, but is killed. Mary finds him under the bed, and is soon assaulted by Dracula’s three new brides: Solina, Valerie, and Lucy. She learns the telepathic link she has with Dracula is because her father had injected himself with the vampire’s blood. Dracula shows Valerie the truth of his origin – he is Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus Christ, condemned to walk the Earth ever since the night of his great sin. He takes her to Simon, captured by the Brides, and offers him to Mary: drink his blood and join them as a vampire. She tricks him and they fight, slaying the Brides. After a struggle, she wraps a cord around his neck and pushes him from the roof, hanging him, just as Judas was hanged for his sin, as the sun rises. He catches on fire when the sun touches him. Mary, however, remembers that her father said none of the normal ways to kill a vampire work on Dracula, and vows to return to London to watch in case he ever returns.

Thoughts: Produced by Wes Craven, whose name has turned up in previous movie studies a time or three, this is an odd telling of Dracula. Although it acknowledges the classic story, it also borrows elements from it, making Dracula 2000 an attempted hybrid between a sequel to Bram Stoker’s original and a contemporary remake of the same.

Craven’s greatest work – and here I am thinking specifically of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream,  which the movie poster vehemently reminds us of – fall into the “slasher” category of horror. Dracula, however, is a different kind of beast, and the same things that work for Freddy Krueger or Ghostface don’t necessarily work here. The weaker elements of this movie, in fact, are those that attempt the same sort of jump scares or plot twists that make up the very DNA of a slasher film, but feel a good bit sillier in the context of a vampire movie.

Speaking of silly, I know this is just my personal sensitivity as a lifelong Louisiana boy, but I really would love to get my hands on whoever dressed the extras in this movie and batter them in the face with an oversized set of Mardi Gras beads. People don’t always dress for a party here, nor does everybody in the city show up wearing oversized novelty hats. The fact that this story takes place at Mardi Gras bears absolutely no bearing on the plot, making it just another case of Hollywood thinking it’s like that here all the time. And the “local” news reporter who asks “what’s the deal with these bugs?” It’s Louisiana, jackass. That’s the deal. We gots bugs.

But I digress.

One thing about this movie I do find interesting is the origin story of Dracula. This is one monster that I always feel is actually stronger when he has a religious bent of some sort. Perhaps it comes from the old notion that he can be driven back by a Crucifix, but Dracula as an enemy of God is a concept that makes sense to me and I think works for the character. (It was, in fact, a strength of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) Casting him as Judas, however, doesn’t quite do the trick. It may seem to fit the requirements, but it also betrays a rather fundamental misunderstanding of Judas as he was presented in the Bible – he never hated Christ. And come on, even if we’re to believe that Dracula didn’t hate Jesus in the beginning, but grew to hate him due to his curse, it’s not like he didn’t have it coming. Plus, the Biblical flashbacks in this film are pretty cheesy, clear soundstage set-ups and not convincing at all.

Gerard Butler – who, by the way, isn’t nearly oily enough in this movie to be recognizable as Gerard Butler – doesn’t have as much to do as Dracula as you would think. He basically is called upon to stand around looking menacing, throw people smaller than him through scenery, and seduce beautiful women. He has a better job than any of us, is what I’m saying. But he plays Dracula as more of a force of nature than a character, with little dialogue and littler personality.

The rest of the cast is largely forgettable – sitcom actors and other b-movie stars or musicians taking a stab at acting. Only Christopher Plummer has any real acting chops, and he’s hamming it up with the rest of them. It’s telling that arguably the supporting performer in this movie with the best post-Dracula career is Nathan Fillion, who appears for all of five minutes.

The design aesthetic is so, so nineties. It’s not enough that our hero have a gun, it has to be a gun with a detachable knife. Hallways must appear endless. Even the Crucifix Simon gives Mary at the end has a hidden blade inside it. Admittedly, there’s a practical purpose for it, but it still feels like overkill.

Overall, it’s hard to really recommend this movie. From a technical standpoint, it’s superior to Blacula, but damn if that movie won’t stay with me more. This film has two direct-to-DVD sequels as well, and while a weird part of me wants to seek out Scream, Blacula, Scream, and all of me wants to continue watching more of Christopher Lee in the Hammer Dracula movies, if this is the end of my road with Wes Craven’s Dracula, I think I’m okay with it.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 17: Slither (2006)

slitherDirector: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Haig Sutherland, Jennifer Copping, Brenda James, Jenna Fisher, Lloyd Kaufman

Plot: Thesmall town of Wheelsy, South Carolina is in danger. A meteor has fallen to Earth. Local car dealer Grant Grant (Michael Rooker)’s relationship with his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) hasn’t been great lately, and he’s in the woods with a woman he picked up in a bar (Brenda James, as Brenda) when they come upon the meteor. A parasite infests Grant’s body, and the next day, he begins stocking up on meat. Starla returns home to find a lock on the basement. Grant is changing – odd sores appearing on his body, and intense discomfort in his abdomen. A pair of fleshy tendrils sprout from his chest and almost reach for Starla, but he makes up an excuse about leaving something at work and flees. He goes to Brenda’s home and abducts her.

Starla, meanwhile, reconnects with Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a childhood sweetheart who never stopped carrying a torch for her. At home she finds Grant covered in bumps and sores. He claims it’s just a bee sting and the doctor has already treated him. She calls the doctor the next day, though, and he denies having seen Grant. Grant, meanwhile, has chained Brenda in a barn in the woods, and is bringing her huge bags of meat. Her stomach has become grotesquely distended, and she is ravenous. Bill and his deputy Wally (Don Thompson) pay Starla a visit. Brenda has been reported missing, and the neighbors saw Grant enter her house. Scared, Starla breaks the lock off the basement door to find a grotesque, flyblown nest full of animal corpses. Grant attacks her, but Bill and the cops return just in time to see his mutated form as he runs away.

Three days later Mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) is up in arms. Although he doesn’t believe reports that Grant has turned into a monster, he does believe he’s behind Brenda’s kidnapping and the rash of animal slayings that has sent the town into a frenzy. Bill rounds up a posse to stake out the next farm in Grant’s attack pattern, and Starla asks to come with him. Grant has mutated further, turning into a horrible, fleshy mass covered with tentacles, and the horrified police watch as he slays and consumes one of the farmer’s cows. Starla tries to reason with him, but when a deputy tries to play hardball, Grant kills the man and flees into the woods. They track him to the barn and find Brenda, now transformed into an enormous, pulsating blob. She explodes into a torrent of sluglike creatures that attack the cops, slithering into their mouths. Billy, Starla and a few others escape by covering their mouths until the slugs are gone, but most of the cops are down – alive, but comatose. The slugs converge on the farmhouse, where one attacks the farmer’s daughter Kylie (Tania Saulnier). Although it makes it into her mouth, she digs her fingernails in and yanks it out – but not before she has visions of its horrific alien homeworld. When she stumbles from the bathroom, she finds her parents and sisters have been taken by the hundreds of slugs overwhelming the house. She locks herself in her father’s truck as the slugs swarm over it.

Back at the barn Bill calls for help and tries to get the fallen cops outside. Wally wakes up and begins talking to Starla, saying he’s sorry and that he didn’t tell her because he was afraid she wouldn’t love him anymore. As the rest of the posse stands, it becomes clear Grant’s mind is controlling them all. Starla shoot Wally and rest of the Grant-zombies give chase. Back at the truck, the slugs have slithered away, but Kylie’s blood-soaked family is now trying to get to her. Bill saves her, but a horde of zombiefied people from nearby homes attack. Starla and MacReady run by, pursued by the zombies, and Starla slays another. The four survivors climb into Bill’s car and flee, while the zombies they leave behind cry Starla’s name.

Kylie explains what she saw when the slug attacked her – a creature that moves from planet to planet, consuming everything and turning what it doesn’t eat into part of its hive-mind. Bill calls his dispatch officer Shelby (Jenna Fischer) and tells her to call the CDC, but the slugs burst into the office before she has a chance. Instead, Shelby sends a zombie in a van to collide with Bill’s car. A horde of the zombies kidnap Starla. Bill and Kylie hide while one of the zombies gets MacReady. The zombies bring Starla and MacReady back to Grant’s house, and the thing that used to be Grant puts on some romantic music for a night at home with the wife. She approaches him as he continues to absorb the zombies into his own mass. She finds him in a twisted shrine to their marriage, surrounded by pictures of the two of them. She attacks as Bill and Kylie arrive, but Bill misses with his grenade. The creature stabs Bill, but he manages to get a tentacle jammed into a propane tank. Starla grabs Bill’s gun and shoots Grant, igniting the gas. As he dies, everyone taken by the slugs collapses. Bill, Starla and Kylie stumble out into the rising sun, surrounded by the bodies of the zombies, and begin to go down the road, planning to walk to the hospital in the next town.

Thoughts: If Eight Legged Freaks was a love letter to 50s-era giant animal monster movies, Slither is a tribute to that time period’s other great fear: alien zombies. Of course, the zombies of that time aren’t zombies as we know them today (that was largely a creation of George Romero in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – virtually all zombie movies since have taken their cues from Romero). At the time, pretty much anything that turned ordinary people into mindless beasts or, even better, part of an alien hive-mind, could qualify. Slither fits in well with that brand of horror film.

It’s most certainly a Type-A horror/comedy, though. In terms of sheer gore, this movie far outstrips anything we’ve yet watched in this project. James Gunn (writer of the Scooby Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake, here making his directorial debut) is a product of Troma Studios, and it shows with horrific monster designs, highly realistic animals, and garbage bags full of blood and offal. Gunn pays his dividends to his alma mater in this movie. Not only is the story like something ripped right from a Troma film (albeit with a less campy tone and much better production values), but he works in a cameo by Lloyd Kaufman as a town drunk and even throws in a clip from The Toxic Avenger on Brenda’s TV screen. That’s only the obvious stuff, though. Less obvious, but still undeniably Tromantic, are some of the monster scenes. When Grant infects Brenda, for instance, the scene is surprisingly brutal, but shot in many ways like a sex scene, right down to the rhythmic gyrations one would expect at such a moment. It’s the sort of thing that’s either wildly funny or horribly disturbing depending on how you want to look at it. The part where Bill grapples with a zombie deer? Well, that’s just funny any way you cut it.

The true expression of how warped Gunn’s sensibilities are (and I mean this as a compliment) is the finale. Grant – now a truly hideous creature – has Starla trapped in the house while dozens of zombies walk around calling her name and pounding on the walls, all to the dulcet tones of Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World.” The disconnect between the music and what we’re watching on the screen is jolting, funny, and terrifying all at the same time. There’s a bit of genius there too – when Starla begins talking to Grant about how long he’s been alone, it takes you just a moment to realize she’s not really talking to him, she’s talking to the alien. It’s really well-scripted and well-acted, and all the blood and gore is just a bonus.

Grant Grant actually manages to transcend his stereotype a bit. He’s the big lummox, the sort of guy you expect to turn into the threat in these situations, but it’s worth noting that before the alien takes over his body he actually turns down the chance to cheat on his wife. That’s not something most characters of his type would do. Even after the parasite takes him, we see him try to resist. There’s real pain in his eyes when Starla looks at him covered in the bumps and sores, when he realizes she’s starting to see the monster inside him. He even protects Starla when the monster wants to go after her in the shower, and although he quickly finds an alternate victim, it’s hard to argue that his love for his wife isn’t genuine.

If anyone fits into the dumb beefcake archetype, it’s Mayor MacReady (a nice nod to another of Gunn’s obvious influences, John Carpenter’s The Thing). He’s rude, crass, and uses his obnoxious personality to cover a streak of cowardice. When Bill shoots him in the head after his transformation, it’s the sort of horror movie kill that makes the audience cheer with approval. He does, however, get some of the film’s best lines – lots of tasteless jokes and panicked exclamations (he’s never seen anything like this, and he watches Animal Planet all the time).

Fans of Firefly have long known Nathan Fillion has leading man quality, and this film helps get that across. He’s got a heroic, self-sacrificing nature, not quite as bold or bombastic as the characters he usually plays. When he drops a one-liner (and he does, frequently), it’s more likely to be dry and a little self-deprecating than any kind of braggadocio. The scene in the car, when he nervously tries to explain to Starla how he’s responsible for stopping up his mother’s toilet and then gets into an argument with MacReady over the definition of “Martian,” is one of the best bits of writing I’ve seen in one of these movies.

Besides MacReady’s name, Gunn continues the now well-worn tradition of peppering the film with references to other horror stories. The scene where the slug attacks Kylie in the bathtub is very reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s attack on Nancy in the first Friday the 13th for instance, with other scenes calling to mind great bits from Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and dozens of other films. Even Kylie’s little sisters are caught reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books before they turn into monsters themselves.

Like Eight Legged Freaks, the downfall of this movie comes in the CGI. Four years later than the other film, the technology has improved. Individual slugs actually look fairly convincing. But when you see an entire swarm of the slugs, the visuals start to break down. The worst bit is actually the first time you’re sure you’re looking at computer effects, when Brenda explodes and the slugs rush out in a wave. It looks very much like a 90s video game at that point. Although the rest of the movie looks better, that one moment tends to taint your perception.

Both Gunn and Fillion have gone on to bigger projects in years past, with it recently announced that Gunn would helm Marvel Studios’ upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Although we probably can’t expect the level of guts and gore he gave us in Slither, this movie really shows without a doubt that he’s got a powerful, unique visual style and a good eye for creatures and practical effects. If he can polish off the CGI, that movie is going to look fantastic. Hopefully though, he won’t stay in that relatively safe realm of sci-fi for too long, because this movie proves very neatly he’s got great chops for horror.