Thursday 9 October 2014

Dracula Untold....again.

Having discussed the Queen of gothic tyranny in a previous article it would remiss not to complete the series by exploring the King – that being, of course, Vlad The Impaler, Vlad Dracula, Vlad Tepes or just plain old Vlad III (as he was to his mother). It is an especially apt time, now that the Dracula franchise has been dusted off yet again for ‘Dracula Untold’ which promises to show a side of the story that we have never seen before (save for the first thousand times we have).

‘Dracula Untold’ has that very modern, or at least kinda modern, take on the tale as it purports to be the story of ‘the man who would be Dracula’; this, then, is an origin story in the now well-established mould. Origin stories may have caught fire in a big way with ‘Batman Begins’ and have provided plenty of arch reworkings of cultural tropes in the process, but they have started to not so much scrape the bottom of the barrel as eviscerate it (no more X-Men origin stories please, cosmos!). So what exactly is there left to tell about the Dracula story?

The first thing we would have to point out is that there is no Dracula ‘story’ (other than the book). There is however the Vlad Tepes story, which is pretty incredible in its own right, and Bram Stoker’s novel provides a mechanism by which a historical tyrant can be rebooted as a horror icon, folk hero and pop cultural lynchpin. That this actually occurred at all is pretty damn unlikely; will Mao be reimagined as an evil kung-fu master in 200 years’ time, or maybe Ceausescu himself given a vampiric makeover? Probably not. In that sense it took a special kind of naiveté for Stoker to put historical truth through the fictional mangle and come up with horror gold.

And when we say ‘mangle’, we mean mangle.  In the book Dracula has the strange distinction of being Szekley and Boyar - that is to say, both Romanian and Hungarian nobility – and yet speaks of the ‘Magyar yoke’ at the same time. And of course Vlad Tepes was a Wallachian prince, not a Transylvanian one. But the result was culturally important enough, as Dracula’s enduring appeal confirms.

The problem here is the chasm between the real Vlad Dracul and the fictional Dracula; Stoker did not explicitly spell out the link between the two, but joining the dots in the book and in subsequent versions and we are apparently to take Dracula as Vlad Dracul in some hellish undead manifestation. Whereas Vlad was renowned as the cruel ruler and brave warrior defender of Wallachia against Ottoman invasion, and whose popularity in Romania is based on such, Dracula is basically an equal-opportunities undead posh letch (to put it crudely). It says something very strange about our culture when an ersatz villain like the Count is considered more horrific than an actual despot.

Which brings us to cultural representations of Vlad outside of the Dracula mythology. Whilst hammy fangs and blood were galore in the United States and Europe in the ‘60s-‘70s, in Romania they remained blissfully unaware of the modern take on Vlad and instead made conventional biopics of the great man; the best of which has to be Doru Nastase’s 1979 epic ‘Vlad Tepes’. If you really want the story of ‘Dracula untold’ then your best bet is to spend Halloween watching that lost classic instead.

After the fall of communism the Romania cultural world was really quite baffled (to put it politely) that Vlad Tepes was now linked to all sorts of camp horror tropes, Hungarian actors and vampirism. But not to miss a trick attempts were made to synthesise the two, with mixed results. 2003’s ‘Vlad’ was an execrable piece of post-modern Noughties horror nonsense, only to be consumed as the last film in a 6-film-and-two-bottles-of-Pinot-Noirmarathon. But 2000’s ‘Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula’ pretty much nailed the concept and the history, and married it to an appropriately supernatural ending. Although it rather inexplicably has Roger Daltrey performing as King Corvinus it is still probably the best attempt to cross the streams of History and Ham.  

So what is there left ‘untold’ to tell? Probably very little. But to get the full breadth of the topic make sure that in addition to catching ‘Dracula ‘Untold’’ at the cinema you treat yourselves to a double bill of ‘Vlad Tepes’ and ‘Dark Prince’. Just for research, you understand...

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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