Friday, January 13, 2012


When I told my friend Wendigo about a new Dracula documentary available for streaming on Netflix, we both felt it would be interesting to check it out as a kind of update of the 1970s book tie-in documentary In Search of Dracula. That earlier film was virtually a Mondo Dracula from the golden age of exploitation documentaries that could be sold as a virtual horror movie thanks to Christopher Lee's participation. The new film from Michael Bayley Hughes is both more modest and more ambitious, claiming to be the first movie that tells the true stories of both Bram Stoker and his subject. Dracula scholar Elizabeth Miller appears on screen frequently and was a script consultant; her participation made it credible for Wendigo, who has corresponded with Miller. There's still something of the Mondo method to this movie. It travels to the novel's locations, from the Borgo Pass to Whitby, and lingers in Romania to investigate the Dracula-centered tourist industry that's grown there since In Search of Dracula was made and Communism fell. Like many a Mondo movie, it has an eye for the tellingly tacky and sometimes salacious detail. Those bits may make the film entertaining for those who find its main storyline a little dry.

Wendigo wants to send a shout-out to his virtual friend Elizabeth Miller.

Under Miller's influence, Hughes takes the anti-In Search of Dracula approach, refusing to equate Stoker's character with the historical voivode Vlad Tepes. He emphasizes the shallowness of Stoker's research and his creation of a fantastical Transylvania that Romania has a hard time living up to. Hughes practices biographical criticism on Dracula, stressing how Stoker's personal experiences before his research for the novel shaped some of its scenes and moods. Wendigo found a lot of Hughes's interpretations tentative or merely conjectural. The filmmaker proposes that many events "may have" influenced Stoker without really nailing down any proof, from a legend about poet Christina Rosseti's wondrously preserved corpse to the mummies kept in an overrated state of preservation in a church near one of his homes. This sort of stuff is inevitable in almost every literary biography these days, but Wendigo was at least happy that Hughes got the key point right about Dracula and Vlad.

Bram Stoker is remembered by a Whitby re-enactor (above) and a Romanian hotel (below)

But there wouldn't be much of a movie if they didn't talk about Vlad at all. Wendigo found the Romanian half of the picture "interesting but odd." Again, Hughes scrupulously distinguishes the fictional vampire from the famous voivode. It seems, however, that the Romanian tourist history makes no such distinction. Stoker draws tourists there, and they honor the author with a statue for that, but they exploit the interest in Dracula by selling Vlad paraphernalia. Wendigo finds that a sad way for Romania to sell out their own history, and we suspect that Hughes shares Wendigo's point of view. The director focuses on the vulgar in time-honored Mondo fashion, from voivode knicknacks and mugs to the Miss Transylvania beauty contest in Bistrita. There's also some of the same sort of peasant footage we got in In Search of Dracula, with Hughes stressing how the peasantry is still largely unchanged since the Seventies.

Faces of Transylvania

Overall, Wendigo was underwhelmed by Vampire and the Voivode as a movie. It's informative enough, especially on Stoker, but given the film's own ballyhoo it has surprisingly little to say about the actual writing of Dracula. Hughes neglects to mention one of the by-now best known tidbits about Stoker, his modeling of the vampire on his employer, the Victorian master thespian Henry Irving, and ignores Stoker's own account of an erotic dream that inspired the episode of Dracula's brides. We both objected to the claim that no other work of Stoker's endures, when movies have been made of at least two other novels -- and more than one from The Jewel of Seven Stars. Visually, Hughes went easy on re-enactments. His attempts are so minimal as to be funny, consisting of a guy dressed up as Vlad striking poses and an elderly, confused-seeming man wandering around with a candelabra in a supposed recreation of a scene from the novel. The picture is heavy on talking heads, some adding to the amusement by dressing in costume like Harry Collett as a Whitby coachman, but few apart from Miller really added to its credibility.

Wendigo found V&V in many respects less scholarly than In Search of Dracula, if more respectable in its conclusions. He would have liked more readings from Dracula or from chronicles of Vlad, but for whatever reason V&V was surprisingly lacking in these. Intellectually, Wendigo's more in a agreement with this movie, but he still considers In Search Of the more entertaining film. Either way, the definitive documentary about Dracula as a historical and cultural phenomenon remains to be made.

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