I’ve been excited about the 2014 retelling of the Dracula mythos for quite some time.
A Faust-based narration, casting Vlad the Impaler as a suffering hero who made a deal with the Devil to save his people?
Sign me up!
What I wasn’t prepared for was the sermonizing, heavy-handed Christian morality, and cliché, card board cutout representations of good and evil.
Let’s start with the basics.
Vlad the Impaler, Vlad III, was a Prince of Wallachia – Transylvania – who lived in the 15th century.
He was sent to live with the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire.
He was called Dracula – he was a member of the House of Drăculești, his father was the Dracul, and the added “a” just means “son of.”
And he was bloodthirsty – and he did have a reputation for staking a lot of corpses and leaving them to rot.
Where do vampires fit in?
Although Romania does have its own legends of supernatural horror, including bodies rising from the grave and sucking out the life force of humans, and these legends inspired early Gothic Literature and stories of erotic vampire romances, Vlad wasn’t connected to vampirism until Bram Stoker wrote a novel pairing two and two together.
Stoker did it so well that Dracula became The Vampire – the stereotype on which all others are based.
But it’s a fiction; Stoker never visited Transylvania himself and he was writing pulp fantasy.
But never mind all that.
Dracula was a monster – an evil thing, a creature of the night, something to scare children and impressionable women with, until the last couple decades.
Vampires have become cool.
First Buffy, but later Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood and dozens and dozens of more examples have given us handsome, moody, self-loathing, powerful, confident vampires that we empathize with and love.
Hotel Transylvania (an animated movie meant for kids) emphasized the modern values of inclusion, acceptance and tolerance.
But most of these examples are taking place in a Post Modern setting without grand narratives that rigidly define the boundaries of Good and Evil.
It’s all shades of gray. There is not right and wrong, only fear, hysteria, misunderstanding.
What I was expecting
I thought Dracula Untold would finally be the story about a classic villain being turned into a modern hero.
It wouldn’t be the first:
Wreck it Ralph (2012) is another animated kids movie that turns a classic villain into a hero.
And then there are revolutionary heroes like Captain Jack Sparrow and “V” from V for Vendetta – terrorists who break the laws but for moral purposes.
We’ve been redeeming classically evil characters for years, but have yet to offer the same re-reading of The Devil Himself.
That’s why the Paradise Lost movie has been stalled in production for over 10 years – there’s no way to tell it without Satan being the hero, and we can’t have that.
So instead we get Dracula…
I imaged we’d get a sensitive, empathetic retelling of Dracula as a loving husband and father, who sacrificed himself for his people.
And he did.
But that leaves questions.
Was he really evil?
Is it OK to do evil for the right reasons?
Is it OK to enter into a deal with the devil as long as you keep struggling towards the light?
Will God forgive Vlad his horrific crimes against humanity, because of his capacity to love?
Unfortunately, the movie decided to answer all of those questions, with a few laughably bad lines and stunted dialogue, written as if a zealous preacher had gotten 5 minutes alone with the script.
When Vlad is first making the deal, he says
The world doesn’t fear men, it fears monsters. Sometimes, the world needs a monster.
So he chooses to become evil because it suits his purposes.
Exactly like how Satan in Paradise Lost chooses to become evil because no other path is left open to him.
So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost. Evil, be thou my good.
But in the movie, the deal is temporary – it’s a “try before you buy” deal. He gets the powers for three days, but he has to resist the temptation of drinking blood. And he almost makes it. He defeats thousands of turks, but can’t save his wife.
With her dying breath, she tells him to drink her blood, knowing that it will turn him into a monster forever and he will be damned to hell, in order to save their son.
So he does. He embraces his damnation and creates a vampire army.
He defeats his enemies (killing thousands more).
He slices through the turkish armies like a hot knife through butter. They are powerless against him (because, we presume, their God isn’t the “real” God, their faith is meaningless and has no power, they are infidels).
But then his own vampire troops turn on him, and one lone monk with one puny wooden cross has the magical ability to hold them all at bay.
And to make sure we understand the significance, we are told
“I now know Hell is real, and so I also know that Heaven is real. And we will be reborn into new life.”
(I’m paraphrasing poorly, based on memory, but it was close to that.)
Vlad’s son becomes ruler. Vlad is a national hero (even though, if you flip the coin, the pious turks would have called him a murderous infidel and rebel).
And hundreds of years later, Vlad even gets a second chance at love, as his wife is apparently reincarnated.
Satan, meanwhile, who was freed when Vlad entered into the bargain, is always just two steps behind him, eager for revenge on Jesus. Tapping his long fingernails, shadowing the loving couple, eager for them to slip into vice. “Let the games begin…” are Satan’s final words in the movie, giving us a rather obvious ethical reading: God and Satan are in an endless battle, men have to make difficult choices, the solutions is always love.
Dracula may be saved by love, but is always in peril because Satan never sleeps.
It’s awful to see such a good action flick ruined by “Narnia” style proselytizing.
A better interpretation for smart people
It’s kind of funny, however, that the movie uses the poem “Life and Death” by Rumi:
why think separately
of this life and the next
when one is born from the last
Rumi’s poems are actually very transcendental and Zen; they talk of blurring boundaries, not having strong beliefs and biases, merging and flowing. Being at one with everything. Very Buddhist, and not at all Christian (at least the simplistic, dumbed down version that’s believed by millions of Americans).
Why cling to one life
till it is soiled and ragged?
The sun dies and dies
squandering a hundred lived
God has decreed life for you
and He will give
another and another and another
Rumi’s poems also talk about love and lust – begging his beloved to give herself to him now, in this life, rather than waiting until after he’s gone; and threatening to break into her house with violence and destroy everything around him.
i’ve come again
to break the teeth and claws
of this man-eating
monster we call life
i’ve come again
to puncture the
glory of the cosmos
how do you dare to
let someone like me
intoxicated with love
enter your house
you must know better
if i enter
i’ll break all this and
destroy all that
if the sheriff arrives
i’ll throw the wine
in his face
if your gatekeeper
pulls my hand
i’ll break his arm
if the heavens don’t go round
to my heart’s desire
i’ll crush its wheels and
pull out its roots
You can read a curated selection of Rumi’s poems here.
The poems are an intelligent companion to the movie, I strongly recommend reading them after seeing the movie if you want some intellectual stimulation, rather than the crappy, Christianized ending.
It’s very possible to see the piles and piles of silver coins the turk uses as protection, as the rich man trying to “buy” his salvation. But even all his money can’t protect him.
It’s also possible to interpret the movie as a defense of American military initiatives: “pre-emptive strikes” and doing evil things, usually against Muslims, in the name of Righteousness.
What did you think of the movie?
PS) I get a lot of comments like “you’re overthinking, it’s just a fucking movie, it’s just entertainment, there are no secret messages.”
I would caution against such naive consumption of the media apparatus, who have a vested interest in managing your beliefs to keep you docile and productive.