Saturday, 6 April 2013

Dracula 3000

Director: Darrell James Roodt
Writers: Darrell James Roodt, Ivan Milborrow
Producers: David Lancaster, David Wicht
Cast: Casper Van Dien, Alexandra Kamp, Erika Eleniak
Country: UK/Germany
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Anchor Bay)

“I’m Abraham Van Helsing, Captain of Mother III, a deep space salvage ship. Fourteen days ago I got a tip from a friend at the Confederation that a large cargo ship, the Demeter, that had been lost for years, had been spotted in the Carpathian System. Nothing unusual about that. There are lots of floaters in that system. But what is unusual is that the ship was moving as if it had a heading: Earth. So if I can get to the Demeter before the Confederation lays claim to it, the ship - and whatever is on it - will be ours, free and clear. I just hope my crew can handle a job this big. This ship is massive and there’s only six of us.”

Oh boy, when a film starts with a voice-over like that (over some half-decent CGI spaceships with a caption saying ‘fifty years later’ and following 24 seconds of Udo Kier recording a panicked video diary while clutching a crucifix) you know you’re onto a winner.

Where to start? Well there’s the unsubtle info-dumping, although it seems subtle by comparison a minute later when we’re shown computer screen displays on each of the crew. These not only wobble in a way that looks cool in a title sequence but would have you calling IT support to come and fix your monitor if a real computer did it, they also contain almost no useful info: just name, nickname(!), job, assignment date (all around 2998-3000) and one additional line about education or training. Apart from Van Helsing himself (Casper Van Dien: Starship Troopers, Sanctimony) there is Arthur Holmwood aka The Professor (Grant Swanby, who has been in things called Proteus, Slipstream and Supernova although none of them are the ones you’re thinking of) who is responsible for 'system design and maintenance'; navigator Mina Murry (sic) played by Alexandra Kamp (Deep Freeze); ‘cargo specialists’ Reginald Parker aka Humvee (Tiny Lister: Prison, Universal Soldier, Meteor Man, Wishmaster 2, who wrestled for WWF under the stage name ‘Zeus’) and Francisco Brett aka 187 (bad hair day rapper Coolio, whose acting credits include Batman and Robin, Daredevil, Pterodactyl and Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth); and Vice Captain Aurora Ash (Baywatch babe Erika Eleniak) who looks like she knows a thing or two about vice.

But back to that opening narration. I love the attempt to link this to Dracula by using names like ‘Carpathian’ and Demeter - which Van Dien pronounces as ‘Duh-MEET-uh’ here but is otherwise correctly pronounced ‘DEMM-ett-uh’ during this film. There is a later reference to the ship having originated in the Carpathian System, rather than actually being there now, which would bother me in any other film but in Dracula 3000 such a contradiction is almost irrelevant.

I love the fact that if this salvage ship can reach the Demeter it can lay claim to the ship despite the fact that it is pursuing a steady course towards its destination and indeed when the crew board the Demeter their initial concern is whether there is anybody aboard. So, you know, in what sense is it possible to say in advance that it is abandoned? And I love the idea that Newton’s First Law of Motion is considered ‘unusual’ by somebody capable of piloting a deep space vessel. Of course the Demeter is on a heading. Any abandoned ship will maintain its heading unless something happens to knock it off course.

But most of all I love the fact that whoever wrote that speech was apparently unaware of the toilet humour inherent in the line “There are lots of floaters in that system.”

I say ‘apparently’ because as I watched this film, it kept trying to turn into a comedy and never quite managed it, although it came damn close several times. Not a ‘so bad it’s good’ funny film but an actual, sly-look-at-the-camera, honest-to-God, character-based outer space comedy. In fact the very last, post-credits shot is actually one of the characters talking to the audience with a big grin on his face, as if, in that final few seconds, the potentially enjoyable comedy actually breaks through the frankly awful sci-fi/horror movie which, in reality, this is. My suspicion - and it is purely a suspicion - is that some of the people involved with this film wanted to make a serious motion picture and others thought the whole thing was so ridiculous that they might as well go the whole hog and turn it into an outer space romp. It makes for a fascinating viewing experience.

First to board the Demeter is Mina, who is actually an undergraduate intern and wears her hair in the sort of bunches only normally sported by porn actresses portraying ‘naughty schoolgirls’. She wears a gas-mask with plastic tubes that go over her shoulder, down her back and then, well, nowhere - and starts out by calling, “Hello? Is anyone there?” Given that we have already established the Demeter to be ‘huge’ and the CGI effects suggest it is about a hundred times bigger than Mother III (which we don’t know how big it is, but a hundred times bigger than anything is pretty large), this seems spectacularly pointless. It would be like stepping into a corridor on an ocean liner - not the bridge, just a corridor - and expecting to be able to determine whether or not the ship was abandoned.

Mina wanders around for a bit, we see some unspecific movement, she gets scared, runs down corridors (but not back to the airlock, which would be the obvious thing to do) and eventually crashes into Humvee, a hulking black guy who wears a completely different sort of gas mask with equally pointless plastic tubing attached. They somehow determine that the air is breathable so remove their masks although as their reading shows 70 per cent oxygen and the normal Earth atmosphere is only 20 per cent oxygen, I expected them to get high as kites fairly quickly.

187, who sports Coolio’s traditional pipe-cleaner hairstyle and has, according to his on-screen infodump, a ‘Masters in Recreational Horticulture’, actually is high as a kite and obsessed with weed, although all we ever see him partaking is a few puffs on a shisha in his quarters right at the start. On the one hand, all credit to this film for having two black characters. Neither Humvee nor 187 can be considered the TBG. On the other hand, one of the black guys is a big, dumb, brick shit-house of a fellow and the other is a screaming stoner so neither is exactly a positive image. Still, just to prove that everyone is fair game, there’s The Professor.

When we first see him, talking over the radio to Mina alongside Captain Van Helsing, we have only a profile close-up of the two men’s heads in every shot. This is simply because those shots are the only ones actually aboard Mother III (which later detaches itself from the Demeter for no apparent reason, stranding its crew on the larger ship) and it simply wasn’t worth building a bridge set. It is only later, once they’re aboard the Demeter, that we find that The Professor is in a wheelchair. Not a nifty electric wheelchair mind you; despite a thousand years of technological development, he is still in a bog-standard metal-framed wheelchair which he has to push around by himself (none of the others ever push him anywhere, for some reason - maybe that’s supposed to demonstrate his independence or something). There is one shot of Humvee carrying him down a flight of stairs but surely they don’t do that every time. The place where this was shot - an old ship or oil-rig by the look of it - has lots of steps, stairs and hatchways. It’s about the most disabled-unaccessible place imaginable. And you have to wonder just why they even bothered to bring the fellow aboard when surely he would be more use back on Mother III.

But if images of disability don’t bother you, how about racial stereotypes? The Professor is English, but that curious movie-English which fits American preconceptions of English attitudes and accents but sounds wholly foreign to anyone from England. Grant Swanby is a South African actor who can only manage a Britoid accent and is given lines like “Bollocks,” and “Bugger,” and the hilarious “Shit, that’s disconcerting.” It’s like having an American character constantly saying “Yee-haw” and “Y’all.” Only worse.

So anyway, what is aboard this mysterious ship? Well, there’s a desiccated corpse which is supposed to be the remains of Udo Kier. Kier is credited with ‘special appearance by’ although as this is a vampire film it should really say ‘obligatory appearance by’. He crops up a few times for thirty seconds or so, talking to camera about how an epidemic is spreading through the ship and the remaining crew have been confined to quarters. When the Mother III crew find his body he is still clutching a cross which is explained as a crucifix because, a thousand years hence, Christianity has apparently died out. We’re not told this but there seems little other explanation for characters asking what a crucifix is. The Mother III crew don’t actually see any of Udo’s video logs, as far as I can tell.

What about the cargo? That turns out to be fifty coffins, all with bolted down lids, in a ‘hold’ which is merely a raised platform in a large warehouse-type space. What is it with giant interstellar ships - this film and The Planet and Nightflyers - that they always have such piddling small cargoes? Striding around the ship is ‘Orlock’, a saturnine figure dressed in early 19th century clothes with a high-collared cape - a Dracula apparently modelled on the one in The Monster Squad. (Actor Langley Kirkwood is actually English but seems to mostly appear in German and South African productions, although he is also in Neil Marshall’s Doomsday.) Orlock finds and vampirises 187 who then goes crazy, scampering around on all fours and having a whale of a time attacking his former colleagues while bullets bounce off his chest (though he is still obsessed with drugs). Eventually Humvee stabs a pool cue through his chest.

Oh yes, there’s a recreation room with a blue-baized pool table and comfortable sofas. It also has a Soviet flag and a poster of Lenin on the wall, and when the Demeter computer boots up it shows a hammer and sickle. Now, I know the Demeter in the novel of Dracula is described as a Russian schooner, but didn’t the Soviet Union (which was created twenty years after Dracula was published) cease to exist in 1991? Are we expected to believe that the USSR has reformed by the year 3000? But this is not described as an Earth ship anyway, it’s from the ‘Carpathian System’. Maybe the producers thought no-one would recognise an actual Russian flag (white, blue and red horizontal stripes) but why bother with this at all? Anyone bright enough to spot the literary relevance will probably also be bright enough to know that this is the flag of a country which underwent dissolution 1,009 years earlier.

Well now, a little digging around the ship’s computer files reveals that it has come from a ‘planet of vampires’ (almost certainly not a Mario Bava reference) called Transylvania (no, honestly) but this lot don’t know what a vampire is so they have to look it up. “There’s a plethora of information here, Captain,” says The Professor. Indeed there is. Here is precisely what is displayed on the screen he’s looking at, complete with unusual spellings:

1732 Lord Ruthven vampire is born
1748 Arnold Lefanu wreaks hovok in small town of Meguegna
1823 Vlad upir sentenced to life imprisonment for his vampiric crimes
1847 Van Helsing vampire killer is born
1872 Camilla Lefanu is captured at Canutama

Okay, it’s not really a plethora. There are some unreadable paragraphs below this but that’s the entire timeline. Kudos to them for mentioning Lord Ruthven and knowing the name ‘Lefanu’ even if they don’t know how to spell ‘Carmilla’ (or ‘Murray’ or ‘Orlok’). The Professor is amazed to see Van Helsing’s name there. “The chances of your lineage matching up in this history are far too astronomical to even contemplate,” he says, which may very well be the single worst line of movie dialogue I have heard this year. And it’s November.

Van Helsing just wants to know how to kill vampires and it turns out that a stake through the heart will do, which is why Humvee’s pool cue killed 187, though this seems to have just been good fortune since no-one knew about stakings at that time. We are told it must be real wood, not synthi-wood but fortunately fifty years earlier real wood was still used to make pool cues. No honestly, this is carefully explained. So they are able to use pool cues to kill vampires. They don’t even have to sharpen them apparently because we all know how easy it is to pierce a pool cue through human muscle. Why, this time of year A&E departments are overflowing with people who have inadvertently stabbed themselves with a pool cue.

Good grief.

Another mystery revealed at this point is why Orlock did not kill Aurora when he met her earlier. She admits now that she is a Proteus IV droid working for the interplanetary drugs agency as a plant on Van Helsing’s ship. “She’s a narc!” cries Humvee while the viewer, remembering that the character’s full name shown on the infodump screen at the start, though never mentioned, is Aurora Ash, cries, “Ash is a robot! Ash is a goddamn robot!”

Ash and Van Helsing decide to destroy all the vampires and spend a while prising open the coffin lids to find them all empty. Wait a minute - how would vampires get out if the lids were screwed down? Not that it matters as Orlock is the only vampire aboard anyway. Every so often during this film, when no-one is in the ‘hold’ we get a repeated shot of a coffin lid being blown off by a small explosion but this is never explained and just seems to be an effects shot that the film-makers wanted to stick in here and there to make the film look more expensive. Eventually the two vampire hunters find a coffin with Mina inside it who has gone all pasty-faced and goth since she was vampirised although no-one else ever does.

There’s some sort of hooha but by this time I was losing the will to live. Eventually two of the crew survive and decide to aim the ship at the twin suns of Halbron (or something) because they have discovered that sunlight kills vampires but where can they find sunlight in space? This raises an interesting question: does starlight count as sunlight, because the sun is just a star? If so, then there’s plenty of sunlight in space but of course this would make it difficult for vampires to walk abroad at night unless it was cloudy. So maybe ‘sunlight’ has to be filtered through an atmosphere to work - but then aiming at these twin suns won’t do anything. However, as they apparently plan to destroy the ship by aiming it straight into the suns (hopefully not between them) all this is moot. I wonder whether debate over this was responsible for the DVD sleeve tagline being changed from ‘In space the sun never rises’ (on the VHS) and ‘In space there is no daylight (on the US DVD) to ‘In the future, an ancient horror awaits’ (on the UK DVD).

Our final message from Uncle Udo says “I see now that I must sacrifice the Demeter and myself to prevent this terror from reaching Earth,” - then the ship blows up. Which implies that it was him who set the ship on a self-destruction course but in fact when he died it was still heading calmly and serenely towards Earth.

Oh, I must describe what happens in the end but I’ll spoiler-protect it just in case any of you are planning to watch this rubbish for yourselves.

Humvee and Aurora have only twelve hours left to live before the ship crashes into a star. Aurora reveals that before she was a Proteus IV she was a pleasure droid so Humvee puts her over his shoulder and they go off to spend their last few hours getting jiggy with it. After the credits role over a still-frame of the ship exploding, we have a quick shot of Humvee slapping Aurora’s arse and telling the camera/viewer, “Now, that’s what I’m talking about!” It’s completely brilliant and almost makes the preceding 85 minutes worthwhile

Dracula 3000: Infinite Darkness (as the full title reads on screen, on the front of the sleeve and in the credit block) makes very little sense at any stage. You can see that it’s trying hard and the basic idea of Dracula in space is a potentially good one but the whole thing just falls apart, possibly due to a rotten script, possibly due to production problems, possibly due to post-production meddling. Or quite probably all three. The tiny budget and dodgy cast don’t help much either. Probably the most intrinsic problem is an uncertainty over whether these are alien vampires or ordinary vampires returning to Earth (Orlock is confirmed as being Count Dracula himself at one point). If the latter, where are they coming back from and how/why did they go there? Explanations are in desperately short supply in Dracula 3000.

Despite being financed with US dollars and shot in Cape Town this is neither American nor South African but stated at the end, for the taxman’s benefit, as ‘A United Kingdom-German Co-production’. The two companies involved were ApolloProMedia in Germany and Fiction Film and Television over here although the opening credits admit that this is ‘in association with’ Brad Krevoy’s company Motion Picture Corporation of America. The film was actually put through post in London but the only direct German involvement seems to be the presence of Ms Kamp and the tireless Udo, who filmed his ‘special appearance’ for this the same year that he made Sawtooth, One Point O, Evil Eyes and at least four other films.

Darrell James Roodt has come a long way since he directed Sarafina! and Cry, the Beloved Country in the early 1990s. His other genre credits include the Sax Rohmer adaptation Sumuru (which starred Alexandra Kamp in the title role) and something called Prey starring Peter Weller. His co-writer Ivan Milborrow is actually a sound-man who held the boom mike on movies such as Lunar Cop, Project Shadowchaser II, Operation Delta Force, From Dusk Till Dawn 3 and Tarzan and the Lost City (for which Van Dien donned the loin cloth) before progressing to sound mixing duties on Sumuru and other South African productions. His only other produced script credit is a Darrell Roodt-directed thriller called Lullaby. There are not many boom operators who get screenplays produced so all credit to the guy. On the other hand, the script for Dracula 3000 is so awful that it’s tempting to think he should maybe have stuck with a boom mike and left the writing to somebody else.

Producer David Lancaster’s other credits include Terminal Justice and Hollow Man 2 while David Wicht produced Tarzan and the Lost City and Primeval (the killer croc movie, not the dinosaur time travel series). Together they went on to make Starship Troopers 3 which saw Van Dien returning to the franchise after sitting out Part 2. Jorg Westerkamp (who gets a co-producer credit with James Atherton) followed this movie with Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys and Man with the Screaming Brain. Brad Krevoy isn’t mentioned anywhere in the credits but technically can be considered executive producer.

Cinematographer Giulio Biccari is among the many crew from this film to have also worked on some combination of Sumuru and/or Slipstream and/or Proteus. Production designer Jonathan Hely-Hutchinson was art director on Eragon and Doomsday while composer Michael Hoenig wrote music for The Gate, the remake of The Blob, I Madman and Class of 1999 as well as being an occasional member of Tangerine Dream. Stunt co-ordinator Kerry Gregg has the deep shame of having been a stunt double on the forgotten 1999 abomination The All New Adventures of Laurel and Hardy: For Love or Mummy. I believe I may have actually met special effects co-ordinator Roly Jansen as he supervised stunts on The Fairy King of Ar, the Paul Matthews-directed family fantasy which I visited in 1998. CFX Productions, who made sharks for Red Water, 12 Days of Terror and does-what-it-says-on-the-tin picture Spring Break Shark Attack, are credited with ‘prosthetics’ (read: ‘fangs’) and London effects house Moving Brands Ltd with ‘CGI’. My pal Karri O’Reilly gets a special ‘thank you’ at the end for her help with post-production.

The Anchor Bay DVD of Dracula 3000 has a Giger-esque cover and blurb which credits Ms Kamp under her full name of Alexandra Kamp-Groeneveld while saying that the Demeter has been lost for a hundred years, rather than just fifty. The disc includes text biographies of Van Dien, Eleniak, Coolio and Kamp plus some production notes. All of these text pages are fully justified, all capitals and in a square font, a combination which makes them almost unreadable.

I’m still trying to get my head around Dracula 3000 which has a title apparently intended to ape Wes Craven's Dracula 2000 and was released the same year as Van Helsing (it was marketed in Italy under the title Van Helsing: Dracula’s Revenge!). It’s a long way from being, you know, good but it’s extraordinary and has as many moments of deliberate comedy as unintentional hilarity, yet not enough of either to make it a truly enjoyable film. This really is a space oddity.

MJS rating: C
review originally posted 18th November 2007

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