Category Archives: Gothic/Horror Films

The Mummy: Tom Cruise as Gothic Wanderer (Again)

Yes, Tom Cruise is officially a double Gothic Wanderer. His first Gothic Wanderer role was as Prince Lestat in Interview with a Vampire (1994). Now he comes back as a cursed soul, but more of that in a minute. First, he has quite an adventure on the way to becoming a cursed soul, and The Mummy depicts that journey.

The Mummy is the first of the new Dark Universe films, a reboot of Universal’s classic monster films.

The Mummy is the first film in the new Universal Studios remake of its 1930s monster franchise, which it will call the Dark Universe. (Dracula Untold was supposed to be the first film in the Dark Universe series, but apparently, it has now been dropped and won’t tie into the other films planned. A real shame because I thought it was probably the best Gothic film in years as I previously blogged about.) In any case, I am delighted that we will have a new series of Monster films, and despite some of the negative reviews, this film is not just a rehash of old Mummy films but is unusually fresh and does far more with the Mummy theme than any of its predecessors while retaining the themes of undying love, forbidden knowledge, and immortality that have been part of the mummy legacy since the first mummy film of 1932.

The general public’s interest in mummies began because of the early explorations by archeologists in Egypt in the late 1800s, resulting in early mummy novels such as Jane Webb’s The Mummy!, or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) and Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) and eventually movies like The Mummy (1932). Therefore, it is surprising that the film is not set back in the early twentieth century like the recent films starring Brendan Fraser.

Instead, (spoiler alert from here on) we have a prologue set during the Crusades showing that English knights captured a large ruby from ancient Egypt and brought it back to England where they buried it in one of the knights’ tombs. This ruby was part of a dagger that the ancient Egyptian Princess Ahmanet used to try to kill her lover so the God Set could enter him and take on human form. When the knight’s tomb is discovered in modern-day London during a Crossrail construction, we are given a flashback scene to how it got there. Princess Ahmanet was denied the chance to succeed her father, the pharaoh, when his second wife gave birth to a son. Wanting the throne for herself, Ahmanet sold her soul to the Egyptian god Set, who gave her a special dagger to transfer his spirit into a human body. After murdering her family, Ahmanet tried to sacrifice her lover so Set could enter his corpse, but her father’s priests slew him before the ritual could be completed. They then mummified Ahmanet, sentencing her to be buried alive for eternity inside a sarcophagus surrounded by mercury so she could never escape. (I need not tell any Gothic Wanderer lover here that selling your soul is a very Faustian act and common in Gothic Wanderer novels. It also, in Ahmanet’s case, seems to have made her immortal, and immortality is a major Gothic Wanderer theme as well.)

Back in modern times, soldier-of-fortune Nick Morton and his partner Chris Vail accidentally discover the tomb of Ahmanet in Iraq. Jenny Halsey, an archaeologist who had a one-night stand with Nick, arrives to investigate the tomb and comes to realize it’s actually a prison. They raise up Ahmanet’s sarcophagus from where it is enchained in the pool of mercury, and then it is placed on a plane to be brought to England, along with Nick, Chris, and Jenny.

During the flight, Chris, who was bit by a spider in the tomb, becomes possessed by Ahmanet’s power. He tries to open the sarcophagus to free Ahmanet, and when the soldiers try to stop them, he starts stabbing people until Nick shoots and kills him. After that, he will start to haunt Nick. But not before a magnificent plane crash scene occurs—it is really the best plane crash scene I’ve ever seen. Jenny escapes with a parachute, but Nick goes down with the plane. He ends up waking in a body bag but doesn’t have a scratch on him. Why? Because Ahmanet is already possessing him—she has decided he will be the man whose corpse will one day allow the God Set to live in human form.

Meanwhile, Ahmanet’s sarcophagus has fallen out of the plane as it crashed. She escapes from it and starts feeding on people to bring life back into her body. She also finds the blade of the Dagger of Set, absent its jewel, in an ancient church where the Crusaders hid it. While Nick and Jenny are out looking for the sarcophagus, Jenny reveals to Nick that he must be connected to Ahmanet somehow, which turns out to be true when she starts to pursue them, but at the last minute, soldiers appear and subdue her.

The soldiers turn out to be followers of Dr. Henry Jekyll (of Jekyll and Hyde fame). He tells Nick that he and Jenny are part of Prodigium, a secret society that tries to stop supernatural threats. Dr. Jekyll, however, has his own ideas for how to stop evil—he wants to let Ahmanet complete her ritual so Nick will die and be possessed by Set; then Jekyll can destroy both Set and Ahmanet and stop their evil. Of course, Nick doesn’t like the idea of dying, but before he can stop Jekyll, who turns into Mr. Hyde briefly and must be subdued, Ahmanet escapes and begins to wreak havoc on London.

From this point, we have a typical action film until we get to the final showdown between Nick and Ahmanet. She explains to Nick that she loves him and wants him to live forever; she tries to stab him but he gets the dagger (with its jewel restored to it now) away from her, then decides he wants to be immortal so he stabs himself. However, he also remembers Jenny telling him there is good inside of him, so once he has immortality, the good in him wins out enough to make him destroy Ahmanet.

All this is lead up to the most interesting point of the film. Nick tells Jenny now he must leave her because he doesn’t know what he is now and he doesn’t want to hurt her. Then he swiftly disappears. In the final scenes, Dr. Jekyll tells Jenny that Nick is now going to spend his life with an internal battle of good and evil within him. He has achieved his redemption as a human by becoming a monster, but sometimes what the world needs is a monster (a line that was also used in Dracula Untold). In the final scene, Nick is with his friend Chris, whom he brought back to life through the powers he gained from Ahmanet. He says they will now have an adventure. Jekyll says Nick will spend his time seeking a cure for what he has become (rather like the Incredible Hulk), but truthfully, Nick doesn’t seem too concerned about it in the end.

That Nick is now cursed and immortal is high Gothic at its best. Unfortunately, it’s also where the film ends, with Nick a true Gothic Wanderer. I was left wanting more.

Yes, the film has gotten mostly negative reviews, but very unjustly in my opinion, and it has done well at the box office overseas if not in the U.S. At Rotten Tomatoes, the general consensus is “Lacking the campy fun of the franchise’s most recent entries and failing to deliver many monster-movie thrills, The Mummy suggests a speedy unraveling for the Dark Universe.” All I have to say to that is that while I liked the earlier Mummy films with Brendan Fraser, thank God that this film didn’t have campy fun. It’s about time we get some more serious horror films. Furthermore, a good horror film isn’t just about scaring the viewer. It’s about creating tormented characters, and this film sets up Cruise’s character to be a wonderfully tormented soul. This is the very essence of the Gothic Wanderer figure—the tormented soul. It is in the tradition of Frankenstein and Dracula and many other characters. Hollywood, please bring us more tormented souls and less chainsaw murderers, shark attacks, and crap films like Sleepy Hollow (1999) that can’t take their subjects seriously. Tormented souls are what life is about—aren’t we all in some way tormented souls and Gothic Wanderers looking for redemption? That Universal understood that when it made Dracula Untold and continues to understand it with The Mummy is why these are relevant films that can resonate with viewers—and also why they are far better than most of the superhero and other horror films being made currently, both of which owe a huge debt to the Gothic.

In addition, I want to say that I know Tom Cruise gets a lot of criticism these days. Frankly, I don’t care about his religion or his personal life. I care about whether he can make a good movie, and as far as I am concerned, he’s just as handsome, cool, and capable of creating a good action film as he was in Top Gun, The Firm, or any of his much earlier films. He’s hot, cocky, charming, talented, and looks incredible for his age. (In fact, in one scene Russell Crowe’s character remarks to Tom Cruise’s character, “You’re a younger man than me.” Actually Cruise was born in 1962 and Crowe in 1964, but Crowe is starting to look old and overweight. (He reminded me of Anthony Hopkins in this film, while Cruise could still pass for a man in his late thirties.) How much their looks are the result of makeup I can’t say. I’ll just say that Tom Cruise still rocks as a Hollywood megastar and anyone who says otherwise must just be jealous. I hope Cruise has plenty more Mummy and other Dark Universe films in his future.

More Dark Universe films are in the works, including films of Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. (See more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Monsters#Dark_Universe).

Universal, bring them on! You can’t make them fast enough for my taste! The Gothic Wanderer lives on—but why am I not surprised?—after all, in most renditions he is immortal.

_________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at http://www.ChildrenofArthur.com and http://www.GothicWanderer.com.

Advertisements

10 Comments

Filed under Gothic/Horror Films

Book Review: Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man who Created Dracula

Something in the Blood by David Skal is one of the best literary biographies I have ever read. It is 583 pages of main text, plus notes, index, and bibliography, and all of it is interesting. While Skal likes to go off on tangents, all the tangential material is still relevant and fascinating. Besides giving us Bram Stoker’s entire life story, a lot of the book is devoted to Oscar Wilde and particularly his infamous trial. We also get a lot of information about Stoker’s best friend, Hal Caine, and about his employer, the great actor Henry Irving and the history of Victorian theatre. Finally, the last hundred pages of the book are about Dracula’s legacy after Stoker’s death. Skal does not discuss every film or play version of Dracula, but he hits most of the highlights, so that this book might really be seen as an exploration of the creation and evolution of Dracula from influences in Stoker’s childhood to the present.

It’s impossible for me to discuss everything contained in this book, but I’ll just point out a few highlights. At the center of the book is Bram Stoker. Skal is very interested in Stoker’s sexuality and the possibility—very likely—that he was homosexual or bisexual. Surprising and fascinating to me was that Stoker was a great admirer of Walt Whitman, and Skal reprints letters Stoker wrote in admiration to Whitman. Eventually, they developed a close friendship and Stoker met him when he visited the United States on tour with Henry Irving’s company. Skal implies Stoker’s interest in Whitman may have been because of the homosexual references in his poetry, but it’s not clear whether that was his primary interest or just the life-affirming voice of his poetry.

Stoker was very involved in both the theatre and literary world so he knew many of the celebrities of his time. He was friends with Mark Twain, although Skal brushes over this; I would have liked to know more about their friendship. Hal Caine was clearly Stoker’s greatest friend—he dedicated Dracula to him—and he was also the bestselling novelist of his time. Stoker often did editing and other literary work for him on the side when not busy with the theatre. I doubt either could foresee that one day Stoker’s creation Dracula would be a household name and live eternally while Caine’s books are basically forgotten.

Also fascinating was Stoker’s relationship with Henry Irving. Irving has often been discussed as the source for the character of Dracula, and Skal explores this possibility. Here we get to the heart of Stoker’s sexuality and psychology. He was never Irving’s lover, but he was his worshiper. Bram Stoker was a big strong, athletic man, over six feet tall, and yet, likely because he was gay or bisexual, he felt the need to hero worship another powerful man. Irving was talented, which led to Stoker admiring his performances before he began working for him. But Irving was also a taskmaster, and Stoker was clearly a workaholic given his doing work on the side when not busy with the theatre and also pursuing his interests in writing his own novels. How Irving treated Stoker doesn’t seem to be really clear, but it is known that Irving could be difficult and Skal states that he even at times got angry enough to hit his fellow actors. Skal goes on to say that the idea that the depiction of Dracula as a sort of revenge on Irving is false because Stoker actually worshiped Irving. Irving treated Stoker like a slave and Stoker, being a masochist, felt validation and gratification as a result of this treatment (p.442).

As for Oscar Wilde, he and Stoker never really had any sort of relationship, but Skal discusses how Wilde was always sort of an absent presence in Stoker’s life. Stoker likely met Wilde on numerous occasions. Stoker attended Wilde’s mother’s salons in Dublin. Wilde was interested in marrying Florence Balcombe, who later became Bram Stoker’s wife. As a result, Stoker must have been aware that Wilde was the ex-boyfriend. And Skal hints that Florence must have frequently considered what her life would have been like had she married Wilde instead—both the pain she would have felt over his trial and imprisonment, and later in life, how she might have benefited from the royalties of his plays whereas Bram Stoker was not a very successful author, and after Irving’s death, she was not left with any real source of income other than from his writing. Skal also suggests that Florence likely knew and was disgusted by her husband’s homosexual proclivities and hated the book Dracula as a result. That said, after his death, she had to work strenuously to protect her rights to the book, even taking the creators of the film Nosferatu to court for making an unauthorized film based on the novel. Wilde’s disgrace must have hurt her deeply. However, there is no record of either of the Stokers’ thoughts on Wilde during the worst times of his life. Skal also believes Stoker kept diaries that he destroyed that mentioned Wilde. Unfortunately, the details of the relationship between Wilde and the Stokers, if there was any, have been lost.

Finally, Skal drops information throughout the book about the creation of Dracula and what may have helped inspire it. He discusses the Irish and fairy tale influences on the novel, and early Gothic works’ influences on the novel, including the works of Wilkie Collins, and of course, vampire fiction prior to Stoker. Stoker’s novel basically set in stone basic elements of the vampire legend. At the same time, Skal discusses details from films that have become part of the myth or popular imagination about Dracula that were never in Stoker’s book. Foremost of these is the idea that Bram Stoker equated Dracula with Vlad Tepes. Stoker probably had no knowledge of Tepes and it wasn’t until McNally and Florescu’s book In Search of Dracula that this idea became popular, and then films like Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the more recent Dracula Untold have caused Vlad and Dracula to be equated by most Dracula fans.

Skal also notes that the equation of vampires with bats was Stoker’s creation. I disagree with him on this point because Paul Feval’s French vampire novel, Vampire City, bring bats into the vampire mythos (see my blog Paul Feval and the Vampire Gothic: The Path from Radcliffe to Stoker. Skal also offers a couple of possible sources for the name Mina in Dracula—Amina from Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula and Minna in Prest and Rymer’s The String of Pearls (p. 110). However, Skal never mentions that in Feval’s Vampire City there is a dog named Mina. I believe Stoker must have had access to Feval’s novels, although I have never seen any scholar make a connection. Stoker certainly traveled in France and could have purchased them (Feval wanted nothing to do with having his books translated into English), and I would assume Stoker could speak French at least moderately. Whether he could read French, however, I am not sure, but it would not have been unlikely.

Many filmmakers and others would take liberties with Dracula in the years after its publication. The actor Hamilton Deane was the first to wear a high-collared black cape in a theatre production in 1924, which made the cape become standard for Dracula. The cape is only mentioned once in the novel when Dracula is crawling up the castle wall (p. 512-3). Skal also mentions the recent discovery that the Icelandic translation of Dracula was not a true translation but may have been based on an earlier manuscript of the novel. The translation was just published in English as Powers of Darkness in February 2017, about three months after Skal’s book appeared, so he did not have access to the translation and could only go on reports of what it contained. (I’ll be blogging about Powers of Darkness in the future.) Skal suggests, based on information from scholar Hans Roos who produced this new translation into English), that the Icelandic translator, Valdimar Ásmundsson, may not only have worked from an earlier draft of the novel but taken liberties in altering or completing the story. If that is the case, it was the first time someone decided to expand or change Stoker’s text.

I will admit Something in the Blood has a few shortcomings. There are several typos where it’s clear dates are wrong and at one point he mixes up which Bronte sister wrote Jane Eyre and which Wuthering Heights. More importantly, I wish that Skal went into more detail about some of Stoker’s novels like The Snake’s Pass and Miss Betty which he only mentions briefly. I would have liked the book to contain more literary criticism altogether. Some of the tangential information throughout the book was also a bit much, and it seemed like Skal was at times reaching/guessing what might have been true about Stoker where evidence did not exist—in terms of whether he was gay or not and what if any relationship he had with Wilde. But I didn’t mind these stretches—it’s fun to guess and wonder what the real Bram Stoker was like, and not surprising that these secrets went with him to the grave.

Overall, anyone interested in Bram Stoker, Dracula, Gothic literature, Victorian gay culture, Victorian history, or vampire film history will find Something in the Blood a treasure trove of interesting information. I’m sure I will be consulting it many times in the future. It is hard to imagine anyone writing a better biography of Bram Stoker unless a bunch of lost manuscripts and letters are discovered to fill in the gaps, which seems unlikely at this point.

__________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, which is a study of the Gothic tradition from 1794 to the present. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

4 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, Gothic/Horror Films

America’s First Musical Had Gothic Origins: Celebrating The Black Crook on Its 150th Anniversary

On September 12, 1866, the musical extravaganza The Black Crook premiered at the 3,200-seat Niblo’s Garden on Broadway. It would run for a record-breaking 474 performances and enjoy numerous revivals throughout the United States for the rest of the nineteenth century.

Today considered the first true American musical, The Black Crook was the result of a dramatic group joining forces with a Parisian ballet troupe. While a few new songs were composed for the show, such as “March of the Amazons” by Giuseppe Operti and “You Naughty, Naughty Men,” with music by George Bickwell and lyrics by Theodore Kennick, much of the music was adapted from other earlier sources.

Poster from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

Poster from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

The music must have filled a great amount of the show since it ran for five-and-a-half hours, yet the libretto of the play is only 62 pages and takes a little over an hour to read. Unfortunately, the libretto, as recently published by the Historical Libretto Series, contains little of the lyrics. The libretto is available at Amazon. Most commentaries on the play never mention the plot other than to say the story was badly written, but it really wasn’t that bad and quite typical of the day.

The show was a smash hit and the scanty costumes of the female cast raised quite a scandal. The New York Times called it “trashy” and the Rev. Charles B. Smyth, writing in the New York Herald, warned, “Let husbands and parents and guardians who value the morals of their wives, their daughters, and their wards, bear a watchful eye, and keep them out of the walls of Nible’s [sic] during the rein [sic] of The Black Crook.” Despite such warnings, the female costumes were rather modest compared to many today, though bare arms and lower legs could be seen.

More importantly, the musical was the product of its age’s fascination with the Gothic. When I first heard the title of this play many years ago, I assumed it was about an African-American thief and was perhaps a racist play created in the aftermath of the Civil War. Instead, it owes more to the European Gothic tradition than to anything American for its sources. Nor is the play very original in its Gothic themes. The playwright, Charles M. Barras, wrote the script after having been influenced by seeing a performance of the German Romantic opera Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber.

I had never heard of Weber’s opera before, but after researching it, I think it clearly contains many Gothic elements common to the time period. It was itself obviously influenced by the Faust legend. In the opera, the main character, Caspar, whose soul is to be forfeited to the devil on the following day, hopes to obtain three more years of grace by substituting a young forester, Max, in his place. Caspar calls upon Samiel, the Black Huntsman, for assistance; however, in the end, Caspar is taken by Samiel instead of Max.

This basic plot of an evil character making a pact with the devil or a demonic being to gain a soul for the devil in exchange for youth or longer life was a frequent plot in other Gothic novels of the time as well, notably William Harrison Ainsworth’s Auriol, or The Elixir of Life (1844) and George W.M. Reynolds’ The Necromancer (1851-52). Earlier novels also focused on the idea of life extension, usually a Rosicrucian theme, such as William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). What is interesting is that while I have studied the Gothic in literature, the Gothic also permeated into music, and so a Gothic opera would influence the first Gothic musical probably more than Gothic literature did. One is left wondering whether Der Freischütz also influenced Reynolds and Ainsworth’s novels.

The Black Crook opens in the Hartz Mountains in the year 1600. Rodolphe is betrothed to Amina, an orphan girl whose foster mother, Dame Barbara, disapproves of the match because Rodolphe is an unsuccessful painter while Amina has had an offer made to her by a nobleman, Wolfenstein. When Wolfenstein comes to marry Amina, he has Rodolphe locked up in a dungeon.

Meanwhile, Hertzog, whom men call “the Crook,” is reading out of a cabalistic book, gleaning dark knowledge in forbidden paths. He has a servant, Greppo, whom he saved from drowning so Greppo obeys him. Greppo provides some comic relief in the story, but he also plays a role that reminds one of Caliban in The Tempest with Hertzog as a type of Prospero since Hertzog can summon spirits. Unlike The Tempest, however, Hertzog’s spirits are not bound to obey him but rather have some control over him. Hertzog longs to extend his life, so he makes a deal with Zamiel, a demon spirit, whom he summons. (Note the similarity between the spellings of Zamiel and the Samiel of Der Freischütz.) Zamiel promises Hertzog that for every soul he gives him, he will live another year; therefore, he can live forever if he continues to provide souls. This is similar to how in Reynolds’ The Necromancer, Danvers must convince six women to elope and marry him over the course of 150 years in exchange for incredible power; all those women’s souls are then lost to the devil. Zamiel tells Hertzog to begin by trying to capture Rodolphe’s soul since Rodolphe is in prison and likely to do anything to escape and marry the woman he loves.

Act II opens with Hertzog coming to Rodolphe in prison and offering to help him. Rodolphe, however, knows Hertzog is a sorcerer and does not trust him. Hertzog persists by telling Rodolphe that Amine is actually of noble birth, and therefore, Rodolphe will need gold so he can buy a noble status for himself and be worthy of her. He tells Rodolphe that there is gold in a mountain that he can get, and he gives him a magnetic ring to guide him to the gold. Since Greppo is a tiresome servant, Hertzog sends him with Rodolphe. He believes Rodolphe will become greedy in his quest and this will lead to both Rodolphe and Hertzog’s deaths.

However, once in the mountain caverns, Rodolphe manages to rescue Stalacta, the queen of a group of fairies, gnomes, and other beings. While disguised as a dove, she stumbled into a charmed circle of Zamiel’s. This rescue means that the fairies now protect Rodolphe. Stalacta warns Rodolphe that Hertzog has ill intentions toward him, and she gives him a circlet with a jewel to kiss if he’s in danger, and she will then come to his rescue.

In Act III, Rodolphe appears in costume at a masked ball at Wolfenstein’s castle. Wolfenstein and Rodolphe end up in a fight and Rodolphe kisses the circlet, leading to Stalacta and her fairies and nymphs arriving to rescue him. They are dressed as Amazons, hence the best known song from the show, “The March of the Amazons.”

In Act IV, six months have passed. Rodolphe and Amina have long since fled and Wolfenstein is searching for them. Once again, he finds them and once again Rodolphe kisses the circlet and Stalacta and company come to his rescue. This time, Wolfenstein is slain. Hertzog now appears and summons his fiends to burn down the forest to stop Rodolphe and Amina from escaping, but when Rodolphe again kisses the circlet, a rock opens and they enter a grotto. By now, a year has passed and Hertzog’s time to capture a soul has passed, so he is dashed into a flaming chasm that must have been a magnificent scene on stage. The play ends with a beautiful scene of Rodolphe and Amina, along with Greppo and Carline, a woman he loves, in the realms of Stalacta.

Scene of the Finale from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

Scene of the Finale from the 1873 revival of The Black Crook

There are some subplots and some humorous moments amid the action, but that’s the basic plot. It is not a brilliant plot, but the Gothic atmosphere in the play is quite dramatic, and the special effects must have been magnificent as they depicted illuminated books, skeletons and other Gothic style monsters appearing on stage, costumed Amazons, a burning forest, a masked ball, a flaming chasm, and a beautiful grotto. As much as the story and the music are combined to make a musical, we can never underestimate the power of spectacle to wow an audience, and The Black Crook must have been a very impressive spectacle to keep audiences entranced for five-and-a-half hours.

By the time The Black Crook premiered in 1866, most of the great Gothic novels had been written. Gothic literature had had its heyday in the 1790s, and there had been a Gothic renaissance in the 1840s and 1850s with the popularity of penny dreadful literature. The Black Crook marked the end of this period that was heavily influenced especially by German Gothic literature, or in this case, German opera. But what a dramatic and spectacular show—this very unAmerican musical in its theme and setting—to become the first American musical. It’s not surprising then that the musical has ever since been a very popular vehicle for other Gothic tales that became popular musicals from Phantom of the Opera to Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, just to name a few shows from more recent decades.

It is unlikely we will ever see a new stage production of The Black Crook. There was a 1916 silent film made of it, but even that does not appear available to the public. But you can view some photos of the production at YouTube. And we can dream of how splendid it must have been. What’s not to love about a grotto of fairies, a scheming villain in a pact with a devil, and an army of Amazons in “trashy” costumes.

Happy 150th Birthday to the American Musical!

________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

4 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Gothic/Horror Films

Dracula Untold: A Near-Perfect Gothic Retelling

This weekend Dracula Untold premiered. Of course, being the Gothic novel and film fan that I am, I had to see it in the theatre. I was highly impressed by the film and would give it 9 out of 10 stars. This film is very much the Dracula movie I have long been waiting for. In my opinion, it is the best Dracula film since Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

Luke Evans stars as Vlad Tepes in Dracula Untold.

Luke Evans stars as Vlad Tepes in Dracula Untold.

Why am I so enthusiastic about this film? Because as much as I love the Bram Stoker novel, the story has never adequately been placed in its historical context in a film—at least not with the vampire aspect included. The only other film I have seen that depicts Vlad Tepes’ story in detail (there may be others I haven’t seen) is Dracula: The Dark Prince (2000) starring Christopher Brand, but that was purely about the historical Vlad Tepes. Dracula Untold goes back to the historical roots of the story while cleverly weaving in the legendary and supernatural aspects of the tale. The result is a superb film with a few historical liberties that I’m willing to overlook for the sake of creating a great fictional story.

What is great about the film? First of all, the film is visually a treat for anyone interested in the historical Vlad Tepes. I loved seeing the clothing of the fifteenth century—the colors, the Eastern European and Turkish styles. I loved the castles. I loved not only the monastery but the paintings inside it. I felt like the film was visually very convincing and historical in these respects. The scenery and location were also convincing. I was surprised in the credits to see the film was made in Northern Ireland since it looked like Transylvania to me—I have not been there, but it had the right feel to it.

Historically, I loved that Mehmet II and the Turks were part of the story. The historical Vlad Tepes was kept as a boy at Mehmet II’s father’s court as a prisoner, given over by his own father as a hostage. He grew up with Mehmet II, as did Vlad’s brother Radu the Handsome. In fact, I wish the film had given us a scene or two of those years so we could better understand the relationship between Vlad and Mehmet II. For anyone who wants more information on this aspect of the story, I recommend reading Dracula: Prince of Many Faces by Radu R. Florescue and Raymond T. McNally. Of course, everything depicted in the film is not completely historical, but Vlad Tepes had plenty of reason for animosity against Mehmet II. I felt the film did a good job of showing how tyrannical Mehmet could be in trying to control the people of Eastern Europe at the time. While mention of it was not made in the film, Mehmet II is known historically as “The Conqueror” because he defeated Constantinople in 1453, which sent shockwaves to the rest of Europe with the threat that the Muslims might end up wiping out Christendom.

Best of all, Dracula Untold depicted how Vlad Tepes became Dracula—the whole purpose of the film, and it does so in a convincing way very much in keeping with the Gothic tradition of committing a transgression deeply tied to a hope for redemption. Previous films have brushed over the backstory of Dracula. Two of the best films with minor backstories for Dracula are Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), in which Dracula curses the church because his wife dies while he is fighting the Turks; the curse results in his being punished by being turned into Dracula. Dracula 2000 (2000) depicted Dracula as actually Judas, betrayer of Christ, another fabulous connection that sets up Dracula as an equivalent almost of Satan or as an Antichrist.

Dracula Untold owes a bit of a debt to Bram Stoker’s Dracula because of its similar death for Dracula’s wife, which is pivotal to Vlad becoming Dracula, though the events leading to his becoming Dracula, the vampire, occur earlier in the film. When Mehmet II wants 1,000 boys from Vlad’s people to serve in his army, Vlad refuses and goes to a mountain where he understands there is a Master Vampire whose help he seeks to defeat the Turks. This Master Vampire himself has been cursed to be a vampire and reside in a cave in the mountain. He can only be freed if another takes his place. He warns Dracula that if he makes this choice, he will have three days of supernatural powers and then be restored to his regular human form, but if during those three days, he gives into his thirst for blood, he will remain a vampire for all eternity. Dracula, believing he can resist the thirst and wanting to save his people, agrees to this Satanic pact and drinks the Master Vampire’s blood.

These Satanic or Faustian pacts in the Gothic are nothing new. The Gothic Wanderer frequently transgresses to obtain forbidden knowledge—as does Dr. Faustus. In this case, though, Dracula does it for a higher cause—he is not seeking the philosopher’s stone to give him fabulous wealth; he is not seeking power for its own sake. He is seeking to be his people’s savior, which makes him a sort of superhero and a Christ figure, an inversion of one who sides with evil to bring about good—a sort of “happy fault” in keeping with Milton’s idea that Adam and Eve’s sin paved the way to bring about Christ’s redemption of mankind to show God’s great love. Dracula becomes a hero because he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to save his people. Let us not forget here that most of our modern day superheroes—Batman and Superman among them—have their origins largely in the great supernatural Gothic figures of the nineteenth century, Dracula included. (For more on superheroes’ origins in the Gothic, see my book The Gothic Wanderer.) As the Master Vampire tells Vlad, sometimes it is not a hero but a monster who is needed by people. (And this filmgoer wants more monsters and less superheroes on the big screen.) It is a grand sacrifice Vlad makes, and he has the viewer’s sympathy in making this choice, especially since it is clear in the film that his own people are largely too weak and cowardly to fight the Turks. I completely enjoyed the consequences of Vlad’s decision and watching how and why he ultimately does give into the thirst for blood despite his efforts.

What faults does the film have? If we see it solely as a complete film in itself, very few, but if we look at it in relation to the larger historical background as well as the great canon of Dracula literature, we can find a few things that might have been done better or differently. I am willing to overlook the historical flaws for the most part. For example, in reality, Vlad never had a son named Inegras as in the film. Nor did he have a wife named Mirena. Both are fictional characters. Mirena is clearly a play on Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s novel and adapted from the wife who falls to her death in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, although the cause of her falling to her death is slightly different in this film. For information on the historical Vlad Tepes’ marriages and children, again I refer you to Dracula: Prince of Many Faces.

The biggest historical inaccuracy is that Vlad kills Mehmet II. Of course, Mehmet II is the film’s villain so viewers want to see him killed by the film’s hero in the end. In truth, Vlad died in 1476 or 1477 while Mehmet II died in 1481, probably of poisoning. Vlad’s actual death is obscure, but he was killed probably in battle by the Turks. His decapitated body was discovered by the monks of Snagov Monastery near the shore and buried at the monastery. Later, his grave was found open and his body was gone, giving rise to the legend that he resurrected as a vampire. I was a bit disappointed also that the mystery of his death and missing body at Snagov were not brought into the film; instead, another monastery is named in the film, but only as a fortress retreat.

My disappointments in the film really aren’t so much disappointments but rather commentary on how I would have made the film differently—I am in the process of finishing my own novel that retells Vlad Tepes’ story, linking it to the Arthurian legend, for my upcoming novel Lilith’s Love: The Children of Arthur, Book Four, intended to be published in 2017. For more information on my novel series, visit my website www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

One complaint by the critics is that the film is to be the first in a series of Monster films—a reboot of the classic Universal Monsters films from the 1930s and 1940s that starred Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, and Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman—films I have grown to love by watching reruns of them on Svengooli on Saturday nights. Critics are complaining that Universal is trying to capitalize on Marvel’s superhero film franchise. I say let them! There isn’t a Marvel superhero out there who doesn’t pale in comparison to the great Gothic figures.

A hint of this upcoming movie series to which Dracula is apparently the prologue is seen in the film when the Master Vampire tells Dracula that some day he will come for him when he needs him. The film ends in the modern day when Dracula meets Mina (clearly Mina Harker from the novel) who resembles his deceased wife Mirena. As they walk off together, the Master Vampire is shown following them and saying “Let the games begin.” I admit I was a bit disappointed here by the modern-day setting and how they meet—it looks like Bram Stoker’s novel will not be recreated for a future film with all its Victorian Gothic grandeur, but skipped over for a modern day story.

Dracula Untold leaves us wondering just who is this Master Vampire. The film is very obscure about his origins, but when I looked online at the cast lists, I found references to Caligula, and at one site, http://collider.com/dracula-untold-set-visit/ this information:

“In the movie, Vlad willingly becomes a vampire by drinking blood from a chalice in Caligula’s cave. Yes, Caligula. Caligula was a Roman emperor who ruled from 37 AD to 41 AD. Sazama and Sharpless decided to play with the mystery surrounding Caligula’s death and where he was buried. Because Caligula would have made his way into what Bram Stoker dubbed the Transylvania territory at some point during his exploits, they wondered, what if he’s still there and what if there’s a reason he’s still alive?”

I don’t think the film was at all clear that the Master Vampire was Caligula—unless I didn’t catch the reference. But I find it fascinating that they will tie in this historical person to the series. I am skeptical about Caligula’s mysterious death, however. I always thought, as most historical sources confirm, that he was slain in Italy by his own guardsmen, and it’s believed he was cremated, so I don’t know where this idea comes from. That said, Caligula is certainly one of the most monstrous humans in history and he works perfectly as a sort of Wandering Jew, a cursed figure who could live for centuries. I’ll be interested in seeing how he is depicted in future films in the series.

Go see Dracula Untold. I can’t imagine why anyone would be disappointed. I have read some of the more negative reviews of the film and can tell you those critics know next to nothing about the Gothic tradition. Dracula Untold is not a horror film and it is not an adventure film—it has those elements, but first and foremost, it is a superb and classic Gothic film, and it’s about time a Gothic story is told as it should be with a true transgressive Gothic Wanderer. And better yet, I welcome this recreating of our monsters to be more complex beings. A true Gothic Wanderer is never wholly a villain, but has his sympathetic attributes that allow us to resonate and understand and even cheer him on. Dracula Untold creates such a character superbly.

_________________________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, Gothic/Horror Films, Superheroes and the Gothic

Coming Soon! The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption

Welcome to my new blog, The Gothic Wanderer, created in conjunction with the upcoming publication of my new book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Gothic Literature from 1794-present.

The book will be released this fall. In the meantime, I’ll be blogging about all things Gothic, including classic Gothic literature, Gothic films, and how the Gothic continues to permeate our daily lives.

But for now, here’s a little about the book.

The Gothic Wanderer

The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption by Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D.

The Gothic Wanderer Rises Eternal in Popular Literature

From the horrors of sixteenth century Italian castles to twenty-first century plagues, from the French Revolution to the liberation of Libya, Tyler R. Tichelaar takes readers on far more than a journey through literary history. The Gothic Wanderer is an exploration of man’s deepest fears, his efforts to rise above them for the last two centuries, and how he may be on the brink finally of succeeding.

Tichelaar examines the figure of the Gothic wanderer in such well-known Gothic novels as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein, and Dracula, as well as lesser known works like Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni. He also finds surprising Gothic elements in classics like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. From Matthew Lewis’ The Monk to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Tichelaar explores a literary tradition whose characters reflect our greatest fears and deepest hopes. Readers will find here the revelation that not only are we all Gothic wanderers—but we are so only by our own choosing.

The Gothic Wanderer shows us the importance of its title figure in helping us to see our own imperfections and our own sometimes contradictory yearnings to be both unique and yet a part of a society. The reader is in for an insightful treat.”

— Diana DeLuca, Ph.D. and author of Extraordinary Things

“Make no mistake about it, The Gothic Wanderer is an important, well researched and comprehensive treatise on some of the world’s finest literature.

— Michael Willey, author of Ojisan Zanoni

4 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Gothic/Horror Films