Tag Archives: Vlad Tepes

Racism in Dracula: The Romanian Perspective

Last September, I went to Romania in search of Dracula’s roots. For the results, see my previous blog post Touring Romania, Land of Dracula. Little did I realize before I went that Romania has no vampire tradition. According to my tour guide, they have fairies and dragons and witches, but no vampires. That is not to say they have not capitalized upon Dracula. Tourists wanted to see the inn where Jonathan Harker stayed, so they built one. Tourists wanted to visit Dracula’s castle, so they declared Bran Castle was his. There are Dracula museums in Bucharest and Sighisoara where Vlad Tepes’ birthplace is a popular restaurant. In short, the Romanians are willing to make tourist dollars off Dracula.

But there is a sadder aspect to the Dracula mania. The Romanian people don’t really get all the fuss over Dracula. Worse, they do not always appreciate their country being associated with vampires, as if it were some giant haunted house/amusement park for tourists to visit. In truth, the Romanians have been belittled by the association of Dracula with their country.

I came away, despite my great love and admiration for Stoker’s novel, feeling sad for the Romanian people. After all, no one likes to be depicted via stereotypes. And so, I was delighted when I discovered Cristina Artenie’s book Dracula Invades England. The book’s title is a bit vague. A better title would have been Dracula from the Romanian Perspective. However, I suspect many Dracula scholars would have ignored such a title. That is too bad because Artenie has written one of the best scholarly works about Dracula I have ever read. As she points out, today there are scholarly editions of Heart of Darkness that discuss Joseph Conrad’s treatment of “the Other”—the Africans in his novel. Therefore, it’s time that scholars address how the Romanians, specifically the Transylvanians, become “the Other” in Dracula. Artenie argues that Dracula, like Heart of Darkness, is a novel about colonization, and although that argument might seem a bit surprising at first, she makes a compelling case.

I will only briefly summarize a few of Artenie’s arguments because I want to encourage people to read the full book for themselves. One of the primary arguments addresses the long-standing question of whether Stoker intentionally modeled Dracula on Vlad Tepes. After reading this book, I am left with little doubt that he did. In the past, scholars have pointed to the vagueness of Dracula’s speech about the history of his family and race, saying it is slightly incoherent and placed in the mouth of a ruthless madman. However, Artenie discusses the historical essence of it and then declares that both Stoker and scholars are “Othering” Romania through the speech itself and their responses to it, thereby creating a pseudo-history of medieval Romania that denies its true history. Other reasons to believe Stoker knew perfectly well he was modeling Dracula on Vlad Tepes include that his brother George was in the Turkish military and fought against Romania in its war for independence. Stoker later helped his brother write his memoirs, which, although he never visited the Balkans, made him well-versed in the region. Furthermore, Mary of Teck married the future George V in 1893, just four years before Dracula was published. The actor Henry Irving, for whom Stoker was business manager, was friends with Princess Mary’s mother so Stoker would have known her. More importantly, Mary of Teck was a descendant of Vlad Tepes. Dracula’s invasion of England, then, in a sense is the invasion of Vlad Tepes’ descendants into England.

The question remains whether the Tecks knew of their descent from Vlad Tepes, or if Stoker knew it. Previously, McNally and Florescu, in their book In Search of Dracula, had explored Vlad Tepes and first promoted the idea that Stoker based Dracula on him. However, they also fudged some of their research, according to Artenie, claiming Romanian sources that did not exist or simply preferring to “orientalise” East Central Europe. A promised follow-up volume to their famous book that would be written in collaboration with Romanian specialists to provide a more accurate history of Dracula, Vlad Tepes, and Romania never happened. One of the errors McNally and Florescu made was to claim Vlad Tepes had no direct descendants but that Mary of Teck was descended from his half-brother (mentioned in their later book Dracula, Prince of Many Faces). Artenie cites the same genealogy as them, but also other genealogies that show the British royal family has more than one link to Vlad Tepes and his other family members (p. 79-82), including a direct descent from Vlad Tepes through Mary of Teck—a claim Prince Charles in recent years popularized when he announced he was descended from Vlad Tepes.

Beyond Dracula, Romania is famous for its painted eggs.

Artenie argues that Stoker depicts Romanians, and Transylvanians in particular, as “the Other” because Romania was practically a colony of Britain at the time. After the Crimean War, England was opposed to the Romanian question of independence, largely because Romania was Britain’s bread-basket—it had a grain-growing economy and its independence threatened Britain financially in terms of importing its grain to England.

Of course, Artenie also discusses how Vlad Tepes is a national hero to the Romanian people. Dracula scholars have relied on the stories of the horrible acts of Vlad Tepes as the inspiration for Stoker’s novel, but they have failed to note that many of these stories came from his enemies, including Russian monks who condemned Vlad because they could not forgive him for converting to Catholicism. In truth, Vlad was an intelligent, perhaps ingenious diplomat, who did whatever he had to do to protect his country from the Turks and internal enemies. His methods may seem cruel today, but they were no worse than those of many others in his time.

Ultimately, Artenie sheds a much-needed light on the disservice Stoker and the entire Dracula industry—from popular films to scholarly literary criticism—have done to Romania. Using Edward Said’s Orientalism as a model, she argues that Romania has succumbed to orientalization or othering by scholars, but then she goes a step further, coining the term “draculism”:

draculism is the discourse that enhances the characteristics of a place or person with the specific aim of linking the object of the discourse to Stoker’s vampire, Dracula. Draculism does not refer to the legends surrounding the historical figure Vlad Tepes, which would have been long dead if not for Stoker, but is instead the direct result of Stoker’s vampirisation of Vlad Tepes and of Transylvania. It is from Stoker’s novel that the West’s understanding of current and past developments in the region is derived. As such, the Other Europe [Eastern Europe] is too often seen as barbarian or retrograde because of its alleged link to the fictional Transylvanian vampire. (p. 164)

View of courtyard at Bran Castle, which falsely claims to be Dracula’s castle.

I am surprised Artenie does not comment upon the flourishing Dracula tourist industry in Romania. However, she does mention that the Cold War and Iron Curtain also helped to keep the Balkans and Eastern Europe relegated to an “Other” position for the West.

Artenie notes that Dracula scholars have completely ignored Romania’s history. Scholarly editions of Dracula fail to criticize Stoker’s depiction of Romanians, yet editions of other Victorian novels depicting colonialism do so. Scholars, to date, have only focused on Stoker himself and the works of other scholars, while ignoring Romania, which has been the invisible elephant in the room through all these decades of Dracula criticism. In the end, one could almost say that Stoker and Dracula scholars have been the true vampires, sucking blood out of Romania to leave it only a stereotypical shell of its true self.

Now that I have been to Romania and experienced for myself what a wonderful country it is and how warm and kind the people are, I feel guilty myself for “othering” Romania by going there in search of Dracula’s roots. Romania deserves far better. So does Dracula criticism. I welcome Artenie’s authentic, original, and Romanian voice to the discussion. I also look forward to reading her other works: her book Dracula: A Study of Editorial Practices, the essay collection she edited Gothic and Racism¸ and perhaps most notably, Dracula: The Postcolonial Edition, which she served as co-editor for with Dragos Moraru.

Romania is also home to stunning painted monasteries and church’s. Here is one in Bucharest.

Dracula Invades England is available in the United States at Amazon.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

 

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Touring Romania, Land of Dracula

In September, I visited Romania, having long wanted to see the land associated with Vlad Tepes (1431-1476), the Wallachian prince whom it is believed that Bram Stoker based Dracula upon. While I traveled throughout Romania, beginning in Bucharest in Wallachia and then traveling throughout the other two provinces, Transylvania and Moldavia, I will only discuss here the sites I visited associated with Dracula.

First, let me say that it is well known that Bram Stoker never visited Romania himself, and his knowledge of the country is based on research he did. He was originally going to set his novel in Styria, where J.S. LeFanu had set his vampire novel Carmilla (1872), but Stoker later changed the location to Transylvania. Romania actually has no vampire tradition that predates the publication of Dracula in 1897, although vampire legends can be found farther south in Serbia. It is also perhaps surprising to those seeking a Gothic atmosphere, but Romania is a beautiful, sunlit country, and even the Carpathian Mountains where Dracula’s castle is allegedly located are vibrantly green and more akin to German Alpine landscapes than the dark and dreary settings one associates with the Gothic.

 

Sighisoara

The first Dracula location I visited was Sighisoara, a medieval town where Vlad Tepes was born. The city is known for its landmark gate/tower with a clock in it. Within about 100 yards of it is the house where Vlad Tepes was born. Today, it is the restaurant Casa Dracula. The restaurant features pictures of Dracula and even the napkins have Dracula designs. Upstairs, you can visit the room where Vlad Tepes was born for 10 lei (about $2.60). After climbing a staircase with cheesy Halloween decorations (witches and hanging skeletons), you arrive at the room where you see a body lying in a coffin. Then the live body jumps up to scare you. It is a momentary thrill, followed by a photo opportunity. In the next room are several pictures of Vlad Tepes, including one of him impaling people and a bust of him. One of my companions on my tour said the visit to the room was a total rip-off, but this was the second day of the tour and the first Dracula place of interest, so for me, it was the best moment up to that point.

Napkin from Casa Dracula

Casa Dracula – birthplace of Vlad Tepes

Painting of Vlad impaling his victims at the birthplace

Dracula and Me at Vlad Tepes’ birthplace

Bust of Vlad at his birthplace

Just a couple of blocks from Vlad’s birthplace is the newly opened Dracula Investigation Museum. It has only been in operation for about four months, and I was happy to see that I was the first person from Upper Michigan to visit it, given the world map with pins you could stick in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This museum is decidedly low budget, but the presentation is quite artistically done. I believe the cost was 15 lei ($3.90). It takes about twenty minutes to see the museum. It consists of five rooms and there is an audio presentation to guide you through each room. The first room has a low ceiling and benches. You sit down to listen to the audio and watch a video shown on the ceiling that gives background information about Vlad Tepes. The museum’s purpose is really to tell a very accurate story about Vlad Tepes. The remaining four rooms continue the audio narration of Vlad Tepes’ life, with some mannequins depicting him and his brother Radu the Handsome and Sultan Mehmet (no mention of how Mehmet allegedly tried to rape Radu and may later have become his lover). The fourth room was cleverly done by using some small cut-out images hanging from the ceiling and then special lighting to cast shadows on the walls that tell the different parts of the stories. The final room has a bunch of bodies hanging from the ceiling to give you the impaler effect. At the exit are two baskets. People are asked to place a stone in the basket they think best reflects the truth—was Vlad a hero or a villain? The hero basket was three times as full as the villain basket, and I added my stone to the hero basket. Although Vlad’s tactics may not be commendable, he clearly did what he felt was best for his people to help them maintain independence from the Ottoman Empire and also to end corruption in his country. You can learn more about the Dracula Investigation Museum on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheDraculaInvestigation/. I believe it’s worth a real-life visit.

Mannequins of Vlad and his brother Radu kneeling before the Sultan during their captivity at the Dracula Investigation Museum

Shadows are used to tell the story of Vlad at the Dracula Investigation Museum

 

Bistrita

Bistrita is the town where in the novel Jonathan Harker stayed the night before he went on to Dracula’s castle. Stoker, however, uses the German spelling for it: Bistriz.

Honestly, there is not much to see in Bistrita associated with Dracula other than the Golden Krone Hotel, and it is a fake Dracula connection. Stoker has Harker stay at the Golden Krone in the novel, but the hotel is completely fictional. In the 1970s, a scholar visited Bistrita looking for a historical source for the hotel. An enterprising Romanian decided then to build the Golden Krone to cater to the tourist trade. The hotel is very modern and not very Dracula-themed other than a dining room named the Salon Jonathan Harker. In this room the walls are filled with ten pictures of simple images such as wolves, and each picture has a quote from Dracula in it. It was fun to sleep and eat there, but I wouldn’t say the Golden Krone was a highlight of my trip.

The Salon Jonathan Harker at the Golden Krone in Bistrita

 

The Carpathians and the Castle Dracula Hotel

From Bistrita we left the next morning and drove up into the Carpathians where we stopped at the Castle Dracula Hotel. The views from the mountain where the hotel is situated are quite impressive and one can see a monastery and a ski chair lift from there. A bust of Bram Stoker is located outside the hotel. One enters the hotel through a gate that leads into a courtyard. I would have liked to have stayed here because of the incredible views, although again, it is more a hotel built for tourists that uses Dracula’s name than anything really connected to Dracula. I did not see the interior, but the exterior was not overly Dracula-ish. That said, it claims to be built on the location where Stoker’s castle was set and to have been built in accordance with the descriptions of the castle in the novel. Wikipedia is skeptical but says the Hotel Castle Dracula is “located in Piâtra Fântânele in the Borgo Pass, which promotes itself as being constructed at the place of Stoker’s Castle, [but] at least is located at the point where Harker left the post carriage from Bistritz to Bukovina to be picked up by the Count.”

Bram Stoker and me in front of the Castle Dracula Hotel

The Castle Dracula Hotel

Sign at the Castle Dracula Hotel warning people not to speed or they will be dead like Dracula.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bran Castle

Bran Castle is the place in Romania most people associate with Dracula, although this association is simply the result of the Romanians trying to cater to the tourist trade. Bram Stoker seems to have had no knowledge of the castle and it has only tangential connections to Vlad Tepes. Some historians believed he was imprisoned in Bran Castle, but now it is believed this is not true. Dracula’s castle, as described in the novel, in no way resembles Bran Castle. Poenari Castle (which I didn’t visit) appears to be a more likely choice for Dracula’s Castle, although again there is no evidence that Stoker was aware of Poenari either. Instead, we can conclude that Dracula’s Castle was solely the work of Stoker’s imagination.

The climb up to Bran Castle is filled with cheesy vampire banners.

Narrow staircase inside Bran Castle

Bram Stoker display inside Bran Castle

Bran Castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nevertheless, Bran Castle is an amazing castle to visit. The views from the castle are superb, and the many winding staircases and twists and turns, as well as suits of armor and costumes on display, antique furniture, and the connection to Queen Marie of Romania, make the castle probably the most enjoyable place to visit in Romania (although Peles Castle, the Victorian palace built for the Romanian royal family is stunning also and worth a visit to Romania in and of itself). One room of the castle is devoted to Bram Stoker and the Dracula legend.

Below Bran Castle are a series of outdoor shops where you can buy everything imaginable concerning Dracula from snow globes to mini-castles, paintings, T-shirts, hats, and refrigerator magnets. Below are a few of my treasures I purchased.

Dracula T-Shirt – obviously inspired by the film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” by Francis Ford Coppola

Vampire hat

Small original painting of the castle – about the size of a postcard. I also bought a 1000 piece Jigsaw puzzle and a small statue of the castle.

Bran Castle T-Shirt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bucharest

Back in Bucharest, I visited the Old Town, where the fortress associated with Vlad Tepes is currently under renovation. It is the oldest building in Romania, and Vlad lived there for six years. It is currently closed to the public, though I was able to get a picture of the statue of Vlad Tepes through a hole in the green fencing surrounding the property.

Statue of Vlad in the fortress undergoing renovation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also in Bucharest is the Dracula Museum, which had only opened two weeks before so I knew nothing about it. My Bucharest city tour guide, knowing I was interested in Dracula, took me there, but it had closed early that day to my disappointment and it was my last day in Bucharest. The museum is located in the second oldest building in Bucharest. One floor is devoted to the life of Vlad Tepes and the other to Stoker, Dracula, and all the many film versions of the novel. The museum can be found on Facebook at Dracula Museum.

Dracula Museum – Bucharest

 

Snagov Monastery

The place in Romania I most wanted to see was Snagov Monastery where Vlad Tepes was buried. My tour did not include Snagov, but my travel agent had booked a separate day trip to it for me. However, I was the only person who signed up for the trip that day so it was cancelled and I could not find another way to get to Snagov that day, so I had to miss it. However, Romania is such a beautiful country that I hope to go back again someday and visit not only Snagov but some of the other Dracula sites I missed, including Poenari Fortress, which requires climbing 1400 steps to visit.

Snagov Monastery – like King Arthur, Vlad was buried on an island, but his body later disappeared, giving rise to the possibility he became a vampire.

Vlad’s Grave at Snagov

So those are the Dracula sites of interest in Romania, but while Dracula is a primary reason people visit Romania, I want to say that Romania is a beautiful, marvelous country that deserves to be known for so much more than just Dracula. It is filled with incredible painted monasteries, master painters of colored eggs, stunning and unique architecture, breathtaking mountain views, kind and friendly people who have overcome their Communist past with courage, and people just like you and me who are kindhearted and eager to be citizens of the world. It is an incredibly safe country—even Bucharest with its 4,000,000 people was incredibly safe and I never feared walking around it by myself—and it is an inexpensive country. Everything cost about half to two-thirds of what I would have paid in the United States. Please, go see Romania for a rich cultural experience like no other.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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New Fairytale-Type Story Blends Vampire Lore with Arthurian Legend

Picus the Thief, translated by Robin Bennett, is an original book that takes several traditional storytelling motifs and gives them new life through multiple reimaginings of legends and traditions.

Think of it as fairyland meets Camelot meets Dracula. It’s a little of all of those, and yet not strictly tied to any of them.

PicustheThiefThe title character, Picus, is a vampire, but he’s not your typical vampire—although there is a reference to Dracula as a sort of vampire ancestor—but that’s rather anachronistic—in fact a lot of things about this book are anachronistic. In any case, Picus is not only a vampire but he has fairy-like or, more properly, dragonfly-like wings. He is about the size of your forefinger, and as one of the human characters says when he meets Picus, to Picus’ displeasure, he’s kind of like a mosquito—he can fly and he sucks blood.

Picus is far from a scary vampire. One of his bites probably doesn’t hurt much more than that of a mosquito, so he’s not a bad guy. That said, vampires do think well of themselves; there’s plenty of vampire superiority in this book—a tone that vampires are better than humans—although I’m not sure that that isn’t all vampire propaganda.

To understand why it might be termed propaganda, we have to look at the book’s authorship. It is actually the first book in the Small Vampires series, which will provide a history of the vampires. The book was allegedly discovered in manuscript form in a curious way by Robin Bennett, who explains in the introduction how the strange book in an unfamiliar language eventually came into his hands. After some difficulty he managed to translate it. In short, he learned it was written by vampires, so obviously they will portray themselves in the best light. He also learned that there were people in the world who might be willing to harm him to get their hands on the book, and so he decided to publish it so there would be no one copy that could be stolen from him. All of this is explained in a very engaging way that made me realize that here was the typical eighteenth century Gothic novel technique of the mysterious discovered manuscript, but at the same time, it was written in a fun way that made me feel more like I was entering a playful and mysterious world akin to Narnia or Neverland.

And then the story starts and we are introduced to Picus. It is the year 266 A.D. we are told, which is rather odd and why I say the book is anachronistic since Dracula (if he was first the historical Vlad Tepes) lived in the fifteenth century, and eventually, Picus goes to Angleland at the time soon after the Romans have left—they wouldn’t leave in reality until about 410 A.D. and there were certainly no Angles in England at that time (but this is Angleland not really England). In short, Bennett, whom I suspect is the author despite his claims to being the translator, is writing pseudo-history and consequently everything in this book is “pseudo”—pseudo-vampires and pseudo-Arthurian legend especially.

Despite the vampires’ belief that they are superior to their cousins the Faies (fairies) and to the humans (who may have some distant relationship to both of these more supernatural beings, though the humans are magic-less), the vampires have some issues of their own. At least Picus does. He grew up in a dysfunctional home in which he was asked to murder his Sanguine—a wingless being the vampires have bred as servants and to feed upon. Picus’ refusal to kill his Sanguine led to his flight from home and his mother’s anger. Talk about dysfunction. Before the book ends, this mixed up family turns out to be more like Hamlet’s family than that from any happy fairy tale—come to think of it, most fairy tales do feature dysfunctional families—think of all those evil stepmothers.

Anyway, Picus makes his living as a thief, and we follow him from one theft to another until he finds himself being commissioned to enter the human world and steal the sword Exkylipr, which was forged in the belly of the Chalice and is one of the seven treasures. (Think Excalibur and Merlin collecting the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.) The humans were given the sword many years before, but now the vampires want it back, so Picus is sent to retrieve it. He ends up going to Camelon Castle, but he doesn’t meet any Arthur there. (There is an Art in the book, but he’s a vampire and runs a pawn shop—nothing kingly about him.) Instead, Picus meets an Ambrosias (no uncle to King Arthur but an old lady and the court physician). She is wise enough to know his purpose and eventually befriends him.

I won’t say more because I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but don’t look for an Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle in this book, and don’t look for your typical vampires, even though these vampires do have roots in Transylvania and the Carpathians.

Rather, expect a highly original take on old legends that is playful yet not lacking in adventure or even violence. There’s a feel of almost Irish leprechaun trickery here, a dash of Shakespearean revenge tragedy, and some beautiful prose worthy of Hans Christian Andersen. There’s plenty of whimsical creatures, complete with a glossary of them, an essay explaining magic in the vampires’ world, and even plenty of humor. For example, one of the funniest passages for me was “Gargoyles were also generally accepted to be the most nosey, pernickety, prissy and prying species on the planet after cleaning ladies….”

This is not a book for the die-hard Arthurian fan who likes depictions of the historical King Arthur. It’s more for fans who enjoyed the BBC’s Merlin. It’s also not for lovers of dark Gothic lore with all its angst or even the Twilight crowd—I think you’d be more likely a fan of The Addams Family or Young Frankenstein if you like this book—or maybe The Princess Bride. If you love fairies, I also think you’ll love these vampires, but perhaps not the fairies in the book—Queen Mab is about as awful as they come with her necklace made out of male vampire teeth, which has led to her nickname “The Tooth Fairy.” Actually, I loved hating her.

So it’s a little of everything—a little grotesque, a little funny, a little magical, and a little traditional. Plus, it’s a beautifully-designed book—the cover looks like a true lost manuscript or the kinds of books produced at the turn of the last century, and there are illustrations for each chapter, not of the characters, but of flowers and dragonflies that give it the feel of Victorian fairy tale books. I imagine many young adult readers will enjoy it, but adults may also feel here is some of the magic of childhood they knew that hasn’t been lost but only needs to be found again.

You can find out more about the “translator” Robin Bennett and the future books in this series at www.SmallVampires.com

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, and the upcoming Lilith’s Love and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works 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 www.GothicWanderer.com.

 

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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.

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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

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