In keeping with the autumnal spirit and delving into the legend of vampirism this month, I finally took the afternoon to go see Dracula Untold, purportedly the story of what really happened to Mr. Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Dracula (more info here and film info here).
Having done a bit of historical research myself in years past and again more recently in writing my vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, I could compare the film with a checklist of facts and suppositions from scholarly sources. As I watched the film, I was mentally checking off things that fit and those that did not.
For the most part, I found the film engaging on a visual level: the CGIs were breathtaking (I had brought a respirator, just in case) and the acting generally good. The occasional slip of modern language ("Are you okay?" to a fallen comrade) reminded me it was Hollywood fiction. The costumes were, to my eyes, authentic enough; to a historian of armor, perhaps not. Overall I was satisfied with the film, but there were anomalies that made me turn in my grave (metaphorically).
The general storyline is that Prince Vlad of Transylvania* refuses to give up his young son as a hostage to the Turkish Sultan, thus initiating an invasion by the Sultan's army. Vlad seeks supernatural power from a hideous hermit hiding in a cave at the top of a mountain. Great, I thought. This ugly vampire fits what we know of the medical/biological attributes of vampirism. And yet, the offering of blood by this cave dweller to our prince is his ticket out of the Turkish problem. (I did not care for this explanation; it leaves out answers to the inevitable question of who the first vampire was, the one who first began spreading this affliction.)
There is a twist which I suspect is not actually part of the presumed "untold" story but does make for convenient conflict complications: Vlad gets a three day trial using his new-found powers. Then he will revert back to his human self, no questions asked--or, if he gives in and drinks human blood within the three days, he will become a vampire forever, which is kind of a long time.
One of the superpowers he has is the ability to transform instantly into a swarm of bats. He is also able to control a separate flock of flying bloodsuckers and manipulate them into a giant fist that strikes down the Sultan's camp like the hand of God. Beyond that, he has superhuman energy, able to cut through the Turkish battalions like a hot knife through butter. Very impressive. Is there a role in the next Avengers movie for this Dracula?
However, in the final moments of the third day, his wife has fallen victim and with her dying breath she bids him drink her blood to be able to fight on and defeat the rest of the Turkish army as well as the particular Turks who sent her off the top of a tower to her doom below. Done deal: he is now a vampire forever--long after defeating the Turks. The final moments of the film take us to a modern city and he strides into the camera shot tall, dark, and handsome as ever! (Look around you; this is how you recognize who is a vampire today.)
Given that the story opened in the 1400s, Vlad has aged well during the subsequent 600 years. He does not have the hideous appearance of the cave dwelling vampire--which tells me this modern Vlad has been able to satisfy his blood lust at regular intervals. So...all the vampire tropes are there in the film, all the characteristics, the lore, the criteria, and so on, but on a basic level it is still a story of dark magic, not biological reality.
Conversely, in A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, a thoroughly modern story of vampire transformation, the medical technician hero, Stefan, has annoying symptoms which evolve into something hideous, driving him to seek treatment. As his desperation increases, he accepts ever riskier procedures. He eventually talks with God, making deals, but there is no magic involved. Again, all the tropes of vampire legend are explored and explained using medical, biological, psychological, and sociological causes. Having real, scientific explanations, however, does not help our poor hero very much.
They make a nice pair, this film and this novel. The old and the new. Something borrowed and something blue. I wish life were so easy, so beautiful....
If you wish to know what is really like to transform into something hideous, read A DRY PATCH OF SKIN --and keep the lotion handy.
*Bram Stoker sets his Dracula novel in Transylvania, the region northwest of the Carpathian mountains, but the historical Vlad was Prince of Wallachia, the land to the south and east of the Carpathian mountains from Transylvania.
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