Be warned: DRACULA 2000 has only one surprise and this review will discuss it. Prefaced by the same meaningless ‘Wes Craven Presents’ add-on that hastened MIND RIPPER and the CARNIVAL OF SOULS remake to video and WISHMASTER into a brief theatrical showing, DRACULA 2000 (or DRACULA 2001 in international release) gets round to a quite ambitious rethink of the origins of the King of the Vampires. Patrick Lussier and Joel Soisson (who worked together on the similarly Biblical THE PROPHECY III: THE ASCENT) abandons the lately overworked identification of Bram Stoker’s character with the historical Vlad the Impaler (as in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and the TV movie DARK PRINCE: THE TRUE STORY OF DRACULA) to envision the first vampire in the world, not only as Judas Iscariot but also the Wandering Jew.
After an 1897 snippet, recreating the famous dead-captain-lashed-to-the-mast voyage of the Demeter, the film picks up the story in London in 2000. ‘Antiques dealer’ Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer), arch-enemy of Dracula, has been keeping himself alive for a century with leech-mediated infusions of the vampire’s blood, in order to guard the coffined, still-living corpse of the apparently undestroyable creature (Gerard Butler). Solina (Jennifer Esposito), one of Van Helsing’s assistants, assumes his highly-secure vault contains something valuable and helps a team of thieves (led by Omar Epps) steal the coffin. In a private jet flying to the US, the coffin is opened and Dracula emerges, killing all the thieves and transforming them into vampires. Van Helsing and Simon Shepard (Jonny Lee Miller), a more trustworthy assistant, follow Dracula to New Orleans, where the vampire is appearing in the dreams of Van Helsing’s estranged daughter Mary (Justine Waddell), inheritor of the taint of his blood and potentially his mate. Dracula vampirises TV reporter Valerie Sharp (Jeri Ryan) and Mary’s best friend Lucy (Colleen Ann Fitpatrick), then pursues Mary through the Mardi Gras. Through her mental link with Dracula, Mary learns that the first vampire in the world is Judas Iscariot, cursed after his betrayal of Christ – hence the vampire aversion to crosses, wood and silver.
There is a neat bit of horror movie logic in ascribing the vampire aversion to crosses, wood, holy water and silver (as in ‘thirty pieces of’) to guilt over Judas’s betrayal, and this attempt to redefine Dracula’s origins is the single most striking element of what is otherwise a very basic vampire movie. Given the shadow-puppet silliness of depictions of the crucifixion and Judas’s suicide (here, an unsuccessful attempt, omitting the Gospel’s HANNIBAL-style disembowelment), the ambitious stroke doesn’t play that well. The film needs something as daring as the Devil Peter Cook’s attempt to re-enter Heaven in the original BEDAZZLED, but instead climaxes in bathos as Dracula argues with a neon Jesus on the roof of a New Orleans building, finally exiting the world (until the in-development sequel) throttled on electrical cord and dangling in the sunlight in a vague echo of Frank Langella’s fate in John Badham’s DRACULA. It’s probably beside the point to complain that the Wandering Jew was personally cursed by Jesus Christ in order that he learn a lesson by eternally witnessing the sufferings of the world, while this Judas/Dracula – who has apparently never thought of apologising to the messiah until the heroine brings it up – has spent two thousand years causing the sufferings of the world.
The Judas angle is the film’s big idea, but it comes along too late to be really exploited: and the extended and deleted scenes section of the DVD reveals that bits of business which would have added more depth were cut in the name of keeping up the pace and not complicating Dracula’s arch-villain status. With that angle downgraded, this is revealed as a turn-of-the-century remix of Hammer Films’s endearingly daffy DRACULA AD 1972. As in Alan Gibson’s film, a group of trendy cutting edge types, who will make DRACULA 2000 look as dated in 2025 as DRACULA AD 1972 does now, semi-accidentally resurrect the vampire (there, the majestic Christopher Lee, here the male model-look Butler), who resumes his battle with old enemy Van Helsing (this time, the original not a descendant – though Hammer had Peter Cushing play several generations of essentially the same character) by chasing after his handiest female relative (a daughter, as opposed to Stephanie Beacham as a granddaughter). The original cut of the film would have been even closer to the Hammer model, opening with an impressive Victorian action scene as Van Helsing traps and impales Dracula at the cost, if not of his life (as in AD 1972) then of his humanity before leaping a hundred years to the main story – as it is, this sequence (which makes clever use of Dracula’s inability to cast a reflection) comes in a later narrated flashback where it has a lot less impact.
Plummer, who has already played a variation on the role in Nosferatu a Venizia, is an acceptable Cushing substitute, wastefully killed off half-way through to make room for a top-of-his-voice performance from the energetic but superfluous Miller. It’s a shame that the production is stuck with typical Dimension youth-and-TV-orientated casting, scuttling an opportunity to cast Amanda Plummer, who could have made something of the daughter torn between two blood fathers who finally accepts the eternal legacy of Van Helsing rather than the curse of Dracula. A problem with the film is that all the best stuff comes before Dracula is back, with the high-tech thieves breaking into the super-secure, booby-trapped Van Helsing vault on the assumption that whatever is kept in there must be valuable rather than dangerous and an impressive mid-air uncoffining (slightly derivative of THE MONSTER SQUAD) that winds up with an offscreen plane crash and a selection of guest stars transformed briefly into vampires so they can indulge their fang and kung fu fantasies.
Francis Coppola said that ‘if your movie’s called DRACULA, then the word had better be that the guy playing Dracula is terrific or you’re dead in the water’. Gerard Butler, sadly, is not terrific: even Dimension has noticed, since his name isn’t mentioned on the DVD front cover or in the back cover synopsis. With Christopher Lee red eyeballs and Frank Langella hair, Butler is an identikit of earlier stabs at the role, even having some of the male model strut of Chris Sarandon in FRIGHT NIGHT, but brings little new (the film doesn’t pick up on the incidental fact that this Dracula is ethnically Jewish) and seems embarrassed by lines like ‘I don’t drink … coffee!’. As he slides through the New Orleans Virgin Megastore, making all female heads turn as if he were starring in a body-lotion commercial, and coos his approval of a Death Metal video (‘Brilliant!’), this Dracula never seems a threat or a temptation. In all fairness, Butler – as revealed by his audition tape and the deleted scenes – signed on for a more interesting character than is presented in the release version. He might never have been one of the great Draculas, but with his best scenes dropped it’s hardly his fault that he is reduced to a glowering prop and upstaged by his own disciples.
In the era of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s become a hackneyed convention that vampires do Hong Kong-style wire-assisted martial arts (CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON–BRIDE OF CHUCKY cinematographer Peter Pau’s work is sadly ordinary) and that both creatures of the night and vampire-slayers pepper their violent confrontations with the sort of wisecracks that used to be the trademark of Spider-Man. All this is fair enough, but it sits ill with attempts at atmosphere: New Orleans came off better in the dire CANDYMAN: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH than it does here, despite the regulation graveyard and Mardi Gras scenes. Like most recent vampire movies, Dracula 2000 bounces around a lot and writhes sexually but never manages to make its vampires especially scary or seductive.