Ever since the publication of Radu McNally and Raymond Florescu’s In Search of Dracula (1973), it has been a central tenet of most Dracula films and novels that Count Dracula, bloodthirsty vampire, and Vlad Tepes (1431-1476), sometime ruler of Romania, are supposed to be the same person.
The first ‘origin story’, explaining how the historical prince became the fictional vampire, that I can remember was ‘Prince Dracula’, a 1972 radio play starring Kenneth Haigh (scripted by Brian Hayles, a writer for Dr Who and The Archers) which became a long-in-development, never-made Hammer Films project. Peter Tremayne’s novel Dracula Unborn (1977) did something similar, and the Tepes connection is used in the Jack Palance and Gary Oldman film adaptations of the Stoker novel (1974, 1992), not to mention the 70s Marvel Comics Dracula Lives and Tomb of Dracula and books by Fred Saberhagen (The Dracula Tape, 1975), Gail Kimberly (Dracula Began) and, ahem, me (Anno Dracula, 1992). Earl Lee’s Drakula (1994) makes Vlad’s older brother Mircea the vampire, while the novelist Robert Lory (Dracula Returns, 1973) and Dracula 2000 decide the vampire Dracula is far older than Vlad Tepes and has merely been using his creepy name.
Over the last few years I’ve got a bit fed up with this Vlad/Dracula industry, and in Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998), a sequel to Anno Dracula, I tried to blur my earlier decision by having someone incidentally question the indentification of the prince and the vampire. The reason for this is that I’ve been convinced by several other commentators (Anthony Ambrogio, Clive Leatherdale) that Stoker just stumbled across a passing mention of the name and thought it sounded cool for his villain (the original, disastrous choice was Count Wampyr), then took a few garbled historical facts and mixed them into the book as colour without really intending anyone to consider his Dracula a real person. What little we are told (by the Count) in the novel could as easily apply to Vlad’s father as himself — and Dracula is in any case a nickname not a family name. Many things in Stoker are irreconcilable with the historical character. Which doesn’t really matter, except to the Romanian tourist board or writers trying to revive the character for a new film or book. We don’t care whether Frankenstein, Robinson Crusoe or D’Artagnan were real people (and one of them was) – it’s the story, in its retellings, that counts …
Which brings us to Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula, a cable TV movie that starts off as if it were going to be a biopic of the historical character but worms its way cannily towards the Hayles-Tremayne approach and winds up showing how Vlad the Impaler, common-or-garden mediaeval tyrant, turns into a metaphorical, literal or pop-cultural vampire. Directed by Joe Chappelle (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Phantoms) and scripted by Tom Baum, this offers Rudolf Martin as a heavy-metal haired (but unmoustached), slightly accented Vlad, explaining his life in flashbacks to peculiarly-bearded priest Father Stefan (Peter Weller) in an attempt to dissuade the Orthodox Church from excommunicating him, not because he has slaughtered thousands of his subjects on flimsy pretexts but because he has converted to Roman Catholicism to marry a Hungarian Princess and cement an alliance.
We shuffle through the facts as chronicled by McNally and Florescu, with some attempt to weave in famous anecdotes – the golden cup unstolen because thieves know what’ll happen to them if they touch it, the suicide of the wife who thinks Vlad has been killed in battle, a lifelong duel with gay and Turk-loving brother Radu the Handsome, long periods in dungeons, a meal blithely eaten at a mass impalement (albeit within what passes for standards and practices on American cable TV) – into a coherent narrative. Essentially, this Vlad is a mediaeval Michael Corleone, and much plot time is spent with his wife Lidia (Jane March) being loath to believe all the stories about her husband’s brutality (a nice moment has him make one up to see if she’ll believe it), then going semi-mad when he finds out that he really is an impalement-happy monster and that he intends to ‘corrupt’ their son so he can become a tyrant too. However, when it comes to the suicide, the film steps towards the supernatural with the wife killing herself not from grief but because when he comes back to the castle after his death has been reported she believes Vlad has risen soulless from the dead.
Elaborating on the dubious fact that Vlad’s tomb was found in 1931 to be empty, the last reel ditches history altogether for a surprise revelation that someone in the support cast (Weller) has been Vlad’s persecutor all along in the belief that he is the foretold Antichrist, and a pay-off to the Michael-and-Fredo bit as Radu skewers Vlad with a sword. It’s most likely that Vlad died a truly stupid death – he disguised himself as a Turk to spy on the enemy on the eve of battle and was killed by his own men when returning to camp. Then, Vlad rises from the dead as a vampire or a spectre of conscience and frightens (or fangs) the mystery persecutor to death, reunites bathetically with the shade of his wife, and wanders off into legend. The film tries to have its history without letting go of the myth, perhaps because if it weren’t for Stoker we’d be no more interested in the ‘real’ Dracula than any other minor monarch of the middle ages.
Shot in Romania on a slightly larger scale than all those Charles Band efforts (with which it shares a few production staff), it’s still a cramped TV movie with dark, rainy flashes rather than big battle scenes – and a laugh-out-loud moment when Vlad is overawed by ‘an army of ten thousand’ Turks when all we see are some CGI splotches on the landscape. Martin, the dubious MTV-look Dracula of the last Buffy the Vampire Slayer season opener, remains a soap opera hunk with no real acting muscles. He poses here as he did on Buffy, glowering in the hope that he’ll come off as magnetic, when the role really needs a young Jack Palance or Yul Brynner. And the supporting cast is a real mixed bag, with March sporting authentic mediaeval Austin Powers teeth and Roger Daltrey (a notably bad screen Dracula in Vampirella) a ludicrous King Janos of Hungary.
It’s not really fair to pick on Dark Prince too much, since it at least scrapes together a story and is no worse than any other cheap costume picture – but Vlad fatigue set in a long time ago. The problem is that Dracula is an endlessly fascinating character always ripe for reinvention, but Vlad Tepes isn’t.
First published in Shivers.
NB: Martin also played Dracula on Buffy the Vampire Slayer … see TV Guest Shots