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Cinema/TV, Dracula, Film Notes

Your Daily Dracula – Adam Sandler, the Hotel Transylvania series

My notes on the Hotel Transylvania series.

Hotel Transylvania (2012)

So, it’s basically Mad Monster Party for the new millennium – but that’s not such a bad idea.  In 2012, monster-themed 3D animations were a mini-trend – this might not be as sophisticated as Paranorman or Frankenweenie, which are more likely to appeal to grown-up horror fans and their well-behaved children, but was a much bigger hit and led to sequels.  There are a few too many poo and fart jokes for adults and the songs are forgettable, but otherwise this is a sweet, inventive, very busy gag-fest with amusing rethinks of the classic monsters.

The backstory is that a widowed Count Dracula (Adam Sandler, doing Bela Lugosi) founds a hotel for monsters in order to protect his kind – and, specifically, his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), from the world of torch-bearing, stake-brandishing humans outside.  On the weekend of her 118th birthday, Mavis yearns to visit the forbidden outside world, which comes to her in the form of human backpacker Jonathan (Andy Samberg), who excites Dracula’s overprotective jealousy but gets dressed up as a monster to pass with the gang and enlivens the dusty ceremonies.  Among the cast are Frankenstein (Kevin James) and wife Eunice (Fran Drescher), a werewolf (Steve Buscemi) and wolfwife (Molly Shannon), the invisible man (David Spade), Quasimodo the French chef (Jon Lovitz), Murray the mummy (CeeLo Green) and other spot-gag types (a blob, Bigfoot, sundry zombies, the fly, living shrunken heads, etc).

The basic gag is sort of Meet the Parentsy as the vampire king – Sandler uses flashes of his manic rage very well – alternately tries to keep control of his daughter and let her become her own person.  There’s a nice late development as the monsters finally leave the hotel to find that Transylvania is hosting a monster festival and they aren’t hated any more, which keys in to the way this is built around the general affection we have for all these movie-made creatures.  It’s got the attention span of a kid – the plot advances by fits and starts, as the movie keeps getting distracted by odd sequences, as when Dracula and Jonathan get into a funny duel with flying tables, and bits of art direction or spot-gaggery.  There’s one mandatory jab at Twilight.

Scripted by Peter Baynham (of various Alan Partridge projects) and Robert Smigel (SNL), from a story by Todd Durham, Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman (who took the title, but nothng else, from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s historical vampire novel – if I were her, I’d be furious); directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, whose background is in smart kids’ TV (Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls).

Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)

In addition to reprising his voice role as Dracula, Adam Sandler is bumped up to co-writer (with Robert Smigel) for this typical animated sequel.  The first film resolved its plot with a happy coupling, and this has to jump forward a bit so that Dracula is now an overeager grandparent (‘vampa’) rather than an overprotective father and his sprig Mavis (Selena Gomez) gets stuck with growing up to be a responsible young mum whose main job is to be wrong about moving to California or her son Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) not being a vampire so Drac and the gang can have something to kick against.  Admittedly, she gets a funny bit showing off her vampire mastery of BMX biking – which, in Sandler’s mind, is still what all the cool kids do, though he makes time for some vampire breakdancing too – and once nice flash of fanged rage at a smug airport official.  The plot fragments as Mavis and her human husband (Andy Samberg) visit his suburban hood, where his infuriatingly faux-liberal parents introduce them  to other mixed human-monster couples and tick off a hairy bloke who isn’t actually a werewolf while Drac and sidekicks (gag versions of the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Blob) take Dennis to a vampire camp which turns out to be neutered and safe so we can get grumpy jokes about the loss of real childhood scrapes and singing nice songs about not hurting people.  This strand does have one decent jab at a soft target as all the monsters are disgusted by Dennis’s liking for a Muppet-Barneyish TV character, Kakie the Cake Monster (Chris Kattan), they don’t acknowledge as a real monster, with some suitable punishment for a Kakie birthday impersonator who gets possessed by Dracula’s father, Vlad (Mel Brooks).

The climax has human-hating Vlad come to Dennis’s birthday party with his bat hordes – only to be not as bad as his build-up, so his burly bat sidekick Bela (Rob Riggle) has to step up to lead the hordes who get battered by the vampirised Dennis and the good guy monsters in a slapstick battle that provides a fun finish to the picture.  It’s weaker on story/theme than the first film, but compensates with many more spot-gags, some showing Sandler’s slightly more macabre bent (a character on a rack) and many just shoved in for quick, obscure laughs (Bigfoot has a new career in the German soccer league).  A nice running joke has the Phantom of the Opera (Jon Lovitz) delivering unwanted commentary in overintense song until he’s told to shut up.  I also like Dennis’s junior werewolf girlfriend Winnie (Sadie Sandler) who plays house but intends to get a masters is business and run her own career.  It has a lot of invention, but suffers slightly from hyperactivity – the basic gag that monsters are now loved pop culture phenomena rather than dreaded fiends is well-taken, but a little more magic and mystery would help.

Hotel Transylvania 3 A Monster Vacation

The first flourish of American horror cinema established a pantheon of monsters — Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolf Man (1941).  These films were so transgressive that a British censorship campaign analagous with the later witch hunts against horror comics and video nasties convinced Hollywood to abandon such terrifying unpleasantness for several years in the late 1930s.  Yet, by the late 1940s, the monsters were playing foils to comics Abbott and Costello.  The revival of interest in these films in the late 1950s was propelled by nostalgia – so, while Hammer films were making Dracula, Frankenstein and company shocking again, American monster culture was more likely to tame the icons in the likes of the sit-com The Munsters, the novelty record ‘The Monster Mash’ or the animated musical comedy Mad Monster Party? (1967).

The Hotel Transylvania films – notably more lasting and successful than such stabs at resurrecting the monster franchise as Van Helsing (2004), Dracula Untold (2014) and The Mummy (2017) – is a contemporary incarnation of this approach.  All the monsters are tamed and domesticated.  Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler in a hokey Bela Lugosi imitation) is a sweet, harrassed, overcontrolling father (and grandfather); the Frankenstein Monster (Kevin James) is a big dumb lug who keeps losing parts of himself not stitched on firmly enough; the Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi) and his mate (Molly Shannon) are weighed down by a litter of uncontrollable pups; and an array of other monsters famous (the Mummy) and minor (the chupacabra, famous in Mexico for exsanguinating goats) slither around in the margins doing spot gags (the most inspired feature a green gelatinous blob styled after the 1950s science fiction film menace).  This threequel threatens to take a fairly desperate turn – when a series is flagging, sending all the characters on holiday usually betokens a lack of ideas – but actually perks up after the fairly rote Hotel Transylvania 2.  It sidesteps the problem of many animated series sequels of revisiting characters whose arcs were well and truly finished in the first movie (cf: Shrek, Kung Fu Panda) by bringing in an antagonist who might be an actual threat to the genial creatures and stirring some genuine thrills into the jokey mix.

An amusing, nicely spectacular early montage shows a dashing Count Dracula inflicting a series of defeats on the blustering, monster-intolerant Dr Van Helsing – and the climax (which mixes competitive DJs and a parody of Clash of the Titans) has a steampunk cyborg version of the great monster fighter (Jim Gaffigan) summoning the kraken with ‘evil beats’ and presiding over another fall of Atlantis (here, a lost monster civilisation).  Less effective is an easing into the late middle-age rom com market – it’s a wonder they missed calling it The Best Exotic Transylvania Hotel – with the widower Dracula recapturing his ‘zing’ with the conflicted descendant of his arch-nemesis (Kathryn Hahn) – though the nimble, pliable, weirdly perky Ericka is a terrific (oddly disturbing) character design.  Vampire Mavis (Selena Gomez), who propels the plot, and human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg), who has to be shoe-horned into the climax, were the rebels in the first film, but are now stuck with being sensible while the older and younger generations do comic schtick.

Given that any popular children’s film is now likely to be subject of repeated on demand viewings – demanded of parents by young enthusiasts – the trick of crafting one is to cram every frame with easy-to-overlook detail, like the marginal jokes artist Sergio Aragones used to scribble between and around the frames of MAD Magazine’s movie satires.  This offers a few sweet sillinesses (including the conceptually bizarre son of blob character, an animate lump of seasick) and just enough macabre touches (deck quoits played on a grid of chalk corpse outlines) to serve as a reminder that these monsters are, after all, still at least mildly monstrous.

First published in Sight & Sound.

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