"From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!"
There's no such thing as keeping a good vampire down. They're the undead; they can't die, despite everything you've heard about stakes through the heart or poor box office. The proof is in the sheer number of vampire flicks that appear every year.
"Dracula III: Legacy" is the third such film from writer-director Patrick Lussier, the first two being "Dracula 2000," a theatrical release, and "Dracula II: Ascension," a direct-to-video product. I must say the third time is the charm, although it, too, is direct to video. This one is no world beater and hardly scary, but at least it's got mood and tone and atmosphere to spare, something the first two movies in the ongoing series lacked entirely. So, in essence Lussier has reached the middle of the pack in terms of the competition in vampire films. Who knows: Maybe he'll do a few more and turn in something truly outstanding.
Jason Scott Lee is back in "Dracula III" as Father Uffizi, the Church's number-one vampire-hunting priest. (Do you, too, have trouble seeing Lee's name without thinking of Jennifer Jason Leigh? Well, it's good to see the man is still getting work after the martial-arts boom peaked.) The gimmick this time is that Uffizi's superior, Cardinal Siqueros (Roy Scheider, in a role that provides him a good billing for doing about two minutes of work), thinks Uffizi is losing control, crossing the line in his zeal to kill vampires, and wants him to quit and settle down to more normal priestly duties. But nothing is going to stop Uffizi, not the Cardinal, not even a bad script. He's not about to give up vampire hunting to "bless babies." In fact, he'd rather give up the priesthood and go off fighting vampires on his own, which is exactly what he does.
But why would Uffizi be so obsessed with vampire hunting? Seems he's part vampire himself, as if you couldn't have guessed by now or hadn't seen Wesley Snipes in the "Blade" series. Uffizi was bitten by a vampire and has been trying to rid himself of the infection for years. Apparently, he feels that zapping the heads off vampires with his whip and scythe are the perfect remedy for his ills, and maybe if he works his way right to the top of the food chain, to Dracula himself, he can at least purge his conscience if not his bodily ailments.
Also back from "Dracula II" are Uffizi's young, headstrong assistant, Luke (Jason London), who does everything the opposite of what Uffizi tells him; and Luke's long-lost love, Elizabeth (Diane Neal), who has disappeared and is thought to be in the evil clutches of the dastardly Count.
But it's not the characters or the plot that drive "Dracula III" beyond director Lussier's previous movies; it's the settings. Uffizi notes that Dracula has returned to his ancestral homeland in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, and that's where the movie takes us. It's the location shooting in the towns, villages, forests, castles, and mountains of Romania that gives "Dracula III" its special, and I'd have to say "authentic," feel. Not that the originator of "Dracula," Irish author Bram Stoker, ever actually visited Transylvania, today a part of modern Romania, but that's beside the point. I saw on a recent segment of "60 Minutes" that Romania's major tourist draw is now Dracula lore. People come from all over the world to see Dracula's alleged castle, tour the Carpathians, and be entertained by spooky things in the night.
However, I can't say that director Lussier did Romania any favors by filming in the worst possible parts of Bucharest; by depicting Romania as a dark, fearful, repressed society; or by showing a civil war in the country that has every street armed and dangerous. In the movie, Romanian rebels make vague insinuations about the government's top officials being vampires. "Why do they not appear in public in the daylight?" However, once the story reaches its second half and moves beyond the city and into the mountains, it picks up considerably with some excellent location footage, imaginative cinematography, and ominous background music.
It's also helpful that the movie finds a semi-romantic angle for Uffizi in the person of an EBC news reporter named Julia Hughes (Alexandra Westcourt). She is covering the Romanian civil war when her crew is attacked and killed by vampires. She's rescued by Uffizi and Luke and comes along with them for the rest of the adventure.
And perhaps most helpful of all is Rutger Hauer as Dracula. He's a huge step beyond Gerard Butler and Stephen Billington in the first two of Lussier's vampire movies. Hauer is quite convincing as the king of the bloodsuckers, a man who has lived regretfully for a thousand years and looks resigned finally to end it all. He's hooked up to about 800 transfusion tubes, and he's tired of it all. Besides, he's more amusing than his two predecessors, in a macabre sort of way.
Still, there isn't much to the plot or characterizations beyond a few good sequences with a few good cast members. Not even Hauer can save the day because he is only in a climactic scene for a few minutes. In terms of dramatic conflict, there's not much to make us care one way or the other who wins. Mostly, "Dracula III: Legacy" is all atmospheric slice-and-dice. Uffizi and his team rip the heads off vampires and shoot them through the heart right and left as they make their way to old Drac's castle, there to confront him and his minions in a final fight to the death. Ho-hum, and what's new. Fortunately, there's an ending that is both surprisingly touching and appropriately enigmatic to finish up matters.
Nevertheless, lest you think I loved every minute of this thing despite its flaws, the makeup runs the gamut from the persuasive to the ludicrous, some of the vampires looking rather frightful, like one chap on stilts, while others appear dressed for a Halloween party or a KISS concert. And since the decapitations begin about two minutes into the picture, be prepared for a boatload of repetitive blood and gore, some of it looking remarkably real but getting old fast.
"Dracula III" is rated R for violence, profanity, nudity, and other good stuff that still doesn't raise the film much beyond the ordinary. But "ordinary" is better than writer-director Lussier's first two Dracula entries, so in a purely relative sense it's a giant step upwards.
Incidentally, like "Dracula 2000" and "Dracula II," the title of this release is prefaced with the words "Wes Craven Presents." Be aware that the only thing Craven seems to have done is lend his name to the affair. It's good to be famous.
We don't usually see a direct-to-video product in such a wide screen format, but Dimension Films and Buena Vista Home Entertainment decided on an anamorphic widescreen measuring a ratio about 2.15:1 across my television. The bit rate could have been higher to produce a more stable image, but the colors are deep and solid, reproducing the burnished golds and browns of the color palette especially well, to say nothing of the reds of blood. The overall picture quality is a tad soft and dark, with some minor motion effects, shimmering lines, and a little grain.
Also good is the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, which does a fair job in the front stereo channels and an outstanding job in the surrounds. Listen for the noises of burning forms, gunfire, explosions, weird voices, church bells, and howling wolves. The dynamics are remarkably strong, and the bass is suitably deep to make an impression.
The folks at Buena Vista have gussied up the DVD with an assortment of extra goodies, which include the usual suspects. There is an audio commentary with writer-director Lussier, producer Joel Soisson, and special makeup designer Gary J. Tunnicliffe that may be of interest to the dedicated fan of the series. There's a brief deleted scene and a mundane alternate ending that proves that sometimes filmmakers decide on the right choices. Then, there are two "conversations," one with director Lussier on the mythology of vampires, which lasts about four minutes; and another more interesting one with special makeup designer Gary J. Tunnicliffe, who also has a small part in the film, which lasts about eight minutes and is divided into five segments. After those items are cast auditions for several of the actors in the film; original treatments for all three "Dracula" films, consisting of hundreds of pages of text; seventeen scene selections, with a chapter insert; and fullscreen trailers for "Dracula 2000" and "Dracula II: Ascension." English is the only spoken language available, but there are French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I didn't care much at all for writer-director Lussier's first two "Dracula" installments, but I have to admit I admired more of this third vampire film than I expected I would. "Dracula III: Legacy" contains some decent acting and some solid atmospherics. The only thing it doesn't contain is a script adequate enough to develop any serious thrills, shocks, or suspense. In other words, while "Dracula III" is long on mood, it comes up short on scares. Too bad; it coulda been a preternatural contender. In any case, it might be just the thing for a Saturday rental on a dark, stormy night.