In Hotel Transylvania, A Comic Dracula Still Kills

Casting a tapered, vase-slender silhouette and speaking in a Transylvanian accent with a touch of Borscht Belt, Hotel Transylvania’s defanged Count Dracula is introduced in an 1895-set prologue while serenading his infant daughter. No menacing carnivore, this Nosferatu has sworn off fatty human blood, is more scared of humans than we are of him, and desires nothing more than a spot hidden away from ever-ready-to-mob villagers in which to raise his tyke—his baby-voiced, Weekend Update croon at the cradle’s side ID’s no one less than Adam Sandler as the Voice Of.

To such an end, the Count breaks ground on Hotel Transylvania, meant to become a haven for the entire monster squad of persecuted and despised Universal Studios contract players. When we rejoin the Count a century or so later, we find his establishment’s rooms booked up by Wolf Man and family, Frankenstein and Bride, Jell-O mold the Blob, and so on. It’s the eve of daughter Mavis’s 118th, which, in Dracula years, makes her a restless teenager pacing up her bedroom walls. Although Mavis is going through a goth phase—perhaps inevitably, given her lineage—she’s really just a sweet Selena Gomez–voiced kid who wants to see something of the outside human world that her hyper-protective dad has forbidden to her. (As with Basil Fawlty, the job of hotel manager seems to attract domestic fascists.)

Despite the Count’s best efforts, guess who’s coming to—and possibly going to become—dinner? Distinctly pink and fleshy Jonathan (Andy Samberg), a young, mortal backpacker, stumbles into the hotel’s lobby and into Mavis’s heart, after the Count disguises Jonathan for his own safety as a reanimated cousin of Frankenstein’s monster so he can thereby “pass,” to use the language of clandestine racial identity.

Hotel Transylvania is full of lines with the double-meaning elasticity to serve the film’s flexible metaphor, equating monsterdom with the Us versus Them segregation of your choice—though it’s funniest when it just slaps its cards on the table. “Are these monsters going to kill me?” a quivering Jonathan asks the Count. “Not as long as they think you’re a monster.” “That’s kind of racist.” “Mavis could never be with someone of his kind,” old-fashioned Dracula harrumphs before finally venturing into the world to fight for his daughter’s happiness, where he gets a glimpse of Twilight—the franchise that made the world safe for human-vampire mixed couples—and balks, “This is how they represent us?”

Hotel Transylvania is, in brief, a tract against parochial xenophobia, the Count’s lofty getaway a catchall filling in for gated community, ethnic ghetto, or hick backwater—whatever you like. The idea that insular communities might have any intrinsic value does not enter into Hotel Transylvania’s script, content as it is to endorse the great melting pot of pop monoculture, for which Instagram tourist Jonathan is the missionary, pushing aside zombie Beethoven and his decaying songbook to take over as Mavis’s birthday entertainment. When the monsters do finally emerge from seclusion, they discover that they have gained acceptance with the humans through the vehicle of entertainment, as the great-great-grandchildren of the torch-and-pitchfork-wielding yokels who once spurned them are now profiting from a “Monster Fest” at the foot of the Carpathians. The nearest Hotel Transylvania comes to criticizing the compact with pop commodification comes when the Count is plugged into Jonathan’s smartphone and, hearing LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” gasps “It’s taking my soul!”

Although it doesn’t worry itself with dialectic complexities, Hotel Transylvania succeeds on the level of entertainment. The screenplay is credited to Peter Baynham and Saturday Night Live/You Don’t Mess With the Zohan writer Robert Smigel—though who can remember who contributed what during the film’s six-year, six-director gestation—and mercifully voids most of the bodily function jokes early on, making room for a steady pelting of one-liner asides and cleverly designed sight gags, many relying on in-depth 3-D composition.

Given its confusing provenance, the coherent visual identity of the final Hotel Transylvania must in large part be thanks to the contribution of director number six, Genndy Tartakovsky, a Cartoon Network vet who has worked principally in “flat” animation (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack), here making his feature-film debut. The computer animation is not of the nigglingly detailed, photorealistic sort that preponderates today, but is rather clean, graphic, and almost hieroglyphic, and able to be read, understood, and enjoyed in a moment. Some of the biggest laughs come from simply hitting the audience unawares with irresistibly hysterical establishing shots: a somnolent gremlin bingo caller who bears a passing resemblance to Angela Lansbury; the Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi), with red, saucer-round, insomniac eyes, piled sleepless under his pack of disobedient pups in the early a.m. The character design is uniformly delightful, including an Invisible Man (David Spade), whose tortoiseshell glasses arch their “eyebrows”; a bumptious peanut-shaped Mummy (Cee Lo Green), evoking Nightmare Before Christmas’s Oogie Boogie; a nattily dressed, well-spoken Human Fly (Chris Parnell) with binocular eyes. The charming closing-credits sequence imagines all of these characters in 2-D, proving that Mr. Tartakovsky’s aesthetic loyalties are not so easily swayed, while giving grounds to hope that he will negotiate the ranks of feature CG animation with soul intact.


Whack Drac

Though Hugh Jackman is indeed somewhat lupine in aspect, this should no longer dictate his career decisions. One wolfen character—in his case, Wolverine in the X-Men films—is enough for any actor. As the eponymous hero of writer-director Stephen Sommers’s underlit monster mash Van Helsing, he plays a massively backstoried and arbitrarily amnesiac version of the famed vampire hunter originally in Bram Stoker’s Dracula—this time funded by the Vatican, wielding a rapid-fire crossbow, and suffering from a touch of lycanthropy.

From any other filmmaker, Van Helsing might be ignored as forgettable big-budget schlock, but Sommers has shown a talent for the creature feature, which makes this a puzzling fiasco. His two Mummy films were premium popcorn fare, the eyebrow-elevating F/X joyfully expanding the imagination and rarely crowding the well-tuned comic acting. (He did not helm the mediocre Rock-starring prequel The Scorpion King.) In Van Helsing, the orgy of morphing, shrieking, lightning-cracking, and habitual rope-swinging quickly turns oppressive. Sommers shoehorns Count Dracula (wall-walking, drearily camp Richard Roxburgh), the Wolf Man, Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein’s piecemeal man, and lesser beasties into a time waster of a plot seemingly culled from various fan fiction sites. The central fang-man hopes to give his gremlinoid spawn (incubated in thousands of Matrix-y slime sacs) the gift of life by stealing Dr. Frankenstein’s secret, while a Transylvanian princess (Kate Beckinsale) must lift a curse on her family by destroying the count. But the direction and acting are so leaden that the film evokes not some Kill Vlad B-movie Valhalla, but last year’s truly dreadful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which another Dracula player (Mina Harker), the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, and other fin de siècle pop personalities met up and discovered they didn’t have that much to say to each other en route to destroying, I believe, Dorian Gray. (A better recent precedent for this sort of period-piece shenanigans is Shanghai Knights, lensed by Mummy DP Adrian Biddle, with its witty intersection of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, and Charlie Chaplin.)

Van Helsing starts in black-and-white, with torch-bearing villagers marching on Dr. Frankenstein’s lair, the broad expressions conjuring Mel Brooks without even a glimmer of humor. When the monster-hunters later move through a mirror to Dracula’s snow-swept castle, the setup suggests an Eclipse gum ad similarly drained of mirth. Through it all, Jackman appears distracted, perhaps memorizing the more intricate numbers for his Boy From Oz role, and where The Mummy‘s Brendan Fraser would have waited a beat to deliver some deadpan rejoinder, Jackman mutters something so completely uninspired that one imagines Sommers’s script a vast field of “TK”s and “fill in joke later!”s. (Or as long as we’re envisioning movie biz scenarios, could it be that some bean counter excised the humor and upped the order for more CGI tomfoolery?) The ringleted Beckinsale sports a two-kopeck accent and an ill-advised jumpsuit, occasionally pausing to announce things with inscrutable gravity: “I have never been to the sea,” she tells her comrade in arms. “I’ll bet it’s beautiful.” (Only David Wenham, as the monastic version of the Bond films’ device developer Q, appears to be having any fun.) When Dracula offers to shine a light on Van Helsing’s fogged past, our titular hero replies with what might be the mantra for all involved: “Some things are better left forgotten.”


Use Your Illusions

What if the prophecy is true? The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowski brothers’ long-awaited follow-up to their mega cult smash of 1999, begins by predicting its own penultimate scene and ends, after some impressively lengthy credits, with a trailer for the last panel of the altarpiece, The Matrix Revolutions. (The movie itself is perhaps a trailer for the video game Enter the Matrix.)

In between, just about everything that happened before happens again. What was novel in The Matrix is now comfortably familiar as the saga encourages further participation by elaborating the rules and geography of its various realms. Much time is spent in the somewhat multiculti People’s Republic of Zion. Perhaps in mocking reference to critical theorist Slavoj Zizek’s celebrated prophecy that Zion, or at least the Desert of the Real, would turn out to be another computer-induced illusion, this funnel-like settlement resembles nothing so much as a steel-girder matrix. Meanwhile, the Matrix proper is riddled with mysterious doors, corridors, and backstage areas. Reloaded, it appears as less a sinister virtual reality than a video game arena swarming with rogue programs, rival computer codes, and systemic anomalies—which is to say, as a vast elaboration of a conceit put forth by the DOS-era Disney relic Tron.

The unconvincing nostalgia for “reality” that characterized The Matrix has been unsentimentally dropped. Live with it. Dispensing with the red-pill question, despite the introduction of a half-dozen new characters—not counting the madly multiplying Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, hissy as ever), Reloaded flirts with an excess of drama. As hacker Thomas Anderson turned possible messiah Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his grim-faced, vinyl-clad guardian angel Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) lock lips at every opportunity, Reloaded is sexier, or at least sweatier, than its precursor. Even the solemn rebel-rebel Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) gets to make eyes and flash his chrome-dome at spunky Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith). Further romantic complications arise when unwilling Neo is compelled to bestow the Kiss of Passion on the agent moll played by Monica Bellucci (some hardship!) in order to find the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim)—a concept imported from Ghostbusters.

Love has scarcely rendered Neo expressive—or susceptible to the usual verbal abuse offered by the now replicated Smith: “Missster Anderson . . . still using all your muscles except the one that matters?” (nyaaah-nyaaah). No less impervious to opinion than Neo’s bullet-proof Gardol shield, Reloaded will likely make enough money to balance George Bush’s budget. But I suspect it may also divide its fan base. Even more than Blade Runner (a commercial flop in its day), The Matrix captivated multiplex hoi polloi, dark-planet true believers, and ivory-tower mandarins alike. But where The Matrix was a heady cocktail of gnostic Zen Philip K. Dick cyberpunk ’60s psychedelic bull, well spiked with high-octane digitally driven Hong Kong action pyrotechnics, those elements reloaded soon separate out. The refreshing draft of effervescent movie magic leaves a sludgy sediment of metaphysics.

The latter may be less than brain-buzzing; the former is something else, thanks largely to genius fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping. The scene wherein the luau drums begin calling all Zion to get down and party—a word that scarcely does justice to the world’s biggest rave—pales before the array of skyscraper swan dives, midair moon walks, tabletop two-steps, nunchuck cha-chas, perpendicular push-offs, sidelong cartwheels, and trampoline freezies that Master Yuen has contrived for the film’s human stars. But for pure video game shock and awe, the most exciting sequence is a prolonged freeway chase with helmetless Trinity riding her motorcycle against traffic as cars pile up and scatter all around like autumn leaves.

Still, Reloaded aspires to more than mindless sensation. As the writer-directors of a high-tech, computer-spawned movie with a technophobic cyber-dystopian premise, the Wachowski brothers feel obliged to acknowledge the obvious paradox by hinting that machines are neither wholly good nor entirely bad—thus setting up the revelatory cyborg symbiosis perhaps to arrive before Christmas with The Matrix Revolutions. As Neo wonders if he is indeed the One and what it is that One is supposed to do, the Wachowskis rehearse the ever gnarly conundrum of free will and determinism. An obnoxiously rational French program (Lambert Wilson) holds forth on the implacable relationship of cause and effect—but as an intuitive Kantian, Neo suspects that causal relations only appear to be causal. While these notions never get sufficient screen time to induce a Philosophy 101 migraine, faithful Morpheus can always be counted on to explicate the basic narrative. Like the gigolo in Top Hat, he believes that chance is but the fool’s name for fate.

The Oracle (Gloria Foster) may be the mother of the Matrix, but the Matrix—defined in the original movie as “a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control”—is clearly the mother of all metaphors. Can it be read as the Society of the Spectacle? Capital? An improved version of Socialist Realism? An updated Parallax Corporation? The National Entertainment State? Zizek’s Big Other? Hardt and Negri’s Empire? Baudrillard’s Precession of Simulacra? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. The matrix allegorizes the new totality of the media world. Who is free not to participate? (As the movie tells us, “Everything begins with choice.” As in, I choose to breathe; therefore I am.)

Much was made of the copy of Baudrillard strategically placed in Neo’s humble room. Here, serious intent is signified by the presence of celebrity professor Cornel West as a Zion elder. He’s in the Matrix simulating resistance to . . . the matrix. Another version of the matrix condition would be the cover flaunted by Warner’s corporate sib Time the week Reloaded press-screened: “We’re the FIRST to see the movie and play the video game!” As Morpheus might say, the newest illusion is the illusion of news.

Another action invitation to the dance, Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary takes one of the oldest stories in movies and very nearly reinvents it. Maddin refracts Bram Stoker’s musty gothic novel through Mark Godden’s newly minted ballet, which itself appropriates excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s first and second symphonies, and presents this doubly choreographed piece as a kind of exhumed silent film—more digitally deteriorated than digitally enhanced.

The performances, too, are doubly abstract. Throughout, the dancers mouth unheard dialogue and the not inconsiderable action is interspersed with excited intertitles: “When I’m Dead Will You Drive a Stake Through My Heart and Cut Off My Head?” (“Yes, My Child I Shall.”) This defamiliarized Dracula is itself a kind of vampire object. Feasting on stage makeup and extravagant gestures, the movie not only reanimates a dead form and cannibalizes its own footage—it also steals Mahler’s soul, ravishes the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and embalms the pale beauty of prima ballerinas Tara Birtwhistle and CindyMarie Small. Not surprisingly, Zhang Wei-Qiang’s Dracula is the hero.

The movie’s first half belongs to the possessed Lucy Westernra (Birtwhistle), her three human suitors, and the unwholesome presence she summons into her boudoir. Explicitly arriving from the mysterious East, Zhang is a robust and lithe Count Dracula, as well as the taloned personification of Otherness. “I see Dracula as not even existing,” Maddin told Cinema Scope. “He’s just a big, pleasurable lust fluttering around from woman to woman.” Dracula and the willing Lucy perform a lengthy pas de deux amid the icy glitter of a wintry graveyard. Indeed, containing female sexuality is the main issue—as evidenced by the scene in which the suitors and vampire hunter Van Helsing pry open Lucy’s coffin and engage in a long struggle with the wanton feral creature within. The male posse sets off in search of Dracula in the second half for a danced confrontation that is surprisingly violent.

Filmed on 16mm and Super 8, then refilmed and otherwise reworked, the haloed, matted images might have been shot through an anamorphic snow globe. The movie is black-and-white, with strategic drops of red. (It ends with a door opening on a delicate orange-and-purple dawn.) The light flickers seductively. The images pile up as super-impositions. The action erupts with surreal pirouettes and dips, sometimes in slow motion. The camera placement is irrationally analytical—Maddin breaks down individual scenes into often inexplicable signifying close-ups. As the ballet itself is periodically disrupted by offstage cutaways to Dracula’s fly-eating lacky Renfield, the montage is often as frenzied as in Maddin’s six-minute masterpiece The Heart of the World, also edited by deco dawson.

Dracula isn’t campy, but it is funny—in one of Maddin’s inventions, Van Helsing has Lucy’s bed wreathed in garlands of garlic. It’s also overtly erotic, willfully archaic, often inspired, uncannily affecting, and beautifully convulsive. Even more than Aki Kaurismäki, who managed to make the last silent feature of the 20th century in his underappreciated Juha, Maddin has created a fascinating hybrid—this enraptured composition in mist, gauze, and Vaseline is more rhapsody than narrative, less motion picture than shadow play.

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