Let's just get this out of the way now. LUST FOR DRACULA is one of the strangest genre films to come down the pipe in a long time. Although it has the appearance of your typical softcore effort, it owes a little more to David Lynch than it does Larry Flynt. No matter how explicit this film is, it comes across and one of the most original and mind-boggling productions from a company that is not content to merely rake in money from their previous formula.
This is the latest offering from Seduction Cinema, a highly profitable offshoot of e.i. Independent Cinema. They started out with an interesting formula, taking popular TV and film properties such as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and SURVIVOR, putting a bit of humor in and then adding heaps of lesbian sex so graphic, it was occasionally just a couple steps away from being hardcore. As the formula proved a winner, Seduction was able to increase their budgets slightly. Many of their stars became well known and there are numerous fan clubs devoted to the actors and studio. They continued their formula of erotic parodies with recent hits like SPIDERBABE. But somewhere along the line, they also decided to delve into more serious territory, while comfortably sitting in the house of Eros. Although touched upon earlier in films like THE EROTIC GHOST, Seduction became more experimental with films like DR. JECKYLL & MISTRESS HYDE, SIN SISTERS and their gritty remake of ROXANNA. Part of this can be attributed to the aspirations of e.i. producer extraordinaire, Michael Raso (who conversely has also successfully expanded the once floundering horror division, Shock-O-Rama). Another is that they tapped an amazing talent in the form of director Tony Marsiglia.
LUST FOR DRACULA is the most wildly experimental film to come out of the e.i. camp to date. I will try to explain the plot (with as few spoilers as possible, natch) in as clear and concise a manner as possible. But be warned, this film offers not just pathways to the plot points, but diversions, tunnels and deep uncharted basements along those same pathways. Making heads or tails of the plot isn't as easy as say the newest BLADE film and multiple viewings are recommended.
Now that I've unfortunately scared a good number of people off, we start out with a vampire fledgling named Beth (Casey Jones), who is having trouble adjusting to the idea of her own death and her future as a bloodsucker. Fortunately, her friend and lover Sara (Andrea Davis) to guide her. But one has to wonder about Sara's motives. The first time we see her, she finishes off a victim, swallows a crucifix and then hands a pill (a plot element that will come back repeatedly) to placate her horrified friend. Meanwhile, Abigail Van Helsing (Shelly Jones), far from being a seasoned vampire hunter, is out to confront Beth and Sara and their master, Dracula (Darian Caine). It seems she was spurned by their ranks and more importantly by her sister's husband. A schoolteacher by trade, Van Helsing isn't the heroic persona inhabited by Peter Cushing, Anthony Hopkins and Hugh Jackman. She's actually a bit of a self-centered bitch, very promiscuous and uncaring when it comes to anything except her own vendetta.
Finally, we get to some characters we know. Well, we know their names at least although LUST FOR DRACULA has completely different things to say about them. Mina Harker (Misty Mundae) is... well, she's a complete fruit loop, that's all there is to it. She is trapped in an abusive marriage to pharmaceutical head Jonathan Harker (Julian Wells), and yes more on that later. She is heavily medicated and seems to have the emotional maturity of a child. She longs to have a child and in the meantime, talks to a wad of matted straw in a bassinet cloaked in funeral black. This is her "Bat-Bat," which she pretends is her child. One morning, Dracula overhears her and takes pity on the poor girl. Obviously she has been lied to all her life and the only thing that is keeping her from reaching her maturity is her constricted environment and the prescription drugs pumping through her body.
Dracula quickly bites Mina, which allows her to appear before her later that evening. The two symbolically embrace and Dracula shows her a new world of possibilities. With a new light inside her, Mina is gradually able to break her chains and rebel against those who tried to keep her down. But there are other forces at work, including her diabolical husband and her dangerous and self-centered sister, Abigail Van Helsing.
Sounds pretty straight-forward, right? But you probably noticed a few strange things in there. First and foremost is that there is only one man in the entire cast and he appears for all of two minutes. The rest of the cast, including the typically masculine Jonathan and Dracula are portrayed by women, and very eye-pleasing women if I say so myself. Searching for one all-encompassing reason why this technique was used will only drive you crazy. As it happens, there are at least three explanations why this was done.
First off is that the film's cast are entirely sexless. Defining them as men or women almost seems to miss the point. The film is about relationships, not with men or women but with like-minded and occasionally unfriendly spirits. It also address self-actualization, how the maturing of the physical self does not always coincide with the maturing of the emotional self. Feelings of inadequacy, cowardice or hostility are often accepted as the status quo, no matter how miserable they make you. When the pressure gets too much, simply pop a pill and take a nap. You won't feel any better, but you won't mind feeling worse.
The other reasons do address the importance of gender and go to the individuals in the plot. First off is the casting of Julian Wells as Jonathan Harker, who runs Harker Pharmaceuticals. Wells has played the butch before, typically in more comedic titles like Brett Piper's recent BITE ME!, in which she excelled as a Brooklyn ball-buster. But is she really a man, or a woman? Well, you have to make up your own mind actually. One explanation is that she may be perceived as a woman by Mina's damaged brain, a mind deliberately dampened by Harker's drugs. And it's important to note Mina's inability to conceive. Is Jonathan presented as a woman to show how incapable she is of giving Mina a baby or is Jonathan a woman who is deceiving Mina? The film does offer concrete answers to this question but only if you pay attention.
And of course, there is Dracula which is not as important but interesting nonetheless. In truth, it would not matter if Dracula were male or female. But what is she? She appears to Mina as well and introduces herself as "the pool man" which Mina does not question too much (Get your minds out of the gutter, the scene is more tasteful than you'd think.). However, this again could go to Mina's damaged psyche. She is alarmed that the pool man would come by at night. What she doesn't seem to address is that the pool man looks like a woman, is staring off into space, drinking blood from a baby's bottle (again, the fertility issue) and oh yeah, just happens to be buck naked. Any rational human being would rank the time of night way down on their list of questions but not our kooky Mina. So the question arises, just what is Dracula? Is it the traditional male who just appears as female because that's all Mina ever seems to see? Is it a female who will be able to let the scales drop from Mina's eyes once she is indoctrinated? Or maybe she's something else entirely. This is one of the ancient supernatural powers after all. If Dracula can become a bat and a wolf (and other forms even in broad daylight as the film plays fast and loose with the rules), who is today that the shapely Darian Caine is not just another illusion that is pleasing to Dracula's own self?
It would be easy to overlook the importance of Harker Pharmaceuticals but therein may lie many answers to the film's riddles. Mina's medication is a key contributor to her own delusional state. And why does Beth need to be drugged to be inducted into the realm of the undead? And just what is Harker's own stake in this anyway? Does she feel anything for Mina? What does she hope to gain by playing these drug induced games? Marsiglia seems to be saying something about our pill-popping culture. It couldn't be timelier as a recent study showed that a majority of Americans take some sort of prescription drugs.
I myself have needed them but always look not to be dependent. I once went in to see a doctor who quizzed me on my psychological well-being. As I felt the person was very abrupt and unprofessional, I did not like him very much. This opinion was cemented as I was leaving and he stopped me in the middle of the crowded waiting room. "Have you had any trouble sleeping?" he asked very loudly. A glance over to the eyes rolling at the nurses' station told me this quack probably has a habit of showing little professionalism or tact.
"Um, well yeah," I responded trying to keep my voice down, "I generally don't sleep very well and tend to keep late hours."
"Well, we can give you a pill for that. Knock you right out."
"Uh, no thanks. I don't want to be dependent on that. Besides, the last thing I need in the morning is to feel like a zombie."
"No problem, it works both ways. We give you a pill to knock you out at night and I'll also prescribe something to wake you up."
"So, in other words I just have to start taking uppers and downers every day, right?"
"Well, I wouldn't call it that. Do you want me to write that out for you?"
"No doc, I'd like you to go fuck yourself."
Needless to say, we never met again and neither one of us was too keen on working together after that. But all I did was turn the humiliation back on him (which is for the best really because I could have simply sued his ass). It's a sensitive area for some, but for others it is almost a given that you will need to be heavily medicated just to get through the day. Illusion surrounds Mina and its illusion that is based on a controlled environment. The drugs are part of this and contribute to the lie that is her own life. The film addresses a number of other issues here, too many to address in this already lengthy review. Can you say religious overtones?
LUST FOR DRACULA represents a rarity in genre circles - a complex and mutli-layered film You have to dig to uncover the answers to certain parts of the plot while others will always remain intangible with a big question mark hanging overhead. No surprise, the film has gone through many incarnations. Originally written nearly twenty years ago as a stage play, Marsiglia then rewrote it as a screenplay which he claims attracted "big names" (Frustrating as it is, he won't say who). The script continued to go through multiple drafts as it evolved in Marsiglia's mind. The screenplay continued to take shape up to and during the production of the film. Although its budget is literally one-one thousandth of brain-dead Hollywood trash CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS, it still ranks as the most ambitious undertaking for both Seduction and Marsiglia - although admittedly both seem to grow more ambitious every year.
It is also quite sexy. In examining the multiple layers of the film, we risk overlooking the very thing that will draw its core audience. This film is extremely explicit, particularly in the unrated director's cut reviewed here. Although Seduction tends to blend their films with the comedic, the dramatic, horrific and in this case a surreal head-trip, I cannot stress enough how far some of these titles go. And to think the conservatives would like to put a stop to this. Reason enough to hate them in my book.
Still, the film is not merely explicit, it is erotic and there is a distinction between the two. The sexual situations therein are not merely there to stimulate the body but also the mind, creating several beautiful albeit sensual images. Do some sequences feel tired? Well, there is a scene where Sara and Beth are dressed as schoolgirls and licking popsicles so not everything in the film takes Sigmund Freud to figure out. Thankfully, the scenes don't go on as long as those in other Seduction titles and I've noticed a major cutback on actors with visible surgical scars. Still, this rises above the same formula by injecting artistry and creativity into the mix. The film plays like the best erotic horror fiction.
LUST FOR DRACULA also manages to be spooky, although that is not its aim. Most films let us know who to root for from the get-go. Some enterprising filmmakers have even forced us to root with the monsters, whether it be Peckinpah's Nazis in CROSS OF IRON or Barker's creatures in NIGHTBREED. What Marsiglia does is even more interesting. He catches us off guard with the characters Beth and Sara. We side with the humans. But subtly the film makes us come around to the monsters to the degree that we are afraid. But we fear the humans and what they represent, which is a society of greed, cruelty, illusion and repression. One of Marsiglia's only problems in this execution of the film is that he is at times too abstract for his own good. The film lacks a true linear fashion, preferring to exist in a dream-like state. Still, the film occasionally feels too disjointed. It seems to be missing large chunks in the narrative in that people learn of important plot points and we're not sure how.
Misty Mundae will get most of the press for this film, as she is Seduction's biggest moneymaker. Longtime readers of the site will know I have a long standing respect and admiration for Mundae's work. In fact, she recently directed her first short, VOODOUN BLUES, which I recommend everyone checks out. I cherish an autographed photo of the actress and I belong to her Yahoo! group. That said, her work here leaves a little to be desired and it's hard to know who to blame. It's not a horrible performance, but it does become so surreal that it almost seems to exist separately from the rest of the film. As mentioned, Mina is an odd bird. But in fact, she is so odd that it barely seems real. She's wide-eyed and prone to the most extreme facial expressions. Mundae may have overdone it this time out, I'm afraid, which is odd since every other performance she's ever given has been great. Marsiglia may hold some of that blame however, since both admit that when Mundae approached the role he kept encouraging her to be more and more bizarre. Unfortunately, he made her go so far over the top that while it's certainly a wild performance that accentuates Mina's vulnerability, it takes away a little of the all-important ability on the audience's part to sympathize with her. The further she gets from being a convincing person, the harder it is to take her seriously and this is a film that takes everything very seriously.
There are two people billed above Misty and each of them do their best work to date. So again, while I love Misty, the Seduction crew should really be plugging these other performances as a main draw. As Harker, Wells ditches the amazing comedic instincts she has brought to many of her roles and gives us an absolutely incredible supporting role. Not content to merely portray her as evil, which she is, Wells' character reveals a woman at war with her own need to control her surroundings like a big experiment. She is aggressive and cruel but also searching for her own answers, something Wells is able to convey very well. She could be the most drop-dead gorgeous woman to ever grace the Seduction roster (as opposed to Misty's natural beauty) but she also is proving to be its most underrated talent.
And please let's not forget who the title character is. Remarkably, Caine is mostly absent even from the extras on the disc which is a shame. Starting in the very first Seduction title back in 1998, I really didn't expect Caine to grow much beyond her own persona. But I was wrong. One could argue that Caine, who has played other notable vampires and is more prone to the gothic than her co-stars, has been in training to play Dracula for her entire career. As muted in her inflection as Mundae is animated, she injects the already classic ladykiller with a whole new seductive persona. Her silky voice at times taking on quiet menace and at others sounding like a warm embrace, this is Caine's greatest performance to date and her career highpoint so far.
The rest of the cast represents some relative newcomers to the Seduction Cinema team. Andrea Davis is starting to grow on me and she does show promise. Shelly Jones, who also seems to have done work in girl-girl hardcore features, carries herself with confidence and could do very well with a larger role. Casey Jones on the other hand does not seem very comfortable in her first major role. She looks a bit out of sorts at times, which isn't always due to her character. Still, I believe that with the right direction and a little seasoning, she could herself become a talent to watch. She already shows an ability to draw people into her on-screen character. People may be caught off guard to note that Shelly and Casey Jones are real-life sisters. And yes, they actually do have one brief on-screen coupling. Although it's all simulated, I'm sure it will stimulate some fetish sites while shocking others.
LUST FOR DRACULA is at times a problematic film but it's also a continually fascinating one, a film I have already seen twice and am already feeling the urge to watch again. It's one of those films where each shot seems to hold some importance. It is both a throwback to and a natural progression from the softcore horror of the 1970s, told with a fond eye but with much more skill. As for any unanswered questions, that's the type of film this is. It's a film that asks you to figure certain things out for yourself. I'm sure we'll find some answers and probably a new list of riddles when Marsiglia films his proposed sequel.