It's that time again, when we face the necessity of getting fast and somewhat dirty as we dispose of the detritus of the previous year. For our first batch of titles, we have a convenient theme in 2023's major vampire films: The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which is the Dracula-on-a-boat adventure it says it is, adapting Chapter 7 of Bram Stoker's novel; El Conde, the new Pablo Larraín film, of all things, which deploys the curious conceit of wondering what it would be like if Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had actually been a vampire who never died; and Renfield, which, like Demeter, looks to the beginning of things with Stoker for its inspiration, and wonders what it would be like if Dracula and Renfield survived long enough for Renfield to read self-help books and decide to rebel against his toxic boss, while also giving Universal Pictures an opportunity to do something/anything with its Dracula IP, still good for a few more years. You would never, ever guess which one of these is not a piece of shit.
Note: I will be spoiling The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a little. I guess I kind of spoil El Conde, but only if you're unrealistically ignorant of late 20th century history.
Of course, if I warn you that I'm spoiling The Last Voyage of the Demeter, have I not already spoiled The Last Voyage of the Demeter? But then, if it's even meaningful to ask "guess who survives the Demeter?", the project has already failed in the first place. Look, The Last Voyage of the Demeter ends not with extinction, but a fucking sequel hook. This insane unwillingness to fully embrace the fatalistic nihilism that ought to be burned right into this weird sidequel's bones was always going to be its biggest problem; yet, with this treatment, I'm not entirely sure that if it had done so it still could have managed to have clawed its way up to an adequate movie—I just wouldn't have totally despised it. I felt a deep sense of pessimism about its chances sweep over me within the first seconds, which outline the basic scenario in its introductory text—the Demeter wrecked on the English coast (this is, uh, not the most faithful adaptation in any respect), the captain's (Liam Cunningham's) log found—and then wrench you right out of the story it's telling, by announcing right in the midst of its text narration that it's "based on the novel Dracula," which is almost correct, in that Dracula offers itself as a curated archive of documents that are real in its universe, but are only a novel in ours. A few seconds after that, it shows us exactly what it just told us, I suppose so you'd know that superfluousness was going to be a major element of this movie. I don't think anything in the movie ever gets wonkier than this first minute, at least, but the screenplay does frequently flirt with similar malapropism, notably when a character asks if everyone has been "struck dumb," meaning "stupid," even though "dumb" has never meant "stupid" when you put "struck" in front of it (and it would be exceedingly hip and with-it for this Russian to use "dumb" for "stupid" in his mostly-fluent British English in 1897 anyway, so it's not "character embroidery"). There's also a line where a Romanian claims that Dracula's castle is older than any of them, which, from context, is supposed to be impressive for some reason.
I do realize that this is trivial dialogue stuff, but it's symptomatic of a deeply terrible screenplay with much worse problems. It's a story that somehow must have actively resisted being told; though I earnestly think there was some potential in the creative lack of creativity of making a movie out of Chapter 7 (part of Chapter 7) of Bram Stoker's Dracula, this potential was not ever going to be tapped by using it as a template you only half-filled in. Yet somehow director Andre Ovredal decided that he'd been handed a "literary adaptation" (of a bad book that was wonderfully adapted in toto, years ago, with a runtime barely surpassing this one's), rather than just a gimmicked slasher movie nobody even tried as hard on as the writers of a Friday the 13th film, and he got too big for his britches; this is where we get to the real shit, and it shocks the conscience that someone was allowed to make the adaptation of half of a chapter of a novel into a 119 minute movie, let alone one where this little happens, and there is basically not a single character with more than a single personality trait. This may even overcount the personality traits of the medical doctor protagonist, mind you, for despite his best efforts (and, honestly, reasonably strong ones, the observant wiriness of his performance is one of the few things here I could be moved to call "good"), it's not fair to ask Corey Hawkins to reconcile the vague sketches of a character that's sort of sciencey, sort of philosophizey, and sort of angsty, but not ever really any specific flavor of those things.
Somehow, despite all this time available, it also feels like it doesn't ratchet correctly: the monster manifests full-blown almost immediately, dispelling all mystery and any psychological angle upon the horror; yet everyone is still brutally slow on the uptake; in a "stowaway" (Aisling Franciosi) that Hawkins somehow immediately knows to offer blood transfusions (what disease does he think she has?), they have an exposition machine that they never really take advantage of, even once the few people still alive have agreed that the thing sucking the blood out of everything is probably supernatural; and even without her input, several solutions or mitigations for their vampire problem appear to present themselves. And though I make no pretense to being an expert on the age of sail, I'm also very unclear how a ship in the Bay of Biscay and English Channel en route to London hasn't passed forty, fifty different ports. But this last is nitpicking (it's a nitpick Bram Stoker predicted, insofar as Dracula mostly killed secretly, and his last victims were set upon by an impenetrable fog he conjured); and nitpicking would be ignoring larger issues of pace and structure, such as "so what the hell did you even do the last fourteen hours of this summer day?" Dracula himself can look cool, as a Nosferatu-esque figure, but the way he's edited into the movie usually isn't very cool. And despite dialogue to the contrary, there's no real malign intelligence here, let alone anything more elaborate and interesting (and he's not even meaningfully a shapeshifter, for while it's hazy, I think they actually are trying to do "materialist vampires," with fucking Dracula); the flying bits notwithstanding, a Goddamn bear could've gotten loose on the boat and you'd have the same movie. Likely a better, more disciplined movie. And I repeat that it's so annoying how quickly the demon gives its game away, probably just to obviate the need for these people to write anything more difficult than, "and then Dracula kills this guy, or vampirizes him instead, which will save us even more time writing anything," which it does over and over. It's a boring, boring movie; even its gutsiest move—it kills the kid—is squandered by dragging this out across, like, thirty full minutes, so that you're immediately soured on how it chickened out and let the little bastard survive, even if the movie does, eventually, permit him die.
The physical production is nicely robust, at least, and Tom Stern and/or Roman Osin's cinematography is surely diligent, even if I don't know if I'm inclined to say it's good (it's inevitably a very samey "yellows, blues, darkness, sometimes shafts of light during the day-set scenes" across these two hours, and there's a rather LED quality to all the lamplight, though I do appreciate how the frequent bolts of lightning actually hurt your eyes a bit in a darkened room). Ovredal, for a horror filmmaker, has no idea whatsoever how to make any of this scary, or even suspenseful.
I'll say this much for El Conde: it has genuine "going-for-it" energy, and I think it might be entirely possible for someone else to have gotten on this film's wacky, wacky wavelength and simply enjoyed the ride. For me, however, I found it pretty awful and often tedious, and even with all the charity that I hope I could give a foreign film bearing allegorical portent about history I don't know much about, it still feels a lot more like a bad indie comic from 2005 than a satire, usually more concerned with being cool/weird, and frankly I'm not at all convinced the allegory, or the satire, or whatever, ever does go much deeper than the very basic idea, "the fascist Augusto Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) was metaphorically a vampire, so what if he were literally a vampire, still haunting the world?" Everything beyond that—his immortally-depressed deathwish, his squabbles with his wife and children, the enlistment of a nun/evil accountant (Paula Luchsinger) to exorcize/kill him—seems like full-on stream of consciousness, and a third act revelation really screws with any sense that there's something more here, and I'm just not "getting it." Incidentally, I don't know how you would fail to get ahead of this "revelation," except it's so unsupportably dumb—whatever appearance of "allegory" or "metaphor" the movie had previously, at this point it's getting real close to just being a piece of Anne Rice Immortal World fanfic that has had "Pinochet" and "______" find-and-replaced into it—but if I did call it a "revelation," this would suggest you wouldn't figure out the identity of "The British Woman" narrator, speaking in English, within half an hour, tops. You will figure it out, partly because, Jesus, how many major British woman conservatives in the tier of Pinochet, a national leader, are there? Two? But really just one? It's not Mary Poppins! (Even if there's some resembalance.) However, you will also figure it out because Pablo Larraín (writing as well as directing) sure never gives you the chance to forget she's telling this story.
And for all the many, many things I don't really like about El Conde, that's the most terribly damaging part: it is structured like an audiobook, and it is twenty minutes into this (apparently) Wes Anderson movie about fascist vampires before Larraín permits her to finally shut the fuck up, at least for a bit, with that narration. Yet she is never far from imposing herself on the story again; somehow this makes that story more incoherent, and it also allows Larraín to take the path of absolute least resistance as far as his actual storytelling goes. Which is something like the ethos of his whole film; I think the overarching plot kind-of-sort-of "makes sense," but it's hard to tell, and while I wouldn't necessarily need it to, it's also not the kind of art film (I don't believe I would call it an "art film" at all without its political content) that ever properly disengages from conventional storytelling modes. So it's really just addled and lazy and larded up with irritating narration instead, with an idea of satire that feels extremely unfocused in any respect beyond Larraín's insistence that the dead dictator of Chile flying around in full military regalia, by way of deliberately unpersuasive VFX, is funny. And in fairness it is funny, that first time. A model scene that reflects the problems here finds Luchsinger's not-very-secret vampire hunter (I presume her resemblance to Sarah Michelle Gellar is a happy coincidence) interviewing Pinochet's kids over the course of a montage, and here the film does threaten to be a little bit incisive, as she cheerfully over-validates all their self-serving bullshit; yet this gets ribboned with the much, much blunter comedy of simply insulting them straight to their faces without them noticing, which isn't particularly incisive (or particularly funny), plus this scene, as many others, invests heavily in a bunch of just-plain-weird semi-surrealist sexual "jokes" that are purely try-hard, and which tend to remove even the caricatured humanity from the situation. And this is still arguably the dialogue-driven scene in the movie that works the best.
It's just such a mess. The best scene in the movie, whatsoever, is just straight-up the scene from Jeannot Szwarc's Supergirl where Kara Zor-El learns to fly; and, like that scene, it comes out of a different, better, and entirely more poetic motion picture. But good grief, Jeannot Szwarc only made a bad, dumb superhero movie that happened to have the one good scene; Jeannot Szwarc wasn't trying to grapple with the immortal poison of fascism, and, accordingly, he didn't subsequently get so carried away with his scene's cinematic prettiness that he accidentally said fascism is beautiful.
This movie has received a Best Cinematography nomination either because, in these decadent days, simply "lookin' fine" gets you a default Best Cinematography nomination, or because it's in black-and-white. I thought it would at least look more striking than it does. Also, the opening credits, over a montage of images of tokens of Pinochet's past, is edited really annoyingly, every single shot in that montage ending about three seconds before it should, presumably to intentionally enervate you (and it's really lousy at "giving credit to the cast and crew"). So, yeah, you figured it out: the one that isn't a piece of shit is Renfield? How the hell is that possible?
But somehow it is possible: I believe Renfield must be this (past) year's single biggest surprise for me, in that I don't think there's been a bigger gap between how I thought I'd respond to a movie and how I actually did. Most everything about it seemed primed to be tremendously awful: the "movie monster side character goes to group" conceit that looked for all the world to be a middling SNL sketch distended into a 90 minute feature film; the high likelihood that its Dracula, Nicolas Cage, would not be in it much; the even higher likelihood that Nora Lum, playing the last good cop in the city Dracula has relocated to, would spend all her time Doin' An Awkafina; the full-tilt superheroization of horror that the trailer so eagerly promised; and while I would not usually describe cinematography so bluntly as to call it "stupid," the trailer sure did make it look like this had some very stupid cinematography.
Several of my fears turned out to be entirely real—most saliently, "Mitchell Amundsen's cinematography when Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) goes to group is indeed quite stupid, why would they have spooky green Halloween Express lights in what is supposed to be the proverbial safe space?" (the sheets-of-color nonsense sometimes works okay elsewhere, but pretty much solely when the eldritch horror of Dracula is onscreen to motivate it)—but most of my fears were muted in the watching, and sometimes even things I thought would be bad turned out to be, if not great, then fine, and handily outweighed by the good. I would have expected this movie to be borderline unwatchable and, mea culpa, it's by-and-large actually quite funny. Even an unanticipated percentage of the "therapy-speak" jokes are funny, and, better yet, when the jokes here are not funny, they aren't forced to drag on, which is what I was really afraid of. (Okay, there is one runner, about ska music, that the movie clearly thinks is funnier than it is.) However, there's also a joke about vampire lore here—involving the rules about when one can enter your home—that I pray is original to this film, because it's brilliant, spectacularly clever in addition to being fall-off-the-couch funny. But for the last bit of the denouement, which does something I didn't need it to do and unfortunately represents the movie kicking off the very last vestiges of "proper horror" that had accidentally gotten stuck to its heels—alongside my belated realization that I had basically just watched a Dracula-skinned, lamer version of Braindead, which clarified somewhat why it can still feel "off"—I might have gone even higher on the score than I am.
It does feel off, sometimes. There's a slight unsteadiness to what precise register of comedy it's taking, and while I appreciate a movie that feels free to experiment with its tone, the way it glues "idiotic hyperviolent slapstick" to "ZAZ cartoon sometimes" to "actual character-driven story" is by "making a Marvel movie out of it," and there are numerous points where having characters say nothing would have somehow felt less comedically lazy than having them actually speak aloud the crappy, trivializing lines that they do. (On the plus side, Renfield understands how to make an MCU-style superhero movie out of Universal Horror characters a whole lot better than 2015's Dracula Untold or 2017's The Mummy did, and, further, it corrects their categorical weakness of being PG-13 four-quadrant wuss horror. Now, it does this mainly by being a Matthew Vaughn action movie, and there is probably not a single shot that went by where director Chris McKay failed to ask himself "WWMVD?") The bug-eating-for-superpowers (Renfield absorbs "the life force" and briefly gains superpowers when he eats bugs) is where it gets conceptually hugely disagreeable—damn near going from "superhero riff" to "joke video game mechanic"—and I dislike it even though it actually is, kind of, from the book. (The movie never answers the question, "How powerful would he be if he ate, say, a sparrow?") Though never fear: this movie aggressively wants you to know that its canon is Dracula '31 rather than the book—it would pretty much have to be, given what a useless diversion Renfield is in the book—but then, the formal recreation of the early sound flick with Cage and Hoult is one of the movie's finest gags. It's the best thing it's got going for a goodly while, during the belabored, over-narrated, so-I-am-going-to-hate-this, aren't-I? set-up phase. Anyway, the bug-eating is a bad mechanic, but only right up until it's an outstanding visual joke.
The other off thing is that you do clearly perceive the narrative guardrails here, principally in the form of Lum's policewoman, whom we are required to spend a lot of unproductive time alongside as she establishes and re-restablishes this movie's uninteresting organized crime plot, which becomes increasingly transparently an excuse for deserving Bad Guys to be funneled into grand guignol action sequences. I mean, obviously it is, but it's actually why I hate the last sixty seconds of this movie so much, because that's when it hit me how cowardly it's been, and perhaps had to be, with its serial killing slave, whose crimes, even his mistakes, are in the end banished into the off-screen void. And one's suspicion is that this is a much better movie if the ingredients of vampire, servant, and cop were mixed together more naturally, rather than the latter two serving as Haggar and Cody in Final Fight. Maybe it couldn't be as much a comedy, though, and that would be a shame. In any case, good for Lum—she's giving the third-best performance in a movie with three characters (potentially the fourth-best, as Shohreh Aghdashloo doesn't have "a character" but is doing pretty solid "Pantsuit Mob Boss"), but even if her performance is 90% the same scowl, it is a performance, and I'm happy to welcome Lum back to Actually Acting. For the record, Hoult is doing decent work doing much the same thing that brought him to the world's attention, being the sympathetic/pathetic henchman of pure evil.
As for pure evil, there's Cage, and there is more Cage here than I expected, and better Cage than I would have dreamed. Beneficiary of some wonderful makeup (the Oscars really bite, man), but not defined by it, it's a genuinely outstanding performance, immensely funny in its Cagey manner—some truly alien line reads here—yet almost completely impervious to the instability of tone that McKay is cooking with everywhere else. Cage is serious about his Dracula being evil—self-amused evil, that certainly can also be amusing to us, but not usually "a joke" as such—and, more impressively, he's very specific about his Dracula being a creature lost in time, thanks to having so thoroughly relied upon Renfield for a century. (Cage is, weirdly, far more noticeably emotionally connected to Hoult than Hoult is to him.) It's a performance that still has its crowd-pleasing frivolities, but even most of these are well-judged (his final line is probably misjudged, but at least it's a gas); in earnestness, it's one of the best supporting performances of 2023. And I'm not even a Cage Boy, I only occasionally watch his movies. But it's occurred to me that this might have been a terrible oversight on my part.
There is, as I thought, too much of a reliance on therapy-speak in this movie (particularly once it goes from "it's a joke" to "it is the only way in which we will describe Renfield's arc"), but Renfield's <Cage>studio apartment</Cage> full of inspirational posters is, still, pretty funny.