Sunday, October 18, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 93: Dracula: The Series (1990)

By the closing days of Reagan's 1980s the scariest monsters in American society were rampaging, unethical businessmen.

Remember Ivan Boesky, convicted of insider trading, who was fined 100 million dollars and eventually served a two year sentence at Lompoc? Boesky was the model for Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street (1987) and had allegedly said (in a speech): "I think greed can be healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."

Then there was Michael Milken, indicted on a whopping ninety-eight counts of racketeering and fraud involving insider trading. The "Junk Bond" King eventually copped to six counts and paid 200 million in fines.

And then, of course, there was Alexander Lucard, Dracula himself, played by actor Geordie Johnson...

What? You don't remember that last guy?

In 1990, Dracula: The Series aired in syndication all around America (on 115 stations...) and featured, in campy, tongue-in-cheek style, a central vampire who was as much unethical corporate raider as literal blood sucker. In fact, the very idea of vampire was re-tooled for the series to incorporate all the latest business malfeasance from a time when laissez-faire, crony-capitalism had run amok.

In the Dracula: The Series press-kit, series executive producer David Patterson noted that the Boesky/Milken interpretation of Dracula was but a "logical extension of the vampire legend as if he were operating in our world today," and asked "what could be more relevant" than Gordon Gekko as an undead bloodsucker, seeking eternal life.

A really fun novel idea, or heresy to the legacy of literary Stoker? Or could it be both at the same time?

Dracula: The Series was filmed in Luxembourg, and aired for 21 half-hour episodes. The series involved two pre-teeny bopper American brothers (and teenagers...) abroad, Max (Jacob Tierney) and Christopher Townsend (Joe Roncelli), as they endured a strange adventure. They relocated to the home of their Uncle Gustav Van Helsing (Bernard Behrens) in Eastern Europe and learned that the old man was locked in a perpetual battle with playboy billionaire, industrialist, and vcreature of the night, Dracula/Lucard (Johnson). This latter-day Dracula had an appetite for cold hard cash as well as hemoglobin, and was obsessed with exercising to keep himself fit.

A very youthful Mia Kirshner played the object of the boy's affections -- and perpetual damsel-in-distress -- Sophie Metternich. The series was ultimately canceled before resolving a cliffhanger finale entitled "Klaus Encounters of the Interred Kind." That last episode saw Max and Chris on the verge of being sent home to Philadelphia, as well as the opening of a portal "outside of time and space" that could end the vampire curse once and for all. Gustav hoped to open the portal to rescue his vampire son, Klaus (Geraint Wyn-Davies, pre-Forever Knight)

Critics didn't care much for William Laurin and Glenn Davis's modern re-interpretation of the Stoker character, or a TV series which was described far and wide in the press materials as an "all-family action-adventure!." Epilog's William Anchors called the series "sort of the television equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space," (Epilog Journal #41, Page 31). Although People Magazine made note of the "frequently stylish" aspects of the series as well as the "good special effects," it didn't fail to comment on the repetitive nature of the series' stories, which saw the American boys breaking into Dracula's castle on a regular basis...and always managing to survive. It became so tiresome a convention on the show that Dracula once quipped "Does everyone have the key to this castle?"

Longtime horror fans also vehemently disliked this short-lived 1990 series (distributed in the U.S. by Blair Entertainment) for three reasons: first, the re-vamped nature of Dracula as a yuppie, tread-mill-using capitalist. Second, the tongue-in-cheek nature of the individual stories (which featured titles such as "My Dinner with Lucard" and "My Fair Vampire,") and third, the childish nature of the lead characters. Think back to how Adric, or Wesley Crusher were received in their various fandoms, and you can imagine how fans took to the pre-adolescent leads of this show. Also, hardcore Dracula fans were never going to approve of a version of the legend which featured Dracula's silly come-back to the question "are you Dracula?" His answer. "No...I'm Milli Vanilli." Still, the program has maintained a small but devoted fan base for almost twenty years, and the series is available in its entirety on DVD for about ten bucks.

When I wrote about Dracula: The Series in Terror Television back in the late-1990s, I noted that the series often resembled "The Hardy Boys on speed" and that description still seems apt. Watching this series today (and back in the 1990s), you had to understand that it was aimed primarily at kids, and then (mercifully...) judge it on that basis. I mean, the show was not (and is not) scary in the's campy, but the series still has its moments. For instance, "I Love Lucard" ends with a romantic airport scene right out of Casablanca, but then culminates with a moment that annihilates any romantic notions about Lucard. "What A Pleasant Surprise" pays homage to the silent horror films of the 1920s with a sense of respect, and a bottle-show, "Decline of the Romanian Vampire" featured an extended dialogue between Gustav Van Helsing and Dracula about the nature of good and evil.

I also rather appreciated the fact that Dracula: The Series cast the very young (children)... and the very old (senior citizens) as our heroes, acknowledging -- if subtextually -- that only the young and the very old are capable of really believing in things like ghosts and vampires; either because of naive innocence (or senile dementia!). In the world of Dracula, the kids are taken seriously...even though they are young and silly. In these moments, you realize it was truly Dracula's ambition to be a family show and not a spine-tingling chiller.

On the same theme, I think it's worth noting that the series casts those between the ages of 20 and 50 as the villains or as the enablers of villains...often as undead personifications of contemporary yuppie values. Gustav's son Klaus, the boys' mother Eileen, and Dracula himself represented the upwardly mobile, self-involved, greed-is-good Reagan generation, and they can only be combated here by the disenfranchised, out-of-power groups like kids and seniors.

Hokey as hell and woefully juvenile, Dracula: The Series was often quite stale, hackneyed, and unacceptably repetitive. A serious concern was that it managed to reduce the menace of the regal Count Dracula to that of something like a Scooby Doo villain,-of-the-week, one who would have always gotten away with his evil schemes if not for some meddling kids. Every week, the American boys bested Dracula and stayed alive...and that just became hard to take if you had any long-standing affection for the immortal Stoker character of literature and film. How could you reasonably suspend disbelief that Dracula had been immortal for a century and succeeded so wildly...until he met two American pre-teens? They weren't exactly worthy nemeses.

Yet, if you approach Dracula: The Series as a Saturday morning kid's show, it's inarguably head and shoulders above of such lame programs as The Monster Squad (1976), a truly insulting monster bash that has survived based on the glow of nostalgia rather than any inherent quality of its own. Dracula: The Series is not the beneficiary of such warm nostalgia, but itremains eminently suitable for your (young) children. For me, it's an intriguing, bizarre series and not much else: one conceived out of late 1980s adult context (the corporate raiders and yuppies of the time), but pitched right to children.

Dracula: The Series is also interesting in terms of genre history. It's one of those missing link series from approximately 1987- 1991 like Friday the 13th: The Series, She Wolf of London and Werewolf, when the horror genre was really standing up on its feet on TV and greatness was just around the corner in the form of Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Millennium, Buffy, and so forth.

Today, Dracula: the Series is kid's stuff, but as kid's stuff, it pre-dates such franchises as Goosebumps. And the 1990s era humor will at least keep Daddy and Mommy mildly interested. As dumb as it often is, Dracula: The Series still exhibits more wit than the mind-numbing CW series The Vampire Diaries.


  1. I'd love to see you review all the Hammer film series: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy. Those films were sweet!


  2. I loved "Dracula: The Series" as a kid. Watching it again as an adult, I'm surprised at how well it stands up. Sure, it's got some campy humour and dated references. However, there is a genuinely dark undercurrent to the show that I didn't necessarily understand as a child. The plotlines dealing with Gustav's vampirized son, for example, are genuinely sad and unsettling. Said son Klaus, in his vampire form, is deranged and cruel. As to why a group of children and their elderly uncle somehow managed to always evade Dracula, I got the feeling that they were in a kind of symbiotic relationship. Dracula is old and bored, and the rather inept attempts of the Helsing family to eradicate him may have been a kind of amusing game, which is why he rarely actually ever harmed them. On the other hand, his pursuit of Dracula is all Gustav really has left in life, which is why he seems to hesitate to actually kill him when he gets the chance.