Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween, 2015: Dracula: The Series (1990)

By the closing days of Reagan's eighties, 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 creature 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.

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 sub-textually -- 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 un-dead 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. Dracula: The Series is not the beneficiary of warm nostalgia, but remains 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.

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