Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

14 March 2015

Violence Untold

Gary Shore's 2014 film Dracula Untold is easily one of the worst movies of the year, and I got so bored that I had to watch it in two parts. I finished off the absurdity this morning, though, and I have some questions.

First, the plot of Dracula Untold involves Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler, apparently after he has become the Impaler but before he becomes Dracula. Fine, but when he meets the vampire who transforms him into Dracula, he makes some kind of deal with him. He can have crazy-ass awesome vampire powers for three days, and then he can go back to being human if he doesn't feast on human flesh during those three days. The rub is this: his yearning to feast on human flesh will be "insatiable" during those three days.

This is part of the plot of Dracula Untold, but of course his desire to feast on human flesh is not at all insatiable, and in fact it sort of comes and goes at the screenwriters' whims. But what got me thinking is the way that the movie thinks of the self. Vlad is able to transform into a kind of cloud of bats. He leaves his human, Vlad-form behind when he wants to move quickly, and then he can fly. You can actually sort of see this a little in the poster. He doesn't become one bat, he becomes a colony of bats. So: how does a colony of bats desire? What does it mean for a cloud of bats to want something, to hunger? This is an important Deleuzean question. Vlad the Impaler – not a singular being but rather a wolfpack, a machine, a colony of bats – desires to feast on flesh. What is desire, then, if it is divided among the pack, shared among the multiple pieces that are Vlad?

Obviously, Dracula Untold does not actually ask this question, but I did while I was watching.

The other thing that Dracula Untold made me think about was this sort of absurd trend in recent cinema whereby a character whom we have all understood for many years to be villainous and evil is redeemed through an origin story that makes this evil villain out to be (surprise, surprise) actually a really great person, totally someone I would let my kids play with and ask to be in my wedding party. I'm thinking specifically of Maleficent, of course, in which we discover that Maleficent (far from the implications of her name) is actually a fabulous fairy godmother, watching over her little goddaughter. Dracula Untold functions in precisely the same way, and it is worth noting that the reason that we know that these characters are good, even though they do terrible things, is that they, like, really love their kids. If you really love your kids and if you do terrible things in order to protect your kids, you are actually still a really good person inside.

The ideological project of this kind of narrative is made all the more obvious in a film like Dracula Untold. The film somehow consistently reminds us that this is a story of Vlad the Impaler, the man who took pleasure in torturing his victims, who was known for utilizing extraordinary torture methods such as – stop me if you've heard this one – inserting a spear through a man's body without damaging any vital organs so that he isn't killed but will live for three days in pain. But Vlad the Impaler is a good guy, because he is violent only because there is a power much much worse who doesn't love kids but wants to turn them into child soldiers.

Eyeliner makes all British actors look vaguely "oriental"
So torture is justified, and violation becomes a good thing. He does it for the children. (There is actually only one child in the entire film, but we'll let that go.) It isn't too much of a stretch for me to see in all of this a justification of U.S. torture methods. In fact, the villain is the same: an orientalized mystical other called the "Turks" who ride under the banner of the crescent moon. And they are inhuman and want only to kill, to destroy, to steal our children. Vlad/Dracula becomes much much worse, of course. He becomes a monster who kills thousands upon thousands of people, feasting on their blood and bodies, and laying waste to an entire land. But the film justifies the violence committed by the good guys (Vlad/Dracula/USA). Without them, we would all be dead, so it is all worth it.

At the end of Dracula Untold, the son, this lone child, is taken away by a faux-Christian monk wielding a crucifix, and what we see as the film ends is something totally different from what we've been watching for the last ninety minutes. Dracula Untold jumps into 2014. It's been five hundred years, and Dracula is hanging out in some wealthy, overcast, English-speaking metropolis. The son he loved has been forgotten completely (dying in the middle ages, presumably). Instead, he seduces a woman by quoting some very old poetry, and he kisses her hand and calls her "my lady". Then Charles Dance, drumming his in-need-of-a-manicure fingernails on a table in an outdoor café, gets up, walks toward the camera, buttons his suit, and says to us Let the games begin. This is actually just bad storytelling: what these "games" are is not clear, but the audience is simply supposed to leave thinking about what fun it would be to have all of the power, sex appeal, and mystery that come with being a vampire.

Au revoir, l'enfant
And this is what makes the whole thing clear to me. As much as Dracula Untold is an origin story, invested in justifying the horrific and extreme violence of its protagonist through recourse to the love of a child, what the film really wants to do is dispense with this business quickly and altogether so that we can get on with the "games", with the fun of having power but not having to deal with childcare. Dracula Untold actually kills the child at the end of the film (he's been dead, in fact, for five hundred years). The film's investment in reproductive futurity is a ruse made apparent by its final sequence, a sequence not invested in the child at all, but invested in the pleasure of wielding power, of wielding it not in order to protect anyone (children least of all), but for the sake of power itself. This type of dramaturgy, whereby the reasons behind acts of extreme violence like torture are narrativized in order that they might be justified, is the same exact technique used by our own government as they attempt to justify USAmerican acts of torture in the twenty-first century... against an enemy that looks surprisingly similar to the one Vlad the Impaler fought in Dracula Untold's version of the fifteenth century.