I have not seen many of Roger Corman’s films, but I know enough about him to become suspicious when I see his name in connection with a cheap straight-to-video production. Unfortunately, my suspicions were justified in regard to 1993’s Dracula Rising, produced by Corman and directed by Fred Gallo (who made several films for Corman throughout his career).
Theresa (Stacey Travis) is an American artist who paints pictures that – rightfully, in my opinion – do not sell. Her main source of income, therefore, is restoration work. One night she meets the mysterious Vlad (Christopher Atkins), and has dreams/visions/nightmares as a result.
Shortly afterwards, she gets an invitation to do some restorations at a monastery in Eastern Europe. Her customer, the creepy Alec (Doug Wert), is not the only one Theresa meets at the monastery – Vlad is there as well. And while the locals seem to fear the monastery, Theresa keeps having weird dreams and flashbacks.
There is very little actual plot in this film. The flashbacks revolve in part about a previous incarnation of Theresa in the 16th/17th century. It’s all about tragic love, etc., etc., and Alec is presented as the antagonist to both Vlad and Theresa in both timelines. Although bland, Vlad is at least written consistently, having the same personality in the present timeline as well as the flashbacks. But in order to create a parallel construction with Alec as an antagonist in both the past and the present, an unexplained decision has to be taken by a character in the story and as a consequence it is hard to understand to what degree Alec’s character has changed or not.
All-in-all, 39% of the film’s 73-minute net running time consists of dreams and flashbacks. As a result the narrative is not really developing smoothly. In addition, the opening feels incredibly rushed. The meeting, the visions, the invitation… the film races through all of this. It is as if the filmmakers want to acknowledge the genre tropes but feel – precisely because they are such well-known tropes – that there is no reason to actually tell this part of the story and that it is enough to merely tick the boxes.
That decision is all the more surprising as this film has no story to tell. It is more of a general concept that someone could have turned into a passable B-movie script if anyone had bothered to actually do so. So I have no idea why they felt the need to rush things in the beginning of the film if they had nothing with which to fill the rest of the time. And while having a paper-thin plot is bad enough, splitting that plot between two time-lines you keep jumping in and out of makes it much worse.
And since they have nothing else to offer, the filmmakers try to create an erotic scene that is a blatant visual rip-off of The Blue Lagoon, trying to ride on the coattails of Atkins’s famous film role.
As it stands, the second and third act of this feature-length film could have easily been told in 5 to 10 minutes, including the flashbacks. Accordingly, this film feels incredibly empty, and besides the non-existing story there is also nothing else that might fill the void. The Bulgarian location used for the shoot looks the part, but there is little variation and no interesting sets. Everything here feels bare-bone and cheap, as if it had been shot on the smallest of budgets. The film’s looks also make it feel much more like 1983 rather than 1993. In some ways, Dracula Rising reminds me of the first Subspecies film, but that film at least had an interesting story to tell (however poorly it may have been told).
One problem that Dracula Rising shares with the first Subspecies film is that the characters are underdeveloped and bland. Travis acts her heart out as Theresa, and she is the only convincing on-screen presence, but her character is too passive for her to be able to save this film. Wert convinces as the creepy Alec in terms of charisma and looks, but he is still lacking the screen presence necessary for a villain and his character’s story-arch is too confusing to work well. Finally, Atkins is completely miscast as Vlad. The idea was to clearly set Vlad apart from Alec, which works; but Vlad would still have needed some charismatic presence of his own, and in this film Atkins has about as much charisma as a wet sponge. Mind you, the writing did not do him any favours either.
The film has a monotonous, generic score by Ed Tomney, which for no reason at all was actually available on CD at some point in time. To add to the film’s oddities, the opening titles are accompanied by a schmaltzy 70s/80s-style song (“Be My Angel”), while the end titles are accompanied by an equally schmaltzy song in the style of a 1950s pop-ballad (“Here in My Arms”) which is also used for a dance scene very early on in the film. The songs are such an ill fit for the film’s style and tone that the decision to chose them for the opening and end credits is quite frankly bizarre.
Yet, these two songs are interesting in their own way. Both of them are so utterly convincing – or derivative? – that you are immediately sure that you have heard them a million times and that they are famous songs from their respective era. In reality, however, they were written in 1992 by Jay Bolten and Mary Ekler – probably specifically for this film, as the songs are partly copyrighted by “Roger and Julie Music” (Julie being the name of Roger Corman’s wife). I am sure that Corman, always looking at every single penny spent, must have figured out that having these songs composed and recorded from scratch was somehow cheaper than licensing pre-existing music.
As I said, these two songs are 100% the wrong choice for this film, but they are amazing examples of musical mimicry, and anyone doing a film set in the appropriate time-period would be lucky to get their hands on the rights to these songs.
The practical effects in Dracula Rising are very decent, but the film ends in an ill-fitting (and very short) final battle scene full of cheap CG effects that – like so many things in this film – feel pretty dated for 1993. I have never seen Corman’s Masters of the Universe, but the way people talk about that film’s CG whip-fight/lightning effects I have to assume that what we see in Dracula Rising is Corman using left-over sub-par effects he had still stored on a 1987 harddrive…
In terms of quality and (I presume) budget, this film ranks much lower than Vampirella (another film in whose production Corman was involved) and it should be noted that Vampirella is a film I rated only at 3 out of 10. For Dracula Rising I cannot really see a justification for a rating above 0.5 out of 10. Vampirella has at least some entertaining aspects – Dracula Rising is so empty that not even fans of “so-bad-it’s-good” films will get any enjoyment out of it, although some people might get a kick out of the weird CG finale.
PS: on my DVD, there are two short videos that are not optional but bolted unto the front and tail end of the main feature. They both show Roger Corman sitting in an office talking directly to the camera. Based on the content and image, as well as the separate logo (“Roger Corman Presents”) of the first video, I assume that these were not recorded for the 1993 video-release but possibly for a later VHS-release in the late 90s?
Corman addresses the buyers of the film in his typical manner – affable and well-spoken. I’ll transcribe these here, just for fun:
In the opening video, Corman says:
<<The film you are about to see is “Roger Corman’s Dracula Rising”, a follow-up to a film I made a few years ago called “Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound”. A young American woman art restorer is given the assignment of restoring a fresco in a monastery in Transylvania. And you can take it from there…>>
In the film, references are made to “Europe” and “Eastern Europe”. I am not sure Transylvania is ever mentioned. I am not sure if Corman is adding this information on-the-fly. Fact is that this film was shot in Bulgaria; and no-one on the production had bothered to change any of the cyrillic letters that appear in the footage. Likewise, I am pretty sure that the cabdriver in the film speaks a Slavic language rather than Romanian.
I am also not sure why he tries to make a connection to Frankenstein Unbound. Is he merely saying this because he wants to connect Dracula Rising to another film that is generally more highly regarded? Or does he see a parallel between the time-travel in Frankenstein Unbound and the flashbacks in Dracula Rising?
The closing video contains a generic message free of any reference to the film, so could be re-used for any release of any of his films:
<<This is only one movie in a whole series. If you have a good time watching it, look out for more fun features wrapped in the special “Corman Collection” packaging. I guarantee you are going to love them.>>