A few years ago, I wrote an essay about John Carpenter’s Vampires, the master of horror’s sublimely low-rent, mean-spirited take on the classic monster. I published it toward the end of the first October of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I’d finished a month of reading and watching various vampire-related books and movies. I mentioned a lot of them in that essay — Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Hammer Dracula cycle, etc., etc. — but one in particular hasn’t left me in the ensuing years: Yami no teiô kyuketsuki dorakyura, aka The Emperor of Darkness: The Vampire Dracula and aka Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned. (For brevity’s sake, I’ll generally refer to it as Dracula going forward.)
Dracula is an anime adaptation of Marvel’s seminal Tomb of Dracula series, which ran 70 issues between 1972 and 1979 and wove an epic tale about the Prince of Darkness just generally being a huge piece of shit to everyone, up to and including God himself. During the pandemic, I read through most of Tomb of Dracula, and in the ensuing years I’ve re-read large chunks of it every fall. My love for it only grows each time, and this year, I revisited the film version to find one of the most exciting, gonzo takes on the character ever put to screen.
Seriously: Any deep dive into Bram Stoker’s public-domain Prince will result in any number of incredible discoveries ranging from offbeat sequels and lousy spinoffs to comedic parodies and weird pornos. The amount of Dracula shit is as endless as his thirst for blood. But as I’ve sifted through it, few have given me as a much delight as this one and the comic-book run that inspired Japanese studio Toei Animation enough to animate it — a version that was largely forgotten for decades.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Toei held rights to produce adaptations of Marvel Comics properties. Their first feature-length project was Dracula, which proved a modest success in Japan but a total flop on cable and home video in the United States. (Trivia here: It was one of the only Marvel properties to ever see a Betamax release). It was, in fact, the first feature-length animated Marvel film ever and yet it disappeared into the cultural ether like so many other stories about the famous Count. These days, it’s as easy as typing Tomb of Dracula into YouTube and finding a new HD transfer of the film. That’s where I watch it.
Like its comic-book namesake, Dracula plays as a direct sequel to Stoker’s original novel, which exists within the continuity as a vaguely accurate retelling of the Count’s original quest into the western world. The comics, originally penned by Gerry Conway but largely written by Marv Wolfman with art by Gene Colan, make this explicit: The first issue introduces Dracula’s descendant, Frank Drake, who journeys to Transylvania in hopes of turning his heritage into a lucrative investment. He and his friends accidentally revive the Count and, from there, combat his evil across the globe, occasionally joining forces against more dastardly foes. That’s not quite the case in the film, which adapts the back half of the overall comic-book run into a concise, almost surrealistic vision of a modern-day follow up to Stoker’s book.
For instance, the primary narrative arcs in Dracula are two of the most iconic from the comic, merged together for maximum impact. The first is the introduction of Dolores, a woman betrothed by a satanic cult to their Dark Lord. Dracula falls in love with her, so much so that he cannot bring himself to turn her into a vampire. “I knew the moment our eyes met you weren’t Satan,” she tells him. “There’s too much love in your eyes!” They marry, and from their union arrives a son, Janus, who in utero is chosen by God, born on Christmas and destined to grow into an emissary of the divine being above all others as a weapon against our bloodsucking anti-hero. After being shot in a moment of grim and shocking infanticide, of course.
The second is Dracula’s gradual loss of his vampiric abilities, rendering him relatively helpless against the forces who want him dead. The film includes Frank and his famous friends, each descendants of Stoker’s characters: Hans Harker (Quincy in the book), the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, joined by Rachel Van Helsing, the genuinely useless granddaughter of the famed vampire hunter. Noticeably absent is Blade, their much more famous ally. It’s a shame the animated show has so little room for this coterie of human vampire hunters, but their presence still tickles my fandom of the comics enough.
Neither story is interwoven in the most effective manner, but because they’re broad arcs in their own right, everything becomes smushed together in a pretty insane fashion. Dracula, for instance, mugs someone. Then he eats a hamburger. The essence of being human.
He attempts to become re-vampirized from his daughter, Lilith, who in the comics has a much more substantial presence but here appears almost solely to provide some animated nudity — maybe the first and only substantial side-boob of any Marvel adaptation to date. In the comics, Dracula’s powers are stolen by the devious brain-in-a-jar Dr. Sun (a particularly racist villain). But here, they’re simply siphoned away by an angry, cuckolded Satan. A simple and elegant narrative solution, really.
Dracula’s battle against Janus is equally truncated as is his eventual restoration to power — the latter resolved with an incoherent simplicity that serves only to allow a final confrontation between him and Harker that echoes the tremendous end to the comic-book run. The anime’s English dubbing is so blunt and expository that even in quiet moments, nothing about the movie is allowed to be subtle. Even the opening of the film features the narrator ruminating on the nature of the cosmos and Earth’s role in the grand design. It’s bonkers. It’s totally nuts.
It’s Marvel’s Dracula, baby!
I’ve re-read most of the comic-book run a few times through, and it always baffles me how awesome they read, even 50 years after publication. The animated adaptation is no different: There are times watching this that I just can’t believe how grand the vision is, melding canonical concerns with Stoker’s novel with superheroic religious imagery and playful horror. There is no other Dracula story quite like either version of Tomb of Dracula.
Even Marvel Comics has long since abandoned this version of the Lord of Darkness; their current Dracula is much more in line with his depiction at the start of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1990s adaptation, clad in blood-red armor, sporting a long ponytail and acting as a warrior-king for his people. It’s underwhelming bullshit, one step removed from garbage like Dracula Untold.
Contemporary retellings of Dracula and other vampire stories are always trying to depict the erotic, forbidden nature of the creatures (and avoid the xenophobic elements of Stoker’s novel, which is also wrongheaded, but that’s an entirely different essay). Well, what’s sexier than Dracula swooping in on Satan’s wife and impregnating her with God’s chosen warrior? I rest my case.