As a kid, I was a sporadic comic book reader at best, thanks mostly to growing up pretty far from just about anywhere. Within biking distance, as long as I didn’t tell my parents I was riding that far, was a Convenient food mart where my friends and I could exchange our hard earned chore money for the currency of American youth — baseball cards, squirt guns, superballs, and on occasion, a comic book. As a kid who grew up watching horror classics (and the sometimes less-than-classics), my favorite comics were Marvel’s weird monster comics such as Frankenstein and Werewolf By Night. The closest I would come to superheroes was Dr. Strange, who occasionally tooled around in a dune buggy with a green bodybuilder in purple pants, a naked silver guy, and an elf in Speedos. But my favorite comic above all others was Tomb of Dracula.
Tomb of Dracula was just about the most perfect comic book a kid could ask for. Although I was a fan of most of the Draculas I’d seen in the movies — Bela Lugosi’s iconic Universal portrayal and Christopher Lee’s more savage turns in the Hammer films — comic book Dracula was my favorite. His dialogue was choice, so purple that “purple prose” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Dracula constantly screamed out his own name and a summary of his origin and current rank among the undead. The comic itself was full of half-naked vampire ladies, crossbows, cane swords, reanimated corpses, furry-vest-clad bikers with droopy mustaches, and all kinds of other wild stuff one might not usually associate with Count Dracula. He even fought Nazis. It was very much in line with the tone of the Dracula films Hammer was making at the time — specifically, Dracula AD 1972 and Satanic Rites of Dracula, which transported the Count to modern times, turned him into a James Bond villain, and mixed him up with mods, devil worshipers, and cops who looked like they belonged on The Sweeney.
Eventually, Tomb of Dracula ran its course and was canceled…but not before Dracula had taken on everyone and everything from Blade (back when Blade was just a guy in a green raincoat and, for some reason, yellow snow goggles) to Nazis to the Devil himself. Though Tomb‘s primary storyline was in the mini-skirted and bell-bottomed present, the writers had the benefit of Dracula’s several hundred years’ of un-life. If the endless failures of the pack of mods, beatniks, and college professors taking on the Prince of Darkness in the modern era was feeling a bit played out, they could always cast an eye to the past and pit Dracula against an assortment of foils from history. Through it all, no matter what the pervading style of the time period, you could count on Dracula showing up to the party clad in his trademark billowing opera cape.
Since the comic books that showed up at the store were never predictable, I never noticed that Tomb of Dracula vanished and was replaced by, I don’t know. Probably another Spider-Man title. As a man grown, I was free to pursue whims of a more mature and refined nature. Among those fancies was the desire to rebuild my long lost or traded collection of Dracula comics. As fate would have it, it was right around this same time that Marvel re-issued Tomb of Dracula as part of their “Essentials” line. It wasn’t perfect; the four-volume omnibus collection was black and white, and they had edited out some of the original run’s more daring forays into sideboob territory, reportedly because they wanted the “Essentials” line to remain kid-friendly and nudity-free — though I can’t imagine what could possibly be more kid-friendly, or at least kid-pleasing, than partially nude sexy vampires. But short of shelling out for original back issues on the collectors’ market, The Essential Tomb of Dracula was, at the time, the best I could do. As I reread the stories, I was amazed by how much weird shit you take for granted as a kid. In particular, there was the story arc where Dracula poses as Satan to bilk a bunch of dumb cultists, since I guess even Dracula gets bored from time to time with turning into mist and frustrating Blade. He ends up stealing Satan’s bride and eventually siring a child with her — who turns out to be a Messianic Jesus-like superhero, complete with goofy superhero tights.
I vaguely remembered the story from its original run, but back then it all made perfect sense. Of course Dracula and the devil’s bride would give birth to a superhero angel determined to kill his own father and ruin Dracula’s fun time riding roller coasters. I mean, yeah. What else would you expect to happen? Rereading that story as an adult, I couldn’t believe how fantastically loony it was. Of all the stories in Tomb of Dracula‘s run, of all the tales from which they could have chosen — Drac fights Nazis, or something with Blade — when it came time to make a movie, the story that got made was the one with Dracula, Satan, and avenging superhero-angel, Janus. Not really the choice I would have made. But then, if that hadn’t been the choice, we never would have ended up with something as utterly, delightfully daft as Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned.
Remember that back in the 1970s, though Marvel Comics enjoyed a substantial amount of popularity, the film and television adaptations of those comics were somewhat, you know, on the shoddy side of things. Most of them either looked like the melodramatic soap opera that was The Incredible Hulk or they were the made-for-TV Captain America movies starring Reb Brown as Cap with floppy rubber wings pasted to the sides of a motorcycle helmet. Up until the 2000s, the best Marvel Comics adaptation was probably the Spider-Man shorts on The Electric Company. Among the many projects Marvel undertook during the ’70s was a deal with Japan’s Toei Animation to create adaptations of an assortment of popular Marvel properties for Japanese, and later American, television. Of those properties, the first and ultimately the only one to see the light of day as a cartoon, was Tomb of Dracula (this same deal, however, is what gave us the much appreciated live-action Spider-Man show, where Spider-Man traded in the Spideymobile for a transforming jumbo robot and a spaceship).
Satanic Fights of Dracula
Exactly why they launched the project with Tomb of Dracula is a point of speculation, provided you buy into the fact that people sit around speculating about the business decisions that lead to Japanese adaptations of American vampire comics. Tomb was popular enough, but only in a cult capacity, and it ceased publication in 1979. It wasn’t a powerhouse title — which may be precisely why it was chosen. If things went bad, at least they wouldn’t ruin major characters like Thing or Turner D. Century. Japan was also going through a bit of a Dracula craze in the 1970s. Toei rival Toho had produced a string of moderately popular vampire movies in the first half of the decade (Lake of Dracula, Evil of Dracula, and Vampire Doll). So going with Tomb instead of a more recognizable title maybe wasn’t as out of left field as it seems. What Toei eventually produced, Yami no Teiō: Kyūketsuki Dorakyura, was absolutely batty. The writers took chunks of story from the comic’s lengthy run and crammed all that weirdness into one concentrated blast of lunacy, relying mostly on the Dracula/Satan/Janus story arc but by no means confining themselves to it. What follows is going to lapse more than I’d like to into plot summary, but when you read it, I think you will understand why.
When we first meet Dracula in Boston, he’s fluttering about the rafters of a Satanic cult (one that is so half-assed that they have contractors in the temple building their altar mere minutes before the ritual is scheduled to begin). Dracula has been masquerading as Satan for the gullible cultists in order to get himself a steady stream of victims, but the latest beautiful young sacrifice, Delores, catches the vampire lord’s eye. He whisks her away to his artfully decorated…well, it looks like a suburban Boston apartment. Dracula obviously reads Dwell magazine. The cultists are pleased at first, until Dracula-as-Satan fails to reappear again. The cult leader asks the air what’s up, and this time the actual Satan appears. I guess he’d been watching Dracula swindle the cultists, and that was well and good, but stealing a Leiji Masumoto lookin’ dame promised to Satan turns out to be more than the dark lord can bear. He and the cult leader hatch a plan to extract revenge…in like a year or so. Satan’s in no real hurry.
Meanwhile, wheelchair-bound Dracula hunter Quincy Harker and his miniskirt and go-go boot sporting sidekick Rachel Van Helsing are trying to recruit a young man named Frank Drake to their cause. Drake is pretty blase about the existence of Dracula, and he’s not keen to take up with the sword-cane waving nutcase and his crossbow-toting femme fatale. They try to persuade him by attacking him in broad daylight in a public park, which doesn’t really interest any of the passersby. It’s Boston, after all, and people in big cities are used to seeing fights between wheelchair bound hippies with swords and young karate dudes. Eventually though, Drake — a descendant of Dracula, it is revealed — agrees to sign on with Harker and Van Helsing, even though the gist of their plan is no more evolved that, “You know, like find Dracula and stuff, I guess.” Luckily, Dracula is striking in such a way that his haunts, when plotted on a map, make the shape of a bat, which all things considered is a pretty sweet bit of planning on Dracula’s part.
While our trio of heroes are making plans, Dracula is steeped in newly found domestic bliss. He even manages to knock up Dolores, who by now knows Dracula isn’t Satan but can see through the vampire’s gruff, murderous exterior and into the tortured soul beneath. Even at home, Dracula never takes off his awesome cape, even when he’s about to make love. That, my friends, is commitment to your look. Alas, Dracula’s domestic bliss is shattered when cult leader Anton Lupeski crashes Janus’ birthing. Drake, Van Helsing, and Harker are there as well, but… seriously, what the hell is the purpose of their ineffectual Scooby-Doo gang anyway? You’ve been trying to find one guy your whole life, and your ancestors were trying to do the same, and you still haven’t sealed the deal? For crying out loud, the dude sleeps during daylight hours and spent most of his life living in a place called Castle Dracula. It’s not like he was maintaining a low profile.
In an attempt to extract vengeance from Dracula for stealing Dolores and getting Satan…no, wait, hold on a second. So Anton has this cult, right? And he’s spent most of his life praying to Satan, who obviously never paid the cultists any mind since Dracula was able to show up one day and just say, “Hey, it’s me, Satan.” So Dracula steals a woman, and as a result, Anton gets a private audience and ongoing personal relationship with Satan, who seems to drop by frequently because what else has Satan got to do all day since it was still a couple years before glam metal caught on? Anton should be thanking Dracula for facilitating what should be the ultimate thrill of the devil worshiper’s life! Or I don’t know. Maybe now that they know each other, Satan is always calling up Anton and asking him to do annoying stuff. “Hey Anton, it’s me, Satan. Yes, Satan Lucifer. You don’t always have to refer to me by my full name. No, it’s cool, it’s just…I’m just trying to save you some time. Hey, anyway…what do you have going on this weekend? Because I was wondering, if you’re not doing anything else, you think you could come over and help me and Pazuzu move a couch? Yeah, it’s a sleeper sofa, so, you know, it’s kind of heavy.”
So whatever the case, Anton brings a gun to a vampire fight, which is at least better than Frank Drake, who brought karate to a vampire fight. In the ensuing confusion, Anton accidentally shoots baby Janus. This could cause one of two things to happen: option one, Dracula flies into a red rage the likes of which we have never seen before, ripping apart all who dare cross his path and ushering in a new era of terror as he becomes the nightmarish monster he always should have been; or option two, which I call the “Nooooooo!” option. Yeah, unfortunately, the murder of Janus only momentarily enrages Dracula, who then promptly retires to a cave to listen to The Cure’s “Pictures of You” on repeat.
So Dracula is obviously the main character of the story, but the vampire hunters are nominally the good guys. However, it’s kind of hard to root for the good guys when their reaction to a Satanist gunning down Dracula’s brand new baby boy is, “Well, time to kill Dracula.” Their position as protagonists is further weakened by the amount of time the story spends humanizing Dracula and recounting the tragedy of how he became a vampire and how much it upsets him. The comics explored this, of course, but the pathos of Dracula’s history was always tempered by pages and pages of him yelling, “Worthless mortal swine! I, Dracula, who once forced armies to cower at my feet, shall wring your pathetic life from you with my bare hands! DIE!!!!” Plus, the comic actually spent some time with the trio of Harker, Van Helsing, and Drake, turning them into actual characters with understandable motivations. Here, the vampire hunters have no character or story beyond, “Gosh, we sure do hate that mean ol’ Dracula!” As a result, Dracula becomes the movie’s good guy, and the good guys become the movie’s total pricks. If this was an ’80s teen comedy, I would so want Dracula to show up those snobby vampire hunters in a big ski competition.
Dracula moves into a cave in the mountains overlooking Boston (just go with it). Dolores weeps every night at Janus’ grave, where from time to time the vampire hunters show up to hassle her and be dicks about finding Dracula. And then, because why the hell not, God himself intervenes and resurrects Janus — only not as the little baby he was when he went into the grave. Rather, reborn Janus is a full grown man with luscious, flowing blonde angel hair. Oh, and also, he’s dressed like a Voltron guy. And he can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. And his sole passion in life is hunting down and killing that most villainous of Satan’s minions: Dracula, his own father!
Dracula is annoyed God resurrected Janus just so Janus could kill Dracula, but life is about to get even worse for the endlessly put-upon sovereign of the damned. It turns out Satan has been plotting a yakuza-like takedown of Dracula for the past year, allowing the vampire to build a nice little life for himself just so Satan can pop in down the line and take it all away. Although Dolores somehow uses her powers (wait, she has powers too?) to prevent Satan from killing Dracula, the devil is still able to punish his uppity servant by taking away Dracula’s vampirism. Although Dracula has spent much of the movie bemoaning the fact that he’s a vampire, once his vampirism is taken away, the dude has a serious freak-out and runs off to New York. At this point, the movie becomes sort of like what Arthur 2: On the Rocks might have been if Dudley Moore had been Dracula.
The vampire hunters track Dracula to the Big Apple, where they observe him doing desperate things like mugging some chump then going to an all-night diner for the film’s most famous screencap: Dracula sitting in a restaurant booth, dejectedly eating a cheeseburger. The vampire hunters — who up to this point have seen a physical manifestation of Satan and witnessed God resurrecting a baby as a superhero angel, neither of which impressed them in the least — are shocked by this strange turn of events and are forced to admit that Dracula has been de-vampirised. Rachel sees this as the perfect opportunity to put a crossbow bolt between the vampire’s eyes, but Quincy thinks that now that Dracula isn’t a vampire anymore, the police would arrest them. I’m pretty sure that the police would arrest you for shooting a guy with a crossbow even if you claimed that guy was a vampire, but let’s not argue with some Kenny Rogers looking nutcase swinging a sword-cane.
Even Janus can’t bring himself to kill pathetic ol’ Dracula now that Dracula is a mere mortal with rapidly escalating cholesterol, so the Dracula killin’ crew sort of wanders off, leaving the distraught not-vampire to launch a quest to get re-vampirised. He initially seeks assistance from Lilith, an old vampire acquaintance who is currently working the disco scene in New York and, like Dracula, enjoys wearing full, ornate vampire regalia while lounging about at home. In fact, she even switches out of her normal contemporary clothes and into her crazy vampire get-up when she gets home at the end of a night, even though that outfit would totally have worked at Studio 54 or Plato’s Retreat. Unfortunately for Dracula, his past includes being a dick to a lot of other vampires and always yelling his name at them, so Lilith is happy to let Dracula languish in his mortal misery.
Drac’s plan B is to get re-vamped by one of his old vampire brides, so he walks I guess from New York to Transylvania with no money other than what he got from some hobo and didn’t spend on hamburgers. Once again, he learns the hard truth about a woman scorned. His former bride is harboring a grudge against the man who vamped her out then ditched her, so she teams up with some chump-ass wannabe Dracula named Tomo and sends an army of zombies after her former master. Dracula is forced to flee — with the added indignity of being hassled by a colony of bats — and hole up in an old farmhouse inhabited by what looks to be a family of Ralph Bakshi hobbits. What follows is a pretty awesome siege scene, with Dracula clobbering zombies and vampires with a big cross while his own hands smolder. Having had just about enough at this point, Dracula then faces off with Tomo himself, smacks that pretender silly, gets his vampire powers back, and then…oh Jesus! Drake, Harker, and Van Helsing are still hanging around? It turns out Quincy has one more trick up his sleeve.
If Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned accomplishes anything, it’s proving that the sundry storylines of a comic book should never be condensed into a single event. It makes very little sense while also managing to highlight the more absurd elements of the original tales that somehow worked better doled out over multiple issues and years. At the same time though, the augmentation of certain incompetencies in the story also result in an augmentation of the weirdness, and make no mistake about it, Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned is a supremely, delightfully weird movie. Fans of Bram Stoker, or Bela Lugosi, or vampires in general will perhaps be aghast as what they see. But if you’ve been able to roll over the years with Tomb of Dracula and Hammer’s later vampire films, then you’ll be on surer footing. There’s always something utterly strange happening.
My biggest beef is with Dracula himself. I don’t mind Dracula as the anti-hero of the story, but I do mind Dracula being such a whiny brat. Almost none of the cocky, sneering, condescending Dracula of the comic book makes it into this animated adaptation. Dracula never gets a good “Fools! Feel the wrath of Dracula!!!” moment, and those are essential for any proper adaptation of Tomb. Sure, most of what happens here happened in the comic, but you can’t pick out all of Dracula’s emo moments without balancing them with a bunch of his “Motherfucker, I earned this cape and pencil-thin mustache!” moments. With the vampire hunters being such a non-entity in the movie, we’re left to concentrate on Dracula, and the Dracula we get isn’t nearly Dracula-y enough.
The English language dubbing done by Harmony Gold, Ltd., matches the half-assedness of the writing. The company was an old hand at dubbing Japanese imports, and most of the people they got to work on Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned were seasoned pros. But I don’t know. Maybe they just didn’t know what to do with a Japanese adaptation of an American property. The performances are lackluster. Dracula should be all a-bellowin’ and a-boomin’ and pronouncing the bloody doom of anyone who isn’t him, but here he sounds weak and plaintive. If I could, I’d redub him with Brian Blessed saying “the iron grip of Dracula’s wrath is around your puny throat!” a lot more. But then, given my druthers, I’d redub the entire world with Brian Blessed.
Dolores sounds like she’s in an opium haze. As for the rest — well, who cares? Even in the comic book, we were reading it for Dracula, not to hear Quincy Harker complain. The dubbers also had no interest in punctuation, delivering rapid-fire lines in long run-on sentences that border on monotone. And then there’s my favorite phenomenon of bad voice work — the speaking voice shout. If you hear it, you’ll know it. It’s when a character is supposed to be shouting or screaming, but the dubber doesn’t want to cut lose with an actual scream or shout, so they do this weird, strangled fake shout that comes out at a normal speaking voice volume but more drawn out.
Tomb of Dracula always had a problem with place and time — it seemed Dracula could be in New York one moment, turn into a bat, then be back in his Transylvanian castle before dawn. We accepted it because, first, we were kids; and second, he was a vampire. He could just vampire himself from New York to Transylvania in an hour, right? In Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned, however, Drac’s amazing powers of teleportation are more problematic since he spends a third of the movie as a normal human. Somehow, even though he only has the one suit of clothes and has to mug someone for hamburger money, he manages to get from New York to Transylvania with no problem. I know this was before 9/11 and all, but I feel like even in the more lackadaisical year of 1980, an airline might have balked at the penniless man in an opera cape trying to board a plane for Carpathia while endlessly hassling the stewardess for more burgers.
The animation is pretty cheap, too, as television animation tended to be. It’s not Speed Racer cheap, but there’s a lot of panning across still images, jerky motion, and some sloppy artwork. But we also get a scene of Lilith at a disco, and man do I love watching animators struggle with drawing dancing people. This dancing scene isn’t “breakdancing Transformers” bad — and didn’t Gung-Ho breakdance in the GI Joe cartoon at some point? — but it’s still pretty fantastic. But while the animation may be shoddy, some of the artwork itself is exceptional. There are quite a few moments when the cartoon gorgeously captures the brooding, psychedelic grandeur of the comic book.
Although nothing further came of the deal between Toei and Marvel, Sovereign was popular enough that Toei went on and made an animated Frankenstein special as well, though it had nothing to do with the Marvel Comics version of Frankenstein. Everything bad you can say about Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned is true. But what does that mean? What does it matter? I spent the running time of Sovereign of the Damned hovering in that strange but familiar state where I am both entertained and a little bored, enthralled yet also distracted. Hypnotized, as one watching a Jean Rollin vampire film. In that state, Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned becomes more a vague experience than an actual viewing, and perhaps it works best in that way. A half-remembered nightmare. A hazy hallucination. A half-forgotten memory that flits through your mind and then vanishes, leaving nothing behind but a melancholy smile and the faint whiff of hamburgers.