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Joe Chappelle’s “Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula” is not really, well, true. While the movie claims to present the “true” story of a Romanian prince name Vlad who had to fight off the Muslim Turks and the Catholic Hungarians during the 15th century, it is in fact rife with inaccuracies. Then again, this is a movie, not a documentary, so why should it be surprising that writer Thomas Baum has taken cinematic licenses, especially toward the end when the movie hints at supernatural happenings ala the birth of a vampiric Dracula?
“Dark Prince” stars Rudolf Martin (“Swordfish”) as the titular character, a strangely pale Romanian prince who attempts to regain his kingdom and restore law and order from the invading Turks and duplicitous noblemen. Along the way, Vlad romances Jane March (“The Lover”), finds an ally in the rough and tumble Bruno (Christopher Brand), and ticks off everyone from the common man to the Pope with his my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Using a church tribunal as a means to relay Vlad’s past via flashbacks, “Dark Prince” chronicles the rise and fall of the man they called Vlad the Impaler.
For the true story of the man who inspired Bram Stoker’s infamous novel of a bloodsucker name Dracula, go watch the History channel. “Dark Prince” is pure entertainment. The fact that it’s also very low budget seems to spell doom for the film, which despite director Chappelle’s use of Ryan’s War POV on numerous occasions (sometime quite unnecessarily), “Dark Prince” can’t hide that its supposed “big battles” are being fought by about, oh, 30 extras, including our leads.
I’ve often made a point of encouraging low budget filmmakers to avoid movies based around technology, and I would like to extend that encouragement to movies on the epic scale of the screenplay for “Dark Prince”. Tom Baum probably wrote a very elaborate version of Vlad’s history, complete with large-scale battles between Vlad’s forces and thousands of Turks. Since the budget is not what it should be, we get a couple of battles in a forest (complete with fog machine) and some nighttime fights in the rain. It all adds up to this inescapable conclusion: Low budget filmmakers shouldn’t try to make epic period films.
As Vlad, Rudolf Martin is surprisingly effective. Martin offers up the right balance of insanity, defiance, and a whole-hearted belief that impaling his victims in the town square is a good way to keep people in line. Jane Mach is also very good as Lidia, Vlad’s wife, who doesn’t learn about her husband’s insistence on lancing people until much later on, and by then it’s too late to get out. The movie’s best scenes (and perhaps its funniest?) involve Lidia asking Vlad about the impalings, and Vlad denying that they ever took place. The vibe is reminiscent of Kay asking husband Michael Corleone why people keep calling him The Godfather.
Besides the two leads, “Dark Prince” features a lot of unknown faces and some familiar ones hidden behind beards and other props. Peter Weller (“Screamers”) shows up as a priest and manages to embarrass himself with what little screentime he has. Roger Daltrey, meanwhile, plays Hungary’s king. Let’s just say that neither Daltrey nor Weller will list “Dark Prince” in their resume if they can help it. The other characters just blend into the background along with the other extras that keep walking back and forth in the same town square that shows up throughout the movie.
No one should enter “Dark Prince” for the action, either. Joe Chappelle (“Phantoms”) tries his best to hide the movie’s many inadequacies in twilight scenes with the movie’s only castle locale in the background and hiding his action scenes in the aforementioned fog-drenched forests and night. While it’s probably a given that “Dark Prince” doesn’t have much to work with, the cinematography by Dermott Downs is still surprisingly very lame and uninspired. It doesn’t take a big budget to shoot a good movie, but it does take a bad cinematographer not to capitalize on what he has at hand.
But for those who have never had any idea about the real Dracula, “Dark Prince” is a good introduction. It’s certainly not the most accurate, but being that it’s one of the few films I’ve seen on this topic, it’s a good starting point.
Joe Chappelle (director) / Thomas Baum (screenplay)
CAST: Rudolf Martin …. Vlad the Impaler
Jane March …. Lidia
Christopher Brand …. Bruno
Peter Weller …. Father Stefan
Roger Daltrey …. King Janos
Michael Sutton …. Radu