Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and The Vengeance Of Dracula

Poor Sherlock Holmes! By even the most conservative estimates, the movie was a solid success, and yet no one I know has even mentioned it to me. Why? Because it was swallowed up by the Na'vi! Those giant blue creatures stole Guy Ritchie's thunder, and probably millions of dollars from the film's coffers. This movie could have been a sensation, blanketing movie blogs with stories about "the return of the most popular movie character of all time." By that internet real estate was given to James Cameron's behemoth. Poor Robert Downey Jr. Who knows if his career will ever recover. Anyway, friend of the site and sometimes reviewer Michael Stark is here to give us his take on another Sherlock Holmes project that was bandied about but never made. Let's give him our full undivided attention, assuming we're not strapping on our 3-D glasses and watching Avatar for the fifth time.

Genre: Mash-up of gothic horror and action/adventure.
Premise: Holmes vs. Drac. Nuff said, Pilgrim.
About: Christopher Columbus would have directed this unproduced fanboy fave if it wasn’t for that damned Harry Potter. Jude Law was ironically considered as Holmes. Script sold for 700k against 1.1 million. Marc Gordon is the producer on the project. Sony is currently still sitting on the project.
Writer: Michael B Valle
Details: 126 pages (I imagine an early if not first draft)

We are the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula
“The Village Green Preservation Society” – The Kinks

Professor Stark once again will take the Wayback Machine down to the lowermost levels of development hell, armed only with a crucifix, a feather duster and his trusted fireplace bellows to brush off an old spec script that deservedly-- and with due market diligence -- should rise again.

It’s elementary, my dear execs. After the rollicking success of the DowneyRitchie Sherlock Holmes and the non-stop obsession of all things bloodsucking, Sherlock Holmes and The Vengeance of Dracula seems a no-brainer to un-stake and re-slate.

Holmes vs. Drac (my shorthand retitling) is an action adventure based on existing material (in the public-freaking-domain) that has had proven worldwide appeal for over one hundred years. So, why not, in the entrepreneurial spirit of Alien vs. Predator, Freddy vs. Jason and Godzilla vs. Mothra put these two Victorian superstars together in one, big, expensive, creature feature?!! Hell, Columbia, you already own the script.

Holmes vs. Drac was a spec written by novice scribe, Michael Valle, bought by Columbia in 1999 for $700,000 against a cool million with Christopher Columbus eager to direct. Aging fanboys will recall that ChrisCo wrote the Spielberg produced, Young Sherlock Holmes way back in 1985. Cause all spec scripts must be heavily rewritten, Rand Ravich was later hired to change things up a bit. Valle unfortunately passed away in 2001 and the project seemed to slip from ChrisCo’s consciousness as he embarked onto Harry Potterdom. The script is such an industry and fan favorite that Uberfanboy Harry Knowles openly pleaded with ChristCo to turn the beat around on his “favorite unproduced script”. Now, I too join Harry’s battle cry, adding only:

Just don’t turn the damn thing into Van Helsing!

I did indeed dig Holmes vs. Drac. But, heck, it’s my kinda Weird Tale. I’m a genre-mash-up-period-piece fanatic who loves penny dreadfuls, gothic ghost stories, Victorian bodice rippers, rickety steam powered contraptions, the foggiest of moors, extremely haunted castles, clockwork turks, consulting detectives and the whole lot of Universal Movie Monsters as long as they are terrorizing the Village Green or Queen Vic’s London.

Hell, my writing partner and I just finished scribbling one of these period piece mash-ups ourselves. (Will the usually lazy copyeditor, Carson, let that little self-promotional plug remain? Only the Shadow knows.)

Now, intrepid reader, if you don’t like pulp novels, old movies and comic books, this definitely won’t be your cup of tea. You may want to skip ahead to the next romcom or contained thriller soon to be reviewed here. But, for those few intrepid souls still standing – err, seated -- let’s enter the inner sanctum and deconstruct this mother.

Now, these two dudes have crossed swords previously on paper in Fred Saberhagen’s “Seance for a Vampire” and Loren D. Estleman’s “Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula”, proving once again there is very little new under the sun, especially when you’re hijacking famous characters for your plots.

So, how does Valle bring our two literary icons together? Knowledge of the Stoker and Conan Doyle universes is handy but not altogether mandatory to enjoy this ripping yarn. Count Dracula returns to England to exact revenge on Van Helsing, Dr. John Seward and Lord Godalming, who kind-of-almost-sort-of defeated the evil Romanian in the original canon. The stake through the heart wasn’t quite enough to kill the Nosferatu. I hate to say I told you so, but you needed to cut his bloody head off too.

Vengeful Vlad goes after Godalming first, setting up his murder as a convincing suicide. Unbeknownst to the Count, the guy had a perky & pretty Nancy Drew of a cousin, Constance Bracknell, who is suspicious enough to hire the world’s most famous consulting detective to take a closer look. Usually I can’t stand the contrivance of the spirited young lady playing junior detective, but somehow Valle charmingly pulls it off. Maybe cause I really have a crush on this fictional character. Is that wrong? She’s awfully hot.

Meanwhile, Holme’s arch enemy, Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, is intrigued by the rusty ship the vampire sailed in on. Thinking he is robbing some priceless artifacts, his men unwittingly disturb the Count’s coffin. The surviving thug’s story of the bat-attack piques the Prof’s interests even more than the silver and gold he thought he was stealing.

So, now it’s a race against time between Holmes and Moriarty to see who finds Dracula first. Holmes vows to stop the monster before he kills again. Moriarty wants to become a vamp himself, making him the ultimate, unstoppable, immortal mastermind criminal.

Now, that’s an awesome premise right there. But, it gets even better. The Professor gets to Dracula first and when the vamp eventually betrays his new best friend, Moriarty must suck it up and team up with Holmes to stop the Count from taking over London (and then the world) with his fiendish Fu Manchu worthy plot.

Moving forward, the ante amazingly keeps getting pushed further up with Holmes becoming a fugitive from the law, Watson getting bit and Constance literally torn between two lovers.

Whew! That’s all the plot I’m gonna spoil, cause you’re gonna read it. Right?

The script definitely lives up to its thrill ride status. Even at a bloated 126 pages, it kept me turning and guessing till the end. The only thing noticeably absent was the mandatory action flick humor. Given, neither Sherlock Holmes nor Dracula were exactly known for cracking wise, but previous screen incarnations would use Watson or Drac’s human lackeys for a little comic relief. Downey’s re-invention gives the detective a healthy dose of sarcasm and narcissism for our amusement. We’ll compare the choices between these two scripts later.

For your mandatory character arc, Valle’s Sherlock must open his mind to the unscientific possibilities of the supernatural (faith vs reason, Jack) and his hermetically sealed heart to Constance, who Dracula, of course, has sized up as a tasty potential lifemate.

Holmes vs. Drac is both a throwback to the atmospheric Universal and Hammer horror flicks and the Spielbergian reinvention of serialized amazing adventure stories. There are some fantastic action sequences (some tailored made for a theme park ride), colorful secondary characters (I especially liked Mollie, the hot, trampy vamp) and enough violence and gore to keep the young kids from texting throughout the whole deal.

There’s even a scene out of The Lost Boys where our two unlikely allies drum up some monster-killing weapons with their limited Victorian-tech. How I love Steampunk, clockwork Victorian tech. Ach, it’s my geeky weakness. Oh, Lord, how I want a mechanical woman with her gear shafts showing.

Eek, have I turned into Roger Balfour???

Okay, it’s quite up my creepy alley, but the script is not without its flaws. I know that I probably read the first draft and that I’ll incur the wrath of Knowles for saying it, but the thing may be a ton of fun, but it still needs some tinkering.

That brings us to our first point of discussion. Does a script have to be perfect to sell? Or to even be brought to market? Can it skate by with just a nifty high concept alone? In today’s incredibly shrinking spec script market, can one still sell by premise alone? Was the bought-for-mega bucks Medieval anywhere near faultless? Faithful Script Shadow readers please make voice in the comment section.

Columbus was supposed to direct. But alas, now he never will...

The biggest bit of trouble with Holmes vs Drac is that there’s a hell of a lot of dialogue. Vast pages and pages and pages of it. Although the speech is authentic to the pulps and penny novels of the time, it clunks on cement by today’s standards. I’m sure the first thing the execs ordered was a STAT dialogue polish. Which brings us to our second topic of discussion for the boards. How do you write a period piece that will both appeal to purists, fanboys, tweens and civilians alike?

We may find the answer by comparing this Holmes to the recent blockbuster. While Valle voices every detail of the detective’s great deductive process ala the early Rathbone films, Ritchie’s writers show it instead of just telling it. Guy’s characters aren’t Thoroughly Modern Millies, but they sidestep some of the more cliched conversational conventions of the genre. Valle’s draft unfortunately is awash with loving lemons like “You foiled my daring plot.” And “Your primitive brain has no conception how precious this treasure is.”

Even for an old movie buff like myself those exchanges made the read a little plodding at times.

So, how do you hold onto the nostalgia and romanticism without getting too quaint and corny? How do you avoid turning this awesome homage into another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Somehow those producers wove genius source material into dull straw, managing to destroy our collective memories of Alan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Mr. Hyde and the Invisible Man in one fell swoop.

On the other side of the slug, how do you avoid making a Van Helsing? Obviously that team had a great love and respect for the pantheon of Universal Monster Movies, but the film didn’t just run off the rails, it didn’t have any rails to begin with. It was a little too much fun!

What’s the proper mix? When does a retro feel suddenly slide into parody? Do you think The Rocketeer pulled it off? The Mummy? Or Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow? The first Indiana Jones is still the gold standard for this kind of flick, a formula that even Spielberg himself hasn’t always been able to duplicate.

Valle’s script affectionately keeps Conan Doyle’s and Stoker’s characters extremely true to textbook form. But does that form still fly today? These are reboot times where even Spiderman, a film only nine years young, is going through a total retooling. Can the likes of Dracula and Sherlock Holmes dare remain the way they always were? Or must they be transformed into emo teens and bare-knuckled, shirtless brawlers for today’s tastes?

Truth be told, Sherlock Holmes and The Vengeance of Dracula probably could have used a minor face-lift. I’d like to have seen his Holmes a lot less Jeremy Brent and a bit more Robert Downey Jr. And, Dracula needed to be channeling his inner Gary Oldman rather than his legendary, long-winded Lugosi.

If a writer dares to bring an iconic literary figure into their work, I still believe they can bend the rules a bit and make them totally (kinda-sorta) their own creation.

I give this script an impressive. Cause even with the few warts exposed, I think the writer was just a draft or two away from totally nailing it. It being a huge tentpole franchise that would’ve rained money down from heaven. You write the next Pirates of the Caribbean and I’ll be pretty impressed by you too.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[X ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: It isn’t always easy borrowing famous characters for your narrative. If you re-imagine them too much, you can have more protestors than The Last Temptation of Christ. Plus, being both in the public domain and the collective consciousness, a few hundred other writers are probably putting Alice in Hoboken and Robin Hood on Mars just like you are.

Also, Holmes vs. Drac confirmed Professor Stark’s Fourth Rule of Screenwriting – always end your movie with a 50-foot tall monster. Hell, nothing less will do.