Near Innsbruck, Nimoy tells us, there is a monument to perversity… And we’re off to a flying start! A monument to perversity! I wonder what’s written on the brass plaque on front? Something saucy, perhaps? But no, we’re talking about Castle Ambras in Austria, which contains a collection of portraits of people who were wounded or deformed, and also a portrait of… Vlad Dracula.
We’re told he was a brutal monster, and the source of a fictional character with no redeeming features. Cue short clip from Nosferatu, the public domain’s favourite vampire movie. Now Nimoy’s talking about Dracula movies over a series of still photos, mostly of Christopher Lee–though Lon Chaney Jr’s Son of Dracula also gets a look in. For some reason.
Nimoy gives one of his trademark rich-voiced descriptions, but this time he only has a rather bland list of Dracula attributes to work with, so he can’t do that much.
But what of the truth behind the myth? We go to Romania where, to my surprise, In Search Of… gets one thing very right. Nimoy says that Romania has its own mythology, but that the vampire count is not part of it. Perfectly true. In Romania, Vlad the Impaler is something of a national hero, renowned for defending his country against the Ottoman Turks.
We are told about pagan rituals, still supposedly carried out in the 1970s on a Romanian mountain, the name of which I am unable to spell. But the ritual is about celebrating ‘friendship, love and the renewal of life’, which doesn’t really justify the creepy electronic music playing under it.
Now some sheep. Huh. Okay. Oh, and a shepherd and his friend — a doctor who is also a mountaineer. We’re told they both respect the mountain and its symbolic power, whatever that means. “Though one is a simple peasant and the other a man of science, the mountain has given them a strong bond of friendship.”
A little less peasant bashing, please Leonard. Thank you.
The two men chat in Romanian, and we are assured that they are exchanging dark superstitions. The doctor plays the flute, something something ghosts. Four minutes in, and this episode is reaching further than most.
A legend, told over a shot of a church: when a princess’ lover is killed in battle, she goes to see a witch to ask for him to be brought back from death. She brings him back as a ghost. As he passed over this mountain, he was struck by the sun and turned to rock.
Cool story, bro, but what does this have to do with Dracula, exactly?
Nimoy, in front of a black backdrop begins intoning about how superstition and fear make it difficult to tell fact from fiction. I thought that was the whole point of this show, but anyway. He says that few are aware that Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula, is based on a real person. And then we’re back in Transylvania.
He talks about Transylvania in horror movies and Bram Stoker. Get on with it! Then we’re at Castle Bran, which looks kind of like the castle in Stoker’s novel. We talk about Stoker a bit more, have a look at more clips from Nosferatu, and even get a bit of literary criticism. Back to the castle, still talking about the Gothic mode and the Freudian notion of repression. Nice! Actual literary theory, albeit simplified. Then Nosferatu again, which we’re assured is truer to the novel than the Lugosi version of Dracula. Certainly cheaper to use, anyway.
And we’re quoting from the novel. Get to the goddam point, Spock!
More Nosferatu, Stoker evoked chilling visions. Some nice poetical description of horror. Now vampire bats! But Nimoy points out that they don’t live in Romania, they live in Mexico and Central America. We’re told that modern Romanians deny the existence of vampire myths in Transylvania which is news to me but whatever.
Now we’re talking about the historical Vlad Dracula again. Maybe keep with the thread this time? You know, about what this episode is meant to be about? We see an official from the Romanian Ministry of Tourism, on a boat going to an island on Lake Snagov. On this island, the body of Vlad Dracula is supposedly buried.
The state official goes to talk to the local abbot of Snagov Monastery. The two men seem pretty chummy given what I remember about the Romanian church under Ceausescu, but I guess the cameras are rolling. In the church, Nimoy tells us that superstitious locals believe that Dracula’s ghost will attack anyone who robs the church. There’s some nice art on the walls of the monastery.
There’s mention of a priest of the monastery who was tortured to death by Vlad, and now we’re into the impaling. Yay! Only took us eleven minutes, but we’re finally there.
The Tourism Ministry guy and the abbot talk, and we’re told that they’re discussing the possibility that Vlad’s reputation may have been to some extent the result of propaganda from his enemies. The two men go seeking answers. Or so we’re told. We don’t see either them again. I hope they find the answers they sought.
Back to Transylvania, which actually looks pretty nice, if a little backwards agriculturally. We’re reminded in a roundabout way that Dracula was prince of Wallacia, not Transylvania. And we’re told that impalement was a Turkish execution method, adopted by Vlad. Nice pan across a mediaeval city in Transylvania, where Dracula was supposedly born.
We’re told Vlad’s father was Vlad Dracul, meaning ‘Vlad the Dragon’. Dracula means ‘Son of Dracul’. We’re shown a coin of Vlad II, showing the dragon symbol, which is pretty cool. Dracul can also mean ‘devil’, a piece of linguistic trivia I was aware of. Nimoy claims that the synonym is the result of Dracula’s reign, which is news to me.
Talk about Vlad’s cruelty and oppression, but we’re told that to understand that we must understand the world he lived in. Fair enough. Then we’re at a nunnery that was once a fortified monastery. The monasteries were part of Romania’s defenses. From here, Nimoy tells us, Dracula could have watched men die in battle. Or he could have watched the sunset. Or sheep.
Now a lovely shot of a modern city, the camera pulling back to reveal a ruined castle in the foreground. Dracula fled here after being deposed in Wallacia. Nimoy explains this was his second exile, his first being the time he was sent as a hostage to the Turks for his father’s cooperation. In exile, he vowed to drive out the Turks from Wallacia and “break the power of the nobles and church.”
Upon his return to power, he began attacking the German cities of Wallacia, burning and impaling. However, as Nimoy points out, the contemporary accounts of Vlad’s barbarism all come from Germany, and so possibly are exaggerated. But other incidents, Nimoy claims, are not exaggerated, including Vlad’s impalement of thousands of Turkish soldiers to strike terror into the invading army.
In spite of this, Nimoy says that the Turks admired Vlad, and regarded him as “just and honest.” It was a different time, I guess. “Sure, he brutally tortured Uncle Kemal to death. But you know where you stand with the guy, you know?”
Or maybe not such a different time.
There’s lots of nice shots of historical paintings and woodcuts here. It’s not that bad historically, I think. Certainly not the worst ‘history of Vlad Tepes’ documentary I’ve seen. It might have been better if this bit had been given more chance to breath, rather than being crowded out by that crap about magic mountains.
Anyhoo, Vlad was betrayed by his brother, Radu, and forced into exile again, until returned to power by his cousin. Some nice scenes of Bucharest. Here, we’re told, Dracula made his last stand. There’s some nice talk about archaeology and layers of fortifications uncovered in the city, dating back to the thirteenth century. Over shots of these, we’re told that Dracula’s final reign lasted only two months before he was killed in battle near Bucharest and beheaded.
But don’t worry about that, because even though Dracula wasn’t really a vampire, vampires are awesome. Have some more Nosferatu! Nice, huh?
Back to Dracula’s birthplace, and its people. Nimoy tells us that Vlad Dracula belongs to Romanian heritage, Stoker’s Dracula to our imagination, which I guess is a pretty fair summing up. Nimoy gives a little lecture about vampires, werewolves and monsters, the end.
Like I said, not a bad episode, just an overstuffed one. You could take out most of the first ten minutes, put in more about Vlad’s life, tone down the Romania travelogue and then you’d have a winner. I’ve seen it done. I remember watching a documentary on Vlad in the early nineties, narrated by Vincent Price, no less. It was pretty damn good, without giving up on any of the goulishness. In Search Of… is usually a mix of silliness an actual information. I just think they got the ratio wrong this time.
Nimoy: “In death’s darkness, the Prince may finally have found peace.”
Actual history: 7/10, Padding: 8/10, F. W. Murnau’s Classic Expressionist Vampire Film Nosferatu: 10/10, Prettiness of Romanian Countryside: 8/10, Satisfying Episode: 5/10. Overall 38/50 Distinction