This review was commissioned. That means I was paid to watch and review the series in question. You can learn about my commission policies and how to buy commissions of your own here. This review was commissioned by Myrdradek. Many thanks, as always.
This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning.
“Count Dracula fled to the United States of America, seeking to hide himself in the city of Boston.”
You know what’s truly scary? Not ghosts, ghouls, goblins, monsters, demons, and certainly not vampires. It’s the inexorable march of time, and its effect on popular culture. Today’s big-budget blockbuster is tomorrow’s piece of trivia, and we have quite the piece of Did You Know? fodder today.
The result of a partnership between Marvel and Toei, Dracula: Sovereign of The Damned (Yami no Teiō: Kyūketsuki Dorakyura in Japan) is loosely based on Marvel’s own The Tomb of Dracula comics. The same that would give rise to the character Blade. (Who, incidentally, has a mostly-forgotten anime series of his own at this point.) Originally released in Japan, it was, as far as I can tell, dubbed into English by the infamous Harmony Gold a few years later, and enjoyed limited screenings on cable TV and possibly some sort of VHS release. A DVD remaster also exists, though information on any of this is rather sparse.
Sovereign of The Damned is not anyone’s idea of a lost classic. It’s campy, corny, and about five different kinds of a mess. I’m not allergic to any of those traits, as I’ve well established elsewhere on this blog, but Sovereign of The Damned is a special kind of Very 80s so-bad-it’s-good, that one has to be of a particular mindset to enjoy.
There’s a lot of up and downs here, starting with the production. Visually, the film’s quality is a mixed bag. The realities of footage degradation over the years have rendered some parts of even the remaster rather hard to parse, as once-present color detail is smooshed into what is essentially different shades of black or dark blue. Even at the time, I imagine it was a bit of a struggle.
The animation quality is also spotty. While it’s hardly the worst thing this era of cartooning produced (not by a longshot) it rarely looks particularly fluid or pleasing, further hampered by the semi-realistic style that was the norm for this sort of thing at the time. In particularly bad moments, characters sometimes seem to more morph into new poses rather than move per se.
On the other hand, it does admittedly have its visual highlights, too. There’s a particularly nice cut in the film’s first half when we see Satan raise Dracula from the grave, the bizarre but visually striking “resurrection scene” of Dracula’s son Janus, the looming gothic air of its depiction of Dracula’s tenure as Vlad III of Wallachia, and some cool flame and beam effects elsewhere.
The backgrounds are quite good as well. Generally, they consist of nicely-painted pieces that set the mood effectively. The city backgrounds in particular have a peculiar unreality to them that was common to backgrounds depicting such settings at the time.
Broadly speaking, it’s the weirder and more abstract parts of the film that look the best. It’s hard to say if that’s simple circumstance or the result of the artists being given more room to experiment with the more out-there sequences. It’s a real treat though, and it saves Sovereign of The Damned from being visually boring.
On the audio end, the experience is similar. The soundtrack is weird and bloopy but it’s effective at mood-building when it’s actually present. But decently long stretches of Sovereign of the Damned simply do not have BGM, leading the generally poor FX work to struggle to pick up the slack. The voice acting is similarly lackluster. Other than the amusingly hammy performances of Tom Wyner in the lead as Dracula, and Richard Epcar as Satan, none of the voicework is particularly memorable. Even these performances seem to be more the result of actors simply realizing they may as well go all-in on a film this corny. They’re fun, but hardly genuinely serious or dramatic.
But of course if anyone knows Sovereign of The Damned it’s not for its production values. The film’s script has the unenviable task of trying to condense 70 issues of full-length comics into just 90 minutes. It’s untenable, and as a result Sovereign of The Damned blows through some six or seven only very loosely-related plotlines in its hour and a half runtime. Elements are brought up, used once or twice, and then dropped. Satan, for example, is set up as a major antagonist, but disappears two-thirds of the way through the film, swearing a revenge that he never comes to collect.
There’s also a notably bad “telling over showing” problem. Decent tracts of reel estate are eaten up by long spools of narration. Without fail they’re flat, dull, and serve only to shuttle the characters along from one plotline to another. The entire B-plot about the vampire hunter team seems superfluous until Sovereign‘s closing minutes, where bearded brains-of-the-operation Hans Harper* is unexpectedly able to overpower and impale a newly-re-vampirized Dracula on a silver wheel spoke before taking out both the vampire prince and himself with a self-destruct button in his wheelchair. It’s as silly as it sounds.
Which is honestly not a huge issue. Sovereign of The Damned is at its best when it’s silly, whether it’s the high school play melodrama of Dracula’s bride’s backstory, the comically bitchy essentially-a-cameo by Layla**, the random aside where Dracula must hide from a bunch of bats in a cabin with three small children near the film’s end, or even Dracula mugging a man to get money for a burger at one point. (And yes, it is this film that that particular piece of internet ephemera comes from, if you’ve been getting deja vu from the image embeds.)
There are a few moments that approach genuine pathos. Such as Dracula’s rage at the accidental murder of his infant son, but they’re rendered absurd by the voice acting. I can’t help but wonder if the film “works” a bit more as a serious piece in Japanese, but the English subtitled version of the film is not easily available, so a mystery it will remain for the foreseeable future.
In the end, Dracula: Sovereign of The Damned is not actually unusual in any of these regards. Most animation, and indeed, most media, falls in this same collective cultural memory hole. Too weird to be completely forgotten, but certainly not remarkable enough to have lingered in any serious capacity. So it is reduced down to a few clips, and passes into the great pop-cultural beyond, with all the elegance of Dr. Harper’s exploding wheelchair. So it goes.
*, **: In the comics, their names are Quincy Harper and Lilith respectively. Why they were changed here is a riddle for the ages.
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