The Discount Spinner Rack Halloween Special: DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT (2011)

Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…

Until they end up here.

The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). To celebrate the scariest, spine-tingliest time of the year, this HALLOWEEN SPOOKTACULAR EDITION will look at a film that makes vampires, werewolves, AND zombies as banal and non-threatening as they can be without outright sparkling: 2011’s Dylan Dog: Dead of Night!

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Hey, here’s a totally novel, original idea: what if the world as you knew it was all a lie?

What if, say, the supernatural creatures you’d always believed to be mythical were actually living AMONG us, disguised as normal folk? What if they’d, like, constructed their own shadow society in the margins of our own, dedicated to preserving the secret of their existence so that they can operate undetected? OOO! OOO! And what if there were, like, a gruff and cynical outsider—an anti-hero, uniquely knowledgeable of the way these creatures operate—who fought to keep them in check (and, ostensibly, to protect innocent humans from them) with special weaponry and a take-no-sh*t attitude? What do ya’ think of THAT?

… Huh. They already did that with Blade, you say? And then again with Constantine? Hellboy? Underworld too? And a million other low-budget knock-offs?

Well, screw you, here it is again.

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Dylan Dog, in case you weren’t aware, is a (relatively) popular Italian comic book character created by writer Tiziano Sclavi and artist Claudio Villa in 1986. Dylan is a “nightmare investigator”—which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Every issue sees him take a new case revolving around some horror-based mystery; the horror itself is played completely straight, but Dylan is presented more as an off-kilter oddball than a serious figure. Largely aloof and occasionally broody, Dylan is defined almost entirely by superficial personality quirks and style choices: he always wears the same exact clothes (a red shirt, black jacket, and blue jeans), refuses to ever use an umbrella, plays the clarinet when he’s thinking (even though he only knows one song), and his office is equipped with a doorbell that screams. Of course, he has a dead lover in his past that drove him to lose himself in his work (though her memory doesn’t stop him from sleeping with all his female clients); when you get right down to it, the guy is a “Jaded Noir Detective” straight out of the kit.

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… But of course, if you can just get Mike Mignola to draw him, you can make ANY character look interesting!

Oh, but that’s not all. Because for our hero’s right-hand-man/comedy-relief sidekick, Dylan is saddled with Groucho—a Groucho Marx impersonator who stays in-character 24-7, doling out one-liners and hitting on women.

… Y’know, it takes either a shocking lack of creativity or an impressive abundance of chutzpah to decide that you need a “comedy relief” character in your comic, and opt to just slot in one of the most famous f%$#ing comedians in the WORLD without even bothering to change his NAME.

Groucho and Marx
“I don’t want to belong to any comic book that would have ME as a character!”

Nevertheless, the series became a big hit domestically and internationally—currently sitting as the second-best-selling comic series from Italy. It would go on to be adapted into a feature film—kinda—in 1994’s Italian/French/German co-produced film, Cemetery Man, starring Rupert Everett (who was the original inspiration for the look of Dylan Dog)… but this was a pretty loose adaptation, based more on Sclavi’s novel Dellamorte Dellamore than on the Dylan Dog comic books; it didn’t make much of a splash outside Europe. And despite the release of English-translated reprints of the original Sclavi books through Dark Horse Comics, Dylan Dog has remained a fairly unknown quantity to American readers. What the character really needed was a big Hollywood production to introduce him to U.S. audiences in style!

… He didn’t get that.

Instead, independent studios Hyde Park Entertainment and Platinum Studios got their hands on the rights in the late 2000s—hiring writing duo Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer (authors of the Matthew McConaughey flop Sahara and the mediocre A Sound of Thunder adaptation) to bash out a script. To direct, they tapped Kevin Munroe—an animation-oriented filmmaker whose sole previous feature directing credit was for the sloppy, unfocused C.G.I. TMNT movie from 20071.

TMNT
Admittedly, I would much rather be watching THAT movie.

And as for Dylan? Well, he would be played by the Man of Steel himself: Brandon Routh.

Six years out from Superman Returns, it had become very clear that Warner Bros. had no interest in moving ahead with a sequel to Bryan Singer’s nostalgia-drunk folly. Routh’s contract to play Superman had expired in 2009, and he’d managed to get by stringing together piecemeal work since then. He’d had a small role in Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (as gay male porn star “Bobby Long”); he played a villain on the spy TV series Chuck2; and best of all, he played Ramona Flowers’ superpowered vegan ex-boyfriend Todd Ingram in Edgar Wright’s hilarious Scott Pilgrim vs. The World3. But while he was working steadily, his film career wasn’t exactly taking off like he might have hoped (no pun intended). Routh needed a leading role again… so Dylan Dog: Dead of Night seemed to be the answer to his prayers.

… And, well, as long as his prayers were just to keep the lights on for a couple more months, then yeah, sure—I guess it was.

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Even movie stars have to work the crap jobs every once in a while.

IN THIS ISSUE: Regurgitated genre film tropes and outright stolen world-building, all delivered in an overly smug “action comedy” package that thinks it’s smarter than it is. This feels like a freaking student film.

A shockingly cheap production, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night gives the impression that Hyde Park and Platinum Studios weren’t interested in what the Dylan Dog character WAS… but rather what he was similar to. The film plays like an Asylum4 knock-off of Constantine—featuring a jaded and out-of-practice supernatural detective; his sarcastic, babbling, pageboy-cap-wearing youthful sidekick (yes, because they couldn’t legally use Groucho, they instead turn poor Sam Huntington into a dime-store Shia LaBeouf); and a cynical everywoman that the hero can explain all the details of the world to (and who ends up having more of a connection to the plot than it initially seems). Both films revolve around tracking down an ancient, stabby MacGuffin that will unleash some unstoppable supernatural evil and kick-start an apocalypse; both of them include the shocking reveal that one of the hero’s associates is actually an enemy; and for some friggin’ reason, both of them star Peter Stormare.

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The man will not say “no” to a paycheck, apparently.

For a supposedly “direct” adaptation, the script takes a number of liberties with the Dylan Dog canon—moving the story from London to New Orleans, swapping out sidekicks, etc. But most egregiously, it fabricates an entire half-baked mythology about vampires, werewolves, and zombies all living in secret alongside society. The Dylan Dog comics always treated the monstrous creatures as horrifying; genuine terrors, even if we’re familiar with them from fright films. But the movie pushes a post-modern deconstructionist take, turning them into insular minority groups just trying to live their lives (aside from a few bad apples). There’s some chintzy allegory thrown in: vampires are wealthy elitists, werewolves are blue-collar business owners, and zombies are scummy, classless schmucks who eat garbage and openly acknowledge their own cowardice and uselessness (y’know, I don’t think I care for the class messaging going on here).

A lot of the ideas are lifted wholesale from Buffy and Angel, Blade, Underworld… I wouldn’t call it theft, so much as it feels like an overzealous teenager trying to be creative and instead just parroting out ideas from things he already likes. And through this world cuts Dylan: jaded, sardonic, formerly a respected authority among the undead, but now a disgraced independent operator whose deep ties to the community put him in greater danger more often than not.

(sigh)… So here’s where we have to talk about Brandon Routh again.

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I feel like I’m just kicking a puppy at this point.

Look… I DO like Brandon Routh, alright? I said it in my Superman Returns review, and I’ll say it here. He seems like a cool guy! But in almost every conceivable way, he is the wrong guy to play Dylan Dog… and especially THIS Dylan Dog. Because this film keeps coming back to the subject of his history—how he once protected the undead, how he was good friends with Peter Stormare’s Gabriel, how he turned away from his supernatural duties long ago (so long ago that his handbag is covered in dust when he goes to retrieve it, and his best friend/partner didn’t even KNOW about his former occupation). The screenwriters have effectively written Dylan Dog as an older character: someone who’s had time to see the world, grow deep roots, and then turn away from it all when tragedy strikes and put together a whole new life. Bitter, world-weary… by all rights, Dylan should be in his forties at least.

… Brandon Routh was only 32 when they shot this.

The guy looks ridiculous trying to muster gravitas and hard-boiled authority while standing there with a baby face and mussed-up hair; poor Brandon looks like he just graduated college. Worse still, Routh himself is very much a goofy, clean-cut guy—he just EXUDES wholesomeness (there’s a reason he got cast as Superman, after all). And while I wish I could say that he was a talented enough actor to play a part so contrary to his basic nature… yeeeeeah, he’s no Brando. During the funny beats, Routh’s Dylan is charming and relatively likeable; but any time the script tries to get serious, it’s like watching Ray Palmer cosplay as John Constantine. You just don’t buy it.

It’s a precedent that echoes through the rest of the film.

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When I said this looked like a student film, I meant literally everyone in it looks like they’re fresh outta high school.

Routh isn’t the only Superman Returns alum cashing a check in this, though! Sam Huntington—the erstwhile Jimmy Olsen—is on hand as Marcus, Dylan’s gofer/sidekick/comic relief. Initially he’s just a sarcastic assistant: cajoling Dylan to switch to digital cameras over film and pushing him to take bigger, more glamorous cases. But then a third of the way through the movie, he’s killed and comes back as a zombie—and so the rest of his time is filled with jokes about him coping with his zombie-hood, staunchly refusing to eat the bugs and worms which are the only thing he can stomach now, and hysterically panicking and screaming at every single danger they stumble across (he quickly goes from being Shia LaBeouf in Constantine to being Shia LaBeouf in the Transformer films). His repartee with Dylan is fairly amusing5, but his babbling improvisations quickly become grating. Still, I suppose it’s better than giving Dylan a Groucho Marx impersonator to pal around with… (NO, I AM NOT GETTING OVER THAT.)

Though the film is essentially a mystery, we are given a pretty clear bad guy early on in the form of vampire club-owner/drug dealer Vargas, played by Taye Diggs (Equilibrium, for f%$#’s sake). Diggs plays just about the most casual and laid-back evil mastermind I’ve ever seen in a film, never even seeming to take his own plans seriously and generally failing to intimidate anybody (“The human race is obsolete, y’all!”). He’s the Deacon Frost to Dylan’s Blade—we even learn that Vargas was the vampire who killed Dylan’s fiancée, even though that has no bearing on the plot whatsoever—but with none of Stephen Dorff’s menace or viciousness. And hell, he doesn’t even turn out to be the main antagonist; in the end, Vargas is revealed to be a pawn in someone else’s game.

But when it comes to insultingly bad characterization, the buck absolutely stops with Anita Briem as Elizabeth Ryan, our female lead (and the ONLY major female role in the film).

Anita Briem
Behold the face of mediocrity!

Elizabeth is the catalyst for the whole plot. When her wealthy father gets killed by a werewolf, she seeks out Dylan Dog (since he’s the one investigator who would actually BELIEVE her) and drags him back into the game. Turns out the killer also stole a cross-shaped dagger called the Heart of Belial, a relic her father had smuggled into the country. Supposedly, when you stab an undead creature with the Heart, it transforms them into an unstoppable demon (who follows the commands of whoever did the stabbing) and could potentially lay waste to the world. So Dylan has to protect the girl from monsters trying to find the Heart, and also track it down himself to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Pretty standard stuff.

Now, for the first two-thirds of the film, Elizabeth is a textbook damsel in distress. She repeatedly screams for Dylan to save her anytime something jumps out to attack, listens passively as he blurts out pages of expository dialogue, and, inevitably, sleeps with him (despite the fact that they have ZERO romantic chemistry together). Other than that, she contributes nothing to the film, often standing around awkwardly or waiting in the car while Dylan talks with more plot-critical characters. (Well, okay, she does develop a somewhat cute friendship with Marcus… but it’s only there to justify Marcus explaining Dylan’s backstory and psychology to us.) She’s dead weight.

But then, at the start of act three, something amazing happens: Elizabeth is revealed to be a Monster Hunter!

Monster Hunter
… No, not that kind.

What is a Monster Hunter, you may ask (as if the name didn’t quite give it away)? Well, they are a feared and hated sect of religious fanatics who have dedicated themselves to eradicating all of undead-kind. They are brought up REPEATEDLY throughout the film as a terrible boogeyman that all the monsters are afraid of, yet we never actually SEE them—so it’s easy enough to pick up on that particular Chekhov’s Gun being cocked. But the reveal that Elizabeth is one of them—and that she plans to use the Heart of Belial to eradicate all monsters from the face of the Earth—is actually pretty clever! It bumps the character’s importance WAY up, revealing her to be the main villain behind everything and reframing her earlier uselessness as a ruse to fool her enemies into underestimating her. It’s a solid surprise!

Too bad the film completely whiffs on the follow-through.

See, we’re never given a reason why Elizabeth chooses to be a Monster Hunter. She was one even before her father’s death, so there’s no family tragedy to explain her zealousness… and she’s literally spent the entire film being lectured on how monsters are just people trying to live their lives in peace. Yet by the end of the movie, not only is she revealed to be a serious monster bigot, but she’s willing to go as far as genocide to rid the world of all undead creatures. Despite her experiences, she’s completely uncritical of the ideology.

So… she’s got to be some sort of a crazy, sociopathic extremist, yeah? Hell bent on defending the world from monsters, no matter the cost! Except… by the end of the film, she still doesn’t want to kill Dylan OR Marcus (despite him being a zombie), and keeps trying to get them to back down from a fight. That’s pretty wishy-washy for a hardcore extremist. Heck, it’s irrational, capricious, and inconsistent… and oh sweet Christ, I just remembered that this is the ONLY FEMALE CHARACTER IN THE MOVIE (who isn’t an angelic dead fiancée), and I’m starting to see where the bent of the screenplay is going…

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Hint: it rhymes with “rampant diss-ogyny”.

Sure enough, Elizabeth ends up commanding Belial to leave Dylan and Marcus alone… and Belial, a creature who we’re explicitly told HAS to follow the orders of his master, SAYS NO—grabbing her by the neck and flinging her into a wall. After all, why should the burly, muscle-bound, macho super-demon have to listen to the 98-pound blonde waif? Even if that waif happens to exert total supernatural control over him? It’s not like we could ever expect a girl to wield any kind of commanding authority!

Elizabeth is, at her core, an anti-feminist strawman. She’s an ineffectual cipher who defers to men even when she’s capable of solving problems herself (why DID she call in Dylan if she already knew about werewolves and vampires and such?), whose entire worldview was molded by men (her father was a Monster Hunter too), who can’t be trusted to wield any kind of power authoritatively, and who lacks the conviction to actually follow through on her ideology. Even when she succeeds in executing her master plan, the film paints her as frightened and weak-willed. It’s genuinely infuriating.

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Which is just about the only actual emotion this movie has coaxed out of me.

So the climax sets up two really interesting conflicts: “will Elizabeth choose to kill Dylan & Marcus so that she can destroy the undead”, and “will Dylan choose to kill Elizabeth in order to stop Belial” (supposedly the only way to put an end to the monster once it’s summoned). Surprise, surprise: it completely chickens out on BOTH of them.

Elizabeth loses control of Belial (for some reason *cough*MACHO BULLSH*T*cough*), completely absolving her of any moral responsibility in Belial attacking Dylan… and then, when Elizabeth runs from the battle6, she’s confronted by a totally random group of vampires and werewolves, who call her out for being a hate-mongering genocidal bigot, and then attack and kill her with NO INPUT FROM DYLAN WHATSOEVER. In the end, neither the hero nor the main villain take any actions that directly effect the outcome of the story; the most Dylan does to “save the world” is get the crap kicked out of him, which upsets Elizabeth enough to stumble off into her own arbitrary death. He never has to choose between her and the lives of the innocent undead—never directly confronts the fact that he actually cares about protecting them more than he does about his own personal happiness.  The SET-UP is there, but he never takes the action to make the message clear. As a result, it doesn’t feel like Dylan LEARNED anything from all this. He decides to get back into the monster-detection game, sure, but that doesn’t play as a character change so much as a “well, what the hell else am I gonna do?” moment.

No one makes any choices, no one learns, no one grows—the ending is completely MEANINGLESS.

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And worst of all, Dylan only plays his trademark clarinet once. ONCE!

IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Oh, please. What little this movie manages to get right has been done far better elsewhere. It’s derivative, dull, hokey, occasionally outright offensive… the only reason to even CONSIDER it is if you’re a Brandon Routh stan. And even then, this is hardly the man’s finest hour.

Todd Ingram
Not. Even. Close.

DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.05 (RUN!!!)

FAVORITE BITS:

  1. Dylan’s Stupid Aphorisms: So unfortunately for all involved, the movie features voice-over narration from Dylan throughout (which feels about as out-of-place and half-assed as the one from the theatrical cut of Blade Runner). And because this is supposed to be a cheeky deconstruction, they repeatedly stick Dylan with these groan-worthy joke sayings, like

    You know what they say about hindsight: it’ll screw you every time”

    and

    But you know what they say about werewolf hair: it never lies.

    … This is the level of humor we’re working with here, folks.

  2. The Body Shop: There’s a lot of kitschy zombie world-building in this movie—zombie support groups, zombie fast food, etc.—but the most striking bit comes when Dylan takes a newly-resurrected Marcus to buy a new arm from the Body Shop. See, out in a warehouse on the outskirts of town, there’s a store where zombies can buy replacement parts for themselves… and it’s literally just an open showroom with body parts scattered across standard display shelves. No refrigeration units or freezers… just rotting body parts sitting out at room temperature, for customers to pick up and examine. It’s just about the single stupidest thing in a movie FULL of stupid things.7 (And not helping matters is that the “body part” props look about a half-step up from Spirit Halloween surplus inventory…)
  3. Someone Ate Their Spinach Today…: I’m not a great one for picking out when a film switches between an actor and a stunt-person between shots (hell, I try my best NOT to pay attention to those things), but it was impossible for me not to notice this: when Elizabeth reveals herself as a Monster Hunter to Vargas, it becomes really obvious whenever the camera is behind her that the character has suddenly put on 20 pounds of pure muscle between cuts. I mean, all of a sudden, she is just JACKED:
    JACKED
  4. Shot Through the Heart: During an investigation of a dead vampire’s apartment (where they discover that he had a coffin with a stereo system, TV set-up, and laptop workstation built into it), Marcus’s stomach growls, and when Dylan tells him he needs to eat worms, Marcus goes into a rant denying the possibility that he could be a zombie. Exasperated, Dylan pulls out his revolver, cocks it, and shoots Marcus point-blank in the chest (which barely causes Marcus to flinch). There’s a moment or two of stunned silence, and then Marcus WAILS, sobbing that Dylan shot him and asking how could he… and then he winds down and mutters “… Why didn’t I feel that?” It’s not much, but it’s one of the funny beats that actually landed with me!
  5. Chonky Monster Suits!: One thing I have to hand to the filmmakers: their commitment to practical monster make-ups and suits is admirable8! Halfway through the film, we’re introduced to a giant, muscular flesh-eating zombie that looks like something out of one of the Hellboy movies (just a big grey muscle suit with arm extensions and a vaguely simian gait). Then, at the END of the film, we see Belial—first as a basic make-up and padded suit on Taye Diggs, THEN as an elaborate and enormous muscle suit/prosthetic on what I assume is a stuntman. But the proportions on the final Belial suit are a little weird… I don’t think director Kevin Munroe was supposed to shoot him from the side or behind, because he looks THICC in ways that don’t exactly terrify and intimidate.
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Lookit dis chonker! His arms are so tiny!

NEXT ISSUE: Alright, Halloween has been fun… but next time, I’m going to talk about something REALLY scary: namely, Adrienne Palicki’s performance as the title character in David E. Kelley’s failed 2011 TV pilot, Wonder Woman! (*shudders*)