For the last few weeks I have pretty much abandoned the plan I had to up the importance level of the films I did review. I had decided to focus more on the cinematic masterpieces and artistically unique/interesting. Today will not be the day that I change that. I’m carrying right along with the big silly fantasy and sci-fi nonsense with Dylan Dog: Dead of Night starring the George Lazenby of Superman films, Brandon Routh. Maybe soon I’ll cover a more important film. I make no promises though. That said, I’ll be doing the Godzilla films soon so… well, the first is important… that counts, right? Click the link below.
Dylan Dog is based on the Italian comic series (by Tiziano Sclavi) of the same name about a paranormal investigator who works to help the undead population of London. In the comics Dylan is an idiosyncratic and extremely self aware oddball who lives with his friend Groucho, a man who believes he actually is Groucho Marx. In this film Dylan Dog (Brandon Routh) is a formal paranormal investigator living in New Orleans with he friend Marcus (Sam Huntington) and together they work as private investigators. Now, there’s a few changes to the premise here but a number of elements remain the same. Dylan’s wife Cassandra is dead, as she was in the comics, which is the reason for Dylan’s withdrawal from his paranormal investigation duties. The setting and his partner may be vastly different but for an adaptation this isn’t too much of a misstep. Obviously getting the rights to use Groucho Marx image would have been tricky, and likely wasn’t even considered, and the change in setting is understandable as this is being adapted for US audiences. The film begins to veer wildly away from the comics in terms of it’s tone and content though.
In the comics Dylan is impossibly eccentric. His doorbell screams. He refuses to use a computer, instead writing all correspondence with an quill and inkpot. In the film Dylan has a few eccentric touches, his black jacket, red shirt and blue jeans ensemble remain, but he’s largely played straight. The comics have a dark, melancholic tone whilst the film is more of a horror adventure with a black humour tone running through it that veers away from the surrealism of the comics. The tonal shift does suit the film that has been made though. Dylan’s partner Marcus is soon killed off and later returns as a zombie. This does allow for an introduction to the zombie characters, who are really just rotting versions of us, but he really just serves as being a comedic relief for Routh’s deadpan Dylan.
The exceptionally deadpan nature of Routh’s delivery is a fairly substantial part of the problems with this film. Routh is not incapable of comedy. He’s actually pretty excellent at being the comedic fool but it appears that here he was told to play it straight all the time. As a result he’s so concerned with maintaining a tone that his delivery of the more jokey lines, especially during his narration, often fall flat. It’s a shame because Routh is not a bad actor. He has that knack of working in smaller inflections to his performance that similar actors will often miss. Just watch him playing bumbling Clark Kent in Superman Returns or his little looks and motions as Todd Ingram in Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I’m not saying he’s Marlon Brando, but he’s not clueless to his craft. If his character had been allowed to have been depicted as being more quick witted, prone to odd turns of phrase and given a few more obvious quirks the character of Marcus could have been toned down a little to create a tonal equilibrium that the film lacks.
Dylan is brought out of retirement by Elizabeth (Anita Briem) who’s father was recently murdered in an unusual manner. That being a large bite from a werewolf. Obviously this can’t just be a film about finding a killer werewolf, that’s not enough these days. This has to also involve drug peddling vampires, the previously mentioned zombies, a super zombie and an ancient demonic creature. In the right hands this amount of variety of character groups can be managed well enough, Monster Squad being a fine example. Here the film is so concerned with jumping about between each group and the various sides of their world that the plot progression comes under risk of being lost. For me there was quite a few moments where it was. This is because we’ll have a scene where Dylan realises that who he should go to next but then the story goes elsewhere and we pick up with Dylan later. There’s also Marcus’ sub-plot involving him coming to terms with his new zombie status, even joining a zombie support group within which, in the space of the first few minutes of the meeting, he has a revelation that zombies can be heroes despite the insistence of the group that they’re all cowards.
Almost every location appears to get used at least twice, sometimes for near similar purposes, which leads to the film having a problem with it’s forward momentum. When we’ve already seen the vampire nightclub and seen how they sell their blood as a drug, which is all narrated by Dylan, do we need another scene later where he goes back there and explains how they sell their drugs again? Whilst he is at the club we learn exactly what he did that led to him quitting the paranormal investigation business. Two scenes later that revelation is repeated at his apartment. There are various narrative problems throughout the film like these. It shows a little bit of an ineptitude in storytelling from Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer. Based on their previous writing credits I’d say that’s pretty much the norm. If you need anymore evidence of their lack of understanding of storytelling the finale not only involves a deus ex machina but it’s not ironic or played for laughs and neither Dylan or Marcus have any part in saving the day. A protagonist is meant to put into action the events that lead to saving the day. A protagonist must be proactive. The extent of Dylan’s proactivity in the final scenes consists of him proactivly placing his face in front of the villain’s fists. This is a shame because throughout the rest of the film Dylan is strongly focused on defeating the villain. The reason for the lack of proactivity is literally because the writer’s penned the final scenes without giving Dylan any sort of plan.
The bigger shame, perhaps, is that this film could have been so close to being something quite fun. Maybe even special. The world is a rich one that is dense with a variety of characters and small details that could have been an excellent foundation for a much better film. The world reminds me a lot of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. An influence from the Hellboy films must have been in director Kevin Munroe’s mind. This is the only live action film Munroe has made. It’s actually the first project he’s directed that wasn’t created inside a computer having previously worked on the TMNT animated film, which also had narrative issues, and a mostly forgotten video game called Freaky Fliers. His use of colour and camera cranes shows a mind that thinks outside the realms of standard cinematic visuals. Whilst the film does look colourful and texture, it has quite a few moments where it feels a lot like a fairly high budget TV show. It actually looked a lot like shows such as Arrow to me.
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night is a missed opportunity then. It is deeply flawed and, at times, an unmitigated failure at what it is attempting. But there is also a few glimmers of actual quality. The world, the majority of the camera work and the few moments where Routh gets to show a little personality are all moments that remind you of the potential quality film this could have been. There is another film based on the Dylan Dog world called Dellamorte Dellamore, or Cemetery Man in the US. It doesn’t feature the Dylan Dog character though. I’ve never seen it but the promise of the universe does make me think I’ll have to correct that son. There is a good story in this world somewhere, I just suspect that it may be confined to the comic books and not the films.