That’s funny, she doesn’t look vampirish.
Vampire Princess, courtesy of the Smithsonian Channel, is an hour-long documentary that posits the true inspiration for Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel Dracula was not some dude named Vlad the Impaler, but, instead, a female aristocrat who died about 150 years before the novel was written.
The story begins in the present, in the town of Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, where construction workers stumbled upon a centuries-old grave, in which three skeletons were ritualistically mutilated and buried in a strange way. Archeologists were called in, and one expert, historian Rainer Koppl, figures it out. The grave dates back to 1741, at the time of the death of a local aristocrat, Eleonore Schwarzenberg—also a time when the country was caught up in hysteria over vampires. From there, we follow Koppl as he connects the dots from Schwarzenberg’s tragic life to vampire folklore to Stoker’s novel.
The filmmakers try very hard to be spooky, but the truth is this is more of a historical oddity than a tale of scream-inducing terror. Still, that’s OK with me. I’ve always felt the most interesting parts of history aren’t the big, nation-changing moments, but the smaller things, the curious little details. These types of oddities are everywhere in Vampire Princess. There’s an up-close look at how suspected vampires were buried to prevent rising from the grave—it’s a lot more involved than just the stake through the chest. There’s a look at medical practices at the time, which combined genuine science with mysticism. This is followed by discussion of detailed records of a 1741 autopsy, and reading between the lines as to what wasn’t included in the records and why. Also notable are revelations from an unpublished alternate first chapter of Stoker’s Dracula. This is all tied to one woman’s life, with an emphasis on her declining health in her later years.
The filmmakers beef up the interview footage and archeological digs with recreations of scenes from Schwarzenberg’s life. This is where the supposed-to-be-scary stuff is, depicting frightened villagers digging up and burning corpses for fear of vampires, and Schwarzenberg’s fascination with wolves, which she believed would help her bear a son. Actress Silvia Hladky is quite good as Schwarzenberg, especially considering she has no lines, with the recreation footage relying on narration. With just her facial expressions, Hladky brings Schwarzenberg to life, her eyes conveying years of sadness.
It’s all some interesting food (blood?) for thought, but the documentary does make a few missteps along the way. You know how in some documentaries, they’ll do that thing where a person starts talking in his or her native language for a few seconds, and then the English dubbing kicks in? This one does that too. I would have preferred to hear the interviewees speak with their own voices with subtitles. And, as already noted above, the super-scary recreations look pretty, but they’re not the horror movie thrills that the packaging claims them to be.
The movie looks good in widescreen and it sounds even better in 5.1 surround, especially when some well-timed thunder strikes are heard. Click on “More” with your remote, and you get to watch what feels like several hundred trailers for other Smithsonian Network programs.
There you have it—a lightweight-but-still-interesting documentary mixing vampire myths with a gloomy true story. Give it a rental.