When it hit US theaters this past April, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night made no impact at the box office. It is in fact one of the worst flops of 2011.
This may sound mean, but a large part of the failure rests on the shoulders of the film’s star, Brandon Routh (Superman Returns). The character Dylan Dog, the story is based on an Italian comic book by the way, is a supernatural detective, not unlike the main character in Jim Butcher’s series of novels The Dresden Files. Think a hardboiled P.I. who tracks down werewolves and vampires instead of cheating husbands.
While Routh certainly has an imposing physical presence, a necessary trait for a profession that involves occasional hand-to-hand combat with a monster, his baby face and leaden delivery make it difficult to take him seriously in the role of a detective who has been through the ringer. Routh looks like an overgrown teenager, and his acting in this movie has one note: flat. Whether talking about his dead wife, cracking wise with his undead partner, or discussing the impending end of the world, there is absolutely no inflection in his voice or variation in his tone. He is dull and bland when his character is supposed to be tortured and wounded.
Like I said, it’s largely Routh’s fault. I doubt Dead of Night would have even been a great horror film, but different casting could have helped. However, there are other issues to contend with. Dylan’s stomping ground is New Orleans, and the film does it’s level best to completely minimize the role of the city. New Orleans is the creepiest, coolest, most unique city in the US, and instead of exploiting that fact for both the horror and detective elements of the story, Dylan Dog turns the city into a day-glo playground where everything, even dingy apartments and dark alleyways, is well-lit, neon-tinged, and tidy. All of the character of the city, even scenes in a gothic cemetery, is stripped away.
This is too bad, because the whole thing is actually a fantastic idea with an interesting story. Dylan was once the only human trusted by the secret world of the undead that exists unseen by human society—a world that includes vampires, werewolves, zombies and more, who all just want to go about their shadowy business and be left alone. His job was to keep the peace in that world when one of the monsters would cross the line, and help keep the hidden realm hidden. When his fiancé winds up dead, a story that unravels as the film progresses, he walks away, burning bridges in the process, and turns to more mundane, pedestrian cases.
When a werewolf murders Elizabeth Ryan’s (Anita Briem) importer father, she finds Dylan, and after his partner, Marcus (Sam Huntington), is killed by a zombie in the course of the investigation, Dylan is compelled to revisit haunts and contacts from his old life. Just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in. So Dylan has to find a killer monster, quell an overacting werewolf (Peter Stormare), and contend with a power-hungry vampire (Taye Diggs) who sells vampire blood to humans as a hot new drug. There is a forced romantic entanglement near the end, but luckily not much time is wasted pursuing that thread.
The world building is thorough and well thought out. Tiziano Sclavi, creator of the comic, and screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly and Jesse Oppenheimer, definitely include enough details to make the scenario believable. It’s a world where telling a werewolf that, “You hit like a vampire”, is an insult. And we all know what happens when a zombie bites you, don’t we? So Marcus wakes up after a while, but it turns out death isn’t the impediment it once was. Sure he’s slowly rotting, but there are “body shops” where the undead can go get new parts; and he has strange new appetites, but there are zombie support groups to help him cope, so it isn’t all that bad.
This are the kind of minutiae that rounds out the world of Dylan Dog. Unfortunately the information is doled out in a heavy-handed manner. Everything is said twice, and Dylan’s unnecessary voice-over is just that, unnecessary, and it feels like the film is talking down to you. The narrations tells you things instead of letting you witness and interpret for yourself, which is a mistake you learn to avoid on the first day of an undergraduate composition class.
At a conceptual level, the film is a fresh, interesting take on both horror and detective stories, however, it’s not executed particularly well in any capacity. The monsters look terrible—the werewolves resemble Halloween costumes, the vampires look like Buffy leftovers, and the giant zombie could be a remnant from Resident Evil. The relationships are hollow, the acting—with the exception of Huntington, who is having a blast—is seriously off, and Dylan Dog: Dead of Night is ultimately empty and devoid of much substance.
Now on DVD, the home video release feels about the same, and comes with nothing but the movie. Even visually it disappoints. There are times when you can tell director Kevin Munroe and crew were trying to give the frames a stylized look, like in the comic, but the transfer simply looks dim and muddy.