On a dark and stormy night in Gotham City the inmates of Arkham Asylum are playing bingo (!), when one gabby resident shares a secret with the Penguin (voiced by Tom Kenny, Spongebob Squarepants himself). There is a stash of stolen money hidden in a crypt somewhere at Gotham cemetery. Unfortunately the Joker (Kevin Michael Richardson) knows about this too. Both villains break out of Arkham to seek the loot. Naturally Batman (Rino Romano) sets after the Joker who seemingly dies after falling in the river and accidentally electrocuting himself with his own buzzer. The Penguin however manages to sneak into the crypt where he finds not treasure but a dusty old tomb housing none other than the king of vampires, Count Dracula (Peter Stormare). Blah!
Since Bram Stoker's literary creation is in the public domain both Marvel and DC comics were able to produce their own interpretations of the iconic bloodsucker. Marvel's version headlined his own very successful comic book Tomb of Dracula co-created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan that reached the screen in the form of the eccentric Japanese anime film Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned (1980). DC on the other hand gave readers the fight they had been waiting for with Batman & Dracula: Red Rain, an out-of-continuity Elseworlds story. Interestingly DC were not the first to pit the caped crusader against the king of vampires. That honour goes to Andy Warhol. As the preeminent pop artist of the era it seems natural that Warhol was fascinated with these two iconic characters. What is more the campy tone of Warhol's underground effort Batman Dracula (1964), now widely believed to be a lost film, supposedly influenced the tone of the Sixties Batman TV show. At the height of global Bat-hysteria generated by that series the Philippines gave us Batman Fights Dracula (1967), making DC look seriously behind the curve given Red Rain did not come out till 1991. Alas, in the wake of the second wave of global Bat-hysteria sparked by Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and the Count's return in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) no-one thought to pit Michael Keaton against Gary Oldman in what would have surely made a better Bat-sequel than Batman Forever (1995).
Written by Doug Moench with art by Kelley Jones and Malcom Jones III, Batman: Red Rain sired two sequels and 'inspired' this made-for-TV animated film although Duane Capizzi's screenplay uses no elements from the comic. The Batman vs. Dracula is also unrelated to the Bat-verse sired by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's superb, fan-and-critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series that spawned its own line of animated films (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman: Sub-Zero (1998) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003)) but is instead spun-off from the 2004 cartoon show titled simply The Batman. The latter show has its fans and won several Emmy awards but arguably remains inferior to the strikingly cinematic Dini-Timm series. Nonetheless The Batman vs. Dracula ranks among the high quality Batman animated films released by Warner Brothers. While recognizable the characters are noticeably different. Batman remains, well, Batman but the film presents a more boyish and vulnerable Bruce Wayne. We also have a ginger Penguin along with a shaggy-haired, husky-voiced Joker who sounds noticeably African-American.
Gone is the atmospheric retro-Forties art-deco look favoured by Dini and Timm replaced with a supposedly 'edgier' style closer to regular Saturday morning cartoon fare but, like the synth and rock guitar score, likely to date poorly. Though the film feels less cinematic than Batman's past animated adventures fluid animation delivers some arresting sequences. In particular Dracula's revival and several vampire attacks are staged with a gothic zest comparable to a Hammer horror with Eighties special effects. Capizzi merges the worlds of Batman and Bram Stoker pretty well and even interweaves J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla into the plot as the undead bride Dracula longs to revive. The plot neatly contrasts his undead passion with the toll taken on Batman's burgeoning romance with ace reporter Vicky Vale (Tara Strong, voice actress extraordinaire, formerly Batgirl on the Dini-Timm series), making her first appearance in a Batman cartoon. With Penguin serving as his new Renfield, the Count infiltrates a society ball thrown by, who else, Bruce Wayne, adopting the familiar nom de plum of Alucard (it takes the world's greatest detective a surprisingly long time to see through this hackneyed alias). Predictably Dracula sets his sights on filling Gotham with his vampire minions and ravishing Vicky. In a refreshing change for once the heroine proves immune to Dracula's animal magnetism although Vicky still ends up the damsel in distress.
Some of the humour is cheesy and juvenile (when told Dracula is undead Penguin quips "I need to unwet my pants"; later at the party Dracula recoils from the hors d'oeuvre tray of garlic shrimp) but Capizzi exhibits a keen insight into the psychology of both leads. Early on Alfred (Alastair Duncan) remarks he is relieved to see Bruce take a romantic interest in Vicky Vale since he feared he was more interested in masked madmen than women. There is a homoerotic tinge to the mutual fascination that unfolds between Batman and Dracula that might be closer to Fright Night (1985) than Bram Stoker explores some interesting themes. While Batman struggles to rationalize the supernatural, Dracula is intrigued by his opponent and dares to suggest the hero has adopted his mantle. A neat twist expands this idea as the media foolishly deduce Batman is behind the vampire attacks, whereupon Vicky observes the harder Batman fights to protect Gotham, the more ordinary citizens come to fear him as much as criminals do. The city fears him as the son of Dracula whose legacy threatens to swallow his own. Even so in contrast to many recent comics, to say nothing of the homicidal Dark Knight presented in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), here we have a caped crusader driven to protect life to the point where he even goes out of his way to save the Joker.
It is cool enough to see Batman fight vampires but The Batman vs. Dracula throws in a number of neat visual flourishes including x-ray vision of pulsating red organs that denote the turning of an ordinary Gothamite into vampire. Though the supporting players are hit and miss Rino Romano and veteran villain Peter Stormare are a very evocative Batman and Dracula and Tara Strong's sexy voice results in a most alluring Vicky Vale. Events build to a satisfying finale that underlines, whether facing living criminals or the undead, Batman is a badass.