by Matt McKenna
There was a time when American football was played without helmets, and there was a time when Dracula's best trick involved opening doors with his mind. Since those early days, however, both American football and the Dracula films have taken a turn for the extreme, and their body counts have increased as a result. That's not to say the days of yore were without death: football killed nineteen college athletes in 1905 and the Dracula character murdered a literal boatload of people in 1922's Nosferatu. But both the NFL and the Dracula films have clearly dialed up their intensity in the past decade to the detriment of both players' health and horror audiences' entertainment. It is therefore no surprise that these two institutions have become reflections of each other, entangled particles reacting in tandem to the pressure of consumerism that demands more/bigger/louder of everything upon that which it fixates. Indeed, the latest Dracula film, Dracula Untold, is a clear metaphor for the modern day NFL, an undead sports league that stalks the entertainment landscape leaving not two puncture wounds on the necks of its victims but rather chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the rattled brains of its players. Though the league currently has over a hundred million viewers in the United States, one has to wonder if football's dire health risks and the NFL's byzantine rules designed to protect players will eventually lead to the sport's eventual irrelevance in the same way that Dracula Untold's absurd death toll and convoluted mythology makes the film unwatchable.
The first on-screen appearance of Dracula in the 1922 silent German film Nosferatu technically wasn't an appearance by Dracula at all–the vampire was renamed Count Orlok in an attempt to avoid copyright infringement after the producers were unable to secure the rights to Bram Stoker's novel. But whatever. Dracula's/Count Orlok's powers are few and mainly limited to telekinetically opening and shutting things like doors and coffin lids–a cool trick for sure, but nothing compared to titular Transylvanian's abilities in Dracula Untold. Not satisfied with merely controlling doorways or converting the innocent living into the vile undead, the latest iteration of Dracula can summon the entirety of the planet's bats and hurl them at invading armies like an ICBM from an aircraft carrier. He also possesses a set of powers similar to Superman's including incredible strength, speed, endurance, flight, and so forth. That said, there are a few downsides to being a vampire in the Dracula Untold universe, mainly having to do with the fiending for human blood and the inability to go outside on a sunny day. Tradeoffs.
While this new Dracula certainly appears to be something akin to Nosferatu-on-steroids, modern defensive linemen in the NFL are occasionally actually on steroids and just as upgraded compared to their own counterparts in previous eras. When the NFL was just getting started during the Roaring Twenties, the average defensive lineman weighed in at around 190 pounds. Now in 2014, the average defensive lineman has beefed up to around 300 pounds. While these enormous athletes may not be able to crush armies with their extra weight, they can certainly crush quarterbacks, leading to a more violent game whose rules have had to adapt to account for the subsequent injuries and potential for long term brain damage incurred by the increased force of collisions between players.
The rules around professional American football, like the rules around the Dracula character, started out simple enough. Tackling the quarterback, for example, was a lot less complicated when the NFL began. It's difficult to locate the exact rules from the NFL's inaugural season, but it appears as if a defensive player could tackle the quarterback however he wanted, practically whenever he wanted. In 1938, however, a “roughing the passer” penalty was instituted to protect the quarterback after he throws the football. In 1979, the “unnecessary roughness” penalty made it illegal for a defensive player to slam into a quarterback with his helmet. From there, the rules only expanded: Since 1985, a quarterback can't be hit by the defense while he slides to the ground; since 1989, a quarterback can't be hit below the knees; since 1995, a “defenseless” quarterback can't be hit at all; and since 2011, it has been illegal for a defensive player to hit a quarterback at any time during a change of possession. The sum of all these rules is that the defense may only tackle the quarterback between the knees and shoulders, and then only some of the time. These are all fantastic rules for the health of the quarterback and general human compassion, but is it really football? Or has football become so complicated that it's less of a ball game played by athletes, and more of a rules game played by referees?
Dracula Untold comments on this plethora of new rules in the NFL by creating a few of its own to compensate for Dracula's improved skill set. For one, the producers of the film decided that power as great and terrible as Dracula's couldn't be wasted on a bad guy. Therefore, Dracula was converted from a dastardly heel to a noble face, and is given the role of the honorable prince of Transylvania who is all but forced to become a vampire in order to aid his besieged kingdom. In another departure from the canonical vampire mythos, Dracula Untold's Dracula isn't turned by being bitten on the neck, but he instead must choke down a dram of an old vampire's blood from the crown of a crushed human skull. Why? Because those are the rules. While this rule change may be mostly innocuous, here's a real head-scratcher: after drinking the old vampire's blood, Dracula may return to his previous mortal state, no questions asked, if he can just resist his intense lust for human blood for a mere three days. How weird is that? Unfortunately, much like the new semi-arbitrary NFL rules, this new Dracula rule plays an annoyingly key role in the outcome of the story.
The fact is that, even with all the rule changes, the NFL and the Dracula character can't exist in the current day in their current way. Each institution's dire efforts to survive the changes and demands of culture have forced their products to become an overspecified and confusing mess of clanging human bodies. Sure, you can add more restrictions to how a quarterback can be tackled, but wrenching a grown man to the ground is an inherently violent act, and so lies the sport's fundamental flaw. Likewise, you can throw in a heap of mythological legalese into the vampire concept, but Bram Stoker's Dracula will never be Transformers, and so lies its unsuitability as a sprawling special-effects laden popcorn-chomping extravaganza. So let's root for a speedy demise of the NFL and this current batch of Dracula films and hope that from the ashes of these once loved forms of entertainment can rise something less terrible.