25th 10 - 2017 | 2 comments »

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Stephanie Rothman

By Roderick Heath

At a time when women directors were still excruciatingly thin on the ground even in Hollywood’s least reputable quarters, Stephanie Rothman forged herself an intriguing place in movie history. Rothman had proven herself a stalwart operative for Roger Corman and his low-budget movie factory at AIP during the 1960s. She made her credited directing debut when she helped patch together a releasable film from a mishmash of footage left after Jack Hill was sacked from a project that involved splicing new footage into a Yugoslav movie, one of many such cunning retrofits Corman’s crew were called upon to perform. With Rothman’s third hand in the pot, the result, Blood Bath (1966), emerged as an incoherent yet tenaciously likeable, free-form collage of images and artistic temperaments. Rothman was given her shot at handling a film in her own right and after her solo debut It’s a Bikini World (1967), she gained a significant hit with The Student Nurses (1970). Rothman followed Corman to his burgeoning New World studio and producer Larry Woolner asked her to make a vampire movie. Rothman and her husband Charles S. Swartz punched out a screenplay built around Rothman’s idea of making a movie centering on a female vampire, a project that would become The Velvet Vampire.

Although it was destined to become her most admired and well-known film, The Velvet Vampire was initially a box office disappointment, and it sped up Rothman and Swartz’s decision to leave Corman’s fold and work with Woolner in setting up a rival production company, the short-live but relatively prolific Dimension Films. Rothman managed to direct three more movies there in between overseeing the company’s filmmaking operations, before her career ran out of steam, and she failed to follow the likes of Francis Coppola, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich into more exalted filmic spheres. Now chiefly associated with horror cinema thanks to Blood Bath and The Velvet Vampire, most of Rothman’s works were sexy comedies, chiefly distinguished by the tense but fruitful way Rothman’s unabashedly feminist ambitions blended with the down-and-dirty prerogatives of genre cinema, working to offer equal-opportunity nudity whilst offering spry examinations of the shifting social more the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The Student Nurses kicked off a successful series for Corman, whilst Terminal Island (1973) looked forward to dystopian tales ranging from Escape From New York (1981) to The Handmaid’s Tale in envisioning a future where death row inmates are stranded in a wilderness prison and a brutally medievalist social set-up quickly evolves and then devolves into outright war between the sexes. Group Marriage (1973) contemplated the possibility of an idyllic polyamorous union between an increasing number of people. If the basis for most of Rothman’s films was the comedy of manners translated for the age of Sexual Revolution, The Velvet Vampire redeploys the same idea in a context where the stakes of conquest are much more alarming.

Rothman quickly announces a real eye with the shot of downtown Los Angeles that opens The Velvet Vampire, a vestigial crucifix jutting high above a precinct of modernist architecture like a remnant of old faith in an otherwise oblivious world. Zoom back to reveal the busy thrum of midday in the city, and then a slow dissolve into the same shot at night, cars and pedestrians becoming ghosts and then fading into oblivion, the buildings readily transmuted into a field of Neolithic standing stones, an arena ready for a primal blood rite. A small squiggle of red strides across the frame upon the pavement: our antiheroine, Diane Le Fanu (Celeste Yarnall). Diane sees a parked motorcycle and correctly anticipates danger. A wild and hairy biker, some escapee of Corman’s The Wild Angels (1967) at war with all civilised mores, quickly obliges as he tackles and tries to rape the chicly dressed lady. But Diane quickly turns the tables, jamming the biker’s own knife into his gut. Diane picks herself up, washes off in a nearby fountain, and casually proceeds on her way. She enters an art gallery where her friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) is curating an exhibition, and encounters a young couple, Lee and Susan Ritter (Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles). Lee and Susan amiably play at being strangers who flirt over the art works whilst trying to fit in with the arty crowd: “I get a lot of sensual energy from it,” Susan comments in regarding a sculpture that resembles the lower half of a bisected female body with legs splayed. Carl introduces them to Diane, whilst old blues man Johnny Shines (playing himself) regales the uptown crowd with elemental tales of evil ladies and demon lovers. Diane invites Lee and Susan out to her home in the California desert with a flirtatious intensity that easily hooks Lee, and the couple, who uneasily fancy themselves swingers, accept the invitation.

They drive out to the remote locale, stopping for gas and directions at a lonely service station, where they encounter anxiously snooty hippy car mechanic Cliff (Paul Prokop), who’s too uptight over his status as a qualified tradesman to stoop to filling up their tank. The station owner Amos (Sandy Ward) reluctantly gives the Ritter directions to the house they’re after, but their car breaks down on the way. Fortunately Diane appears in her dune buggy to rescue them, and spirits them to her house, where she maintains a posh lifestyle with her Native American manservant Juan (Jerry Daniels). Promising to get their car fixed, Diane charms the couple into staying several days, whilst getting Juan to fetch Cliff from the service station. But Cliff quickly learns he’s been called over to be eliminated, and he finishes up accidentally impaling himself upon a pitchfork as Juan chases him about Diane’s garage. Diane introduces Lee and Susan to the environs about her home, including a remote graveyard where her husband is buried, as Diane explains that although she dislikes the desert sun and heat she feels obligated to remain close to his grave, as he was carefully preserved through a method of the local Native American tribal folk. Juan comes from the same tribes, and Diane explains she grew up with him after her parents rescued him as a foundling. But Juan confuses Susan by suggesting Diane saved him when she was already an adult. Diane gives the couple a tour of an abandoned mine that fell into disuse a century earlier after many murders were mysteriously killed, apparently by some sort of feral beast. Susan freaks out when she’s left alone by both Diane and Lee as they stumble about in the dark looking for each-other, and Diane seems poised to attack Susan from the shadows, but is forestalled when Lee abruptly returns. Needless to say, Diane is a vampire.

Diane’s designs on Lee are patent, but she slowly unveils her intention to also seduce Susan, as Rothman makes sly sport of the liberated mores of 1971 and their tendency towards double-standards, as Diane practices divide-and-rule between the couple. She takes the direct approach with the husband but makes charged overtures to Susan: “Have you ever noticed how men envy us – the pleasure we have, that only we can have?” Whilst Diane leads Lee off into the secluded aisles of a ghost town to grab his crotch, a rattlesnake slithers upon Susan as she sunbathes, and bites her leg, cueing a moment of sexual frisson as Diane sucks the poison out of her pink, nubile thigh. What neither Lee nor Susan knows, as they bed down for their increasingly strained connubial nights, is that Diane watches them from behind a glass mirror inset in the bedroom wall, measuring their characters, assessing their anxieties, transmitting dreamscapes into their sleeping minds. They both experience the same fantasia in which their bed is transposed into the midst of the desert, gleaming curves of brass and blood red sheets stark against the roiling dunes. Diane is seen in the distance through haze and dust like a Sergio Leone character, only to then step out of a mirror, suddenly switching to a Cocteau film or Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1964) as interlocutor for protean adventures. The dream, which progresses further each night Lee and Susan spend in the house, unfolds in torpid slow motion, punctuated with liquidinous dissolves, sees Lee drawn out of bed by Diane’s commanding presence, but then replaced in bed by her as she claims Susan by carving a cross upon her chest.

These sequences, startling in their hallucinatory beauty and hearty embrace of surrealist design sharply composed to a degree rare even in the trippiest reaches of the era’s cinema, are surely the essence of The Velvet Vampire’s cult appeal. And yet the entire film is a work of admirable craft and art worked on a low budget and within the parameters of an exploitation film of the early ‘70s zeitgeist and the New World imprimatur. Rothman’s films have gained admiration for the expanse of her efforts to consider the cultural landscape of the day within those parameters, the shifting mores, the quicksands of rapidly evolving laws of sexuality and coupling and the advent of the age of lifestyle as a personal religion. The Velvet Vampire makes mischievous commentary not only on cool-kid gimcrackery but on low budget cinema’s efforts to exploit it, offering up Diane as fashion plate and new age idol, mistress of her domain in her perfectly tailored mod clothes and zipping about in that ultimate period symbol of Californian luxury consumer status in such movies, the dune buggy. Rothman offers Diane as a commanding, intelligent, cultured, motivated woman who, if she wasn’t a ghoul forced to live off other human beings, would stand as an idealised fantasy figure of feminine self-sufficiency. Rothman contrasts her with the Ritters, who both tread the outer edges of caricature at first, with Lee obeying the call of his own dick and Susan, with her high, throaty voice faintly reminiscent of Judy Holliday gone bikini-clad hipster, or perhaps akin to Doonesbury‘s Boopsie getting cast as Van Helsing.

Miles and Blodgett, who had played the hunky object of pansexual affection Lance Rock in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), are the most awkward aspects of The Velvet Vampire, as both are pretty one-note presences. But their very lack of depth as actors to a great extent suits their characters, with their whiny, edgy, facetious postures as hip and cool young things and appearance as a classical west coast Ken and Barbie set, even as their marriage is badly strained by subtle disconnections, and bit by bit they emerge as well-considered characters. Both retain a certain level of sympathy as we see they’re essentially two babes in the pansexual woods, greedy and needy but fatefully poor at articulating their desires. Susan has a habit of freezing Lee out sexually by rarely being in the mood for his amorous advances, and he acts out by turning over and ignoring her as he goes to sleep. After Susan spies on him and Diane making love in her parlour, he barks in the morning, “All right – I got laid last night.” Ironically, Lee properly committing infidelity actually lets the couple reconnect, in part through Lee’s decision Diane is playing games with them. But Susan can’t entirely resist the chance for payback, and a possible adventure with the alluring Diane, nor can Lee bring himself to resist what Diane is putting down. Meanwhile their host continues to delay their departure by pretending their car can’t be fixed yet even as Lee becomes frustrated he can’t return to the city for necessary business.

Events begin to build to crisis point as Diane finds herself increasingly unable to control her appetites. Her dead husband’s grave has never been filled in, covered instead with a camouflage of wooden boards hidden under sand, so now and then she can lie upon its coffin lid or even cuddle up to his embalmed body stark naked, an image right out of the visual lexicon of the Decadents and Surrealists. Juan, kneeling by the grave in close attendance, is sympathetic as she confesses to him from the pit, “I need more and more now – something is speeding up inside me.” When Juan offers to help by finding her “one of my people” to feed on, Diane reaches up and pulls him into the grave to dine on him. Diane’s tragedy as Rothman sees it lies in her doom to constantly devour anyone and anything that loves her. Rothman grants her the stature of a pining romantic, still mourning her beloved mate a century after his death, but then undercuts it with the ultimate revelation that she killed him less than a week into their marriage through her bloodlust. Diane is also avatar for the forces of colonial exploitation that crashed upon the American landscape, playing Samaritan to Juan, saving him from massacre and starvation, but also fostering him as subservient and finally, casually claiming his life when Diane’s insatiable hunger proves too great. The same fate lies in wait for Lee and Susan, extending to them the illusory possibility of mutual erotic fulfillment, but doomed only to engage in murder. There’s a note here that’s similar to one Rainer Werner Fassbender would sound the following year in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), in warning of the potential in sexual liberation of reproducing the crimes of dying paradigms by refusing to look beyond the ego’s wants.

Rothman’s tale has telling similarities to a clutch of other movies released around the same time employing the same essential theme, including Hammer Films’ Karnstein trilogy, Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1970), and Harry Kuemel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), all stories revolving around female vampires with Sapphic tastes. This aspect of the metaphorical had long been visible in the genre since Coleridge’s “Christabel” and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (Rothman makes the connection between her variations on both Le Fanu’s book and Dracula plain enough with her character names), and suddenly, after a brief and furtive flourish in the mid-1930s with Dracula’s Daughter (1935), had to wait until the easier mood of 1970 to suddenly bloom. The appeal of this small continent of queer-themed vampire dramas, most of which have retained a strong following if not usually free of a touch of smirking nostalgia, lay in the way they made incorporating soft-core thrills easy whilst also appealing to horror fans with overtones of the genuinely transgressive, the crackle of outlaw sexuality according perfectly with horror cinema’s beyond-the-pale status. Where Kuemel’s film lolled in a lush conjuration of retro camp whilst contemplating his vampire lady as ageless, parasitical diva, Franco officially defined his as a reborn misandrist, and the Hammer films played Carmilla as a sort of female, antiheroic James Bond offering to all the chance to both get their rocks off and fulfil their death wish. Rothman presents Diana in yet another key, tracing the outer edges of lesbian desire both more delicately in terms of what she shows but also more directly and challengingly in how she states it. There are no languorous lesbian make-out scenes, and Rothman acts on her credo in eroticising Blodgett’s body as much more than then actresses, but also frames Diane’s come-on to Susan as an outright appeal to come to the isle of Lesbos, kingdom of multiple orgasms.

Islands of peculiar beauty flow by Rothman’s camera from those early frames of the film, with such visions as the frontier graveyard with its crude wooden headstones, and the environs of Diane’s house, where California modern meets Latin manse with plush, décadent overtones. Yarnall’s hypnotic, cut-glass beauty and cool charisma – curiously unexploited by any other filmmakers subsequently – gleams over the brim of her crystal goblets, and burns white against the red Rothman often swathes her in, hovering like a desert rose against sandy environs, or else lounging a naked, pale sylph against her husband’s body. Yarnall, whose best-known role apart form this is probably an episode of Star Trek she guest-starred in, struts across Rothman’s desert landscapes with sombrero cordobés perched upon her head, reminiscent of the way Rothman’s fellow Corman alumnus Monte Hellman costumed Millie Perkins in his desert trip-out, The Shooting (1965), and inhabiting the same role as death incarnated in beauty. Indeed, there’s a curious synergy between Rothman’s approach to her version of horror cinema, with its desert vistas and sense of sun at once stark and hallucinatory, with the vogue for “acid westerns” around the same time, and suggests potential for overlap between western and horror cinema where the few other directors who have tried finding common ground between the two resolutely usually fail utterly.

Likewise Rothman sees no disparity between the open, light-flooded surrounds of the desert and the hard geometric forms of modernism when the film returns to the city: there are wildernesses devoid of human life and those filled with it. Amidst sequences of Diane stalking Susan through bus terminals and malls of LA, Rothman’s eye finds cold abstraction in the rows of telephone booths and escalators, places that seem to mimic the mystical portals and planes of her imposed dreams. Rothman’s eye betrays traces of Michelangelo Antonioni’s imprint throughout, the whole thing could be read as another sun-struck daydream of the protagonists of Zabriskie Point (1970), whilst also mediating between him and the way other eyes like Alan Pakula and Sydney Pollack would read a similar incongruity and alienation in the implacable forms of the new urban landscape. The brief but pathos-charged scenes involving Cliff and his girlfriend evoke the fallout of the Easy Rider (1969) epoch, countercultural exile Cliff desperately trying to stick up for his hard-won status as a mechanic still served up as lunch, and his loyal girl (Chris Woodley ), who swears black and blue that Cliff was off the dope for good, makes a valiant effort to track him down but meets the same fate of being assaulted and sucked dry.

Susan manages to fend off Diane once she finds Lee’s vampirised body in her bedroom, and escapes her villa, fleeing back to LA on a bus only to find Diane has beaten her onto the transportation and silently hovers behind her all the way into the city. Susan finally defeats her tormentor by learning she’s vulnerable to two classical traits of a vampire, fear of the crucifix and pained by strong direct sunlight, and so encourages a mob of spaced-out hippies to aid her in cornering Diane and exposing her, a task the crowd takes to in dissociative enjoyment as if it’s a schoolyard game. Rothman’s cruel sarcasm here sees her worldly and powerful antiheroine, avatar of ages, felled by giggling dopers and crucifixes from a street vendor’s stall, broken by the very real shock of the taboo still wielded by such objects in spite of their mass-commercial debasement, and the devolution of a revolutionary moment and its actors into paltry anti-climax reminiscent less of any Hammer horror finale than of King Kong (1933), which also saw its great monster exterminated by motorised insects. Susan defeats the vampire, but soon finds herself possibly at bay before another, as she visits Carl only to see signs he might well have been Diane’s comrade or acolyte. Perhaps vampirism is about to be the new big thing in bohemia.

3rd 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Ganja & Hess (1973)

Director/Screenwriter: Bill Gunn


By Roderick Heath

In the early 1970s, films about black protagonists erupted in popularity, in mostly urban tales laced with gritty realism and high-powered action, bracketed ever since under the memorably pithy name of blaxploitation. Some enterprising producers went a step further and set out to blend one popular, cheap cinematic brand with another—horror movies. Strange generic crossbreeds, some with infamous titles that evoke cinematic trash-fetish at its purist, like Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), traipsed onto drive-in and grindhouse theatre screens. These films triangulated commercial impulse, cheerful camp appeal, and, sometimes, clever and socially mindful attempts to upend familiar tropes and remix the symbolic values of horror tales.


When he was approached to make cash in on Blacula’s success, Bill Gunn cringed at the proposition. Gunn was gaining repute at the time as an artist, writer, and stage director: his play Johnnas, first performed in 1968, had just been adapted into an Emmy-winning TV film in 1972, and he had worked on the screenplays of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord and Jan Kadar’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s The Angel Levine (both 1970). Gunn’s entry into horror cinema annals echoed Val Lewton’s 30 years earlier, as he set out to make a mercenary assignment in a disreputable genre serve his personal vision. Gunn realised he could use the motif of vampirism to create a metaphor for drug addiction, and then, in the act of creating it, found dimensions far broader and more original. The result, even amidst the proliferation of strange and original low-budget works both in genre cinema and arthouse fare in the early ’70s, was hailed as one of the most exciting, and showcased at the Cannes Film Festival. But Gunn’s work proved far too uncommercial, even in a truncated version released under the title Blood Couple, to satisfy its producers and the audience they were targeting. For a long time Ganja & Hess remained a legendary obscurity.


Ganja & Hess’s revival owes much to Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), an act that can easily be likened to Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) as a labour of cultural tribute and postmodern ventriloquism. Gunn’s work crucially anticipates much of Lee’s aesthetic, as Lee has often tried to accomplish what Gunn does in pushing beyond the dictates of familiar Hollywood forms to create something like a cultural artefact: this movie works on the level of essayistic enquiry and museum curation as well as narrative. The great ferment of the black American cultural scene at the time too rarely found expression on cinema screens at the time. The unalloyed statement of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) helped create the blaxploitation gerne, but Gunn’s work creates a bridging point between the genre and the arrival of more determinedly artistic filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Lee. Ganja & Hess has a Godardian streak, as it privileges musical, painterly, and literary embellishments within its form whilst remaining, above all, powerfully filmic, pausing to listen to characters reading or giving account, offering frames replete with compositions inspired by the static methods of visual art, and crowding the soundtrack with spirituals, blues songs, and tribal chants overlapping and soaking into the psychic patina the film leaves in the mind. Many films from that time played about with cinematic structure and flow to create weird and artistically yearning effects, and Gunn’s work, though sometimes weakly paced and uncertainly assembled (exacerbated by the partially restored, but still choppy state of the remnant film), creates a cumulatively disorientating effect as he begins with a reasonably straightforward story that steadily spirals into an increasingly dreamlike, near-symbolic state of representation and happening.


Ganja & Hess is narrated at the outset by Luther Williams (Sam Waymon), a church preacher who moonlights as a chauffeur for Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones). Hess is an anthropologist and college professor, and Williams describes him in retrospect as “an addict…he’s not a criminal—he’s a victim.” Hess is at the height of worldly success, a wealthy, respected intellectual with a ready command of a panoply of cultural references and ensconced in a balloon of privilege. Gunn announces his intention to play about with the clichés of both horror cinema and black identity in this way, depicting Hess’s devolution into carnal bloodsucker as an investigation into that identity. Most ambitious vampire sagas look for primal urges underlying civilised mores, a pattern Gunn follows whilst taking it a logical step further in terms of his theme.


Hess is researching a long-vanished African nation called Myrthia, and his new assistant, George Meda (played by Gunn himself), has recently returned from Africa with relics of the Myrthians, including a ceremonial dagger. The decline of Myrthia, according to mythology, was thanks to the spread of a mysterious blood disease that turned its citizens into parasitic wraiths, and the dagger plays a part in that transformation, as a victim must be stabbed three times with it, invoking the Holy Trinity despite the ritual’s pagan roots, before being reborn. Meda, like Hess, is an erudite scholar, but uneasy and disturbed by recent experiences to the point where after a night of boozy conversation, Hess finds him sitting in a tree with a noose tied and dangling, ready for suicide. Hess talks him down. The following day, Meda writes a poetic missive and reads it outloud to himself, and then attacks Hess, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger. Meda then bathes and shoots himself through the chest. Hess arises from the dead and desperately guzzles up the blood leaking from Meda’s corpse: he has been resurrected as a Myrthian vampire.


At first, Hess maintains his upright academic veneer, attending fancy garden parties and conversing easily in French with his son Enrico (Enrico Fales) who’s off at boarding school. He subsists on supplies of blood he steals from the hospital, downing glasses of it in his house, whilst Meda’s body turns stiff and grey in the wine cellar. Hess soon starts cruising for sex and blood on the town, driven by an intensifying hunger that Gunn inscribes on the soundtrack through weird, maddening sound effects and the lapping refrains of a tribal chant, the call of ancient blood tormenting Hess during the day. Hess begins preying on prostitutes and other women he picks up. On one occasion, he picks up a hooker in a bar (Candece Tarpley), and her pimp (Tommy Lane) tries to ambush and knife him in an attempted robbery. Hess, not hurt, battles the man. The prostitute hysterically fires off a gun, accidentally killing the pimp, and Hess drags her into the bathroom and kills her to drink her blood.


Hess’s new life pattern is shaken up when he gets a phone call from Meda’s wife Ganja (Marilyn Clark), who’s been searching fruitlessly for her husband around the world and has now returned to the States broke. When Hess responds to her aggressive queries with “I have had a very difficult morning,” she retorts, “I have had a very difficult fucking six months!” Ganja breezes into Hess’s life, a volcanic personality with an honest, me-first attitude, and she shares an instant arc of attraction with him that threatens to combust sexually and emotionally in spite of what is, to Ganja, Meda’s ambiguous fate. Ganja sets up in Hess’s house and happily bosses around his manservant Archie (Leonard Jackson). Ganja’s happy patronisation of Archie has a satirical note, in observing the readiness of some black folk to readily adopt the hierarchism of white society imposed on them. But the inevitable moment when Ganja heads down into the wine cellar draws nearer.


The almost negligible surface narrative isn’t what makes Gunn’s achievement fascinating. The bluntest interpretation of Ganja & Hess is that it’s a parable about rediscovering the fecundity of African cultural roots and black male virility, with Hess as a denatured and assimilated being flung back into raw and primal realities. This is undoubtedly accurate, though Gunn’s themes and his way of communicating them are more complex and ambiguous than this may sound; Ganja & Hess works most profoundly on the level of meditation, iridescent with the shifting tides of its ideas and aesthetics. Gunn created distinctive characters in the eponymous couple, giving Jones and Clark, two excellent, but underutilised actors, clear space to construct vivid individuals even as Gunn’s covert narrative suggests anti-individualism, a sense of communal identity, as the only recourse for their quandaries.


Jones, who, like Gunn had roots in the burgeoning black theatre scene of the 1960s, had crucially found his place in film history playing the lead in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and returned here in an equally radical and ambitious low-budget horror film, anchoring the film with a performance that captures a difficult person: Hess is by turns brilliant, righteous, cool, imperious, pathetic, anguished, childlike, and quite often detached in the face of his problems. One of the film’s strongest vignettes focuses on Clark’s Ganja as she narrates a tale from her childhood, a moment of pungent disillusionment by her mother over an imagined sexual transgression that set her on the path of self-liberation and self-protection. She retains an aspirational fire that eludes Hess, who seems at first like the ideal modern man, but is revealed as tortured and limited by that very sophistication.


As in many vampirism tales, transformation proves double-edged: like the habit of drug use as a means of fleeing reality or society, the effect is isolating and cumulatively deadening. Hess is ultimately as castrated by his addiction as he is liberated, at least until he strikes upon the idea of making Ganja like himself. When Hess forces himself to retreat from sex with Ganja as the blood lust comes upon him and hides in the attic to down a glass of blood, Gunn shoots it like an act of guilty masturbation, until Ganja tracks him down, drawn to his body like planetary gravity, and makes love to him.


Gunn signals the schismatic and apprehensive nature of Hess’s interior world early in the film when he sleeps, clutching the Myrthian dagger in his hand, and dreams of divergent experiences of being inducted: in one, he and Meda are greeted by a masked white man in evening dress and led through a cavernous mansion, with an interesting note of anticipation of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and in the other, he glimpses the ancient queen of Myrthia (played by Mabel King, whose singing is heard throughout the film) leading tribal initiates through long grass somewhere in the veldt. An essay Meda writes and reads is a manifesto, poetry, and epitaph all at once, a stab at expressing the fraught mindset of a conscientious black man at the fringe of a new age at once hopeful and hazardous. Gunn uses the metaphorical power of the underlying unease created in Meda by his unholy contraction in his exchanges with Hess to underline a less metaphorical sense of their unease as avatars of multiple identities often caricatured as antipathetic— African-American men, artists, thinkers, potential political leaders—and as renegades within those identities, a psychic map of a shared mindset. Meda’s suicidal fixation seems like some lost, romantic revolutionary from a classic Russian novel, whilst his writing recalls James Baldwin. The scene where Hess tries to talk him down is played as dark comedy: Gunn shoots the whole sequence in one shot framed so it sarcastically cuts off Meda’s head, and when Meda contemplates drowning himself instead, Hess notes with pungent cynicism that if a dead body is found anywhere in his neighbourhood, the cops will come straight to his house.


With surprising richness and originality for a first-time filmmaker with a literary and theatrical background, Gunn evokes different cultural dimensions through his film’s form. Luther’s early voiceover suggests a cinema verite account of an addict’s life, with documentary-style footage of Luther leading his flock in prayer, and spacy, washed-out footage of Luther in his chauffeuring guise driving Hess about while he is in the throes of his private suffering, before the timeframe shifts and we see Hess as he was before his addiction. Gunn here grazes the edges of the later craze for “found footage” horror with its glaze of false authenticity as a swift means of both baiting the audience into accepting events it might not otherwise and suggesting dimensions of understanding created by the foregrounding of technique. But Gunn soon moves through cinematic modes, from deadpan realism to outright surrealism. Hess’s adventures on the town as he hunts for blood suggest an ironic assault on the precepts of blaxploitation, as Hess bestrides nightlife looking quite the cool mofo, but preying on, rather than helping out, the black demimonde: Shaft has become Jaws.


Meanwhile, Gunn litters his film with baroque compositions until it feels like the limits of his frames might bust open, often crowding those frames with signifiers and nature and fecund beauty whilst evoking different art styles, from still lifes to the tangled geometrics of art nouveau. He zeroes in on decaying statues and works of art, a panoply of cultural inheritance, mostly Old World European, including icons by Andrei Rublev, intimating Hess’s obsession with mortality and the sustenance of the spirit, even as Gunn scrutinises the thorny relationship between traditional black identity and the Christian church, whose power Hess eventually turns to. Hess’s home is a zone of cultural inheritance, both European and African-American, replete with photos of Sonny Rollins, African statuary, and jazz singers constantly snaking out of his sound system, as well as Victoriana bric-a-brac and neoclassical art. Gunn may well have been playing a joke on the concept of the vampire’s haunted castle, usually tied to the monster’s immortality in signifying the pernicious power of ancient creeds in the modern world, but here suggesting a different brand of troubled, persisting inheritance. Gunn also emphasises the decay of all these artefacts, whilst contemplating the raw and cyclical potency of the living form during sex and acts of violence, death, and resurrection. One of Gunn’s recurring motifs is acts of immersion and bathing, starting with Meda almost ritualistically washing before fatally shooting himself, and circling back to this in the finale when a dead man leaps out of Hess’s swimming pool and runs towards the camera, stark naked, manhood flying like a battle flag.


As the film travels more deeply into the sense of folie-a-deux between the titular lovers, the narrative increasingly breaks down, entering a welter of randomly strange, but vividly illustrative vignettes, like Ganja biting into a rose and finding it floods her mouth with blood and a stone face weeping tears of blood. Ganja’s response to finding her husband’s frigid corpse in the wine cellar leads to a fraught confrontation, but also a peculiar confession from her that amounts to an admission she’s done concerning herself with any problem that doesn’t affect her own fate, and obeying that logic Ganja quietly forgets the all-but-literal skeleton in the closet to get on with life with Hess. The couple marries in front of their polyglot group of friends before Hess initiates the half-willing, ultimately terrified Ganja into sharing his condition, stabbing her and resurrecting her.


It’s a plunge into an ugly state of being at first, and Ganja writhes in bed during her transformation and finds herself feeling cold constantly. When she asks Hess if he feels the same way, he answers that he does, but he’s gotten used to it. Uniting in undead passion, however, fails to cure the anguish that possesses Hess, particularly as it reduces him after a fashion to a cuckold. The couple invites a young man (Richard Harrow) over for dinner, and then Ganja seduces him with the intent of making him her first living victim. Gunn shoots their sexual encounter as a mad flux of images in an erotic-sanguinary frenzy, leaving the young man’s body caked in gleaming blood and Ganja, who had been greedily lapping blood from his dripping wounds moments before, aghast at her own behaviour. Hess helps her wrap the body in plastic and dump it in a field, where Ganja hysterically cries that he’s still alive as Hess drags her away.


It’s tempting to detach Ganja & Hess, with its arty filmmaking, lack of suspense, and overtly symbolic approach to loaded subjects, from horror cinema altogether and regard it as closer in nature to the spacy, interiorised state of mind communicated in many “art” movie works of the period like Zabriskie Point (1970) or The Last Movie (1971). But it fits in with some other horror works of its time with surprising alacrity. As well as tweaking the basic themes of the well-established vampire film for its own purposes, the visual texture is as dense and tangled, if less well-organised, as the same year’s more celebrated Don’t Look Now. Jones’ connection with Romero strengthens the similarity with Romero’s own early work, like Season of the Witch (1971), with its similar focus on shifting sociological mores visualised as a mix of bland modernity and underlying estrangement. Gunn shares a mesmeric fascination with blurred time and psychic dislocation, a tactile sense of nostalgia and association in objects, and a vision of a physical world through which humans move lost and ephemeral, with John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1972). But it’s Gunn’s fixation with the body itself as a vessel of fascination, discontent, and political meaning that feels most vital and prognosticative. Gunn most immediately anticipated David Cronenberg’s feature debut Shivers (1975), which, like Ganja & Hess, interrogates the basic metaphor and travels through zones of weird revulsion before arriving at a perverse heroism in the prospect of emancipation from the sickness of civilisation brought about via biological reassignment. Claire Denis, whose debts to Cronenberg are readily apparent, may also have been remembering Gunn’s film with Trouble Every Day (2001), which posits itself essentially as the tale of Ganja and Meda if they hadn’t been separated.


The last act of Ganja & Hess depicts Hess’s attempt to release himself by turning to religion after reading a passage in a book that explains Myrthian sufferers found release in the shadow of the cross. He attends a sermon given by Luther and then builds a shrine in his house where he sits gazing at a crucifix, beset by visions of running through open fields as if liberated, before he finally dies. Gunn portrays this fate ambiguously, as if pondering whether Hess has found release in sanctification or has annihilated himself trying to cling to a creed that brings only self-destructive. Throughout Ganja & Hess, Gunn suggests a version of the Christ tale absorbed and retranslated, invoking Catholic rituals and the African-American Christian tradition but searching for the primal mythic force and meaning behind it all, a tale of blood, suffering, and rebirth. Either way, Hess finds escape but abandons Ganja, beset with his condition and left alone and bereft—except that Gunn leaves off with the image of the young man Ganja killed earlier springing out of Hess’s pool and running toward the house, caught in a freeze-frame leaping over Archie’s corpse. Ganja smiles enigmatically at the camera. She has her new partner, one perhaps better fitted for her anyway, and the overwhelming impression of this astonishing final flourish is one of survival—black survival, perhaps, but certainly the power as well as fragility of the life spirit.


Ganja & Hess has longeurs, and Gunn’s effects are often uneven, perhaps an inevitability when he’s experimenting as extensively as he was here, but the ultimate effect of Ganja & Hess is rare and powerful. Sadly, the film’s lack of commercial impact meant Gunn never got to develop his talent in film, and both he and Jones would die tragically young within a year of each other in the late 1980s. At least they left behind a worthy totem for their talents.

17th 10 - 2014 | 3 comments »

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

Director: Terence Fisher


By Roderick Heath

A fog-rimmed lake. A sonorous voice on the soundtrack telling us we are now in Transylvania. A carriage careening through the twilight forest, the driver whipping his horses in frenzy, his comely passenger panicking as her journey to a new life seems to be turning into a nightmarish ride in unknown territory. What looks like dead body lies on the road, blocking the way. A mysterious stranger watches from the woods, looking for his opportunity to stealthily climb aboard the coach and work his mysterious purpose. Now that’s how you start a horror movie.


Amongst horror movie fans and connoisseurs of Hammer Films’ output, The Brides of Dracula has slowly gained repute, to the point where some state today that it’s the best horror work the studio ever made. The film’s delayed rise to such acclaim was due to its being overshadowed and dismissed as a by-product at the time of its release. Christopher Lee had played Bram Stoker’s vampire overlord in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) to audience-delighting, icon-making effect. Titling a film The Brides of Dracula without Dracula actually turning up was received as a bit of a cheat, and after Lee resumed the role, Hammer’s first stab at extending its vampire franchise was obscured. Lee, frightened with good reason of being typecast, refused to play the role again, and would not buckle until 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. In the meantime, Fisher and the creative team at Hammer tried to synthesise a replacement for Dracula whilst retaining his antagonist, Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing, for another bout with evil. Lee and Cushing wouldn’t be reunited in their archetypal roles until Dracula A.D. 1972. The film’s development was rocky, with three credited screenwriters including the studio’s two main horror scribes, Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bryan, and contributions from producer Anthony Hinds, Fisher, and Cushing, and a planned finale that was dropped and then used in another film. And yet Brides stands alongside the likes of Fisher’s own The Gorgon (1964) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and John Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), as one of the supreme Hammer films, a fiercely concentrated and lushly executed work of the studio’s peculiar brand of Technicolor Gothic, instantly recognisable for its near-operatic sense of colour and drama.


The Brides of Dracula arrived when Hammer’s budgets and ambitions were expanding, with more elaborate sets and some special effects, but still limited enough to deliver some of the shoddy pleasures associated with the brand, here apparent most particularly in a delightfully unconvincing devil bat. But Brides is a vibrant work, one that revels in being freed from the specific mythos of Dracula himself whilst still remixing the themes and images established so vividly by Fisher’s first take. Early sequences provide a tweak on Stoker’s template by placing a woman, rather than a man, in danger in a remote locale, and emphasising more forcefully the theme of the innocent abroad taking a plunge into the abyss. The innocent here is Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a young Frenchwoman on her way to work as a student-teacher in the small town of Badstein, in the usual hazily defined Mittel Europa of Hammer works, supposedly in what the narrator describes as, “Transylvania – land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes – still the home of magic and devilry as the Nineteenth century draws to a close.” The thunder of the opening resolves in a fake-out, as the body on the road proves to be only a peculiarly shaped log, which the fretful coachman (inevitably, Michael Ripper) clears out of the way. But this anticlimax turns out to be a ploy by the stranger in the woods (actually Black Park in Buckinghamshire, soon be all too familiar to audiences of Hammer films) who catches hold of the back of the coach and rides secretly with it into the nearby village.


The stranger’s part in the film proves the most enigmatic element, an emissary of evil who’s never named (although the credits and the famously whacko novelisation by Dean Owen call him Latour) and vanishes from the proceedings having performed his deed, as he bribes the coachman to leave the village and abandon Marianne while she’s in a tavern having dinner. Already gilded genre cliché is already in play, but with a twist: the locale is strange, the underlying mood tense, but the locals are friendly enough in a workaday fashion, until the time of dread falls upon them, at which point the innkeeper so solicitous to Marianne (Norman Pierce) and his wife (Vera Cook) are gripped by enigmatic, hysterical urgency. Fisher offers a lovely weird moment when an abrupt silence draws the attention of Marianne and the innkeeper, who have been conversing pleasantly, to the front door, and see that the stranger is standing there, watching them with a satisfied smile, whilst everyone else in the room has fallen gravely quiet. Marianne is advised to flee by the two solicitous hoteliers, but before they can bustle her away, the sound of another coach coming into town signals the limits of their bravery and resistance. “Don’t open it,” the wife says; “I must,” the man replies in bleak concession to life under a tyranny. Tyranny in this village has a courtly face, however, as the owner of the coach Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who offers Marianne hospitality for night, beguiling the young woman with aristocratic indulgences, like fancy wine. Marianne accepts and dines with the Baroness in the castle overlooking the village.


The Baroness offers that most hallowed of gothic horror tropes, the devolved remnant of the ancien regime reminiscing with exultant sadness about the times when the castle was the scene of grand parties and conspicuous consumption. By this time, however, Marianne is privy to the mysterious secret of Castle Meinster, having glimpsed from the room the Baroness assigns her a young man, standing on a balcony far below. The Baroness admits this is her son, the young Baron who is, she explains, beset by a malady that has destroyed their lives, a malady he picked up in his wild, indulgent youth: “We pray for death, my son and I,” she reports, shocking Danielle but also stirring her empathy. However, during the night, Marianne catches sight again of the Baron, this time seemingly about to hurl himself to his death from his apartment balcony. She screams out to stop what she presumes to be his imminent suicide, but after she find her way through the house into the Baron’s apartment, she is confronted by the contrivance that makes his suicide by jumping impossible: he’s chained by the leg. The Baron, far from being an imprisoned lunatic, steps out from the shadows to reveal himself as a starkly handsome, soft-spoken romantic idol who appeals desperately to Marianne to find the key to the lock on his ankle in his mother’s room.


The Brides of Dracula offers a fun burlesque here on classic historical romantic fiction, calling back to British cinema’s mid-‘40s heyday of films in that genre when James Mason and Stewart Granger played roguish, black-hearted seducers not that far removed from Hammer’s Dracula. Marianne is cast as plucky damsel freeing the cruelly imprisoned heir with an impressive feat of bravery, stealing into the Baroness’s room and locating the key and then, when she’s almost trapped by the Baroness’s arrival, escaping through the window and traversing a narrow ledge to safety, all whilst still clad in her nightgown. But Marianne’s act of love-struck bravery proves, of course, to have been performed in the service of bottomless evil, because the Baron is a vampire, held in restraint by his mother and kept sated with young women like Marianne. The freed Baron shields Marianne from the Baroness’s wrath however, telling Marianne to go pack and then addressing his mother with smoothly menacing intensity that compels her to follow him back into his former prison. Marianne, once dressed and ready to leave, hears a strange cackling laugh echoing from the Baron’s apartment and descends to investigate. Rather than her beautiful prize for gallant action, Marianne only finds Frieda laughing in nihilistic delight over the Baron’s discarded restraint, and the cracked servant happily makes Marianne face the consequence of her act: the Baroness sitting dead in an armchair. Marianne, horrified and panicked, flees into the night and traverses the forest by moonlight. Frieda remains behind, muttering a Shakespearean soliloquy as she admonishes the dead Baroness for her history of indulging the young Baron until he finally become an undoubted monster, and anticipates the Baron’s inevitable return to his coffin, waiting empty for its owner’s return.


Hammer’s brand of horror was usually quite literal and straightforward, portraying eruptions of the irrational in a thoroughly tangible context, an alternative to the otherworldly approach of German expressionism. This alternative was rooted in a peculiarly British variety of magic-realism, one that had long lurked within classic gothic literature and romantic fiction, a distorted, magnified sense of the compellingly vicious that had generally only found cinematic expression in Britain through Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, and the charismatic bounders and bitches of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the ‘40s. Evil, no matter how supernaturally powered, becomes a materialist thing infesting and infecting the human world in the Hammer ethos, whilst Fisher’s approach to the genre’s monochromatic moral essence was resolutely totemic and vivid, staked in flesh and blood and stone and wood. Social evil is indivisible from the less palpable kind, feeding each-other. The Brides of Dracula, however, sees the director straining beyond the studio’s usual realistic template, as he would again with The Gorgon. As usual with Fisher’s direction, the dramatic, geographical, and interpersonal relationships are all mapped with an exacting sense of linkage, progression, cause and effect in Brides. He builds a little world with the fastidiousness of a model train enthusiast, where all the elements exist precisely to facilitate others and are demonstrably connected, like the plainly visible chateau above the Meinster village set, and the keen camera movements and angles in the chateau that make the set feel both labyrinthine and spatially coherent.


Yet Fisher often invested his horror films with hints of dark fairy tale and folk myth, an inflection fully apparent in images here like Marianne stalking the shadowy halls of the fairy tale castle, trying to free her demon lover, and then running away into the dark forest like Snow White, only to be found as a sleeping beauty lying in the midst of the woods by an improbable Prince Charming. The Brides of Dracula skirts of a kind of airy cinematic mysticism usually associated with continental filmmakers like Lang, Cocteau, and Franju, with their love of permeable realities and blithe manifestations of the fantastic. The film also harkens explicitly to Fisher’s early, pre-Hammer work, the Hitchcockian thriller So Long at the Fair (1952) where another young female traveller falls through the permeable barriers between normal and abnormal worlds, faced with jarring disappearances and conspiracies of silence. Van Helsing speaks of vampirism not as individual monstrosities but a “Cult of the Undead,” a “remnant of one of the ancient pagan religions,” which introduces a note of dense, conspiratorial evil reminiscent of Lang’s films, whilst the darkly romantic fairy tale motifs in a proto-modern world anticipate Franju’s remix of Judex (1963). Moreover, Brides may well be the most specifically influential of Hammer films, certainly in its visuals the quintessential studio entry. The rich Technicolor photography by Fisher’s regular photographer Jack Asher painting a world in musty, muted blues and browns that suggest a permanent autumn in the world, punctuated by eye-gorging, saturated hues in clothing and décor, evoking Victorian lithographic and book plate illustration to generate a sense of gothic atmosphere. Neil Jordan, with The Company of Wolves (1984), and Tim Burton, in Sleepy Hollow (1999), would later pay explicit tribute to that style, with Burton even recreating the windmill featured in this film’s finale for his tribute.


The morning following Marianne’s adventure sees a passing coach halt on the forest roadside. A casual downward pan reveals Marianne sprawled unconscious on autumnal leaves. The passenger in the coach proves to be just the person you want to find you after a terrifying encounter with a vampire: Dr Van Helsing plucks Marianne off the ground and transports her to the village, where the innkeepers are surprised and happy to see her safe. Van Helsing has been invited to the village by the local Cure (Fred Johnson) who suspects the nature of the evil previously held within the Chateau and wants Van Helsing to investigate. Van Helsing carefully teases out details of Marianne’s story whilst trying to shield her from the nature of the danger she faced, hoping to speedily return her to normality, but this proves a miscalculation on his part, as he leaves the door open for the Baron to approach Marianne still playing the hapless young lover, his mother’s death dismissed as tragic culmination of her own violence. Van Helsing escorts Marianne to her new place of employment, a Girl’s Academy run by the sweet-and-sour couple Frau and Herr Lang (Mona Washbourne and Henry Oscar). Van Helsing calmly faces down the overbearing Herr Lang, whose own wife describes him as “a little bit terrifying,” when he chastises Marianne for being late and in a man’s company: Van Helsing producing his business card with its long list of impressive doctorates instantly turns petty overlord into grovelling bourgeois. This joke is repeated with a slightly more pointed inference later when Baron Meinster turns up to romance Marianne, and Lang, not knowing him, threatens to throw him out. The Baron explains he’s Lang’s landlord with suave assurance, but gets a measure of revenge as he congratulates Lang on maintaining “such a charming house and grounds – at so low a rent.”


Cushing’s Van Helsing here wields the same specific gravitas he held in Dracula, as the unremittingly rational being who battles supernatural evil with the trappings of religion and myth but with the method of a scientist, slowly cutting out the cancer of ancient ills as the emblem of modernity as faith. “Who is it is who has no fear?” Baroness Meinster asks him when he approaches her: “Only God has no fear,” he replies, but Van Helsing hesitates at no threshold. Cushing was better off than Lee in returning to his character, as Lee would find to his increasing chagrin as he was reduced to an intensely glowering monster in Hammer’s later Dracula entries, whilst here Cushing was allowed to develop nuances in the role. Van Helsing had been courageous but brutal in Dracula, embodying the puritanical force pounding life out of the sensually gorged lovers of the vampire overlord, but turning on a penny to solicitously comfort a small girl with fatherly grace. Here that side of him is emphasised as he appears as the essential crusader hero, bringing relief from tyranny and insidious evil.


Producer Hinds quipped once that he and Fisher and Sangster had all regarded these films as their own babies but Cushing was certain of it, and Cushing’s contributions to the script perhaps helped this recasting of the hero in something like his own image, kinder and with a dash of romanticism. Van Helsing engages in rivalry with the Baron for Marianne’s affection as well as her soul, the Baron’s pretty boy charms pitted against the spindly savant’s hangdog intensity and winning out initially. Cushing pulls off a marvellous scene when Marianne informs Van Helsing she’s now engaged: he congratulates her with a good grace that’s ever so slightly pallid, but when she mentions just who it is she’s marrying he reacts with horror and checks her hands for signs of the tell-tale venereal stigmata of the “kiss of Dracula.” “Do you love him?” he asks in mild incredulity, and quickly leaves when Marianne answers yes, silently astounded at the perversities of existence but not swayed from his mission.


The deep veins of perversity that spread through The Brides of Dracula are indeed a source of the film’s specific richness. The notion that vampirism was a metaphor for sexuality permeates Fisher and Sangster’s take and permanently inflected the genre, but here Meinster’s attentions are indiscriminate and suggestively pansexual. Even Van Helsing, who’s seen a thing or two, is revolted by the discovery Meinster has drunk his mother’s blood, and this comes on top of the narrative’s hints of homosexuality, as the good doctor himself comes in for the vampire’s attentions. The film’s title suggests the Girl’s Academy will be a feasting ground for the bloodsucker as one would be in Lust for a Vampire (1970), but Meinster only attacks one of Marianne’s fellows there, her fast friend Gina (Andree Melly). On the night of his first release, Meinster kills a village girl (Marie Devereux), and her heartbroken father is confused and appalled when the Cure, after finding her buried in the churchyard, tells him she must be removed. Van Helsing, who overhears, assures the Cure that he can prevent the girl’s revival, but when he arrives in the churchyard finds Frieda lying upon the grave, playing midwife in encouraging the new vampire’s emergence in a travesty of birth. This cues one of the most memorable scenes in the genre’s history as it climaxes with the ecstatically morbid images of the girl’s white hand thrusting out of the earth, and then pushing back the lid of her coffin and sitting up with a dead-eyed smile of sensual gratification.


Van Helsing can’t help but watch in disgusted but mesmerised fascination, a spell only broken when the Cure, who’s just arrived, bellows his protest and then leap to secure Frieda whilst Van Helsing chases the vampire. Van Helsing’s pursuit is stalled however by Meinster, transformed into a huge bat which dive-bombs the vampire hunter until his kitbag tumbles open and his crucifix spills out. Van Helsing heads up to the Chateau Meinster, where he finds the Baroness, now revived as a vampire, haunting her own castle. The splendidly patrician Hunt was most famous for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), which Fisher had edited, and her casting here plays on that role as a reclusive and haughty grande dame whose hospitality entails destruction (Jackson, playing her servant, was also in the Lean film where she played the fearsome Mrs Joe), but here is allowed to retain more pathos as an eerie, existentially tormented victim who hides her new vampire fangs like a demure maiden behind a veil. The Baroness recites with dread the indulgences that brought disease upon her son and self and now believing herself cursed to eternally bend to her son’s will. David Peel, chiefly known as a stage actor, was received badly as a stand-in for Lee when the film came out, an understandable response as far as it goes.


Peel is, nonetheless, a coldly confident presence as a younger, more sadistically callow but superficially debonair evil lord, charming Marianne with his Mod hairdo, hints of intense sensuality, and precise, plummy Old Vic accent reminiscent of a better-looking edition of fellow Hammer alumnus Michael Gough: he’s the vampire prince as a mix of boarding school bully and toffy-nosed pop heartthrob. Meinster is presented as a Byronic sleaze who takes active delight in spectacles of cruelty, stripped of even the faint remnant of noble hauteur Lee gave his Dracula. Peel handles the alterations between the smooth façade he puts on to people he needs to charm and the animalistic savagery of his true nature with élan, particularly when he suddenly appears from nowhere whilst Van Helsing talks to his mother, teeth extended and mouth dripping blood, hissing like a snake at the sight of its only natural predator.


Meinster and Van Helsing have brief but vigorous tussle as the doctor fends off vampire by sliding his crucifix down the length of a table toward him, forcing the vampire back, cringing in pain. Meinster flees after upending the table to trap Van Helsing in turn, leaving Van Helsing alone with his mother. Fisher offers another starkly simple yet rhythmically powerful aside as Van Helsing waits for the dawn to give the Baroness the release she craves, whereupon he takes out stake and hammer and drives it through her body: Fisher cuts from the spurt of red blood to a deep crimson curtain which Van Helsing rips down and spreads across her body with solicitous care that mirrors the vampire midwifery, laying the desiccated matriarch to rest like a mother himself putting a baby to bed. The scoring by Malcolm Williamson, an Australian-born composer who later became Master of the Queen’s Music, is particularly notable in this sequence, a lightly funereal organ on sound rising to a crescendo that helps the vigorous cutting and colour inflate the brief sequence into something rhapsodic. Van Helsing’s return to the village coincides with news of Gina’s death at the Academy. At the Cure’s urging, Van Helsing goes with the local GP, Tobler (Miles Malleson) to look at the body, and convinces Tobler to let him deal with the problem by quickly quarantining the body locked in a stout, padlocked coffin and assigning reliable people to keep a watch over it. Marianne relieves Frau Lang in this task and waits with the school’s stable master Severin (Henry Scott). Before Van Helsing can return with his vampire killing kit, however, Severin is killed by Meinster in bat form, whilst Marianne is confronted by Gina rising out of her coffin.


Fisher borrows a flourish here from M. R. James’ “Count Magnus” as the padlocks on Gina’s coffin fall one by one to the floor unlocked. The vampire Gina stalks the terrified Marianne with fiendishly sensual intent even as she begs her forgiveness for “letting him love me” whilst urging Marianne to kiss “your little Gina.” The lesbian vampire film still has to wait until the following year’s Blood and Roses to come out of the coffin however, as Van Helsing arrives in time to chase Gina off, but Brides does rack up the possibly more interesting landmark of gay vampiric activity later. Van Helsing breaks his unspoken compact to protect Marianne from the truth as she confronts her with the Baron’s nature and forces her to tell him where she expects to meet him. This proves to be an old windmill at the edge of town, a marvellous arena for a final confrontation where Van Helsing finds Gina and the other vampire bride with a harshly mocking Greta. Van Helsing holds off the two girls with his crucifix but Greta simply jumps on him and fights for the talisman, only to accidentally plunge with it over a balcony and crash to her death on some boards laid over a well. The cross drops through a crack into the well before Van Helsing can retrieve it, leaving him vulnerable to Meinster when he enters producing a chain from under his cape and almost throttling Van Helsing to death with it, before gleefully biting his nemesis, taking enough blood to put him under his command. The Baron then goes to drag Marianne out of the Academy and bring her back so that he can force Van Helsing to watch her initiation into the undead fold.


When he wakes up, Van Helsing is distraught to find the vampire’s mark on his neck, but he isn’t out of tricks yet. In another of the film’s innovative and clever ideas, much mimicked in vampire cinema ever since, Van Helsing tries a radical cure. He stokes a branding iron red hot in a brazier and then jams it against his wound, scalding him hideously but removing the stain of this most transgressive “kiss.” A little dab of holy water from a cask the Cure gave him heals the burn immediately, and Van Helsing is back to form. When Meinster returns he doesn’t realise his enemy is able to fight, and before he can vamp on Marianne, Van Helsing helps to a face-full of holy water that leaves him horribly scarred. Meinster escapes after warding off Van Helsing by kicking the brazier over, turning the windmill immediately into an inferno, but Van Helsing escapes with Marianne to the mill’s upper balcony.


The climax originally intended of Brides was for Van Helsing to use a curse to call down other vampires as bats upon the Baron, for his transgression in drinking his mother’s blood. Budget constraints and Cushing’s objection to the idea Van Helsing would engage in black magic meant this concept was abandoned, only to be used a few years later in Kiss of the Vampire. Meinster’s comeuppance here is less spectacular but still original and memorable, as Van Helsing jumps onto the mill’s sail and drags it down to turn the whole structure into a crucifix, pinioning the Baron under the shadow of religious sanctity and finally killing him, leaving a fade out with Marianne in Van Helsing’s arms and the mill with the two vampire girls within going up in flames as the credits roll. The Brides of Dracula was released in what proved a banner year for horror cinema as the commercial force of Hammer’s success unleashed a new wave of films, including Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio, Roger Corman’s House of Usher, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and it stands tall with them in the genre’s mottled history. After all but dying out in the mid-1940s, the horror film was well and truly back from the dead.

18th 09 - 2014 | 4 comments »

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch


By Roderick Heath

Jim Jarmusch’s career seems as intimately connected with the evolution of American independent film as Pablo Picasso’s was to modernism in painting: he helped to give birth to it, he gave it much of its aesthetic and thematic lexicon, but then he remained happy in his niche and left it for everyone else to accept or reject what they liked in their own attempts to reforge the art form. Similarities between Jarmusch and Picasso end there, of course. Jarmusch’s calm, wry, gentle style subtly evolved from his early work, though it remained defined by a resolute minimalism and lack of interest in cinematic flash that only partly hides a New Age take on an old Hollywood value, one that holds films are no more interesting than the people in front of the camera and what they’re saying. Jarmusch was one filmmaker who seemed to arrive with the phrase “cult following” already attached to his name, and he continued on that way, though that following has diminished a little in recent years. It’s odd indeed to think of a filmmaker like Jarmusch in an age increasingly detached from the kinds of small, arty movie theatres in bohemian neighbourhoods and video store back shelves that fostered his following. Only Lovers Left Alive signals Jarmusch’s awareness of this, as it provides an aging retronaut’s statement of fetishistic revelry in all that is arcane and eternal in the midst of yet another paradigm shift. Jarmusch’s one concession to a zeitgeist is his story, which depicts that much-beloved and abused figure of crepuscular romanticism, the vampire.


This is a vampire movie as only Jarmusch could make it—except perhaps for Amy Heckerling, whose Vamps (2012) was completely different in tone and yet dealt in almost exactly the same ideas and concerns. Jarmusch’s vampires are undying hipsters, as their creator aligns the outsider status of the artist: the sun-shy, attention-wary bohemians who create for the pure love of creation and expression of innermost emotions, and subsist in fear of a world that will surely misunderstand, if not fear them. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a wan, rake-thin composer who’s walled himself up in a house in the midst of Detroit’s blasted suburbs. Adam has a contracted gopher, Ian (Anton Yelchin), to dig up anything he asks for, from an array of vintage guitars to a hardwood bullet in a working .38 shell casing he claims to need for an “art project.” Adam’s elegantly dishevelled home is crammed with LPs and amusingly jerry-rigged technology. Amongst the talents he’s developed in his hundreds of years on earth is a gift for zany electrical engineering: not surprisingly, Nikolai Tesla is one of his heroes, as he was for Jack White in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). His house runs on a generator that absorbs atmospheric energy, and he’s linked his laptop up to an old TV so he can see anyone he’s Skyping with on a decent-sized screen. But Adam’s real metier is musician, one he’s been following for centuries. He once let Schubert claim a piece of his “just to get it out there,” and now composes droning, spacey Shoegaze-ish tunes he describes as funeral music. He has let some of his new compositions leak out to test their mettle and has become an underground music hero, a problematic achievement as now bands of young fans are trolling the streets of Detroit in search of the elusive master’s home.


Adam’s life partner, or more accurately undead partner, is the inevitably named Eve (Tilda Swinton), who resides in Morocco, the couple well used to both times of togetherness and separation, a quirky habit that has undoubtedly fostered their centuries-long affair’s steadfast ardour. Eve chums about with aged fellow vampire Kit (John Hurt), another reclusive artist: he used to be Christopher Marlowe, no less, and is still irritated by being forced into hiding because of his supposed murder and that his “illiterate zombie” front Shakespeare gets all the credit for the plays he wrote afterwards. Kit, who’s become old and incapacitated, has been adopted by a café owner and literary protégé, Bilal (Slimane Dazi). Adam, Eve, and Kit don’t drink human blood direct from the source anymore, more out of respect and caution for their own health than for people because of the amount of “contamination” out there these days. Besides, it’s hard to dispose of the victims for things have changed, as Eve notes, from “the old days when we could just chuck them in the Thames alongside all the other tubercular floaters.” The sensible, modern vampire prefers to procure nicely purified and bottled supplies from clinicians and blood banks: Kit gets his from “a lovely French doctor” and passes some on to Eve. Adam buys his from a physician in a Detroit hospital, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), whom he meets late at night with menacing silence wearing a surgical mask, lab coat, an antiquated stethoscope, and a nametag that reads Dr. Faust, and pays off with huge rolls of cash. Getting their blood offers a sublime, druglike pleasure for the vampires. But Adam seems to be in a particularly dark and downbeat mood of late: his wooden bullet is actually a suicide option, and his distress signals reach the intuitively understanding Eve. She grumpily prepares to travel to him, packing her only necessities—her favourite books.


Only Lovers Left Alive plainly deals with matters that have long fascinated Jarmusch, in particular, cultural memory in the context of the New World’s determined lack of it. The fetishism for the detritus of recent pasts and the mystique of cool evokes a constant thread in his films, whilst the film’s closest immediate analogue is probably Mystery Train (1991), his ghost-riddled, wry comedy that used Memphis rather than Detroit as his blasted avatar of Americana, whilst the central couple have similarities to the Japanese cool cats who traversed that city and declared preference for Carl Perkins over Elvis Presley in the pantheon of hip. The travelling, eye-caressing surveys of nocturnal cities, splendid in their desertion and decay, immediately evoke Jarmusch’s early works, like Down by Law (1986) and Night on Earth (1991). The literary nom-de-plumes and hints of blurred identity and life-after-death journeying recalls Dead Man (1996). Jarmusch’s style, verging on an antistyle and influenced by such great stripped-down cinematic mechanics as Ozu and Dreyer, is so spare as to be hard to spot variations in, but some of Jarmusch’s later works, like Broken Flowers (2006), certainly started to feel hermetic in their outlook and references as well as method. That film’s hero and his habit of driving while listening to his mix CDs, in careful excision of anything unwantedly messy or edgy, contrasts Jarmusch’s early works, which were like toggling between late-night radio stations, taking in a panoramic sample of the cultural landscape and its otherworldly wells. But Only Lovers Left Alive reveals a real artist’s capacity for self-awareness and even self-satire: Jarmusch has made his own dismay at time’s relentless advance and its impact on the institutions of artistic meaning he treasures part of the film’s texture, whilst also noting that what could be taken by the jaded as inevitable repetition might also be fecund revivalism, reinvention, even rebirth.


Some might find it odd that Jarmusch has made a film that could be called the black bible of the current crop of hipsters and trendies in its celebration of the fashionably arcane, bygone maxims of style and authority. But, of course, mix-and-match delight in the ephemera of the past and present is hardly a recent invention, and has been a secret tool of bohemia in contention with industrial society’s chop-chop insistence as far back as the pre-Raphaelites and neoclassicists. Nothing was as cheap and ephemeral as an 8-inch single record was in 1960, but now it’s an artefact, a lodestone and repository. Jarmusch starts the film with a sequence that stands amongst his best, his camera moving in a swooning circle in mistimed mimicry of such a record spinning on a player: Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” played at the wrong speed turning into a druggy anthem for its pair of separated lovers, who both recline in their dreamy, separate but connected anomie. Jarmusch might move his camera more in this film than he did in his first three films put together, if still sparingly, creating a sense much like being sucked into a whirlpool in a lake of tar, a slow and slurping decline. Jarmusch repeats the motif later as he intercuts between Adam, Eve, and Kit sinking into ecstasy as they have their taste of blood. The correlation of vampiric activity and junkie habitudes isn’t a new one: Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1973) mooted it a long time ago, and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) put it front and centre for a far more lacerating approach to the idea of contemporary vampire life than this one seeks to be. But Jarmusch’s take is original insofar as he equates it with the experiential, potentially communal thrill of lotus eating, absinthe drinking, LSD, and MDMA, as well as the solitary corrosion of heroin.


Jarmusch’s attitude to his antiheroes is wry and exacting even as he makes it plain he’s on their side, sharing their quirks, their fears, and their loves. They snobbishly refer to ordinary people as “zombies,” and Adam reveals he’s contemplating self-annihilation because he’s fed up with their “fear of their own imaginations.” Jarmusch confirms his antennae certainly haven’t weakened, as he articulates the feeling that’s been prevalent amidst sectors of the educated culturati in the increasingly messy state of contemporary democracy of increasingly blinding, fraught despair at the reactionary impulses apparent in modern society. Jarmusch satirizes the attitude a little bit, too, not letting his undying cool folk off the hook by reminding us forcefully by the end that they participate in the roundelay of consumption, too, and that their pretences require somebody’s sacrifice. One of the key conceits and driving jokes of the film is that the actually cool and creative will always recognise their kind: Adam and Eve have shifted with the evolution of culture from baroque to romanticism to Motown (“I’m more of a Stax girl myself,” Eve admits), obeying the necessity of changing modes of expression whilst recognising unchanging fixtures and standards. Adam’s stringy-haired gloominess, so readily identifiable in the age of Emo, was imbued, Eve argues, by his association with Byron and Shelley. Adam has a wall filled with privileged heroes (and of course, he says repeatedly “I don’t have heroes”) including Buster Keaton, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, and Rodney Dangerfield.


The film is textured by allusions. These run from small, jokey ones, like the encounter between Dr. Faust and Dr. Watson, to larger, more expansive rhymes, like linking the dying industrial mecca of Detroit with a traditional vampire’s castle, comprehending the similarity of the movements that eroded both feudal aristocracy and Western industrial capitalism, and the narrative’s refrains to Tangier, hang-out of escapee nonconformists from Delacroix to William Burroughs. Drug dealers constantly try to entice Eve from the alleys of the Casbah, an ironic touch as Eve is certainly on the hunt for her fix, but not that kind: her good stuff is far more difficult to acquire and more acute in its representation of life bartered. Jarmusch unfolds many scenes in successions of dreamy dissolves and repeated framings that infer the connectedness of Adam and Eve even in separate places, and finally portrays them both naked and in bed, lounging in a slight asymmetry that captures both their definite sexuality and their faint androgyny.


The couple’s eventual meeting, clearly the first time they’ve come back together in ages, is one of two superbly affecting moments: centuries of gathered affectations and borrowed trappings the two lovers wear like costumes suddenly fall away, and they are again a courtly gentleman and his lady, Adam stripping off Eve’s glove and kissing her palm with all the tortured and fulsome passion of some De Laclos characters. The second comes as Adam gives Eve tours of his midnight world, showing her his ingenious power supply when it breaks down and driving her around Detroit with its endless razed blocks and tomblike warehouses and factories, pointing out the old Packard plant, “where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world—finished.” Eve confidently anticipates Detroit’s rebirth in the future when “the cities of the south are burning.” Adam takes Eve inside the Michigan Theatre, a beautiful manmade cavern with decayed remnants of glorious ambition and soaring craftsmanship, now used as a car park and recognised as itself only by the two exiles. Jarmusch’s camera floats rapturously, scanning the ceiling and his two lovers back to back as they crane their heads up and their bodies spin upon the dusty floor.


Jarmusch blends his fictional conceit cleverly with a realistic basis that’s sneakily exact and detailed, a method that defines most well-thought-through fantasies. Adam and Eve are a sophisticated, unconventional couple, only slightly exaggerated, with deftly recorded rhythms of behaviour, from Eve picking up on Adam’s distress signals to the eternal bugbear that is Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Ava has warned both of them that she’s likely to turn up in their lives by psychic means, projecting herself into their dreams, and she does arrive at Adam’s house when Eve’s only been there for three days. The way the couple refer to her makes one perhaps expect a darker, deadlier, more traditional version of the vampire, but, in fact, Ava’s a carefree, self-indulgent, ageless teenager, dangerous to them not because she’s more wicked but because, like so many teens, she has much less idea of consequences and no interest in their adult fussiness. Her affectations, like polka-dotted stockings and faux-fur coats, mark her as an interminable scenester and low-rent party girl, the embarrassing sibling who’s been dogging the couple for ages and making them cringe a little for offering pose without style. She flops on Adam’s couch, drinks up his blood supply like it’s going out of fashion, puts on his new recordings to listen to, and airily informs him she’s heard some of his stuff in an underground club in Los Angeles. “Zombie central,” Adam contemptuously describes that city. The closeness of Eve and Ava’s sisterly relationship is swiftly, casually noted as they mirror each others’ pose and actions in stripping off gloves and reclining on the sofa, leaving Adam cut off and glowering in the reverse shot. “Are you still upset about the thing in Paris?” Ava questions. “It’s been 87 years,” Eve does admit.


Adam’s misgivings about having her around prove well-founded however. When she talks the couple into exploring the city’s nightlife with her, Adam gets Ian to guide them. He takes them to an agreeably grimy nightspot where a quality punk band grinds out music, and Adam hears his own droning sounds piped during the break. When the quartet return to Adam’s house at dawn, he and Eve retreat to bed, leaving Ava and Ian together. In the evening, Eve is shocked to find Ava has killed Ian, a moment of weakness that’s left her in discomfort from imbibing his polluted blood. Adam and Eve’s patience snaps: they throw Ava out on the street, and she shambles off into the night yelling insults. The couple quickly rid themselves of the immediate problem by taking Ian’s corpse to an abandoned factory and tossing it into a sunken pit filled with some nasty substance: “Don’t ask,” Adam warns Eve, and when the body lands in it, the flesh is immediately eaten away. Eve recoils, and mutters, “Well, that was visual,” in a wry punch line that feels like a jab back at the way Jarmusch has been criticised for rarely indulging visual qualities. Realising that they still face investigation because Ian had been seen with them in public, Adam agrees to accompany Eve back to Tangier. They fast through the flight in anticipation of some of Kit’s quality blood stash, but the pair finds Kit is dying, tended to by a distraught Bilal, from blood that was badly contaminated. Thus, the pair is left not just distraught by the fading of their friend and fellow true believer, but also starving.


For all its blackly humorous morbidity, invocations of collapse and melancholia, and permanent nocturnal atmosphere that resolves in a restaging-cum-parody of a strung-out junkie-lovers drama like Panic in Needle Park (1971), Only Lovers Left Alive is a work of peculiar grace and good humour, even in its darker refrains. The title’s implicit message (borrowed from a scifi novel that inspired a punk rock album) speaks of romanticism undying and captures the peculiar faith upheld by everyone who treasures a work of art, even in an age that wants to transduce it all into a cloud of bits somewhere. Adam mocks Ava for enjoying something on You Tube (admittedly, only a schlocky piece of Euro dance music with a video featuring a joke shop Dracula and go-go dancers) and ignoring the grand cornucopia such phenomena provide, the ready, but not tactile connection with a vast scheme of invention.


Only Lovers Left Alive is a stand for the tactile connection, albeit one whose mood is ethereal. Adam and Eve inherit the dreams and achievements of a culture that has so little use for them. Adam is given renewed zest and will to fight for his survival in a new and alienating place when he sees a young female singer, Yasmine (Yasmine Hamdan), performing in café, a vision of leather-clad beauty and talent suggesting that Adam’s ever-renewing search for quality and cool has found a new, embryonic zone for experiment and distillation—a new zeitgeist to be absorbed by. His next phase, and Eve’s, too, can only be achieved, however, through an act of calculated parasitism. The couple put it off as long as possible, but when presented by an opportunity—a young couple making out in a deserted courtyard—they move upon them with impunity, bearing their fangs before the film blacks out in an unnerving and bleakly funny last glimpse. Even the biggest dreamer amongst us is still just another animal.

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6th 03 - 2011 | 30 comments »

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

By Roderick Heath

Bram Stoker’s most famous creation has retained his culturally iconic status largely because of the many fascinatingly varied cinematic takes on the sanguinary Count. His story invites inventive interpretation, with underpinnings that are intrinsically mythic and psychologically primal, yet parsed by modern processes of rational investigation and juxtaposed realism. It’s also expressively bound up with the transformations just beginning to afflict Western society when Stoker published the work. These different tensions within the tale need only be tweaked slightly in any direction to change it comprehensively. Look at the films, and the artistic and cultural traditions therein, evolved from this work. F. W. Murnau offered a Germanic, Death-and-the-Maiden take in his expressionistic Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1921). Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) conjured a high-gothic, dreamlike world that belittled the neurotic repression of its heroes and offered the suavest of vampire overlords. Terence Fisher’s rip-roaring, ironically realistic Dracula (1958) stripped things down to basics and portrayed invasive sexuality afflicting the uptight bourgeoisie. Werner Herzog’s epic recasting of Murnau’s template with Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), delved even deeper to create a medieval-flavoured folk myth. Various interesting TV takes in the 1970s tried to stick close to the novel and draw out its literary intricacy, whilst John Badham’s 1979 version offered Frank Langella as a romance-novel antihero. Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) was a blend of dance and illustrative fantasia.

All of these versions have fans and several have a claim to greatness. Francis Ford Coppola took his chances in the early ’90s, and it paid off for him, at least in the short-term. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was his last popular hit to date, and it’s still held in fond regard by a lot of younger movie fans, largely because of the magical nexus of Gen-X icon Winona Ryder and a swooning version of the tale perfect for the burgeoning teen Goth subculture. Coppola had begun his directorial career with horror films, including his uncredited work on The Terror and his mainstream debut, Dementia 13 (1963), under the aegis of Roger Corman, so he knew his way around the genre. Being a young horror fan and movie buff at the time, the promise of Coppola making a Dracula film was exciting to the deepest parts of my anatomy. And yet the result was a disappointment so severe that I’ve never quite shaken it off in estimating my opinion of Coppola. I’ve only returned to it again a couple of times in the nearly two decades that have passed since its release. I generally feel Coppola’s post-Apocalypse Now work is badly underappreciated, particularly One from the Heart (1981), Rumblefish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984), and The Godfather Part III (1990). And yet Bram Stoker’s Dracula is definite proof of many of the worst things said about Coppola in those waning days: that he was only interested in style, and that his care with the human element was gone.

The initial selling point of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (hence the title) is the nominal notion that it’s a more accurate adaptation of Stoker than usual. It does restore many elements from the novel, from some of Stoker’s surprisingly potent horror, like Dracula’s feeding a child to his coterie of vampire femmes, to supporting characters like the gallant American Quincey Morris. And yet the possessive title starts to seem more than a bit laughable, because Coppola’s and screenwriter James V. Hart’s own digressions, though different from Murnau’s, are just as great. Conceptually, Coppola’s version is epic, and that is this film’s most resilient quality. Other versions reduce Dracula to a kind of rogue seducer and rodent-like survivor, but Coppola aims to flesh out Stoker’s hinted, if never quite fulfilled, portrait of Dracula as a titan with control over men and elements, a fallen king who only needs a foothold to commence an unparalleled reign of terror. Like other more recent versions, Bram Stoker’s Dracula conflates the historical inspiration for Stoker’s story by commencing with a stylised flashback to Vlad III “The Impaler” (Gary Oldman) fighting for the survival of Christianity against the Turks.

Vlad wins, only for his beloved wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) to commit suicide after a false message declaring his death is shot by arrow into the castle by his enemies. Returning home to her body, Vlad is enraged when the officiating priest (Anthony Hopkins) won’t give the sacrament of extreme unction to a suicide, and he declares a vow against God, stabbing the crucifix in his castle’s abbey and drinking the blood that pours forth from it. Four centuries later, young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is commissioned by his boss to replace his predecessor, the now mad and incarcerated Renfield (Tom Waits), to travel to Transylvania and arrange for the decrepit, bizarre Count Dracula to move to London. Of course, after sealing the deal with the Count, Harker is left stranded in Dracula’s castle at the mercy of his vampire brides. Dracula hits the shores of England and quickly sets sights on Harker’s young fiancée Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (Ryder again) and her saucier friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). Lucy’s triumvirate of suitors, Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and Morris (Bill Campbell), dismayed at Lucy’s afflicted state, call in Seward’s mentor on obscure illnesses and arcane things, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Hopkins again) to advise. He quickly diagnoses vampirism. The cure? More stake in her diet.

Whilst what follows traces the outlines of Stoker’s tale, Coppola’s wild cinematic flourishes quickly swing far away from the oneiric, creeping menace of the novel. So, too, does Hart’s addition of a new element—Mina is not just another target for Dracula’s attentions, but the reincarnation of Elisabeta, for whom Dracula hungers like the world’s oldest lovesick teenager. This notion essentially cuts against the grain of Stoker’s story, which is about rapacious, eruptive sexuality, and the way it subordinates conscious social constructs, not transcendent amorous attachment. Meanwhile, Coppola attempted to prove on multiple levels how hip he was, stirring the pot with relentless visual artifice, film references, MTV crowd casting, and subtext-ransacking figurations. Coppola set out not merely to make an effective horror movie, but to make every horror movie. His film contains direct visual quotes from Nosferatu, both Browning’s and Fisher’s Dracula, as well as The Cat and the Canary (1927), Faust (1926), Vampyr (1931), White Zombie (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), La Belle et la Bête (1946), Wolfen (1981), The Exorcist (1973), and The Shining (1980). The new central story motif comes from Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932). The kinkier elements take clear licence from the ’70s semi-underground horror of Jean Rollin and Jésus Franco, and the deliberately po-faced mixture of mockery and erotic exploration in early scenes between Mina and Lucy resemble Ken Russell’s similarly artificial, anarchic take on Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1987).

But Russell’s film, less refined and expensive, is nonetheless rather better, largely because it was a pure product of Russell’s unique sensibility, whereas Coppola here is mixing and matching like a half-interested DJ. There are signs he felt an essential empathy for Dracula as a tragic villain not so far from Michael Corleone and Colonel Kurtz, but the way this is handled saps the story’s intensity and excitement. White Worm also had a strongly focused lead performance by Amanda Donohoe as a Tory bitch-goddess, whereas here Oldman as Dracula seems completely at a loss in presenting a singular characterisation when the story and style seem set on sabotaging him. The seriously fragmented impression he leaves is exacerbated by Coppola’s giddy presentations of his various guises. Dracula is, successively, a flowing-locked cavalier, a withered, ludicrously attired old drag queen, an Oscar Wilde-ish dandy, and various forms of monster. Coppola embellishes on the way Dracula ages in reverse in the novel, but he neglects to give connections and explanations for a lot of his changing guises, and Oldman’s characterisation changes with each, offering grossly hammy flourishes, particularly in the first third. Coppola makes the Count and his environment so archly bizarre it’s a wonder Harker doesn’t run off screaming at first sight, and the film’s early portions offered a wealth of material to satirists, from Dracula’s independently gesturing shadow to his amusing hairdo, which the likes of Mel Brooks and The Simpsons have since made a meal of. Within moments of arriving, Dracula is waving a sword at Harker and ranting, lapping Harker’s blood off his razor blade, and delivering the famous “children of the night” with overblown camp relish. Indeed, whilst Coppola’s editing, special effects, and camerawork are all remarkably energetic, on closer inspection, it’s hard to miss how flatly and poorly directed most of the interpersonal scenes are. Then again, there’s only so much anyone can do with dialogue like this:

Mina: Can a man and a woman really do that?
Lucy: I did only last night!
Mina: Fibber! No you did not!
Lucy: Yes I did…well only in my dreams. Jonathan measures up, doesn’t he?

What is this, Carry On Dracula? Coppola aims straightforwardly to explicate the coded sexual elements in the novel. Dracula’s brides are pure carnal fantasy, sucking Harker’s blood and bodily appendages. Lucy, rather more the flirt in the book than the prim Mina, is here completely reconfigured into a budding tart happy to toy with her three suitors whilst pining for sexual acrobatics, giggling and wondering with Mina over the ancient erotic Oriental illustrations in Richard Burton’s translation of Arabian Nights. How exactly two well-brought-up young ladies got hold of such outré material isn’t made explicit, but it is a cunning introduction to the peculiar way the Victorians vicariously partook of erotica through the mystique of the historic and the Orient. When Dracula arrives on English shores in wolf form, he makes directly for Lucy’s house and bangs her in werewolf form in her garden, after she and Mina have been dancing in the rain and kissing in overripe ecstatics. Theoretically, this should be tremendously cogent and subversive in the fashion of some of the originators of the erotic horror style, but instead it mostly comes across as try-hard. A real problem is that Coppola goes to no effort at all to invoke a proper sense of repression and reaction, as Fisher, in particular, realised so beautifully. Coppola’s all-encompassing stylisation, which at many points starts to resemble a Dracula-themed video clip, numbs the narrative imperatives. Seward and Van Helsing are reduced to druggie weirdoes as crazy as anyone they treat. Seward is even seen injecting morphine, and his asylum suggests Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade crossbred with the pastiche of Terry Gilliam.

Like Basic Instinct, with which it shared a high-water mark in mainstream Hollywood’s embrace of the adult in 1992, there’s something amazingly asexual about the sexiness on screen, with Frost’s Lucy lolling on a bed with her boobs constantly falling out leaving a desultory flavour. Amongst Coppola’s fragments of visual rhapsody, bobbing corpuscles are a frequent motif, perhaps underlining why some thought of the film as a metaphor for AIDS, especially with the tale as sexed-up as this. Most crucially, placing a sentimentalised love story at the story’s heart basically smothers the erotic anarchism in the cradle. The clear dichotomy here, between Dracula’s predatory intentions and exploitation of Lucy’s desires to make her a ready victim, and his wanting to win over Mina through more traditional romantic means, is silly on several levels. After a meet-cute on the street, he’s giving Mina candlelit dinners, encouraging her to cuddle a white wolf, and swapping heavy sighs. This mocks the film’s own provocations by reducing the matters at stake to a lust-vs-love dynamic. When the time comes for the text’s key moment of Mina drinking Dracula’s blood from his chest, which is supposed to possess a queasy mixture of coercion and forbidden indulgence, Dracula gets all conscientious: “No, I do not vant dis!” he declares, against the grain of everything the character stands for, only for Mina to insistently drink, with Oldman contorting as if receiving the world’s greatest blow job. Secondly, there’s no subsequent substance, hysteria, or passion to the tug-of-war between Dracula and Harker for Mina’s affection, as Coppola rushes through the latter stages of the story, and never achieves the kind of poetic dissent Rollin’s films could muster.

The final impression, which left me so seriously irritated all those years ago and for reasons that have since become all too clear, is of a film that’s identifiable as a significant step on the route to the tedious Twilight-isation of the vampire mystique. Another thing that’s hard to get around is the fact that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is barely effective as a horror movie. Corny gore and make-up effects are aplenty, but there’s no coherence of mood or eeriness to the proceedings. Apocalypse Now sports a far firmer sense of dread and building metaphysical menace. Instead, Coppola trucks in some of his visual fixations, like cross-cutting between action and a religious ceremony, with lingering views of classical ceilings and religious icons, and bleeding crosses that heal, suggesting a Catholic-porn edition of the story. That the film is visually impressive and occasionally awesome is easy to concede. Coppola builds certain sequences to crescendos, and there are some excellent set-pieces that display Coppola’s sense of sheer cinematic movement, particularly a quality piece of swashbuckling when the heroes battle Dracula’s Magyar serfs. Coppola takes the epoch in which the story is set as an excuse to explore the evolution of cinema itself, from magic-lantern shows through to the flicker of the nickelodeon, one of which Dracula and Mina visit, to the stylised expressionism of Murnau and Lang, the lush artifice of the Hollywood back lot, and on to the most advanced swirl of technical effects.

And yet the effect, whilst bracing for movie buffs, leaves the movie perched uneasily between mainstream storytelling prerogatives and the world’s most elaborate student film. In this regard, it strongly resembles Coppola’s fellow haute-cineaste Martin Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear from the year before, and likewise is a good candidate for Coppola’s worst film. So many moments are conceptually arresting, and yet fumbled in execution and in relation to the overall drama. There’s a suggestion throughout, especially when Coppola cuts from Lucy’s beheading to a rare roast beef being carved, that he wouldn’t have minded turning it all into a Monty Python-esque spoof, and Hopkins’ Van Helsing certainly seems pitched on that level. He suggests a savant, introduced stating that “civilisation and syphilisation have evolved together,” detached from regular humanity. “Yes she was in great pain, and then we cut off her head and drove a stake through her heart and burned it, and then she found peace,” he airily declares when Mina asks how she died. His moral determination is seen as based in his own erotic divorcement, and is himself momentarily tempted, when Mina kisses him in the throes of vampiric urges. But again, there’s not enough firm engagement with this notion to make it seem more than another failed aspect, and Hopkins’ simultaneously hammy and distracted performance doesn’t help.

By the conclusion, the number of things Bram Stoker’s Dracula is trying to be has piled up like a mass car wreck: revision, send-up, ardent romance, film studies class, homage, spooky tale, action flick, disease parable, soft-core porn. But the aspect of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that finally wounds it beyond repair is the endemic woeful acting, from Reeves at his most wooden in impersonating an English gentleman to Hopkins, Ryder, Elwes, and Oldman all offering uncharacteristically poor work. Reeves’ worst moment is his one attempt to get emotional, screaming in terror when he sees Dracula giving over the baby to the brides. I would go easiest on Ryder, who was still making the shift from teen starlet to leading lady, and she acquits herself with flat competence until that scene with Van Helsing, where she suggests less a moral woman giving in to demonic impulses than an interpretive dance student giving in to her inner tart. It is worth noting a brief appearance by future star Monica Bellucci as one of Dracula’s brides, and a cameo by Jay Robinson, once famous for playing Caligula in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, as Harker’s boss. But the actor who comes off best is Waits as Renfield, essaying physically one of the grotesques Waits usually conveys vocally in his music: he wields exactly the right stylised blend of mordant humour and perverse ferocity. Likewise, Wojciech Kilar’s terrific music score and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography lend the film much more authoritative heft than it actually deserves. It wasn’t, however, a complete waste of time for Coppola, for some of his motifs and effects crop up again, infinitely more controlled, in his extraordinary return to mythological filmmaking, Youth Without Youth (2007).


26th 11 - 2010 | 5 comments »

The Karnstein Trilogy: The Vampire Lovers (1970) / Lust for a Vampire (1970) / Twins of Evil (1971)

Directors: Roy Ward Baker/Jimmy Sangster/John Hough

By Roderick Heath

Ingrid Pitt’s death this week at age 73, old but still too young, sent all us horror movie buffs into mourning. Pitt was a legendary emblem of the saucy edge of early ’70s cinema: there she was in all the old genre books and fan magazines, usually with fangs and rotund breasts protruding as the very image of the unleashed and voracious feminine libido. The Polish-born Pitt, real name Ignouskha Petrova, was actually an affecting and intelligent actress, one who had made her stage debut playing in Brecht, and who could bring both emotional integrity and a spry good humour to her roles. She made a breakthrough in 1968’s neo-swashbuckler Where Eagles Dare, a film that was, ironically, uncomfortable for her to make because as a child, she had survived incarceration in a concentration camp, and the proliferation of German uniforms on the set brought back hideous memories for her. Her part as Heidi, a German barmaid who’s actually a British agent, was nominally empowering (if not nearly as much as costar Mary Ure’s role as a full-on action chick) as she rendered Nazi opponents and Allied helpmates equally delirious at the sight of her overflowing décolletage. It was a small part, but an eye-catching one, and almost inevitably Pitt, with her nonspecific accent and mature, fleshy beauty, seemed born to be a star for Hammer Studios. She was chosen to play the leading role in their adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s legendary novella Carmilla, which was entitled The Vampire Lovers upon release in 1970.

Pitt’s time as a horror star was actually very brief: the success of The Vampire Lovers made her a name for a moment, but after the following year’s Countess Dracula and The House That Dripped Blood, all that was over. Countess Dracula would seem her best showcase. Her brave performance in a difficult role as a character who blends the cruellest narcissism with fretful anxiety works excellently as a metaphor for diva stardom itself as she desperately tries to soak up the vitality of those around her to sustain her waning youth and beauty. But Countess Dracula is an extremely uneven film, and the director, Peter Sasdy, had Pitt’s voice dubbed over by another actress, an act which incensed Pitt sufficiently to make her shove Sasdy into a swimming pool at a party. It’s still easy to admire Pitt in that film, but her most unsullied vehicle remains The Vampire Lovers, a work that momentarily reenergised Hammer’s waning clout as makers of horror movies and which immediately spawned two pseudo-sequels, Lust For A Vampire and Twins of Evil. The three films form the loose “Karnstein trilogy.” I finally caught up with Lust For A Vampire, in which Swedish actress Yutte Stensgaard took over Pitt’s role as Carmilla, only a couple of days before hearing of Pitt’s death.

The Karnstein trilogy is often smirkingly recalled as an epitome of a cheerful, campy brand of horror. These entries awkwardly grafted a resolutely soft-core eroticism, already close to being corny in 1970, onto the standard tropes of Hammer’s gothic brand, treading close to artless pastiche that occasionally resembles the childish naughtiness of the Carry On films, all tits and sharp teeth. This reputation is correct to some extent, for the three films strain and often fall to pieces trying to reconcile the crisp classicism for which Hammer was best known and the pasted-on naughty bits. It’s impossible not to chortle at the gauche moments of supposedly off-hand but contrived nudity, and dumb metaphors like that in Twins of Evil, when, during a sex scene, Carmilla strokes a phallic candle. Compared with the continental works of directors like Jésus Franco, Jean Rollin, and Harry Kuemel, with which Hammer seemed to be trying to compete, they remained happy to clumsily engender hot collars rather than assault sensibilities, and failed to synthesise the erotic and the oneiric into a satisfying whole.

The Vampire Lovers took on the Euro trashmeisters by stealing their sexy shenanigans and smothering them with solid British production values. Would-be impresarios of a new, cheeky brand of Hammer horror were producers Harry Fine and Michael Style, who hired seasoned professional Roy Ward Baker (who died just a few weeks before Pitt) to give the film class and seriousness. But straightlaced Baker clashed repeatedly with Style, whose affectations of the hipster roué extended to reading porn mags around the set. That conflict is all too obvious in the damnably awkward film they made, which sticks pretty close to LeFanu’s novel, but lacks all trace of LeFanu’s almost mystically light frost of sensuality and tragedy, except for a memorably atmospheric, if barely relevant, opening sequence in which Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer), a self-appointed vampire killer, lies in wait to dispatch a disconcertingly angelic-looking bloodsucker. Pitt’s performance imbues her Carmilla with a tragic edge of corrosive guilt, even as she’s compelled to consume everyone and everything in her path, enjoying the gentle days she spends with her victim-lovers before the inevitable reckoning in plaguelike decimation, and her own flight in the search of new pastures. Carmilla, also variously called Mircalla (her birth name) and Marcilla depending on what guise she’s adopting, moves from family to family in the hazily Germanic province of Styria with the aid of acolyte Countess Herritzen (Dawn Addams). She first victimises Laura (Pippa Steele), daughter of the stern Junker General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), and then, by similar contrivance, moves into the house of British expatriate Morton (George Cole) and commences bewitching his daughter Emma (Madeleine Smith).

LeFanu’s book is something of a landmark in Western literature for detailing a lesbian romance, if in veiled and disturbing terms. In their way, for all their lack of dexterity in treating the theme, the Hammer Karnstein films also deserve that bit of recognition for bringing a distinctly anguished, but admirably unveiled and declarative alternate sexuality (as well as the more familiar kind) onto mainstream English-language cinema screens. Pitt, indeed, always celebrated this aspect of the films in the face of some condemnation. The notion that Pitt becomes the practical auteur of The Vampire Lovers is hard to resist, as she depicts an exhausting, self-crucifying sexual prerogative over and above the crudities of the film. But whilst Pitt throws herself into it without hesitation, her romancing the wishy-washy Smith falls a distant second to the scene in which Pitt seduces the household governess (Kate O’Mara) with lividly lustful looks, and Pitt handles the moments when Carmilla reveals her monstrous side with equal effect. She incurs the viciously repressive wrath of the Victorian patriarchs when they catch wind of what’s going on, with Spielsdorf hacking off her head when he, Morton, and Hartog finally track her down to her family crypt. Whilst essayed with a relative elegance and formal beauty, The Vampire Lovers is badly hampered by a flat, diffuse screenplay, as well as tonal uncertainty. Ward’s stately direction doesn’t draw out the air of forbidden sexuality and generate necessary hysteria—indeed, his good taste gets in the way.

All three films were written by one Tudor Gates, which makes their wild swings in unity and quality all the harder to account for, although the clashes of the many cooks behind the cameras does explain a lot. Lust For A Vampire commences with Countess Herritzen (now played by Barbara Jefford) and a heretofore unseen Count Karnstein (Mike Raven, doing his best Christopher Lee impression), who may be the black-clad horseman who followed Carmilla about in the previous film, resurrecting their progeny with the blood of a Styrian milkmaid, justifying why Carmilla is now incarnated by Stensgaard’s younger, blonder, sportier model. Herritzen then plants her in a perfect new feeding ground—a finishing school for British girls run by the uptight Miss Simpson (Helen Christie) and her weedy partner Giles Barton (Ralph Bates). Carmilla quickly seduces and then murders a serving girl from a local tavern and fellow student Susan (Pippa Steele again). Rakish author Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson), on a continental tour, visits the castle, where he’s freaked out by a number of the schoolgirls he mistakes for the revived Karnsteins. Seeing a henhouse, Lestrange appoints himself fox, getting a job at the school and developing a desperate passion for Carmilla, a passion shared by Barton, who, uncovering her true identity, prostrates himself before in begging to be her slave. In an exceptionally good sequence, Carmilla teasingly bites Barton, giving this repressed rodent a tiny moment of sensual delight before abandoning him to bleed pitifully to death.

Lust For A Vampire’s shoot was as contentious as the first film’s, with Sangster, formerly Hammer’s scripting whiz, pressed into directing after Terence Fisher dropped out, and likewise conflicting with Style. As a director, Sangster brought a cool tone, a good touch with the actors, and a more cunning sense of Carmilla as pansexual predator to the film’s first half. He pitches her as a kind of female, antiheroic James Bond who steadily sleeps with and kills many of the people around her. This aspect builds to a scene in which Lestrange, having become her lover, bangs furiously on the door to her room where she’s cheerfully draining the blood of a fellow student she’s bedded, her female lover’s ecstatic agony all too obvious. Stensgaard lacks Pitt’s pathos, but retains a kind of cold dignity in the part that’s right for this conception. Unfortunately, the attempt to give Carmilla another tragic dimension, in her yearning a normal sex life with Lestrange, but forced to maintain her predatory habits by the remote control of the other Karnsteins, comes to no effect as the second half slides rapidly downhill and becomes a total mess through sloppy story development and clumsier action, and time out for a godawful song, “Strange Love,” over a montage of sexy bits.

Lust For A Vampire leaves the fate of Count Karnstein and Countess Herritzen ambiguous, an ambiguity not dealt with at all in the third film, Twins of Evil, which seems to be nominally a prequel, but is perhaps better regarded as a fantasia on the traditional Hammer horror themes. The title suggests a double entendre, considering all the low-cut bodices on display. Cobbled together to take advantage of the fame of Mary and Madeleine Collinson, twin sisters who had been Playmates of the Month, the script does everything obvious with such a gimmick—and it’s all the better for it. Twins of Evil appears to be set in a more distant past in which a coterie of Puritan thugs led by Gustav Weil (Cushing again) freely snatch and burn at the stake any women they suspect of being devilish agents, which, of course, are the youngest and prettiest. The Karnsteins are here represented by a living scion (Damien Thomas) who’s dedicated himself to worshipping Satan and evil. His efforts are rewarded when, having killed a peasant girl in a black mass, he revives Mircalla (now on to her third incarnation, Katya Wyeth). She vampirises him before departing back to the nether regions. Meanwhile, Weil finds himself and his wife (Kathleen Byron) saddled with the twin daughters of Weil’s dead brother. Maria (Mary C.) and Frieda (Madeleine C.) are two fashionable young ladies whose Venetian upbringing has rendered them poor fits for their uncle’s severe regime and provincial boredom. Frieda, the flirtier, dirtier twin, ventures out into the night in search of excitement and finds it in the arms and fangs of the newly crepuscular Count.

Cushing’s capacity to project cast-iron morality is pushed to an extreme, his Weil presented as mere equal and opposite in grossly violent repression to the Count’s insatiable, parasitic sensuality. Each of them grinds soul and flesh apart, perversion the offspring of suppression, with the good and bad twins trapped between, embodying the basic Manichean split in total polarisation. Local teacher and choirmaster Anton Hoffer (David Warbeck) is the voice of rationalism, resisting Weil’s cabal of Puritans. When his sister, fellow teacher Ingrid (Isobel Black), leaves the village to avoid Weil’s threats, she turns up later killed by the Count, and exhibited with punitive relish by Weil. Of course, there’s the climactic moment in which one twin is swapped for the other, and Weil nearly burns Maria at the stake, only to be averted when Anton is attacked by Frieda, pretending to be her sister. Anton leads the Puritans in war against the Count: having repeatedly dressed down the Puritans for their conveniently misogynistic marauding, he implores them with the pointed line, “Seek out the evil you fear where it really is, in the castle on the hill!” Director Hough’s grip on the film, unlike Baker and Sangster, only strengthens as it goes on, full of well-orchestrated action and atmosphere, and the climactic scenes are some of the best Hammer ever offered, particularly Weil’s brutal decapitation of Frieda.

Twins of Evil is nowhere near a perfect film, filled, like its predecessors, with odd, unexplained story leaps (for example, who exactly was attacking the villagers before Mircalla’s visitation) and stricken with a jerky, opportunistic rhythm. But it’s by far the best of the trilogy, and one of the finest later Hammer films. The sexy stuff here is, as mentioned earlier, often silly: lesbian action is restrained to Frieda biting one of the Count’s imprisoned courtesans on the breast, and there’s a later, risible moment in which Anton pinions Frieda by dropping a crucifix on her conveniently displayed body. But Hough’s decrepit castle interiors and foggy forests give the film a lushness that’s more incipiently erotic. Especially good is Mircalla’s resurrection, a ghostly, shrouded figure that seems morbidly malevolent rising from the grave and confronting the terrified Count, but then reaching out with a finely feminine hand to stroke his face. The Collinsons were a bit bovine, and both were dubbed, but otherwise the acting’s largely good, particularly from Cushing and Byron, whose terrified hausfrau works up the guts to give her husband a tongue-lashing when he goes too far. Dennis Price is in here, too, looking distressingly ill in one of his last roles. Oddly enough, the only actor to appear in all three films is Harvey Hall, who played, respectively, a conscientious, but weak-fleshed butler; an inquisitive, but doomed police inspector; and one of Weil’s religious thugs. In any event, even if the Karnstein trilogy as a whole fails to cohere, the films are still dashing good fun. l

30th 04 - 2010 | no comment »

The Liquid of Life (2008)

Director: Pini Schatz

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Liquid of Life is a 50-minute Israeli documentary with a subtitle: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Blood. Quoting from one of the most mordantly funny films ever made is both audacious and a signal that we’re not in for a boring Red Cross lecture—or should I say Red Star of David, which is the more appropriate symbol the Israeli bloodsucker organization uses. I learned that and a few things more from this jittery survey of what blood means to director and narrator Schatz, the Jewish people, and, of course, to horror movie fans.

Shatz lets us know at the outset that he’s a filmmaker who hasn’t made a film in eight years. Becoming a father has taken most of his time and interest away from his craft. Shatz’s lifelong attraction to horror movies—particularly vampire movies—seems to have prompted his choice of subject for breaking his cinematic fast. We are liberally treated to snatches of vampire movies, starting with the most famous—Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Shatz points out something I never noticed before: Lugosi wears something that looks like a Star of David on his chest in some scenes. This revelation takes us into a historical exploration of one aspect of anti-Semitism: that Jews use Christian children as blood sacrifices for their rituals, a medieval urban legend that arose from stories about one cultish Jew who killed children. Leavening this unappetizing matzo of a fact, Shatz offers a sarcastic scene from Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers: when faced with a crucifix brandished by his next meal, Shagal the Vampire snickers, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”

Shatz grows more serious when he discusses the death of his father of leukemia at the age of 53. We observe a series of blood donations in progress—including the wince-inducing insertion of needles into veins—and an explanation of the components of blood narrated by a physician and illustrated with some crudely funny cartoons. The horrors the sister of one of the donors went through to try to cure her cancer—a travesty of healing that ended up killing her anyway—are wrenching. On the absurd end of the spectrum, some wacko theologian/psychologist offers that more men than women donate blood because they fear and envy a woman’s ability to give birth, and enact their own bloodletting as a symbolic usurpation of the menstrual cycle. At least, I think that’s what she said.

Another wince-inducing moment—be forewarned, gentlemen—is when Shatz recounts his own underground circumcision when he was a baby in his native Estonia, which was then part of the officially atheistic Soviet Union. He talks about the clandestine smuggling of a mohel from a neighboring country, and shows us an actual circumcision—one of several bloodlettings in his own life. The final scene shows how he reenacted the execution of his grandfather by a single gunshot to the head. The packing of the blood package and the way the concussion of the blank in the prop gun actually explodes the package was really very interesting.

The festival blurb characterizes The Liquid of Life as “a rapid fire ‘essay’ film that prompted Canadian auteur Guy Maddin to state: ‘A fantastic idea for a film, maybe the best idea I’ve ever heard.’” It is a good idea, but calling it “rapid fire” is a nice way of saying it’s kind of a random mess; like any essay, it needs an editor’s hand to shape it into a logical whole. Nonetheless, The Liquid of Life is an enjoyable mess created by a genuinely funny director I’d be happy to spend time with again. l

The Liquid of Life will be screened on May 8 at 9:15 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


18th 04 - 2010 | 14 comments »

Near Dark (1987)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Kathryn Bigelow

By Roderick Heath

Kathryn Bigelow’s been saddled with one of those milestone Oscar wins that carries the whiff of cultural formaldehyde, but I find her victory inspiring and amusing in the same way Peter Jackson’s was: the ascension to mainstream laurels of a directorial talent rooted in fare beyond the pale. Indeed, the impact of The Hurt Locker was imbued not by any deep, inherent dramatic qualities in its fairly basic and dramatically familiar, if thankfully terse screenplay, but by Bigelow’s spare, yet intense vision, which first truly gained attention with her mighty reinvention of the vampire movie Near Dark. Truth be told, Near Dark is a far more nuanced, provocative, gripping, multileveled work than The Hurt Locker, but because it’s a horror film, nobody paid it that kind of attention. And yet each time I revisit Near Dark, its innate confidence and supple intelligence become more defined. I’m now convinced it’s one of the best American films of the ’80s.

Near Dark was also one of a small but well-remembered barrage of vampire movies in the mid ‘80s, including The Hunger (1983), Fright Night (1985), Vamp (1986), Once Bitten (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), and A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987), that subjected the classic mythology to their own modish, modernising bent. Near Dark has had possibly the deepest impact on subsequent works, including Joss Whedon’s popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise, both of which make use of Near Dark’s ideas for portraying a peripatetic, clannish demimonde of bloodsuckers. And yet it also sustains a mood in common with other films of its era, like John McTiernan’s Nomads and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (both 1986), that peered beneath the prim surfaces of contemporary America and suggested parallels for both forgotten underclasses and latent animalistic drives and chaos in emissaries of darkness. Likewise, Bigelow’s stark, savage, eerie evocation of the West fuses disparate versions of American culture into an original and arresting whole.

A running theme of Bigelow’s work is one of an intrusive outsider within a group that has developed a family dynamic, a dynamic as much defined by fractures as by fellowship. In Near Dark, it’s Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a coltish cowboy-wannabe still trying out his act when he and some of his young friends spy pale, young, ice-cream-licking waif Mae (Jenny Wright). Caleb approaches her, and she seems, in her alternately distracted and eager fashion, to dig him in return. After a night of toey, curious flirtation, Jenny becomes panicked about making it home before sunrise, and when Caleb stops his truck and refuses to take her further without a kiss, she agrees, but bites him on the neck and runs away. Caleb, quickly becoming ill, tries to make it home as the sun seems to burn him, and is snatched up by a speeding Winnebago before his veterinarian father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and younger sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) can come to his aid.

Caleb’s been snared by members of the clan of vampires Jenny has been a part of for five years: Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), the leathery, hardened, pragmatic patriarch, mated to Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), a feral-freaky former victim of Jesse’s who serves as mother figure to Mae; wild good ole boy Severen (Bill Paxton); and Homer (Joshua Miller), a vampirised child housing an embittered man’s psyche. The vampires usually kill their prey—in this case, Caleb—immediately, but Mae begs for his life and promises to see him properly inducted into their ways by teaching him how to kill and feed off humans. Caleb, at first uncomprehending and terrified, tries to return to his home by bus, but has to bail out when he is afflicted with dreadful sickness that is only cured by drinking blood out of a gash Mae makes in her arm. However, Caleb can’t countenance the necessary act of killing people to feed. Loy and Sarah, meanwhile, begin a relentless highway hunt for Caleb.

Other films had toyed with fusing aspects of classic Americana and Western mythology with the horror movie, with mostly embarrassing results (eg, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, 1966), and with replacing the vampire genre’s traditional air of old-world decay and aristocratic glamour with other metaphorical impulses. Few succeeded like Bigelow did here. Her intelligence is proven throughout in the way she manages to conjure imagery that fuses multiple influences. In the same way that The Cramps’ recording of “Fever”—which plays throughout the film’s most infamous, iconic scene—takes a popular, playful song defined by slippery, deceptively subversive sensuality and invests it with an eerie, gothic vibe, so, too, does Bigelow rake over the sparse, desolate feel of the classic Western and do something new with it. The screenplay by Bigelow and Eric Red cunningly effects a psychic link between the Civil War, the Western tradition, the gangster movie, gothic horror, the counterculture, street culture, and the lost working class (“trailer trash”) left behind in Reaganite America, presenting them all as rooted in the landscape and the mood of alienation, otherness, and rebellion latent in the louder national identities.

These wandering vampires, living out of cars and motels, feed off the easily missed in a vast nocturnal Midwest of scantly lit, depopulated streets, bleak motels, diners, honkytonks, and bus stops full of drifting flotsam. Carnivorous callousness contrasts ironically with the care that manifests between people, both in the human world and in their world. A ticket seller won’t help out an obviously ill young man, and Caleb’s assumed to be a junkie by a plainclothes cop (Troy Evans). And yet a security guard giving Caleb a few bucks to pay his fare, and Jesse and Diamondback, both resembling hippie wash-ups, adopt the social refuse they come across. Yet that pair also embodies something far more primal and dangerous. They reign over an amusingly sick facsimile of a nuclear family governed by their own perverse family values, wolfish in their darkness and lean hunger. Jesse himself is actually a Confederate veteran (“We lost!”), still embodying the bushwhacker creed. Bigelow plays games with the usual codes of that family structure, with the young boy the most grotesque of the lot and Caleb reduced to a mooching deadbeat getting his sustenance directly from Mae’s veins. The carefully cast Wright seems both delicate and doe-like in some scenes, and a strong, powerful antelope in others, relating to Caleb as if he is the damsel in distress—which he is initially.

Near Dark’s crucial, classic scene depicts the clan invading an isolated bar (“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Severen declares: “Shit-kicker heaven!”), where Severen delights in terrifying, insulting, and slaughtering the patrons, defying and outdoing all the macho posturings of the clientele. Jesse cuts a waitress’s throat and drains her blood into a beer glass. Mae wipes blood coating her lips away as she marches up to a terrified young cowboy (James LeGros) and then asks him to dance, and Caleb gets a gutful from the shotgun-wielding barman (Thomas Wagner), which Severen avenges by slicing the barman’s throat with a few deft kicks of his cowboy spurs. The sequence’s woozy black humour, atmosphere of malefic menace and judicious flourishes of dazzling gore are spellbinding as the patrons, for all their air of seamy toughness, realise they’re contending with something completely unnatural. The vampires, however, fail in their nominal purpose, which is to impress Caleb with their strength and prerogative and create a clear ground for him to have his first meal of live blood. It’s a brilliant scene, all the more so for the fact that it succeeds in being both horrific, as opposed to merely gross-out, and compulsively entertaining, so charismatic is Paxton’s hammy, relished evil and the thrill of power and undercurrent of lethal misanthropy that unites the vampires. Caleb chases after the young man, who resembles himself, when he dashes out of the joint, but lets him go out of empathy for the terrified lad.

This proves a near-fatal mistake, however, as the incensed clan consider killing their unwanted charge. The young man leads the police to the hotel where the clan are shacked up, and the violent shoot-out that follows, with every bullet hole allowing in a deadly bolt of sunlight, sees Caleb save the day by fetching their van and crashing it though the room wall, giving them the chance to flee. This literally earns Caleb his spurs, as Severen gives him one of his. Layering the narrative are fascinating character and story flourishes that often tweak the familiar presentiments both of this type of narrative and the kinds of family and sexual dynamics it portrays. Loy’s protectiveness for Caleb and Sarah blurs the line between patriarchal and matriarchal care. Jesse and Diamondback’s recalling, like an old married couple, how they met (“And I just knew you were trouble,” Diamondback purrs), a relationship born in violence that has become uniquely loving. Mae and Caleb’s relationship is defined by alternations of dewy teenage love and amusing, unnerving fluctuations of power and need.

The image of Caleb drinking from Mae’s arm as lightning flashes and oil derricks pump and grind away behind them is one of the most memorable in the history of the horror film, blurring all divides between sex and sustenance, male and female, technical and supernatural, the modern and the primeval, a visual simile for the industrial, bodily, and emotional heart’s everlasting workings. The circular equation of blood equaling both family and life closes logically when Loy’s transfused blood proves to have the capacity to restore Caleb to humanity, a gift Caleb is then finally able to extend to Mae. Most uneasy and bizarre is Homer’s lot, as he insistently reminds his fellows: “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a big man on the inside and have a small body on the outside?” Having vampirised Mae out of a desire for her that’s remained for him painfully unconsummated, Homer sets his sights on Sarah. Homer, instantly besotted by Sarah’s forthright attitude, is somehow forlornly innocent and creepily redolent of a paedophile all at once, the most thoroughgoing example of how Bigelow blurs dichotomous concepts into each other. Even Mae’s ice-cream eating at the outset was only a prop (food is inedible for vampires) to draw in just such a victim as Caleb.

Bigelow’s style, with her crisply photographed widescreen frames (courtesy of Adam Greenberg’s beautiful photography) and rhythmic editing, was and is definitely modern. And whilst in initial scenes, Pasdar’s and Wright’s performances feel touchy, even blowsy, nervous, and slightly unfocused, these acting traits are actually a Bigelow trademark—the offbeat affectations often expose the uneasy threat at the heart of her tales: Jeremy Renner’s The Hurt Locker performance is similar. That Paxton, Henriksen, and Goldstein had all been in James Cameron’s Aliens the year before lends a touch of stock company camaraderie to the project, and they’re all ruthlessly convincing. The feel for the dizzying spaciousness of the prairies, and the inverted, claustrophobic night that swallows that flat and featureless land is moody and precise. The motel shoot-out, technically excellent action filmmaking that undoubtedly presages Bigelow’s later move entirely into that mode, evokes a very similar scene in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). But Bigelow’s love of Western iconography is most often in evidence, as Caleb’s growth into manhood sees him finally saddling up and riding to the rescue like a good cowboy to face down Severen in a High Midnight climax on a deserted street.

It’s only here, really, that Bigelow loses her total grip on the proceedings, as Severen’s demise via a jack-knifing, exploding truck apes, but doesn’t match, a similar scene in her then-husband’s The Terminator, and Caleb’s strutting confrontation with the vampires seems a bit unlikely considering he knows what they’re capable of doing to his once-again-human ass. The subsequent rush of Caleb, Mae, and Sarah to escape the remaining clan sees one of those amusingly quick-rising suns that often afflict vampire films. Nonetheless, the finale recovers to offer a blindingly bizarre, exciting, yet poignant consummation. Homer, chasing after Sarah in desperation, catches fire in the rising sun and burns away to a cinder, and Jesse and Diamondback roast alive in their station wagon as Jesse glowers in defeated ire whilst she beams at the glory of going out with her man. In such moments, Near Dark staked an irretrievable place in the hearts and minds of movie fans. l

18th 01 - 2009 | 5 comments »

Martin (1977) / Twilight (2008)

Directors: George A. Romero/Catherine Hardwicke


By Roderick Heath

I was a teenage vampire…movie fan.

And I still am of course. In the last week I finally caught up with George Romero’s Martin, which I’ve wanted to see it for ages, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight, which I’ve wanted to see since, oh, never. Both are diverse takes on the way vampirism offers metaphors for teen sexuality and the terrors of coming of age in the modern world. Both seek to ground the fantastic in the humdrum everyday and the gritty realities of teenage life. One is slick, unironic, intended for young viewers, and hungry to be a blockbuster with all necessary compromises. The other is cheap, self-reflexive, and as full-bore a horror film as any made in the ’70s.


The Hardwicke film tells the tale of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), who moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her father, the local police chief (Billy Burke), after her mother and stepfather abandon Phoenix for Florida. In this perpetually cloudy, mud-strewn, homey town, she is inducted into a circle of pleasantly dorky high schoolers. But she is soon drawn in by the glowing eyes, snowy skin, and boy-band hairdo of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a hunk’a hunk’a ice-cold love who struts about the school along with his adopted brothers and sisters, all of whom seem to share his fondness for Marcel Marceau make-up. Soon, Bella’s discovering the awful(ly sexy) truth that Edward is a vampire, blessed with superhuman strength and speed, and skin like body glitter paint when the sun catches it. He belongs to a clan of vampires headed by Dr. Carlyle Cullen (Peter Facinelli) who schools his charges in the necessity of being nice to humans. But not all the of local undead are so hospitable.


The Romero film is the story of Martin Madahas (John Amplas), whom we meet on a train traveling to Pittsburgh where he’ll live with his uncle Teda Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), whilst keeping an eye on the attractive young women who are aboard the train. He chooses one particularly comely brunette, sneaks into her cabin at night, assaults her, injects her with a sedative, has sex with her sleeping body, and slashes her wrists with a razor blade so as to hungrily drink her blood, before covering up her death as a suicide. He’s greeted at the railway station in Pittsburgh by his uncle, who, dressed in an immaculate white suit, immediately hisses “Nosferatu!” at him. Cuda believes utterly that Martin is one of several for-real vampires in his family who are foisted on various relatives at the behest of a mysterious patriarch, but Martin is utterly unaffected by all the usual anti-vampire totems and makes fun of his uncle’s obsessions by stalking him in fake fangs and Lugosi cape. He seems, in fact, to be a painfully shy, troubled adolescent who wanders the disintegrating landscape of Pittsburgh like a prototypical slacker-goth lad, phones up a local radio call-in show, and entertains the DJ and listeners with his adventures and hang-ups. He drifts into an affair with lonely, troubled housewife Mrs. Santini (Elayne Nadeau) and hunts for more prey.

The differences between Edward and Martin are the fulcrum of the films’ disparate intentions. Edward is rich, gorgeous, accomplished, blessed with superhuman gifts and old-world, courtly ideals. He is most definitely what he thinks he is, and stands as a pasteurised pillar of wish-fulfillment. Martin’s status is never precisely resolved; he lacks fangs, powers, money, status, and just seems like another alienated teen.


Martin is peppered with black-and-white inserts that may be flashbacks to Martin’s life long ago in “the old country,” or fantasy visions that Martin conjures to make his life and crimes more romantic. The fantastic romance of Edward and Bella is analogous to a scene that Martin keeps returning to, of a girl beckoning him with innocent joy into her bedroom with all the ripe promise of young love. But Martin is in other ways Bella and Edward combined; the unformed ingénue and the ruthlessly self-protecting but gentle-souled monster in one body. In Martin, the lore that Cuda holds onto and that Martin derides whilst simultaneously living it out, is dubious; in Twilight, the tales of the local Native Americans prove all too accurate. Twilight is about the effervescent thrill of fantasy figures; Martin evokes the troubles often inherent in living by them, because there is the real possibility in Martin that the antihero and his uncle are both obsessed enough with a tired, old legend to commit murder for its sake.

I haven’t read Stephanie Meyer’s hugely successful Twilight novels, but I made myself familiar with their lore before planting my backside on the cinema seat (surrounded by way too many teenage girls and their mothers for me to be comfortable, but these are the things we fearless vampire fans will endure). Most reviewers have made sarcastic comment on a Mormon housewife’s sex/abstinence fantasies and the retrograde portrait of a teenage girl utterly enthralled by masculine power and beauty. To a certain extent that’s understandable, but Hardwicke’s adaptation does something few fantasy/horror films manage these days in establishing a believable milieu. (Just look at how the Harry Potter films desperately lacked a believable jumping-off point of Ken Loach-esque realism to give their fantasy liberation true impact.) Indeed, the early scenes are well handled; their naturalistic, defiantly low-fi atmosphere, the feel for the small rainy hamlet and the repartee of the young high schoolers, the shy but personable, brainy Bella making links with new friends and hate-lusting after the pretty boy, is markedly superior to the cavalcade of Juno-Napoleon Dynamite genre entries.


Martin goes far further with its social verisimilitude, and not just because of its miniscule budget. Its Pittsburgh is depressed, grungy, given up to drug dealers and serial killers like Martin. Anyone of any ambition is fleeing, including Martin’s homely cousin Christina (Christine Forrest) and her dim boyfriend Arthur (Tom Savini, who also began his career as a make-up wiz and stuntman here). The remnants of a once-thriving immigrant culture that still lingers around Cuda’s store comprise aging bigots, and the suburbs are filled with anomie and adultery, which Martin stumbles into with Mrs. Savini, and the housewife (Sara Venable) Martin stalks, only to walk in on her having a tryst with a lover. Martin stands as a satiric commentary on the horror film itself, but also as a vital predictive of several later variants of youth culture—punk, slacker, grunge, goth—springing out of the debris of the post-hippie era. Martin is fatally stricken with an inability to express himself in any form other than violence until his affair with Mrs. Savini, and rejects the values of a society that pretends to be humanistic, and therefore shocked by his murderous activities, but is actually almost inimical to the individual. Cuda is both avenging angel and a ghost of old-world repression, feebly trying to keep Martin’s desires in the box just as he tries to stop Christina and Arthur from abandoning their tribal roots and moving away. In a wryly amusing scene, Martin is cornered by his uncle and an elderly priest who attempts to exorcise him—a pointed satire of the anachronistic exploitation of The Exorcist (1973) that has Martin simply run away whilst the priest mumbles on.


What is interesting about Meyer’s creation and the film extrapolated from it is the weird chemistry it revolves around: the teenage girl so ardently in love she wouldn’t mind becoming a vampire (i.e., banged until the sun comes up) and the vampire who, though about a century old, is really still a teenage boy who cannot assess his ability to control his strength or bloodlust and who doesn’t wish his state on anyone. Most critics have been inevitably sarcastic about the film’s barely veiled metaphor for abstinence and gentlemanly values combined queasily with an invitation of raw ravishment and death-desire in the familiar morbidity of adolescent girls’ fantasies. But this is precisely what prompted me to see it: vampire films need a dynamic of this type or they just become generic monster movies, as in the intolerably stupid Blade and Underworld films in which the legions of hell become pasty nightclub patrons.

Vampires are the most up close and personal of supernatural beasts, and the great vampires—Dracula, Carmilla—represent something powerful we want to embrace, though we know we shouldn’t; Twilight seems squarely in that tradition. One of the flashback/fantasy sequences in Martin mirrors the same sort of relationship that Twilight involves—Martin stealing into a old manor house, answering the delighted call of an innocent girl carrying a candelabrum in just such a moment of puppy love colliding with adult hunger. The savage punchline of this sequence is that, as is slowly revealed, Martin tore her throat out and had to flee a mob of torch-branding avengers. Of course, Edward never does that to Bella, though it might have been more interesting if he had.


Because Twilight becomes much less interesting once the vampire stuff starts up, the concepts too literal (see Edward fly and glitter! See the Cullens play magic baseball with fan-TV-astic special effects! See them battle evil vampires who are obviously evil chiefly because they dress like faux-hippies who shop at The Gap!), and the plotting too perfunctory to make the damsel-in-distress finale anything more than tacked on. Pattinson is likable, but he’s about as Byronic as a toothpaste tube, so he’s never even remotely convincing as potentially lethal. Worse, despite being notably overlong, the film has no time for exploring the dynamics of the perverse, pseudo-incestuous Cullen family, who, as one critic noted, resemble the Flytes of Brideshead Revisited in their glamorous complexions and bottomless complexity, or, more accurately, ought to resemble them. In the end, they seem like a bunch of pasty-faced fashion models. The film hints at a Bradburyesque American Gothic (promised in the pinstripe baseball uniforms the Cullens wear for their game) that is likewise unfulfilled.

This is ultimately the disappointment of Twilight, and probably also the reason for its success: it shies away from any investigation of the concepts it exploits. Hardwicke fumbles stylistically—she’s comfortable with the everyday, but allows the supernatural and its interaction with Bella’s life to descend into MTV plasticity. Murnau, Lang, or Rollin would have had a ball playing with this tale’s liebestod possibilities, but the project of Twilight as a tale is the taming of the wild, which makes it the polar opposite to the gothic tradition.


Twilight stands in the shadow of some much better films that tackle similar ideas, not the least of which is Martin, but also Shimako Sato’s Tale of a Vampire (1992), where the depressed, melancholy librarian (Suzanna Hamilton), upon learning the nature of the moody, mysterious man who comes into her life (Julian Sands), begs him in desperation to be vampirised, or Neil Jordan’s Angela Carter adaptation The Company of Wolves (1984), which uses a different supernatural metaphor (lycanthropy) to explore the same point of awakening female sexuality and the potential ferocity of its male variety. Both those films glittered with a fairytale beauty (and tragic sensibility) that Twilight can’t ever approach. What does keep Twilight focused is the well-pitched performance of Stewart as Bella, capturing precisely the right mixture of coltish grace and clumsiness in her new, adult body, which quivers and flinches in response to the outside world; she projects enough charisma and dry humour to explain why everyone likes her despite her reticence and good-looking enough in an unpretentious way to make Edward’s obsession understandable.


Martin, on the other hand, is a small masterpiece that exudes a harsh melancholia that takes a while to affect one, but lingers in the bones after the film is over. Romero, an unlucky but talented filmmaker who’s been going through the paces lately, was at the height of bargain-basement ability here; the aimless drifting of the peaceful and humdrum scenes suddenly converts to startlingly well-edited and filmed intensity as Martin murders with amazing brutality for a spindly, innocent-seeming boy. Romero’s gruesome set pieces have precisely the effect that eludes so many directors, evoking a precise sense of physical and emotional damage, leading to two devastating moments: when Martin discovers Mrs. Santini has committed suicide in her bathtub, and the climax of vengeance when Cuda hammers a stake in his heart in punishment for this, the one killing he didn’t commit.


Martin’s sorry fate (buried ignominiously in his uncle’s flower bed) is contrasted with the gaping hole his disappearance leaves in the lives of the radio listeners, a community ironically united by the mysterious, troubled weirdo. In this regard, Romero’s film feels psychically linked to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, made at nearly the same time: both concern an alienated, rampaging killer whose private fantasies somehow attune with the ennui about him and see him become a folkloric hero. Martin’s aimless wanderings through the decaying landscape, both a part of it and separate from it, resemble Travis Bickle’s. A scene where Martin accidentally leads police pursuing him into a drug deal that results in a violent shootout has much the same irony as Bickle’s final combat with the pimps.

An idea that Twilight toys with and Martin examines is this: irrationality often is closer to our hearts than the polite limits of modern life and that we are cursed with certain savage aspects of our natures that can never entirely be sublimated. l


1st 11 - 2008 | 13 comments »

Salem’s Lot (1979)

Director: Tobe Hooper


By Roderick Heath

When I was four years old, a TV station advertised this miniseries using the unusual touch of excerpting nearly a whole scene, one in which the monstrous vampire Barlow (Reggie Nalder) erupts into a kitchen table conclave of a teenager, Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), his parents (Joshua Bryant and Barbara Babcock), and their priest (James Gallery), promptly murdering both parents. For a kid, this was raw stuff, and I freaked out, causing my father to order me out of the room if there was ever a sign of it coming on again. It’s still a startling, unnerving scene; Hooper, who made beautifully nasty hash out of family rituals in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), pulled out all stops in showing evil literally erupt into a middle class home to consume the nuclear family and all their social safeguards.

Salem’s Lot is the black sheep of the first wave of Stephen King adaptations. Unlike De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Kubrick’s The Shining (1981), and even Carpenter’s Christine (1983), Salem’s Lot had the disadvantage of being a made-for-TV production with the familiar rough edges of such efforts at the time—hurried lighting and camera effects perforated by cheesy televisual touches, like freeze frames and blackout cliffhangers created to make room for the ad breaks. But Salem’s Lot was made by a director hip to King’s essential aesthetic of melding gothic canards with a sense of the passion and cruelty inherent in everyday life in dreary small towns and suburbs, and how they provide sounding boards for explosions of more expansive evil and concomitant good.


Vampire movies these days seem to have been exhausted by the souped-up idiocy of the Blade movies and Van Helsing, which stripped away any hint of loathsome dread (This was written before I first heard of the Twilight franchise, which concluded this debasement — Rod). Salem’s Lot, on the other hand, employs generic clichés wittily. There’s the old haunted house on the hill —the Marston House—shadowy enclave of the malevolent memory and totem of fascination for local, imaginative youth. Recently bought by smooth, saturnine émigré Mr. Straker (James Mason), who’s opening an antique store in ‘Salem’s Lot, pop. 2013,” in rural New England (of course), the Marston House was once the scene of suicides and paedophilic murders. The house lurks oppressively in the mind of recently returned novelist Ben Mears (David Soul), who moved out of the town at 10 years of age, and has now returned to write a story inspired by the legend of the Marston House. Ben’s sure that the Marston House has a quality of radiating evil that attracts evil people, which has him pondering both the nature of Straker and his unseen partner Barlow, as well as his own.


Ben makes friends (and enemies) quickly, coming into contact with his old teacher Jason Berk (Lew Ayres); Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), a bookish, lovelorn, “semi-liberated” woman between life phases; her genial doctor father (Ed Flanders); and a younger version of himself, in the person of horror-movie obsessed Mark. Weird stuff starts to happen. Two dimwits are hired to pick up a crate imported by Straker, which radiates intense cold and seems to sneak up on them in the back of the truck. They’re supposed to place the crate in the Marston House basement and padlock the house. They do the former, but run away before doing the latter. Meanwhile, two brothers, Danny and Ralphie Glick (Brad Savage and Ronnie Scribner), friends of Mark’s, are assaulted whilst heading home in the woods. Straker returns to the Marston House with one of them bundled up and prepared as a snack, only to find that whatever was inside the crate has busted loose. This was, of course, the monstrous Barlow, a Germanic vampire who moves from small town to small town, consuming all and moving on; soon, vampirism is spreading at an exponential rate through the town, eating up the good and the bad, the bright, brave, and stupid.

King’s oeuvre has obvious roots in the works of writers like Shirley Jackson and H.P. Lovecraft, both masters of the subgenre of New England horror that grafts Old World obsessions onto New World shores, and in 1950s monster movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958) in which the friendly night of American suburbia becomes evil-riddled and threatening. Most of the singular aspects of King’s imaginative appeal that made him the premier genre novelist of recent times are present. It’s easy to see the appeal he has for adolescents of all ages in contrasting oppressive everyday life, including acts of commonplace thuggery—here, in drunken ex-con truck driver Cully (George Dzundza) beating up his tarty wife (Julie Cobb) for cheating on him with her sleazy realtor boss (Fred Willard), or Susan’s ex-boyfriend Ned (Barney McFadden) assaulting Ben for stealing her—balanced by oddball outsiders whose strange awareness and retreats into private worlds of fantasy ironically arm them for the fight against evil; in not living in the “real” world, they’re the better prepared for its collapse. Mark is warned by his father he’ll never make a living out of his passion for horror trappings, but, of course, his geek smarts will fortify him in his battle against vampires, just as Ben’s imagination makes him keen to the threat of the Marston House when no one else is. As tiresome as King’s writing style gets—and why I prefer watching the movies made of his works— it’s this cable he has plugged into the yearnings of his readers that borders on genius.


Hooper aims more for atmosphere than slickness, employing touches that wink to fans of older horror movies: drawing out the parallel of Barlow’s arrival with that of Dracula at Whitby; the Psycho-esque look of the Marston House and its interior of pure gothic decay; fog-wreathed docks and shadowy graveyards; and most indelibly, modeling Barlow’s appearance after Max Schreck’s Nosferatu (apparently the idea of sacked screenwriter Larry Cohen, in the same year, oddly, that Werner Herzog did his own remake of Murnau’s sepulchral classic) rather than the novel’s more modern, suave Euro-trash monster. Barlow’s long-delayed first appearance, finally erupting into the prison cell of Ned, is a doozy. The 1970s, the busiest decade in the history of the horror film, had been largely absent of vampires, apart from the crappy tail-end of the Hammer cycle, the Count Yorga and Blacula films, and Jean Rollins’ bold, underground films, like Lèvres de Sang (1974). In reviving a moribund subgenre, Hooper employs fresh details for his vampires, like glowing eyes and wire-riding levitations, that would energise subsequent variations like Fright Night (1985) and Near Dark and The Lost Boys (both 1987). The eeriest scenes have Barlow’s adolescent victims drifting out of the fog outside windows, pleading to be let in and scratching incessantly on the glass, evoking the purest essence of childish, nocturnal anxiety. The early scenes have an offhand, almost sloppy feel, but this proves to be part of an skillful conditioning style; as the humdrum gives way to the urgent, so the camera movements become more elaborate, with impressive sweeping crane shots and clever framing in the final third as our heroes enter Marston House to root out evil, suggesting a new overlording presence and order.

The town’s full name is Jerusalem’s Lot, which was also the original title of the novel, shortened at the behest of the publishers who though it sounded too religious. This makes clever association with biblical tropes: the holy city of Jerusalem segues into Lot and his daughters, the lone survivors, of the cursed city of Sodom and where Lot’s wife famously looked back and was turned to a pillar of salt. Salem’s Lot, the quintessential small American town, quickly turns into a septic den that Ben and younger double Mark barely escape. Lot’s wife could be Susan, who is caught by Straker and vampirised by Barlow. Susan, drawn first to handsome stranger Ben, follows him into the house only to vanish, and Straker amusedly tells Mark that he took her to the man she really wanted to meet—an interesting hint of violently morbid sexuality that isn’t explored. But that’s always been King’s style. He provides ready analogues for real-world experiences (domestic violence in The Shining, groups for survivors of child abuse in It, sexual awakening and repression in Carrie) without risking alienating his audiences by exploring these metaphors in depth, cloaking them instead in deeper webs of mystification.


In a splendidly dark coda—a touch purely that of Hooper and screenwriter Paul Monash (who was having a good year in 1979 between this and his excellent adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front)—Vampire-Susan pursues Ben and Mark to Guatemala, where they wash up after they destroy Barlow, Straker, and burn down Marston House, concluding in the uniquely bleak scene in which Ben stakes Susan despite her protestations of love before he and Mark continue a life in exile. This last note has an intriguing political undertone: Ben is defined as a double-outsider, both with his arty bent and his “left-wing” status. King himself, who published the novel in 1975, said the novel was explicitly inspired by his own gnawing anxiety over Watergate. In running from the United States, pursued by agents of spreading evil, Ben and Mark become emblematic dropouts fleeing the oncoming right-wing backlash.


Amidst the impressive cast, Mason, with ineffable cool but also a subterranean strand of repressed panic in attempting to appease his dreadful master, stands out; so does Bedelia, playing Susan with a mix of the worldly and the uncertain. The ever-entertaining Kenneth McMillan plays the canny but flaky local constable. Most problematic is Soul, who flounders in playing a troubled intellectual hero. His way of suggesting depth is to wrinkle his brow constantly and talk in a croaky baritone. Salem’s Lot is far from perfect—the finale wobbles, with the dispatch of Barlow, so memorably introduced, disappointingly easy, and there are faults in the story progression. But it’s still a hugely entertaining reminder of how well a contemporaneous horror yarn can work. l


5th 10 - 2008 | 28 comments »

2008 CIFF: Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

2008 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is going to seem like a very peculiar way to open a review about a vampire movie, but serendipity led me to it. The hubby put on a Beach Boys CD as I sat fumbling for words, and the song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” came on. When I heard the lyrics “And wouldn’t it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong,” I thought, yes, that’s a sentiment Let the Right One In taps. Unlike the kind of sunny romances the Beach Boys immortalized, however, this story of young love comes from Sweden, a land better known for darkness and melancholy. And then there’s that small issue of the lovers being a 12-year-old boy and a vampire who looks like a “12 year old, more or less” girl. This is no trite or gimmicky love story, however. A more emotionally rich, honest, and harrowing film—though properly wrapped in the conventions and graphic horrors of vampire tales—you’re not likely to see for some time.

The film opens in a dreary apartment block in a suburb of Stockholm. Snow covers the ground, and darkness covers the gloom. Moving inside one apartment, we see the back of a boy. He puts his hand to the window and smears a palm print down the pane. We see his face, wistful, pale, framed by fine, pale hair. He has a knife out and pretends to talk to someone, daring that someone to come forward to be stuck like a pig. The boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), collects knives and newspaper clippings detailing crime and violence. He lives with his divorced mother, pines for his father who lives a good distance away, and goes to a school where his intelligence, shyness, and status as a child of divorce makes him an object of torment for bully Conny (Patrik Rydmark) and two lackeys. They chase him into a bathroom stall, threaten him, soak his pants in a urinal, and mock him in scenes of painful cruelty.

These bullies are the imaginary pigs at the end of Oskar’s knife, and Oskar goes into the wide courtyard of his apartment complex and repeatedly jabs his knife into a tree. The camera shifts to Oskar’s right to reveal a girl standing on a table, coatless in the frigid night. They have a brief conversation. Her name is Eli (Lina Leandersson), the girl who the neighbors said moved into the apartment next to Oskar’s with her father Håkan (Per Ragnar).


Inside the apartment, Håkan is packing a square case with a plastic bottle, a knife, some contraption fitted with a mask, and a plastic coat. He goes into an isolated wood where he encounters a teenage boy. Distracting the boy, Håkan places the mask over the boy’s face and renders him unconscious. He puts on his plastic coat, wraps a rope around the boy’s feet, tosses the rope over a tree limb, and hoists him up. He places the plastic bottle under the boy’s head, slits his throat, and catches the blood that pours from his neck.

Unfortunately for him, a dog out for a walk with his owner catches the scent of blood and runs barking toward Håkan. Håkan flees the scene when he hears human voices. Returning to the apartment, he unpacks his case, only then realizing he left the bottle of blood at the scene. Eli, furious, yells, “Do I have to do everything myself?” “Forgive me,” is Håkan’s only response. Håkan seems to be trying to make something up to her. Her insolence toward him suggests that he might not be her father after all.

On a street near a frozen lake, good friends Lacke (Peter Carlsberg) and Jocke (Mikael Rahm) bid each other a warm good-night after a pleasant night out. Jocke crosses under a bridge, where he encounters a girl cringing in the cold. He goes to her aid, lifting her up to carry her to shelter. The girl is Eli, and grabs him with great ferocity and drains his blood. A prissy, old bachelor with a houseful of cats witnesses the scene. By the time he calls for help, the body is gone—dragged by Håkan to a hole in the ice and dumped in. Only traces of blood are found buried under some soft snow where Jocke’s body fell.

With one confirmed and one suspected death and the townspeople on alert, Eli must remain at home. She spends time with Oskar, and one day, notices that he has a bandage on his cheek. He told his mother that he fell at recess, but in fact, the bullies whipped him with a tree switch and accidentally hit him in the face, leaving a long gash. “You have to fight back,” she counsels. “When they hit, you hit harder.” She also promises him that she will always have his back. When Oskar goes to school the next day, he asks the gym teacher if he can start doing weight training.

Eli’s need for blood sends Håkan out again looking for a “donor.” His attempt to drain a teen athlete while his friends wait for him outside the school goes awry. As the boy is rescued unharmed, Håkan, hiding in the showers of the locker room, pours acid on his face to disguise his identity and keep Eli safe from prying eyes. He is taken to the hospital, and Eli remains at home, hungry.

Her need for blood has weakened her, and her body is starting to give off an odor, which Oskar embarrasses her by commenting upon it. She determines to get what she needs from Håkan, who has been hospitalized. Removing her shoes, she crawls up the side of the building and to his window. In a truly horrifying scene, he unplugs his airway, opens the window, and offers his neck to her. When she is done, he falls lifelessly to the ground.


Others will fall to Eli, even as she falls for Oskar. She crawls into his bed one night, naked, and he remarks on how cold she is. “Is it gross?” she asks. He doesn’t really answer, but he doesn’t turn her away. They lay in silence for a short time, and then Oskar asks her to go steady. She wants things to remain as they are, but he says they can, only they will just be for each other. Since it’s clear they are already a conspiracy of two in a world that has little use for them, it’s easy for Eli to agree. They become more entwined in each other’s lives. Oskar finally asks her if she’s a vampire. “I live on blood, yes.” She invites him into her home, where they dance to pop records. He gains unfettered access to her home, and she watches over him as the bullies escalate their attacks on him.

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2007 novel, Let the Right One In, was a runaway best-seller in Sweden, has already received numerous translations, and has been optioned by United Artists for a mainstream Hollywood version. With so many actual and proposed versions of this story floating around, however, it’s hard to imagine a better version than this film, with a screenplay by the novelist himself. From what I’ve read about the novel, many things that were left vague in the film are explicitly spelled out. I think the story may be better served by the visual and aural mood of the film craft, the simple and sometimes inarticulate conversations of Oskar and Eli, and the faded, shadowy adults who react to events but never penetrate the true mystery of connectedness. Indeed, the most emotionally remote among the characters are the ones who suffer the most awful fate.


The land itself seems permeated with loneliness as depicted in glorious Cinemascope by camera artist Hoyte Van Hoytema. He captures flat, linear images—the exterior wall of the apartment building in which Oskar and Eli live with its square, symmetrical, characterless windows; the straight maze of white-trunked birches in which Håkan commits murder; the vast expanse of a frozen lake in a monochrome world. In such a void, every sound is magnified. The meticulously detailed sound design gives us Eli’s animal growl as she feeds. We hear the wet sounds of mouths eating or nervously salivating. We hear each blow of Oskar’s beating and the strange sounds of unseen action while Oskar is underwater. The musical score contributes a foreboding structure, yet yields to tenderness as the love story progresses. Special effects are spare, realistic for the givens of the story, and deeply affecting and startling. Watch for a brief moment when Eli asks Oskar to “be me,” and Eli’s face as she would appear if she looked her real age flashes briefly, showing not only the successful connection between the pair, but also a human longing in her “human” face.


The remarkable performances of Hedebrant and Leandersson as Oskar and Eli command the lion’s share of the attention in the film. Eli, who’s “been 12 for a long time,” never really had a chance to live as a human. She still has a thirst for life that has kept her going through the loneliness and rootlessness of a vampire’s existence. Her existence isn’t depicted as sinister or horror-mongering, however. She does what she has to do without making a big thing of it. When Oskar seems to judge her for killing people, she puts him in his place by saying he’s just like her. “The first time I ever heard you, you were talking about killing. I do it to live. You want revenge.” When they finally kiss, Eli’s mouth is stained with blood, enacting a version of the blood-mixing alliance Oskar attempted before he knew her true nature.

The trailer below showcases the amazing look of this film, with all the horror traditionally associated with a vampire story and only a hint of the vital heart beating at its center when both Eli and Oskar “let the right one in.”

A fine interview with the director by Todd Brown of Twitch is worth reading. It doesn’t contain major spoilers, but I’m glad I didn’t read it before I saw the film. This is a film that should be felt, not examined. l


24th 04 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Fright Night (1985)

Director: Tom Holland


By Marilyn Ferdinand

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted in a few days. There’s a reason for that—it’s been a bad week. I had a minor car accident on Monday that has the potential to get a bit sticky, though I’m still hoping for the best. I spent much of Tuesday evening helping a doctoral student prepare for her oral defense; her reward to me was a Korean-style massage, which involved getting twisted, flung about, and pounded on (actually, it was great, but a lot more active than I’m used to). On Wednesday, I had meetings up the yin yang and then found a ticket for an expired license plate on the hubby’s car, which I had borrowed for the day so the insurance investigator could photograph my car. Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I have no report from Champaign, I missed Ebertfest on the weekend because of work I had to do for the aforementioned doctoral candidate. All in all, not the best atmosphere for creative writing, BUT a very good opportunity to watch something extremely silly to get my mind off my admittedly minor, but still nagging, problems. What better way to do that than to dip into an ’80s horror spoof? Fright Night was just what the doctor ordered.

I have to admit that the 1980s represent one of my favorite movie eras. I’m not necessarily talking about the great films of that decade, such as My Dinner with Andre, Ragtime, Blade Runner, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and others. I’m talking about a certain look, sound, and sensibility of many of the decade’s films that are so much fun to revisit—the big hair, the fashion disasters that we thought were so hip and funky, and the technopop music with a driving backbeat that turns you into a bobblehead whether you like it or not. All of these wonderfully awful ’80s artifacts are on splendid display in Fright Night.


The story is pretty simple. Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a typical horny teenage boy. The film opens with him making out with his perky girlfriend Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse) on his bedroom floor while his favorite TV show, “Peter Vincent: Vampire Killer,” plays in the background. When she refuses to go all the way, Charley gets mad. They’ve been going together for a year, after all. Charley looks out his window to avoid Amy’s hurt gaze. He doesn’t notice that she has moved to his bed and is willing to give him what he wants. He’s too busy watching an elaborate coffin being moved into the house next door. Naturally, Amy is insulted and leaves.

frightnight%206.jpgThe next day, Charley passes a very attractive woman on the street who is looking for the address of his new next-door neighbor. I had to be told by the hubby that she was a hooker, because a lot of women dressed like her back then—tight, short skirt in an impossibly bright blue; big, blonde hair; shocking nail polish. Naturally, Charley sees her again, stripping in his neighbor’s window. Leering lasciviously at her through binoculars—also a very ’80s accoutrement in movies—he gets a big shock when he sees the man of the house bite her. A very cool shot of three rivulets of blood trickling down her bare back caps the scene.


Charley is sure his new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire. When he tries to confront Dandridge, he is stopped by smarmy Renfield-like houseboy Billy (Jonathan Stark). To stop Charley from snooping, Dandridge trashes Charley’s already trashy-looking car; don’t ask me how that’s an effective deterrent.

Now Charley is in full vampire hunter mode. He insults Amy yet again by his obsession with the vampire instead of her and brings a cop over to the home of the vampire to see the coffin and realize that the murders being reported in town—in a very blasé way, I might add—is Dandridge’s doing. The cop laughs and leaves. Like any self-respecting teen-centered movie, after introducing Charley’s clueless single mother (Dorothy Fielding), she is brought in one more time to perform a plot twist—inviting the vampire into her home—and then is never seen again.


Charley, now in grave danger because the vampire can enter his home at will, tracks Peter Vincent down at the TV studio. Vincent’s show has just been cancelled, and he waves Charley off with the whole “it was just an act” routine. However, Amy and Charley’s nerdy friend Evil (Stephen Geoffreys) somehow finally decide to take up Charley’s cause. Amy appeals to Vincent to help, offering a $500 savings bond as payment. He takes the job, of course, and eventually must help rescue Amy, a lookalike of Dandridge’s lost love, from being turned into a vampire herself.

Like just about every woman alive, I’ve got a thing for vampires. Not like every woman (or man, for that matter), I find Chris Sarandon’s face disturbingly out of proportion—kind of a massive head with a tiny, straight-down nose. Oddly, however, Sarandon as a vampire was kind of attractive. A Keanu Reeves lookalike, William Ragsdale showed about the same acting chops as Reeves—earnest, but not very convincing. At least he couldn’t convince anyone that Sarandon’s character was a vampire. Roddy McDowall had to notice Sarandon didn’t appear in McDowall’s hand mirror to finally believe it.


The film has its obligatory smoky disco scene, with Dandridge in ’80s dressed-to-kill garb hypnotizing Amy and bringing her onto the dance floor. Suddenly, Amy is transformed into an ’80s-style vamp, her perky, barrette-clad hair poofed into serious big hair and her unadorned face painted and seductive. We get a lot of disco-beat close-ups of Dandridge manhandling Amy, putting his hand up her skirt (that even shocked me and the hubby a bit), and then whisking her off to his lair, with Charley in hot pursuit. The corny vampire-hunting scenes in Dandridge’s home reveal some of the silliest-looking vampires I’ve ever seen. Roddy, with his clown-whited hair, is perfection in a seriocomic role, performing with conviction to give the kids in the audience a thrill while maintaining a certain ironic distance.

This isn’t great art, and it’s not even a major comic addition to the vampire canon. But, all the “don’t worry, be happy” vibes of the 1980s found in the abundant tongue-in-cheek horror movies of the era—in its own way, much smarter than the humor of today—still make for a great evening of popcorn movie-watching.


7th 09 - 2006 | 4 comments »

Lèvres de Sang (Lips of Blood, 1975)

Director: Jean Rollin

By Roderick Heath

Jean Rollin was a whole grain cinema anarchist and one of the relatively few French horror directors of his time. He began with homemade shorts and rose all the way to directing homemade features. His films skirt soft-core pornography and, when circumstances require, plunge right in. But he’s also one of the most authentic poets every to take up the art form. Rollin debut feature, Le Viol du Vampire (1967) arose from several shorts he was asked to make for a French distributor who needed to fill out a bill sporting a short American vampire film. Rollin The resulting film was a predictably uneven, but attention-winning mish-mash of surrealism, Grand Guignol, and black humor.

Rollin became one of the few true heirs to arise from a long tradition of Parisian underground cinema whose forebears include Feuillade and Bunuel, as well as French Gothic literature (Leroux was his favorite author), and the vast, semivisible world of European S&M comics (one of the major artists of which, Druillet, designed Rollins’ posters and appeared in Le Viol). Visually, Rollin’s films, with their semiclothed females arranged in geometric forms and intensely fetishist poses, recreate that style vividly. As in Feuillade and the early Dali-Bunuel collaborations, he utilised Paris, that marvellous free set, and set up against it the most bizarre and impossible images he could concoct.

His masterpiece is Lèvres de Sang. When I say masterpiece I maintain proportions. It’s not a film as free from defects and soaring in its ambitions as Les Enfants du Paradis or The Seven Samurai. In the murky realm of ’70s Euro-cinema, experimental, genre, and off-beat directors maintained their careers by spicing their films with nudity to satisfy fleapit theatre crowds and the distributors who serviced them. For Rollin, this was hardly a problem; he was dedicated eroticist, and his films enact the sexual aspects most horror films depict only metaphorically. They’re adult fairy tales, dressed in gothic-erotic clothing. To see how good Rollin was at this, it’s an easy task to compare the unembarrassed sexuality of Lèvres de Sang with any late-period Hammer film, say, Twins Of Evil (1972), or, to aim higher, see how he outclasses the efforts of Ken Russell.

In Lèvres de Sang, Rollin presents an uncompromisingly direct study of the incestuous that underlies many vampire mythology which has corrupt ancestors heave off the lids of their tombs and spread disease and death among their descendants. Simultaneously, Lèvres de Sang succeeds in capturing a note of wistful longing for the scenes, hints, landscapes, people that remain on the very horizon of childhood memory, which can, thanks to some small evocation—the right tint of light, a smell, a familiar face—lance right through your adult perceptions and memories to present unfulfilled chances and unanswered questions, even mysteries.

The film begins in a dank crypt where a middle-aged woman with a girlish face, wearing a veil and furs, is supervising men who are placing in the crypt several coffins. Cut to an exterior shot of a ruined chateau—a pull-back reveals it’s just a photo on the wall of a Parisian apartment, where a Bunuel-boring society party is occurring. A man in his thirties, tall, blonde-haired Frédéric (Jean-Lou Philippe, who also cowrote the screenplay with Rollin), is stricken in fascination by the image to the point of ignoring his girlfriend. He shakes himself from his reverie and finds her lounging on a divan with a black-haired woman, who, in reply to Frédéric’s compliment of her perfume, suggests a pretty smell is like a memory or a beautiful woman, the most precious and transitory of thrills.

Frédéric drops into a memory. As a boy, lost at night, he entered the ruin. Dwelling within it was a teenaged girl (Anne Briand) with short brown hair, a pale face, red lips, and draped in white clothes, who greeted him with delicate affection and settled him down to sleep for the night. In the morning, before dawn, she woke him up to send him on his way home. As he rushed from the ruin, he shut the gate, locking her in, but he called back that he loved her and would return to free her.

Frédéric’s girlfriend finds his preoccupation sufficient to walk off in a huff. Frédéric asks guests about the picture, but no one knows the place it depicts. Frédéric appeals to his mother, who we recognise is the woman from the opening, and tries to explain the striking memory the photo evokes. The girl haunts him and, as he says, “I love her the way you love at twelve.” There are yawning holes in Frédéric’s childhood recollections, apparently caused by the traumatising death of his father. His mother impatiently, and a touch desperately, denies the event occurred. Frédéric is unconvinced, and gets a lead from another guest about a photographer who took the shot. This is the black-haired lady, who, when he visits her salon, is busy taking nude photos of a model (a quick-forward remote is advisable here, unless of course you dig it). The photographer tells Frédéric she was paid to keep the location of the ruin secret, but finds him sufficiently attractive (the advantages of coauthoring the script) that she promises to look up the location and meet him later, when she’ll be on a midnight photo shoot at the Paris Aquarium.

To waste time until the rendezvous, Frédéric goes to a movie theatre (showing what looks awfully like one of Rollin’s earlier films) and spies a familiar figure standing in the rear exit. Borrowing an usher’s flashlight, he sees it’s the girl of his memory before she disappears. He pursues her outside and sees her by the gates of Montmartre Cemetery. Bewildered but determined, Frédéric climbs the gate and follows her intermittent appearances until they lead him into the familiar crypt. Frédéric breaks open the coffins, and finds bats grotesquely entangled in shrouds. Frédéric runs off, and the bats turn into young vampire women—draped in see-through shrouds, natch—who look like bloodsucking, heroin-chic fashion models. Most striking are a pair of twins (Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel), who begin stalking the rain-gleaming Parisian streets. Frédéric, unaware of this, encounters a tragic-looking woman wearing too much make-up,who claims to be the girl from the castle. But she’s only a paid decoy who lures him into a room and locks him up. He is freed by the twins, who have torn the woman’s throat out.

Frédéric arrives at the Aquarium, where he passes a suspicious man (who resembles a homicidal Ron Burgundy) and finds the photographer, murdered, in one of the displays. Frédéric pursues the assassin onto a metro train, where his quarry pulls a gun on him. Frédéric escapes from the train, jumps off an overpass, and is pursued. He is saved again by the vampires, who turn on a fountain, obscuring Frédéric from the assassin’s aim. Frédéric, distraught, goes to his mother for help, but she has him hauled away by the men in white coats. Frédéric is brought straitjacketed before a psychiatrist, who cheerfully proposes using shock treatment on him, but finds—in the film’s funniest pay-off—his two nurses are actually the vampire twins, and they kill the good doctor. Frédéric is free, but without hope of solving the mystery until the girl appears beside a blind postcard seller, pointing to one of the cards; it shows the chateau and its location.

Frédéric reaches the chateau, to find the vampire girls have congregated there. He penetrates the ruin and finds the belongings of the teenaged girl, and a sealed coffin, inside of which she lies with a pin in her heart. His mother appears and explains that the girl is his older sister, Jennifer. Made a vampire at the age of 16, she killed Frédéric’s father and created the other vampires, who terrorized the countryside. The mother staked Jennifer, but could not bring herself to behead her or the other girls, so they were all imprisoned. Her tolerance is at an end. Outside, her paid killers hunt down and stake the vampire girls, and she requests that Frédéric perform the coup-de-grace of beheading his sister to end the evil. As the bodies of the vampires are incinerated in a pit, Frédéric appears with a severed head—but it is actually from one of the girl’s dolls—that he throws in the fire. When his mother and the men have left, Frédéric removes the pin from Jennifer’s heart. She awakens and the pair celebrate their joyful reunion. She explains that though she was paralysed, she had learned to project her thoughts, which is how she could appear to him. After having sex on the beach, she turns him into a vampire, and they seal themselves in a coffin to drift on the sea to an island where they will live off shipwrecked sailors.

This is a splendidly antisocial twist on the traditional imperative of the vampire story, particularly of stories like Le Fanu’s Carmilla, where the lesbian title character must be destroyed so the patriarchy remains unthreatened (and yet, Rollin comes closer than anyone else to capturing the nocturne tone of Le Fanu’s writing). In a less imaginative film, the image of threatening female sexuality would be obliterated, and the man’s need to transgress, to break beyond the boundaries of society and memory dully punished or be retracted. Or worse yet, in the modern mould, the triumph of evil would be a facile punchline. Instead it’s an oddly idealistic finale, reminiscent of Pasolini’s principles. Frédéric blindly believes, from the beginning, that Jennifer’s lost, wounded, caring beauty is worth defying death, madness, and all social values, and remains true to this instinct to the end.

Even as Jennifer’s vampire acolytes are murderous, the mother’s methods of keeping the secret safe, the disease trapped, are just as bad. The brutality of the standard vampire-killing–phallic penetration by staking–is highlighted by the forlorn sight of the twins, a stake having gone right through one into the other, sinking to death clutching each other like children. The news that Jennifer killed his father only seems to confirm that her chief crime was not vampirism, but up-ending the bourgeois family structure. The patriarchy was destroyed early, and their mother’s compensatory, viciously repressive matriarchy is finally outwitted. There is a sorrow to the finale as well as a liberation. Though Frédéric and Jennifer have found each other, death is death, no matter how animated.

Thematically interesting as Lèvres de Sang is, it exists entirely to justify Rollin’s creation of gorgeously weird images, and evocation of a rare, haunted mood. Few other films in the genre that approach its sonorus, alien poetry, oddities like Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931) and John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971); only Fellini’s (1963) equals it for evoking how childhood recollections bleed into the present. Dotted through the film are memorable touches, essayed in what is, considering the film’s miniscule budget, obscenely pretty, silk-textured cinematography by Jean-François Robin.

At the party, where a bunch of teenagers, flagrantly dressed down, dart between the evening-dressed guests and pinch food from the buffet. The tableaux vivant shots of the vampire girls around the chateau, semiclothed by wind-wafting silks. The hilarious-horrible flashback out of a BDSM comic where the vampire girls drag a nude, chained victim to their lair. The starkly nasty sight of the dead photographer, lying upside-down, bare-breasted and bloodless on water-washed rocks. The scenes where Frédéric pursues and is pursued by the assassin, which evoke Hitchcock, Lang, and Feuillade. Frédéric kissing the dollhead’s lips in the deathly chill of dawn, and his mother’s veiled face stony in triumph. And the finale, a symphony of images (Jennifer invokes an orchestra in the sounds of nature, “conducted by a madman!”), with Frédéric and Jennifer’s entwined, naked forms; Jennifer standing like the human equivalent of the Wicker Man, arms raised in a rite of primal nature worship; the chilling hint as Frédéric lowers himself into the coffin and stops momentarily to study her fine but deathly still face. Their coffin, buffeted by the waves, brushing against the black ribs of a groin, finally floating out into the ship-ridden sea.

Lèvres de Sang was a flop, satisfying neither horror buffs out for blood nor porn patrons, and it’s easy to see why. It’s actually an assertion of primal innocence and places both gore and sex at the disposal of its playful narrative. Rollin survived–just–and limped along under various pseudonyms before nearly recapturing some of his old intensity with Fascination (1979) and La Nuit des Traqueés (1980), both featuring Brigitte Lahaie who, later, added memorable erotic shape to Henry & June (1990). l

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