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A Dark Christmas

Classy-Black-TreeToday is the first Sunday of Advent.  Calendar-wise, it’s Christmas time.  Church-wise, we’ve got to wait– just one of the many contradictions the season brings.

I hate shopping, but I love watching my nearest and dearest unwrap their presents.  Decorating the tree is a drag, but carefully assembling the Nativity Scene on the sofa table gives me all kinds of divine joy. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the creepiest song ever, but the heavy-metal single “Jingle Hell” is seven shades of awesome (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=305viYB-G1U).  It’s also deliberately unsettling what with the hounds of death ripping, biting, and slaying.

And then, of course, there’s the Grinch– dear old Boris Karloff, to be exact.  A lot of my favorite parts of the holiday are a little bit dark… perhaps even gothic.  We’re in the bleak Midwinter, and it makes sense that the celebration of Christmas should have some darker bits, too– and let’s be honest, Christianity has plenty of ’em.  (It doesn’t do any good to deny it.) Even my Nativity scene has the baby Jesus in the cross position… something my brother deems “rather unfortunate.”

But maybe a time of joy needs a little shading to emphasize the light.  I don’t want to get all “chicken and egg” over the question of can we appreciate sweetness without the existence or bitter, but in the case of Christmas, it seems they both have to exist.  If you weren’t cold, you wouldn’t snuggle.  If the Grinch weren’t a, well, Grinch, he wouldn’t have learned a lesson from the Whos.  If we humans weren’t constantly doing what we weren’t supposed to do, there would be never have been a Christmas.

And that’s so profound I need a cup of coffee.

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General

Thanks, For What?

TurkeySo.

Over the past few days, I’ve been hearing rather a lot about the need to make Thanksgiving a secular holiday, or how it’s possible to make Thanksgiving secular, or how “we eat turkey, but it’s not a religious thing for us.”  Uh, what?  Thanksgiving is a religious holiday?  Since when?  Last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday, and this Sunday Advent begins, but Thanksgiving?  As I’ve always understood it, Turkey Day was basically Independence Day’s fat cousin– commemorating an (overrated) historical event.

Newsflash… Abraham Lincoln created Thanksgiving with the celebrated Executive Order in order to raise morale during the dark days of the American Civil War.  And the real “first Thanksgiving” involved rather a lot of murder and grave-robbing, if I’ve finally got the straight dope (finally).  Hmm… not that all religious holidays are lily-white, but this is sounding more and more like July 4th and less like Christmas.

It’s true that “giving thanks” does evoke the image of prayer, but it doesn’t have to.  In fact, it more evokes those sugary drawings we had to make in Kindergarten where everyone wrote “I am thankful for my parents” because they didn’t want to look bad by writing anything else.  In fact, if you round-robin the table and just rattle off things you’re thankful for, it’s more a statement of hard fact, rather than a statement of faith.  “I am thankful for scholarships,” versus, “I will not carve anything except the bird.”  The latter statement is entirely based on faith, as anyone who endures these big family dinners will attest.

Then again, carving someone other than the bird gels perfectly with this not-religious holiday’s history.

Sorry.  Thank the cook.  Thank each other for the lack of murders.  Thank God, if you’re so inclined.  And thanks for reading.

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Something’s Not Quite Right

When I got to graduate school one of the more experienced professors told me, “If all your students have an average of 70 in your class, there’s something wrong with your pedagogy.”

She’s right.  And I’m probably still not doing something right because when I grade on a scale of 1-4, the average grade is 2.  When I grade on a scale of 100, my average is 87.  Presumably, though, I’ll improve with experience.

However, having too many people “pass” is a problem, too.  And I’m not talking about my students– I don’t want them to fail.  I’m talking about the Justice System.  If only 11% of grand juries every say that charges should be brought against the person being investigated, that’s a problem.  Because more than half the time, the correct person is not arrested for a crime committed, and as high as 42% of people arrested confess to crimes they did not commit.  You do the math.

Something is indeed rotten in the states of United, my friends.  But what to do?  We can’t cut that piece out and throw it away like we would a bruise on an apple, and violence never solves anything.  In fact, violence solves nothing. Awareness is a good start, like with Social Media, but it’s too new for people to take it seriously, and being aware only gets us so far.  There’s no easy answer, and it will probably take time.

We’ve come a long way from making a man run with a red-hot iron held in his bare hands to determine his innocence or guilt (an ordeal by fire), but there is still much work to be done.  We should turn our thoughts toward creating a solution rather than giving in to anger.  And in the meantime, this prayer for peace by one of history’s most beloved pacifists (St. Francis of Assisi) couldn’t hurt.

“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

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Top 10 Vampires #1 Count Dracula

A vampire like this would have given the Hays Office fits.

A vampire like this would have given the Hays Office fits.

Christopher Lee is a tough act to follow, especially in the realm of vampirism, but it is possible.  Made by the BBC in 1977 and released in 1978, Count Dracula, starring Louis Jourdan in the title role, remains the best adaptation of Stoker’s novel, and boasts one hell of a vampire, too.  Incidentally, that’s not cursing.  It’s a technical term when used in relation to vampires.

Anyway, the movie begins traditionally enough.  Harker the solicitor arrives at Castle Dracula and gets a suitably spooky welcome from the count.  Things get spookier when Harker hears a weird noise outside his room and finds the count crawling down the side of the castle like a lizard.  See photo for details.

Later, Harker encounters Dracula’s three brides.  They try to bite him, but the sudden arrival of the count stops them.  He scolds them,  playfully chucks their chins, and embraces them; but then the scene gets incredibly dark and utterly terrifying when he gives them a baby for their nightly nourishment.

Back in England, Mina frets over Jonathan’s absence as her sister Lucy, who is engaged to the very Texan Quincy Holmwood, begins to get sick.  At John Seward’s insane asylum next door (not really) patient R. M. Renfield develops an obsession with food chains and eating flies.  Mina goes to look for Jonathan, and Seward sends for Dr. van Helsing, who realizes that a vampire is at work.  Unfortunately, Lucy’s mother removes the garlic from her room, sees Dracula, and suffers a heart attack.  Lucy also dies, but tries to infect Quincy before she does.  The men drive a stake through her heart, and Mina and Jonathan return to England.

Van Helsing realizes from Jonathan that Dracula is their man (such as it is), and while the men go out vampire-hunting, their quarry begins to make Mina his victim.  Oops.  Now I include that sarcasm, but that’s really to lighten the incredibly grim turn of events that things take.  Mina visits Renfield and confides in him her fear of having to stay in Purgatory for all eternity; he then turns against Dracula, but dies spectacularly.  Crazy people have unusual strength, but he’s no match for a vampire.  Dracula spars verbally with his hunters (one wishes Hammer had given Christopher Lee lines like this), and then forces Mina to drink his own blood.  This scene is very disturbing on many levels, and the rape allegory is pretty apparent.  Mina’s reaction afterward is just heartbreaking.  It’s a touch ironic that this was released from such an ultra-respectable source.

Because of their now shared connection, she can sense Dracula’s movements– that he is returning to Transylvania.  The vampire hunters follow him, splitting up into two teams: Mina and van Helsing and everyone else.  The brides attack Mina and the professor’s camp, but he drives them off, and Mina makes him promise to “do what is necessary” to her, should she become a full vampire.  The other men come across the count (in his coffin) and his servants and have a spectacular gunfight.  A stake is driven through Dracula’s heart, and Mina is freed from her curse.  However, Quincy was mortally wounded in the fight, and the travelers have a bittersweet ending.

As Dracula, Louis Jourdan is of the Lugosi type: articulate, intellectual (“It always sounds more convincing in Latin,” he says after van Helsing commands him to leave), and able to drop the occasional morbid double entendre.  He never explodes into savagery like Lee and Marshall’s vampires, although he can be quite frightening.  Jourdan makes good use of his expressions and gestures.  The vampirism here is treated very sexually, although it has a predatory edge that leaves the viewer uncomfortable and never wanders into “paranormal romance” territory.  However, he is attractive enough to always be tempting– the earmark of a truly dangerous vampire.

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Top 10 Vampires #2 Dracula

Like I said...

Like I said…

Well, this was a no-brainer right?  Dracula was bound to come up on this list somewhere, and he’s not finished yet.  Dracula is harder to get rid of than Rasputin.

Actually, since 1931, the vampire has arguably never really gone out of fashion, although it has had some interesting makeovers throughout the decades.  Hammer Studios gave them a pretty major one in 1958 when they released Dracula (re-titled Horror of Dracula in the States).

Starring, at that time, the unknown Christopher Lee, this new Dracula was violent, not particularly articulate (although one got the impression he could be if he really wanted to), and, frankly, the sort of vampire people wouldn’t object to finding in their bedrooms.  And don’t take my word for it– after the release of this movie, Lee was suddenly getting more adoring fan mail from women (men weren’t included in that statistic) than any other European actor.

Anyway, the movie begins with some narration from Harker’s diary as he arrives at Castle Dracula, where he is to be the count’s librarian.  Before he meets the Count himself, though, he meets a buxom brunette, who claims to be a prisoner.  She flees moments before Dracula makes his entrance– all brisk politeness, showing Harker the library, admiring the portrait of Lucy Holmwood his fiancee, and finally locking him in his room for the night.  Now we learn that Harker (gasp!) is no babe-in-the-woods.  He is a colleague of Dr. van Helsing and is here to try to destroy Dracula.

Unfortunately, he’s still something of one because, after a scuffle with Dracula and the woman, he wakes up just before sunset and still tries to drive stakes through their hearts in the fading light.  Beginning with the woman.  Dracula’s smile when he sees the setting sun, and his subsequent advance on the terrified Harker once he’s dispatched the woman are frightening.

He begins to bite Lucy, and she dies and becomes a vampire but is subsequently destroyed by van Helsing and her prickly brother Arthur Holmwood.  However, the Count has turned his attention to Mina, Arthur’s German wife.  Luckily, Arthur finds her and van Hesling sets up a blood transfusion that saves her life.  When the housekeeper reveals, when asked for wine, that she has been forbidden to go into the cellar, van Helsing realizes that Dracula has moved his hiding place into the house.  Unfortunately, the sun has set, so the count attacks the men and carries Mina off.  After a terrific carriage chase, they arrive at Castle Dracula.  The vampire abandons Mina and rushes to the sanctuary of his home.

Holmwood looks after his wife, while van Helsing and the Count have a spectacular fight all through the castle.  Finally, the doctor leaps across a table, pulls some drapes down from the window and lets the sunlight in.  He then makes a quick cross out of two iron candlesticks and forces Dracula into the light where he disintegrates.  An awesome ending without an outrageous twist or barrels of blood.  Unfortunately, Hammer studios kept trying to outdo this climax, and failed spectacularly nearly every time.

But Lee could always make Dracula an arresting presence, even if the material was dreadful.  Here, however, they were probably both at their best.  If the movie leaves any unanswered questions, they’re  very small, the comedy relief is good, and the action is well-handled and not ridiculous.  Dracula speaks, and shows his intelligence by wanting his library organized– as well as luring Mina out for a bite (sorry) by forging a note from her husband.  He is also savage– the most common image from this movie is of him snarling, and that’s not unreasonable.  But the count is also a very sensual being (look at the way he goes after Mina, though note that this video is somewhat edited: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1NPMwBx9DA).  The result is a tempting, dangerous, well-acted vampire, whose influence is still felt on the genre today.

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Top 10 Vampires #3 Carmilla

Carmilla

How many lovers has she lost through the centuries?

Yeah, yeah, she’s the famous lesbian vampire.  Don’t write off her movie as looking at somebody’s subconscious (we have Brian dePalma films for that); Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) is a truly excellent movie, and not just because Ingrid Pitt has a nude scene.  Get your mind out of the gutter.

Based on Sheridan LeFanu’s novella Carmilla, the movie opens with narration by Baron von Hartog about how he tried to destroy the evil, vampiric Karnstein family, but missed one daughter.  It’s a spooky, intense flashback, and lets us know that while this movie will be sexy (he’s nearly seduced by a vampiress), it will also be very grim.

Cut to General von Speilsdorf giving a party for his daughter, Laura.  Among the guests are a Countess, and her daughter, Marcilla.  She suddenly gets news that her brother is very ill and imposes on the General to look after Marcilla while she is away.  He agrees, and the two young women become fast friends.  Laura soon begins to suffer nightmares and become weak.  She dies, to her father’s immeasurable grief, and Marcilla vanishes.

Then, the Countess suffers a carriage accident outside the home of Englishman Morton and his daughter, Emma.  The hospitable man offers to let the Countess’ niece, Carmilla, recover from the accident while her mother sees to her ailing brother.  The cycle repeats itself, only when Morton leaves to fetch a specialist, Carmilla also begins to bite the French governess.  A clever servant realizes that Emma is the victim of a vampire attack, but mistakenly believes the vampire to be Mlle. Perrout.  He dies under Carmilla’s fangs.

Meanwhile, General von Speilsdorf, with the now aged Baron von Hartog, has realized the true circumstances of his daughter’s death and has traced Marcilla to Carmilla.  The vampire tries to take Emma, who she does love, with her back to the castle but is forced to abandon her at the last moment.  Going back to her shroud, she is swiftly staked through the heart and beheaded by the vengeful General.  Her portrait, which was the one beautiful thing left in the old Karnstein castle, changes to show a skeleton with fangs rather than a woman.

The subject matter is treated very seriously from the start.  Carmilla is a vampire and her victims do die, but she is also very sympathetic.  The viewer never doubts that she does love Laura and Emma, and her visible distress when seeing the funeral of one of her victims is genuinely sad.  One wonders how much loss she has endured throughout her existence because her love can only bring death.

Yet she is also wily, manipulating people into doing what she wants, and we know from the Baron that she has been doing it for years.  She also smiles up at the moon after first biting Laura.  The viewer is left with the impression that she hates herself for what she is, but at the same time loves being a vampire.  In fact, when the General drives a stake through her heart (with his bare hands!), she dies with a look of relief, like she can finally get a good night’s sleep after a long period of insomnia.

The audience cannot fully condemn her as “evil” the way the General, Morton, and von Hartog do.

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Top 10 Vampires #4 Barnabas Collins

There's more here than meets the eye.

There’s more here than meets the eye.

Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows had plenty of critics.  I skipped that party.  In fact, I love this movie.  It probably helps that I was fresh from watching as much of the old soap opera as I could stand in the months before the film was released.  People who disliked the movie seemed to find fault along two lines: Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins and making Caroline Stoddard a werewolf instead of Quentin Collins.  As I burned out on the soap before Quentin showed up (Barnabas took three episodes to get across his living room, after all), I can’t speak to that, but as to the vampire, well… read on MacDuff.

What I’ve noticed, is that people who nostalgically talk about Dan Curtis’ old TV show is that they’ve forgotten how much of a bastard Barnabas Collins could be.  When he first appeared he was quite frightening: beating Willy Loomis with his cane for slight offenses, keeping Maggie Evans imprisoned in the basement of his home until she promised to marry him, turning Caroline into a vampire (which took years!)….

With that in mind, a lot about the movie makes a lot more sense.  Anyway, for those who need a refresher… it opens with Barnabas’ narration of how he came to be turned into a vampire by his spurned lover, Angelique, a witch, and imprisoned in his coffin for a couple centuries.  Now, in 1972 Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters on the train to Collinsport to take a job as a tutor for the young David Collins.  Workers accidentally dig up Barnabas, who, is too thirsty to not kill them all.  Returning to Collinwood, the ancestral home, he finds that the family has fallen upon evil days.  The two servants are useless.  The brother is worse than useless; the doctor is a leech, and the kids are… strange.  Elizabeth, the matriarch, has her hands full, and is inclined to dismiss Barnabas as a fraud, but when he shows her his father’s secret treasure room she accepts his story and allows him to stay.

Barnabas tries to adjust to 70s life and become human, via blood transfusions from Dr. Hoffman, but he also knows he is a fish out of water and sometimes uses his vampiric powers to achieve his means– such as hypnotizing an old sea-dog (played by Christopher Lee!) into quitting his job with Angel Bay Fisheries and working for the Collins family.  In addition to being rather self-aware– he asks for help and follows the received advice, for better and for worse– he can still be brutal and violent.  He kills the construction workers and a group of hippies, along with Dr. Hoffman when he realized she was using his blood to turn herself into a vampire.  He keeps the audience off-balance because he breaks the rules.  Will he succeed or die (such as it is) trying?

The end result is a very clever, fun movie that still gives its audience a good kick every so often with its darkness.  This is, in no small part, aided by its most unusual vampire who provides a surprising amount of funny comedy relief, but also a lot of scares, too.  The slaughter of the construction workers is quite unsettling– particularly the way Barnabas asks the foreman for forgiveness before biting him; an exchange like that could become a snickerfest but remains dark.  His appearance hearkens back to Count Orlok in Nosferatu (look at those fingernails!), but with a modern twist.  I wouldn’t call Barnabas “so old he’s new” but he’s something like that, and he’s a remarkable breath of fresh air amongst all the Twilight stuff and deluge of zombies.

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