General

I Bid You Welcome

avaTwo centuries ago, in October of 2016, I had the pleasure of seeing Ex Machina.  It’s great science fiction, but it’s also very much Gothic horror. I’d say Dracula in particular.  But it’s not the complete story, the way, say, The Outer Limits would take Macbeth and give it a science-fiction “haircut.”  I’ll explain.

Ava’s piecemeal appearance, and how she takes parts from her predecessors to create herself are kind of a red herring, suggesting Frankenstein (which is the parallel my movie-watching companions saw) rather than the king of the vampires, but look a little closer.   The movie begins with a young man going to a weird house in the middle of nowhere ostensibly on business.   There, he meets a creepy eccentric rich guy with mute, spooky “brides.” And Caleb, the Harker stand-in, can only go to so many rooms in the house, although he finds ways around that.  There’s an intense scene involving a mirror and a cut.   And finally, the visit accidentally sets a monster loose in the modern world.   The computer is in New York, and people will suffer.  The vampire was in London, and people suffered.

But it’s all subtle enough that you don’t notice at first.  Or at least, I didn’t notice it at first.  Something about the movie struck me as familiar, but then when Caleb is locked in Ava’s old room, the Dracula parallels hit me.  And being the monster fanatic that I am, it made me very happy.

One notable difference, however, is who’s invading who.  In Dracula, it’s the old country invading the modern world (draw whatever political parallels you please here).  With Ex Machina, it’s modern society invading itself, basically, because the Internet created the monster.  Whereas with vampires, humanity has to triumph eventually, because they belong in the past, with machines it’s more vague.

If Ex Machina were to get a sequel (which I really hope it does), well, they’ve still got Harker locked in the castle.  He still has to escape and rejoin society.

Advertisements
Standard
General

My Own Dear Monster, Poor Unhappy Erik

One of the iconic shots of the make-up wizard.

One of the iconic shots of the make-up wizard.

Over the past year, I haven’t kept up with the blog.  This time last year I could blame my thesis.  Since I graduated, I just haven’t been able to create much of anything.  I’ve always been prone to periods of depression, and I’m this summer has probably been the worst batch of it since I was 13.  It’s zapped my energy and spirit, and I haven’t been able to do much of anything but go to work, be nice to the customers, and try to keep my spirits up with fluffy things when I get home.  But things are looking up, and it’s almost Halloween… my favorite non-liturgical holiday.

My depression, and the season, have made me think about one of my favorite monsters… the Phantom of the Opera.  I can’t say for sure, of course, because not even my memory goes back this far, but I think he might have been the first monster I ever “met.”  My dad likes to tell the story about how he took me for a walk in a city that once had storefronts, and we saw a 2-foot figure of the Lon Chaney Phantom in a window.  It made a big impression on me (I was one or two at the time), and Dad told me that the Phantom was very sad.  But not anymore.

It wasn’t quite the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it was close to it.  For years after that, the Phantom was the monster I was the most afraid of.  I had a stuffed Frankenstein Monster since kindergarten, felt sorry for the Wolfman, had one of my first crushes on Bela Lugosi when I was in 4th grade, and thought the Mummy was really tragic and scary.  But it was always the Phantom who made me feel something like fear.

Then I discovered the musical, which I still love to turn up when I have to work for a long stretch of time.  I read the book, and started seeing what I could of the movies.  Then I started to see some parallels.  I hated the way I looked and sometimes wanted to hide my face and body.  I did receive plenty of flak for my appearance, which only underscored those feelings.  And the only outlets I had were through art– in my case drawing and writing.  I could sing fairly well then, but it was never my big focus.

But the connection was formed.  I’m not entirely sure what the tipping point was.  Hell, it might have been the time I made a gory Phantom costume to myself, got to the Halloween block party, found it to be full of kindergartners, and subsequently I spent the rest of the time there hiding in the shadows, covering my face.   How Phantom can you get?

But beyond the Halloween episode… part of it comes down to a line from the book.  “All I ever needed to be good was to be loved.”  Poor, unhappy Erik!  And that might be at the heart of it.  Besides the Phantom’s appearance, I think he aroused discomfort in me more so than the other monsters because I was afraid of becoming what he was… or being what he was.   For years I hated the way I looked, and while I didn’t think I was a monster, it was hard to believe that anyone could be genuinely attracted to me.  Sometimes it wasn’t hard to believe that some weird underground lair where I could write and paint was the only place for me.

It’s not like that now, but I keenly remember it.  Most of us have probably been there at some point, and it might explain the Phantom’s enduring popularity (an easily identifiable figure despite his many flaws).  He’s passionate.  He’s intelligent.  He’s misunderstood.  He’s creative.  He’s ruthless. He’s sick.  There’s no place for him on the outside.

But he has something beyond that, that keeps him going and going for more than a century.  We’ll see if I have that, too.

So I send Erik my love, and I hope he finds some good wherever fictional characters spend their time.

 

Standard
Lists

Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #1 Horror of Dracula (Candlesticks and Sunlight)

It's the perfect ending.

It’s the perfect ending.

Back at #5 I mentioned that it would have been asking a lot of director Terrence Fisher to achieve perfection twice, and here is where he achieved it.

I could go on about Horror of Dracula for days… in fact, I probably have, if one kept count.  Anyway, it’s not the most scrupulously faithful of the novel, but it’s probably the best cinematic version in existence (I’d all the 1977 BBC adaptation the best ever); the fact that it also stars Peter Cushing as Dr. van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the immortal Count doesn’t hurt it a bit.

The movie opens with Harker arriving at Castle Dracula– except this Harker actually knows the Count is a vampire and wants to destroy him.  Unfortunately, he’s no van Helsing, and is vampirized.  Later, his colleague has to drive a stake through his heart.

Because Harker destroyed Dracula’s wife, the vampire goes after Lucy Holmwood, his victim’s fiancee.  She becomes ill and eventually a vampire.  After reading his brother-in-law to-be’s diary, Lucy’s brother, Arthur, decides to aid van Helsing in his anti-vampire adventure– even though it means bearing witness to the destruction of his sister.  Undaunted, Dracula begins to bite Mina Holmwood.  After supervising a blood transfusion, van Helsing realizes that Dracula has set up his coffin in the Holmwood family cellar.

A terrific carriage chase follows this, all the way back across the border to the Count’s castle.  As the sun rises, Dracula abandons Mina and flees inside with van Helsing right behind him.  Almost to his hiding place, the vampire gives up on running and attacks the doctor.  They fight all over the room, with Dracula briefly gaining the upper hand by choking van Helsing until he seems to pass out.  However, he was only playing possum, and when Dracula relaxes his grip, van Helsing throws him off.  Realizing that the sun is rising, he leaps onto a long table, races across it and leaps at the window, pulling down the drapes to let in the light.

It catches Dracula’s foot, which disintegrates, and the vampire falls.  Van Helsing then forms a quick cross out of two candlesticks and forces his foe into complete sunlight, until all that is left of Dracula is dust and his ring.

Where do I begin?  The climax moves at lightning speed, and the resolution is also very fast.  The score also pounds relentlessly, further adding to the frenetic action, and by the time it’s all over, the audience is practically out of breath.  But it’s very satisfying and makes the Lugosi version look like a horse and buggy job, all without puppets, computers, animation, or other really sophisticated special effects.  But there I go, getting all “We didn’t need computers, we had faces” again.

At this point, I run the risk of sounding like Ed Wood by saying it, but no word other than “perfect” will do to describe this scene.  See for yourselves (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gBRe2XMljg).

Standard
Lists

Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #2 Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Stake Through the Heart)

Damn.

Damn.

A staking had to be here somewhere.  It’s such an essential method to dispatching the undead, that it would almost be a crime not to have it here, somewhere.  And once again, dear old Hammer Studios provided the occasion.  They knew what they were doing… up until they tried to bring Dracula to the 20th century, but that’s another story.

Unsurprisingly, this is another movie I’ve written about before… Dracula: Prince of Darkness— arguably the best sequel in that series.

The movie opens with the van Helsing stand-in, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), an abbot, interrupting a group of villagers about to stake the corpse of a woman who had died under mysterious circumstances.  He bullies the local priest and shames the villagers into going home.  However, he does show kindness toward the dead woman’s mother, and promises to bury her daughter with the appropriate rites.  After this is done, he stops at a tavern for his dinner and bumps into four English tourists: brothers Charles and Alan, and their wives, Dinah and Helen.  Sandor and Charles get along just fine, although the priest’s earthy manners (hiking up his habit to warm his backside before the fire) offend Helen.  They tell him some of their plans, and he warns them against going to Carlsbad but won’t say why.

They don’t listen, and wind up being abandoned by the coachman there just before sunset.  Seeking shelter for the night, they wind up at Castle Dracula, where the sinister Klove informs them that his late master left instructions that the castle must always be ready to receive guests.  Alan, Charles, and Dinah are charmed and drink to Count Dracula’s memory.  Helen, however, is terrified inside the castle and predicts that “there’ll be no morning for us.”  Indeed, Klove murders Alan and uses his blood to revive Dracula, who vampirizes Helen.

Charles and Dinah barely escape.  They find shelter with Father Sandor at the monastery.  Dinah, who was slightly injured, is put to bed, while Sandor introduces Charles to Ludwig, a craftsman whose experience with Dracula left him mad.  That night, Ludwig knocks out his caretaker and allows Dracula and Helen inside.  Dracula attacks Dinah, but the monks capture Helen, crazy with fear and trying to bite everyone near her.

Father Sandor explains to the distraught Charles that she is no longer the sister-in-law he loved, and, while a group of monks hold down her limbs, he stakes her through the heart (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOWYZhAXdP4).  It’s a rough scene, even though it isn’t particularly bloody.  The implications it brings to mind (a gang-rape, maybe) are disturbing, but so are the alternatives.  The monks couldn’t just let Helen go on as a vampire, and waiting until she was asleep during the day wasn’t really an option, either.

But when the staking was over, and Charles dared uncover his face, Father Sandor showed him the look of peaceful repose on Helen’s face, and blessed her.  We, the audience, understand that she– like the dead peasant from the first moments of the film– will have a proper burial.  This gives her more dignity than most cinematic vampires ever get to see– in only three minutes.  Female vampires are rarely more than lascivious stick figures, but Helen is a figure of tragedy– a Cassandra.  Her two deaths have weight– something filmmakers should strive for when they kill off a character.

Standard
Lists

Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #4 Dracula’s Daughter (Crossbow)

But she's dead.

But she’s dead.

Like my friend the author said, “Dracula’s Daughter should not work.”  But it’s one of the few sequels to surpass its parent film (like Bride of Frankenstein), and deserves a lot more love as one of the great Universal horror classics.

The movie started with little more than an idea, cost a lot of money even before work started (the price to the rights of Stoker’s other Dracula story rose exponentially following the success of the movie), the Hays Office was having fits over the Count’s implied polygamy in the parent film, and the contracted director’s genre was westerns.  Yet everything went wonderfully right.

Dracula’s Daughter opens with Dr. van Helsing being arrested for murdering Count Dracula (Mina and Harker, thank God, are nowhere to be seen).  Instead of a lawyer, he tries to convince his former student, Dr. Garth, a psychiatrist, to defend him.  While Garth considers this, he meets the Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who has stolen and destroyed Dracula’s body, hoping that this will free her from the curse of vampirism.  All her attempts, however, are undercut by her creepy servant, Sandor, leading her to begin killing again.  Meanwhile, she begins to fall in love with Garth.

Garth, not believing in vampires, tells her about treating alcoholics by making them confront their desire to drink with a bottle.  So she has Sandor hire a woman off the street to model for a somewhat undressed portrait.  She gives in to her cravings for blood and the model, Lily, later dies under Garth’s care.  Zaleska and Sandor kidnap Garth’s girlfriend, Janet, and return to Transylvania.  Garth, van Helsing, and a faceless official give chase.  At Castle Dracula, Zaleska gives him an ultimatum: free Janet by becoming a vampire himself.  He agrees.

Then we get the really good stuff.  Jealous that Garth will get the vampire’s kiss rather than himself, Sandor aims a crossbow at the psychiatrist.  The authority figure with van Helsing shoots Sandor, causing Sandor’s bolt to miss Garth and strike the Countess in the chest instead.  She staggers out onto a balcony and collapses.

While the lovers reunite, Mr. Authority turns to van Helsing and says, “Beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” the doctor agrees.  “As beautiful as the day she died a hundred years ago.”

Wow.  That line’s not up there with “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” and “It’s the uh, the stuff that dreams are made of” but it ought to be!

It also sets up the crossbow as a canon anti-vampire weapon.  It was used nicely in Scream, Blacula Scream, and into the present.  Really not bad for an underrated movie that started out with red ink and a premise.

Standard
Lists

Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #5 Brides of Dracula (Windmill)

Insert

Insert “sign of the cross” pun here.

The title “Brides of Dracula” is a tad misleading, since there is no Dracula in this movie.  Our dear, departed Christopher Lee would not agree to do a sequel to Horror of Dracula for a few more years.  But Brides also stars Peter Cushing as Dr. van Helsing, so it’s not so far off.

Instead of Dracula, this movie’s main vampire is the Baron Meinster (he also turns his mother into a vampire, but she asks van Helsing to stake her instead of continuing her existence as a creature of the night).  He’s blond, young, attractive, but not as spirited as Lee.  Nevertheless, he gets a magnificent sendoff, very much in the action-packed Hammer tradition.

The movie opens with a young French woman travelling to the boarding school where she will teach.  The Baroness offers her shelter for the night, to the dismay of the villagers, and tells the young woman, Marianne, that the Baron is a lunatic locked up in the tower.  Horrified by this cruelty, Marianne goes to the tower, where the Baron convinces her to unlock the silver chains holding him in place.  He then attacks Marianne and turns his mother into a vampire.  Van Helsing finds Marianne the next day and takes her to the school.  Returning to investigate the castle, he meets the tragic Baroness and does what she asks (see https://kathysghost.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/top-10-vampires-9a-baroness-meinster/ for details).  He then tracks the Baron’s trail of death to the school.

The Baron kidnaps Marianne and takes her to the windmill where he is keeping his two latest victims.  He overpowers van Helsing in a fight and bites him on the neck.  Van Helsing purifies the wound with holy water and a red-hot iron (you really believe the doctor’s agony, too).  The barn catches fire when the Baron comes back, and the two resume their fight.  The Baron takes the rest of the water in the face, which burns away his good looks.  He tries to trap van Helsing and Marianne in the windmill, but leaving it turned out to be his undoing, for the doctor noticed that it cast a cross-shaped shadow in the moonlight.  With very impressive maneuvering, considering the burn trauma he’d just put himself through, van Helsing moves the windmill sails so that they form a cross, trapping the Baron in place, causing him even more agony, trapped between the fire, the symbol, and the coming dawn.

It would be a perfect ending, if not for the fact that the plot kind of forgets about the women.  Marianne and the two vampiresses just kind of stand around and watch while van Helsing and the Baron fight, the doctor purifies himself, and everything goes up in flames.  In a slower moving climax, it would really throw everything off, but director Terrence Fisher keeps the action so fast, that it’s not too noticeable.

It’s also very hard to achieve perfection twice, but more on that later.

Standard
Lists

Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #7B Son of Dracula (Fire)

He sets the coffin on fire... take my word for it.

He sets the coffin on fire… take my word for it.

Directed by Robert Siodmak in 1943, released by Universal Studios, Son of Dracula is a very strange movie.  It is equal parts head-shaker and brilliant.  Lon Chaney Jr. (most famous as the Wolf Man) is badly miscast as a Transylvanian vampire, but the scene where he floats across the swamp, standing atop his coffin is breathtaking.  The hero is repulsive to the point that one wonders what the heroine/villain protagonist saw in him, but it can be argued quite strongly that she is just leading him on, which makes them both more interesting and complex.  And so on.  And I should mention that this film is very misogynistic, despite the director going on to make the arguably feminist film The Spiral Staircase, followed by sexist film noir in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Anyway, Son of Dracula takes place on a plantation in the south… I want to say Florida because of the swamps, but that is never really established.  Kay, the daughter of an old Colonel, has invited Count Alucard to be a guest at their plantation, the Dark Oaks, much against the wishes of her fiance Frank.  Count Alucard arrives, and as a bat, kills the Colonel.  Kay inherits the plantation, and goes out to meet Alucard who floats across the swamp towards her on his coffin.  They marry and return to Dark Oaks.  Their “honeymoon” is interrupted by Frank, who tries to kidnap Kay, insisting that she will have the marriage annulled first thing in the morning.  He tries to shoot the Count, but the bullets pass through him and mortally wound Kay instead.  Frank flees and turns himself into the police, except when the town doctor comes to investigate, Kay is up and walking around (a vampire).

Nevertheless, Frank is arrested and put in jail.  Kay comes to him, and lets him out on the condition that he destroy Alucard by burning the coffin.  Then they can be together, just as she had always planned.  She promises to turn him into a vampire, too.  However, he burns both coffins, rather than just Alucard’s.  By the time the doctor and police catch up to him, he looks ready for the institution (see the picture for details).

It’s a very desolate ending.  The scene with Alucard isn’t great, but the scene with Kay really packs an emotional punch, even as much as I dislike Frank.  In fact, it’s completely silent.  He sits and watches the flames engulf the old nursery, and would probably have stayed there, had the doctor not led him out.  The vampirism here is entirely without romance– just a spiral of death and betrayal.  The devastating noir ending tacked onto horror: the menace is taken care of, but no happy ever after.  And it’s entirely satisfying.

Standard