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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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Top 11 Scariest Performances #8 Danny DeVito

Be careful what you throw in the sewer.

Be careful what you throw in the sewer.

I’m not going to lie.  The Penguin scared the bejeezus out of me when I first saw Batman Returns (1992).  He still scares me, but not as much.  And my brother is still scared of Catwoman, but that’s another matter altogether.

The make-up artist gets a nod here because DeVito probably wouldn’t be as frightening if he wasn’t so… monstrous here.  But his acting gets a ton of points, too, and then some for just acting underneath all that… stuff.  BR‘s big three are humans who identify with animals better than they do with other humans: bats, cats, and penguins.  The real villain is the most human one, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), but while he is despicable, he’s not really scary.

The Penguin, on the other hand, is just as canny and calculating as Shreck, but utterly savage.  DeVito invests all of the Penguin’s dialogue with that roughness, even when the character is trying to act smooth and charming.  He can never escape from what he is, and when he finally snaps and proclaims himself an animal– by golly you believe it.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B33GH4nW_gM.)

He’s charismatic.  He’s cold-blooded.  He can give a rallying extemporaneous speech to his troops, but can be lured around with a raw fish.  He can smile and murder while he smiles.  And then eat you.  Probably.

Whether you think Mr. Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot will turn you into sushi or not, he’s still a memorable, scary villain.  Far more frightening than anything in those “realistic” new Batman movies (yes, that’s a soapbox).

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Top 11 Scariest Performances: #11 Gloria Swanson

norma-desmond1“We didn’t talk talk talk!  We didn’t need words; we had Faces!”

So says the faded silent movie star, Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard, directed by the acerbic Billy Wilder.  Hiding out in her old mansion for decades, it becomes pretty obvious almost as soon as the hero gets a flat tire outside the driveway, that the actress inside has gone completely batty.  Yet she still has some of her allure from the glory days, and he is drawn to her (and her money, but ultimately to her).  It is a fatal mistake– and not only for Joe, her own ex-husband (Erich von Stroheim) loved her so much he chose to live as her butler rather than leave her for good(yes, he’s cuckoo, too).

The movie opens with the young man, Joe,’s voice over the police fishing his bullet-riddled body out of Norma’s pool, and it ends as she literally descends into total madness, imagining the police and reporters to be actors and film crew, while she assures an imaginary Cecil B. deMille that she is “ready for her close-up.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SA9lFsiut2Q.)

By the way, spoilers do not exist if a movie opens at the ending.

Anyway, as the icon of tragic craziness, Gloria Swanson is superb.  Her Norma is a living Expressionist relic from the 1920s– it’s in how she looks, moves, talks, and in how she holds her face. Swanson was an actress in the silent era, and knows how to do exactly what Norma needs to, and Norma, as an experienced actress, knows how to exact sympathy, which is what makes her dangerous.  When Joe tries to leave for the first time, she cuts her wrists, and he is guilted into staying.  But at the same time, she’s not evil, and one does feel sorry for her when she does venture out to Paramount Studios to see deMille and is “given the brush,” so to speak.

And for a character who despises “talk,” Swanson gets tremendous mileage out of her dialogue: pitiable, insane, venemous, confused, tragic.  The range is frankly fantastic.

The end result is incredibly unsettling.  No one else in the movie acts even remotely like Norma, not even the other faded silent movie stars, which emphasizes her instability and isolation.  She is an icon, up on a pedestal, and while she is beautiful, it doesn’t pay to get too close.

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Top 10 Women in Horror Movies #9 Maria

Maria

The true Maria.

Metropolis— another silent German Expressionist film from the ’20s (1927 to be exact)… this time directed by the great Fritz Lang.  This film straddles the fine line between horror and science fiction, but for the intents and purposes of this project, we’ll call it horror.

The movie takes place in a futuristic city (rather reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Gotham in his two Batman movies) where the rich live on the top level, and the proletariat, who keep the city from literally collapsing (due to the way it is structured) live and labor in deplorable conditions underground.  The top level leader’s son, Freder, accidentally learns of the underclass when he meets Maria, a prophetess who preaches to the people below, giving them hope and advocating a non-violent solution to their plight.  Freder admiringly tells his father, Jon, of her, not knowing that he will want to destroy her.  To do this, he kidnaps her and has the mad scientist, Rotwang, create a mechanical double not of Jon’s deceased wife, but of Maria in order to destroy her credibility.  Chaos ensues.

A lot of truly great talent made this film possible, and the actress who played Maria and her wicked double, Brigitte Helm.  Both women are completely different (even in their facial expressions and movements), and both wield a great deal of power.  They are both eloquent speakers and charismatic leaders who have the power to prevent, start, and stop riots.  Admittedly my knowledge of Weimar cinema is sketchy, but even in Pre-Code America, a woman wielding that kind of power (religious and political) is unusual.  Also, the true Maria is never a damsel in distress.  She gets kidnapped and scared, yes, but once Freder lets her out, she takes charge of the situation again while maintaining her principles of non-violence.  What a woman!  What a leader!

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Top 10 Women in Horror Movies #10 Ellen Hutter

Ellen Hutter

Slaying vampires before it was cool.

The Clerk’s Wife… Ellen Hutter… Mina Harker… she’s been called by several names in the film’s near-century existence (and near non-existence), but the brave heroine of F.W. Murnau’s  1922 picture, Nosferatu, starts this list.

Nosferatu is one of the iconic vampire films of all time, and the word “vampire” could probably be dropped from that sentence without affecting its truth value.  Most horror films, films noir, and nearly everything made by Tim Burton owe a debt to this movie, director, and the style he employed– German Expressionism.  It was also a blatant copyright dodge.  The studio wanted to make Dracula without paying royalties to Florence Stoker, Bram’s widow, so they changed the names, gave the vampire a thing for rats and the plague, and released it.  She was not fooled, and won the resulting lawsuit, which decreed that all copies of the film be destroyed.  In the 1970s, a few resurfaced.

The Dracula storyline is the same.  The clerk goes to sell property to the count, realizes he’s a vampire, and remains a prisoner while the vampire wreaks havoc on his unsuspecting new neighbors until he is eventually destroyed.  Frau Hutter (played by actress Greta Schroder) is the biggest difference between the two stories, especially when contrasted to Universal’s later take on the story.

She senses her husband’s danger.  She takes charge of the ugly situation in Wisborg by doing her research on vampires and sends her husband, Thomas, to fetch the expert, Professor Bulwer.  After he is gone, she does what needs to be done– offer herself to the vampire, Count Orlok, and keep him in her house long enough that he will be destroyed by the dawn.  She has set things up that Bulwer can deal with the fallout and take care of Thomas.  Now try to imagine any legal incarnation of Mina Harker doing that.

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