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.

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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).

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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.

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Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #3 The Vampire Lovers (Decapitation)

NSFW.

NSFW.

If Dracula’s Daughter is up there with film noir in terms of great closing dialogue then The Vampire Lovers is up there with film noir in terms of its bleak ending– even though the vampire has been destroyed and the “correct” couple are together.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This movie is about Carmilla (or Marcilla or Millarca… she goes by all three), the famous lesbian vampire, of Sheridan LeFanu’s novel Carmilla.  It was the first and best of what became known as Hammer’s “Sex Vampire Trilogy.”  Naturally, such an association means that this film is grossly underrated.  In fact, I count it as one of the best representations of a lesbian relationship on film– even with the unhealthy vampirism element.

But plot recap.  Years before the main events of the movie, a Baron, who lost his sister to the vampiric Karnstein family destroys all the vampires except for the youngest daughter, Mircalla.  He was unable to find her shroud.

Peter Cushing plays General von Spielsdorf, a widower whose only daughter, Laura, becomes fast friends with Marcilla, the daughter of a friend of the General’s.  Marcilla’s mother, the Countess, imposes on the General to keep her daughter as a guest for a few weeks while she settles her brother’s estate in the north.  Laura then begins to suffer nightmares and anemia.  She dies with Marcilla’s name on her lips.  When the General notices bite marks on his deceased daughter’s neck– Marcilla is gone.

Now Carmilla becomes the houseguest of an Englishman (who also knew the General and Laura) and his daughter, Emma.  The same pattern follows, although more attention is given to Carmilla’s relationship with Emma.  The Englishman has to leave on business, and Carmilla decides to turn Emma into a vampire.  There is very little doubt that she does in fact love her victim, and is tormented by the losses she experiences over the centuries.

But now the General and the Baron have put their heads together and realized that Marcilla and Carmilla are really Mircalla Karnstein, and that Emma is destined for the same fate as Laura.  There is a ferocious chase (in the grand Hammer action tradition) to the ruins of the Karnstein castle, but this time they are able to follow Carmilla to her shroud.  The men take her body to the ruined chapel.

The Baron makes to stake her through the heart but the General states, “I will do it.”  Cushing is absolute icy determination, an implacable force out for revenge.  He drives the stake through her heart while, miles away, Laura screams in agony.  The staking done (with his bare hands, I might add– no hammer in sight), the General unsheathes his sword and lifts Carmilla’s head up by the hair.

To the shocked Baron, he says, “It’s the only way.”  And one blow is all it takes.  The portrait of Carmilla, hanging in the entrance of the castle, turns into a skeleton with fangs.

But that’s really an afterthought.  The “huh?” and elevator bars following “the, uh… stuff that dreams are made of.”  After seeing the General, who was such a lovely person in the first half-hour of the movie so changed… so brutal, nothing else matters.  And the characters really can’t go back to the way their lives were.  Things have been made right, but they aren’t right.

Laura is dead, and the General is alone in the world.  Emma will live, but the fact that she fell in love with a female vampire will probably cast a shadow over her relationships with her father and the young man she had been seeing earlier.

Hammer films aren’t typically regarded as being particularly deep, but The Vampire Lovers challenges that.  It’s not the ridiculous slasher-movie ending where the hero’s fortunes are reversed, but it’s no bed of roses, either.  Pleasant dreams.

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Top 10 Vampire Destruction Scenes #6 Vampire Circus (Twin Empathy)

The sister, undoubtedly, had the better end of the bargain.

The sister, undoubtedly, had the better end of the bargain.

This is without a doubt, one of the most inventive ways of dispatching a vampire I have ever seen.  It’s set up cleverly in the movie, and is one of the few non-sunlight laissez faire methods shown in movies.

I’ve praised Vampire Circus before.  The movie isn’t perfect (but might have been had Hammer Studios coughed up the entire budget), but it provides plenty of thrills, chills, and leaves a ton of bodies strewn across the floor at the climax.  And believe me, they all got there in different, inventive ways– not everyone involved in the circus (such as the mute strongman played by Dave Prowse) is a vampire.

Anyway, the movie has a fantastic pre-credits sequence in which a woman named Anna has an affair with a vampire and feeds him children from her village.  Her none-too-pleased husband leads a mob of villagers to the castle, where they stake the vampire (he is a count but not Dracula) and flog Anna.  Her blood revives him enough to tell her to find his kinsman, Emil.

Sixteen years later the village is in the grip of a mysterious epidemic (which turns out to be rabies), though some of them think it is the Count’s curse.  The doctor sneaks through the quarantine to get help from the university, and somehow a circus sneaks in. The terrified villagers go night after night, eager from any escape from the cycle of death– amazed by the handsome Emil who turns into a leopard, the naked female acrobat painted like a tiger, the ringmistress’ twin children, Michael the clown, and the strongman.

The female twin, Helga, at one point sticks her hand in the actual tiger’s mouth, and her brother Heinrich, feels the bite.  And this sets up the climax.  People began dying in very unnatural ways after the circus came to town.  At first the ringmistress (who turns out to be Anna)’ animals were blamed, but at last people realized it was the supernatural, and the schoolmaster (the husband from earlier) tries his hand at vampire slaying, once again.

And here we get to the twins’ ingenious death.  They are the Count’s children from the affair with Anna years before.  Helga can be bitten by a tiger while her brother actually take the punishment.  So what happens if you drive a stake through her heart?

The last part of the movie is a terrific fight– circus against a handful of villagers.  Some of them are held at bay by garlic and crosses, but the clown, tiger-woman, ringmistress, and (most importantly) strongman are not.  But the villagers don’t know who is and is not until it’s nearly too late, or too late in the case of a few.  Then, at just the right moment, Helga takes a stake through the heart.  Heinrich, who had been about to kill someone else, falls down with a gaping hole in his chest.

Director Robert Young set this up earlier in a creepy but ultimately funny way (Chekhov’s gun), and now it goes off in a violent, shocking way.  And it winds up influencing the climax in another way.  While Anna might have been willing to let the revived Count have her daughter with the schoolmaster before, having lost two of her children at one blow, she sacrifices herself rather than let all her children be killed.  It might be a touch out of character, but she’s still crying for Heinrich and Helga, so it’s believable as an impulsive decision.

And it really sets off the resolution.  The vampires need Anna, and the fact that she is killed marks a turning point in the fight.  It also screws up the magic that was supposed to complete the Count’s revival.  All in all, very smart.

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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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General

The Last/Best Zombie Movie

plague-of-the-zombiesA zombie is a magically reanimated corpse.  Everybody knows that.  What they usually don’t know, is that they are deeply embedded in class.  Haitian slaves who acted as informers, or continued to work for their original master, after they’d been freed where known by a name similar to “zombie,” and, as you might guess, it was not a compliment.  Later the magic (usually voodoo) aspect was attached to the term, and once Hollywood got ahold of the concept, starting with 1932’s The White Zombie, the horse was out of the barn, and folklore was holding the door looking dazed.

Some zombie movies followed the slavery tradition, though.  The zombies were mindless drudges, performing slave labor for their evil sorcerer/master.  The White Zombie, in all its Pre-Code glory featured a graphic shot of a zombie falling into the sugar mill while his fellow slaves keep turning it, without missing a beat.  I Walked with a Zombie (1943) takes a critical look at class and racism in the Caribbean, but is more interested in retelling Jane Eyre.  And both of those movies had some serious plot problems, although they were by no means bad.

Probably the best zombie film to stay reasonably close to tradition comes from across the Atlantic at Hammer Studios… 1966’s The Plague of Zombies.  Given that Night of the Living Dead, which features “ghouls” that are now the popular zombie, it is probably the last of its kind.

The movie opens with Sir James Forbes, a doctor, receiving a letter from an old student, Thompson, who is at his wit’s end with a strange epidemic killing the locals in the village where he practices.  He and his daughter, Sylvia, go to visit the Thompsons, and find the village to be a very hostile, panic-stricken place.  Forbes and Thompson break into the cemetery late at night to perform secret autopsies on the victims, only to find all the coffins empty.  With the local constable now on their side, the men try to puzzle it all out, while Thompson’s wife, Anna, begins to get sick, and Sylvia is courted by Squire Hamilton.

A madman in jail talks of seeing the dead walk in the woods by Hamilton’s escape.  Anna dies, and Thompson has a truly frightening nightmare of meeting her and all his patients as zombies.  Forbes learns from the constable, that the squire had lived in Haiti for several years before returning to unsuccessfully reopen the unsafe tin mine his family owned.  Sylvia begins to sleepwalk– in the direction of the Hamilton estate.  Then the terror really kicks into high gear… and not only from the zombies.

The result is a clever, atmospheric, truly chilling piece that also, surprisingly, passes the Bechdel Test.  Admittedly, there is very little gore, but the violence is always effective.  Hammer Studios knew how handle action, and seeing the zombies that cannot be harmed by traditional weapons (a trick used to good effect in 1932) retains its power, despite the buckets of blood associated with George Romero and his ghouls.  If zombies had to change, or at least retire in favor of a new type of monster, at least they had an excellent movie to go out with.  Any fan of either horror, or zombies, should make a point to check out this classic.

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