General

The Soul of The Black Cat

I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with the 1934 movie The Black Cat. I absolutely love the movie… especially when I’m not in a great place mentally. Namely high school, and working in a call center.

Image result for the black cat 1934

The Black Cat is a complicated movie. There’s a lot to like (the visuals, the politics, the fact that it was Universal’s last hurrah before the Hays Code was strictly enforced)… and plenty to dislike (the thin plot, thin characterizations, and the fact that it was Universal’s last hurrah before the Hays Code was strictly enforced).

I’ve always been drawn to it. My introduction came in the form of a still of the chess scene in a book about Universal. The striking visuals definitely got my attention, and I was further intrigued by the fact that this was the only Universal horror film that I wasn’t allowed to watch when I first asked to. After several years of begging, my dad gave in and let me borrow the VHS tape from my otherwise useless 11th grade English teacher.

For those unfamiliar with the movie… the plot is essentially thus. A ticketing snafu puts Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi), recently late of a Soviet concentration camp in the same train compartment as two dumb American tourists, Mr. and Mrs. Allison. They wind up on the same bus, too. While the driver describes a massacre which took place in that area during the Great War, the bus goes off the road; the driver dies, and Mrs. Allison is injured. Verdegast, his servant, and the Allisons then seek shelter in the home of Verdegasts’s old friend, Engineer Poelzig, who commanded the Austro-Hungarian side of the battle described by the late driver. Then the real horror starts, because Poelzig was a traitor, who now runs a cult, and Verdegast is out for revenge.

Besides visuals, where the movie really excels is its monologues. Karloff and Lugosi both get good ones. So does the bus driver, although his casual description of the battle of Fort Marmorus is heard while the camera focuses on Lugosi’s face, looking haggard and sad, as his character remembers the horrors of World War I. Poelzig and Werdegast both speak at length about the damage done to their souls by the war. “Are we any the less victims of the War than those whose bodies were torn asunder?” Poelzig asks (a genuinely good question from an icon of evil). And Verdegast mentions several times that Kurgaal, the concentration camp where he has spent the last 15 years, is “where the soul is killed, slowly.” Every word carries the weight of desperation felt by the characters. It is the same desperation seen on the actors’ faces, and not only that of the main characters, but of the nameless cultists seen at the film’s climax.

And this desperation, is, I think, part of where the movie draws me in. Both now and when I was in high school, I was subjected to daily insults, which I just had to smile and take. In high school, it was principal and teachers, constantly berating the student body, telling us we were worthless, spoiled, and that we would never succeed in life. Now, it’s a good work day if a customer doesn’t call me a cunt. It’s a far cry from the massacre of Fort Marmorus, and the forced labor of Kurgaal. But it is soul killing. And, in a way, in these ghoulish characters, I find people who get it. They get it, but they are exaggerated enough for watching the movie to be cathartic.

And an object lesson in what not to do when feeling desperate. I might as well include that.

This complicated, visually gorgeous, thinly plotted movie remains controversial among horror fans. But, even if it wasn’t as important to me personally, I think Universal’s canon, would be much poorer without it. And I could probably do worse in terms of an unhealthy favorite.

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General

In the Full Moonlight

MoonlightCover

Original photo by Michael Samerdyke

I recently put out my third ebook, a short horror novel titled In the Full Moonlight. This is probably the fastest I’ve ever put out a book– probably from inception to posting, it took 13 months. And if I hadn’t waffled so much over the editing phase, it wouldn’t even have taken that long.

Interestingly enough, I got the idea for this novel from a Reddit thread. People were talking about supernatural experiences, and someone wrote in about their grandparents being chased by the rougarou, the Cajun werewolf. I started to write a short story about a werewolf in the American south, and twenty pages later, it wasn’t anywhere close to finished. So I kept writing.

The story follows a young librarian named Caroline Schaffer, who encounters a monster one night while out on a midnight walk. As she recovers from the scare and begins a relationship with a man the incident put her into contact with, she begins to explore the history of the monster and her new community. As events build up, the desire to stay safe conflicts with her wish to do something about it.

Now that I’ve finished this project, I still have a laundry list of other books to complete. My fairy tales, I meant to complete at the end of 2016, but…. In addition to the fairy tales, I have two other horror projects in the works, one involving a vampire and one involving ghouls, as well as a big fantasy project. As I make progress, I’ll post.

In the Full Moonlight is available at the ibookstore (apple.co/2Li4fDL), Barnes and Noble (goo.gl/kepeZV), Kobo, and a few other vendors.

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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 #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.

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