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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General

Left-Leaning Barbies

I didn't mean literally leaning left, but close enough.

I didn’t mean literally leaning left, but close enough.

My fiance visited me this past weekend for my birthday, and a discussion of politics came up.  So, we wound up talking about how I turned up as the family leftist.  And really there’s no logical explanation for that.  I honestly think I was born that way.

Here’s my proof.

Like many young girls, I played with Barbie dolls, but as my mother noted, they didn’t just get new clothes and marry Ken.  They lived under a complex political system and went on adventures.  I called the country in which they lived Hazel (lame, I know), and were ruled by a queen (usually Rapunzel Barbie). However, they also had a legislative body and a President.  The queen was unmarried and had no children, so there was talk of dissolving the monarchy after her death, but the Barbies could go either way on that.

The queen had political power.  For instance, she decided that too many of the Barbies under her rule lived in poverty (all the dolls I couldn’t fit into the dollhouse my mother made, for instance), so she decreed that they would all be given small sums of money with which to start businesses and better their lives.  This game turned out to be very involved, so I only played it out with two families of dolls.  One started a crayon-making business, and the other one operated a flower-stall in the market.  I was six or seven.  It wasn’t until later, when I was nearly finished with high-school that I realized this practice had a name– micro-credit.  For more information look at Kiva.org.

It doesn’t make sense.  My parents are a liberal Republican and a conservative Democrat.  I ignored NPR reports because they were boring, and at school we hadn’t even covered the three branches of government yet.  Maybe politics are like handedness… or maybe I just never had a chance to be a normal kid.  That may be more possible than the former option.  Either way, I had fond memories and healthier games than people tend to associate with Barbie dolls.  All the better not to dismiss them out of hand!

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An Act of Vampiric Penance Part II

Bram_Stoker's_DraculaSo here I am, part two of my penance… trying to argue what’s wrong with Bram Stoker’s Dracula without getting too hysterical or only spewing venom.

Anyway, first and foremost– I don’t like the look of the film.  It’s a personal thing, and that’s an answer my film prof would never accept.  I guess I find the vivid color and id-black shadow combination rather distracting.  It worked in Batman the Animated Series, but not for a live-action movie.

Secondly, the premise.  Dracula does not need to be anyone other than Dracula– even dear old Vlad the Impaler.  (Making him Judas Iscariot for Dracula 2000 was even worse, but we’re not talking about it.)  He is the world’s most famous vampire and can, if you’ll pardon the expression, bloody well stand on his own without the Turks, Crusades, impalings, and other crimson disjecta membra that the old monarch was famous for.  Dracula the vampire was a person who led such a horrible life that he was cursed in death to become a vampire– sure, there’s plenty of room for imaginative backstory, but that’s not what the focus should be on.

Thirdly, well, I have to pick on my S.O. here.  His defense of the movie was that it was “an original take on a story that has become stereotypical.”  Well, he was right inasmuch as that the story has always been stereotypical, no matter who was telling it.  In 1931 the white actresses for the Lugosi version wore fairly high-necked, long-sleeved dresses, while the Latina actresses for the Spanish language movie wore slinky, low-cut numbers.  Going back to the original novel look at the “natives” of Transylvania– the peasants, the gypsies, the Slovaks.  Plenty of stereotype there, and the 1992 film is guilty of perpetuating it.

And speaking of stereotypes– let’s talk about the women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Yes, Dracula is looking for his lost love instead of preying at random; that trend started in the ’70s.  Yes, Mina finishes the vampire off.  Orson Welles already did that, admittedly for radio, in the 1930s!  Then there’s the quasi-canon Nosferatu movies– in both of which did the Mina character do the vampire slaying.  Don’t talk like Francis Ford Coppola was the first to do it!  And the vampiresses…. there’s a way to play up the erotic side of vampirism without turning it into porn, but this movie certainly forgot how.

Every female vampire is the most broad, disgusting, sexist stereotype of what a “slut” is… the brides, Lucy, and even Mina, with their heaving bosoms (which aren’t always covered), constant moaning and squeaking, making out with each other….

And now I come to van Helsing.  Now, in Coppola’s defense, comedy-relief in Dracula movies has a very checkered past.  In 1931, it was dreadful.  In most of Terrence Fisher’s Dracula movies (with the exception of Horror of Dracula) the comedy fell flat.   And I don’t even remember what was supposed to be funny in the 1979 movie– maybe just how repulsive Harker was.  I don’t know.  But back to van Helsing– making him the comedy relief in this movie was just a mistake.  When Mel Brooks says something like, “She was in pain, so we cut off her head.”  It’s funny.  Not necessarily so when the movie is meant to be all dark and serious.  Then there’s the matter of having van Helsing sniff Mina and begin waltzing her around when the first met, and do that weird undulation when he tells Quincy that Lucy is “the bitch of the devil.”  If it’s meant to show that he’s not so different from Dracula, it doesn’t quite work, and it rather undermines his position as the expert.  I won’t go into how Mina nearly seduced him.

Now for the Count himself.  This movie is just confused about what it wants to do with the old bat.  Is he young or old?  Is he a wolf-bat or human?  Is he evil or tragic?  Is he appealing or repulsive?  They never pick one.  Yes, he changed ages in the novel, but it was basically 50-50: old in Transylvania and young again in England– consistency that this movie lacks.

Finally, my biggest complaint.  Dracula is a rapist.  I mean, yes, we all sort of knew that (what else is biting someone on the neck and forcing them to drink your own blood), but this movie, I feel, crosses a line by having him, and his brides, sexually assault their victims, too.  We’re obviously supposed to feel repulsed when the wolf-bat creature rapes Lucy, but the other instances of that, like with the brides, or what Dracula does in human form, seem exploitative.  Hypnotism and magic do not equal consent, and I’ll return to my earlier porn comment.

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Top 10 Vampires #6 Armand Tesla

No, not that Tesla.

No, not that Tesla.

I admit it… I agonized over where to put Bela Lugosi on this list.  He has to appear somewhere on the list.  He set the gold standard as to what a vampire should be like, but Dracula has a lot of problems.  It’s stagebound, the hero is repulsive, the ending is utterly flat, and the director was drunk throughout most of the filming.

But one cannot deny that Lugosi is wonderful.  He is Dracula from the very moment he appears onscreen, unsettling the luckless Renfield.  Unfortunately for Lugosi’s career.

So, why does it say “Armand Tesla” at the top of the page?  Well…

Intended as a sequel to Dracula, The Return of the Vampire (1944) is an overlooked, but well-done film that upsets a few tropes along the way.  It was made by Columbia, rather than Universal, though, who were not giving up their dearly-paid-for copyrights without ridiculously raising the price.  So Columbia gave the story a face-lift, changed the names of the characters, and set it in the present day.  Somehow, it avoided Nosferatu‘s copyright hell.

The movie opens in 1921 with Lady Dr. Jane Ainsley and Sir Dr. James Saunders puzzling over the mysterious epidemic in the area.  After Saunders’ granddaughter, Nicki, is bitten in her room at night (in a very frightening scene) the pair realize that a vampire is at work.  Consulting Dr. Armand Tesla’s book, they track the vampire, and his werewolf servant, Andreas, down and stake the vampire.  Lady Jane takes Andreas under her wing, so he can recover his sanity.

Twenty years later (Saunders is now dead) the German bombs unearth and unstake the vampire, who is none other than Tesla, and he resumes his old tricks.  Poor Andreas is forced to become a werewolf again, and help the vampire assume the identity of a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Bruckner, who the pair murdered once he was dropped off by the mainland Resistance.

Let me run that by you again. The vampire murders and assumes the identity of a recently rescued Holocaust survivor.

Welcomed into the Ainsley house as Bruckner, he immediately begins to put the bite on her now daughter-in-law, Nicki.  His attacks on her are quite disturbing as they imply rather strongly for a Code-era film, that Tesla is after more than blood….  He kidnaps her, and while Lady Jane fruitlessly quarrels with Scotland Yard about how to proceed with the crime, Andreas finally asserts his will and fights back.  Ultimately, free of his curse, the werewolf succumbs to his wounds as Tesla is destroyed by sunlight in what may be the first shot of a vampire’s flesh dissolving onscreen.

Yes, Lugosi was (and looks) ill throughout the movie, but he still brings a frightening energy into the utterly evil Tesla.  The writers had a good idea by making him a corrupted van Helsing type (they read his book!), and the fact that Tesla was a scientist or doctor in life allows him to fit into the role of Bruckner and even befriend Lady Jane for a while, until she realizes his identity.  And Lady Jane is an unusual but believable foil for this magnificent bastard.

Try and dig up this movie somewhere.  It’s worth it, and the comedy relief is actually funny.

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Top 10 Women in Horror Movies #1 Heather Langenkamp

Too awesome for a corny caption.

Too awesome for a corny caption.

This was a hard decision, but I wanted to include a Wes Craven heroine somewhere on the list, and it was down to Sidney or Nancy when I remembered the only good sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) brought new vigor, and a lot of strong tension to the series that had been basically worn into the ground by all the dumb sequels, while maintaining the spirit of the original.

The movie opens with Heather Langenkamp having a nightmare about yet another sequel, where her husband is the special-effects person, and her small son is watching.  Suddenly, Freddy’s hand comes to life and attacks and kills the effects team, including Chase (the husband).  She wakes up screaming as an earthquake rattles the house.  As her life progresses, Freddy Kruger becomes an omnipresent force in her life from the creepy phonecalls the house keeps getting, to her talk-show interview full of people in costume, to her nightmares, and Dylan’s continued attempts to watch the movie on TV.  Things turn deadly when the nightmares spread to Chase and Dylan; Chase falls asleep when he’s driving and Freddy gets him.  When Dylan has to go to the hospital after a nasty fall on the playground, the doctor is immediately hostile to Heather because she’s best known for being an actress in horror movies, and aggressively brings up the idea of putting Dylan in foster care.

Frightened, Heather turns to her fellow actors and to Wes Craven.  Robert Englund has skipped town for the foreseeable future, and while John Saxon (who played Nancy’s father) is sympathetic, he provides no real help.  Wes Craven, however, guiltily admits that the whole mess is probably his fault.  The Freddy Kruger following is too strong, which is giving him the power to leave the movie and become an entity in his own right.  Craven has been writing a new screenplay about that happening in an attempt to banish him, but he needs Heather to “give Nancy her strength just one more time.”  Angry, Heather makes him promise to finish the screenplay, and leaves as he sits back down at the word processor, allowing the nightmare to unfold.

Setting the movie in the “real world” was a clever move on several counts, but especially in creating the heroine.  The world of fans, moralizing professionals, and generally unhelpful people is as much of an antagonist as the supernatural menace in Freddy.  She is forced to not only defend herself, but also her son who is in double danger from the fact that if she loses custody, he will die because she is the only person who properly knows how to defend him.  This ups the stakes, as she deals with the danger, her grief, and her isolation as the people best suited to help her disappear.  And she does deal with everything the word processor threw at her almost completely on her own.  Happy endings in horror movies are by and large out of fashion now, but when Freddy Kruger is finally defeated, and Heather and Dylan are safe back in the house with the completed screenplay, no one can begrudge them that happy ending.  Heather earned it with her blood, sweat, and tears, and both of them amply deserve it.

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Top 10 Women in Horror Films #2 Ellen Ripley

It pays to listen to her.

It pays to listen to her.

Another sci-fi/horror, although  Aliens is more horror than its prequel, because its plot echoes one of the best sci-fi/horror films of the 1950s– Them!  An insectoid menace, a little girl who is the the lone survivor of the initial carnage, and the need to destroy the queen before all is lost… these are all details shared by the two movies, although there are, of course, many significant differences.

Aliens(1986) opens 57 years after the events of Alien when Ripley(Sigourney Weaver) is brought out of hypersleep, her shuttle having drifted through space all that time.  No one believes her story about what happened to her fellow crew members on the Nostromo, and she is demoted down to forklift operator.  However, the planet where all the trouble started has been terraformed and colonized, although suddenly all contact is lost.  The Company now begins to believe Ripley and asks her to join the rescue mission, made up of a group of maladjusted, misfit space-marines and the corporate bastard Burke.  Landing, they discover the little girl, Newt, whose father was the first casualty of the alien outbreak.  With an alien for each member of the colony, and an egg-laying queen, not to mention that the whole place is undermined by a nuclear reactor, the plan quickly melts down.

Tension surrounds Ripley’s character from the moment she wakes up.  She has to prove that she’s not crazy and acted to the best of her abilities on the Nostromo.  Due to the crisis on the colony, the only way to do that is to confront her nightmares head on– not usually a situation female characters are seen in.  She also has to constantly deal with the space marines and Burke overriding and belittling her out of sexism, the fact that she’s a civilian, the fact that she’s the crazy Alien lady… you could make an argument for each or agree that it’s a combination of all three.  When Gorman panics, she assumes command of the team, using her expertise and leadership to prevent a bigger crisis. And she rises to it all, even taking Newt under her wing, inverting the usual trope that tough women don’t have a tender side.  She even learns that androids can be good.  We need more characters like her, and no, I don’t mean Avatar.

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Top 10 Women in Horror Movies #3 Alana Maxwell

Not your average "final girl."

Not your average “final girl.”

Say hello to my list’s only Canadian film!

Given her strong legacy, I felt like I had to put Jamie Lee Curtis here on the list somewhere, but I was damned if it was going to be Halloween!  Luckily, I read about and then found Terror Train (1980).  It follows the basic slasher-movie plot, but provides several key switches on the familiar old track.

The movie opens with a mean fraternity prank, where Kenny thinks he’s going to have sex with Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis), and he follows her into the designated room, only to wind up kissing one of the cadavers from the pre-med lab.  He winds up institutionalized.

Three years later the guilty students are having one last big New Year’s party on a train in costumes.  Their friend Ed shows up in a Groucho Marx costume with a seemingly fake sword through his stomach.  Everyone laughs at his clowning and gets on the train, but then Ed falls down dead.  The killer takes Ed’s costume, kicks his body onto the tracks and boards the train.  The party (featuring a cameo by the magician David Copperfield as the entertainment) and the carnage kick into high gear.

So far, business as usual.  However, unlike most slasher movies, Terror Train as an effective authority figure, surprisingly in the form of Ben Johnson as the conductor, Carne.  He is a much more active, dynamic character than, say, Loomis in Halloween.  Carne doesn’t spend the whole movie camped out by the wrong end of the train, waiting for something to happen.

Back to Alana.  One of the reasons I like her is that she has a complexity that the slasher heroine usually did not have.  She is culpable in what happened to Kenny (who, you guessed it, is the costumed killer).  However, she is the only one in the group to really express remorse for what they did, which gives her a dynamism as a character.  She is also active in trying to deduce which member of the party is the killer, but has moments where fear temporarily gets the better of her.  Terror Train really lets Curtis use her charm as an actress, even in what would soon become a tired, overused subgenre.

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