Category Archives: Review

You ready for a Sucker Punch?

Being as I want to get myself back into reviewing books, music, TV and film on a more regularly basis and due to a close friend’s hatred for this particular film, I thought it a good place to start.

My friend and I expressed shock in equal measures at certain TV programs being missed: for me it was his admission that he had not heard of Justified, let alone seen it and his was that I was not really interested in Band of Brothers, one of his favourite TV series. Yes, I am a convert, I have now seen seven of the eleven episodes and consider episode six (Bastogne) one of the best episodes of any series I have ever watched (but that’s for a later review).

Anyway, there wasn’t much said about why my friend hated Sucker Punch so much that he considered that it is possibly the worst film he has ever seen, as he was aware I was very keen on seeing it. We promised to return to the discussion once I had.

We agree on Band of Brothers’ greatness but there’s no way we are going to agree on Sucker Punch, as I was pretty much drawn in from the opening scene and remained fully engrossed throughout. I’ve become much more of a TV series follower than a film viewer of late, more interested in the characterisation and development of key figures, especially now that a lot of the respected film actors are taking key roles in TV series but Sucker Punch reminded me of things I love about film too.

I have to say I’m a fan of both Zack Snyder as a film director and of Tyler Bates as a composer/arranger, as I thoroughly enjoyed the 2004 remake of the Romero classic Dawn of the Dead and I was pleasantly surprised by 300, having heard quite a bit of negativity about it beforehand.

Of Sucker Punch I knew nothing, except for several posters doing the rounds on the net being as I am a fan of watching a film when knowing little to nothing about it beforehand. From the poster the only thing I had gathered/assumed is that there was some Steampunk element to the film and that it would be action-based.

Well I got that but I got a hell of a lot more, as Sucker Punch’s soundtrack is one of the most innovative and punchy around. I was very impressed by Kick-Ass’ music when I watched that earlier this year for similar reasons but I think Sucker Punch takes it to a whole new level, as the film starts with two great covers, one of them possibly my favourite The Smiths song, Asleep. The soundtrack continues to move the film along and for me becomes a key character in the plot (for all the right reasons) with tracks chosen for not only their musical quality but for their lyrics too (think Baby Doll’s first dance track – Army of Me by Björk – very appropriate and Asleep with its message of suicide).

But the music is only a portion of the film, albeit a very successful one, with Snyder engaging direction seen already in Dawn of the Dead but much more in 300. Sucker Punch shares with 300 the comic book adaptation elements transferred to celluloid. It’s colourful, vibrant, over the top, unrealistic and total eye-candy, I just wanted more scenes, more action, more Sucker Punch.

The film is light on plot, the opening scene tragic and dark in contrast to much of what follows and then jumps into the aforementioned blockbuster action sequences, before ending with a predictable but not too disappointing conclusion. If you’re looking for something with a bit more depth and substance to it, you’ve probably been mislead somewhere along the way.

I haven’t seen anything written or discussed about the film yet, although my plan is to do that after my review is posted but I’m expecting there may well be a discussion about the favourite of the five heroines in the film.

Mine is ‘Sweet Pea’, by a country mile.

Oh and my last point: clockwork Germans in World War II = class!


‘Slights’ by Kaaron Warren

[First reviewed on Beyond Fiction and Dark Fiction Review]

There comes a time when you know, during your reading of a book, that it is going to have a profound effect on you, in terms of its engaging writing and also the message it delivers. Certain books spring to mind from my reading, classics such as: In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and The War Zone by Alexander Stuart. Slights by Kaaron Warren can be added to this list.

 

As an admirer of Warren’s prose for some time now, especially her collection, The Grinding House (Australian title, renamed with additional stories in the US, as The Glass Woman.), I was sure that this book would impress me, yet even with such high expectations, the book didn’t stand a chance of disappointing.

Slights is a first person narrative, seen through the eyes of Stevie Garland, a misfit, who loses her father early in life, suffers yet another major trauma when she and her mother are involved in a car accident, resulting in her mother’s death and her entering ‘the room’, a place where the people she has ‘slighted’ in life come to exact some sort of revenge on her. She is naturally disturbed by this room and vows not to slight anyone ever again upon her release from hospital. It is a vow she will make (and break) several times in the novel.
 
After the accident the book follows Stevie over a period of years, in which she retreats further away from the people who care about her and becomes more curious about death and what people see when they die. This is helped by her employment at a hospice.
 
The characters that play the biggest role in Stevie’s life are her brother, Peter, married to Maria, who Stevie can’t stand, Dougie Page, friend of the family, who worked with Stevie’s dad and Alex, Stevie’s dead father.
 
Stevie engages in hero-worship of her father and refuses to talk to any that speak ill of him (her uncle Dom, aunt Ruth etc.). She hangs up on Dougie Page more than once, when he tries to explain why it was that Alex died in the line of duty, supposedly protecting the innocents.
 
They are truths Stevie cannot and will not face.
 
She and her brother Peter have a classic brother/sister relationship, complete with scars and a history of hurt intertwined with love. Neither of them seem well equipped to deal with the other and this causes pain and confusion throughout the narrative, not helped by the friction between Stevie and Maria, Peter’s wife.
 
Stevie’s obsession with ‘the room’ becomes too much for her and she becomes more and more problematic in ‘normal’ society, seeking answers from people who have not the capability to answer them.
 
As the years pass and the fascination and dread grow, more information is brought to light about Alex, first from Dougie Page, followed by Peter and finally by aunt Jessie, who has craftily hidden stories of Alex’s life in the margins of classic books, during her time at the library.
 
The characterisation and interaction between the different characters in this story is an honest representation of what it is to be flawed, to not fit into this society of ours. Warren picks out traits many of us share and grinds them into one thick paste of loneliness, tragedy, betrayal and ultimately murder.
 
There is also Warren’s prose, which manages that difficult bridge between elegant and engaging with relative ease. For while it is easy to see that this is a story that has been crafted and that the words have been meticulously examined to prove their worth, in no way does this slow down the novel or make it confusing to the reader, rather it is fresh and vibrant and matches the rather chaotic nature of its protagonist.
 
As mentioned earlier, Slights, is one of those books that reaches into your core and takes something from you, whilst ultimately leaving something you really aren’t sure you wanted to be left with.
 
Ellen Datlow states that Kaaron Warren must be read and I cannot and would not want to disagree with this sentiment. It is as simple as that.


Bite-size reviews of the Vampire Awareness Month films

[written by Vampire Awareness Month co-conspirator, Mark S. Deniz]

1. Nosferatu

I should love it more than I do (but I should really like cucumbers more than I do and grapes less than I do) but it is a classic, it gets the vampire flicks off to a good start and was a brilliant introduction to our little festival too!

It’s based on Dracula, yes? No? Not if you ask the Stoker estate…

OK, well it has some plot based on a novel but is essentially the first vampire film, and has stood the test of time somewhat. You really get a sense of what an impact it has had on the rest of vampire cinema, especially when considering it was ‘worthy’ of a 1979 remake and was the whole model for Shadow of the Vampire (coming up later in this review).

It suffers from some pretty dire characters though, especially in the shape of Hutter, who yet again shows the inability to get Harker anywhere near right in the film adaptations. I mean, Harker is this stoic, eager young legal assistant who suffers absolute horrors, resulting in a ‘brain fever’ and then after meeting Van Helsing and having his story confirmed becomes a super-hero!

Not so Hutter, who goes from village idiot to weeping child to running-about-innefective non-hero.

In the silent movie era there is a need for a little bit of hamming up and overacting, to get the message across and no one does it better than our boy Knock. The guy was mesmerising, like trying to follow a fly buzzing around the room. However, I did think he seemed slightly unhinged ‘before’ the madness struck…

Ellen was the saviour of the village and at the same time such a non-character in the film that I kept forgetting she was supposed to be a major player. Something about the time perhaps? Murnau’s sexual preferences?

That Nosferatu creature’s a bit cool though isn’t he? All that creeping around and shadows…yes, the shadows…he has them pinned!

I think it would be cool to ask Giacchino to do a film score which would make it would very interesting to watch again.

2. Dracula

Now this one must be based on Stoker’s Dracula, yes? Yes, good. I’m not sure I remember the armadillos or the possum in Stoker’s book but that must just be my memory…I mean…armadillos and Transylvania were pretty much made for each other…

Is it a film? Is it a play? Is it a mish mash of scenes all lumped together? I’m not sure and I’m not sure how many people have answered this effectively yet. It does set up Renfield as a very significant character and leads the way for other film adaptations to increase the air time of the ‘lunatic’.

It does want to be faithful to the plot of the novel (I think) but struggles, as so many adaptations do. It tries though and is equally trying because of it.

In terms of characters well there’s Lugosi’s Dracula, and after that we sort of forget about anybody else don’t we? I mean, I am aware that Dwight Frye received many plaudits for his role as Renfield but I feel that is more to do with the earlier audiences thinking lots of shouting and bright/wild eyes equates to good acting (well it’s still working for Anthony Hopkins today) but I found the character to be a little irritating…OK…very.

We’re back to Harker as an idiot and Van Helsing has not so much character here either.

Like Nosferatu, I think I’m supposed to like this more than I do too, although I love it. So none of that sentence makes sense…

No I’m aware it’s riddled with inconsistencies, it’s got some terrible acting in it but Lugosi is, in a way, a god of the early horror film and a true incarnation of the most famous vampire of them all. I still don’t think I’ve seen anyone quite grasp the count yet, but Lugosi came nearer than most.

3. Brides of Dracula

I’m this very powerful vampire that’s been locked away in a room, with a chain attached to my foot.” “I zee” (said in bad French accent) “But zen why don’t yoo become zee bat, how yoo say, and escape, or better still zee mist?” “Ah”

Was that explained? I don’t remember that being explained. And you see that word in the title, that Dracula word? Did you expect him not to be in then? Cause his brides would have to be pretty much his, wouldn’t they and not some Baron’s fodder? Or?

Isn’t a cross something that is a symbol of Christ, something that should be imbued with his holy essence? I’m not sure anymore, seeing as Cushing uses a windmill and candlesticks and then we see some medical supplies (don’t ask me what they’re called) stuck together in Salem’s Lot. I’m all confused now.

Thank god for Peter Cushing as Van Helsing for that bloody baron and that ‘French’ mademoiselle are a little too much for me. However, it seems she is not to be underestimated as she gets away from the Baron not once but twice.

This was a very important film to me when I was younger and it’s Hammer and there are some wonderful scenes in it – I mean for all my jesting about the windmill, it is done rather well. It’s also terrible though…and great…and terrible.

4. Kolchak – The Night Stalker

A simple idea that is developed really well, meaning one of my favourite films of the month. It’s pacing is just right and I think the story holds together rather well. Our first solid reluctant vampire hunter

Kolchak is one of my favourite vampire hunters ever! Yes, of course I’m saying that with a straight face, I think he’s excellent. Some really sharp dialogue and great approach to the whole thing. He’s pretty much a ’70s Sherlock Holmes, showing excellent deductive powers!

Shame about the rest of the cast then. No, just leave it now, I don’t want to talk about them, I’ll get annoyed again.

As mentioned earlier it works really well, it’s got the natural response to a reporter talking about ‘real’ vampires, especially one who’s been thrown off about ten newspapers earlier. It’s got some really creepy scenes (the whole house sequence at the end) and the twist at the end is so nasty it’s excellent!

And you have to applaud the ’70s funk music to accompany the scenes where Kolchak travels around Las Vegas, it’s just sublime!

5. Martin

We follow a troubled killer, Martin, who thinks he’s a vampire as he kills victims and drinks their blood (which in the definition of a vampire means he’s right). However his arch-nemesis is a crazy cousin who believes in the whole mythological side of it and wards himself with garlic and crosses. The film is a slow-paced, effective drama with an incredibly powerful conclusion.

The most disturbing of the films so far. Why? Because it’s the most real, silly. This is the story of a fucked up family with a fucked up killer, there are no supernatural elements and this could be happening in a house near you…see, you’re not going to sleep now are you?

6. Dracula

Plot follies abound in this adaptation of the greatest vampire story ever told and I was so disappointed to find that I did not love it anywhere near as much as I did when I first saw it as a trembling ten year old back in 1981.

For now my head is in a spin. I mean that Lucy is the heroine and Mina is the victim is bad enough but Mina is now a Dutch Van Helsing and Lucy a Seward. Why is Seward old and why is there no mention/appearance of Mrs Seward or Mrs Van Helsing. But nevermind, we’ve got that out of the way and now we can concentrate on those characters that made an impact.

Langella was a cool Dracula wasn’t he? Got him quite well I’d say, noble on the one hand and monster on the other, scary stare and guttural unpleasantries abound. Yes, I liked him it has to be said.

Shame none of the other characters stepped up to the light to do anything worthy…

7. The Hunger

Wonderful film, one of the absolute highlights of the month. Reasons are in its way to tackle the seductive side of the vampire, in a way that most films haven’t come near to, but also for that gruesome plot development that the lovers don’t actually die, they just come as near as they can come to it before Deneuve sticks them in an attic with those that loved her before – what a way to be dumped eh?

Lovely switches in music make this both a joy visually and aurally.


8. Vampire Hunter D

I believe I must have been in a very easy-going/forgiving mood when I first saw this film as it’s an absolute travesty, an embarrassing attempt at tackling the monster, both in terms of plot development and in terms of horrible characterisation and ridiculous plot twists. I hang my head in shame for selecting this for the month and know that somewhere, somehow I am going to pay for it – and big!


9. The Lost Boys

You guys love it, I know you do but I have to be honest and say I wasn’t much for it when it was released and I’m sure as hell not sold now. A combination of overrated actors (Sutherland, Haim, Feldman, Patrick) and some quite horrific oily torsos belonging to crooning beach singers made me shake my head in dismay when I watched the film. It’s OK but it suffers from one huge disadvantage and that’s the fact that it is in the hands of one of the weakest directors Hollywood has ever produced.


10. Near Dark

A much better film than Lost Boys (compared a lot, due to them being released in the same year, and having very similar themes) but I had three thoughts running through my head the whole time: was this an Aliens renunion (with no less than three actors from that film), what possessed them to get a Tangerine Dream score (and yes, I do like the band, but felt that they were a little out of place here) and when was the farmboy going to show he could actually fly…

Some excellent scenes though and a film that was not originally penned as a vampire film, made a rather good one. Funny that one of the biggest criticisms is that the vampirism could be cured by a transfusion when in fact Bigelow cited Stoker as her inspiration for that, reminding us that is how Van Helsing attempts to cure Lucy (and it was working until the pesky Count came back for more)!

11. Cronos

Another of the highlights of the month, chosen by myself because I knew just how damn good it is. It’s a slow but subtle tale of a man’s descent in vampirism using a very clever little device made by an alchemist and containing a very creepy bug…

Not only this but you’ve got some great characters, not least the fantastic Ron Perlman, who is just about perfect in everything he does (think of a bad role people) and the film cannot really fail.

It’s dark, it’s moody and it’s everything about the monster that is the vampire.

12. Interview with the Vampire

I went to see this first at the cinema and hated it. That it is one of the most boring, tedious films made about the vampire is only one element. Others, for example, that the characters are so badly cast you wonder just who picked them and whether they had actually read the book beforehand. And if your brain is not ready to explode with all this before the climactic scene, then get ready for that most whiny of rock bands: Guns ‘n’ Roses expertly murdering the Rolling Stones classic Sympathy for the Devil (although I have to admit I don’t like the original song much and took it as they were destroying the classic Laibach cover).


13. Shadow of the Vampire

Took my time getting round to see this after having had it recommended for a while and thoroughly enjoyed it. In direct contrast to Interview with, Shadow of, has an infinitely better cast, fulfilling the roles set. My only quibbles were that Cary Elwes need to put much effort into his character’s German accent when none of the cast around him were, made him sound rather foolish – bless him. The other was the need of Malchovich to shout around 40% of his lines in any given film (I think he is only bettered by Tom Cruise in that award).

Great idea with the film, that Count Orlock in, Murnau’s Nosferatu was actually a ‘real’ vampire, such was the need for Murnau to make his film believable. However, there were some very unneccessary scenes, such as an overlong bedroom scene towards the end and where was Knock, the man of the original?

14. 30 Days of Night

Oh wow, some new violent vampire, using an ancient language moving through Alaska, taking a town out every winter – or so we are lead to expect. What on earth was that language and why did they take so long to find all the inhabitants? I mean, there were only 152 of them and these monsters were a crack squad of eliminators. It was all jolly good apocalyptic fun though, using the dark of Alaska, as a wonderful aid to the vampires, meaning that the ‘wait for sunrise’ gimmick was a bit more challenging! Much more entertainting that the woeful Frostbiten, which uses a similar idea.


15. Let the Right One In

As much a social commentary about bullying as a vampire film (although Lindqvist disagreed with me when I suggested this and said it’s an out and out horror film) Let the Right One In was a breath of fresh air in Sweden, a country known for its love of Crime fiction and Science Fiction but equally known for not having much to do with Horror or Fantasy.

John Ajvide Lindqvist came in and changed all that, first with vampires, then zombies and now ghosts but it’s his vampire novel that seems to have had the most impact, with the film exceeding all expectations and in fact now being re-made for the US (as they don’t like reading subtitles).

I think a few people got carried away with this, saying it was the best horror film of the last 30 years, which it most certainly is not but it’s an enjoyable and interesting take on the genre.

16. Twilight

This hurt, I mean really hurt. It’s one tedious drawn out pouting between whiny teenage girls and equally whiny teenage vampires. I mean, wasn’t that Cullen bloke supposed to be nearly 100 years old? How come he acted like a lovestruck puppy then? My favourite section of the film (mainly for how dire it was) was when Edward explains to Bella that yes, he is a vampire. It goes a little something like this: “I’ve killed people” “I don’t care” There’s a whole lot wrong with that line and it sums up a lot of what is wrong with the film, a film that focuses on the wrong aspects of the vampire and those that come across its path.


BONUS: The Horror of Dracula

What’s all this thing again of not wanting to get Lucy or Mina’s name right and having all this surname confusion too? Oh and Harker as a librarian is rather disturbing, although not as tragic as seeing him as a vampire early on. Thank god for Cushing and Lee, was a cry early this month and I heartily agree – if it wasn’t for them the film would have been extremely difficult to watch, given its otherwise terrible cast and devotion to not sticking to much of the plot at all.

Kind of cool how Van Helsing dispatched the Count though eh?

However, it’s Hammer, the home of horror and there will always be part of that in my mind when I watch these.

BONUS: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Oh yea gods is all I have to say. This film is bloody dire, all visuals and no idea of what it’s doing. In fact it actually calls itself Bram Stoker’s Dracula and then goes so far away from the plot I thought it was going to change its name to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein about halfway through (not that it resembled that plot either but)!

One of the Vampire month contributors mentioned the feeling of getting a little sick in her mouth whilst listening to Reeve’s English accent but I have to admit to being equally appalled by Ryder’s. And what the hell was Hopkins up to? The guy was an absolute menace – I seem to remember Van Helsing being a bit clumsy and unthoughtful at times but this guy was out for blood – I kept trying to decide which of them (him or Dracula) was actually the bad guy! I mean Oldman was such a thoughtful old chap, except for when his ladies went for Reeve’s throat (whilst we cheered them on). I did love his roller skates he used to get him around the castle too – you don’t know what I mean? Watch that scene again where he comes up behind Harker shaving…

The soundtrack is gorgeous (although I have to admit to doing a copy of my CD without the Annie Lennox travesty on it) but otherwise the film is more dire than its predecessors on this list.

Mark’s Personal Top 16

Those knowing me, pretty much knew I couldn’t really get away with not doing a best of chart of the films and so here is my own personal choice for the best to the worst of the Vampire Awareness Month films:

  1. Martin
  2. Cronos
  3. Dracula (1931) – You shocked? I was!
  4. The Hunger
  5. Let the Right One In – Go Sweden!
  6. Kolchak: The Night Stalker
  7. Nosferatu
  8. 30 Days of Night
  9. Shadow of the Vampire
  10. Near Dark
  11. Brides of Dracula
  12. The Lost Boys
  13. Dracula (1979)
  14. Interview with the Vampire
  15. Vampire Hunter D
  16. Twilight

The Domestication of the Vampire

[written by writer and reviewer, Sharon Ring]

I’ve been wondering how we made it from this,

Fear me!

to this.

Erm...hello...

As we’ve moved through Vampire Awareness Month I’ve been reading each blog post with great interest. I wanted to understand how vampire fiction has evolved from its earliest days of folklore to eighteenth century poetry, into nineteenth century gothic novels and through into modern cinema and literature. I also wanted to understand how each person who contributed and commented throughout the month perceives the vampire on a more personal level. Just what is our fascination with these creatures, why does the myth persist and why are vampires, as far as I can tell, the most oft-used fictional genre monster? Seriously, how does the vampire, more than any other fictional creature, manage to successfully reinvent itself through the generations?

Before I get any deeper into this train of thought, let me tell you a little about my own introduction to the world of vampire fiction, both literary and cinematic.

My first vampire book was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, read at the tender age of eleven, and the first vampire movie was the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, watched at around the same age. Both tales affected me deeply although they troubled me in quite different ways. What connected them however, despite the seventy-eight year difference in each story’s creation, was the presence of the evil predator in our midst. It seemed to me at such a young age that this “presence of evil” was the most vital aspect of the vampire mythology: all things considered, I still believe this to be the most important part of any well-told vampire tale.

It's me again...


Back to the present day. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly Neil Gaiman talked about “what vampires get to represent”. His point of view is that with each generation of readers and movie-watchers the vampire is given a fresh role to play, a role that reflects the morals and ideals of the world into which this new incarnation arrives. I have to agree with Gaiman on this to a certain extent; the movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about vampires over the years have definitely moved the creature through a number of subtle and not-so-subtle changes. Looking at the overall picture, from the earliest fictional vampires right up to the present day, we can see how societal attitudes have shaped our depiction of the creatures. Repressed sexuality and gender inequality in Victorian times, xenophobia throughout both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the sexual revolution of the post-war western world, have all served to define the creature who stalks the pages of the vampire novel or who broods on the big screen.

Inevitably, and mostly for the good, this leads to huge differences in interpretation of the vampire myth. In both books and movies there appears to be a vampire for everyone: you can still find the predatory, murderous vampire if you look hard enough but most of what you’ll find out there, in mainstream cinema and paranormal romance novels particularly, seems a poor imitation of what most of us consider to be the “real” vampire.

Today’s most popular vampire, Edward Cullen, is a rather insipid looking, generically handsome brooding teenager. He attends school to give the impression of a “normal” life, in daylight no less. Not sunlight, mind, sunlight is dangerous. Why, we wonder? Will he smoulder and burn, disintegrating before Bella’s eyes? No, he fucking SPARKLES! Yes, he sparkles, and it just wouldn’t do to be seen sparkling now, would it? I’ll say no more on Twilight for a moment, lest I begin to smoulder and burn myself.

Where's that Cullen bloke? I'm hungry!

Vampires for the grown-ups don’t do much better. The most popular vampires out there now for adult readers and television watchers – True Blood – based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. Now, don’t get me wrong here, I like True Blood and I’d be a hypocrite to pretend otherwise. It has its fair share of gore and not all the vampires in it contain their bloodlust, far from it. Still, despite my fondness for the show (not the books, they’re bloody awful), I have got to say that True Blood is little more than vampire candy floss.

What we’ve done, ladies and gentlemen, in our endeavours to reinvent and re-imagine the modern vampire, is made him a little too much like ourselves. Gone is that sense of the true outsider, we’ve replaced that with a bunch of moody teenage vampires. Gone is the dangerous sexual predator, he’s been usurped by the caring and sharing vampire boyfriend.

We have domesticated one of our most feared monsters, made him (and her) handsome and pretty, with human emotions and a whole new way of life that allows them to enjoy a little intimacy with the human race. Their previous elusive and disturbing qualities are now diluted to the point where they may as well now be us, albeit with a vague aversion to sunlight.

In the same Entertainment Weekly interview, Gaiman says, “… it kind of feels like now we’re finishing a vampire wave; at the point where they’re everywhere.” I hope he’s right. When we’ve reached a point where vampires sparkle in the sunlight, it’s time to call it a day, at least for a while. Stick the vampires back in their coffins, hammer a few extra nails into the lid and don’t let them back out to play until they’ve re-grown their fangs and washed off all the glitter.


A Hammer Horror Hat-Trick

[Written by co-conspirator P. G. Bell]

Last week, a bunch of intrepid film fans abandoned the comfort of Vampire Awareness Month‘s official movie list and struck out on an expedition into the gothic vaults of the Hammer archives.

Like many people of my generation, I was born too late to experience Hammer’s films at the cinema but was just in time to catch late night screenings on the BBC. Plague of the Zombies, Taste the Blood of Dracula, To the Devil a Daughter… Years of watching Doctor Who had taught me that I enjoy being scared but these were my first glimpses into the hitherto forbidden pleasures of genuine screen horror.

They shared the same homespun charm as classic Doctor Who, with their fluorescent orange blood, underexposed day-for-night scenes and endlessly recycled sets and props. But they had a darker, harder edge that was impossibly exciting to my impressionable teenage psyche.

So it was with a sense of real anticipation that I settled down to watch a trilogy of films that encompass the entirety of Hammer’s vampire output; Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.

More than anything, I was looking forward to Dracula (1958, Dir. Terence Fisher). This, after all, was the film that redefined the character and cemented Christopher Lee’s and Hammer’s stars in the show business firmament. It’s not much of an exaggeration to call it the Godfather of vampire movies.

And perhaps it was, once, but I’m sorry to say that my first reaction was one of disappointment.

For a start, it suffers from the perennial blight of most classic British cinema; it never feels very cinematic. The theatre-on-screen approach may add to the sense of homely nostalgia but it all too often keeps the audience at arm’s length when we should be standing in the thick of the action, resulting in a film that is rarely tense and never scary. Some of the performances don’t help – John Van Eyssen’s portrayal of Jonathan Harker is so asphyxiatingly straight laced that you begin to wonder if he’s capable of any facial movement whatsoever.

Bram Stoker’s story was getting a little worn even before Hammer picked it up, which probably explains Fisher’s decision to re-wire the plot. While the main beats of the original tale are left intact, he throws in some welcome surprises – dispatching the central hero so ignominiously in the first act is a master stroke although it makes many of the subsequent changes feel superficial by comparison.

Sparkles not included

Thank goodness for the double-whammy of Lee and Cushing. The entire film (and, by extension, the whole gamut of Hammer vampire movies) hangs on their performances and they don’t disappoint. Cushing enjoys the most screen time, of course, and is never less than engaging while Lee uses his fleeting appearances to maximum impact. The film is, ultimately, their show.

The film’s second sequel, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966, Dir. Terence Fisher) throws off the shackles of Stoker’s text almost entirely and weaves a far more confident, engaging story as a result.

The characters are more immediately arresting, particularly the coarse but warm hearted Father Sandor played by Andrew Keir (the big screen Quatermass) who replaces Peter Cushing on slayer duty. His world weary monk is a good counterpoint to the bickering British travellers who stumble into Castle Dracula. Also of note is Barbara Shelley, who morphs from Victorian prude into femme fatale without resorting to the tawdry excesses of the later Hammer movies.

Christopher Lee takes a bite out of Barbara Shelley. And stares down her cleavage.

Most importantly, the film makes better use of Lee, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear for the first 40 minutes and has absolutely no dialogue. (Lee was so disgusted with Jimmy Sangster’s script that he refused to speak any of his lines, preferring instead to hiss like an angry swan. The fact that this makes no appreciable difference to the plot or the character suggests that he was right to do so).

It’s really a film of two halves though. The first is an exercise in atmosphere, as Fisher steadily (and sometimes mechanically) builds tension – the terrified locals; the ominous warnings; the abandoned castle; the mysterious servant with a sinister agenda… It’s all familiar stuff but it’s handled well and does an admirable job of signposting Dracula’s grand entrance.

Sadly, things fall a bit flat in the second half when, after a disastrous flight from the castle, our surviving heroes take shelter in Father Sandor’s monastery. What could have been a claustrophobic base-under-siege tale is hamstrung by a laconic pace and an over-reliance on tried and tested plot devices, including an entire sequence from Stoker’s novel that was dropped from the first movie.

Terence Fisher

By the 1970s such lack of innovation was costing Hammer dearly, as audiences abandoned the studio in favour of more contemporary horror.  Hammer responded with a slew of updates, most notably bringing the Prince of Darkness into the modern age with Dracula AD 1972.  But they were the same stories re-told in modern dress and didn’t perform well at the box office.

My friends and I were already suffering a similar level of vampire fatigue, so a lot was riding on our third film, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974, Dir. Brian Clemens).  Luckily for all of us, it didn’t disappoint.

Horst Janson as Captain Kronos

Blending the sensibilities of a spaghetti western with the rolling fields of British period drama, Captain Kronos feels light years ahead of its predecessors. Crucially, it plays out as a murder mystery – a shadowy figure is draining the life from buxom young maids with nothing deadlier than a kiss, leaving them as wizened old crones. Who is carrying out the attacks, and why? Steely-eyed war veteran Captain Kronos is summoned to find out. The whodunnit structure is a simple conceit but it keeps things sharp and fresh, as do the periodic bouts of swashbuckling sword play.

Clemens’ stylistic approach is also bang up to date.  Although he’s best known as a writer and producer (his back catalogue includes The Avengers, The Professionals and Bugs, among many others), he proves adept behind the camera.  Despite a modest budget, the film looks infinitely more polished than previous Hammer offerings, with some terrific lighting, beautifully framed shots and notable performances from many of the cast. The weakest link is probably Captain Kronos himself. Leading man Horst Janson makes a decent fist of the sub-Eastwood adventurer, but his good looks makes him pretty rather than handsome, and his stoic reserve is a little too complete at times.

I was lucky enough to hear Clemens discuss the film at last year’s FantasyCon in Nottingham, where he claimed it was a direct influence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can’t testify to the truth of that, but his film certainly heralded a bold new direction for Hammer.

Alas, it’s a direction that was never pursued. The prospect of yet another vampire movie failed to excite the public and Captain Kronos struggled at the box office.  The studio never produced another vampire film.

I’m glad Vampire Awareness Month prompted me to dig these titles out. While Dracula may have established a formula that dated very quickly, it’s still been fascinating to watch the evolution of the British vampire story over the course of a generation.  If only changes had been made sooner, we might still be watching the adventures of Captain Kronos (the film was intended to generate a string of sequels, in the manner of James Bond or, er… Dracula).  But with news that Hammer Films has once more risen from the grave[1], I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the vampire genre tastes fresh blood.

Watch this space…


[1]Link: http://www.hammerfilms.com/news/daniel-radcliffe-to-star-in-hammers-the-woman-in-black


‘From Dusk till Dawn’ Review

[written by writer, Sonia Marcon]

Blood and Guns and Rock’n’Roll

“What’s in Mexico?”

“Mexicans.”

If you, as a viewer, have a penchant for looking at your shelf (or shelves) of DVDs and realising you can’t decide what to watch with dinner (Crime or Horror? Guns or Vampires? Wit or Gore?) then From Dusk till Dawn should satisfy. This film is a perfect example of one that does not hail all audiences because it can be explained with one word – unexpected. It not only relies on the knowledge and understanding of the creators’ tone but also on a love of the genre. From Dusk till Dawn has three creative figures, each recognised by their alternative works. Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado) directs this Robert Kurtzman (noted make-up effects artist) story written by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs). Enough said?

Crime drama, yes?

From Dusk till Dawn is a film for the lovers of snappy Tarantino scripts and good, hard Rodriguez directed action, which is what the film is before the vampires show up. The opening scene is classic Tarantino; it shows banality versus insanity purely through conversation. This is what powers this film pre-vampire. The first moment of horror isn’t completely, if at all, Rodriguez-esque. It’s more akin to anything that could be considered horrific in Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, such as the scene with the adrenalin shot to the heart or the scene where Michael Madsen slices the cops’ ear off with a straight razor. Both of these scenes are made effective by what is not seen as opposed to the current love of showing it all. The way you don’t see the ear being cut off, you just hear the screaming, and you don’t see the needle pierce through the chest to the heart, you just hear the force exuded by the loud ‘thump’ as the syringe hits, makes these scenes very effective. The first scene of horror in From Dusk till Dawn is just as effective and well written as either Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs because it is made not by the dead body but by the fact that the dead body is not visually focussed on. All that is present is confusion, discomfort and damn good acting by George Clooney.

We're the good guys, bad guys, good guys...

What is this film about, then? Two criminals, on the run from the law, seek temporary refuge in an establishment populated by vampires. The criminals are Seth (George Clooney) and Richard (Quentin Tarantino) Gecko who take a family hostage in order to hitch a ride to Mexico, home of the movie-lawless. The dwelling of the vampires is a place that is open from dusk till dawn (bingo!) and is where the film shifts seamlessly from Tarantino to Kurtzman while under the canopy of Rodriguez. The vampire-horror element is left to, and celebrated by, Robert Kurtzman who is a noted make-up effects and props artist. Having worked on a diverse range of films such as Misery, Dances With Wolves and Little Nicky, From Dusk till Dawn harnesses Kurtzman’s prowess with make-up which is well known from horror movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, Tremors and Army of Darkness. The use of Kurtzman’s talents really keeps these vampires in their own element. These vampires are not glamorous like those in Interview with the Vampire or sparkly and loveable like in Twilight. Before becoming vampires, the women are beautifully desirable and the men are Tarantino cool. As the vampires emerge as ugly and animalistic, surviving on carnage and gore, the film shifts as abruptly. The horror becomes random and almost silly, but this shift is not what makes this film special. What does is the fact that the characters, while remaining quintessentially Tarantino, become aware of what is happening around them in a very post-modern sense. The characters who we assume are fictional in the first part of the film become aware that they are in a completely unbelievable situation when faced with vampires and so react in a very real and believable way. It’s fictional characters within a world of their own fictional characters.

Oh man, you got real ugly!

What makes this film brilliant in my mind is that this hidden depth really doesn’t matter if you just want to watch a good horror movie. If you’re not a Tarantino fan but really enjoy the bizarre horror of Army of Darkness then this film can easily be skipped forward till that part starts. Alternatively, if you prefer the former then completed viewing is not necessary because of the dubious, yet still complimentary, narrative. However, it is suggested that you watch the whole thing in your first viewing otherwise there are classic bits that shouldn’t be missed. The dialogue is as funny as the conversation about quarter-pounders with cheese in Pulp Fiction while the action is as sharp as in Once Upon a Time in Mexico with a story idea that works both by passive observation or critical analysis. From Dusk till Dawn is a definite viewing must for those on a vampire binge.


’30 Days of Night’ Review

[K.V. Taylor is an avid reader and writer of urban fantasy and dark speculative fiction. Her first novel, "Scripped", which stars pseudo-vampiric fae, is coming from Belfire Press in May 2011. For more vampiric nonsense visit kvtaylor.com]

THE MOVIE

“30 Days of Night” is that rare animal: an honest-to-god, gut-wrenching horror flick that goes for emotional involvement. Unlike the anti-hero, or at least sympathetic villain vampire film, this one goes for a post-apocalyptic zombie movie feeling.

The movie takes place in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States. As the catchy title implies, for more than a month every year, Barrow never sees a sunrise. No one comes or goes, and what communication they have with the world is easily cut off. The only real question is why it took the vampires so long to sort this out; the place becomes a month-long all-you-can-eat buffet.

Vampire buffet carnage

That’s really all you ever learn about the vampires in the film, apart from a few tips and tricks (decapitation and sunlight as weaknesses, vampirism as a blood infection, etc.) and their basic desire not to be rediscovered by humanity– who have relegated them to nightmares and fiction. The real story follows Eben (Josh Hartnett), the sheriff of Barrow, and Stella (Melissa George), his estranged ex-wife of a fire marshal, as they try to keep a mismatched handful of survivors alive until the sun finally comes up. This is where the zombie apocalypse part comes in– most of the movie is them scurrying and hiding around town, trying to avoid the violent, bloodthirsty monsters.

Wanna play with me now?

But there’s more to it than that. Beyond the relationship between Stella and Eben– which could easily be overdone, but isn’t– there are some truly interesting character moments. A little girl accidentally turned, a friend used as bait; self-sacrifice, fear, community, and protective instinct all get a workout, creating genuine personal horror beyond the primal “oh god, I’m about to be torn apart and eaten” reaction. The build up and interspersion of these moments makes the drawn-out tension more bearable and sustainable than in most horror films. More obviously, it also lets us know our heroes, so we actually care if they get eaten or not.

It’s a classic set up with a classic ending, nothing unpredictable or visionary about it, perhaps. But it’s a well-executed, intensely human-centric vampire movie. And is not for the weak of stomach.

Stella and Eben: The End

There are some really interesting featurettes on the DVD, not the least of which is talking about creating the vampires, their look, their language, their movements. There’s also some waxing philosophical about how unromantic* their brand of terrifying is, which considering the modern vampire climate is certainly worth noting.

THE MOVIE Vs THE BOOK

“30 Days of Night” was a horror comic by Ben Templesmith (artist) and Steve Niles (writer) first. Niles was involved in the script-writing for the film, which as usual is a good sign– but the two incarnations have as many differences as similarities, in some ways. I like the book, but– and I realize it’s generally blasphemous to say this– I think the movie is better on the whole.

The movie preserves most of the comic’s finer points. It grabs you by the throat and drags you in fast, covers you in blood, and leaves you breathing hard. It even keeps some of the most memorable moments in the book perfectly intact– for example:

I can smell your blood

However, the book gives you zero character involvement. Eben and Stella don’t have a lot of personality (not in the first book, which is the one on which the movie is based), and none of the others are more than a random name dropped here or there. The breakneck pace of the book is great for action but:

1. You hear them talk about as much action as you’re actually shown.

and

2. The lack of character is gaping, to the point where it’s just about blood-splattered snow.

The film also preserves the book’s aesthetic in some ways. This is a point of much argument, as Templesmith’s art is somewhat love it or hate it. The art often reflects the lack of character– the faces are vague in terms of physiognomy, serving more as a palette for emotion than anything else– but what it does, it does well. Slade preserved that gory rawness in the film without the sacrifice, though.

Templesmith's art, Slade's translation

The one thing the book does better is give the vampires motivation, which makes them terrifying in a slightly different way– if not more or less. The intense human focus in the movie makes it unnecessary, but it’s worth reading the book to get the other side; it’s as monstrous and enjoyable as you’d expect. There are also some plot complications meant to set up the sequel, “30 Days of Night: Dark Days”, which stars Stella as a more fully-realized character, that they left out of the movie. But that’s for the best, considering.

As a side-note, my favorite nod to tradition– which appears in both the book and movie– is “The Stranger”. This is the guy the vampires send ahead to take care of communications and generally be creepy before the sun sets. In both book and movie, he orders raw meat and has an affinity for bugs. In the book, they call him a “bug-eater”.

Nice to see you again, Mr. Renfield. And well done, Steve Niles.

*The whole unromantic thing gets blown out of the water by the second book, Dark Days, which is funny since it’s Steve Niles talking about it on the DVD. But it certainly holds for the movie.


‘American Vampire’ review

[written by Impossible Podcast reviewer, James Willets]

American Vampire – Scott Snyder, Stephen King (writers), Rafael Albuquerque (Art).

If you’re reading ‘American Vampire’ then chances are you’re only doing so because of the draw of one man’s name – Stephen King. A straight vampire project by Snyder alone would have been unlikely to pick up many readers, but by pairing him with a celebrated (and established) horror writer and a fantastic artist, Vertigo have hit on a winner.

Approaching ‘American Vampire’, King’s first direct foray into comics, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

King is a difficult writer to pin down; his early work is some of the best written ‘pulp horror’ around, his habit of writing scary stories is often parodied but his ear for language and his ability to write convincing characters and dialogue is unmatched in the field. If there has been a drop off in quality recently it is more noticeable in his longer novels than the ever reliable short stories he seems to excel at. Much can be chalked up to the accident he suffered a few years ago which impacted so heavily on his writing, the direct effects most clearly seen in the derailing of the Dark Tower series into a self-pleasing anti-climax.

And yet, I love him. I buy anything he releases. So I went in with high hopes but low expectations.

The comic comes in two parts, the first being a 1920s tale of Pearl, a young waitress/would-be actress who falls prey to the traditional vampires – European aristocrats and big Hollywood – and eventually gets turned by Sweet. Strangely enough it reads exactly like the pilot episode of Angel, if Cordelia had become a vampire and begun a war of vengeance against her sires (but seriously – exactly the same first act plot).

The second part is a familiar King trope; a tale told by an author who passed off fact as fiction and now feels the need to tell the story as it happened. It’s a hokey start to a Wild West action romp spanning years and centring around ‘Skinner Sweet’, the first American Vampire; outlaw, murderer, candy lover and the first of a new breed of vampires who thrive on sunlight and have some tweaked powers.

It’s hard not to heap praise on American Vampire. For a comic whose main attraction was that I own everything else widely published by Stephen King, it’s almost better than it should be. If anything, King’s half is the weaker; Snyder has created a believable and utterly convincing main character in Pearl and the comics are as much about her relationships and friendship as they are the all-important vampires. The period detail and Hollywood setting is a lovely touch.

I stated in my review of Doctor Who: Vampires in Venice that:

“Personally, I don’t care what my Vampires are as long as they suck blood. Make them friendly, let them fly, or walk in daylight, make them mutants, infected, aliens, whatever. Vampires in my book are always cool.”

So the powered by sunlight, lunar connection, giant claws and rattlesnake teeth don’t bother me. Considering that this is an entire comic based on a new and fundamentally different breed of vampire, I can forgive artistic licence.

Then again, when the art is this lovely it’s totally forgivable. Albuquerque is the kind of artist that makes books. What’s most incredible is that he brings to both halves an obviously linked yet subtly different slant.

This is easily one of the best little buys I’ve had. For once the $3.99 price tag is justified, with two halves of a story which are both brilliantly done and a clear resolution in sight this is an easy buy for the curious. What’s most surprising is that I’ll probably still get this when King leaves next issue.


‘Cronos’ review

[written by writer, Orrin Grey]

I’m probably going to come off like a back-cover shill if I say that Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos is a vampire movie unlike any other, but that doesn’t make it any less true. For his first feature, del Toro chose the story of a different kind of vampire than the ones we usually see, one with its roots not in the annals of religion or disease or evil spirits, but in alchemy.

The central idea behind the vampirism in Cronos is that an insect contained inside the titular Cronos Device filters the blood of the person who uses it, and adds to that blood a single drop of a mysterious “fifth essence” that alchemists believed could purify other elements, transforming base matter into its pure, eternal form (hence lead into gold, or mortal flesh into eternal flesh). This is only implied in the actual text of the movie, hinted at but never exposited, but del Toro makes it very clear in his commentary track.

The device

While this procedure is fairly unprecedented, at least in vampire cinema, many of the side-effects are familiar. The Cronos Device grants youth and vigor, but the user becomes addicted to human blood, plagued by a thirst that nothing else can quench, and also develops an aversion to sunlight. Its user rises from his own death and not only becomes pale but actually sloughs off his skin to reveal pale, marble-like flesh beneath; the “purified” flesh granted by the “fifth essence.”

The vampire of Cronos, though, is more different from usual cinematic vampires than he is similar. He has no fangs, for instance, nor anything significant in the way of supernatural powers aside from his longevity. Nor is the vampire of Cronos young or “sexy.” Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), our protagonist, comes upon the device by accident when he discovers it in the base on an archangel statue in his antique shop. He is an old man in a pleasant but passionless marriage, and even when the device restores his vigor, he is still far removed from the typically sexualized Hollywood vampire. Del Toro takes pains not to glamorize Gris’s condition, or his suffering, as exemplified by a scene in which Gris licks drops of blood from off the floor of a public restroom.

In his commentary track, del Toro talks about how he wanted Cronos to have “layers of vampirism.” Not only the textual, objective vampirism of the main character, but also echoes of social, political, spiritual, and personal vampirism. One of the places this is clearest is in the form of the film’s “villains.” The industrialist de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) is a literal “hollow man” who has been physically hollowed-out by surgeries and symbolically hollowed-out by greed. He is a man desperate for eternal life, but for whom life holds no pleasure. His nephew Angel (played to perfection by Ron Perlman) is a thug who does his uncle’s dirty work in the hopes of someday inheriting a company that he has no idea what to do with. Both of them want things so badly that they’re willing to commit terrible acts to get them, without ever knowing or examining why they want them in the first place; as addicted to their desires as Gris becomes to blood and the Cronos Device.

Ron Perlman as Angel

There is an element of vampirism and victimization in almost every relationship in Cronos, to the point that del Toro says, in that same commentary track, that he feels that the ultimate victim of the movie is the insect at the heart of the device itself, a creature trapped and enslaved to forever bring eternal life to others.

Del Toro has achieved a lot of much-deserved renown as a director for his personal and visionary movies like Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and even Hellboy. But while Cronos is not always as technically impressive as the movies on which he later made his name, it seems every bit as personal, and there are traits in it that are every bit as representative of del Toro’s particular genius. From the Cronos Device itself, to the carefully detailed medieval “manual” that accompanies it, to the archangel statue in which it is hidden and the gallery of “punished” statues that de la Gaurdia has gone through in his search, the seeds of del Toro’s vision are all very much on display here, making for a quiet, subdued, a beautiful and powerful vampire film that is, yes, unlike any other.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30 other followers