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Ishtar: a review

Ishtar: a review.

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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

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.


George Romero’s Martin: Portrait of an Honest Vampire

[Authored by Neal Romanek, a writer of penny dreadfuls and cinematograph amusements. He fled the US for London in 2006. Site: Neal Romanek.com Twitter: @rabbitandcrow]

My first exposure to George A Romero’s “Martin” (1977) came via an event at the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. George had been selected to give a George Pal Lecture, the Academy’s special night in which a cinematic luminary is invited to give an address on the state of fantasy/sci-fi/horror. I don’t remember a lot about that evening – I do remember being introduced to George Romero – and Adrienne Barbeau – by Bill Moseley (Bill was brother Johnnie in the 1990 “Night Of The Living Dead” remake), and I also remember George Romero saying, in his address, how much he’d been influenced by the Powell & Pressburger’s “Tales Of Hoffmann” and that he repeatedly rented out a 16mm copy of the film when he was a kid in NYC – except sometimes it wasn’t available because it was being rented by another local kid named Martin Scorsese.

But the one thing I vividly recall from the evening was a clip George showed from a movie called “Martin”, a movie completely unknown to me. It was the scene in which the title character – the vampire Martin – stalks a married female victim in her home and must deal with her and the unexpected arrival of her lover.

My mind was blown.

We see the traditional vampiric poses so often, they barely have any symbolic impact anymore, much less emotional or visceral impact. Onscreen, feeding on human blood has the same impact as a death by gunshot – a storytelling trope which ticks an intellectual “shocking” box in our minds without communicating any real impact or real human experience.

Martin feeds by first injecting his victims with a hypodermic, then once the victim is unconscious, opens them up with a razor blade to feed on the blood. The procedure is performed with the skill and adrenaline agitation of a hunting forest predator – with nothing romantic or sublime about it. It is at once both mechanical and savage, idiotic and fiendish.

The chaos, the madness, of the clip shown that night was breathtaking. The maniac bloodsucker darting around the house, wielding a hypo, alternately evading and wrestling the woman’s half-naked lover in a farce from Hell. It was absurd, and very, very real – and very frightening.

There are few movies I can think to compare “Martin” with. It’s as if Harmony Korine had made a vampire movie produced by David Cronenberg. Romero goes to every conceivable length to make his extraordinary vampire creation as banal and mundane as possible. He’s an unromantic 84 years old. He dresses like someone with Asperger’s. He is a generally unappealing and creepy *person*, forget all his vampire characteristics. He lives in a miserably ordinary house with a miserably ordinary family. His vampirism seems quite normal, while the hocus pocus of religion or concepts of Good and Evil seem like the outlandish superstitions.

“Martin” has that riveting knife-edge freshness and immediacy that has been virtually dead in filmmaking for 20 years. Watching it, you have the unnerving sense that the storyteller is not playing by your rules, that you’ve ventured into an arena entirely unpredictable and your safety may not be the highest storyteller’s highest priority. The 70’s cinema – hands down the best decade for horror – completely embraced these twists and turns and breathtaking shocks, the things that can burn a film into your mind for a lifetime. “Martin”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Halloween”, “The Exorcist” – on and on and on – aren’t masterpieces just because of their spooky subject matter. The very way they are told, their rhythms, structures, and turning points are calculated to give the audience a transformative experience. They are not about giving the audience what it wants, but giving it what it needs.

In today’s motion picture vampires we see beautiful merchandise, beautifully packaged and factory sealed for freshness. But there is little that is truly shocking and transcendent. Rather than the bloodsucker being a pernicious monstrosity with a story that, if studied, might make us wise, we prefer evil with a candy face, easily digestible horrors, monsters as harmless as we fantasise we are.

Martin, though a killer and a monster, is the one character who consistently tells the truth in Romero’s film. Give us back our truth telling vampires.


‘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.


Once Bitten…

[written by author, Louise Morgan]

I remember how this whole vampire thing began.

I was 13. He was… older. He had blond hair and wore an earring and a battered old black coat. Funnily enough, it was the coat I noticed first – well, that and the motorcycle. His name was David.

That summer, the summer I was 13, I watched The Lost Boys more times than I can remember, completely mesmerised. Over and over and over again, until the tape broke (and now I’m showing my age). But by that time, the damage had already been done: I had discovered vampires, and there was no turning back.

Before the rise of the internet, the best I could do to feed my new-found habit was our small local library and combing the late-night TV schedules for something – anything – that might fit the bill. Dracula, vampire anthologies (carrying everything from Carmilla to strange post-modern not-quite-vampire-but-close-enough-to-split-the-difference stories), Varney the Vampire, Hammer Horror, Nosferatu; I devoured them all. And that’s how I came across Near Dark.

Both The Lost Boys and Near Dark were released in 1987, although neither had made it through development unscathed – the former had originally featured child-vampires, making its title even more apt, and it was Joel Schumacher who insisted on turning them into a teenaged bike gang. It’s not subtle, but Schumacher was right and he saved it from straying into Goonies-meets-The Little Vampire [1] territory.

The Lost Boys: Paul, Marco, Dwayne & David

Near Dark, too, began as something different – both director Kathryn Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red had wanted to make a Western, but stumbled instead into the vampire badlands: perhaps this is the reason the ‘v’ word doesn’t exactly get much lip service in the film.

Bearing in mind both essentially have the same central conceit (boy meets girl – boy gets a hell of a lot more than he bargained for) their respective tones could hardly be more different. The Lost Boys is glossy and sharp: brat-pack vampires for the MTV generation, while Near Dark is grittier, more serious and certainly more violent. It’s better characterised, too: take Jesse and Diamondback’s relationship for instance, or Homer’s all-too impotent rage at being trapped in a child’s body.

The thing that struck me the most about these two films – and still strikes me, more than has been the case for any vampire film I’ve seen since – is that the vampires are having fun (or at least, what passes for their idea of fun: you get the feeling Near Dark’s Severen was never less than sociopathic; he looks like he couldn’t possibly be happier than he is ripping open a bartender’s throat, and watch the Lost Boys as they hurtle towards the cliff-edge on their motorbikes). Each respective ‘family’ of vampires relishes being a group of outsiders and they delight in the power they have. There’s a dark glamour to them and their way of life which can only really come from the realm of the fantastic; nowhere is this clearer than in the half-Batcave, half-clubhouse home of the Lost Boys themselves – all clattering chandelier, candles and Jim Morrison posters.

The Lost Boys

Unlike the teen-targeted vampires we’ve seen so much of lately, these guys are dangerous. Neither film skirts around that: all these vampires kill, and they kill on-screen, just to get the point across. But more importantly, they’re cool. No, really. Monstrous, but no less cool for being so. They have to be. How else could we identify with Michael and Caleb as they’re drawn into this world? Viewing the films, it’s clear that however removed from their predecessors these vampires might be, they have kept that vital seductive quality. In The Lost Boys, David brushes aside the horror of an eternity of murder by simply saying: “You’ll never grow old, Michael, and you’ll never die… but you must feed.” It’s a fair price to pay when you put it like that, right?

Bill Paxton as Severen, Near Dark

Looking back, I realise why these were the first vampires I could connect with, the first ones that felt relevant to me. They – and the humans around them – were American, and young(ish). They didn’t mooch about in castles like Lugosi – and while Frank Langella gives good cloak-furl, neither of these had the same appeal or immediacy. The Lost Boys taps into so many of our particularly teenage preoccupations, not least of all the idea of belonging, of being ‘one of us’ – that, like Michael, we’re happily swept along by the tide. Near Dark presents us with a horrible, visceral freedom and a world of possibility… provided we’re gone by dawn.

Watching these vampires, these films, at that age left its mark on me. I’ve seen a lot of vampire films since, ranging from the good (Let The Right One In) to the appalling (step up, Vampires: Los Muertos [2]) to the downright weird (Frostbiten [3]). I’ve found some that I have a lot of affection for – notably The Breed, [4] with its dystopian view of a world where vampires and humans try to coexist – but not one of them has had the same impact as those first two films.

Of course, that certainly won’t stop me from looking…


[1] For the curious, there are several versions of The Little Vampire out there: before the Jonathan Lipnicki 2000 release, there were two separate German TV series – one produced in 1986, and one in 1993/4. All are based on Angela Sommer-Bodenburg’s Little Vampire books.

[2] 2002 follow-up to John Carpenter’s Vampires.

[3] A 2006 Swedish horror-comedy, which sees a town’s population succumbing to vampirism after a group of teenagers take some very strange pills at a party.

[4] 2001 TV movie with Adrian Paul and Bokeem Woodbine as – respectively – vampire & human police, partnered up to solve a series of murders.


The Tragic Warrior: A Review of ‘Dracula’ (1973)

[Written by author and reviewer, Robert Hood]

Dracula: (US-1973; TV; dir. Dan Curtis)

For several decades, Dan Curtis (who passed away of a brain tumor in March of 2006) lurked in the background of horror film commentary, relegated to being something of an outsider because he specialised in television production. Most famous, perhaps, for his involvement in the vampire melodrama series Dark Shadows (1966-70, 1990-91), he was also responsible for many horror films, including (as director) House of Dark Shadows (1970), The Night Strangler (1973), Scream of the Wolf (1974), Turn of the Screw (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Burnt Offerings (1976), Intruders (1992), Trilogy of Terror II (1996), and (as producer) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968), The Night Stalker (1972), Frankenstein (1973) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973). These are the work of a man with a firm grasp on the aesthetics of the horror film and the technicalities of evoking an atmosphere of terror. And one of his most memorable efforts was the tele-movie Dracula (1973), starring Jack Palance as the Count.

This version of the Bram Stoker novel is not only more faithful to its source than most, but contains one of the best portrayals of the vampire lord yet produced for the screen. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula might be the more recognisable and the most iconic of them all, but Palance’s Dracula is frightening and imposing, and exudes a power that few have captured on the screen before or since. He is superb — probably the first Dracula to encompass such inhuman complexity, coming over as both fascinating and unnerving. He is physically dominant throughout and conveys a wonderful sense of dark power: aristocratic without being effete; yet strangely, deeply haunted by his lost humanity. What’s more he looks like he might have led armies — and not gentlemanly armies, but armies of semi-barbaric warriors. Palance’s reaction when Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) thrusts the cross at him is a superb example of the complexity he brings to the role; it hurts him and he must turn away, yet he fights it with an almost despairing anger. The emotions — loss, desire, hate, despair and animalistic rage — swirl across Palance’s features: confronting, yet not melodramatic and overplayed. Palance has more than a touch of Christopher Lee in his performance, but he brings more complexity to its emotional nuancing than Lee ever managed to give the role — as effectively imposing as the latter was. 

Coppola’s Dracula takes much from this version, too — including the “lost love” storyline, which Curtis (and Matheson) introduced as a way of giving their Count a more emotionally potent rationale for immigrating to England, while opening a door on his lost humanity. It was to become a “standard” of the Dracula cinematic myth. Over all, in fact, the Richard Matheson script is an imaginative masterpiece — inventive, yet closer to the book than any that preceded it. Curtis’ direction is also creative and wonderfully controlled, if somewhat constrained by TV budgets and TV-style cinematography (though he continually pushes the limits of standard contemporary practice, creating effective camera movements that cause the viewer to focus on important visual information yet otherwise carry him/her effortlessly through the narrative). Davenport as Van Helsing is not in Peter Cushing’s league, of course, but he is more than serviceable, and both Fiona Lewis as Lucy Westenra and Penelope Horner as Mina Murray bring a convincing sensuality to their roles as Dracula’s less-than-unwilling victims.

 But it is Palance who gives the film its frisson. His cry of suprahuman despair over the staking of his long-lost love — and the coldly inhuman revenge he pursues in its aftermath — stays with you long after the film has ended.

First published on Robert Hood’s website: www.roberthood.net


The Demiplane of Dread – Ravenloft

[written by reviewer and author, Darren Pearce]

The Demiplane of Dread

 A history of Ravenloft

If you’re an avid roleplayer or you love vampires and other strangeness, there’s a chance that you may know of the Demiplane of Dread, especially if you’ve played Dungeons and Dragons for a long time. It was the name given to that setting first published as an adventure in 1983 called I6: Ravenloft, written by Tracy and Laura Hickman for first edition AD&D. Ravenloft was an instant hit with the fans (including myself) and was eventually picked up for a campaign setting fondly known as the ‘Black Box’ in 1990, it had two later revisions, the ‘Red Box’ and later on as a hardback called: Domains of Dread.

I6 Ravenloft - where it all began

1991 it won the Origins Award for best Graphic Presentation of a Roleplaying Game, Adventure, or Supplement of 1990. Not long after this Wizards of the Coast acquired TSR and for some misbegotten reason cancelled one of the more interesting RPG lines for D&D. There have been countless novels that were set in Ravenloft and each dealt with a ruler from the Demiplane of Dread, even characters from other settings could be found in Ravenloft, notables from Dragonlance such as the Knight of the Black Rose, Lord Soth for instance and the infamous Vecna all found their way to the demiplane.

A Ravenloft anthology

Arthaus Games picked up the license briefly and through Sword and Sorcery (White Wolf’s imprint) it was reborn for 3.0 and 3.5 edition Dungeons and Dragons, the license reverted to Wizards of the Coast in 2005 and Sword and Sorcery were allowed to sell its back stock until at least 2006. White Wolf had to change a number of things and remove specific external setting characters, such as Soth and Vecna, changing the names of D&D specific gods to Ravenloft’s own. 

The pesky little so and so, Vecna

It has had a turbulent past, including a brief appearance as a stand-alone hardcover remake of the first edition original, known as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, updated for 3.5. Finally in 2008 Wizards of the Coast said that Ravenloft would make a return for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, not as a core setting but as part of the overall universe and cosmology of the line. The 4th Edition Manual of the Planes has established Ravenloft as part of the eerie plane known as the Shadowfell.

Ravenloft, a unique D&D setting

Ravenloft has always been a setting that I’ve been fond of since the early days; I was secretly hoping that, along with Dark Sun, they’d bring it back since it was quite unlike any of the previous D&D adventures or settings I’d ever encountered. For one adventures in Ravenloft were not only macabre but they were thrilling, it was beyond orcs and goblins, dragons and treasure hordes, it was dark fantasy horror and characters, plot and story actually mattered in the Demiplane of Dread.

It introduced many of my players to the concept of roleplaying as compared to roll-playing, where not every threat could be countered with a sword or stopped with a spell. In fact many of the Ravenloft creatures were stronger and more powerful than their hack-and-slash D&D counterparts. The Lords of Ravenloft were terrible to behold and Strahd Von Zarovich, the vampire was one of the most powerful, cunning and twisted NPC’s that the players could ever hope to meet.

Strahd was joined by Dragonlance’s own Lord Soth, and numerous other evil powers that lurked in the darkness of the setting. The Dark Powers, a group of unnamed beings of immense and terrible power kept such notables trapped in their own realms, giving them tiny shreds of hope that they might escape. Entry to Ravenloft could be through any of the established D&D settings pulling a group of characters from Spelljammer, or Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms and even Dark Sun (a notorious shattered sphere, with one link to Ravenloft) into the Demiplane of Dread via the Mists of Ravenloft.

The mists

The Mists were a great storytelling tool, they could spring up and instil fear into the hearts of even the most stalwart party that knew about Ravenloft in-character (and even out). Many a time a normal mist has been avoided entirely or caused a group of adventurers to run screaming from the woods, beating a hasty retreat and heading for higher ground. Those cocky adventurers who needed a lesson in manners would often be prime targets for the Mists, and those who had evil in the hearts were perfect candidates for Ravenloft.

Usually they’d be kidnapped by the swirling white fog, deposited somewhere like Barovia (the realm of Strahd) and given no prior warning where they were. The Mists were fickle like that and very quickly hot-headed hack-slashers would discover that they were in a domain where the rules had changed, where even the common skeleton was a force to be feared and the people were just as bad as the monsters they cowered from. Ravenloft was D&D’s answer to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and more, it had a bit of everything that could appeal to anyone who loved the classic monsters.

The tale of the vampire Strahd Von Zarovich, the doomed Count of Barovia, who constantly seeks to win back his love and fails at every turn, yet keeps on trying, is just one of the many character driven stories that the adventurer can become embroiled in. Strahd is one of the first D&D villains to ever be given such an emotional depth and backstory, making him beyond a simple vampire and into something that is to be respected, feared and pitied. It’s hard not to like Strahd since he forms a perfect allegory along with Vlad Drakov, another vampire and the ruler of Falkovnia, to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and becomes more than just another monster, he becomes a sympathetic figure driven by needs beyond that to murder and destroy.

Strahd - troubled anti-hero

Yet with every defeat and crushing failure, Strahd continues to try and win back his love, Vlad continues to wage war where his campaigns are doomed to failure because the Dark Powers are wily, they dangle the carrot of a new hope all the time, twisting the fate of their victims into a new skein and arranging a failure that cannot be attributed to them. Player characters may be the unwitting pawns in the Dark Powers schemes and they can be tricked into aiding the Dark Powers to stymie the Lords of Ravenloft. Of course if they do so willingly, then that brings its own dark reward.

The Dark Powers are always looking for new pawns; new Lords of Ravenloft and they reward evil with power. Power that draws upon the very Mists and Demiplane of Dread, power that is seductive and palpable, appealing to the selfish and evil characters in a group. Once they’re caught in the web of the Dark Powers deceit they find it very hard to escape and slowly they’re permanently attached to Ravenloft itself, given their own domain and set up as a minor Lord of Ravenloft.

Now the Dark Powers have a new toy. This was a great way to deal with the overtly evil PC’s in a group too, those who delighted in backstabbing their friends and those who would be evil enough to thwart Strahd’s desire to bring back his lost love, stop Lord Soth from trying to escape Ravenloft or aid Vecna in trying to destroy the Dark Powers themselves. Suddenly the dreams of a realm to rule over are presented directly to the avaricious player and they jump in with both feet first, splashing the waters of corruption.

Now though, they’re slowly drowning as their realm takes shape. They may have a castle and servants, they may even have traded the souls of their comrades in arms for this chance – but what they really have made is a prison from which there is always the hope, but never the reality of escape. The Dark Powers have always room for one more…and soon they’ll pit them against the other Lords of Ravenloft, sitting back as the likes of Lord Soth and the new Lord are brought into conflict.

Ravenloft was unique in that it was the first D&D setting to measure your character’s morality, it was possible as detailed above, to become so evil and corrupt that the realm trapped you there and made you part of it. There have been alignments and various methods to track your characters morality but until Ravenloft D&D never had a risk/reward system that meant your characters in-game actions actually counted for something. Ravenloft games turned from mindless monster hunting to political intrigue and adventure as even the most stalwart Paladin found their powers would do little but irritate the most basic of monsters.

It turned into survival horror and it was possible to truly play a role in that setting, no orcs, no dragons, no dungeons and treasure hordes, Ravenloft required a very different and mature mindset to get the best out of. It was one setting where reading all the nuances was extremely important and without understanding the various changes from core D&D, much of the tone and feel of the setting could be lost.

For instance, magic, magic functioned differently in the Demiplane of Dread, some spells designed to banish and punish evil creatures, Paladin’s divine powers and the like were attenuated or removed. The rules were very clear on what worked and what didn’t, stripping the Holy Warrior of their potent arsenal and forcing them to rely on other means to deal with the many threats of the setting. When all of the features of Ravenloft were combined it could be considered one of the best published D&D settings since the year dot, bringing to life the dark gothic horror of many of the established classics, with a bit of a twist.

It won that Origins Award for a reason and it was well deserved, and as I said … a tiny little shred of me still hopes we’d see a fully re-released Ravenloft for 4E D&D in a few years time. But for all I know I could be writing this blog in my own little corner of the Demiplane of Dread, whilst the Dark Powers at WotC sit and cackle gleefully, taunting me with shreds of information, giving me a new hope that rather than leave the Demiplane of Dread, I might one day set foot there again and haunt the shadows with a new group of players.

That’s how the Dark Powers like it, and that’s how I like it.

Until next time, watch out for the mist…

You never know where it might take you…