To the best of my knowledge, "Alucard"--the backward anagram of "Dracula"--first appears in 1943's SON OF DRACULA, used there as a (frankly poor) disguise for Lon Chaney, Jr.'s portrayal of Dracula. In all honesty, the exact reason behind its use for the title character of Juan Lopez Moctezuma's masterpiece, ALUCARDA escapes me. If nothing else, the name adds to the aura of a character already shrouded in mystery. Born under mysterious circumstances and brought to a convent as an infant, Alucarda grows to a young adult and befriends another young woman, an orphan named Justine. Already full of vibrant madness and free will, Alucarda encourages Justine to reject the teachings of the church, and in the time-honored tradition of nunsploitation, the two of them waste no time in getting all naked and bloody (apparently the best way to sell your soul to the devil in these things).
Moctezuma himself refers to Alucarda as "an apocalyptic creature," a fitting label for a character who eventually brings the film to a (literally) fiery climax. Before this happens, her seduction of Justine leads to the latter's exorcism (a bloody one, through needles), her death, and her eventual "resurrection," memorably emerging from a coffin filled with blood. While Alucarda does not seem to possess explicitly vampiric qualities of her own, it does seem possible that she can call forth vampirism in others, particularly when we get to see Justine take a juicy bite out of one of the film's nuns, right before a dousing of holy water causes her to burn down to a charred skeleton.
Hence, Alucarda's name serves as a hint of the kind of supernatural power she possesses. At the same time, Moctezuma leaves the film ambiguous; to be sure, this is no straight-forward Hammer-style film, where good and evil exist as clear-cut polar opposites of one another. The "evil" of the film--manifested in the bizarre resurrections taking place--could easily come about because of the excesses of the church, as seen through the aforementioned exorcism as well as the prayers and incantations that rise to orgasmic heights. We also see nuns and priests who take to whipping the devil out of themselves, so the film's wildly excessive bloodletting extends to them as well. One of the most memorable set-pieces of the film comes when the charred remains of nun (one of Justine's victims, apparently) comes back to life on an altar, only to have its head violently removed by a priest.
ALUCARDA is a delight. It's a film that resists straight-forward viewing while still exhibiting the kind of exploitation thrills that surely satisfied the drive-in crowd of the 1970s. THE MEXICAN CINEMA OF DARKNESS, by Doyle Greene (published by McFarland) contains an excellent analysis of the film, so anyone interested in exploring this film's many layers would do well to seek out a copy.
THE GATHERING starts in a very promising way, beginning with a young couple who have the misfortune of literally stumbling upon the remains of an early Christian church, intentionally buried in the English countryside. This accident costs the young couple their lives--just check out the juicy impalement--but more ominously, it reveals the curious cross and odd bas reliefs that adorn the church. As a faithless archaeologist begins studying the findings, a mystery emerges about the church and its possible connection to Joseph of Arimathea, who (the story goes) journeyed to England to bring Christ's gospel after witnessing the Crucifixion. As the historical pieces come together, some startling revelations become clear about the faces represented in the bas reliefs and their resemblance to people seen in the nearby village.
Now, if THE GATHERING just stuck to developing this narrative thread, it could have emerged as the cinematic equivalent to the work of M. R. James, the English master of the horror story. James' work often focused on academics and antiquarians who uncover horrors buried in common historical records, or odd figures in paintings who seem to move ominously. In fact, the exposition behind THE GATHERING would fit comfortably in any one of James' stories, which often begin in a dry fashion, only to come unhinged after some horrible revelation--the murder of children by a ghost, a vampire buried in a church, a tree containing something hungry buried inside. In such stories, the safe, rational history we are taught to believe in collapses in favor of something horrifying and irrational.
Rather than fully developing such plot elements, THE GATHERING involves a woman (Cassie, played by Christina Ricci) whose appearance in the village coincides with the church's discovery. I love Ricci. I really do. She does amazing work in BUFFALO 66, as well as in SLEEPY HOLLOW, a movie dear to my black heart. However, her character's place in the scheme of things becomes all too predictable, as does the implications behind the relationship she forms with the children of the archaeologist. What should have amounted to a seething horror film becomes a series of "race against time" chases once she becomes the central character.
I don't mean to say that the film doesn't deserve attention. It comes across as competently made, and it holds the viewer's interest during its 90 minute running time. However, the film had the potential to rise to something more--much more.
Frankensteinia, an essential blog on all things (duh) Frankenstein, posted this concerning THE DRACULA FRANKENSTEIN WAR, a Topps comic I've never come across but now wish I had. In the meantime, I really will lose my head if I miss THIS upcoming comic:
Click here for an interview in which Steve Niles discusses this story he built around the celebrated Frazetta painting, which is apparently coming your way in August. Save that allowance!
After helping invent modern horror cinema through his various characterizations at Universal Studios, Boris Karloff went on to appear in a series of well-regarded "mad doctor" films for Columbia, most notably THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939). In this film, Karloff plays Dr. Saavard, a scientist who, with good intentions, experiments with technology designed to deprive people of life functions long enough to perform critical, life-saving surgeries. Unfortunately, the police interfere with his experiments when the nervous fiancee of his volunteer test subject spills the beans, resulting in a murder trial. The reactionary jury fails to understand the humanitarian purpose behind Saavard's experiments, and thus, the judge sentences Saavard to death by--you guessed it--hanging. Fortunately, Saavard's assistant acquires Saavard's body after the execution and applies the life after death process to Saavard's corpse--after fixing his broken neck, of course. The final act of this brisk film (just over an hour) involves the revenge of Saavard as he gathers those involved in his sentencing in his old home, telling them the appointed hours of their respective deaths and arranging for them to carry out their own death sentences.
Catching up with this movie on Columbia's "Icons of Horror" Boris Karloff collection, I was struck by the unlikely parallels to the recent and more visceral SAW series. Like the "Jigsaw" character of that film, Saavard de-emphasizes his role in the death of his victims, choosing instead to supply them with the means to bring about their own destruction. He also intends to "better" humanity through his efforts, though Saavard's motivation stems largely from revenge. With Jigsaw and Saavard, we also have two characters who have to contend with their own deaths, Jigsaw being terminally ill, while Saavard has literally been brought back from the dead.
BEWARE: I'M GONNA REVEAL SOME FUN PLOT DETAILS! While Saavard doesn't concoct anything quite as gruesome or elaborate as Jigsaw (no one has to perform surgery on themselves), he does come up with some groovy ways for people to exact their own deaths. The judge electrocutes himself, while my favorite death involves a panicking character who answers a phone call, only to have poisoned needle come through the receiver and pierce his brain.
The final act in Saavard's home makes for entertaining viewing, and it ends all too soon, with Saavard's plan falling apart before he can make a real dent in the number of his intended victims. I'd have liked to see the film-makers make more use of Karloff in his ressurrected, vengeance-starved persona, but in its existing form, THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG still makes for entertaining viewing.
A few posts back I mentioned Elizabeth Bathory and how I preferred DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS to other cinematic interpretations of her story. I'm also fond of Jorge Grau's THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE (1973), a Spanish film that--unless I've missed something--has yet to have a decent release on DVD. This film would seem like a natural fit into the catalog of Severin, which has released some excellent Eurocult DVDs recently. THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE proves that Grau's THE LIVING DEAD OF MANCHESTER MORGUE--one of the best post-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD movies--was no fluke. This is a film that is just aching for re-discovery.
In the meantime, I have high hopes for Julie Delphy's THE COUNTESS, which we should see in the near future. Maybe that film's successful run will revive some interest in Grau's film. I can hope, can't I?
While Dario Argento deservedly receives recognition as the maestro of the giallo--the Italian murder mystery heavy on horror elements, prominent during the 1970s--he often overshadows some equally deserving filmmakers in that genre, particularly Sergio Martino. While Martino's TORSO stands out as a deliriously violent and exhilarating precursor to the American "slasher" film, he often imbued his earlier efforts with more rousing, psychedelic images and mind-bending narratives, especially THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (American title: THEY'RE COMING TO GET YOU). Both films share common screenwriters (Ernesto Gastaldi), in addition to featuring a common cast, George Hilton and, most notably, Edwige Fenech.
Compared on more than one occasion to ROSEMARY'S BABY, ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK bears some surface-level similarities to Polanski's more celebrated film, most notably a young female protagonist (Jane, played by Fenech) beset by paranoia and the presence of the occult. However, little else ties the films together: the victim of an accident that cost her her pregnancy, Jane struggles to re-connect with her boyfriend sexually and hence turns to psychotherapy. In the meantime, she experiences disquieting visions, including those of a very creepy blue-eyed Ivan Rassimov stalking her. When psychotherapy fails to pay off, Jane takes the advice of a friend and attends a black mass, thinking that perhaps her answer lies in the occult. Already sensing that the boundaries between reality and fantasy have started to slip, Jane's visions take on a violent role in her waking life, as the people around her start to die.
While not as heart-pumping as TORSO, ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK brings a great deal to the table, not the least of which is Fenech herself. I'll confess it: next to Fay Wray, Fenech is my favorite scream queen because of the qualities she brings to films like this one. Aside from erotically charging every scene she appears in, Fenech also successfully communicates a sense of helplessness and desperation, especially as the veil between her visions and the "real" world begin to collapse. Thanks to her performance, the scenes of the black mass come across as genuinely disturbing and threatening. Martino also plays with the conventions of the giallo in a satisfying manner, eschewing a straight-forward stalk and slash formula for a reality-defying narrative. And Rassimov . . . man, that guy only needs his eyes to give a sinister performance--or are those contacts?
Nuns--how can you not love 'em? And how about a gun-toting Irish nun who travels to America, hunting Springheel Jack, who just happens to be a werewolf? If that sounds as irresistible to you as it did to me, then you really must read DREADFUL SKIN, by Cherie Priest. Priest has written a series of excellent supernatural novels involving Eden Moore (starting with FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS), but DREADFUL SKIN is a different . . . beast altogether, as well as a refreshingly original werewolf novel. While werewolves seem to be taking over space previously occupied by vampires in the paranormal romance department, Priest gives us truly vicious creatures, as well as a gritty 19th Century setting. Starting aboard a doomed steam boat on the Tennessee River, we follow Eileen (that gun-toting nun I told you about) and her efforts to put an end to Jack's reign of terror. Through her crusade, we meet a number of compelling characters, including former slaves, gamblers, river captains, and revival tent Christians. Things also sticky, as Priest has her werewolves unleash some pretty gruesome violence.
She also carries out some neat literary tricks without making them seem too gimmicky. Werewolves are, of course, essentially hybrid creatures, and Priest mirrors this hybridity by writing a novel that does not stick to conventional rules. Structured by three sections, Priest utilizes a different narrative device for each, ranging from stream of consciousness to an epistolary form that calls Bram Stoker's DRACULA to mind. One character describes her hatred of Jack, the primary lycanthrope as "some bizarre amalgam of creatures never meant to mate or cross." Passages like this suggest that Priest's playful combination of literary devices serve a shrewd purpose.
The book also comes peppered with some alluring illustrations by Mark Geyer. Published by Subterranean Press in 2007, DREADFUL SKIN is worthy of your attention!
In some ways, Delphine Lalaurie could stand as 19th-Century America's own Elizabeth Bathory. Like Bathory, Lalaurie carried out immensely cruel and sadistic acts against those forced to play subservient roles--in her case, African American slaves. A socialite in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Lalaurie's cruelty came to light when a fire broke out in her home, leading to the discovery that she and her physician husband had used their slaves in several macabre "experiments," including a primitive sex change operation and the creation of a "human crab." Take any decent ghost tour in New Orleans and you'll find guides who can recount the rumors of her fate--either she escaped to France or she took refuge somewhere outside New Orleans--as well as the discovery of about 75 human remains later found beneath the floor of her home, apparently slaves that she had buried alive. In an odd footnote to her story, actor Nicholas Cage reportedly bought the New Orleans home recently.
While filmmakers and writers have found different ways of exploiting Bathory's story (my favorite being 1971's Daughters of Darkness), very few have put Lalaurie's grisly story through the works. In an installment of NIGHTMARES AND FAIRY TALES, however, Serena Valentino did a masterful job of giving the story artistic expression. 1140 RUE ROYALE, named for the address of Lalaurie's home, recounts the story of the mysterious Victoria, who buys the house to live in with her niece, Rebecca. It does not take long for the spirits of Lalaurie's victims to make themselves felt.
In her foreword to the book, Valentino writes that she wrote the story not "to exploit or trivialize this manner of human suffering and atrocities--rather, I am rewriting history in an attempt at giving the victims a voice, a means for revenge and serenity." Not only is this intent noble, but it's difficult task. After all, the passage of time generally dulls our sense of the real human pain behind the stories that entertain us. Valentino manages to capture this macabre story in a terrifying yet elegant manner. Her writing is crisp, effective, and chilling, while the artwork by Crab Scrambly is simply stunning.
According to Wikipedia, Valentino is working on a play called BRIDE OF THE MUMMY, which will be staged in New Orleans. If anyone has any info about this, I'd love to hear it.
The poster art from COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE posted below led me to reflect on the generally sorry state of movie poster art today. With the development of the Internet, it seems as though a poster does not play the same role in selling a movie that it once did, and hence, artistry in this area has declined overall. I do, however, love the poster art promoting EMPUSA, Paul Naschy's new vampire film, so I'm posting it here and directing people to check out Mirek Lipinski's excellent blog on the film, which you can find here. The film doesn't have a distributer yet, but I'm looking forward to eventually seeing it.
The image of Naschy with the flowing hair and crossbow calls VAN HELSING to mind, but honestly, who would win that fight? Hugh Jackman? Please. Give me Naschy any day.
I'll be cutting out for about a week and a half for a family vacation, but I'll leave everyone with an image that always comes to mind when the subject of horror movie posters comes up. This poster, promoting Lucio Fulci's THE GATES OF HELL, is my all-time favorite, and it haunted me when I first came across it in newspaper advertisements when I was 10. Not old enough to see the movie then, I had to wait several years, and while movies often under-deliver on what the poster promises, I was pleased to find that the movie was everything that my 10-year old imagination envisioned.
I just read an old posting at "Lucy Clifford News" about a stage production of her Victorian horror story, "The New Mother," which first appeared in Montreal and went on to Cleveland. I'd love an opportunity to see this production since the story itself is so odd and chilling. It involves a pair of children, Blue Eyes and Turkey, who live in the woods with their mother and a baby sibling. During a trip into the nearby village, they come upon a "wild-looking girl," who offers them a glimpse of the tiny people living in her peardrum--but only if they promise to misbehave at home. Naturally, the children carry out the promise, but the girl insists on greater and greater misdeeds before she will make good on her promise. In the meantime, the mother tells Blue Eyes and Turkey that their misbehavior will lead to her departure and the arrival of a "new mother." She describes the horrific features of this new mother for the children, but they still misbehave, leading to a creepy climax.
Read the story here and see if you agree that a stage production would be something to see indeed. I've browsed the web to see if I can find stills of the "new mother," but no such luck so far.
COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE does not stand as my favorite Paul Naschy film--that honor goes to WEREWOLF SHADOW, followed closely by HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB and the recent ROJO SANGRE. However, I still love CDGL's adventurous take on Dracula conventions, and BCI will soon release what appears to be the first authorized DVD of the film, which certainly seems overdue for what is one of Naschy's major works from the 1970s. While BCI has promised an anamorphic transfer (!), they have unfortunately packaged the film with VAMPIRE HOOKERS and will use the title CEMETERY GIRLS. The cover art, which DVD Drive-In recently unveiled along with the highly recommended double bill of THE TERROR and SATAN'S SLAVE, strikes me as underwhelming. Below, I've included scans of cover art I'd rather see. Sorry for the so-so quality, but I could only find black and white reproductions. I digs the vampire babes!