Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jacinto Molina, 1934-2009

Paul Naschy has passed away, having impacted horror cinema in a way that still has not been fully appreciated or fully understood. The accompanying still comes from ROJO SANGRE, a film which features one of Naschy's greatest performances, a capstone to a career marked by notable films such as HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF, and THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD. Naschy's best films function as sumptuous gothic fairy tales, and his work is truly overdue for serious attention as landmarks in international horror cinema. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I will still miss him dearly.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"Sticks": An Unsung Influence on THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT?

Recently, both RUE MORGUE and HORROR HOUND magazines have run retrospectives on THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to commemorate the film's 10 year anniversary, but surprisingly, neither magazine mentions Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks," an unsettling short story that uses similar plot contrivances. Whether or not the young upstarts who created the influential film knew of Wagner's story seems uncertain, but the several striking parallels exist between the two narratives.

Wagner's story focuses upon the discovery of a series of crudely made "framework of sticks" found by an artist named Colin Leverett while exploring a remote section of woods. Wagner describes the latticework as "half a dozen odd lengths of branch, wired together at cross angles for no fathomable purpose. It reminded [Leverett] of some bizarre crucifix. . ." Aside from the obvious similarity to the construction of wooden sticks that figure prominently in the film, Wagner's story takes a similar trajectory in that the sticks ultimately lead Leverett to the ruins of a "colonial farmhouse," which consists of a foundation that seems "disproportionately massive." Finding more lattices, Leverett makes his way to the basement, where he makes a striking discovery:

"The cellar was enormous--even more so in the darkness. Leverett reached the foot of the steps and paused for his eyes to adjust to the damp gloom. An earlier impression recurred to him. The cellar was too big for the house. Had another dwelling stood here originally--perhaps destroyed and rebuilt by one of lesser fortune?"

Horror mounts as Leverett proceeds deeper into this cellar, where he has a truly horrific encounter involving a stone sacrificial table, one that easily outstrips what we see/don't see in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT--and all this occurs in just the first section of Wagner's story. As the story continues, the Lovecraftian dimensions of this discovery become increasingly evident, as we see Leverett become embroiled in conspiracy that affects both his life and art.

Just as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT manipulated the fuzzy boundary between art and reality, so too does "Sticks," albeit in a different manner. According to the introduction to the story by David G. Hartwell (found in the anthology DARK DESCENT), Wagner found inspiration in "an anecdote of the great horror artist, Lee Brown Coye, who told of strange, weird artifacts and drawings found in an abandoned farmhouse in upstate New York and around it." Information about the artist, as well as a sample of his work involving the sticks that became a motif in his work, can be found here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Spooky Fiction by the Son of the Headless Werewolf

My six year old has decided to take up a career in writing, and after visiting the spooky grounds of Spanish Point in southwest Florida, he found his inspiration. Behold the result (and I hope you understand why I'm a proud daddy to be giving him his first publication).

The Guptill House

It all started at my house. I was about to go to bed. Don’t sneak out this house, mom said. So I went to bed. And the window was open. So I climbed out of the window and went toward an old house called Guptill House. So I went in the house from the side door. As I entered, the door fell off. Inside I saw a black and white picture of a guy. He looked like my uncle. Then I started to hear organ music coming from the foyer. So, I went to the foyer and it was locked. So I walked away. Then the door opened. So I went in the door. Inside, it was so beautiful. I thought I was blind, but when it thundered, it was old as a spider web. Then I heard the organ music again. It was coming from Mary’s chapel. So I went toward the chapel and opened the door and there it was a headless organ player. I was so scared I ran all the way home. The end

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Artist Conceptions: The Three "Weird Sisters" of DRACULA

Above, we see Ben Templesmith's interpretation of Dracula's brides, one of the many breath-taking images found in his illustrated edition of DRACULA (published by IDW). When I compiled my list of favorite vampires, how could I forget those three? They appear early in Bram Stoker's DRACULA, putting the bite on the hapless Jonathan Harker, who desperately wants to get away, just as he desperately DOESN'T want to get away. I love the ambiguity of the scene, just as I love the fact that they mirror the three men who pine for Lucy half a globe away. Here's Stoker's original description, and below, you'll more images of varying tone and style: first, from the Fernando Fernandez comic adaptation; next from the recent Dynamite adaptation illustrated by Colton Worely; followed by Joe Ollmann (Graphic Classics) and the amazing Richard Sala (from the tongue-in-cheek LITTLE BOOK OF HORROR: DRACULA).

"They came close to me, and looked at me for some time, and then shispered together. Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to to be almost red when contrasted with the pale yellow moon.. The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at the moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longong and at the same time some deadly fear."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Kinski Goes Vamp Again: NOSFERATU IN VENICE (1988)

Although well regarded today, Werner Herzog's 1979 remake of NOSFERATU saw its share of critical derision, some viewing it as a production that placed style over substance. For example, the LONDON FINANCIAL TIMES saw it as "a series of swoony dream images that hover perilously on the brink of TV prettiness," while Gene Wright claimed that it was "beautiful to look at, but it barely raises the gooseflesh" (both quoted in Leonard Wolf's HORROR: A CONNOISSEUR'S GUIDE TO LITERATURE AND FILM). What then would they have made of its sequel-in-name-only, the Italian lensed NOSFERATU IN VENICE? A troubled production from its very beginning, its original director, Mario Caiano, left the film after an argument with Klaus Kinski, after which producer Augusto Caminito assigned himself the job of directing the film. Without any actual directing experience, Caminito apparently received help from Argento apprentice Luigi Cozzi, as well as from Kinski himself. While far from any sort of masterpiece, the fact that the film turned out at all watchable seems like a miracle unto itself.

Of course, no one should approach NOSFERATU IN VENICE expecting a coherent narrative. A muddled mess, the story involves a centuries-old vampire--just called "Nosferatu," it seems, though some viewers assume him to be Dracula, if only because Herzog's NOSFERATU gave him that identity. In fact, despite the fact that the film-makers behind NOSFERATU IN VENICE planned on using the same make-up on Kinski, the actor reportedly rejected the idea, insisting upon appearing with a full head of hair. Thus, only the rat-like fangs, seen occasionally in this film, get imported from Herzog's film. Having nothing else in common with that film, the progression of events start with the arrival of Christopher Plummer, here playing a vampire expert with an uncanny physical resemblance to Peter Cushing, to a Venice villa, which was once the site of the vampire's carnage hundreds of years ago. The villa serves as a home to the same family, and it includes a crypt containing a mysterious coffin, which one person in the family suspects belongs to the same undead creature (though the truth turns out to be otherwise). During a seance, the family manages to summon the vampire, who travels to Venice with a death-wish that can only be fulfilled by a woman who gives herself to him willingly.

Again, we have very little to connect to Herzog's remake of NOSFERATU, and ultimately, NOSFERATU IN VENICE actually best resembles an attractively shot remake of DARK SHADOWS, especially with its emphasis on a regal family revisited by an undead menace. Also, perhaps because of Cozzi's influence, this film emphasizes exploitation elements in a much more pronounced way that Herzog's. Blood splatters on occasion, especially with characters having the habit of falling out of windows onto spiked fences, and Kinski plays the character in a much more overtly sexually-ravenous way than he did previously, at times tearing garments off of his female victims. Moreover, the fucking that often only occurs metaphorically in vampire films takes place here in much more literal way. In addition, the film-makers take liberties with vampire lore, including giving Kinski's Nosferatu the ability to manipulate his appearance as well as that of others. This ability proves key during a crucial staking scene.

Despite its short-comings, NOSFERATU IN VENICE does across as a beautifully shot film, most notably in terms of the atmospheric use of Venice locations, and in many ways, it truly out-does Herzog's film in terms of "prettiness." Other arresting visual set-pieces occur later in the film, when the vampire takes his intended victims to an island once occupied by plague victims. Interestingly, while 1979's NOSFERATU received accusations that it amounted to nothing more than a "pretty" film, it has endured as a landmark vampire film. Whether anyone will care about NOSFERATU IN VENICE in later decades, only time will tell.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Naschy Does Japan: THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD (1983)

"Unlike the films about Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) which had a certain continuity," points out Paul Naschy in his autobiography, MEMOIRS OF A WOLF MAN, "Waldemar Daninsky can move freely through time and space." While some might view the lack of continuity as evidence of shoddy film-making, this liberation from logic and linearity actually gave Naschy the room to create one of the most dynamic and interesting series of horror films, one originating in the late 1960s with MARK OF THE WOLF MAN and going through the 1990s (or even the new millenium if one chooses to include Fred Olen Ray's TOMB OF THE WEREWOLF, which I don't.) Following the gothic lavishness and visually lush THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (1980), Naschy created what he views as one of his hallmark achievements in THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD (1983), a film that removes Daninsky from his usual gothic surroundings and places him in 16th-Century Japan. The resulting film truly deserves present-day re-discovery.

In his memoir, Naschy describes how he found inspiration in a Kyoto legend regarding a bandit known as "The Beast." He writes, "The outlaw had murdered a number of people in the forest--in the 16th century Japan still possessed considerable areas of woodland. . . . The legend tells how The Beast was captured and made to take part in a singular combat against a Bengal tiger. The man from the woods won the fight." Incorporated into the film, this legendary encounter results in an excellent set-piece, as in wolfman form, Daninsky takes on bengal tiger within the ghostly mansion of a Japanese witch. Indeed, the Japanese setting of this film does not change the fact that, like other Daninsky films, the world occupied by the wolfman also includes witches, ghosts, vampires, and other otherworldly creatures. Naschy recycled these tropes throughout the series, in many cases repeating many plot elements, but the new cultural lens gives these repititions a sense of freshness and newness they often lack in previous films.

Arguably, one of the pleasures of Naschy's films comes out of how the actor/screenwriter/director finds different ways of telling the same story. In this case, Daninsky's curse spans generations, beginning in when the Polish hero, Irineus Daninsky, vanquishes a seemingly indestructable "vampire" warrior for a Spanish noble. Driven by revenge, the warrior's witchy wife attacks Irineus' pregnant spouse with the skull of a wolf, resulting in the curse that ultimately leads the 16th-Century Waldemar to Japan. Once there, he seeks the aid of Kian, a Japanese expert in the occult and bad-ass swordsman, who must balance his impulse to cure and aid Daninsky with his duty to protect his community. As these things generally go, nothing turns out ideally, but from the stand-point of horror cinema, some terrific sequences result, including the aforementioned tiger scene and another in which the werewolf chews and drools his way through a Kyoto brothel.

The screen-caps here obviously look less than perfect and bear witness to how this film desperately needs a proper restoration. The recent DVD release of NGHT OF THE WEREWOLF by the now defunct BCI succeeded in turning a few heads and helped others see what the rest of us were raving about. As a grander achievement, THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD deserves similar treatment. Hopefully we won't have to wait much longer.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Greatest Vampires: The Headless Werewolf Gets Into the Act

Wounded, limping—and damn, those silver bullets are still in my butt, Pierre!—I rise from surgery (drawn strangely to surgical-themed horrors, but more on that later) to find the horror blogosphere chewing over Entertainment Weekly’s list of the “greatest vampires.” Considering the audience for the magazine, it should come as no surprise that the list caters to the most basic in vampire literacy, taking care not to upset the sensibilities of the TWLIGHT crowd. Some good alternative lists have emerged, and thus, I can’t resist getting into the act, especially when I’m loaded with pain-killers

1. Max Shreck as Graf Orlock in NOSFERATU (1921) emerges as the first choice in many alternative lists, and he will here as well.
2. Christopher Lee as Dracula
3. Eli from LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (novel as well as film)
4. Count Yorga
5. Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla
6. Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins
7. Varney the Vampire from Rymer’s penny dreadful
8. Bela Lugosi as Dracula
9. Boris Karloff as Gorca in Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH
10. Gloria Holden as Countess Zaleska
11. Soledad Miranda as Countess Nadine Carody
12. Martin from the George Romero film of that title
13. Saint-Germain from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s novels—a template for the current Edwards, but much more interesting
14. Gary Oldman as Dracula (I know there are haters out there, but I loved what he did with the role, funky hairstyles and all)
15. Fran and Miriam from VAMPYRES
16. Vampirella
18. Blacula
19. The girl in the tower in LIPS OF BLOOD
And finally . . .
20. Dracula in the Marvel comics series

Honorable mentions go to the flying head (guts and all) in MYSTICS IN BALI and to Grace Jones, without whom VAMP would be unwatchable.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Something to Tide Us Over Until THE WOLFMAN (2010)

Fangoria and others are now reporting that Joe Johnston's remake of THE WOLFMAN has met with yet another delay and will make its way to theaters in February of 2010. However, an independent film, HOUSE OF THE WOLFMAN, has been piquing interest lately, with some speculating that its 1940s vibe might overshadow Universal's big budget production. Starring Ron Chaney, the film's trailer comes to us via Youtube (among other sources):

On a personal note, I'm set for some minor surgery tomorrow, though my recovery time could take weeks. Maybe . . . just maybe, I'll get a new head!

Monday, July 20, 2009

INCUBUS: Leslie Stevens' Cursed Masterpiece

An unusual film if only for the decision to have the actors read their lines in Esperanto, Leslie Stevens' INCUBUS (1965) stands as one of the most daring and original American horror films of the 1960s. Featuring an expressionistic landscape of demons and fog, the narrative involves Marc, a young soldier played by William Shatner, who becomes the target of Kia, a tempting force of satanic evil. Having grown tired of corrupt men who fall easily before her, she desires a truly good and courageous soul to deliver to hell. She succeeds in seducing Marc, but in the process, she herself falls prey to the purity of his love and so finds her evil corrupted. To exact her revenge, she summons the incubus, a male demon who rapes Marc's sister during a black mass, consequently drawing out the worst in Marc as he exacts his own bloody revenge.

The main strength of INCUBUS lies in its visual power, suggesting possible influences ranging from HORROR HOTEL to HAXAN and VAMPYR. The latter seems an especially important title to consider in the context of INCUBUS, as it becomes easy to imagine Marc living in the same land of shadows that serves as the setting of Dreyer's masterwork. Indeed, INCUBUS feels very much like a European film, a sensibility that the use of Esperanto reinforces. In terms of a narrative that involves demons trying to tempt mortals, the screenplay seems to come out of a tradition of morality plays that were popular during the medieval era, wherein characters often represented human vices and virtues.

In fact, the film works very much like a tragedy in the classic sense, though it includes set pieces that come across as startling for a film of its time. In particular, the rape of Marc's sister must have disturbed audiences lucky enough to see the film during its original release, as it features some brief if unexpected nudity. Moreover, the film's climactic scene between Kia and a satanic goat threatens to cross the line of good taste in its suggestiveness. Although he has become known for his scenery-chewing, Shatner plays his part remarkably well and, like the rest of the cast, seems to handle the Esperanto almost like a native language.

While POLTERGEIST often comes to mind when people think of cursed horror films, it really has nothing on INCUBUS. The negative and nearly all the prints of the film were lost in a mysterious fire around the time of its 1965 festival run. One of the film's actresses, Ann Atmar, committed suicide, and Milos Milos, who played the incubus, murdered Mickey Rooney's wife. Eloise Hardt, another actress in the film, suffered through the kidnapping and murder of her daughter. Apparently the lucky member of the cast, Shatner would score the part of Captain Kirk one year after the film's production. In addition to chronicling its various tragedies, the DVD from Fox Lorber offers a striking print of the film which we are lucky to enjoy, given the aforementioned fire.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Exhuming Dracula's Daughter

Pity the female monsters we find in the Universal canon. Their male counterparts seem to possess a limitless immortality, with Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and Larry Talbot all returning in a long run of sequels, even if in different incarnations. Not so for the Bride of Frankenstein, the She-Wolf of London, or Dracula's Daughter, each of whom find their cursed conditions (or even existence) ended in their first feature. While the image of Elsa Lanchester as Frankenstein's Bride has proved the most iconic, Gloria Holden's portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska stands as perhaps the most memorable performance--this despite the fact that the finished film very little resembled screenwriter John Balderston's original idea for the production. According to David Skal, Balderston originally wanted to "play up SEX and CRUELTY legitimately" by focusing more on the brides of Dracula found in the Count's Transylvanian home. In THE MONSTER SHOW, Skal writes, "Cracking a bullwhip against the stone floors, [Dracula's Daughter] subdues her evil stepmothers like an animal trainer, and, in a scene borrowed directly from Stoker's novel, offers them a squalling infant in a sack to feed upon." Apparently, the censorship office rejected the material, robbing us of a film that would have included the return of Dracula in flash-back scenes consisting of even more overtly sexual material.

Even without such scenes, DRACULA'S DAUGHTER contains some striking material. Focusing solely on Countess Zaleska, the film presents us with a character trying to free herself from the unholy urges inherited from her father. In a scene memorable for its play of light and shadow, she burns his body in a funeral pyre, but ultimately cannot separate herself from his legacy, which sometimes manifests itself in weird music and art, at one point involving a fetching prostitute standing in as a model, resulting in a wonderful scene suggestive of lesbian desire. The film's tag-line--"She Gives You That Weird Feeling"--somehow manages to hold true even today.

A recent graphic novel, DAUGHTER OF DRACULA (2007), written by Ron Fortier and illustrated by Rob Davis, takes the character's implied eroticism into literal territory. Maintaining the name "Marya," Fortier sets his story during World War I and focuses upon a love affair between the vampire and the German ace, Baron Von Richthofen, otherwise known as the Red Baron. Fortier builds upon the character's cinematic counterpart's vulnerability and sensitivity, while at the same time giving her a level of assertiveness and aggression that would have been unacceptable to American audiences in the 1930s. Paced very well, the narrative reaches an unusual (if slightly improbable) conclusion as far as vampire lore goes, while at the same time doing a satisfying job of tying in real historical details of Von Richthofen. Artwise, Davis provides some striking frames, capturing erotic moments as well as the more violent scenes. At first, Marya's features struck me as too angular, but gradually, this personal bias gave way to an understanding that such physical features emphasized her sense of presence and strength. Recommended as supplementary reading to the film, the book can be found here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

SHE DEMONS and the Nazis Who Love Them

Thanks to Mykal of Radiation Cinema who alerted me to this tasty morsel back when I reviewed DEAD SNOW. Richard Cunha's SHE DEMONS (1958) stands as a particularly sleazy example of 50s drive-in horror, a melange of ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and the real-life Nazi horrors that the world witnessed just over a decade before this film saw release. While not a zombie film in itself, it still anticipates later movies like SHOCK WAVES and Jess Franco's OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES, though it's still more striking to consider how Georges Franju would borrow key plot points from this film to create his 1959 masterpiece, EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

The main plot of the film focuses on a group of boaters (including the delicious Irish McCalla) who become stranded on a remote island during a hurricane. After one of them falls victim to the island's mysterious inhabitants, the trio explore their surroundings, ultimately learning that a group of Nazis, lead by a war criminal known as "The Butcher," now use the island to continue their nefarious experiments. These experiments turn the island's native female population (who look very fetching without, presumably, modern cosmetics) into fanged but otherwise relatively unthreatening "she demons." The real horror comes from the Nazi guards who cage these women and routinely whip them for their perverse pleasure.

The motivation for the experiments stems from the head Nazi's desire to restore his wife's beauty after she became horribly scarred during a lab accident. Her face remains carefully wrapped for much of the movie, until the climax, when she dramatically reveals her disfigurement. Indeed, this popular trope--a scientist who sacrifices other women in the name of restoring his loved one's feminine beauty--which became a major building block in the development of Euro-horror, leading to films like FACELESS and THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, may have its origins in American drive-in cinema. Who knew?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

And who needs fireworks when you have a leering image from William Lustig's holiday shocker, UNCLE SAM?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Summer Reading: DUMA KEY by Stephen King

My impressions of DUMA KEY come tempered by two facts: 1) Despite the fact that PET SEMATARY completely traumatized me as a teenager--in a good way, I should add--and that I, like many others, consider many of King's early novels (SALEM'S LOT, THE DEAD ZONE, et al) land-marks in contemporary horror fiction, I have read very, very little of his recent out-put; and 2) I currently live within the same zip code as King's fictional key, which starts on the south end of Casey Key, where King himself resides during part of the year. True story: a couple of years ago, King walked out of the Shell station where I frequently fill up, and I made an utter dork of myself by waving to him from a distance. He waved back, a twinky in his hand, before getting back in his car and driving back toward the flying bridge that separates Casey Key from the mainland. My brush with greatness.

And DUMA KEY is great. I have not heard positive things about works like THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, but this novel stands as a testament to a formidable imagination. In fact, on some level, DUMA KEY is about the artistic imagination, perhaps a sign that after writing for decades, King has developed complex ideas about the power of the creative process. The main narrative of the novel involves Edgar, the owner of a construction company, who loses an arm and much of his cognitive powers after a bad accident. During the recuperative process, his wife divorces him, and he finds himself looking for new digs to recover himself and find a way to enjoy life again. This search leads him to Duma Key, a sparsely populated island, where he rents an oppulent house overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. There, he begins sketching and painting, something he did during an earlier stage of life, and soon strange images begin manifesting themselves on his canvas, images connected to the haunted past of the key and the old woman still living there. Their lives intersect in a creepy fashion, involving set-pieces that include a ghost ship with tattered sails, ghastly corpses that stagger in from the surf, a dilapidated mansion hidden in the key's shrubbery, and a malevolent entity that, in Lovecraftian fashion, appears connected to a time of "elder gods."

Despite its 700+ pages, the novel's narrative still feels tight and lean, a testament to King's story-telling prowess. Scrupulous readers might feel that some information gets repeated too often--in fact, one might tire of the repetition of certain axioms by Wireman, a character close to Edgar. Nevertheless, King achieves an exciting build-up in action, leading to a breathless climax in the aforementioned mansion.

In closing, I want to add a few words about a very minor character in the novel, a man who walks up and down Casey Key holding a "gnarled briarwood cane, almost as tall as he is, and a big straw hat on his head"--he's an actual person who, up until a year or so ago, I'd pass on the road quite often!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Streeting Today: EDWARD LEE'S HEADER

Edward Lee's novella, "Header", appeared in a limited publication run from Necro Publications in 1995. While I'm a complete geek for Lee's writing, I haven't had enough luck to come across any affordable copies of this hard-to-find book. In recent years, other examples of Lee's works have appeared in affordable paperback editions, including the excellent FLESH GOTHIC and most recently THE GOLEM, so now stout-hearted readers who don't mind strong doses of sex and violence can easily enjoy Lee's special brand of "splatterspunk." In addition, we can also enjoy Archibald Flancrastin's film adaptation of "Header" (released on DVD courtesy of Synapse) which, contrary to even Lee's expectations, comes close to capturing the author's gritty and gruesome style. It's also nice to see Lee acknowledged in the title (which, judging by the DVD cover, is officially EDWARD LEE'S HEADER.) Lee himself appears in a cameo, along with fellow author and kindred spirit in dark letters, Jack Ketchum.

The plot of the film follows the return of Travis Truckton to his backwoods home after a stint in prison. There, he reunites with his "grandpappy," who enlightens him on the truth behind his parents' death, along with the joys of the "header," which, if you know Lee's work, is as bad as it sounds. Eventually, their path crosses that of Stewart Cummings, an ATF agent who carries out his own rule-breaking to care for his invalid girl-friend. All of this ends badly in ways one might not immediately expect.

After the less than satisfying results of GRUBGIRL, an xxx rated version of Lee's Grub Girl character, EDWARD LEE'S HEADER provides us with a surprisingly satisfying visualization of Lee's warped world. The film moves briskly, and visually, we learn the details of a "header" in alarming detail. Cast members play their parts well, especially Dick Mullaney, whose rendition of "Grandpappy" may be destined for a place of honor in horror film history. In the "extras," we find interviews with cast and crew, including Lee and Ketchum. A stand-out moment occurs when director Flancranstin waxes poetic on how he hopes the film will serve to raise our consciences on the horrific nature of violence, "re-sensitizing" us to its reality rather than functioning as mere entertainment. Needless to say, the resulting film does not support this weighty purpose, but thankfully you can just ignore him and watch the film.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Putting the Bite on Soledad Miranda

The above image comes from Jess Franco's 1970 production, COUNT DRACULA, a film that marketed itself as a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. While it fell short in that area, Franco still gave Christopher Lee a stage on which he could portray Dracula the way he'd always wanted to. Playing Mina, Soledad Miranda falls prey to the count in the above scene, resulting in a kinetic moment upon which Lee remarked, "I have played this scene many times, but this woman is giving me something no other actress ever has" (quoted from Tim Lucas' liner notes for VAMPYROS LESBOS).

Miranda carried this kind of sensual energy into Franco's later production of VAMPYROS LESBOS, a film that returned to Bram Stoker territory, this time very loosely adapting "Dracula's Guest," a short work that we now know Stoker originally planned as an early chapter in DRACULA. Franco makes no direct connection between these two films. Miranda's character, Countess Carody, alludes to her earlier life as Dracula's lover, though one almost wishes that Franco carried the Mina name into this film, thus implying a loose connection between the productions. The (r)evolution in Franco's aesthetics would find reinforcement in the (r)evolution in a character whose vampirism involves a rejection of masculine/patriarchal authority.

Franco likewise resists formal conventions in the film, and while his critics frequently point out how his non-comformist streak can result in awkward and even sometimes awful film-making, VAMPYROS LESBOS marks one of his grander achievements, an erotic masterpiece of vampire cinema. The film's nightclub scenes--an erotic spectacle within a spectacle--calls attention to a vampiric consumption of energy that takes place through the gaze of the spectator--by extension including the spectator of cinema.

In particular, the scenes of Miranda, donned in her nightclub garb, reaching forth to the film's viewer effectively break the fourth wall, so to speak, making our own spectatorship (and desire) the subject of the film on some level. As the vampire in these scenes, Miranda is simultaneously lethal, sad, and sensual. She gives a quintessential performance in a landmark film of erotic horror.

"Again" Ramsey Campbell: VILE THINGS

VILE THINGS, a recent anthology from Comet Press, presents a different side to Ramsey Campbell. In "Again," his contribution to a collection that strives for "Extreme Deviations of Horror" (as worded in the book's subtitle), Campbell delves into some perverse territory, while still adhering to his usual elegant prose style. To relate too much of the story would rob it of its shock value, but it begins with a young man making his way down a country path, where he finds an old woman outside a decrepit bungalow in need of help. She has locked herself outside, and the young man dutifully tries to help her inside. And then there are the flies . . .

Other writers represented in VILE THINGS include Graham Masterton and Jeffrey Thomas, along with some less well-known names, like Brian Rosenberg, who serves up an unforgettable story about competing fishermen. Find it here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer Reading: THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER (1976) by Ramsey Campbell

Cue up Bill Evans' "Quiet Now" in the mp3 player for this one. In fact, if horror writers like Peter Straub (think "Pork Pie Hat") like to tie their works to jazz, then we must think of Ramsey Campbell as the Bill Evans of horror. Just as Bill Evans marked a softer contrast to the harder-edged bop of his time, Ramsey Campbell takes a different route from that of many of his contemporaries, eschewing overt shocks in favor of creating a building sense of dis-ease in his reader, in this case starting with a traffic accident. Clare, the driver of a car in bad need of repair, learns that not only has the accident killed her brother, who was sitting in the passenger seat, but that at some point during the aftermath, someone stole the arm from his corpse. From there, Campbell introduces Edmund Hall, a crime writer, who calls upon Clare to help him search for the culprit. Operating on hunches and circumstantial evidence, Hall suspects that Kelly, an old school-mate, committed the act, leading to narrative that takes increasing diabolical turns, culminating in the story of a magician in the black arts who manipulated pregnant women with a collection of dolls. From there, we learn how the titular doll "ate" his mother--a truly macabre moment in the novel.

In DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King reserves a few pages for discussion of this novel, and while passing decades have robbed it of some of its freshness (Satanism and black magic seem almost quaint in horror novels now), King aptly likens Campbell's narrative structure to that of Bram Stoker's DRACULA in that Clare and Edmund partner with others, including a cinema owner, to pursue their quarry, much like the "committee" formed by Mina, Seward, et al in Stoker's text. I'd add that both novels share a somewhat anti-climactic ending, where their respective conflicts are resolves in a somewhat abrupt, even convenient manner. Still, in the case of THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER, Ramsey Campbell succeeds in capturing a decaying urban landscape, punctuating the haunted mind of his "monster." Campbell provides an awkward (and easily detected) twist about his true identity, but the terror of his circumstances still has the power to affect the reader, as we see a monster perhaps not so much born as created. Now out of print, THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER can still be found online in relatively inexpensive used paperback editions.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Summer Reading: TO WAKE THE DEAD by Richard Laymon

Until the last decade, Richard Laymon's books remained relatively hard to find in the US, and sadly, Laymon died suddenly in 2001, just as Leisure had begun re-issuing several of his titles for readers who once had to seek out relatively expensive British editions. His style makes him ideal for summer horror reading: crisp, intensely visual sentences, with narratives driven by punchy dialogue and marked with generous servings of sex and violence. In recent years, I've enjoyed discovering (or re-discovering) favorites like ISLAND, THE BEAST HOUSE, ONCE UPON A HALLOWEEN, BITE, and the absolutely masterful THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW. To the best of my knowledge, TO WAKE THE DEAD (British title: AMARA) did not see publication in any form until 2002--a shame, since it joins these others as one of his most entertaining efforts.

As usual, Laymon pumps this book full of adrenaline, giving us a blissfully entertaining mummy novel, the kind that Bram Stoker would NEVER have imagined for JEWEL OF THE SEVEN STARS. Laymon's mummy, Amara, has earned the gift of eternal life after giving the Egyptian god Set a son. Her resurrection takes place in the Charles Ward Museum (wink, wink to Lovecraft readers), ultimately affecting the fates of a large cast of characters. In fact, TO WAKE THE DEAD represents a departure from the usual structure of a Laymon novel, as he weaves together different narrative arcs, many of which do not have an obvious connection to Amara's path of terror until the very end. Discovering Laymon's overall narrative design marks part of the pleasure of reading this novel, but the rest stems from the delirious violence that takes place, as Amara rips, bites, and shreds her way through the cast of characters. Laymon wrote novels that seem designed to entertain himself, and fortunately, we now have the option of sharing in the joy, as TO WAKE THE DEAD so aptly provides.

Monday, May 25, 2009

DEAD SNOW (2009)

DEAD SNOW comes to us from Norway, and as an example of the ever-endurable Nazi zombie sub-genre, it fits squarely between the best (SHOCK WAVES) and the worst (ZOMBIE LAKE, which still manages to entertain, thanks to an inane script and tasty underwater photography.) Plot-wise, the film contains just enough to arrive at its raison d'etre: Nazi zombies who stalk and ultimately slaughter a group of vacationing medical students, who inadvertently trifle with the treasure once sought by the then-living soldiers.

If I have my cinematic lore down right, Nazi zombies typically dwell underwater, usually off of some Carribean island, where some nefarious war-time plot went awry. (For an excellent literary treatment of this kind of plot, see Robert McCammon's early 80s novel, NIGHT BOAT.) In DEAD SNOW, Stig Frode Henriksen and Tommy Wirkola substitute snow for water, resulting in some striking images, as the effective make-up designs jump out against the white back-ground. Already lethal, the zombies (who, in one hallmark scene, pull a character's head apart, causing his brain to plop on the floor) become all the more ominous thanks to this imagery.

Yet, the film-makers still fall into the tiresome habit that we see in other recent horror movies: that of name-dropping the films and film-makers that inspired them. If we couldn't already see the influence of EVIL DEAD, the characters make damn sure that we understand the importance of that film as they discuss it at the beginning. In fact, one of the last standing characters calls Ash to mind both in his physical characteristics and in his extreme survival techniques. Such self-referencing blunts the impact the film could have had, as does the general lack of character development. DEAD SNOW still stands as one of the better examples of its sub-genre, but SHOCK WAVES it ain't.