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.