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Yet Another Christopher Lee Twopher: 1941 and Scream and Scream Again

Lord S not unenlightened
Teal dear summary - both of these films are incoherent messes, and Christopher Lee isn't even in them terribly much, but the moments when he is on screen are excellent!

29. 1941 (1979), dir. Steven SpielbergCollapse )

30. Scream and Scream Again (1970), dir. Gordon HesslerCollapse )

If the world were a truly good and beautiful place, someone would by now have extracted all of the scenes with Christopher Lee in them from 1941, and all of the scenes with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price in them from Scream and Scream Again and stuck the results on Youtube. However, as far as I can tell, they have not. We must suffer onwards in our imperfect and fragile existence.

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New Who 8.1 Deep Breath

Doctor Caecilius hands
I'm very pleased indeed that the BBC scheduled this new season to begin the weekend after my conference. I can't tell you how nice it was to just settle down and enjoy it, feeling all relaxed and not guilty at all. It was the icing on the cake to find that it was actually a decent episode, too.

What made it for me was the stuff that always won me over in the RTD era, but has often been sorely lacking since Moffat took over - proper character moments which allow emotions to be acknowledged and tensions to be resolvedCollapse )

Clara and the new DoctorCollapse )

The Doctor's new faceCollapse )

Some smaller thingsCollapse )

Where is all this going?Collapse )

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28. Incident at Victoria Falls (1992), dir. Bill Corcoran

Sherlock Holmes trifles
I'm just watching anything with Christopher Lee in it now. What can I say? He has a nice face - and by that I don't just mean that I think he's good-looking (which, of course, I do), but also that because I have been watching his films since childhood, he is also simply very comforting and reassuring to have around on the screen. This is exactly what I need right now to de-stress in between all the conference prep stuff, so I have alerts set up in DigiGuide to tell me when he is on TV and my Sky box primed to record it all. Then, whenever I need an evening on the sofa staring at something mildly diverting, there he is - just waiting for me.

This was shown about a week ago on a channel called 'True Movies 2' - surely a misnomer, because this story at least did not in any way purport to be 'true'. It belongs to a TV mini-series called Sherlock Holmes: the Golden Years, for which the crack is that Holmes and Watson are a little advanced in years, but also now so famous that they are constantly mingling with the celebrities and royalty of the Edwardian era. Hence Lee was able to play Sherlock opposite Patrick Macnee as Watson, both at the age of 69, and there are lots of cameo roles for figures such as Edward VI, Theodore Roosevelt and Lillie Langtry. The mini-series consists of two 200-minute instalments in total - this one, and a predecessor called Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, which I saw some years ago. I wasn't in the habit of writing up all the films I saw on LJ at that point, so there is no past review to link to, but I do remember that I didn't think it was very good. Unsurprisingly, the same applies here.

Both were made by a Euro-pudding-style consortium of British, Belgian, Luxembourgeois and Italian production companies (including - and I am not making this up - Silvio Berlusconi Communications), and filmed on location - in this case, mainly in Zimbabwe. A lot of money has clearly been spent on extras, costumes and expensive vehicles like steam-trains and paddle-launches, but alas the dialogue is lacklustre to the point of banality, the characters are so under-developed that it's impossible to understand their motivations, and the plot is just not Holmesian. Oh, there is some convoluted business about a fake diamond, a real diamond, various murders and a treasure map, but it has none of the precision of a proper Sherlock Holmes story - above all because of the under-development of the characters. For all that we have learnt about them by the end of the movie, any one of them could have turned out to have done what they did or been who they were, so that the eventual 'solution' seems utterly arbitrary.

That said, it isn't a complete waste of time, partly because the location scenery is nice and quite well-photographed (though at a level of definition which makes it all look slightly blurry on a modern TV), but mainly, of course, because Christopher Lee is in it. Even as Holmes, he doesn't exactly get scintillating dialogue, but he plays what he has with a sort of gentle, slightly-put-upon charm that makes his scenes worth watching. And the script does manage to serve up a couple of quite fun moments for him, like when he sits on the nose of a steam locomotive chatting to Theodore Roosevelt while it rattles through the Zimbabwean landscape, or when he has to shoot a pouncing lion on safari at more-or-less point-blank range because another member of the party has deliberately manufactured the attack in an attempt to kill him. Plus he has a nice old-married-couple vibe going on with Patrick Macnee's Watson, who annoys him by snoring in their shared hotel suite and whom Lee's Holmes at one point complains is "worse than a wife". I wouldn't quite go so far as to call it slashy, but there is a touch of the domesticated old Queens about them.

Overall verdict - just about worth it for Lee completists, and possibly for Holmes completists I suppose, but otherwise don't bother.

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27. Castle of the Walking Dead (1967), dir. Harald Reinl

Dracula Risen hearse smile
(Also known as Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, The Snake Pit and the Pendulum,The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism and about a zillion other alternative titles. Not to be confused with Castle of the Living Dead, which is completely different. Obviously!)

Another entry here in the series 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price', and this one was a corker! Well, at least, it is a corker by 1960s Euro-horror standards. Here are three reasons why it is worth watching:

1. It is visually splendid. This is mainly thanks to being filmed in Bavaria, and making exceptionally good use of the setting. I was particularly charmed to recognise Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which does a huge amount to create the appropriate fairy-tale atmosphere for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and is such a perfect gingerbread town that it is a struggle to believe it can possibly be real. But in all fairness, the set, prop, make-up and costume departments are all performing at a very high level too. It isn't exactly an expressionist film in the full-blown sense of German cinema from the inter-war period, but it definitely has many of the same sorts of visual design touches, and these are some of its biggest strengths. See, however, point 3 on my 'downsides' list, below, which alas means that a film which must have looked absolutely bloody fantastic when it first came out is now difficult to discern through all the dust and scratch-lines.

2. It is utterly unashamed to ramp the Gothic horror clichés up to the absolute max. The basic approach is quite similar to Castle of the Living Dead, in that this film is essentially a pastiche made up of scenes and motifs drawn from successful previous horror titles. This time, the two chief source texts that I could recognise are Edgar Allan Poe's 'Pit and the Pendulum' (very obviously mediated through Roger Corman's 1961 film) and Dracula, Prince of Darkness, which had come out only the previous year. Poe / Corman contribute a castle full of dungeons and torture chambers, where a group of travellers experience new and more inventive horrors at every turn, while Prince contributes an evil Count who is supposed to be dead, but gets resurrected by a creepy and incredibly loyal servant. According to Jonathan Rigby, Mario Bava's La maschera del demonio is a big influence too, and while I haven't seen it myself the Wikipedia description certainly backs him up. Rather than merely repeating or mimicking its predecessors, though, the watchword for this film seems to have been to make everything about them MORE - more blood, more dungeons, more dark and scary forests, more unsettling interior décor, more bubbling potions, more mad villains, more distressed damsels. That's not always a good thing in horror films, because often all the subtlety of the earlier takes on the story dies a horrible death in the process, but somehow here it just came across as really joyous and exuberant and fun. It's like they said to themselves, "Let's not muck about! This is a Gothic horror film. We know what our audience wants, and so do they, so let's do it properly!" And they did.

3. It has Christopher Lee in it, playing a character very similar to Dracula. This is of course a subset of point 2, but it is a very important subset! His character is called Count Regula, which clearly (as for Count Drago in Castle of the Living Dead) was the closest name they could think of to Count Dracula without attracting a law-suit. The film opens with a flash-back of him being executed in the town square 35 years before the main story begins for drinking the blood of 12 women in an attempt to secure immortality. He didn't quite manage it, needing 13, but thanks to some hand-waving and some kind of elixir of life, his servant is able to resurrect him for the main story anyway, so that he can chow down on his final victim and seal the deal. He looks a bit grey about the face, wears a floor-length black coat, and suffers from an aversion to crosses, while his first words to the travellers who have been unfortunate enough to end up in his dungeons are "Welcome to my house". All in all then, he is set up as a first-rate Dracula-substitute, and he utterly delivers the goods in his performance, too - lots of good icy aristocratic vengeance-fixated evil, some nice bursts of anger when he is thwarted, and some fine anguish when everything starts going horribly wrong for him at the end. In short, this film is even better than Castle of the Living Dead if you're after a cheap Lee-as-Dracula fix and have run out of actual Dracula films to watch - which is, of course, exactly my position.

On the down side:

1. The dialogue is all dubbed in post-production. Although Christopher Lee definitely speaks his own lines in the English-language version, and I'm pretty sure most of the other actors do too, still actors recording their lines in a studio almost always come across as wooden by comparison with in-context performances recorded on set. Also, I'm not sure all the actors were of a terribly high calibre in the first place anyway - particularly someone called Vladimir Medar, who plays a highwayman-disguised-as-a-priest comic relief character.

2. The gender politics of it are utterly Victorian. The main female character, Baroness Lilian von Brabant, is actually quite well played by Karin Dor, especially in a scene where she has been drugged and convinced that she is someone else, but gradually comes to realise that something isn't quite right and she can't be who she thinks she is. Nonetheless, the character clearly exists purely to function as a victim and / or sexual object. At one point, I thought she might experience a bit of character growth by having to face up to her fears in order to rescue her male companion (much as Willie does in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), but no - she just ended up fainting with terror instead, while he got on and rescued himself. In fact, at the end of the entire experience, she begs him to tell her that it was all just a dream - and he reassures her that it was. Bah! This sort of stuff is, of course, characteristic of both the genre and the period, but it's not inevitable. Compare, for example, Diana in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (one of this film's sources), who is full of the spirit of adventure from the start, and even grabs a gun and has a good old shoot at Dracula at the climax of the film. Strong women could exist in horror, even in the 1960s - but this film does not have any.

3. The visual quality of the DVD transfer is absolutely appalling, especially at the beginning. I don't normally get particularly exercised by this sort of thing, but what you get if you borrow this movie from Lovefilm is basically an utterly unrestored film projection, complete with visual noise, distorted colours and massive streaks running down the screen, all simply transferred to a digital disc. I don't mind any of those features on an actual original film reel which I'm viewing in the cinema, as there it is all part of the experience of engaging with a vintage print. But I kind of expect a DVD print to have undergone at least some very basic clean-up in the process of being transferred to a digital format, and this just really hadn't.

In short, not perfect, but one of the downsides isn't the fault of the original film-makers, and the other two are pretty much par for the course in this genre, so it's not like anyone who likes this sort of film won't be expecting them. Meanwhile, the upsides more than compensate. Don't expect it to change your life, but do expect it to make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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Theatre: Dracula at Seven Arts, Leeds

Dracula 1958 cloak
I went to see this ten days ago with ms_siobhan at Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton. Thinking back, I believe it is the fourth stage adaptation of Dracula which I have seen in my lifetime, with the previous three being as follows:
This was a different adaptation again - this one by John Godber and Jane Thornton, to be precise - and it was by far the truest to Stoker's novel which I have ever seen in any medium. Most of the dialogue was taken directly from the book, with the only real deviations occurring where actions and speech which are reported 'off-stage' (as it were) in the novel were translated into direct speech and action on the stage. Even then, the epistolary format of the original was preserved where possible, for example by showing people receiving and reading out letters from one another.

Obviously, a 1.5-hour stage adaptation couldn't hope to convey the entirety of the novel, though. Quincey Morris was omitted, as he often is, and so were Renfield and two of Draculas' three brides, while Dracula's journey on the Demeter was reported only from the point of view of Whitby residents after he had arrived. But other than that, both the language and the spirit of the novel were really well preserved, mainly thanks to a clever impressionistic approach used for some of the wider sweeps of the narrative. For example, the opening scenes in which Jonathan Harker travels to Dracula's castle were not played out in full, but instead conveyed by a sort of montage of key words and phrases spoken by cast members standing in a line on the stage - "Welcome to Transylvania"; "Please - for your mother's sake"; "For the dead travel fast"; and so on. All instantly recognisable and highly evocative, yet sketched out lightly and efficiently so that we could get on to the more detailed scenes set in the castle. On the whole, I think you would struggle to find a better translation of novel to stage than this one, although I had one small regret about it, which was that some of Mina's stronger scenes (e.g. where she takes the lead in gathering and sorting through all the records for the group of vampire-hunters) had dropped out, so that she lost some of her agency as a result.

The production itself was an amateur one, and we saw it on its opening night, but it was pretty good when judged on those terms. We were particularly impressed by the people playing Dr. Seward and the sole vampire bride (who also doubled-up as the maid who removes the garlic flowers from Lucy's room, thus creating nice extra layers to the narrative, since of course the maid would be helping Dracula if she is also his consort in disguise!). The rest of the cast were all perfectly solid, though we weren't so convinced by the decision to cast the same person as both Jonathan Harker and Arthur Holmwood, since it meant he was both Mina's husband and Lucy's fiancé, which had unintended resonances, and besides his chemistry as Arthur with Lucy was completely non-existent, so that when Van Helsing instructed him to kiss her it seemed more like a reluctant school-boy kissing his aunt than the impassioned kiss of a concerned lover. As for Dracula - well, it's a difficult role to play without slipping into pantomime, especially on stage where you cannot be as subtle as on film; he could have been better served by both the costume and the make-up departments; and we weren't sure the decision to have him speaking in a mock-Eastern European accent, or laughing maniacally from time to time was well-advised. But at least it looked like he was enjoying his evil machinations, and he definitely came across well when he got the chance to confront the band of vampire-hunters directly, and hurl some proper scorn and disdain in their general direction.

I think ms_siobhan was probably right to observe that £10 is a bit steep for amateur theatre, even in this inflated day and age, and on such a hot summer night I could have done with an interval and a long cool drink half-way through. But then again, they pulled in a good audience, filling about 80% of the seats I think, so I guess they had judged their price point about right. Anyway, a good bit of Draculising is always worth leaving the house for, and I would definitely show up for a performance of this particular adaptation again.

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These were both re-watches, so I have linked to my previous write-up from the title of each, and am just noting here what struck me this time round.

25. Captain Clegg (1962), dir. Peter Graham Scott

This film depends a great deal on concealed identities, which of course means that the second watch is an entirely different experience from the first, since you know this time in advance who everyone is. It would be worth watching it a second time for that reason alone, in order to read the behaviour of the main characters in the knowledge of their secret identities before they are explicitly revealed, but I think this one would be worth watching a second time anyway.

Peter Cushing is genuinely magnificent in it, carrying the film with very much the same effortless authority as his character leads the village within the story. A 'making of' documentary on the recently-released DVD version which we watched first reported on how he had done things like consult a friend in the clergy in order to learn how to play his role as the Rev. Dr. Blyss convincingly, and it shows - as indeed the same meticulous approach usually does for all of Cushing's roles. He doesn't carry the full weight of the film alone, though. The story is rich with well-defined and well-played characters, each with complex agendas of their own, and much of the pleasure of it lies in seeing how they all play off against one another towards the dramatic climax.

The DVD also included a short documentary about the Mossman Carriage Collection (now housed at the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton), which provided most of the horse-drawn vehicles used in Hammer's gothic films, and often also their drivers in the form of collection owner George Mossman. ms_siobhan and I both agreed that we would love to visit this collection, and also slightly scared ourselves by alternately exclaiming things like "Ooh, that's the hearse from Risen from the Grave!" and "I'm sure that's in Curse of Frankenstein!" throughout the documentary, only to have our identifications confirmed moments later by the narrator. We may just be a little bit geeky...

26. Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

It was well worth seeing this a second time, too, as the surreal nature of the film and the way that characters drift in and out of it with little dialogue can make the story quite hard to follow. To some extent this stems from the deliberate concealment of identities, as in Captain Clegg - in particular, the identity of the vampire is revealed only slowly. But it is also a more general function of a dreamlike and fragmentary narrative. Even on a second viewing, when we knew in advance who everyone was, there were still several scenes which puzzled us, as characters went off and did things for no discernible reason that we could fathom.

But it remains beautiful and atmospheric and hugely worth seeing, and there are also definitely some aspects of the story which you can appreciate better if you are already familiar with the characters. For example, the story has no real 'Van Helsing' figure in it, but a book of vampire lore left to the hero by the deceased father of the girl who is being attacked plays the same role of informing previously ignorant and sceptical characters about what vampires are and how to fight them. At regular intervals, characters in the story sit down and read sections from this book, which scroll slowly across the screen so that the audience can read it too, and then in the next scene we see the very principles which we have just learnt about in action. For example, we read in the book about how a vampire was once helped by a local doctor, and then see the doctor in Courtempierre doing the very same thing. On first viewing, this is all supposed to help us work out who the vampire is and that the doctor is in league with her, but on a second viewing when you already know this it can be recognised as a nice piece of structuring with overtones of dramatic irony (since the characters are not yet in a position to understand what the viewer has realised).

I wrote in my last review of this film how it uses motifs which also crop up in some of Hammer's Dracula films, such as a woman at an inn greeting a late-night traveller from an upstairs dormer window (Julie and Paul in Scars (1970)), or an older, wiser man passing on a book of vampire lore to a younger man on his death so that the latter can take on the job of protecting his female charge (the Monsignor and Paul in Risen (1968)). Another one I would add now is the idea of vampirism as a compulsion which those in the grip of it cannot resist, even though they are revulsed by their own behaviour, which is explained in the book and is also very much how Van Helsing describes it in Dracula (1958).

The chain of links from one to the other need not be direct in any of these cases, especially since Vampyr was not exactly a huge hit in its own day, and I'm not clear that it even got a contemporary UK cinema release. Most of these motifs can also be found in other vampire films - e.g. vampires as revulsed by their own actions is in Dracula's Daughter (there, as here, applied specifically to a female character). But the similarity of the passing-on-the-book motif especially is so strong that it does make me wonder whether Anthony Hinds, who wrote Risen (and in fact Scars as well), had seen Vampyr and recycled the ideas directly. He would have been a bit young, I think, at the age of 10 in 1932 to see it on first release even if it had been available in the same country as him, but it's possible he got the opportunity at a film club or something like that.

Anyway, a most enjoyable afternoon, and long may they continue!

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23. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013), dir. F. Herngren

Anas Penelope
The title of this film is so long that it's brought me up against the 100-character limit for LJ entry titles - something which I can't remember ever happening before. So I'll have to note here that the full name of its director is Felix Herngren, and its original Swedish release title is Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann. I saw it earlier this week with the lovely ms_siobhan and planet_andy at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and we laughed like drains the whole way through, punctuated by the occasional wince. The version we saw was subtitled for the most part, but where the main character spoke off-screen in a narrative voiceover (which he did quite a lot), it was dubbed with by an English-speaking (though Swedish-accented) voice. There was also one character, a wide-boy Cockney gangster, who was English anyway and didn't speak any Swedish, so fair portions of the dialogue must be in English in the original version, and presumably sub-titled for Swedish audiences.

It's a black comedy which reminded me in equal measures of Ealing comedies about criminal gangs (e.g. The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers) and 'charmed life' movies such as Being There and Forrest Gump. As the title suggests, it follows the adventures of Allan Karlsson, a 100-year-old man who climbs out of the window of the retirement home where he has been placed, and by chance and coincidence finds himself on the run with a suitcase full of money and a neo-Nazi gang hot on his tail. But interspersed with it are a series of flash-backs covering his own life from birth to the present day, in which he stumbles largely accidentally from one to another pivotal moment in the history of the 20th century. Without guile or design, and with little more than an 'easy come, easy go' attitude and a fondness for blowing things up, Allan variously meets, helps or sometimes pisses off Franco, Oppenheimer, Truman, Stalin, Regan, Gorbachev and many others, never quite getting found out for the chancer he is, and always just managing to avoid the disastrous potential consequences of his actions.

It was the long sweep of the flash-back narrative which reminded me more of Being There and Forrest Gump, while the criminal gang narrative sits closer to the Ealing comedies. But of course the two genres are not that different really, since they both depend on coincidence, farce and the human willingness to project qualities onto other people which they don't really possess, which is why the two threads of the film worked so well together as different perspectives on the same central character.

It's got to be said that the humour is pretty black at times. The audience is invited to laugh at things like the sight of an essentially-innocent person's decapitated head bouncing off the bonnet of his car while his mistress sits screaming in the passenger seat, for example, and quite often Allan and his friends are the cause of these deaths - though their actions are always carefully coded as accidental, and the victims as (to a greater or lesser degree) criminal. Whether you find the film funny and enjoyable or not is going to depend on whether you are willing to suspend normal morality (in the same sense as suspending disbelief) in order to laugh at that. That said, I don't think that kind of humour is utterly bereft of a moral compass either. There can be quite some moral heft in a film which encourages you to laugh at someone's death, while at the same time squirming with the realisation of what you are doing - which is why our laughter was also punctuated by winces.

And meanwhile the film is packed full of utterly brilliant character observations - like the over-thinking perpetual student, the lady at the retirement home who is more worried about what she's going to do with an unwanted giant marzipan cake than the fact that one of her charges has gone missing, the police inspector who pursues both Allan and the criminal gang as half-arsedly as he possibly can without actually losing his job, or the rejected ex-boyfriend who wants to pull angrily away from his girlfriend's house with tyres screaming, but has got himself into a position where he has to shunt the car around about 5 times before he can leave, with everybody watching him and giving advice as he knocks things over at every turn. Also, how often do you get to see a bunch of people going on the run with an elephant?

In short, watch this film if you get the chance, but be prepared for a few winces along the way.

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21. and 22. Christopher Lee Twopher

Lee as M.R. James
I've also recently chalked up two further entries in the series 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price'.

21. Castle of the Living Dead / Il castello dei morti vivi (1964), dir. Warren Kiefer and Luciano Ricci

This is one of Lee's many European films, shot in Italy, but with the dialogue in English and Lee speaking his own lines (though they are studio-dubbed rather than recorded on-set). It is also notable for being the screen début of Donald Sutherland, who reportedly named his son Kiefer as a tribute to the director, while a young Michael Reeves (of later The Sorcerors and Witchfinder General fame) may have been responsible for some of the camera-work - it depends which of the conflicting accounts of those involved you choose to believe.

It is basically a mash-up / rip-off of a zillion-and-one horror clichés, with some of the most prominent being as follows:
  • Dracula - Lee plays a weird and reclusive aristocrat called Count Drago who lives in a huge castle around which no birds sing, lures people there on false pretences and turns out to have murderous and (in the case of a young and attractive woman) fatally romantic designs on them. His first line, spoken to announce himself upon entering unseen into a room where his guests have been discussing what the owner of the castle might be like, is 'Count Drago; welcome to my home', and he later claims that he doesn't drink.
  • Psycho - his castle is full of what appear to be stuffed birds and animals, though it later turns out that they have in fact been frozen in perpetual suspended animation by a serum which he has invented.
  • Frankenstein - he has been using science (of the bubbling-flasks variety) in an attempt to unlock the secrets of death.
  • Macbeth - a witch makes prophecies in rhyming couplets.
  • Edgar Allan Poe stories generally - Drago's wife is perpetually suspended in the act of looking at herself in a mirror in a cobwebby bed in a room upstairs in the castle. He talks to her as though she is still alive, apologising for the way his current guests are disturbing her.
  • The Masque of the Red Death specifically - I'm not sure how direct the relationship can be here, since the Roger Corman film was released on 24th June 1964 and this was released on 5th August 1964, but in this film too the castle functions as a protective bastion against a chaotic world outside, and a likeable performing dwarf manages to get one over on the baddy. Both of those elements exist in separate Edgar Allan Poe stories anyway ('The Masque of the Red Death' and 'Hop-Frog'), but they were only brought together for the first time by Corman, and I don't think this film was working directly from literary sources.
  • House of Wax - what initially appear to be extremely lifelike figurines turn out to be real people frozen by Count Drago's serum; Count Drago dies at the end as a result of his own serum.
So, yeah, not super-original, but it is lots of fun spotting all the different sources of the story and the ways in which they have been adapted and combined, just as it often is with Doctor Who stories which do the same thing. Plus there is a stylish look to the film as a whole, helped enormously by the Italian locations used - the 'Parco dei Mostri' at Bomarzo, which is packed full of gigantic monstrous sculptures, and the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Bracciano. As for Christopher Lee, he is absolutely perfect in the role, as you would expect given how hard it draws on what had become his 'type' by this time - menacing, aloof, icily polite, given to unnerving bursts of unexpected passion or mania, and generally everything I was hoping for when I rented this film. Bang on the money and I'm glad I saw it.

22. Theatre of Death (1967), dir. Samuel Gallu

This one it turned out I actually had seen before, but only once and a long time ago, so it didn't really matter as I could hardly remember any of it. This time, I watched it with the lovely ms_siobhan for one of our regular horror film get-togethers, and we had lots of fun picking it apart as we watched.

It is basically supposed to be a murder-mystery story, with a Gothic feel and plenty of hints towards the supernatural as a way of building suspense and ambiguity, but nothing actually supernatural in it in the end. Most of the characters are the cast or crew of a Grand Guignol theatre, and this too is used to raise questions about what is 'real' and what is play-acting, and to explore the psychology of the uncertain boundaries between the two. The plot is full of red herrings, and Christopher Lee's character is perhaps the biggest red herring of all. As in Castle of the Living Dead, he is knowingly used as a horror genre star, and characterised as nasty and controlling, so that we can be mis-directed towards assuming that he is the murderer. Even when he goes missing, for a long time we are kept in suspense about what has happened to him, and allowed to believe that he might still be perpetrating the murders. But in the end it turns out that he is not the murderer at all, and has fallen victim to the true villain just like a whole string of other characters.

That probably makes it all sound quite good, but unfortunately it isn't really. The main problem is that when you present a plot full of mis-direction which encourages the audience to examine its twists and turns carefully and to build up guesses based on what they have seen, you need to make sure that that plot is really tight, because it is going to have to stand up to some pretty solid scrutiny. Unfortunately, this one does not. Even once the true solution was revealed, there were all sorts of loose ends left untied and character moments which didn't make sense. For example, Lee's character, who is the director of the theatre, treats one of his two main female leads appallingly. This obviously serves the purpose of building him up as a red herring for the murderer, but it doesn't make much sense as the plausible actions of a man in his position, since all it really does is drive her so close to madness that she is no longer capable of acting for him. Then there are all sorts of back-stories and sub-plots which don't really go anywhere - like a former police surgeon who can no longer work due to a hand injury, which is repeatedly emphasised but never has any plot pay-off whatsoever.

So, basically, the experience of watching it is a bit like having half a ton of red herrings dumped directly onto your head, finally shaking them off and being presented with a single non-red herring which you are told is the 'solution', but not really being able to spot any discernible difference between that and all the fake herrings lying gasping and flopping on the floor around you. Still, as ever, an afternoon of rolling my eyes at it with ms_siobhan was marvellous fun - and hopefully now that I've written it up here for future reference, I will remember this time not to bother watching it again.

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2. Elizabeth Kostova (2005), The Historian

Dracula Risen hearse smile
Back in November, I pondered the question of why Dracula invites Jonathan Harker to his castle in the 1958 Hammer film, and concluded that it was because he is a bookish sort who genuinely wants his library put in order (i.e. Dracula does not simply lure Jonathan there with the intention of killing him). In comments on that post, both matgb and ms_siobhan drew my attention to the existence of The Historian, in which a rather different Dracula likewise lures a series of librarians and / or historians into his clutches for the same purpose. Not long afterwards, ms_siobhan, Dracula-enabler that she is, found me a copy in a local charity shop, and I got stuck in.

Between them, matgb and ms_siobhan used words like 'dull', 'dry' and 'ponderous' to describe it, but while it is certainly slow-moving, and has various other flaws which I shall cover below, on the whole I absolutely loved it. Though set in the 20th century, it is basically about modern characters slowly working out that the historical Vlad III Draculea not only survived his own death and became a vampire, but is also an active threat to them in the present day. I am increasingly finding the historical Dracula almost as fascinating as the Hammer Dracula - and Hammer do, thankfully, provide just enough of a thread to link the two together in the first film, via Van Helsing's single line, "Records show that Count Dracula could be five or six hundred years old."1 So naturally the story of how the one became the other then becomes of great interest, and this book seemed to me a very compelling and impressively historically-grounded take on that story. (Another rather more fantastical and action-oriented take on the story hits cinemas in October.)

That's not to say it's perfect. It takes a long time to get going, and a lot of the early material in particular is basically gratuitous scenery pornCollapse )

A few other things could have been tightened up a bit, tooCollapse )

Anyway, I have criticised a lot, but that's because this book was so close to being really incredible that its flaws are frustrating. So let's move on to some of the things I liked about it.

One was the meta-fictionCollapse )

Another thing I liked were the inter-textsCollapse )

And then there is the portrayal of Dracula himself - a topic which becomes rather spoileryCollapse )

Oh well, he was good while he lasted. And meanwhile some interesting ideas are left tantalisingly-unresolved for ongoing musing. In particular, the precise nature of the relationship between the daughter who is the main narrator and Dracula, which also can't be discussed without spoilersCollapse )

1. Obviously, so does Stoker in his novel, which is nice, but the Hammer films are the primary canon to me, even though I'm well aware that that is rather unfair, given that Stoker created Dracula-the-vampire in the first place. I guess as a Classicist I am just comfortable with the idea that the first version of a story doesn't necessarily need to be viewed as the definitive one, and while Stoker's novel is certainly extremely good, I just prefer the Hammer films for all sorts of reasons - and saw them before I read the novel anyway, so that they did come first for me.

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19. Dracula père et fils (1976), dir. Edouard Molinaro

Dracula 1958 cloak
I watched this as part of my current project to explore 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price', with the specific emphasis here, of course, on the 'As Similar To Dracula As Possible' clause. So similar, in fact, that his character is named as Dracula in the title - although not within the film itself, where he is only ever referred to as 'le Comte' and 'le Prince des Ténèbres'.

I have known of this film for a very long time, and have always longed to see it, but this is one which I literally could not have got hold of 10 years ago (when I last had a systematic go at tracking down Christopher Lee films I hadn't seen), as the DVD which I have now bought was only released in 2009. What I knew about it before seeing it was that it is a French-language vampire comedy, and that Christopher Lee generally claims that he was 'tricked' into playing a character which would be presented to the public as DraculaCollapse )

Anyway, however it happened, I'm glad he agreed to take on the role, because this is a great little film, and who but the man who had in recent decades so utterly defined the role could possibly deliver such as perfect spoof-Dracula (or generic equivalent thereof)? Plot summaryCollapse )

There are quite a few nods to the Hammer films, and Lee's role in them, throughout all of this. The film opens with a classic carriage-driving-through-misty-woods scene, complete with obligatory roadside shrine, as seen in many a Hammer film, while the ending with the curtains and the sunlight has got to be a direct parody of the dramatic death-scene from Dracula (1958). The Count's wheeze of finding work as an actor, and thus getting to feed on attractive ladies in the course of his work while 'passing' as a human being who simply remains in character as a vampire off-screen is also obviously playing on the way Christopher Lee himself had become identified with his role as Dracula - and this is the biggest reason why I'm so glad he did the film, as that joke just wouldn't have worked with anyone else. And there are many other small details in the costumes, sets and use of vampire tropes which Hammer fans will definitely recognise.

That said, the Count is both written and played by Lee in a quite different way from the Hammer Dracula. This is a comedy, after all, so the malicious machinations, fiery rage and uncontrollable blood-lust of the Hammer character wouldn't be entirely appropriate. Rather, the Count of this film is largely indistinguishable from a rather haughty, short-tempered and selfish human being. He is also quite often the butt of the film's jokes. There's one sequence in particular, after he and his son have fled their castle and got separated, when his coffin is trawled up out of the sea by a British fishing vessel, and he ends up staggering around the streets of London, bedraggled, smelling of fish, desperate for blood and comically failing to score any. His first attempted victim turns out to be an inflatable sex doll (remember, this is a French comedy from the 1970s), and his second foils him by walking through a glass door - which he then crashes into and painfully slides down into a heap on the floor. Then there are the multiple scenes in which he is just about to seduce Nicole, and Ferdinand (who by that time is interested in Nicole himself) interrupts with a series of trivial queries, much to the Count's considerable frustration. In other words, though he's certainly a vampire, and is definitely chasing after Ferdinand and Nicole with ill intent by the end of the film, he's never scary.

Yet despite the combination of the nods to Hammer and the jokes at the Count's expense, this is much more than a simple parody, either of the Hammer films specifically or of the Dracula story more generally. Its strength is that it gives its characters their own stories and explores its own themes - especially the dynamics of the father-son relationship, which is obviously well beyond the scope of most Dracula stories. The contemporary-Paris setting is nicely used as well. Ferdinand's time spent down and out in low-paid jobs in particular gives rise to some quite moving and realist depictions of the largely immigrant community who take him in, and who live in squats in abandoned warehouses on the edge of town. There are some nice portrayals of the film, advertising and hotel industries, too, and the characters who inhabit them, all taking advantage of the comic genre to poke fun at their obsessions and hypocrisies.

The film was originally recorded and released in French, along with a German dubbed version. An American English-language dub was also released in 1979, but apparently it isn't so much a translation as a completely different (and much less subtle) story, with considerable chunks edited out and Lee's character dubbed by somebody else. Given that his voice is one of his major selling-points as an actor, I decided I couldn't be doing with that, so I bought this DVD, which contains both the French and the German versions, and watched the French one instead. In that (though not in the German print), Lee speaks all of his own lines, and to his credit I must say that I could hardly even tell he wasn't a native French speaker. I have got rather tired of his repeated boasts in books and interviews about how he speaks about ninety thousand foreign languages with perfect fluency, but he certainly acquitted himself well in French for this film - although obviously speaking lines written by someone else is a rather different matter from conversing in your own right.

Of course, this does mean that you need to be able to understand either French or German well enough to follow the film in order to enjoy it in its original intended form, since there isn't even a version with English subtitles currently available. But if you can, I'd definitely recommend it. I would have to issue one content warning for it, which is that one technique Ferdinand uses in order to 'win' Nicole from the Count is to fake a power-cut, thus tricking his father into leaving their hotel room, and then take advantage of the darkness to dress up in the Count's dressing gown and seduce Nicole while pretending to be his father. Her reaction on discovering what he's done when the lights come on is to shrug, smile and accept it, which is pretty icky from an informed-consent perspective, especially when coming from a character who is otherwise coded as the likeable hero of the film. But other than that, it is a charming comedy with a lot going for it, and definitely worth watching for any fan of Christopher Lee as Dracula.

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Another vampire film marathon

Dracula Risen hearse smile
Yesterday, ms_siobhan and I hankered down with pop-corn, rose creams and mugs of our steaming hot drinks of preference for another vampire film marathon. We started out by carrying on where we had left off last time, with the next in Hammer's Dracula sequence, Risen from the Grave, but ms_siobhan had seen the film after that, Taste the Blood only a few weeks ago, and drew the line at carrying on to Scars of Dracula, so for our second film we watched a recent acquisition of hers instead, Vampire Circus. We'd both seen it before, but alas too long ago to quite remember what we were letting ourselves in for. By the time we'd dragged ourselves to the end of it, I think we'd both have welcomed Scars of Dracula as a masterpiece by comparison. That's not to see we didn't enjoy laughing ourselves silly over its utter shonkiness, though.

17. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968), dir. Freddie Francis

Despite the fact that this is my favourite of the Victorian / Edwardian Dracula sequels (AD 1972 wins if you include the Seventies ones), I have only reviewed it once before in this journal, so it's not too crazy to say a bit more about it here. Although in a way all I really want to say is "I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it." I shall try to be a little more articulate about why, though.

Everything I said in my last review still stands - the perfect contrast between the cheerful inn scenes and the properly dark Gothicism of the dank cellar or rocky mountainside; the sense of purpose given to the narrative by its central theme of faith vs. atheism; and the wonderful effectiveness of having Dracula spend so much of his time lurking in the shadows and manipulating other people into doing horrible things for him, rather than doing them directly himself. I don't think I really said anything about how great the direction is last time, though. I said that the sets were good, and they are, but good sets need good camerawork to really bring them alive, and this film very definitely has that. We get lots of interesting angles and nice compositions - like framed shots, or shots looking past a significant prop towards the main action. Apparently, Terence Fisher was originally lined up to direct this film, but was replaced by Freddie Francis due to illness (or injury, depending on what you read), but I think it's quite likely that the film gained a fair bit from this substitution.

Actually, one thing which I particularly love about the world-building for this film is that we don't just get some very nicely-made studio sets - we also get a proper attempt to convey something of the landscape which they belong within. The previous films in the sequence have given us long shots of Dracula's castle, but this one also inserts establishing shots of the little village at the foot of the mountain, the larger town where most of the action takes place, and the landscape of mountains and rivers around it. And yes, OK, those establishing shots are basically just postcards held up in front of the camera, but even this simple touch makes the whole thing seem so much more real and engaging to me. Since this was the first film in the sequence not directed by Terence Fisher, and suddenly we get this opening-up of the landscape, I assume it reflects Freddie Francis' input, and am very grateful to him for it.

I should also have said more in my previous review about the (unnamed) Priest, and how very much he adds to the narrative, but since I didn't it is perhaps best now in any case to point the way towards this excellent review which I've found since, and which I think really hits the nail on the head about the Priest. As its author points out in the fourth paragraph down, the Priest is the true protagonist of this film. It is his weakness which leads to Dracula's resurrection in the first place, and his eventual discovery of strength after a long and clearly very traumatic struggle which defeats him at the end. Where the Monsignor represents straightforward faith and Paul represents straightforward atheism, the Priest in between them represents a much murkier middle ground - a faith too weak to protect him against evil. He himself is a far more interesting character as a result, while his weakness also gives Dracula just the opening he needs for his manipulative evil, in turn making this film's Dracula one of the most deliciously domineering and chilling of the sequence. So the Priest-as-Protagonist is a very important device here, underpinning a lot of what I really like about this film, and I'm grateful to the author of the linked blog post for articulating that for me.

18. Vampire Circus (1972), dir. Robert Young

So, yeah - from the sublime to the ridiculous, eh? Like I said, we'd both seen this before, but in my case that was at least 15 years ago now, and while drunk, so I had remembered vague things about a circus of travelling vampires entertaining some villagers with tumbling acts before turning all fangy, but had not remembered how nonsensical the story as a whole is, how unconvincing the characterisation, how banal the script and how mannered the acting. The IMDb tells me that this was Robert Young's first go as a director, and I'm afraid it really shows. It's not like he hasn't done good things since - the first series of ITV's Jeeves and Wooster, for example, or the whole of G.B.H. (which is amazing!). But while the raw materials here (script, actors, sets) might have been knocked into shape by an experienced director, Robert Young clearly wasn't in a position to do that. You can tell, because there are actually some actors in this film capable of putting in a decent performance - Thorley Walters, for instance - but it just doesn't happen.

The result was that we spent pretty much the entire film in MST3K mode, laughing at the bad wigs and utter density of most of the characters, giving them advice which we knew they weren't going to take, and trying to figure out what on earth we were even supposed to think any of them were doing, or why. Which was fine, and we had a great time doing it, of course, because that is part of the charm of Hammer films - even when they are beyond shonky, they provide plenty of chuckle-fodder for anyone familiar with the conventions of the genre. Particular hilarity was derived from the obvious sock-puppet panther which at one point attacked some characters in a forest, and from the wobbly (though in fairness nicely-designed) Eastern Orthodox church set which was suddenly introduced out of nowhere at the end. Oh, and I also enjoyed spotting this (modern) bust of a youthful Augustus in the local doctor's house, as well as a set of Piranesi prints of Rome remarkably similar to ones also seen on Dracula's castle walls in Scars just a couple of years earlier.

The film definitely belongs to the era when Hammer was increasingly relying on shocks and nudity to rake in the audiences, rather than characterisation, narrative or atmosphere. The back of the DVD box reported that it was banned for a while due to its suggestions of bestiality, and the horror film reference book I've had since 1986 also mentions the 'hints of bestiality and incest'. It's certainly true that there is incest in it (a pair of non-identical twins who also seem to be lovers), and the fact that some of the characters can turn into animals does I suppose suggest bestiality of a sort, although none of them get up to sexytiems with human beings while in their animal forms - only ever their human forms. But neither my 1980s book nor the 1970s censors apparently seemed to think there was anything to say about the fact that almost all of the vampires in the film seemed intent on preying on children - an element which is played much more blatantly than the incest or the bestiality. Vampires feeding off children does go right back to Stoker's novel, of course, and it can be played non-sexually, with the emphasis on a more abstract form of evil vs. innocence. But in this post-Operation Yewtree world the sight of a male vampire with bad make-up and a frilly shirt advancing on a child with lustful eyes conjures up all-too-real horrors. The fact that no-one seems to have batted an eyelid over it at the time certainly tells a story of changed values.

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Dracula marathon

Dracula 1958 cloak
You know a person is a true friend when they say: "Why don't we have a Dracula film marathon?" Especially when it turns out that they mean not merely a day spent watching different cinematic tellings of the Dracula story, but a day spent specifically watching Hammer films. Thus it was that ms_siobhan and I got together on Easter Saturday to mainline the following:

14. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher
15. Brides of Dracula (1960), dir. Terence Fisher
16. Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), dir. Terence Fisher

We had a brilliant and unashamedly geeky time, swapping bits of Hammer trivia and both considering it perfectly normal to discuss issues such as who exactly the someone who came along and caused Lucy to run away in Tania's account of getting lost in the first film might be. We stuffed ourselves silly with strawberries and crunchy snacks, drank vampires and laughed a very great deal at both ourselves and the films.

As for the films themselves, I am not going to try reviewing them individually yet again. Previous reviews are available at the following locations, for anyone who is interested:

Dracula - June 2008, May 2013, November 2013, January 2014, February 2014.
Brides - January 2014.
Prince - September 2010, November 2013.

But it is my habit to record all of the films which I watch each year here in this journal, and I think it's not unreasonable to say a little something about the experience of watching these three together in close succession.

For one thing, I ended up feeling that although in the past I've tended to sideline Brides on the grounds that it doesn't have Christopher Lee in it, actually it really is part of the sequence and shouldn't be omitted. For example, Prince begins with a scene which only really makes sense if you haven't skipped straight there from Dracula. The scene in Prince traces a distraught woman running through the forest as she tries to prevent the local priest and his chums from staking her recently-deceased daughter. The point turns out to be that a pre-emptive staking isn't actually necessary, because the area is free of vampires. But we never encountered any such local funeral customs in Dracula anyway. It is Brides which depicts them, by showing a similar young woman, who, as it happens, has been killed by a vampire, but is buried with a garland of garlic flowers around her neck anyway as a matter of course, before anyone establishes this for certain. Without this depiction of normal local customs, the scene in which they are challenged at the start of Prince is a lot weaker.

We also noticed that between Dracula and Prince, our Chief Vampire in Residence has quite a noticeable taste for bling. I don't think anyone can ever have watched the first film without thinking "A shiny white coffin? Seriously?", but it's more than just that. He is resurrected in Prince from dust kept in an almost equally blingin' white marble casket, and while I know it is perfectly reasonable for any person watching the following scene to train their eyes primarily on the quite extensive stretch of naked Christopher Lee chest which it affords, let's also just take a moment to notice Dracula's shirt, shall we?


Yes, that's right - all that time, under all those layers of austere black fabric, he has secretly been wearing a frilly shirt all along. Disco-Drac! But perhaps there is some perverse kind of sense in all this. After all, this is also the man who calls at least two of his servants 'Klove', despite his revulsion for garlic. It's almost like he deliberately enjoys playing around with what, from his perspective, is horrible if not actually deadly. So perhaps for him the white coffin and frilly shirt work in a similar way? They are his rejection of vampire conventionality (you know, hanging around in dank cobwebby castles full of ruin and despair), in favour of embracing what for him is truly dark and terrible - 60s / 70s kitsch. In other words, he's the inverted vampire equivalent of a great big Goth.

Well, it's a theory anyway.

Meanwhile, with ms_siobhan's equally-geeky help I worked out all sorts of minor canon and continuity issues for an enormous file which I am still gradually compiling on the ins and outs of the Hammer Draculaverse. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that those don't really belong here, but rather on some separate stand-alone blog where fellow Dracula geeks can readily find them. Setting that up, though, will I suspect have to be an 'after the Augustus conference' project.

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Art history meets film history

Dracula Scars wine
Portrait in Alice's roomDear internet,

Does anyone recognise the painting pictured right?

It is a prop in a low-budget film, which appears on screen for only about five seconds and has no role in the plot but is purely a piece of set-dressing. So while it could be an original piece created purely for the film, the odds are that it is either a) a straight copy of a real-world original, or b) a pastiche with readily-identifiable models.

Either way, if anyone can identify the original or the model(s) used to create the pastiche, I'd be very grateful. I am trying to use it to help me figure out exactly when the film is meant to be set, and while I know enough about art to say that a painting like this would have been unlikely before about 1880 or after the First World War, that's about as far as I go.

Full disclosure - the picture is from Hammer's Scars of Dracula, which has no explicit dramatic date, but which I am trying to date from internal clues such as this one. (It's not the only clue I have to go on, but it's the one I need help with.) Sorry the picture isn't particularly brilliant - it is, of course, a cropped screen-cap.

Thank you in advance!

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1. Una McCormack (2010), The King's Dragon

Eleven dude
This is a BBC Eleventh Doctor plus Amy and Rory spin-off novel, which I read mainly because it was written by LJ's very own altariel. She has another one out now, but this was her first, and I remember her being pleased as punch when it came out. I've been meaning to read it ever since.

I have read a few of the Virgin New Adventures or Missing Adventures novels in the past (e.g. Lungbarrow, The Well-Mannered War and Human Nature), but this is my first experience of a BBC-branded Doctor Who novel (i.e. one starring the current Doctor and marketed as spin-off merchandising), so I don't have much comparable material to judge it against. But I certainly really enjoyed this book in its own right - which is lucky, really, as it would be a bit embarrassing having to write this review otherwise!

What I liked about it most was the meta-references to story-telling which are woven throughout the narrative - something which always presses my buttons, but I think was done especially well here. The book opens with an evocative snippet of the scary rumours which circulate around (what will turn out to be) the book's main setting, the city of Geath, using the opportunity not only to foreshadow some of the excitement and peril which will come later, but also to establish some important themes - particularly unreliable narration and the way that oral stories become embroidered in the telling, but also the way that they have the strongest power in the half-glimpsed semi-darkness and over people who are on their own.

Later on, as the story unfolds and the characters are getting to know Geath, we also meet a Teller whose stories have an inexplicable and politically revolutionary power over his listeners, and find the Doctor rigging up the alien equivalent of Renaissance technology to project cinematic images of ancient wars, and to beam TV-style communications into homes and public squares all across Geath. I very much liked the way all these different media - oral stories, films, TV - appeared together in a narrative all about the power of story-telling, and one which inherently bridges two different story-telling media in itself by virtue of being a novel about characters from a TV series. It meant that the central theme really was the power of stories writ large, rather than the power of stories told in one particular medium, which in this case I am able to add chimes strongly with what I know of Una as a person.

In much the same vein, I was also pleased but not surprised at the treatment of gender in the novel. Again, I know this is something Una feels strongly about in other people's stories, and it was great to see her getting the opportunity to Do It Right in her own novel. It's not just that as many of the major characters in the novel are female as male, or that the female characters have a strong sense of agency while also steering well clear of being tropish Strong Women without any meaningful flaws or dilemmas. What really told me I was reading a novel by someone who had thought about gender equality while writing it was the way that minor characters who were little more than the equivalent of extras in screen productions, and who so often simply default to being male in novels or on screen, turned out to be female. The example which particularly struck me was a knight who got killed when her horse bolted after being frightened by a hostile alien influence. It wasn't a speaking part, and of course the word 'knight' particularly invites a male-as-default reaction, but this particular character was quietly female. A nice touch, both in terms of portraying gender equality and prodding the reader to question their own assumptions.

I will admit that my attention wandered a while during the middle part of the novel, once the major characters had been established and there was rather a lot of impending war and capture-and-escape business to get through before everything could be resolved. But I get that that stuff is pretty much par for the course in this sort of fiction. Meanwhile, there was a lot more to enjoy than the two major points which I have outlined above - like the pre-industrial city-state setting, the central device of a gold-like substance called Enamour which has a hypnotic influence on those who come into contact with it, the strategies for dealing with a substance like this which are worked through in the story, some explorations of the disjunction between bureaucratic adherence to set rules and actual justice, and the fact that in the end the centuries-old alien conflict which constitutes the main drama of the story is resolved through discussion and negotiation, rather than fighting. I also thought the characterisation of the Doctor, Amy and Rory was very good, which is quite impressive given that I know from Una's LJ posts that she had to be given notes about what they would be like while writing the novel, as they hadn't actually appeared on TV yet at the time.

One slight 'Buh?' moment came from what appeared to be an extremely slashy scene between the Teller and the king whom he served, Beol, containing lines like "He rested his strong hands upon the other man's shoulders and smiled down at him", immediately before the revelation that they were, in fact, brothers. Come on, Una, spill the beans - was this originally straightforward slash which you were asked to tone down into brotherly love by a conservative editor?

Anyway, I don't know if I'm likely to read more Doctor Who spin-off stories for their own sake, but I'm definitely open to more by this author. ;-)

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13. The Oblong Box (1969), dir. Gordon Hessler

Lee as M.R. James
I've run out of Hammer Dracula films to re-watch, so am now exploring a category of films which can best be described as 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price.' There are actually a quite considerable number of films which meet these criteria, even including the 'which I haven't seen' clause, and now is a good time in human history to be watching them.

See, last time I had a really big 'thing' on Christopher Lee, which was about ten years ago now, Lovefilm and Netflix did not exist, my local video shop had a limited range, I had a limited income so that although Amazon existed I could not simply buy anything I felt like from it, and many of the films I wanted to see were not available to purchase in any format anyway. Now, the range of availability is greater (though still nothing like comprehensive), and so are both my disposable income and the channels available to buy or hire through. So films which I have long read about in books but been unable to watch are actually available at long last via the click of a few buttons. Hooray for exponential steps forward in technology and communications!

Actually, I probably could have got hold of this particular film ten years ago - it would have been more a case of limited income stopping me than limited availability. But there are other films lined up on my Lovefilm list, or already in my possession, which I know I couldn't have done, because I tried at the time and was frustrated. More of those in later reviews.

For now, this one is an AIP film which borrows the title of an Edgar Allan Poe story, but discards the story itself in favour of a new one drawing on some of his classic tropes (e.g. burial alive, insanity, unavenged crimes from the past), and mashing them together with others such as body-snatching and deformed horrors in the attic. For AIP, it was a continuation of the Poe / Price films which Roger Corman did in the early '60s, but by this stage other directors were being used. In fact, this one was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves (of The Sorcerors and Witchfinder General fame), but he was unable to start it - not, as is often reported, due to his death, as filming had already been completed before that, but more due to the depression and substance abuse problems which shortly afterwards caused his death.

It features the coveted Price / Lee combination (actually it was the first time they worked together and the beginning of their friendship), and involves Christopher Lee playing Dr. Neuhartt, a rather sour Victorian medic who is keeping the local body-snatchers in business. Price, meanwhile, plays Lord Markham, a troubled colonialist aristocrat with plantations in Africa, a trusting and innocent fiancée, and a dread family secret in the attic. Alas, they barely interact on screen, appearing together only very briefly in a scene where Christopher Lee's character is already lying half-dead on the floor, having had his throat cut. But that is only one of many alases which affect this film.

Other flaws include:
  • The dialogue, much of which is banal or lacklustre.
  • The performances, most of which lack any real spark.
  • Vincent Price's performance in particular, which (I'm sorry Vincent) really does feel dialled in. I know his USP as an actor was to play characters who are troubled to the point of being largely divorced from humanity, but here he just seems kind of wooden, and there are scenes in which his character definitely should show more emotion than he does - as for example, when he discovers that his brother (the dread family secret in the attic) is (apparently) dead.
  • The conveyance of characters' motivations, which is often left completely obscure or revealed too late (with no particular advantage arising from the delay). The best example here is the lawyer, Trench, who takes extensive personal risks in order to help the brother in the attic, in spite of the fact that the only time he visits him there, the brother tries to strangle him. We learn some stuff about how he has been embezzling money from the family estate by forging documents, and he's also quite willing to accept 1000 guineas from Lord Markham to furnish a corpse to lie in state in the place of the brother. But this isn't an adequate explanation for why he takes the trouble to help the brother himself in the first place, especially because everything else he does gives the impression of an entirely selfish and cold-hearted man.
  • The fact that every character is either unlikeable or under-developed, so that there is no-one we can really cheer for or hope will escape all the blood-shed. Lord Markham's fiancée / wife (from part-way through the film) is the closest we get, but she is a pretty bland character, and never in any serious danger, so it doesn't really work.
  • The effects used to represent throat-cutting. I can forgive a lot where special effects are concerned for the sake of a good story, but this isn't a terribly good story anyway, and the cut throats are basically represented by a painted line of extremely unconvincing blood across the victim's neck. Since this happens several times during the story, they really could have done with putting more effort into making it look like an actual injury.

Meanwhile, on the plus side:
  • The sets are superb, from the inherited Markham family home to the London streets where some of the shadier events of the film take place.
  • So are the costumes - though sadly for Christopher Lee, not the wigs.
  • Some of the camerawork is brilliant, especially during the opening scenes of an African ritual punishment.
  • Lee's character, and his performance of it, are actually both pretty solid. Dr. Neuhartt's involvement in the body-snatching business makes him extremely vulnerable to blackmail, and he ends up embroiled in things he's clearly unhappy with as a result, so there is scope for a kind of suppressed frustration to the character, and Lee makes good use of it. This, of course, one of the reasons why he's worth 'following' as an actor - he's in a lot of great movies, but even in the second-rate ones you can rely on him to be one of the redeeming features.
  • Quite apart from Lee and Price, it furnishes plenty of material for a good game of Spot Your Favourite British Character Actors. I was particularly pleased to see Rupert Davies (best-known to me as the Monsignor in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, but to others more likely as Maigret) and Colin Jeavons, whom I have loved dearly ever since his stint as Max Quordlepleen in the BBC's TV adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

But those aren't really enough pluses to significantly outweigh the minuses, especially while the handling of the female and black characters is distinctly of its time (shall we say?). The women, as usual, are all there to be sexual objects and / or victims for the men, and there is one extended tavern / brothel scene about half-way through in which several of the extras are getting up to some pretty rapey things, but it is treated primarily as titillation. As for race, there is an extent to which the film is attempting to offer a ham-fisted critique of British colonial involvement in Africa. Lord Markham himself recognises that the family estate there is exploitative; this is personalised when we learn that one of the Markham brothers knocked down and killed a local child on his horse; and what appeared to be a tropishly barbaric African religious ritual at the start of the film is later revealed to be an enactment of justice for the child's death. This was apparently enough to get the film banned in Texas for appearing to be 'pro-black'. But to 21st-century eyes, the portrayal is less than entirely radical. African local justice is still shown as both brutal and flawed (since they exact vengeance on the first Markham brother they can find without checking whether or not he was actually guilty), while the only black character who gets any serious screen-time or dialogue is an Ethnic Magician, who tells the white characters that he is versed in matters which they do not understand.

So, anyway. That's another film which I can tick off in both my personal filmic and televisual Horror bible and my list of every film Christopher Lee has ever made. But I won't be going out of my way to watch it again.

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12. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), dir. Jim Jarmusch

I saw this last weekend with ms_siobhan at one of (I think) two showings put on by the Hyde Park Picture House, and as part of an audience of about thirty people. This of course reflects the fact that the film sadly hasn't done terribly well at the box office. Although Leeds' big city-centre multiplex did show it, already by the second week after its release it was only showing there once a day in late evening slots, which is why we decided to hold out for an independent showing at a more civilised hour instead.

We were lucky, and the setting was perfect. The Hyde Park Picture House celebrates its centenary as a working cinema this year, and is all but unchanged, both inside and out, so that during the scenes within the film when Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) stand in the dilapidated remains of the Michigan Theatre in Detroit, our own surroundings felt like a (less dilapidated!) extension of the same setting. But still, the place wasn't exactly packed.

I can understand why this is. Only Lovers doesn't really have a narrative in the conventional style. Rather, it offers a slow portrait of its two main characters, Adam and Eve, moving them through a series of situations and building character through their reactions, but without any very strong sense of a focused overall trajectory. Indeed, that is rather the point - as vampires, freed from the constraints of mortal life-spans, they have no driving sense of purpose, and part of what the film does is to explore how they respond to that, and how it changes their perspective on the world around them.

For the more melancholy Adam, the answer has been largely to retreat into his music, while becoming increasingly disillusioned with humanity. For Eve, it seems rather to have involved learning everything she possibly can about the world she inhabits. She speaks with wonder of far-distant planets; greets every plant and animal she sees with its scientific name; and packs nothing but the most precious volumes from her extensive book collection when she travels. And through the eyes of both we see how different humanity looks from a longue durée perspective - the rises and falls of civilisations, the importance of cultural and technological achievements, and the relationship with the environment all painfully clear from the vampires' perspective, but tragically under-valued by humans unable to see beyond their own life-times.

There is a lot to say for this sort of material if you know what you're getting, and if you like that sort of thing. I had read reviews and synopses in advance, was pretty sure it would be up my street, and wasn't disappointed. But it is neither a conventional vampire film, nor indeed a conventional film of any kind, so I can see why mainstream audiences may have been put off.

As well as being slow to build, the portrait of vampire life which the film offers is also impressionistic, with endless details referred to in passing without ever being fully explained. How long exactly have Eve and Adam been alive? We know that she is older than him, as she speaks of him having 'missed all the fun' of the middle ages, but the details are never spelt out. We know that from their perspective, most human blood has now become contaminated, to the extent that it seems to kill off Christopher Marlowe (who, we learn, became a vampire rather than dying in 1593, and went on to ghost-write most of William Shakespeare's plays) towards the end of the film. But what is the contaminant - medication, food additives, disease? Again, we never know.

Nor do we know how Eve and her 'sister' Ava are actually connected; whether 'Adam' and 'Eve' are the main characters' real names (which seems very unlikely); when they first married, if they did so for the third time in 1868; what exactly happened in Paris in 1928; how it is that vampires seem to be able to 'feel' how old things are by touching them with their hands; and so on, and so forth. Personally, I love this approach to story-telling - assuming, of course, that the story and its characters are captivating enough themselves in the first place. It provides so much scope for further input from the viewer / reader, holding out the threads for us to weave into our own interpretations. It is utterly characteristic of genre fiction of all kinds, and is why it generates so much fanwork in response. But again, it's not for everyone.

The film is rich, too, with intertextual references and details of props and settings which viewers are invited to make more of, but with no particular direction as to what exactly we should do with them. Adam's approach to technology is one. He's clearly au fait with YouTube, wifi and digital recording technology, yet he still also uses cathode-ray monitors, reel-to-reel tape recorders and vintage guitars. It tells an implicit story of his long-term, out-of-time perspective, mashing together his preferred technology from all of the different eras he has lived through - but the point is never made explicit. The same goes for the portraits of cultural icons visible on his wall (Bach, Thelonious Monk, Buster Keaton, Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Christopher Marlowe); the many identity documents spread out in front of Eve whenever she makes a travel booking; the pseudonyms which Adam and his contact uses when he goes to collect blood from a local hospital doctor (Dr. Caligari, Dr. Watson, Dr. Faust); the titles of Eve's favourite books; and the settings of decaying Detroit and liminal, multi-cultural Tangier where they have each chosen to live.

There is much, much that can be got out of digesting all this and thinking through its implications for the characters and their stories - but if you don't already have the knowledge-base to do so, you're left with a directionless story featuring remarkably little in the way of action or horror shocks. Maybe it is pretentious to make a film like this, or to enjoy the sense of self-satisfaction that comes with 'getting' the references. But it would be depressing to think that richly intertextual films which demand something of their audience could not be made just because not everyone will 'get' them, when there are plenty of people out here who will, and will take pleasure in doing so. It is just a case of marketing them in the right way to the right audiences. This one may not have set the mainstream cinema circuit on fire, but I can see it enjoying a solid career at film festivals and on DVD for many years to come.

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11. Crossways / Crossroads / Jujiro (1928), dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa

Mariko Mori crystal ball
It's not every day you get to see a silent Japanese film from the 1920s, so when ms_siobhan said that she and planet_andy were going over to the Media Museum to see one, and asked if I'd like to come along, I said "yes, please."

Crossways (aka Crossroads; original title Jujiro) was presented as part of the Media Museum's Film Extra series, which includes a talk before the screening, so we were well set up to understand what we were about to see. The talk (given by Keith Withall) explained that Japanese films in the pre-sound era had often made use of benshi - live performers who provided a mix of voice-over, commentary and music to accompany the film - rather than intertitles and a live musical soundtrack. This particular film, though, did have intertitles from the start, and what's more the copy we were watching was one which had been created for the British Film Society in the 1920s, for which the Japanese intertitles had been replaced with English-language ones, so in that respect the experience did not feel all that different from watching a European or American silent film. In some ways, of course, the silent medium (once you are used to it) acts to minimise cultural distance, because you are less aware of language differences than when watching a film with a foreign-language soundtrack. Similarly, the live piano accompaniment probably had much the same effect, since although the pianist clearly made an effort to weave eastern-sounding intervals and harmonies into his performance, he was still inherently playing from the western tradition.

The plot of the film was, as Keith Withall put it, 'pure melodrama'. It concerned the relationship between a brother and sister, and basically boiled down to him behaving like a jerk and her suffering as a result. He was a hot-headed young trainee Samurai, utterly infatuated with a totally unsuitable Geisha girl, and his actions in the film basically consisted of a series of naïve efforts to win her over, fights with his rival suitors, massively over-dramatic responses when those fights didn't go very well for him, and total disregard for his sister and anything that was happening to her as a result. Meanwhile, she made dresses in an effort to support the pair of them, and spent most of the film trying to mop up the consequences of his idiotic and selfish actions while simultaneously fending off a metaphorically-rapacious procuress and a literally-rapacious man pretending to be a police constable. Or that's how it all looked to our modern, western eyes, anyway. Apparently, in traditional Japanese culture, sisters are expected to have a special bond of care for their brothers, and clearly this story was a tragic idealisation of that role. But we all sat there basically thinking that the sister would have been a great deal better off without the brother, scoffing when he claimed that he would 'follow her to the ends of the earth' towards the end of the film without having ever given the slightest sign of doing anything of the sort, and cheering when he finally died (in over-the-top melodramatic fashion) at the end.

In many ways the plot, costuming and exaggerated acting style reminded me of a Kabuki play which I saw during a family visit to Tokyo in 1997. It wasn't actually the same - the make-up and costuming for this film was realistic rather than fantastical, and the silent medium obviously meant that there couldn't be any dancing or singing (though I don't know what live music might originally have accompanied it). But I could see how it drew on the same dramatic tradition, especially in its emphasis on heightened emotions and long-drawn-out scenes of suffering, conflict or tragedy. Yet, as Keith Withall also explained in his introductory talk, director Teinosuke Kinugasa was also very definitely drawing on emerging European traditions of film-making, for example in his use of expressionistic and avant-garde techniques such as double-exposures, deliberately disorientating footage of spinning lanterns and laughing faces, montage sequences, surprising camera-angles, use of contrasting light and shadow, etc. Meanwhile, despite the ostensibly-historical setting of the story, the depictions of the poor, cramped, leaking urban apartment where the brother and sister lived, and of the swirling lights and raucous crowds of the red-light district, Yoshiwara, where the Geisha girl operated, struck me as likely to be reflecting life in contemporary 1920s Tokyo rather more than the 18th century.

All in all, very visually-striking, and a fascinating insight into the evolution of film as both a Japanese and a global art-form. Perhaps the acting is a little too melodramatic for modern tastes, and the familial / gender roles downright annoying, but then again the past would be pretty boring if everyone there had behaved like and wanted the same things as us. I'm certainly glad I saw it.

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10. Billy Liar (1963), dir. John Schlesinger

Some time in my early teens (I think), I watched this film with my Dad, who is rather partial to Julie Christie, but my memory had obviously got very distorted in the intervening period, as I had somehow come to believe that it is set in London. In fact, it's set in a fictional Yorkshire city, constructed mainly out of Bradford, although it is true that London does get frequent mentions as a symbol of the better, more exciting and more fulfilling life which Billy would like to escape to. Billy Liar's tragedy, though, is that his imagination is rather too good. He may dream of a job as a script-writer for a famous comedian, a free-spirited girlfriend and a house containing a special room where the two of them can go and play Imaginary Countries, but the problem is that his dreams are basically satisfying enough on their own, so that he lacks the drive or the courage to make (the more realistic parts of) them a reality. Inevitably, the climactic scene in which he and the dream girlfriend meet at the station to get the overnight train to London to start their new life together ends with her face, wry but unsurprised, looking back at him through the glass as the train pulls out without him.

Anyway, the film was screened last night as part of the Leeds Back in the Day series at the Cottage Road Cinema, and I went along with the usual crowd (ms_siobhan, planet_andy and big_daz) to rediscover it. It was a great evening, complete with the usual vintage ads and tasty ice-creams-from-a-tray during the intermission, and this time the organisers had even gone to the trouble of contacting some of the stars of the film in advance to let them know it was getting a big-screen showing Oop North. Messages from Tom Courtenay (Billy) and Julie Christie (Liz, the dream girlfriend) were read out before the screening, saying how pleased they were to hear about it, while Julie Christie said she felt this one had stood the test of time much better than many of the films she had made. I think she is right. I loved the way it balanced its comedy and its tragedy so adeptly, and the way it captured the fast-changing world of the early '60s - for example in its portrayal of the generation gap between its older and younger characters, or the way so much of the action took place with scenes of old buildings being demolished and new ones being constructed in the background.

As big_daz has been pointing out on Another Social Network, it is of course also ripe for those of us who live Oop North to indulge in a bit of location-spotting - for all that the very demolition and construction work documented in the film means that some of them have changed a great deal since it was made. I managed to recognise Leeds Town Hall, and the war memorial plus various of the general street scenes in Bradford, while there's a pretty good page here about the locations used, which allows you to compare stills from the film with more recent views. They do seem to have completely overlooked the scenes set in the wonderfully-gothic Undercliffe Cemetery, though, which ms_siobhan has been sending me lovely photos of today.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Billy Liar is the occasional evidence that he does actually have real talent, for all that he doesn't usually manage to apply it very effectively. About two thirds of the way through the film, Billy finds himself in a local night-club steering a precarious path between three different girlfriends, when the band on the stage suddenly starts playing a song he's written with his friend Arthur. This comes rather out of the blue, since we've only previously heard about him wanting to be a script-writer, and Billy himself doesn't even seem to know that the band were planning to play his number. In any other film (e.g. The Glenn Miller Story; Back to the Future) this would be the main focus of the story - the budding songwriter's struggle to win musical recognition. But here it seems like a casual thing which Billy has stumbled into (perhaps led mainly by Arthur?) while hardly even noticing that anything is happening. To my ear, though, the song captures the pop sound of the day absolutely perfectly, and could clearly be the basis of a glittering career if Billy felt so inclined. I've been humming it all day, and will close with the relevant Youtube clip so that you can enjoy it too:

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6. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), dir. Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh

True Blood Eric wink
Fandom can take you to some terrible places, can't it? Just as every really enthusiastic Doctor Who fan eventually ends up watching stories like The Twin Dilemma or Warriors of the Deep, knowing full well that they are terrible, because they love the series as a whole so much, it seems that sooner or later the avid Hammer Dracula fan finds themselves face to face with The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. I've gone down this road once before in my life, and had hoped to avoid ever retreading it. But now that I've got the idea in my head of trying to make the entire Hammer Dracula franchise fit together into a single coherent canon, it had to be rewatched. ms_siobhan was kind enough to accompany me in the endeavour, fortified in her case by the prospect of some Peter Cushingy goodness. I, alas, had no such comfort, since Christopher Lee was noticeable only by his absence - but even as a massive fan of his Dracula, I have to admit that he called this one right.

The film is a co-production between Hammer and the Hong Kong-based Shaw Studio, filmed entirely on location in Hong Kong, which attempts to marry up the '70s kung-fu craze with the successful Dracula franchise for Much Box Office Win. Apparently (according to this book about Peter Cushing from which ms_siobhan emailed me some relevant details), Shaw insisted on the Dracula character appearing within the film, even though Christopher Lee has refused to do it, as they believed it would pull in the audiences. I guess Hammer weren't so convinced, as Dracula isn't actually mentioned in the UK release title (The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), but he was in some of the foreign release titles (e.g. the USA, Singapore).

In my view, the Hungarian title, Van Helsing és a 7 aranyvámpír, is actually what the film should have been called everywhere (with appropriate translation, obviously), because essentially that's what it is - a Van Helsing adventure which takes our man to China, rather than any kind of Dracula film. I found myself opining in a comment on my Brides of Dracula review that although personally I'm glad that Hammer (mainly) used Dracula as the thread to link their sequels together after the first film, as far as story potential goes it would have been equally valid to do the same with Van Helsing. That's essentially what Brides of Dracula does, in spite of its title, and it's also what The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires does, in spite of including a character called Count Dracula. ms_siobhan's book also reports that a further film entitled Kali, Devil Bride of Dracula was planned for after Legend, and presumably this would have been much the same, but this time taking Van Helsing to India. Indeed, Google informed me that Hammer got as far as mocking up promotional posters for this film, and Peter Cushing is certainly on them.

Bodged-on Dracula book-endsCollapse )

An actually quite decent Van-Helsing-goes-to-China story in the middleCollapse )

But with too much chop-socky action, poor treatment of the Chinese characters and even worse treatment of the womenCollapse )

And some nods to The Seven Samurai (probably), Dracula 1931 and Nosferatu 1922Collapse )

OK then - so I'm properly done with watching and reviewing every possible entry in the Hammer Dracula franchise. Next to ramp up the geekiness yet another notch while I rake over their in-story canon and continuity in immense and obsessive detail.... *rubs hands with anticipation*

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