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So, as established in my WIDAWTW post earlier on, last week was long and busy on the work front for me. I have a huge list of unwritten LJ reviews nagging at my conscience - I'm six Doctor Who episodes behind now, and have also read six books this year that have yet to be mentioned in these pages. But all of those reviews require thinkiness, and the last thing I want to do today is think hard about anything. Meanwhile, fresh from watching Christopher Lee in one film about war-time resistance movements on Thursday evening, I found myself cuing up another this afternoon. These films are very undemanding to me, because I have so little invested in them, so writing up my vague half-formed thoughts afterwards is no great burden. And each one is another tick on my list.

This one was produced about a year after The Traitor (the one I saw on Thursday), but between the two Lee had appeared as the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein, and the change in his status is very clear. His role in The Traitor is far more substantial than his role in Battle of the V-1, but in spite of that by the time the latter was released his name was both higher up the opening credits and in larger type in relation to his co-stars. He plays a Nazi labour-camp guard who mainly shouts at people and points guns at them, which is of course a very typical Lee role, and one which he performs very nicely (not to mention looking hella sexy while he is at it).

The role is small, though, and irritatingly it became clear when I picked up my Christopher Lee filmography reference books that it had been made even smaller by the channel I was watching it on (More Than Movies), because the books all referred to a death scene for his character which I couldn't remember seeing. Had I somehow missed it amidst a confusing action scene, I wondered? Nope - when I went back to the right part of the recording, I could see quite clearly that it had simply been edited out. The same books also revealed that this had happened with the death scene for another character as well, so between the two that becomes a bit of a lesson in trusting TV channels to broadcast films as they were originally released. At the very least, I should clearly be aiming to record post-watershed broadcasts wherever possible.

The plot concerns Polish underground resistance agents finding and reporting information to the British about the German development of V-1 flying bombs - aka Doodlebugs, or early unmanned guided missiles. It's OK, with some decent moments of tension and drama towards the end as our plucky gang take considerable risks in order to send a full, unexploded V-1 to the British so that they can see what they're up against. I enjoyed a scene in which several hundred very ordinary-looking Polish people stood in lines in a field with flaming torches so that a British plane could land and collect the bomb - a great depiction of bravery and resourcefulness in the face of brutal oppression. But for all that the early sections set in the labour-camp were the bits with Christopher Lee in them, they did go on rather long for the sake of the film's overall pacing.

The main star is Michael Rennie, whom you're sure to have seen in something - probably a thriller, possibly a secondary role in one of several Classical or Biblical epics. His character was Polish, but he spoke in his normal English accent, just as his side-kick David Knight similarly used his native American tones, while everyone else had clearly been briefed to put on Polish or German accents as appropriate. I found the American accent particularly difficult to suspend my disbelief about, I suppose because my cultural context makes an English accent easier for me to accept as 'neutral' or default, but both seemed odd, especially when characters who were actually meant to be English showed up as well. I guess that's what you do with your big-name stars, though.

I was also struck by the fact that, just like The Traitor, this film has very few female characters in it (two this time; an advance on one I suppose), but since the ones it does have are underground resistance fighters, they are nonetheless absolutely awesome. One is captured by the Nazis, but basically laughs in the face of their questioning, even when they use water torture on her, while the other successfully removes the detonator from the unexploded V-1, knowing full well that it could explode at any moment. I don't actually think that's typical of 1950s war films, judging from the other ones I have seen - not even of the particular sub-set of war films which deal with underground resistance movements. But it was welcome, all the same.

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This was one of my stock of Christopher Lee films broadcast on TV which I've systematically recorded on my Sky box. I watched it last night because I had had a stressful day at work and needed to wind down - and then today managed to be even more stressful, which wasn't entirely the plan! (The cause of the stress isn't anything long-term or serious - just byzantine nightmares around the catering for an event I'm running tomorrow. But I've swerved wildly over the last two days between fearing I might have no lunch at all for 60 people tomorrow, and fearing I would have to pay for their lunch twice, neither of which were very attractive prospects - so it's been pretty grim for me in the short-term.)

Anyway, the film! It just pre-dates the beginning of Lee's career with Hammer, but in hindsight it almost looks like a road-map for where he was going. Alongside Lee in the cast we find John Van Eyssen, better-known to me as Jonathan Harker in Hammer's Dracula (1958), Anton Diffring, star of The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959; which I haven't seen and really must) and Rupert Davies, better-known to me as the Monsignor in Dracula has Risen from the Grave (1968). Also, the house at which most of the action takes place is also better-known to me as the country home of the Eatons in Hammer's The Devil Rides Out. Lee himself is [Spoiler (click to open)]not the villain, but the point of the film is that any one of the characters could be the titular Traitor (and hence also a murderer), and he does a good job of being suitably suspicious. There is a lot of clipped impatience, polishing of glasses, and social awkwardness. There's also a case for saying that he over-does some of those things in the performance; but then again he spends the entire film looking extremely pretty in either a black-tie dinner suit or a silk dressing-gown, so I'm willing to forgive him.

The actual plot involves a group of German ex-resistance fighters from a town called Leipzberg (I guess a fictional place invented by giving Leipzig a different ending?), who gather together once a year to remember their former leader, who was executed after being betrayed to the Nazis. This year, though, things are different, because after they have all gathered together, they discover that an extra guest will be joining them - one who knows the identity of the traitor who betrayed their leader. There are various twists, murders, and unexpected extra visitors, as well as a lot of lovely cabin-feverish tensions between the characters, before everything is resolved and we finally discover the truth. There is also some nice music along the way, as one of the characters (Anton Diffring's, in fact), is a pianist, and has written a haunting and beautiful prelude to express the sorrow and loss felt by the whole group, which he plays at every available opportunity.

Besides the pianist, the group is presented as a diverse range of types, all of whom we are introduced to via little vignettes at the beginning of the film. Christopher Lee's character is a doctor; others include a mayor, a business-man and a heavy-drinking play-boy. In true Smurfette tradition, there is also one character who was clearly scribbled down on the first draft of the cast list as 'the woman one' (played by Jane Griffiths). Thank you, 1950s. She herself is great, though - utterly modern and self-assured, and treated by all the others as a full member of the group. She even slips out of the house at one point to determine for herself whether a supposedly broken-down car really is out of order or not - and does so perfectly effectively. So she was fun to have around, but the film as a whole was a very long way away from Bechdel-compliance.

The plot is somewhere between a sadness-of-war film, an Agatha Christie-style country house murder mystery and An Inspector Calls. It's not the sort of thing I would go out of my way to watch if Christopher Lee weren't in it, and I think it possibly suffered from having slightly too many characters, so that several of them were never very fully developed. But it kept my attention throughout, and certainly did the job as far as providing a stress-relieving evening snuggled up on the sofa was concerned. It's black and white, and the print I saw was dreadful quality - so bad that much of the colouring actually looked green where there were a lot of complex different shadings going on at once. But I suspect it would look very beautiful properly remastered and on a large screen. I'll be quite happy to sit through it again if I ever get the chance to see it in those circumstances.

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This I saw on Friday, in company with the lovely ms_siobhan and planet_andy. It takes its cue from the 1922 film Nosferatu, but it certainly isn't a straightforward adaptation of it. Rather, it is set entirely on board the ship carrying Count Orlok from Varna to Whitby, and follows the experiences of three surviving ship-mates (one fervently religious, one superstitious, one harshly rationalistic) as they are driven to terrible thoughts and deeds by their dread cargo in a single dark hour before the coming of the dawn.

Those ship-board scenes, of course, are also in Stoker's novel, not to mention many other versions of Dracula. Indeed, this stage play began with the captain scribbling furiously in his log, narrating entries in a broadly Stokerish style (and a beautiful Irish accent, no less!) as he brought it up to date. But what ties it specifically to Nosferatu (1922) is the visual style - partly the set and props, but above all Count Orlok himself. This is in spite of the fact that we never actually see him. Rather, the story is driven by his terrible presence down below in the hold, and after the captain of the ship finally climbs down to investigate what is there, and we hear a scream and see the slap of a single bloody hand on the (translucent) cabin door, he begins to take on the mannerisms and clothing of the count. Even then, it's slightly too simple to say that he becomes possessed by Orlok's evil. There is something much more complex going on about the effects of fear and isolation on the human mind. But his hands increasingly become Orlok's clawed hands, and he abandons the long duster-coat he had been wearing to reveal that Orlok's buttoned jacket had been there all along, just underneath.

This is a perfectly solid set-up, and there are plenty of things about the play I enjoyed. I particularly liked the lady who sat throughout the performance on one side of the stage with a cello and a microphone, providing siren-like singing and eerie music when required. There was also some clever trickery which allowed ship-mates who had just died to be discovered already wrapped up inside tarpaulin body-bags that had been lying on the side of the stage since the story began. But fundamentally, this was the kind of play in which people move around in slow-motion through a series of mannered poses, and one character will say something portentous and rather meaningless like "time is an ocean", after which the other characters pick up and echo the same refrain: "time..." "time is an ocean". I'm afraid I am instantly turned off by that. It is just too difficult to pull it off without sounding like a parody of utterly pretentious avant-garde theatre. In this case, they also made it worse by frequently shifting into song as well - and not always very melodically, or even entirely in tune.

So although I really liked the idea of the absent-yet-present Count, driving everyone mad without ever needing to appear in person, in the end this play was just trying rather too hard for my taste. I don't actually regret the evening spent watching it, but I won't be rushing to see another play by this theatre company again.

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As if a genuine Smell-O-Vision film and an unfilmed Hammer Dracula script hadn't been enough, last weekend's journey of cinematic wonders ended on the Sunday evening in Bradford with 2001: A Space Odyssey, seen as it was originally intended to be seen - that is, in the full glory of Cinerama. I watched, rapt, alongside minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey, as the wonders of space opened up before us, and pondered idly what it must have been like to live in those heady days of the late '60s White Hot Technological Revolution, when the world of normalised space travel which it depicted might really have seemed like a plausible likelihood for the far-distant future of 2001.

I have seen the film before, of course, but believe me when I say that seeing it in Cinerama is an entirely different experience. Kubrick designed it specifically to be seen on a curved screen, and once you see it that way it becomes so painfully, searingly obvious that he did that you realise you simply haven't experienced the film he thought he was making until that moment. This was perfectly clear to me already in the first half, when I realised exactly why the location chosen for the ape-creatures drinking from their water-hole was a rounded geographical bowl, and why so many scenes of the lunar landscape are designed the same way - because, of course, in Cinerama they would appear to be actually curving out towards the audience, as though we were sitting ourselves on the far side of that very bowl. In Cinerama, when the idea occurs to one of the ape-creatures for the very first time to pick up a large thigh-bone, and use it to smash up the smaller bones of the animal skeleton lying in front of him, the pieces which fly up into the air appear as though they are coming right out of the screen at you. And as for the space stations and planets which cartwheel by to the music of the Blue Danube - watching them is like looking out from the bridge of your own vessel, as vast bodies thousands of miles away float balletically across your field of vision.

Then in the intermission, Andrew too commented that he had never realised before just how much of a Cinerama film 2001 was. Fresh from having seen The Best of Cinerama that morning, he meant something more than my simple observation of curves, space and quasi-3D. Rather, as he pointed out, Cinerama travelogues of the type he had seen that morning regularly introduced their viewers to a rather surreal combination of the wonders of nature, followed by the wonders of technology - exactly like the early ape-creatures followed by the pirouetting space stations we had just seen. What's more, although 2001 was not shot using the three-strip camera technique which The Best of Cinerama used (and which I have experienced myself for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)), he had noticed that some of the shots were composed as though they were going to be - that is, with strong verticals positioned 1/3 and 2/3 of the way across the screen, exactly where the joins between the strips would have been visible. I settled down for the second half with his comment in mind, and he was absolutely right - for example, Kubrick had shot the room on the Discovery One containing the three EVA pods exactly and precisely with its two far corners at the 1/3 and 2/3 positions, just as I remember noticing for every scene which ever featured a room in it during The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I wasn't particularly surprised later on, when checking the Wikipedia page for the film, to learn that it was indeed originally planned to be shot in three-strip Cinerama, exactly in line with what Andrew had noticed.

Truly, truly spectacular, then. A film with an almost boundlessly-ambitious vision, making the fullest possible use of the technology available in its day, stretching it to create a cinematic experience which would actually do justice to the nature of the story. In fact, we were lucky enough to enjoy not only the film, but (part of) an after-show chat from Douglas Trumbull, who did the special effects for the film, and who articulated exactly the vision Kubrick was trying to create. He explained that Kubrick wanted to create a film which was less concerned than usual with the characters on screen, or the experiences and dramas they are having. In fact, this was deliberately minimised by pointing the cameras relatively little at the actors, and having only fairly limited and largely banal dialogue. Rather, he wanted to put the audience and their experiences at the forefront. This is particularly clear at the climax of the film when the last surviving crewman of the Discovery One, David Bowman, comes face to face with the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, and falls into the strange and psychedelic star-gate which it opens up. During this whole sequence there is actually very little screen-time devoted to David's reactions, and as Trumbull put it, this was because Kubrick didn't want this sequence to be about David experiencing the star-gate - he wanted it to be about the audience, in the star-gate. And in Cinerama, boy, is it!

Even without the Cinerama, though, the care, detail and ambition put into the model-work and the special effects is so impressive that even now, almost 50 years after its release, the only thing which really gives the film away as not having been made this year are some of the fashions worn by the female members of the cast. I'd love to say the treatment of gender was a give-away too, given that women appeared almost (though not entirely) exclusively in subservient roles (daughter, mother, air-hostess, receptionist), and that by the time you get to the elite crew of the Discovery One, they have (of course!) vanished altogether. But the sad truth is that there are more films which still do exactly that today than don't. Only two years ago, Geena Davis (Thelma of Thelma and Louise fame) suggested that modern Hollywood films consistently depict women to men in supposedly mixed groups at a ratio of 1 to 5 or 17%, and that what's more men perceive this as a 50:50 balance, and anything more as female-dominated. Here, too, I noticed that in the board-room scene where Heywood Floyd explains to the Clavius base personnel why it is so important to maintain secrecy around the monolith found on the moon, there were two women and ten men: exactly the 1 to 5 or 17% (to be precise, 16.67%) ratio which Geena Davis pointed out. So, in other, words, the gender balance of 2001 may be heavily patriarchal, but it certainly isn't dated! We're still doing it, just the same. :-/

That is on us, though. While we're working on it, a late 1960s film which makes you feel as though you are actually floating in space remains very much worth watching, and I am once again awed by the power of Cinerama.

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This was not actually a film in the conventional sense - rather a staged reading of an unproduced film script - but I'm including it in my 'films watched 2015' tag nonetheless, because it was very close, and I know that's where I'll look for this review in the future. The script in question was written by Anthony Hinds, joint architect (along with Michael Carreras) of Hammer's horror heyday, and it was originally intended as the seventh entry in their Dracula franchise, to follow after Scars of Dracula (1970). There's a good blog post here which explains the production context and what happened - basically, Hammer's distributors, Warner Bros., had some assets locked up in rupees in India, and this was intended to be shot on location as a way of unlocking them. In the end, it never came to pass, and the script instead lay forgotten in Hammer's script archive, until the collection was passed to the Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, and examined properly by some experts. The obvious interest of this one was quickly recognised, and arrangements put in place for its first ever public airing in Nottingham last Saturday evening as part of the Mayhem Film Festival.

The event was billed on the Mayhem website as "Jonathan Rigby to narrate long-lost Dracula script from Hammer archive", with the further information that he would be "accompanied by a group of actors" - and quite honestly, that was more than enough for me and I went on that basis. But in practice it really undersold how much effort they had gone to to bring this script to life. What actually happened was that Rigby read all the scene descriptions and directions from the original script, while a cast of seven voice actors did the dialogue, sound effects were provided by a two-man crew with laptops and a mixer, a live sitar player did his thing at the appropriate moments, and occasional visual effects were projected onto a screen in the middle. These included opening and closing credits, as well as a close-up of Christopher Lee's eyes in full Dracula mode whenever his signature character was required to stare piercingly at a variety of young ladies during the story - which happened quite a lot. I took a few photos myself, but this one, which Jonathan Rigby posted on Facebook after the event, best captures it:

Full view of cast and eye by Ashley Bird.jpg

You can also see thirty more from an enthusiastic audience member here, including perhaps the most touching moment of all - the words ‘In memory of Sir Christopher Lee, 1922-2015’ displayed as part of the closing credits, to great cheers and applause from everyone present.

In short, then, it was a lot like watching a live recording of a radio play, except for the occasional use of the screen. And this was absolutely excellent for me, because I went there knowing that this might be the only time I ever had the chance to hear the contents of this script, but that I was also going to want very badly to be able to revisit and reconsider the story. So I took a note-book, and was able to sit in the second row, right behind the sound crew in the seats of the first row, looking up occasionally but mainly just listening intently and scribbling and scribbling madly across the page, until I had filled up 33 A5 pages in two hours with basically everything that happened in the entire script, including some verbatim dialogue. Meanwhile, as I wrote and listened, an entire film played out, as if by magic, in the inside of my head. I have read a few Hammer scripts before, and their descriptive text usually goes quite well beyond the purely practical. This one was no exception, describing a decaying Maharajah's palace as a ‘gaunt edifice’ whose corridors are lined with faded brocade and crumbling trophies, or speaking of the 'cold light' of the early dawn and someone being 'ground to bone-meal', for instance. So it was very easy to visualise the right sorts of settings from Rigby's narration, while the sound effects gave them the appropriate texture and the voices of the various actors populated them with living characters. Indeed, I am well enough steeped in Hammer's visual style to mean that often I could see in my mind's eye exactly the sorts of sets and costumes they would have used, the camera angles they would have chosen, and the composition of the shots.

All of which was incredible and amazing and breath-taking, because Hammer's Dracula franchise is my favourite film sequence bar none, and yet its last entry appeared in 1974, and I was born in 1976, so I never had the opportunity to see any of its films fresh on first release at the cinema. Indeed, it's some 25 years since I saw a Hammer Dracula film for the first time at all in any context, so I find it difficult now to remember or imagine what devouring one I haven't seen before is actually like. The raw experience of an entirely new Hammer Dracula story, with absolutely no idea what might happen next at any point, was something I never expected to have again - and this performance was the closest I have or will ever come to experiencing that not only on my own at home in front of a video, but live and completely fresh in the cinema with a whole audience around me doing the same. Walking up the cinema aisle at the end of the performance, I found myself overwhelmed almost to the point of tears at the sheer magnitude of what I had just witnessed, coupled of course with the sad knowledge that I may never have such an experience again... Well, that is, unless the same team get themselves together and do a performance of Lord Dracula - the other unmade Hammer Dracula film lying in the CATH archive, which is an 'origins' story linking the Hammer Dracula with the historical Vlad III Dracula. I don't think I have to explain to regular readers of this blog how and why that is basically the story I consider myself to have been put upon this earth to hear.

So, having talked about the performance at the Mayhem Film Festival, I'm now going to review this story qua story, in the way that I have every other Hammer Dracula story on this blog. The obvious difference of course is that you, dear reader, are almost infinitesimally unlikely to have 'seen' it. That means we need to start with a brief plot summary. It is utterly spoilerific, as is everything I say from this point onwards in the review. But given that as far as we know at the moment, this story will never be released in any other format, you may as well read on and at least find out what happens in it.Collapse )
I'm spreading myself across the selected highlights of two different film festivals this weekend: the 2015 Widescreen Weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and the Mayhem Horror Film Festival at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham. This was my first stop, seen in the company of the lovely miss_s_b in Bradford.

2015-10-16 17.04.00.jpg

There's some background information about it on the Widescreen Weekend website, and we got more too in a short introduction to the film by David Strohmaier, the director of the restored version we were seeing. Basically Scent of Mystery was originally intended as a curved-screen Cinerama spectacular with the added attraction of Smell-o-Vision - that is, appropriate scents released from little pipes under every seat in the auditorium at the right time to match up with the images being seen on the screen. But the Smell-o-Vision didn't quite work as intended at the initial screenings (stuff about that here), so it flopped, and was then edited down quite heavily and re-released without the smells as Holiday in Spain. Now, the original film has been restored as fully as possible (from a combination of a negative and a rather faded screen reel), and a new system devised for the smells - numbered vials and fans left on each seat in the auditorium, and illuminated numbered boards held up at the right time by attendants to tell people when to squirt their vial and fan it around to their neighbours.

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This was fun to do for the interactive aspect of it - I got very excited when my smell (grass) came up! And when it worked it certainly did enhance the film. I think the best smell of all for me was the incense released during a scene of people chasing each other around the columns of a Spanish cathedral, a) because that was a good strong scent which I picked up really easily, b) because that scene went on for quite a long time, so it was appropriate to have the smell of incense lingering in the air throughout it and c) because incense is so utterly characteristic of cathedral interiors that it really did help to deepen the sense of being there. Other good ones were the smell of oil-paints in an artist's studio, wine, coffee, mints and talc.

Quite a lot of thought had evidently gone into how to make the smells really work with the story when the film was originally produced, too, rather than just using them as extra decoration. Two plot points actually hung on them - cheap perfume gives away one imposter, since the person she is impersonating always wears genuine Scent of Mystery, while American pipe tobacco reveals the real identity of the man trying to kill her. However, neither of those worked for me until the characters on screen commented on them, because in practice the vials-and-fans system we were using wasn't perfect.

The biggest and easiest improvement would have been to hold up the numbers directing people to spray their vials about 30 seconds to one minute before the appropriate scene in the film, as it generally took people a good few seconds to fumble about checking what number they had, and then another 20 or 30 before it reached anyone else's noses. Smell is a much slower sense than sound or sight, and it takes time for aromas to spread and for people to breathe them in. Also, I suspect people sitting in the middle of the auditorium got a generally better experience than me, sitting to one side. Where I was, there simply wasn't always the critical mass of people near me with the right numbered vials for me to have access to the smell. (And I'm saying this as someone with a strong enough sense of smell to mean it's not unusual for me to smell things like lavender in people's gardens or particular fruits in the supermarket before I see them.)

Still, all of that pretty accurately replicates the original experience of the people who saw the film back in 1960, as it didn't work properly then either! And like I said, it was fun to be part of the experiment. Also, the film itself was well worth seeing anyway, with or without the smells. It was basically a typical 1960s tongue-in-cheek British adventure comedy, a bit like The Avengers or The Saint and with all the cut-glass accents and snappy dialogue that would imply - but also with a massively larger budget and the spectacular capacities of Cinerama.

Denholm Elliot was the main character - an English mystery novelist on holiday in Spain who becomes embroiled in a real-life adventure trying to prevent a mysterious woman from being murdered, which he narrates in a knowing voice-over as he goes along. He's so English that his hat stays on not only during a fight but also while upside-down in an open-topped aeroplane, and he doggedly carries an umbrella throughout the film (despite the glorious Spanish weather) which is also not just a decoration, but actually comes in extremely handy at the climax. Meanwhile, Peter Lorre is his side-kick - an ordinary taxi-driver with no particular appetite for adventure, but an indulgent streak which means he ends up driving Elliott around Spain in the hunt for the mystery lady. He does an excellent line in long-suffering resignation as he finds himself repeatedly in mortal danger, and makes the best of it all along the way - a pretty girl here, a pouch of tobacco there, and always the prospect of a big fat taxi fare at the end of the journey. There are some great cameos, too - especially from Diana Dors and another female screen icon whom I shan't name, as she genuinely took me by surprise at the end, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone else!

Meanwhile, we got the full Cinerama experience in fly-overs of the Spanish landscape, spectacular buildings like the Alhambra and the cathedral, and spectacular activities like fireworks, bull-running and ladies dancing in Flamenco dresses. It wasn't three-strip Cinerama, like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm which I saw three years ago, so didn't quite have the almost 3D effect which that can achieve, but it still had a wonderful sweeping, immersive feel to it. Plus a lot of effort had been put into small details of set-up and design. E.g. on the wall in the painter's studio (where we got treated to the scent of oil-paints) I noticed a fragmentary Classical-looking relief of a face, with just the eye and nose preserved - in a film all about smells, geddit??? ;-)

The funniest detail for me, though, was one which the original film-makers couldn't have anticipated. Early on in the story, the mysterious woman cashes a cheque at a local shop, which Denholm Elliott's character then visits later on in order to try to discover her identity. He bullies the proprietor into reading out the names of everyone who has cashed a cheque there in the last hour, one of whom just happens to be a certain George Osborne. Austerity as a cover-up so that he can drain the treasury by cashing himself big fat cheques in Spain? I wouldn't put it past the man...

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New Who 9.4 Before the Flood

Right, I'm ready to write about Doctor Who now. So, basically I liked this episode. I liked all these thingsCollapse ) Fundamentally, I feel we've now had four strong episodes in a row - which hasn't happened for a long time.



There is a trope in SF and horror stories which has annoyed me for a long time, which involves a woman being told to stay somewhere safe by the male characters, her refusing to follow their advice and going off on her own into danger anyway, and then her getting into danger and / or compromising the success of whatever mission they are all involved in as a result. I've complained about it multiple times in reviews of such stories, for example here in relation to Isobel in the Second Doctor story, The Invasion (1968) or here in relation to Jessica Van Helsing in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), and it's now occurred to me to check whether or not it has an entry in TV Tropes. Sure enough, it seems to be a sub-type of Stay In The Kitchen, which in its simplest sense just involves men telling women to stay in the (metaphorical) kitchen, but here is extended to 'prove' that such advice should be heeded in the first place by acting out the negative consequences of women ignoring such advice.

The TV Tropes article claims that "Nowadays, when this trope is invoked, this character [i.e. the man telling the woman to Stay In The Kitchen] is unlikely to be treated sympathetically for his opinion." But there seems to be no 'nowadays' about it in Doctor Who. What we saw in this episode was exactly in line with the examples I"ve mentioned aboveCollapse )

Meanwhile, there were two other crappy discriminatory tropes in play here, despite the obvious current efforts of the production team to acknowledge and represent diversity through their castingCollapse ) What's going on, Doctor Who? And when can it stop?

So I feel like this is hardly a 'review' of the story at all, and just a massive rant about diversity and -isms in TV shows instead. Let me go back to the beginning - the story, as a story, was good. I liked it - I really did. Its narrative arc, its characterisation and its ideas were all good. But having tropish fails at work in the same story throws me off what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable experience, and ends up making all the actually-good drama fade away into the background. I'd really like to not have to keep being distracted from a show and character I otherwise love by all this.

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20.-22. Film-watch catch-up part II

20. Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb (2014), dir. Shawn Levy

I watched this on DVD from Lovefilm in August while writing my half of a co-authored chapter on Augustus on screen, so that I could check a) whether this latest entry in the franchise cast any further light on whether Octavius (Steve Coogan's character) is meant to have anything to do with Octavian / Augustus or not, and b) what exactly was meant by the character listed on the IMDb cast-list as 'Augustus statue'.

In case you too are burning to know the answers to those questions, I can report that Steve Coogan's Octavius still has no connection to the historical Augustus - it's just a classic case of name-borrowing. There were some distinctly slashy moments between him and the cowboy Jedidiah, though, that were just subtle enough to go unnoticed by children and a certain type of adult, but very definitely there for those of us who like to look for that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the Augustus statue turned out to be a bust of Augustus wearing the civic crown, who shouts to Octavius and Jedidiah from inside his glass case to try to warn them that they are standing inside a model of Pompeii, and are about to be killed in the eruption. In fact, the entire scene is on Youtube, so we may as well have it here:

This film is set in the British Museum, but oddly they don't have a head of Augustus anything like the one seen in this clip. In fact, as far as I can tell, the bust in the film is actually modelled after this one in the Glyptothek, Munich, also known as the Bevilacqua Augustus (after an Italian collection it once belonged to). The British Museum does have a very famous head of Augustus - the Meröe head, which was even the subject of its own little exhibition at the end of last year. So you might ask why they didn't use that. But we flip back and forth between careful reconstructions of actual British Museum galleries and completely invented spaces throughout the whole film, and besides it's not like this bust even needs to be Augustus at all anyway. Titus would have been a rather better choice, given that Vesuvius actually erupted during his reign.

The rest of the film was much as we've all come to expect from Night at the Museum films - fun, but not exactly life-changing. But there was one other scene which deserves noting down here for its Classical receptions relevance. The premise of the film is that Larry (Ben Stiller's character) brings the magic tablet which has been bringing museum exhibits in America to life to the British Museum, where obviously it has the same effect on the exhibits there. So as he and the pals he has brought over from America explore the galleries of the British Museum for the first time on the night of their arrival, all the exhibits around them are also coming to life for the first time - and behaving rather confusedly and erratically as a result. Put that idea together with probably the most famous of all the British Museum's galleries - the one containing the Parthenon sculptures - and what you get is the strange spectacle of figures from the relief friezes groping and leaning outwards, while half-broken marble bodies from the pediments limp and writhe weirdly across the floor.

It's good as an early scene in the film for building up creepy tension before the later and more threatening exhibits, but I also liked the angle it cast on the sculptures themselves. Art historians wax lyrical about how 'mobile' these sculptures are, but seeing them literally trying to move in a fantasy film throws into sharp relief what a rather silly thing that is to say about a solid stone statue. And then we get all caught up in stuff about Greek ideals of bodily beauty, including this recent exhibition which was actually at the British Museum (though after this film came out), which rest very heavily on looking straight past the badly damaged condition of a lot of surviving Greek art to a perfect original which now exists only in our imaginations. So, similarly, seeing these statues as broken bodies moving with a far-from-ideal grace rather punctures all that stuff too, and perhaps allows the statues to be the rather fragile artefacts they actually are, rather than the icons of something else which they are often treated as. So, in short, I came to this film for Augustus, but stayed for the Parthenon marbles.

21. The Wicker Man (1973), dir. Robin Hardy

We've reached late August now, when I went to see this with the lovely Andrew Hickey, miss_s_b and magister at the Hyde Park Picture House. We were so convinced it was going to be the (so-called) final cut which came out two years ago that we got ourselves all confused when it wasn't, and couldn't work out what version we had seen. But I think on sober reflection that it must just have been the short version - i.e. the film as it was originally released in cinemas in 1973. It's just that who ever watches that when you have longer versions available? So to us it seemed strange and unusual - hence our confusion.

It was a really nice, sharp clear print, though, with full rich colours and every tiny detail standing out in bold, eye-catching fashion, so I spend most of the film just wrapped up in small points of set-dressing and the behaviour of extras. I have seen it a lot of times, so as with the Dracula films, it doesn't take me long to tread the familiar paths of thought which the film provokes, and after that I am at my leisure to go off the regular pistes and into strange territories of my own. This time for some reason (perhaps because I was watching it in a gas-lit cinema), I became fascinated with the question of whether or not Summerisle has its own electricity supply. The answer is that although you see plenty of oil-lamps in interior scenes, so the islanders clearly aren't solely dependent on electricity for their lighting at least, Summerisle definitely does have an electricity supply as Howie switches on an electric light using a pull-cord when he breaks into the chemist's dark-room. So we must then ask how it is produced, because I can't somehow see Lord Summerisle entering into any kind of contract with a mainland electricity supplier. I think something like the hydroelectric power system at Cragside in Northumberland provides a suitably independent and Victorian solution, though, except that of course on Summerisle the source of the power would probably be tidal instead.

22. Tempi duri per i vampiri (aka Uncle was a Vampire, 1959), dir. Steno (aka Stefano Vanzina)

Finally, while I was in Whitby with DracSoc only three weeks ago, we had an early dinner on the Sunday evening, and then all piled into one couple's hotel room to watch this. Like so many of Christopher Lee's films, and especially the ones in which he plays vampires, I have wanted to see this for literally decades, so it was very exciting indeed to be hanging out with people who felt the same way. OK, so it is a '50s Italian comedy, with lots of jokes about put-upon men and busty ladies, which I probably wouldn't find interesting in the normal course of things. But what makes it so fascinating is that it features Lee playing Dracula-by-any-other-name (he's actually called Baron Rodrigo), only one year after his first iconic appearance for Hammer, and years before he would play the role again for anybody else. Well done to the Italian director for spotting the commercial potential of Lee in that role so early, and for helping Lee to establish himself as a European, as well as British, film star along the way.

Irritatingly, the English-language version of the film uses someone other than Christopher Lee to speak his lines, so you don't get his trade-mark voice. But the way he plays the ancient and noble Rodrigo is very much in line with his performance as Dracula in the Hammer films - demonic outbursts, anguished looks and all. Indeed, it would I think be possible to slot this film into the Hammer Dracula canon, since it is set at the time of its release, and no other Hammer story occupies that time-period. So this could be a little Italian vacation which the Hammer Dracula enjoys before turning up in London in 1972 to be 'resurrected' by Johnny Alucard. Certainly, he talks of having to move from tomb to tomb and castle to castle (presumably in order to keep his identity a secret), so we only have to add that 'Rodrigo' is an assumed name, and he can easily be Dracula in disguise.

The direction is quite different from the Hammer films, though, and doesn't always lend Lee quite the same gravitas as they managed. I felt the lack of shots allowing him to loom over the viewer, or close-ups of his blazing eyes. In fact, this director just didn't really seem to do close-ups at all. His characters were consistently shot at most from the waist up, and often in full length, almost like an early film. And actually the take on vampirism is pretty different, too. Lee's Baron Rodrigo is tired of his life as a vampire, and half-way through the film manages to pass the curse onto his nephew, meanwhile allowing him to retire to his tomb for uninterrupted eternal rest. I'd reconciled myself to that being it for Lee's appearance in the film, but about half an hour later he reappeared, thanks to a Buffy-like scene in which the nephew shook the curse back off again after a moment of true love, and eventually managed to end the film in happy comedic style, walking off set with an attractive young lady on each arm.

Quite an oddity, then, but I'm very pleased to have seen it, especially in company with fellow aficionados. And actually it turns out the whole thing is on Youtube, so I can give it another look whenever I feel like it. Meanwhile, there's just One More Time and The Magic Christian to go, and I will have seen every Lee-as-basically-Dracula appearance there is. A sad thought. :-(

And for now - that's me up to date! On films, at least. Books are a whole nother matter...

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17.-19. Film-watch catch-up part I

I'm woefully behind with both film and book blogging, and it's really weighing on me and stopping me from getting on with other things I want to do. So I'm determined today to get caught up, at least on the films. I'm sure at one point I could have said more on all which follow below, but since we are literally going back to July for these ones, I have inevitably forgotten much of my initial reaction - which for catch-up purposes is probably a good thing. The watch-words here are key points and light touch - not exhaustive detail.

17. Qu'est-ce qu'on a fait au Bon Dieu? (2014), dir. Philippe de Chauveron

I saw this on DVD with my sister and Nicolas while I was in the Midlands for Christophe's first birthday. It's a French comedy about families, religion and racism - quite a cocktail of topics to take on, but it does work really well.

The basic set-up is that a traditional wealthy Catholic family in possession of a moderately-sized château has four daughters, three of whom have already married husbands of varied religious and ethnic backgrounds - specifically, a Muslim, a Jew and a Chinese man. The parents have stoically accepted their choices so far, but have pinned their hopes on their fourth and final daughter choosing a Catholic husband. Great news! She does. The only problem is that he's a black immigrant from the Ivory Coast. Inevitably, the rest of the film from the moment when they find this out follows their journey (and that of the husband-to-be's family too) from initial shock and horror, through a fragile attempt to behave reasonably about it, a dramatic blow-up and finally discovering that they all had more in common than they had ever realised and becoming bosom buddies.

While checking that I had remembered the title of the film correctly, I came across this article in the Telegraph, claiming that it didn't get a release here as distributors judged it was too racist for British viewers. But in my view this entirely misses the point of the film. All of the racism expressed in it is the butt of a joke, and very explicitly coded as a bad and problematic thing which needs to be dealt with so that everyone can be happier - which is exactly what happens at the end of the film. In fact, it seems to me that the judgement made by the distributors here is a sad reflection of a fear culture which we've managed to create around potentially-controversial material. Rather than attempt to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful portrayals of racism, cautious distributors just Won't Go There at all - which of course only leads to silence and erasure and lots of stories which act like racism doesn't exist. It does, and I think it's better to acknowledge that up-front than pretend otherwise. So well done France for that.

There is more of a case for saying that a film which shows, as this one does, that racism can easily be overcome by just getting drunk together and bonding trivialises the structural and pervasive nature of actual racism. But this is a comedy. Its treatment of racism is pretty far-reaching in spite of that, but the genre does ultimately depend on light-hearted simplicity. Besides, any film with a happy ending gives a rather false impression of how easily life's many complexities and problems can be solved. So I'm happy with this one as an enjoyable watch and a very human story, and am only sorry it won't be widely seen outside of France.

18. Scream Blacula, Scream! (1973), dir. Bob Kelljan

Watched with ms_siobhan in July, this is a sequel to Blacula, which was rushed out the following year to capitalise on its success after it proved so popular. It's very much what you would expect given those circumstances - definitely enjoyable in many of the same ways as the first one, but also feelings like a re-tread of the same ground with a lower budget and generally more limited horizons.

William Marshall returns as Mamuwalde, having been resurrected in a voodoo ritual, but while he puts in a strong performance, there's a sense that his characterisation hasn't entirely been thought through at script level. On the one hand, he wants to be freed of his vampire curse and asks a voodoo practitioner to conduct a ritual which will exorcise him - but on the other, he doesn't actually seem to show any real conflict or anguish about going round biting people the rest of the time. Elsewhere, we have some good characters, including plenty of strong and self-assured women, some excellent funky party scenes and some truly enormous shirt-collars. But the plot never achieves very much sense of momentum, and overall, it feels like a classic case of attempting to replicate a successful movie without quite understanding what it was that made the first one so good.

There's still a bit of conscious social commentary in this one - particularly when Mamuwalde encounters a black prostitute, and upbraids the also-black pimps who are controlling her for making a slave of their sister in that way. ms_siobhan also very rightly noted a careful coding in the characters' hair-styles - that the good guys (and gals) all had more 'natural' Afros, and could thus be read as at ease with their Afro-Caribbean heritage, whereas the power-hungry or selfish characters (again both male and female) generally had straightened hair or weaves, signalling a greater adherence to western ideals of beauty. So, like the first film, there is plenty in this too which boils down to black producers, writers, directors and actors articulating their own realities of being black in 1970s America, and that makes for interesting viewing. But it was all just embedded in a stronger drama the first time around.

19. The Third Man (1949), dir. Carol Reed

Still in July here - I watched this one late in that month with ms_siobhan and planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House. Obviously it is a massive classic, and with extremely good reason. I hadn't seen it before, but am glad now to understand at last the many iconic images and quotable lines from it which I have come across before without ever quite 'getting' them. It's well-plotted, beautifully shot, fantastically well-acted, and captures the fragile world of a Europe just starting to rebuild after the war very powerfully. And it is so very Grahame Greene, especially I think in the essentially isolated nature of the characters. Of course Anna Schmidt and Holly Martins don't get together at the end, because there are unsurmountable barriers between them and Greene has spend the whole film showing us that. No unthinking happy endings here.

I particularly appreciated the huge amounts of effort which had obviously been poured into getting the fine details of every scene just right in order to tell the story being conveyed - like the autumn leaves slowly falling in the last scene, which certainly weren't falling from the trees we can see as they are already bare, and must therefore have been dropped by an unseen stage-crew just above the camera's field of vision. Or the fact that Martins and Lime agree to meet in a cafe called the Marc Aurel, which acknowledges that Marcus Aurelius died in Vienna (then the frontier fortress of Vindobona), and I think actively adds to the story by evoking the wars which dogged Europe during his reign too, as well as perhaps a sense of tragedy around the passing of the last of the Five Good Emperors and the accession of Commodus.

It was nice, too, to see it relatively soon after my own trip to Vienna last September, especially since on the final day of that trip I walked up to the Danube from where we were staying, and as it happened my route took me right past the enormous ferris wheel, properly known as the Wiener Riesenrad in which Holly Martins and Harry Lime first confront one another. I had no idea what it was as I walked past it that day , and certainly no idea that it dates right back to 1897. But I do remember feeling (on what was anyway a rather overcast day with few people around) that the ferris wheel itself and the amusement park it stands in had an air of bleak desolation about them which has now transferred very nicely into my experience of this film.

Right - that's three done out of six which needed it. I'm having a break for dinner now, and hopefully will get the remaining three done this evening.

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New Who 9.3 Under the Lake

Well, I think we can safely say that Moffat's decision to go heavy on the two-parters this season was a good one. Oh, mid-story cliff-hangers, how we have missed you! Plus the obvious advantages of being able to develop both characters and complex mysteries over a more generous span of time. Not all two-parters are perfect, of course. Mid-season ones in particular have tended to be a noticeable New Who weakness, in fact. But perhaps that was only ever because they were in the middle of the season, rather than because they happened to be two-parters, all along?

I'm also starting to think I like the pitch of the Doctor's character a little bit better this season. He seems less arrogant / grouchy for the sake of it, more at ease with himself and more natural in his exuberance when he shows it. Maybe it is partly to do with how his relationship with Clara has developed? Now that she is stronger too, and we've got past the whole lying-to-each-other theme from last season, he too seems to have become more enjoyable to have around the screen. The business with the cue-cards, with the Doctor needing to make a thing about even a whole dimension (inside the TARDIS) only having room for one him, and Clara being all 'yeah, whatever' in response, was all just lovely for being obviously a performance on both sides, rather than fragile and tense for being a little to close to the truth as it tended to be last season.

It helps, too that I absolutely love cabin-fever stories like this one - and even better when they acknowledge what they are, as this one did when Cass told the Doctor he could "stay and do the whole cabin-in-the-woods thing" if he wanted. In fact, I think this story was actively nodding at some of Doctor Who"s very own cabin-fever stories of the pastCollapse )

Other strong moments which I haven't had occasion to mention yet include spoilersCollapse )

Diversity issues also involve spoilersCollapse )

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So! A new season of Doctor Who, then! I missed the first episode because I was in Bournemouth for Lib Dem Conference, and although I did catch up with it last Saturday (effectively watching both as a two-parter that evening), I haven't had time to write about them until now because I wanted to get conference written up first, and have then had a busy week.

I really liked these two episodes, though. I went into them with fairly low expectations, after a week of reading various comments around the internet to the effect that The Magician's Apprentice was not that great. So it may be that the low expectations in themselves helped me enjoy both episodes more than I might have done otherwise. But certainly, watched together, they seemed pretty strong to me.

The basic set-up and central drama, revisiting the Genesis of the Daleks dilemma by giving the Doctor the power of life and death over a being whom he knows will kill billions but right now is powerless and innocent, is sound enough and professionally handled. OK, you could argue it's a lazy re-hash of Doctor Who's back catalogue, but I liked the structuring principle which meant that we kept getting new takes on how the Doctor had actually responded to that dilemma right up until the end of the two-parter, even while the consequences (and causes) of his actions played out in another time-line.

The real star of this story for me, though, was Missy. Looking back at my reviews for the last two stories of last season, I didn't have terribly much to say about her beyond the gender-switch thing, but this story really let her blossom into a fully-developed character, so that she has officially become loads of fun. In particular, she is far more interesting here than she ever was in the last series for the ambiguity around whether she is temporarily collaborating with the Doctor and Clara purely out of expedience, or out of some kind of respect for her history with the Doctor. This really broadened her out from a fairly one-dimensional villain into a fully-fledged incarnation of the Master, whose relationship with the Doctor always was shot through with the ongoing reverberations of their childhood friendship / rivalry. As others have said, Michelle Gomez's performance very much rose to meet the new opportunities, replete with echoes of Masters past along the way. So I am now really looking forward to seeing more of her (and her gorgeous purple Victorian outfit!) in the future, and fervently hope that she will displace River Bloody Song as Doctor Who's resident mysterious recurring female character. I'm also looking forward to meeting her daughter (or son by this time, of course) - though in grand Whovian tradition, it could literally be decades before we do.

Missy wouldn't have worked anything like as well as she did, though, without Clara to play up against - and torment a bit. I thought Clara's side of the dynamic worked particularly well during their first encounter, when she was able to pin Missy down to business and stop her from randomly killing people because she could by insisting that Missy 'make [her] believe' that there really was something serious going on relating to the Doctor. That is the same self-assured, experienced Clara that she had grown into by the end of last season, and whom I like very much.

Clara's moments trapped within the Dalek shell, unable to communicate her human emotions and even frighteningly unable to convey her identity to the Doctor were excellent too. They were stronger for recalling the life of Oswin Oswald her fellow-inmates in Asylum of the Daleks, but would have been good anyway for giving us a new level of insight into the horror of what Daleks are - not to mention an explanation for why they shout 'exterminate' all the time! Fine achievements after over fifty years of them.

Then there were the scenes between the Doctor and Davros - also good, and for much the same reasons of ambiguity as those involving Missy. Probably Davros is just Evil, and tricked the Doctor into coming to Skaro so that he could harness his regeneration energy. And probably the Doctor, for all his compassion, knew full well that he could turn Davros' plans against him by activating the gloopy dead sewer-Daleks, so was never really in Davros' emotional grasp. But maybe, just maybe, on some level they do actually also like and respect one another. Certainly, it was compelling to see these two ancient enemies recognising each other for the two sides of the same coin they have always been, even if it was only a temporary and somewhat illusory truce.

In general, then, excellent character-led drama, with just enough new twists on the familiar staples of the format to make the story seem new. On the other hand, though, I could really have done without yet another fake companion death, and particularly one used so overtly as a fridging device to push the Doctor into doing (plot-necessary) crazy things in the Dalek city. And while I appreciate the attempt at representing racial diversity by putting black faces in the crowd in AD 1138, still in this story a black character (young Davros' companion in the hand-mine field) was the first person to die on screen yet again. Doesn't anybody explicitly double-check scripts for this, given how a) common and b) fucking racist it is?

Finally, two things in this episode reminded me strongly of The Fires of Pompeii - 1) the hand-mines with eyes in the palms of their hands, much like the Soothsayers of the Sibylline Sisterhood, and 2) the Doctor and Clara standing on a hill-side, watching the destruction of the Dalek city. This is what I mean on the latter point - the composition of the shots is never quite the same, but the general feeling is very, very similar:

Pompeii watching destruction.jpg

Dalek city destruction.jpg

So Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and the Doctor in The Witch's Familiar have now stood in similar settings, watching cities being destroyed, while wearing the same face. And since the Doctor said himself at the beginning of last season that he must have been trying to tell himself something by choosing it, I feel like we should pay attention to that.

A few smaller, random thoughts to finish us off:
  • Missy's static planes reminded me really strongly of the various examples of planes caught mid-flight by Google mapping satellites.
  • Davros being referred to as a Dark Lord and being served by an intelligent snake all seemed very Harry Potter.
  • But there was also something very Darth Vader-ish about Davros having once been a round-faced little boy on a desert planet, becoming dependent on a life-support system later in his life, and wanting to see the Doctor with his own eyes in his final moments.
  • Davros' supposedly-dying speech rang some strong Augustan bells for me. Compare and contrast: "Did I do right? Tell me, was I right? I need to know before the end - was I a good man?" and "Did I play my part well in this comedy called life?" It is classic Great Man / Strong Leader stuff - the iconic historical agent with power over millions revealing his inner humanity just before the end.
  • There was a strong set-up for a scene in which the Doctor would have to pull the Dalek wires out of Clara's head, causing her significant pain in the cause of restoring her humanity, but in the end we didn't get it, and skipped straight to her being fine and running along a corridor again. Looks like shoddy editing, I would guess because the story as initially planned turned out to over-run.

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Weekend in Whitby

I spent last weekend in Whitby with various members of the Dracula Society - i.e. the same people I went to Romania with at the beginning of the summer. Back when I lived in Oxford, I attended the annual Whitby Gothic Weekend at least three times. As far as I remember they were the Aprils of 1999 and 2000 and the October of 2001, but I didn't have a livejournal back then to record the great events, so who knows! Anyway, between the fact that the WGW always falls during term-time, and that even from Leeds Whitby is still at least a two-hour journey away, I have failed to go again ever since. So when the Dracula Society chair let me know that a few members would be there in mid-September for a long weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to put that right.

It wasn't a formal Society trip like the Romania visit - just a group of friends hanging out in a place of relevance to their interests, really. Most of the time we bimbled around the place, shopping, sitting in pubs and cafes, enjoying the local sights and so forth. But Julia (the Society chair) does like to look after us all, so she had recommended places for us to stay and made bookings at local restaurants for evening meals, while on the Sunday morning we all met up together and walked around some key sites of relevance to Stoker's novel and to the Dracula Society. For me, this made just the right balance, with plenty of opportunities to get together and do things, but also plenty of time to just wander, relax and bump into one another randomly.

I deliberately didn't take my digital camera, reasoning that I had been to Whitby and taken photos of it before, there are zillions of pictures of it all over the internet anyway, and I would prefer to just concentrate on being with people and experiencing the town. But of course once you get there, you get caught up in the beauty of it all, and our little walk around on the Sunday morning in particular brought up various things I wanted to photograph after all. So three cheers for smartphone cameras.

We began our walk by dropping in on the Great Man himself - or at least the guest-house where he and his family stayed when they visited WhitbyCollapse )

Following the West Cliff round and turning as it does into the harbour mouth, you come to East Crescent, where this little row of houses looks out over the harbour itselfCollapse )

Meanwhile, on the corner between the two where the cliff curves inland is the Royal Hotel, and in their lobby is a portrait of Bram Stoker donated by the Dracula Society on their first formal visit to Whitby in 1977Collapse )

Actually, while I was in Whitby, Julia and her partner Adrian were kind enough to sit me down and show me a documentary made about the Society in 2003, its 30th anniversary, by one of its members who worked as an editor for the BBC. It includes interviews with the founder members, spliced together with a presenter's framing narrative, hand-held video footage of the trips they have taken over the years (including the earliest ones to Romania), and numerous spots on TV documentaries and quiz-shows. The Society was formed primarily to travel to Romania, but after a few years they decided to branch out and try some other things - hence the Whitby visit and the donation of the portrait in 1977. But honestly it was so funny hearing the founder members talking about the Whitby visit in the documentary, saying how obviously it had been quite difficult to plan it all from a distance. This from people who had already been to Romania while it still lay behind the Iron Curtain! Yes, Yorkshire is evidently alien indeed to people from That London...

By 1980, though, they had recovered enough from the experience to venture a return, and this time dedicate a bench in collaboration with the local council. I saw footage of the dedication ceremony too, in the documentary. In truth it is a bit of an Archimedes' bench by now, in that much of it has been replaced since 1980, including the dedicatory plaque. But it still sits proudly at the top of the Khyber Pass looking directly across the harbour towards the church and abbey on the East Cliff, and thus commemorating the various scenes in the novel when Mina and / or Lucy look in the same direction and see either Lucy and / or Dracula in the churchyard. The pictures below show both bench and viewCollapse )

We gathered collectively at the bench at least twice for tuica brought back from the recent Romania trip and general collective toasting, as of course you would if you were in a town which contained a bench commemorating the Society you had come there with. Here, stolen from Julia's Facebook page (for which I hope she'll forgive me if she sees this!) is the group shot from the Sunday evening, taken before we all went for dinner in one of the restaurants on the west harbour pier.

DracSoc in Whitby.jpg

A lovely lot, all of them.

That was it for the (really very in)formal elements of the weekend, but while we were there plenty of us of course went up to the Abbey and inside the churchCollapse )

It was strange all round, though, returning to the site of Whitby Gothic Weekends long past, and feeling the ghosts of that event and its people all around me. Even though it still goes on, for me it is something that belongs squarely at the turn of the century - and there I was again, doing almost the same thing, but not quite. Actually TBH one of the most striking differences was that back then I was a student, but now I have a salary, so that instead of staying in the cheapest places we could find, eating at takeaways and agonising over every tiny little purchase, I stayed in a luxurious room beautifully decorated in purple and gold, ate out at nice restaurants and Just Bought a pair of Whitby jet earrings (which I've always wanted) without worrying about it. Other than that, I hung out with people of a broadly gothic inclination, exchanged much the same kind of geeky in-jokes with them as Goths do, and enjoyed the Stoker-infused gothic atmosphere of the town. It was a little more about sharing a love of narrative and a little less about dressing up and listening to bands, but the lines are very blurry. Or maybe that was just all the tuica...?

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Peter Cushing lives in Whitstable

Last week I wrote about ms_siobhan's and my visit to the Mossman Carriage Collection in Luton. That, though, was only the first leg of our Hammer-related weekend of adventure. After exhausting the delights of Luton, we continued onwards in a south-easterly direction, over the Dartford Crossing (which confused us considerably by turning out to be a bridge rather than a tunnel), and towards the pleasant sea-side town of Whitstable. Why Whitstable, you may well ask? Well, because Hammer stalwart and ms_siobhan's on-screen boyfriend Mr. Peter Cushing lived there from 1959 until his death in 1994.

We had booked ourselves into a nice little B&B on the edge of the town, where we arrived about 6pm on the Saturday. That gave us an initial evening to explore and have dinner, followed by a good full day on Sunday to complete our Peter Cushing tour. Equipped with maps and a list of places to visit culled from the internet we took in the following locations:

Peter Cushing"s houseCollapse )

The Cushing bench and viewCollapse )

The Tudor Tea RoomsCollapse )

The Peter Cushing pubCollapse )

Whitstable MuseumCollapse )

Not directly Cushing-related Whitstable experiencesCollapse )

Even if you're not that bothered about Peter Cushing, I can certainly recommend a visit to Whitstable. And if you are, I think you will definitely come away understanding him quite a lot better than you did before. It is well-to-do, full of charming and welcoming people, and replete with a spirit and character all of its own. But it has the feeling of hailing from another age at the same time, and I can't imagine it has changed very fundamentally since Peter first moved there in the 1950s. And I can see all of that really suiting him, both in the early years with Helen and in his later life. A quaint and quiet retreat from the bustle of London and the film-sets where he worked; a genteel and unchanging world where he could be acclaimed and valued without being mobbed. Yes, I can really see him loving that, and being loved for it by the locals in return. The fact that some of them wrote this song about how cool it was to have him living in their town now makes complete and utter sense:

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Last weekend, the lovely ms_siobhan and I set off on a Hammer horror-related adventure, the first leg of which took us to Luton. More or less every person to whom I mentioned the Luton part of this endeavour curled up their lips in disdain, from which I gathered that Luton's public image is more or less equivalent to Birmingham's. But, just like Birmingham, Luton is actually well worth visiting for the under-rated treasures it offers to the intrepid visitor. In our case, the main attraction was the Stockwood Discovery Centre - once the grounds of a stately home; now home to a multiplicity of attractions, including gardens, adventure playgrounds, a local history museum and the the Mossman Carriage Collection.

What was so exciting about the Mossman Carriage Collection? Well, it contains more or less every horse-drawn vehicle ever to appear in a Hammer horror film, not to mention at least 50 other films made between 1937 (Doctor Syn) and 1985 (Out of Africa) besides. Basically, if you have ever watched a British-made film or TV production from that period which featured a carriage, the odds are it came from this collection. The man behind it was George Mossman, a Luton businessman born in 1908, who realised just at the time when horse-drawn transport was passing out of regular use that it would be a) fun and b) a good idea to buy up and restore some of the many carriages which were by then languishing away in barns and coach-houses across the country. Lending them out to film companies was of course one way of helping to make back the cost of buying and restoring them, and on Mossman's death the collection passed to the Luton Museum Service in 1991.

Before we went, I spent the best part of every evening for a week screen-capping every single carriage to feature in a Hammer Dracula film, and combing through the pictures on the Mossman Carriage Collection website to try to identify them. I'm glad to say that on arrival, my identifications proved 100% correct, so below each cut which follows you will find historical information about the carriage in question as taken from the website, pictures of it as it appears today, and screen-caps showing it in use within the Dracula films. Any pictures with me in them were of course taken by my trusty travel companion and acclaimed professional photographer, ms_siobhan. Oh, and it's important to note that the paint colours on the carriages today don't always match up with how they look in the films, but as the website notes explain for the Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus (first entry, immediately below), Mossman himself was quite happy to repaint them as required for film commissions. In most cases, I was able to confirm what previous colours each of the carriages had been painted by simply looking closely at the inevitable scratches in the finish to see the previous layers.

Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus, about 1880Collapse )

Hearse, about 1860Collapse )

Town Coach, about 1860Collapse )

Victoria, about 1890Collapse )

Brougham, about 1860Collapse )

Round Backed GigCollapse )

So far, so lovely, then. But after this, things got a bit frustrating. Because on arrival, we discovered that a wedding reception was going on inside the largest room of the collection, housing on my estimation at least half of the carriages. And we were not allowed to go in. That's pretty damned annoying when you have travelled all the way from Leeds to get there, I can tell you - especially when there is nothing on their website to warn potential visitors that this might happen. I'm pretty sure that there were at least three more carriages in that room which were used in the Dracula films, but I could only see one of them well enough to get a photograph of. Thankfully, it was the carriage I was second-most excited about seeing after the hearse, but I would really have liked to see it a lot better than I did - to say nothing of the other two which I think were in there.

Travelling Chariot, about 1790Collapse )

There are a number of other carriages in the Hammer Dracula films which I never could identify on the Mossman Collection website, and after having visited as much as I could of the collection and looked through their excellent souvenir brochure as well, I have concluded that this is probably because they never came from it in the first place. From about 1970 onwards, Hammer must have been hiring from somewhere else - or possibly even making their own replicas, which would of course have had the advantage of being able to be bashed about a bit in the course of filming if needed. Certainly, I can't identify the Hargood family coach in Taste, the coach which Paul falls into from the window of Sarah's party in Scars, or the coach from the famous opening chase-through-Hyde-Park sequence at the beginning of Dracula AD 1972.

Meanwhile, the Mossman Collection Carriages of course had a wide and varied film career which went well beyond the world of Hammer. On the whole, I didn't worry about this - indeed, I didn't even worry about Hammer films other than the Dracula cycle. There's only so much film-geekery one brain can manage, after all. But I was excited to stumble across a replica chariot which its information panel informed us had been custom-made by George Mossman for use in Ben Hur (1959):

Replica Roman ChariotCollapse )

The fact that I was able to stand in it was in keeping with the collection's general policy, which was that genuine antique carriages had 'do not touch' labels on them, whereas visitors were allowed to sit or stand (as appropriate) in the replicas. This seems reasonable, but on the other hand I'm not sure they have thought hard enough about the heritage value of even some of the replicas, especially where they have appeared in really famous films like Ben Hur. Certainly, they don't draw very much attention to it. Only one small section of the museum mentions it, and this was the only information panel I saw which linked up a specific vehicle with a specific film. Meanwhile, as you can see in the photos, the decorative detail on the chariot is badly degraded. At first we assumed that this was just because it had been made in the first place of materials which had naturally perished over the years, but this is a picture of the same chariot from the collection's souvenir brochure:

Roman chariot from brochure.jpg

And this is it again in a video which was playing in one of the rooms of the museum:

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Judging by the hair and clothes of the people in the video, it must have been made within the last ten years at most. And meanwhile, when we looked closely at the chariot we realised that all the damage to its decoration is concentrated on the side of it which faces outwards from the arched entrance-way where it stands, and hence towards the elements. So in other words, at some point in the last ten years it has been placed facing into an open courtyard, and the result is that an iconic prop used in one of the biggest block-busters of the 20th century, which was fine ten years ago, has degraded into the state seen in the above pictures.

This makes me feel really sad, not only because it is a neglectful waste, but also because it is surely very short-sighted on the part of the museum management. Film tourism is a real thing, as our own visit proved, and the value of a prop from a film like Ben Hur is only going to grow as time goes by. Imagine being able to say at the time of its centenary in 2059 that you have a chariot used in that film! You know, a film which is famous for its chariot races... Except that a prop which is rotting away in the rain is going to be a lot less of a draw than one which has been kept in good condition.

In fact, I think the Mossman Collection could do with getting some film specialists to collaborate with them asap to draw up a proper and comprehensive list of all the films its vehicles have been used in, complete with screen-caps of the kind I've done here for the Dracula films, which could be displayed on their website and within the museum. They could reach whole new audiences by publicising that information properly - but right now, it is acknowledged only fleetingly and incompletely. It is up to geeks like me to create their own guide to the carriages used in the films they are interested in if that's what they want to see - and while I will do it and enjoyed the results enormously, even I would have been glad of a guide which covered just the other Hammer films at least.

A bit of a sad note there at the end, then, and the wedding reception thing was annoying too. But on the whole I would very much recommend a visit to the Mossman Collection, especially if you are a British film geek. You just might need to be prepared to do your own research in advance...

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Romania photo posts 2: Bram Stoker's Dracula

This is the second in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

Bram Stoker never visited Romania, drawing his descriptions of the country and its history entirely from library-based research. But that doesn't mean you can't trace the footsteps of his characters through the actual landscape if you do go there - and that, of course, is exactly what the Dracula Society likes to do. The relevant parts of our holiday are shown below, in the order in which they occur in Stoker's novel (though that wasn't the order we did them in).

The novel begins with Jonathan Harker in Bistritz (nowadays more usually spelt Bistrița), writing up his diary from the Golden Crown hotel, where he is staying overnight before travelling up the Borgo Pass to meet Dracula's carriage. The Golden Crown is an invention of Stoker's, but in the early 1970s, an enterprising local businessman built his own "Coroana de Aur" to capitalise on the western interest in Dracula tourismCollapse )

Bistritz is Bistritz, though, and we had plenty of time to wander around it before our lunch. This is what it actually looks likeCollapse )

In order to reach Castle Dracula, Harker travels up the Borgo Pass from Bistritz in a stage-coach, through "a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road". Stage-coaches weren't available to us, but from time to time Harker's coach also passes "a leiter-wagon - the ordinary peasants' cart - with its long, snakelike vertebra, calculated to suit the inequalities of the road". These are still in common use in Romania, and enterprising local farmers are very happy indeed to earn extra money transporting parties of Dracula-obsessed tourists through the Borgo Pass, just like Jonathan Harker. Thus it was that on our seventh day, we did this:

More horseynessCollapse )

Dracula failed to meet us at the top of the pass, no doubt because it was still daylight, but his castle awaited:

More castleynessCollapse )

Stoker's novel ends with a wild chase back to Dracula's castle, which sees the party of vampire hunters catching up with the gypsy cart carrying the count back home just as the sun sets. As Mina puts it in her journal:
The sun was almost down on the mountain tops, and the shadows of the whole group fell upon the snow. I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well. As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.
The count's triumph is short-lived, of course, but still there was something about watching the sun set over the Borgo Pass from the terrace of the Hotel Castle Dracula which momentarily brought him back to life, and will stay with me forever:
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14. Blacula (1972), dir. William Crain

I've known that this exists, and is a 'blaxploitation' film, for a very long time (not least because it is featured in my Horror Bible), but had never tried to track it down until very recently. Without actually having researched what blaxploitation entails, I had assumed it would be all white-perspective exoticising stereotypes about black Americans - especially stuff to do with funk, afros, tight spandex pants, etc. As it turns out, while there are a few scenes set in a disco bar, and that bar has its fair share of customers with afros and tight clothing, actually both this film and blaxploitation as a genre are very different from what I had expected. The genre term 'blaxploitation' as a whole is less about exploiting stereotypes for economic gain (as I'd assumed), and more about exploiting the economic spending power of black audiences by appealing directly to their interests - including, of course, their interest in being portrayed as three-dimensional human beings with agency of their own on screen. In the context of this particular film, that translates into a black director, a cast full of meaningful, positively-drawn black characters, and a script which engages directly with race issues in its plot and dialogue. As such, it's distinctly better in its handling of race issues than most mainstream screen productions manage to be today, including those produced by companies like the BBC which are honestly trying to be diverse and inclusive (see e.g. the Black Dude Dies First trope being rife in Doctor Who).

This particular story kicks off in 1780, when an African prince named Mamuwalde goes to ask the help of a powerful white European aristocrat in suppressing the slave trade and freeing his people. Unfortunately, the particular European aristocrat he picks is Dracula, who is pretty keen on the slave trade, and furthermore conceives a liking for Mamuwalde's (also black African) wife and starts saying incredibly racist / sexist things when Mamuwalde objects about how he should be flattered that a white man thinks his wife attractive. To punish Mamuwalde for his insubordination and his wife for rejecting his advances, Dracula then turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, locks him in a coffin so that he will be tormented by blood-lust forever but unable to get out to slake it, and locks his wife up in the same room so that she will die hearing his cries of thirst from within the coffin. So we have white European treatment of black Africans literally presented as vampirism, and our sympathies are entirely directed towards the black victims.

Fast forward (almost) two centuries, and the box containing Mamuwalde is transported to 1970s Los Angeles, with predictable results. Here, ms_siobhan was absolutely right to point out that Mamuwalde adapts rather too easily to his vampire nature. The whole point at the beginning was that vampirism was meted out to him as a cruel punishment, but that isn't really followed through in the main story. It's not that he becomes completely evil - he remains a sympathetic character, still basically searching for his long-lost wife. But there could have been a lot more pathos and self-loathing about his actual vampirism in the portrayal - as, for example, was done so well in Dracula's Daughter. After all, he is basically condemned to a life where it's now impossible for him not to enslave people himself - and in the light of the opening sequence he should have a bit more emotional conflict about that.

The long-lost wife story also rather stuck in my craw. Inevitably, he very quickly comes across a 20th-century woman who looks exactly like his 18th-century wife, and tells her all the usual sort of stuff about how she is his long-lost wife's reincarnation, they are destined to be together, etc. This is of course a well-worn trope, and I think I have reached the end of my tether with it. It is almost always the female character who is reincarnated, purely so that an immortal male character can still have their designated love interest, so that it reeks of male privilege and women existing only as objects for male attraction. It also completely robs the female character of all agency, as any independent choices which she might have made crumble in the face of her Manifest Destiny. And so it plays out here - and in the process serves up yet another case of characters allegedly falling in love on screen without us as the audience being given any very compelling evidence for why they might have done so, exactly as happens in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) in the context of the same trope.

In spite of those niggles, though, the film as a whole is ace. Partly that's just because I'm always eager for new takes on vampirism, and partly because I'm a sucker for contemporary-set '70s films full of awesome flares and enormous collars. But on a more universal level, William Marshall in the title role is genuinely compelling, with lots of power and gravitas to his performance, and he is surrounded by loads of really well-developed secondary characters too. Interestingly, these included a gay male couple, and several independently-minded female characters with jobs of their own who were not defined in relation to any man - e.g. a photographer and a taxi cab driver. It would be an exaggeration to claim these characters as paradigms for equality - the gay male couple in particular live up to camp stereotypes in that they are interior designers; their penchant for the aesthetic is to 'blame' for Mamuwalde's resurrection because they buy up his coffin and bring it to LA; and naturally they are punished for this by becoming his first victims. Similarly, both the photographer and the taxi cab driver meet sticky ends. But all four of them are presented as having real agency and meaningful lives of their own in a way that pretty rarely applies to the same sorts of characters in other films of this era - so I think there may be a case for saying that in casting aside mainstream stereotypical treatments of black characters, blaxploitation films also to some extent opened the door to better portrayals of other under-privileged groups at the same time.

In short, I'm glad I watched this, and ms_siobhan and I have already devoured the sequel as well. Review of that to follow.

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Believe it or not, I am still catching up with back-logged film reviews from things I saw before I went to Romania. There's just one more to come after this one, but I am not sure I will finish both this evening, so I'm posting this now in order to get at least half the job completed.

Having recently re-watched and enjoyed The Awakening (1984), I sought out this film as Hammer's take on the same source material - Bram Stoker's novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars. I didn't have hugely high expectations, because even the most ardent Hammer fan will generally admit that they started to go off the boil from about 1970 onwards. Also, it was clear from all the still images I'd seen that it was going to really objectify its star, Valerie Leon. But then again, this particular film does seem to be spoken of quite highly by fans amongst Hammer's later output. So I figured I'd give it a shot.

It does have to be said that I was right about the objectification of Valerie Leon. She plays two characters in the film - the Egyptian queen Tera, and the present-day archaeologist's daughter Margaret Fuchs - and she appears on screen for the first time in her role as Tera, lying dead in her sarcophagus. Unlike most mummies, though, she is perfectly preserved, not wrapped in any bandages, and clad instead in a beaded bikini-top and skimpy skirt. In other words, she is the perfect female body, lying there passive and unconscious. The camera then proceeds to introduce her by panning up her body from her legs to her face, lingering salaciously over every curve and dip - and there are plenty of similar scenes later on in the film. That said, one of the pleasures of vintage horror films is that it is also a standard trope to present women who are both attractive and unusually powerful. For male audiences, this is presumably meant to be a horrifically perverted paradox, but for female viewers it offers entirely different readings - though you do have to reconcile yourself to the fact that these characters always inevitably die. Anyway, as characters both Margaret and Tera are extremely autonomous and self-assured, with Margaret quite explicitly seeing Tera and her ancient powers as her ticket to a world in which she is free to do whatever she likes. Obviously, in the end this is coded as a tragic misjudgement - but it's fun while it lasts.

Meanwhile, the overall storyline, the characterisation, the acting, the set design and the direction are all very impressive - and this is quite an achievement, given that both the film's intended leading man (Peter Cushing) and its director (Seth Holt) were rendered hors de combat (in different ways) during the course of the production. I particularly enjoyed the series of death-scenes visited on those who had dared to open Princess Tera's tomb, all of which were conveyed via tense music and suggestive images, rather than direct on-screen violence. The very best of these was for a character called Berigan, who has already been driven insane and committed to an asylum as a result of his involvement with Princess Tera. Trussed up in a straight-jacket by two malicious hospital orderlies who tell him it'll be no good screaming as no-one will take a blind bit of notice, he is left isolated, terrified and unable to trust the evidence of his own senses, while a snake statuette from Tera's tomb comes to life and kills him. Revolving camera angles, disembodied laughter and close-ups of Berigan's terrified face convey the necessary sense of madness, periodic shots of empty hospital corridors outside his cell remind us of his isolation and helplessness, and extended periods of absolute silence really rack up the tension - all while we remain uncertain how much of what we are seeing is a manifestation of his insanity, and how much the 'real' power of Princess Tera. It really is a tour de force of direction, acting, lighting and sound effects - but also indicative of the quality of the whole film.

If you would like to see this film yourself, it's currently available for free here, and Berigan's death scene starts at exactly 45 minutes in. I can highly recommend it.

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Romania photo posts 1: the historical Dracula

This is the first in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

We begin with the historical Dracula, because while Hammer's Dracula and Bram Stoker's Dracula are both very exciting, and their imaginative use of the Romanian landscape certainly shaped the way I saw it (see future posts on this), still in truth they are the products of Britain and Ireland respectively. It is direct encounters with the historical Dracula and his world that Romania has to offer, and that was my number one reason for wanting to go there. This isn't to say we visited every possible site connected with him while we were there. In practice, our trip was focused on Transylvania and Moldavia, whereas he was Voievod of Wallachia - the southern part of the country, between the Carpathians and the Danube. So we only spent a single day in the part of Romania which he actually ruled, which means there are still plenty more historical-Dracula-related sites for me to discover on a return visit. But between our day-trip to Wallachia, the fact that he spent a lot of his life in exile in Transylvania anyway, and the wider cast of historical characters who also have a role to play in his story, we did pretty well.

The highlight of our visit was Poienari castle, which we visited on our second dayCollapse )

Many more Poienari picturesCollapse )

On our third evening, we arrived at Sighișoara, where we proceeded to stay for the next two days. It is a medieval fortified town, with its centre very little changed by the march of history, and it contains this house:
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More of the house, in which the historical Dracula may or may not have been bornCollapse )

After those two sites, we were done with the historical Dracula himself, but there were still plenty of places on the itinerary where we came across various of his political allies, enemies and relativesCollapse )

All in all then, traces of the historical Dracula were never too far away, and of course just being able to explore the geography and settlement structure of the landscape in which he operated helped me to understand him far better than I did before I went. There is more to learn, as ever, but this was a very satisfying historical Dracula field-trip.

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Romania 2015: overview

So, I went to Romania. And it was completely amazing! Too amazing for one LJ post, actually, so what I am going to do is type up a sort of overview here, and then follow that up over the next few days and weeks with a series of themed posts, complete with pictures, about particular aspects of the holiday. Those will cover roughly:
  • The historical Dracula
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Hammeresque architecture and scenery
  • Health and safety gone (not 'gone mad' - just... gone)
  • Flora, fauna and topography
  • People
  • Misc other awesomeness
I think those are the main categories, but if I think of anything else I will add it in.

Anyway, the holiday came about in the manner which I have described here. Basically, I noticed that a London-based group called The Dracula Society which I'd been following on Twitter for a while was planning pretty much my dream trip to Romania, calculated that I should just about be able to fit it in time-wise even during the exam-marking season, and so joined up, paid my deposit and waited excitedly. As I said in the linked post, it was obviously a calculated risk committing to a 12-day holiday with a bunch of people I didn't know, but I'm very glad to say that my calculations were correct. On the basis of their website, I'd concluded that they were "a bunch of moderately-eccentric middle-class people having fun being a bit geeky - exactly like me", and this was confirmed when I arrived at the airport to meet them, and found one of them carrying the same Hammer Dracula bag as me. They were also extremely generous and welcoming to a stranger in their midst, which I felt very touched by and which made it easy to slot smoothly into the group dynamic. So it was lovely to be part of this vibrant and enthusiastic team pursuing excitement and adventure through the Carpathian mountains, and I have come back glad to have acquired a new circle of friends.

One thing I hadn't actually quite realised before I set off is that travel is actually the true raison d'être of the Dracula Society. I'd assumed they had grown towards that from a foundation based on monthly talks and meetings, but actually I discovered on chatting to some of the longer-standing members that the group had come together in 1973 precisely so that they could travel together to Romania - obviously not something that you could very readily do as an ordinary tourist at the time. They went for the first time in 1974, and again in 1975, and although they have since broadened out their travelling interests to include a range of other places of Gothic interest, they still return there on a roughly 6 or 7 year cycle. This is great news for me, because basically it means that I have now discovered an awesome bunch of people who organise holidays to awesome places on a regular basis, and will be very happy for me to join them on future ventures. Next year, they're planning a trip to Geneva to hang out in the general area of the Villa Diodati and celebrate the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend which gave rise to Frankenstein and The Vampyre - and assuming the timing fits in OK with my work commitments, I am totally going to join them!

The exact itinerary for our holiday can be seen here, and was basically generated by members of the Dracula Society sketching out all the places they wanted to visit, and then a company called Travel Counsellors pricing it up and handling all the logistics. We had a dedicated bus, driver and guide for the duration of the holiday, and toured around from location to location, staying in 8 different hotels over 11 nights (so no more than two nights in any one location). That made for a very busy holiday, especially since we packed a lot into every day, and some of what we did was quite physically demanding too - especially climbing hills to castles and steps inside medieval bell-towers, both of which we did a lot! So it was not exactly a chill-out holiday. In fact, it was so busy that I genuinely struggled to find the time to buy postcards or stamps, and at least twice we didn't arrive at our intended accommodation for the night until 10pm. But then again there was plenty of time spent sitting on the coach gazing out over beautiful mountainous landscapes, and the occasional morning or afternoon free for wandering round lovely medieval towns, sitting in cafes, or simply curling up in our rooms. Maybe it was just the sheer excitement of being there, but I never felt as tired out as I'd feared I might, especially after the rather epic efforts required to get my dissertations marked before leaving, and certainly arrived home feeling refreshed and invigorated - which I think is rather the point of holidays, isn't it?

Guided bus tours can be hit and miss, of course. I haven't been on many, actually, but I learnt enough about both historically ill-informed and boring guides on an eastern Mediterranean holiday with my sister in my early 20s to be aware of the dangers. Happily, though, the guide we had on this holiday was absolutely excellent. He was cheerful and enthusiastic, incredibly well-organised, unfailingly helpful and patient, really knew his stuff and was a delight to listen to and talk to. His name was Stefan, and he was so central to the success of the holiday that although this isn't really a picture post (that's what the follow-ups are for), I'm going to include a couple of pictures of him in action here, telling us all about the the baroque Banffy Castle in Bonțida to (as you can see) rapt attention:

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The pictures encapsulate pretty accurately both the weather we enjoyed and the types of sites we visited, too. Beautiful early summer sunshine for the most part, though with occasional wind, rain or oppressive heat, and an endless succession of incredibly interesting and beautiful historical monuments and landscapes. The monuments in particular would be difficult to visit in the way we did without an experienced local guide, because a lot of them weren't open on any kind of regular schedule - you had to know who the local key-holder was, and Stefan spent a lot of his time while we were travelling phoning ahead to arrange meeting up with that person to collect the key and let us in. But from our point of view it was impressively seamless, sweeping up in our coach and straight in through the gates to discover the wonders behind - and that is of course the real benefit of going on an organised tour. There are some places which weren't on the itinerary for this holiday which I'd like to visit (mainly sites in Wallachia connected with the historical Dracula), and I think now that I'm familiar with the country I would feel happy enough to do those myself, equipped with a hire car and a willing friend, and probably on a rather more leisurely schedule than the DracSoc tour. But I'm really glad I got started this way, with such incredible privileged access to the absolute best places Romania has to offer in the areas we visited.

As for the particular places we went to on this holiday, though, they were absolutely stupendous and consistently surpassed my expectations. I knew I would find the Dracula-related locations exciting, of course, as well as the general feeling of being in the real landscape which inspired both Stoker and so many of my favourite films - and I did. But although I was quite willing to mosey about the various fortified churches, monasteries, non-Dracula-related castles, towns, villages and landscapes also featured on our itinerary, I didn't expect them to be quite as spectacular as they were - or so easily relatable to the wider imaginative world of the Dracula story, either. More or less every medieval tower, every mountain valley and every local person walking by in traditional costume could be related back to one of the Draculas (historical, Stoker's or Hammer's) somehow or other. And all of them were just beautiful and awesome and exciting in their own right anyway. I'll save the details for my photo posts, since they're better shown than told, but in summary I cannot praise Romania's sites and landscapes highly enough.

Indeed, I would now recommend Romania very strongly to anyone as a holiday destination. I found all the people we encountered extremely polite, friendly and helpful, and in the contexts where we were operating (hotels, cafes, restaurants, tourist sites) they almost all spoke very good English - though they also patiently appreciated my halting attempts at phrase-book Romanian too! Those two classic tourist banes - pushy traders and pick-pockets - were utterly absent (though we didn't go to Bucharest, so I wouldn't want to offer a guarantee against pick-pocketing there, any more than I would in any other capital city). And though once or twice I was approached by plaintive-looking gypsy children whose parents watched from a short distance away, they weren't pushy either - and hey, begging also happens in the UK. A lot. Meanwhile, by UK standards everything there from a cup of coffee to a hotel room is incredibly cheap, costing typically I would say about 1/4 of what it costs here. The entire 12-day holiday, including flights from Luton, entry to all the sites we visited, the dedicated service of our bus, driver and guide, at least two meals a day, and accommodation in what were clearly the best hotels in each location cost me £1,376 in total - i.e. about £100 a day once you take out the cost of the flights. You just couldn't begin to get what we got for that money as a tourist anywhere in western Europe.

Obviously, countries which come across as cheap to western European tourists are also those with comparatively weak economies. Many parts of Romania are still barely touched by mechanised agriculture, many of the city apartment blocks put up in the Communist era are in serious need of structural repair work, and the country definitely took a hit during the credit crunch. But it's also very obvious that life has changed a great deal in Romania from what my parents experienced when they visited in 1987 - everything falling apart, barely anything in the shops and children begging for biros in the street because they had nothing to draw with. Standing at the top of a medieval tower in Sibiu, I could see around me three very distinct rings of construction - a sizeable medieval / early modern market town, an actually relatively narrow band of Communist-era blocks, and a vast explosion of post-Communist construction beyond:

Sibiu bands.jpg

I was also struck by how many property plots in the predominantly rural area of Maramureș had new-build houses either recently completed or under construction next to what was clearly the old cottage / farm-house, and how marked the upgrade was from the one to the other. Basically, people are replacing their 3-4 room traditional houses with 8+ room palaces - according to Stefan, partly on the basis of the local agriculture but also by going to do seasonal work in the construction industry in Italy. Good for them. Meanwhile, the shops and markets are bustling, the food (bar one or two disappointments) is good, and people seem to be really enjoying their lives. All in all, then, Romania comes across as a busy and growing country, and I'm not surprised to see from Wikipedia that, recent blip aside, they are doing pretty well on the whole. It's just that these things are relative, and of course an economy can grow a lot when it starts from a very low bar and experiences vastly improved access to prosperous neighbouring markets over a short period. Still, what can western European tourists like me do to help Romania keep on moving upwards? Go there, spend money, and have a brilliant time. I was happy to do my bit!

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