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Art history meets film history

Dracula Scars wine
Portrait in Alice's roomDear internet,

Does anyone recognise the painting pictured right?

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

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

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

Thank you in advance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lee as M.R. James
It seems an awfully long time ago now since the Hammer horror / M.R. James weekend which I began writing up in this post, but I do still want to record the rest of it, as it really was spectacularly awesome.

In my previous post, I wrote up individual reviews for the three Hammer films which we saw at the Media Museum, but I also wanted to note down a few thoughts on the experience of watching all three together over the course of a single weekendCollapse )

Anyway, the course did not end with the third film, but culminated instead with a trip down to the Media Museum's archives to see the most relevant items from their Hammer special effects make-up collection, acquired from the estate of Roy Ashton (but also including material used by his mentor and colleague, Phil Leakey). I saw some of this material in 2012 during a Fantastic Films Weekend, but on that occasion it was all on display in glass cases, and my mobile phone camera at the time was definitely not as good as the one I have now. So this time I was able to see the material at a much closer range, including getting to see inside the exciting tins with labels reading 'vampire bites', 'eye pouches' etc., rather than just seeing them from the outside, and I was also able to get rather better photosCollapse )

The importance of not touching any of the material was, of course, strongly impressed upon us, resulting in some of us having to carefully hold our hands behind our backs to stave off our all-too-natural urges - especially where Dracula's lovely shiny curving fangs were concerned. And then of course there was general banter around the fact that 56 years earlier those very fangs had been in Christopher Lee's mouth, and there was probably enough biological material left on them to clone him. And somehow on the bus back to Leeds and during our walk into deepest Holbeck in search of M.R. James stories, this turned into a film script entitled Touch the Teeth of Dracula, which would involve some poor innocent soul succumbing to the urge to reach out and touch the fangs, and pulling their finger away with a shock to find it bleeding profusely, and the Count himself taking over their body and being reincarnated in 21st-century Bradford.

miss_s_b and I would then start fighting over him, and somehow (presumably after a thrilling coach chase to the Carpathian mountains) it would all end up with a fight to the death on the battlements of his castle, by the end of which we would both be on fire, and one of us would do Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 1 (falling forward) while the other did Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 2 (falling backwards), so that we tumbled in opposite directions to our doom. It was one of those classically geeky conversations where everyone is madly chucking in ideas, and no-one is quite sure where any of it came from, and all of it is completely ridiculous but somehow the sum total of it adds up to a thing of genius. I love those conversations - and the people I have them with.

All the while, we were traversing a landscape of Victorian industrial chimneys rumoured to have inspired Tolkien's Two Towers, moving steadily further from the traffic and lights of Leeds city centre and penetrating deeper into a domain of crumbling warehouses, cobbled side-streets and eventually open urban scrub waste-land. Catching up with a huddle of people ahead of us wearing long coats and wide-brimmed hats, we confirmed that we were indeed on the right course for the Holbeck Underground Ballroom, which was frankly welcome news as we started to pass work-yards populated with barking dogs and burly-looking men stoking oil-drum braziers. But the journey was well worth it. Inside, we found cheerful people serving wine in chipped white mugs for £1 a pop, free hot water-bottles to make up for the lack of central heating, and a room furnished with tatty sofas, drapes and various antique nick-nacks to mill around in while we waited for the show.

Eventually, we were ushered into the main performance space to snuggle up together on creaking sofas veiled in fabric throws, and watch Robert Lloyd Parry bringing M.R. James to lifeCollapse )

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Dracula 1958 cloak
The local cultural offerings of last weekend could not have been more perfect for me. Not only did the National Media Museum in Bradford put on a Hammer Horror themed film course, but Robert Lloyd Parry, who played M.R. James in Mark Gatiss' documentary about his life on Christmas Day, was to be found doing live readings of Lost Hearts and A Warning to the Curious in a derelict warehouse in Holbeck on the Sunday evening. Fitting it all in to a single weekend was a bit of a logistical challenge, but I am so glad that I did.

The film course was entitled Sex, Death & British Horror: Hammer in the 1950s, and involved screenings of the three iconic films which made Hammer's name as a horror studio in the late '50s - The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy - each preceded by about half an hour's worth of introductory talks. On the Sunday afternoon, we were also taken into the museum's archive to see some of the most relevant items from their Hammer collection, while each day ended with tutor-led discussions of the films in the Media Museum bar. Seeing the films and the archive was awesome, of course, but I have experienced those before, whereas the chance to sit around with equally-geeky people steeped in the same material and keen to discuss it in depth was in many ways the best part of the weekend for me. Really, that wasn't exactly unique for me either, since many of the most vocal people in both discussions also happened to be my friends already, so I can have that experience almost any time I like - as indeed we did as we walked out of each screening, or on the bus afterwards. But it's still nice to do it in a slightly larger group, and with some extra perspectives and opinions in the mix.

7. The Curse of Frankenstein, which turned out to be basically a doomed bromanceCollapse )

8. The Mummy, which turned out to be a serious attempt at cinematic epic, and with strong contemporary political resonances to bootCollapse )

9. Dracula, which somehow even after all this time and all these viewings yielded up yet another discovery and a whole raft of backstory which can be built upon itCollapse )

I was going to write about the effects of viewing the three films so close together, of our visit to the Media Museum's Hammer make-up effects archive, and of the M.R. James readings in this post as well, but it's already got pretty long, and I won't have time to do any more until Monday evening, as I have to spend the weekend at my parents'. So this will do for now, and I'll pick up the rest next week.

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

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

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

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

Bodged-on Dracula book-endsCollapse )

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

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

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

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

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4. and 5. From Dracula to The Invisible Man during a lovely weekend of loveliness

Dracula 1958 cloak
My research leave really has officially finished now, and I am back in the full throes of teaching and admin duties. The teaching I don't mind, but the admin - ugh! I haven't missed that. Death by Meetings, basically.

Still, I made sure my last weekend of freedom was a good one. I've been meaning for a long time to visit the Doctor Who and Me exhibition currently running at the National Media Museum in Bradford, which is all about the history of Doctor Who fandom since the programme began, and consists almost entirely of items lent to the museum by fans. So when the lovely diffrentcolours invited me to join a contingent of geeks from Manchester who were coming over to see it for a day-trip, I jumped at the chance - especially since said contingent turned out also to contain the equally-lovely minnesattva and (non-Mancunian) magister.

We had an awesome time, discussing which exact episode a particular Cyberman outfit was modelled on, inventing Cyberman onesies, working out which of us would be safe from Daleks due to their inexplicable inability to perceive the colour red, and generally bouncing enthusiastically off each other's geekiness, which is a highly-recommended way to spend time. My personal favourite items from the exhibition itself were:

Fan quotation, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
One of many fan quotations printed on the walls, which I'm not entirely sure really makes sense or indeed describes Doctor Who terribly accurately, but sounds cool anyway.

Docteur Qui, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
Phono Paul's TARDIS, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
Easily the best piece of fan-art in the show. I've seen pictures of it online before, but it was great to see it in the flesh.
A full-sized TARDIS which belongs to a friend of several people I know, and which was liberated from his shed and erected for the exhibition by a crack team including big_daz and nigelmouse.

It's not a huge exhibition, so within about an hour we had had our fill, and went off in search of food instead - which we found in high-quality but very reasonably-priced form at a place called Glyde House just opposite the museum. Definitely better than the OK but rather over-priced cafe in the museum itself, and an excellent place to shelter from the apocalyptic weather raging outside.

Then we discussed what to do with the afternoon. Most of the Manchester geek contingent had already made plans to catch the 3:30 train back home, but diffrentcolours, minnesattva, magister and I wanted to hang around until more like 5ish, when the also-lovely1 miss_s_b and [twitter.com profile] A_C_McGregor would be joining us after the former had finished work. And I happened to have noticed that the Media Museum was screening the restored version of Hammer's Dracula that very afternoon at 3:10, which pretty much exactly filled that gap. So yeah, I went to see Dracula on the big screen AGAIN. It would've been rude not to, right?

4. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence FisherCollapse )

Anyway, 1.5 hours spent watching Dracula are never wasted, and by the time they were finished, miss_s_b and [twitter.com profile] A_C_McGregor were waiting for us outside the cinema. So we all headed off for booze followed by curry, with a lot of laughing, more geekery and some bonus libdemmery along the way.

The following day, after sleeping off the excesses of the previous evening, I headed over to ms_siobhan and planet_andy's house. After presenting ms_siobhan with two new additions to her collection of Frightful Fridge Magnets, bought on my recent trip to Rome, we looked through the pictures she had taken the previous weekend at Wendyhouse, which are jolly impressive, and will be appearing on a website near you before very long. Then we settled down for another dose of vintage filmy goodness.

5. The Invisible Man (1933), dir. James WhaleCollapse )

Anyway, definitely worth seeing, and now that we have discovered the sequel stars none other than the marvellous Vincent Price, we might well be tracking that down very soon...

1. Basically, all of my friends are lovely, but I see no harm in saying this explicitly whenever I happen to mention them directly in a post, rather than leaving it unstated.

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3. Brides of Dracula (1960), dir. Terence Fisher

As mentioned at the end of my last Hammer Dracula review, I have set myself the intellectual challenge of seeing if I can conjure up an internally-consistent continuity framework for the entire series, even though no such thing was ever used or imagined by the people who originally made the films. For the lulz, I'm interpreting the challenge in the most extensive possible terms, and am thus going to (at least attempt) to include not only Brides of Dracula (a perfectly good film which presents no particular continuity challenges anyway) but also The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (a terrible film which utterly contradicts almost everything Hammer had done before) within my remit. May the gods have mercy upon my soul...

Brides is the first avowed sequel to Hammer's original 1958 Dracula, but in spite of its title Dracula himself is not in it. His place is taken instead by David Peel as the Baron MeinsterCollapse )

Up against the Baron is Peter Cushing as an impeccable Van HelsingCollapse )

There is a great supporting cast of classic British character actorsCollapse )

Some nice misdirection sets us up to expect that the Baroness Meinster is the vampire at the beginning of the film, She's not, but she is probably the best character in the film anywayCollapse )

Vampirism as a sort of pagan cultCollapse )

Lesbian and poly readingsCollapse )

Sets, props and other production elementsCollapse )

Next time: kung-fu vampire-hunting adventures in turn-of-the-century China - so help me.

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Danced to death

Me Cornucopia
Pre-Wendyhouse selfieI went out to Wendyhouse last night for the first time in about two years. The least appalling selfie which I took before going out is on the right, but it is physically quite difficult to press the right button on my phone-camera without dropping it or causing massive camera-shake, so I struggled to get one which showed what I was wearing without also capturing an annoyed and frustrated expression.

The Gentlemen of Leeds were obviously well-primed to make me feel good about myself once I reached the club, though, as I got several spontaneous and very charming compliments, all of which successfully steered well clear of Creepytown:
  • One made a special point of saying that he had liked my dancing. Always nice to hear.
  • Another told me that my outfit looked very expensive. In Yorkshire, this sort of comment can sometimes be code for "Well, you're a bit up yourself, aren't you?", so I quickly denied anything of the sort, but it turned out that he meant it in a very genuine "You look like a million dollars" sort of way.
  • And a third literally walked up to me, tapped me on the arm and said "Excuse me, would you like to dance?", which I didn't think was a phrase familiar to the Youth of Today. Furthermore, when I said that actually I had been just about to go and sit down for a while because my feet were killing me (which was true), he accepted that perfectly happily, pointed out the area of the dancefloor where I could find him if I changed my mind later, and walked away. Which shouldn't be a rare and noteworthy experience for a single woman in a nightclub, but sadly it very much is. If only all chaps would follow the same approach.
As for that bit about my feet killing me, I didn't understand why that was at the time. I thought the pair of boots I'd worn were trustworthy and comfortable, but by about half-way through the evening my toes and the balls of my feet were screaming in pain, and the dancing which I'd been complimented on earlier in the night had become more or less impossible to do. I wondered if maybe it was because I've just become even less used to wearing raised heels than I was last time I wore them, but when I got home into a properly-lit environment and took them off I discovered the truth:

Sad remnants Alas for the Shiny Boots of shininess They have danced their last

That mouldy-looking grey dust stuff on the floor all around them is the remains of whatever substance used once to fill the platform soles - some kind of synthetic foam-type material, I assume. I see how that would be a good filling for platform soles in the short term, as it would keep the boots relatively light compared to (say) wood, resin or plastic, in turn making them nicer to wear and move around in. But it has obviously degenerated with age since I bought the boots ten years ago, and last night was the night when it finally gave up the ghost, collapsed in on itself and began pouring out of the sides of the soles.

This means I spent half the night with the balls of my feet supported by the sorry remnants of an empty shell, rather than a nice solid platform. But because the heels remained solid and steadfast throughout, my feet were tipped forward much more than they were supposed to be, so it's no wonder that my toes hurt and the heels seemed so much higher than I'm used to than I was expecting. Today, the backs of my calves are aching rather for the same reason, and sadly the boots are clearly a total write-off.

Alas and alack for what were once a truly faithful pair of dance-floor companions. :-(

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The three - er wait, I mean six - Rs

Clone Army
miss_s_b gave me an R.

Something I hate: Reactionary social values, by which I mean believing things like "a woman's place is in the home", only particular narrowly-restricted sexual activities are acceptable, you must respect your elders (regardless of whether or not they actually deserve it), and foreigners should be treated with suspicion. I found the description of these views as 'reactionary' rather confusing when I first encountered it. It basically means 'reacting against the current status quo' (as the Wikipedia article explains), but the word in and of itself doesn't really indicate in which direction - towards greater tolerance and equality or lesser? Anyway, in context and in practice it means people who currently enjoy privilege wanting to shore up the inequalities which support it by appealing to tradition. I am a liberal, and I am against that sort of thing.

Something I love: Roses - both the flowers themselves, which I think are beautiful and smell lovely, and more particularly things which are rose-flavoured, such as Turkish Delight, rose creams and rose syrup. Rose flavoured confectionery used to be quite common a century ago, but it is such a delicate flavour that it is actually quite difficult to make it 'work' in any foodstuff and (probably more importantly) it is not easy to synthesise effectively either. So manufacturers of cheap confectionery have tended to drop it, and rose-flavoured delicacies are not at all easy to get hold of. If you ever see some in a shop and want to make me a very happy bunny, this is a fail-safe gift for me!

Somewhere I have been: Rome. Obviously! My career is centred around the study of Roman history, and more particularly Roman urban space. I tend to work with provincial cities more than Rome itself, because I am interested in how people at all levels of society negotiated with one another in the organisation of urban space, and the political importance of Rome means that the dynamics at play there were exceptional and can't be extrapolated more widely. But I still need to know Rome intimately because of the way it served as an archetype for other cities, and because of what it can also tell us about the political issues which I also teach and research. I went there just last week, this time in the name of political self-representation (specifically, Augustus') and other people's responses to it, but urban space was an important part of that too (e.g. his monuments and their post-Classical history). And I will keep going back there throughout my life, because it is such a rich city that I will never know everything there is to know about its ancient past - let alone the magnificent tapestry of contradictions which is modern Rome.

Somewhere I would like to go: Romania. Hands up - this is basically about my current fannish obsession with the Hammer Dracula franchise. But since that's an obsession which I've carried with me since before puberty, the idea of actually going to Romania and seeing the landscape which inspired the original legend is hardly a passing whim with me. What I'd really like to do is take a river cruise along the Danube, the segment of which between Vienna and Bratislava I have already travelled along with big_daz, but right from Germany to Romania this time. Then I would travel inland to the Carpathians and do the full Dracula 'thing' - i.e. visit all of the locations associated with the real historical Vlad III Drăculea, but also those which had nothing to do with him but did inspire Stoker (e.g. Bistritz, the Borgo Pass). I'm pretty confident that as a holiday this would work very much in the same way as the Wicker Man trip which I did to Scotland last March with thanatos_kalos - i.e. it would be a great way of achieving a new and deeper engagement with a story I love, but it would also lend a nice shape and structure to the exploration of places which are in any case very much worth visiting. However, doing all of that would probably require about two weeks (though of course the river cruise and Dracula's Romania sections could be separated out into two different one-week holidays), and what with the travel and work I'm going to need to do this year for Augustus' bimillennium I can't see when I would have time to fit in even half of it until that has passed.

Someone I know: rosamicula. This is a bit of a cheat, as her real-life name does not begin with an R, but as I knew her first by her LJ name, and have interacted with her here (as well as in real life) for the best part of a decade now, it is as real to me as anything on her birth certificate. rosamicula is one of the strongest, most sharp-witted, and most articulate women I know, and although the word has come to sound cheesy and empty due to widespread overuse, I do find her genuinely inspirational. I have learnt a lot from her, from why it is important to remove your make-up properly before going to bed to how to spot and avoid idiotic social fallacies and understand what is really important in life. If you enjoy food and good writing, I recommend her blog, Beggars Banquets.

Best movie: I badly want to cheat here and say [Dracula has] Risen from the Grave, because I never call it by its full title (who does?), so it effectively begins with an R for me. It is a fantastic movie, but then again I already waxed lyrical about it only very recently, so I guess I can manage without doing so here again. In which case, I will instead nominate Raw Meat, aka Death Line (1972). That's a bit of a cheat, too, since I have to call it by its American release title to sneak it in, but less brazen I think. It is a low-budget British horror movie, set in the contemporary present, and involving passengers being attacked by an unknown menace on the London Underground. It's not as widely-known as it deserves to be, but I think it's a real gem, probably above all because it succeeds in creating a very moving sense of pathos around its 'monsters' (who are actually just human beings who have themselves been very badly mistreated), even while also pulling no punches on the horror. It also has Christopher Lee in it (albeit only briefly), Donald Pleasence as a fantastic sarky Cockney copper, and lots of lovely seventies fashions. I have reviewed it in more detail here. Mind the doors!

OK, I'm done. Comment if you would like a letter of your own to play with.

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2. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), dir. Alan Gibson

Dracula 1958 cloak
Aw, sad times. With this film, I reach the end of my joyful rewatching of Hammer's Dracula series - or at least, the ones with Christopher Lee in them, anyway. I've saved it till last partly because I watched it only 18 months ago, but also because I unironically and enthusiastically love it. I am thus ending the series on a high, and I am very happy to have the opportunity to write about this film again, and in more detail than in my previous review.

As the Wikipedia article's section on its reception puts it, "Critical reaction to Dracula AD 1972 has been mixed to negative." But all the so-called critics are WrongCollapse )

But Christopher Lee's Dracula is the real draw for me, so let's talk about him. As I've noted above, keeping Dracula in the semi-ruined and deconsecrated St. Bartolph's setting, rather than out amongst clothes shops and coffee bars, helps to preserve the correct aura of Gothic mystique around his character. But it actually also follows a pattern already established in two of the earlier sequels - that is, the creepingly malicious modus operandi which I identified in Risen from the Grave and Taste the Blood. Under this model, he works at one remove through enslaved servants, rather than attacking people directly, and while he is waiting for them to bring him his desired victim, he lurks - in a cellar in Risen, and in a church in both Taste and AD 1972.

There is an important difference, in that for the first time Johnny Alucard is an entirely willing accomplice, rather than a victim like Zena and the priest in Risen or Alice in Taste. On the one hand, that's a pity, because (as as I said in relation to Taste), the concept of the enthralled servants helplessly doing things they consciously detest has a powerful creep factor. But on the other, it's nice to see something different, and the sheer pleasure which Johnny Alucard takes in his own evil-doing is great fun to watch in itself. Either way, Dracula comes out of it just as well, because the whole set-up affords him ample opportunities to be imperious and demanding and angry when the servants let him down. We never quite get the icy politeness here of his scenes with Jonathan Harker in Dracula, or with a series of uninvited castle guests in Scars, but we definitely get the haughty aristocrat. There is also plenty of dark sexuality in his predation scenes, of course, while the climactic confrontation with Van Helsing is packed full of violent monsterishness. So, good - all boxes ticked.

There was one scene, though, which really caught my attention this time because of the potential it offered for fannish insights into the Dracula character (in a similar way to the detail about him inviting a librarian to his castle in the first film). It's only a very short sequence, probably about ten seconds or so long, and has no dialogue at all. Coming roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, and cut in between sequences of Van Helsing placing a cross around Jessica's neck and Johnny Alucard disposing of a body, we see Dracula, alone, waiting in the church for Johnny to bring the right girl to him. Fairly obviously, the sequence is there to remind us of Dracula's menacing presence in the story, driving the actions of the other characters. Also fairly obviously, for a scene like this you can't just show Dracula sitting around looking at his watch and maybe drumming his fingers a bit. If he's going to be on the screen, he needs to be doing something a bit evil and Gothic-looking. Otherwise, you're just not conveying the necessary menace. So dry leaves blow across the floor of the church, a moonbeam shines in from the right, and Dracula waits...

Dracula dancing alone 3 Dracula dancing alone 4

The direction given to Christopher Lee for this scene was probably something along the lines of "Pace towards the centre of the church, Chris, and then when you get to your mark stop, do a full turn and give your cloak a good swirl." That's exactly what he does, and I'm sure it conveys the intended theme of 'Dracula waiting impatiently' very nicely, with the added bonus of also showing off the excellent work of the costume department. Except that if you are looking at it with feverishly fannish eyes, as I currently am, whole extra layers of character are opened up by this scene. We very rarely see Dracula completely alone, you see, and certainly not alone and not also engaged in the urgent business of chasing after girls or escaping from his enemies. But suddenly, here he is - alone and at his leisure. And what do we discover he likes to do in these circumstances? Pace around and swirl his cloak - for fun. He's practically dancing in fact, on his own, in the middle of the church. Perhaps in evil self-satisfaction at having just drained two victims in rapid succession (Gaynor and then Johnny), and how well his plans in general seem to be going? Or perhaps just because he likes the feel of the movement? It's hard to say, but it is fascinating, and definitely a side of Dracula which we don't normally get to see in these stories.

Finally, another Thing Which Gets Said about this film is that because the opening sequence is set in 1872, it and Satanic Rites "do not correspond to the chronology established in the Victorian/Edwardian era films", the first of which is set in 1885. But this view is the result of an impoverished imagination and a failure to notice that the Van Helsing of the first film is not called Lawrence. I'm pretty confident that with a little lateral thinking, the entire sequence of films can be rammed into a perfectly sound continuity framework, even though they were never written in the first place with anything of the sort in mind. But to do that properly takes us rather beyond this particular film, and I will still need to go back and check a few details in some of the other films before I can really nail it. So I will save that for a later post.

Meanwhile, if, under the influence of some strange madness, delusion, or perhaps genius, you love this film as much as I do, there is a four-minute contemporary 'featurette' on it here complete with some fantastic behind-the-scenes footage and a bit of pontificating from Christopher Lee. Essential viewing, I think you'll agree, and especially for the way Dracula's wig blows straight up into the air at around 02:35, making him look for all the world like a member of an early 80s goth-punk band. LOVE!

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1. Dracula's Daughter (1936), dir. Lambert Hillyer

This was part two of our New Year's Eve viewing, and because we watched this one after midnight it counts as the first film I watched in 2014. Start as you mean to go on, I say. It was a recent purchase by ms_siobhan, which of course I was very happy to watch given that I had only just rewatched Universal's Dracula (1931) myself on Christmas Day.

This is a direct sequel to the previous film, to the extent that the action starts immediately after the ending of the last one, with two policemen discovering Van (or here technically 'Von') Helsing loitering suspiciously outside the scene of an apparent murder. But unlike in the Hammer franchise, Dracula himself is not resurrected for the new story. We see what I presume was a waxwork model of Bela Lugosi lying staked to death in his coffin (apparently unaffected by the crumbling-into-dust phenomenon which Hammer made such play of, and which originates in Stoker's book), but he remains resolutely dead. Instead, as per the title, the vampire at the centre of this story is Dracula's daughter, the Countess Marya Zaleska. Exactly in what sense she is his 'daughter', when he was 500 years old but she says she became a vampire 100 years ago isn't quite clear, but I presume we're supposed to understand that he made her into a vampire, rather than literally being her father in the human sense.

The gender-switch apparently opened up a whole new angle on vampirism for the script-writer (essentially Garrett Fort, who also scripted the 1931 film, though there were two very different first drafts before he pretty much rewrote the entire story). Though there is some pathos to Dracula's character in the first film (as I noted in my review), it isn't the centre of that story. Here, though, the main narrative arc for the Countess concerns her attempts to rid herself of Dracula's influence over her after his death, including turning to a psychiatrist in a quest to overcome her vampiric urges. It looks very much like Fort (or one of his script-writing predecessors) found it easy to imagine a female vampire feeling guilt, experiencing conflicting urges, worrying about them, etc. - in short, Having Emotions - in a way that had not really occurred to him (or the writers of the original Dracula stage-play) for a male vampire.

The Countess is also distinctly more sexual / romantic about her predation than Lugosi's Dracula ever was (though, again, it's not totally absent with him). Here, Fort (or his predecessors) could draw on a well-established tradition of sexy female vampires, dating right back to Le Fanu's Carmilla, as well as on the early 20th-century film image of the vamp. Vamps, of course, were typically dark-haired, giving rise to one particular line which shows up the cultural gulf between the 1930s and the 2010s. When the Countess arrives at an evening party, looking amazing in one of many fabulous frocks which she wears throughout the film, the male romantic lead of the piece, Dr. Garth, cannot help but stare, prompting his would-be-girlfriend, Janet, to proclaim that she won't be leaving him alone "while there's a dangerous-looking brunette like that around." We're more used to hearing blondes described like that today, of course - which only goes to show what arbitrary social constructions lie behind both notions.

But the Countess proves alluring not only to male characters like Dr. Garth. There are also some very distinct overtones of lesbianism to the story, especially during one scene when the Countess lures a young woman off the street by asking her to pose for her as an artist's model, and then of course feeds on her, and another in which she nearly (but not quite) does the same to Janet, Dr. Garth's by-then-actual-girlfriend. The Wikipedia article on the film has a very good section on this aspect of it, and is quite right to say that the Countess's sense of inner conflict about her vampirism, and attempts to overcome it via psychiatric treatment, map well onto the early-20th century view of homosexuality as a mental illness which could be 'cured' in the same way.

The film lacks the expressionistic touches of Dracula (1931), since the people who had created that the first time round were no longer involved. Instead, it is primarily set in a solidly modern-looking London. During the last ten minutes, though, the action suddenly shifts to Transylvania, where the Countess has fled back to her castle with the kidnapped Janet, and we find ourselves in a world of curving staircases, dusty draperies, strange mists and broken battlements. It seemed a bit of a waste to me to have spent so much money building these sets for only ten minutes of action, but it was nice to see them at all.

Meanwhile, there are various other themes and touches which together add up to a really pretty decent film. The science vs. superstition theme from the original novel is retained in the way that Dr. Garth the psychiatrist is set off against the Countess with her supernatural powers, as well as a montage scene which shows the human characters using newspapers and telegraphs to try to track down Janet's kidnapper, and the way they chase the Countess to Transylvania by car and aeroplane. The idea of a parasitic aristocracy preying on the poor, also inherent in the original novel, is well-developed here too. The Countess is explicitly described as 'aristocratic' in the dialogue, and of course we see her preying on the street girl who believes she is getting work as an artist's model. But in the end her treatment of her social inferiors becomes her undoing, when her loyal servant, Sandor, turns against her because she has haughtily denied him immortality, and shoots her with a wooden arrow that acts on her like a stake.

The dialogue, characterisation and acting are all worth the price of entrance (or the DVD), too. ms_siobhan was particularly taken with the police chief who gruffly demands, "What new piece of asininity is this?" when summoned from his bed in the middle of the night by Van Helsing and his mad theories about vampires. But there are lots of great lines and great secondary characters to speak them. I particularly liked one friend of Dr. Garth's, played by Claud Allister, who was to all intents and purposes a slightly older Bertie Wooster, always looking for a good party and calling people "old fellow" a lot. Indeed, in all honesty I think that the characterisation, the acting, and the plot are all rather better here than in the 1931 Dracula, though I can see why the sheer originality of the first film, and its expressionistic atmosphere, somehow still mean that the sum of its parts is greater, even if the individual elements aren't.

Finally, it's pretty clear that Hammer picked up a few tricks from this film, just as they did its predecessor. These would include:
  • The entire idea of Dracula sequels.
  • Sexy female vampires with a strong lesbian overtones - the Karnstein Trilogy; Helen's approach towards Diana in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (though obviously this is mainly because both studios are drawing on an existing tradition which itself pre-dates Dracula's Daughter).
  • A female aristocrat who loathes her own vampirism - Baroness Meinster in Brides of Dracula.
  • A vampire's loyal servant - the two Kloves in Prince of Darkness and Scars of Dracula.
  • Who demands immortality - Johnny Alucard in Dracula AD 1972 (though this is inherent in Stoker's original character of Renfield, too).
  • And turns against his mistress / master - Klove in Scars.
  • The servant's name, Sandor - perhaps appropriated for Father Sandor in Prince of Darkness?
  • The principal vampire dying at the end in a way which is more exciting than a mere common-or-garden staking - every Hammer Dracula film ever.
In short, worth seeing in its own right, worth seeing as an important stage in the evolution of the vampire movie, and a damned fine way to start off the New Year!

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28. Martin (1977), dir. George A. Romero

Penny Dreadful
So, catching up on some film reviews, then, plus a little bonus "wot I did for NYE", since that's when I watched both of the two I'm about to write up.

I spent New Year's Eve, as I often do, at the home of the lovely ms_siobhan and planet_andy. Upon my arrival, chief cocktail-maker-in-residence planet_andy fixed me a Vampire, while ms_siobhan stuffed some innocent field mushrooms with a mixture of leek, onions, breadcrumbs and stilton. She was nervous about how this would turn out, but she needn't have been - it was delicious, as was the dessert of torn-up panettone, cherries soaked in kirsch, and brandy cream which followed. It was all very festive, and washed down very nicely with port served in shot glasses shaped like two back-to-back skulls - a sort of Gothic version of Janus, the evening's presiding deity.

Once we had eaten, we got down to the serious business of watching vintage horror films, timing the evening to perfection so that we could fit in one before midnight and one afterwards. We began with George A. Romero's Martin, which is essentially a vampire film, but works as a deconstruction of the genre, and in my view does that really really well. The central conceit is that we never know whether the main character, Martin, is a 'real' vampire or notCollapse )

Yet of course at the same time the very mythology vs. reality dichotomy which the film is setting up around Martin is quite deliberately false anyway. We all know perfectly well as we watch it that vampires aren't real, so by deconstructing traditional vampire mythology even while claiming to tell the story of a 'real' vampire, the film becomes meta-referential, signalling its own identity as a narrative and forcing us to think about how films work and what 'reality' even means in this context anyway. That is powerful stuff, and I think is what has made me keep returning to the film on a regular basis ever since I first watched it as a teenager. In a way, it means that Martin can't exactly be called 'a very good vampire film', because the meta-referentiality takes it out of that category, turning it into a commentary on vampire films (and wider mythology) instead. But it is certainly a very good film - though one which other horror film fans seem to know of or talk about much less than I think it deserves.

It also uses Martin's condition, and his family's reaction to it, as a metaphor for family responses to various types of more prosaic misfitsCollapse )

Meanwhile, the film is also a very beautiful portrait of a depressed American industrial town in the late '70sCollapse )

I don't normally subscribe to the notion that knowing the plot of a film before you see it 'spoils' it, but for once the ending of this one is which is very much worth experiencing unspoiled if you can, because it carries a shock effect which works very well as a troubling climax to the whole set of questions that the film has been exploring about fantastical vampire mythology at one end of the reality spectrum and mental illness and family relations at the other. So stop reading now if you haven't seen this film and ever plan toCollapse )

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27. Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning

I spent Sunday in Birmingham having a late, time-shifted family Christmas. It went well - we enjoyed a nice lamb dinner, of which Dad was able to eat a modest but reasonable portion, gazed adoringly at Eloise, who played in the middle of the floor like a little angel, and exchanged various well-received presents. Amongst these in my case were all of the Hammer Dracula films which I didn't already have on DVD, and since I knew in advance that Santa had these up his sleeve, I have been deliberately putting off my final remaining re-watch (of Dracula A.D. 1972) until I got the DVD. So on Christmas afternoon, when I had eaten my roast duck and fancied indulging in some Gothic horror until it was time for Doctor Who, I curled up instead in front of an earlier generation's telling of the Dracula story - the famous original screen production from Universal starring Bela Lugosi. Partly I wanted to see where the Hammer series was coming from - where were they following in Universal's footsteps, and where were they innovating? But also I have only seen this film once before anyway, and that seemed a bit neglectful. I've seen Nosferatu (1922) on the big screen more often than that, for heaven's sake! So I also wanted to re-visit it for its own sake - especially now that I have spent so much time in the Cottage Road cinema watching other films of this vintage, and can therefore perhaps understand it better in its original context.

ExpressionismCollapse )

Relationship to Stoker's novelCollapse )

But it is Dracula that I'm really here for, so let's talk about him. First of all let's be honest and say that Bela Lugosi can't really win with me. My first experience of Dracula was Christopher Lee's portrayal for Hammer, and for all that I read the book soon afterwards, have since read up about the real Vlad Drăculea, and recognise Lugosi's iconic status as the first proper screen Dracula and his influence on subsequent portrayals (including Lee's), Lee still remains the definitive Dracula for me - and more importantly my favourite. This means that all poor Bela can really do in my eyes is not be enough like Christopher Lee. It doesn't even matter how well he interprets Stoker's character. Lee gets a free pass on that in my book, because I like his Dracula better than Stoker's. But Lugosi doesn't, so he's liable to criticism from me for both a) not playing Stoker's Dracula accurately enough and b) still not being the Dracula I really want to see anyway, even if he plays Stoker's character to perfection. Totes unfair, huh? But there it is - I'm making no pretensions to objectivity here. Nonetheless, let's take Lugosi's Dracula apart to see what makes him tick, and how he compares to both Stoker's character and Lee's interpretation.

As I've said repeatedly in my Hammer reviews, I like Lee's Dracula best when he hits three notes within the same film - icily aristocraticCollapse )

Darkly sexualCollapse )

And violently monsterishCollapse )

Two further notes also need discussing - perhaps we could call them harmonics to the main chord - malice and pathosCollapse )

So, yeah, six paragraphs supposedly about Bela Lugosi's Dracula which are really all about why he's not as good as Christopher Lee's. I told you I wasn't approaching this issue with an entirely open mind. I do see that Lugosi's interpretation has a magnetism and a mystique of its own which worked well on screen and was well suited to the tastes of the 1930s, and fully appreciate the contribution which he made to the ongoing evolution of the character. Lee couldn't have done what he did if Lugosi hadn't gone before him. But I know what I prefer.

Meanwhile, beyond the performances of the main actor, these are some of the other specific connections I can see between Universal's Dracula and the Hammer franchise:
  • Dracula's opera cloak and ring have their origins here (on screen, anyway - still photos show they originated in the stage production), though Lugosi wears the collar of his cloak up while Lee wore it down, and Hammer did not import his white tie and tails. For their first film in particular, Hammer stick closer to the book, since Stoker's Dracula was dressed entirely in black, though from Prince onwards he has a red lining to his cloak.
  • Lugosi also gives us for the first time Dracula's habit of using said opera cloak to envelop his victims as he bites them, like the wings of a bat, which Christopher Lee also does in his earlier films - e.g. with Lucy in Dracula (1958) and Helen in Prince (1966).
  • Universal's general policy was clearly never to show us any actual biting, which would presumably have been too risqué, but instead to cut away or have Dracula and his victim move out of sight at the crucial moment, and this is more or less where Hammer start too, although we already see a little more even in the first film. But Hammer's biting scenes inevitably get progressively more explicit as censorship rules relax and they need to outdo their own previous efforts.
  • At Castle Dracula, Lugosi appears for the first time at the head of a flight of steps, coming down them to greet his visitor. This is definitely a filmic innovation, since in the book Dracula greets Harker at the castle door. Dracula (1958) also employs Universal's flight of steps device - and to excellent effect.
  • Dracula's castle is a semi-ruin with some rooms in good condition, as is also the case in Scars of Dracula (1970). Again, this isn't a case of both films drawing independently from the book, because Dracula's castle is perfectly sound in the book, if dusty and unoccupied in parts, except for the chapel which is in ruins.
  • A large and obviously fake rubber bat hangs about the castle doing Dracula's bidding. Hammer's immediate response to this was to avoid bats altogether, but by Scars they had thrown caution to the wind and were just going for it anyway. The effect is very much akin to Dracula (1931).
  • All scary, predatory close-ups of Lugosi feature a strong line of light across his eyes while the rest of his face remains in shadow. This is used in the first Hammer film too, when Dracula appears on the terrace outside Lucy's bedroom window, and also crops up repeatedly in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), as I noted when I reviewed it.
  • We never see Lugosi getting out of his coffin - only the lid moving, his hand appearing through the opening, and then a cut to a scene of him standing beside it. On one of the commentary tracks for the Hammer series (I think for Dracula, Prince of Darkness), Christopher Lee notes that this was also a conscious directorial decision for the Hammer series, on the grounds that the clambering required would make Dracula look too awkward and prosaic.
  • Universal use an assistant at Seward's asylum named Martin as a comic relief character. Hammer do much the same with an undertaker and a customs official in Dracula (1958), and with similar characters in their later films. I think there may be a few comic policemen etc. in Stoker's novel, though, and in any case it is a well-recognised literary device for leavening dark or horrific stories, so this one may not be a case of direct emulation.
  • When Van Helsing brandishes a crucifix at Lugosi's Dracula, he reacts with a hiss and a sweep of his cloak, both of which very much became part of Christopher Lee's repertoire in similar circumstances.
  • Dracula twice lurks beneath the trees in Seward's garden - once to communicate with Renfield and then later again to draw Mina to him and enfold her in his cloak. He does this pretty much constantly throughout Taste the Blood, too.
  • Dracula sweeps off, carrying Mina in his arms, to hide her away in Carfax Abbey, just as Christopher Lee also does repeatedly with a series of girls in Dracula, Prince, Scars and probably others.
  • After Dracula has been defeated and Mina and Jon(athan) walk out of Carfax Abbey together, we hear the sound of church bells - just as we do in this equivalent scene for both Dracula and Risen from the Grave (and quite probably several other entries in the Hammer franchise, too).
So there is definitely a lot of inter-textuality. Obviously Universal and Hammer were working from the same source material, and there are certain expected motifs which were bound to crop up in both of their films. But there are enough direct resemblances which don't have anything to do with the book to suggest that the Hammer team took quite a few cues from the 1931 film over the course of their own adaptations - especially the more obviously filmic aspects like strip-lighting across Dracula's eyes, the decision not to show him getting out of his coffin and the use of church bells to signal the destruction of his demonic influence. The fact is that the Hammer films I love so much couldn't have happened without Universal and Bela Lugosi, and for that I'm very grateful.

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New Who Christmas 2013 special: The Time of the Doctor

Eleven dude
OK, yes, internet. I think we are all agreed that that wasn't the best episode of Doctor Who ever. But that's OK. Not every episode in the world's longest-running SF show can be brilliant.

The basic problem this time is that Moffat pretty much just put up on screen all the notes he's been keeping about how the time crack, the Silence, the question hiding in plain sight, Trenzalore and the Lore of the Twelve Regenerations should be resolved, without troubling to knit them into a coherent story or to give them any emotional weight. They were all there, all answered - tick, tick, tick - and it's nice to get the twelve regenerations thing sorted and out of the way especially. But they came too fast, devolved into rabid canon-fodder, and most of us ceased to even care because there wasn't enough of a story to bind them together.

Still, there ya go. Tasha Lem was pretty cool, although considering she was the most fleshed-out newly-introduced character of the entire story, I could still have done with a bit more time getting to know her. I hope we might see more of her in future, anyway. Also nice to meet Clara's family - and perhaps we'll see more of them, too, now that Moffat has gone to the trouble of inventing them? It's not like they were really needed for this one episode, so I hope they have a future in some others. And I did very much like the idea of the Doctor growing old in Christmas town, knowing that he can never leave and never win, but fighting off enemy after enemy all the same, and counting each one as a victory. In some ways it reminded me of The Last Doctor, a short story which Paul Cornell wrote for Christmas 2009 - except that Cornell's story is much, much better, because it has characters and emotions in it, and a still small calm at its core, rather than just a whole shopping list of enemies and plot elements.

The small things:
  • When the Doctor talked about making an invented boyfriend, and said that there was "no easy way to get rid of an android", was that seriously a shout-out to Kamelion? A genuine question - I still haven't seen any of his episodes, so can't answer properly myself.
  • Or maybe he just meant Handles, who was excellent, and a lot like K9?
  • I'm no Strictly Come Dancing fan, but I liked that it was on the telly in the Oswalds' flat. That's the kind of ordinary lives touch that RTD used to be so good at, and which I miss sorely - not to mention a lovely cheeky BBC bit of self-inter-textuality.
  • The people in Christmas town telling the Doctor to "be happy here" reminded me of the creepy villagers in Children of the Stones wishing each other 'happy day' all the time. Except that that came to nothing, because the locals weren't actually creepy at all. Pity, really.
  • I liked the idea of the Silence's true purpose being to act as confessional priests, with everyone forgetting what they have said to them. That gives them a depth they've never quite had before for me.
  • And yeah, the poem which ends "Eleven's hour is over now, the clock is striking Twelve's" was nicely used.
Otherwise, that's it. I have nothing more to say about this episode. On to a proper Peter Capaldi story, please.

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Dracula's festive invitation

Saturnalian Santa
Dracula is hoping you will join him for Christmas day this year.

Dracula Scars Santa hat

It'll be just you and him. He doesn't actually have any friends, you see. Or family. Unfortunately, he killed them all.

There's also no food as such. He's a bit confused about how that works or why anyone might want it.

The wine is the best you will ever have, though. Rich, full-bodied... and still warm.

Merry Christmas!

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