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This book is obviously exceptionally relevant to my interests! The main body works its way through each of the sixteen vampire films made by Hammer from the 1950s to '70s, covering the production process for each one followed by commentary on the story itself, its themes and its cultural resonances. It also sets the Hammer films themselves into the wider context of the evolving vampire genre through opening and closing chapters on screen vampires before and after their heyday, as well as references to related contemporary productions in the main chapters.

The source material is a combination of other published work (contemporary reviews and publicity, more recent books on Hammer, its stars and its productions) and interviews conducted directly by Hallenbeck himself over the years - often for his articles in the occasional horror magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors. Because I spend most of my time reading academic books, I struggled a bit initially with the fact that the publications Hallenbeck had used weren't properly referenced (e.g. via footnotes), but their authors and titles are provided in the text and / or in a bibliography at the back of the book, so I eventually realised that they were all traceable - it's just that actually doing so would require a bit more digging than it might have done. In fact, this book is as well-researched as could reasonably be expected given that it isn't aspiring to academic levels of rigour and support.

I didn't feel I'd got a great deal out of either the opening or the closing chapters, basically because of what they were taking on - giving a bird's-eye overview of a large number of films in a short number of pages. It was never going to be possible to say anything very original about them in that context, so most of it I already knew or could have read on the relevant Wikipedia pages if I didn't. But the main chapters have a lot of interest and detail to offer, even for someone like me coming to them with a very good knowledge of these films already, while Hallenbeck's commentaries on the stories are good at drawing out the themes and dynamics at work within them.

Some points I found particularly interesting follow below:

In re the references to vampirism as a survival of an ancient pagan cult in Brides of Dracula, Hallenbeck says that producer Anthony Hinds 'professed himself to be enamoured' with pagan religion (p. 64). This rings true from the content of several of the films he was involved in, which certainly reflect a prurient thrill around paganism, but it's one of the statements in the book which isn't properly referenced - it might come from an interview in Little Shoppe of Horrors #10/11 which is listed in the bibliography, but that isn't fully clear, and Google isn't bringing up anything much to support it. That's annoying, because I'd like to know more about it.

Hallenbeck cites interviews with both Andree Melly (Gina in Brides, p. 63) and Barbara Shelley (Helen in Prince of Darkness, p. 94) saying that they were explicitly encouraged by Terence Fisher to play up the lesbian connotations of their lines after they have been transformed into vampires (respectively, "Put you arms around me, please - I want to kiss you Marianne" and "You don't need... Charles"). As he points out, Hammer later moved on to entirely explicit lesbian vampirism with The Vampire Lovers (1970), but it's interesting to know that it was consciously and deliberately being slipped past the censors in subtextual form as early as Brides (1960).

Shelley further states (same page) that to prepare for her role as a vampire, and particularly to lend herself the required air of 'evil and decadence', she drew on the days when she 'used to study the old Greek dramas and studied the use of that sort of feeling of the Furies'. Very interesting indeed to see her instinctively turning to classical archetypes there, in a markedly similar way to Bram Stoker, John Polidori and more.

Hallenbeck isn't a big fan of Dracula AD 1972 himself, but he gives it a fair write-up, and I was fascinated to note that this included multiple references to good reviews which came out on its original release. This isn't to say there were also some pretty luke-warm ones, but Variety liked its slick script and fast pace, and Films and Filming thought it had a fresh cast playing against a background of quality (both p. 163). That's interesting, because less fair-minded contemporary commentators tend to foster the impression that it was widely received as an ill-conceived mis-step even on first release (as opposed to dating quickly, which is a different matter), but that obviously isn't entirely true. It was also clear by this point in Hallenbeck's book how much Hammer's real problems in this period stemmed from struggling to get proper promotion and distribution for their films - i.e. if audiences were slipping away, it's partly because they simply didn't know about or couldn't access new releases, rather than necessarily because they hated them (though I realise that if audiences had remained really keen, the distributors would have been sure to cater to them).

He's not a great fan of Vampire Circus (1972) either, the difference there being that this time I agree with him (LJ / DW)! Indeed, he introduces it thus: 'The vampire as child-molester. If that sounds like a distasteful idea, it was only one of the many in Hammer's Vampire Circus...' That's without even mentioning the supposed monster attacking people in the woods which is actually quite clearly a sock-puppet. Hallenbeck's behind-the-scenes details do cast quite a bit of light on why I didn't much enjoy it, though - e.g. I noted in my review that this was director Robert Young's first film, and he was clearly a bit out of his depth, and Hallenbeck fleshes this out by explaining the time-pressures and poor communication from the producer and head office which exacerbated the problem.

Beyond those points, I obviously generally enjoyed revisiting and expanding my knowledge of the Dracula films, and also came away feeling I must (in most cases re-)watch their other non-Dracula films (apart from Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos, both of which I've seen already within the last few years). As luck would have it, the one I want to see most, Kiss of the Vampire, was on the Horror Channel yesterday, so I now have that safely recorded and ready to enjoy in the full light of Hallenbeck's commentary. It's definitely one I'll keep taking down from the shelf as I revisit these films over the years.


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Castling and boozing

These were the other two main things we spent our time on while in Scotland, although I'm sure Bram Stoker would have approved heartily of both. I'll cover them below in the order in which we did them, with cuts to save your scrolling fingers.

We began our holiday in Inverness, from where we visited two local castles. The first was Cawdor, of "All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!" fame, although far from being the sort of blasted ruin those words immediately conjure up, it is actually the very nicely-maintained living seat of the Cawdor family, and since we visited it in brilliant sunshine in early June, my prevailing memories of it will always be of the incredible smells and colours which filled its gardens and the banks of the stream which runs alongside it. It all made me think rather of Lord Summerisle's Castle, with its similarly bountiful gardens, dark wood furniture and armour on the walls, and even had some topiary in the garden which looked awfully like a pair of spread thighs to me. The family's motto, visible on various parts of the castle, is 'Be Mindful', and struck me as a nice example of the Tiffany problem - a perfectly valid early modern motto which now sounds anachronistic thanks to modern hipsterism.

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Floweriness, mottoes and some almost Wicker-Mannish topiary under hereCollapse )

Cawdor was followed by Urquhart, on the shores of Loch Ness, which of course reminded me of another ruthless English-accented aristocrat, Francis Urquhart. He wasn't home, and nor was Nessie, but the castle was a very aesthetically-pleasing ruin which probably looked better for the fact that the skies had clouded over while we journeyed there from Cawdor than it would have done in bright sunshine. I mean, sunshine just isn't very Scottish-castley, is it?

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More lakeside broken battlements under hereCollapse )

Back in Inverness that evening, I took advantage of the opportunity to meet up with local resident celtic_rose, whom I have been LJ friends with for c. 10 years now, but had never met in person. She took me to a local bar called Scotch and Rye, where we had a grand old time chatting away, eating dinner and working our way through their extensive cocktail menu, trying a cocktail each from every one of the first four pages. We decided at 11pm that moving onto page five would probably be a bad idea, although celtic_rose did go back and continue the great work the following evening! We were obviously having such a lovely time together than when we paid at the end of the night, our waitress asked us if we were celebrating anything special. Yes, we replied - meeting IRL for the first time after a decade of online friendship!

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The next day we set off for Cruden Bay, where we started with Slains Castle (as per yesterday's post). After that, our next stop was Dunnottar Castle, which stands on an incredibly-dramatic rocky headland that can only be reached via a narrow spur and a lot of steps.

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Various additional pics under here, including one of four DracSoc members admiring its giant cisternCollapse )

The next morning saw us at possibly the second most exciting castle of the trip after Slains, by virtue of a similar combination of Gothic literary relevance and unkempt, enter-at-your-own risk promise: Gight Castle, the ancestral seat of Lord Byron's family. He never got the chance to own it, because his father gambled the family fortune away and it was seized by creditors, but the best-read member of the Dracula Society told us he would have been conceived there, and I believe her. It isn't really a 'castle' as such - more of a fortified manor-house in a green and pleasant valley, but anyway it was marvellous fun to rummage around, cautiously testing our footing and daring to climb up piles of rubble to the first floor, all again under suitably-grey Scottish skies and with nary another soul besides ourselves in sight. I'm sure Byron himself would be very pleased with how it has all ended up.

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More Romantic ruination under hereCollapse )

Thence onwards to Huntly Castle, whose Earls belonged to the same Clan Gordon of which the Byron family were a branch.

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More details of its decorative stone-work, plus a silly picture of me pretending to be a prisoner taken by NinaCollapse )

Finally, it would be rude to visit Scotland without going to a whisky distillery. We went to Strathisla, which is one of a handful of distilleries claiming to be the oldest in Scotland(!). It is certainly very picturesque anyway, and as a great lover of Scotch whisky I enjoyed learning properly about how it is made. I'll have a better understanding of the vocabulary used to describe it in future - such as knowing that when a whisky is described as 'peaty', this is not because it is made with peaty water (as I had assumed), but because the malted barley is dried out over a peat fire before being ground up to go into the whisky. After our tour of the distillery itself, we were treated to a tasting in a lovely darkened room lined with leather chairs and tables with rows of tasting glasses, which was very pleasant indeed.

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More stills, barrels and DracSoc members in leather chairs hereCollapse )

I thought their 12 year old single malt, just called Strathisla, was fairly pleasant, but I wasn't blown away by it and could take or leave their blends, so did not buy a bottle to take home. However, in the duty-free shop at Aberdeen airport I discovered a bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which I have been in quasi-religious raptures about ever since trying it at one of Alistair Carmichael's whisky tasting sessions at Lib Dem conference in Southport, and which I'd enjoyed a dram or two of in Inverness and Cruden Bay as well. So I coughed up and carted the precious nectar carefully home, where I immediately also ordered a pair of the proper whisky tasting glasses which Alistair uses, and which they'd also given us at the Strathisla distillery. They really do make a big difference to how the aromas reach your nose, and given that the whisky itself cost the best part of £60, I wanted to ensure I was getting the most out of it!

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I had my first little dram last night, and it really is very special. My prevailing experience of it on my first try at Southport was that it tastes of bonfires, and it still does, but there are all sorts of other notes which come out as it oxidises and you add little drops of water - chocolate, musty leather, crème brûlée and something spicy between ginger and cumin. Definitely one to enjoy in moderation, and perhaps especially as the winter nights draw in, but an excellent souvenir to have brought back from my summer holiday.


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Bram Stoker's Cruden Bay

Just over a week ago I went on a five-day holiday to Scotland with DracSoc. As usual, there was a particular Gothic literature-related theme to our trip: in this case, that our main destination, Cruden Bay, was also Bram Stoker's favourite holiday spot, where he spent the month of August at least twelve time from 1893 onwards. But, while we were in the area, we also took the opportunity to visit its best castles and various other local attractions. I'm going to write up the experience in those two parts - first the stuff directly related to Bram Stoker, and then everything else.

Cruden Bay is a tiny fishing village on the east coast of Scotland. According to local Stoker expert Mike Shepherd (on whom more below), Bram discovered it after walking down the coast from holiday accommodation in the larger town of Peterhead, and decided that its quiet character, beautiful beach and coastal walks were more to his taste. Thereafter, it became his regular holiday destination, and importantly for us he stayed there for the first time in 1893 - half-way through the period of 1890-97 when he was slowly writing Dracula. Since he was so busy as Henry Irving's theatre manager throughout the rest of those years, he must have written most of the novel during his summer holidays in Cruden Bay.

The first two years, he stayed in the Kilmarnock Hotel, where we were lucky enough to be able to see his signature in the guest-book from his second visit in 1894:

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After that, he began renting out a local cottage, now called Hilton, which has a garden with views over the surrounding bay. Again according to Mike, his own conversations with the current owners of the cottage, plus interviews which a journalist conducted in the 1960s, both brought up local memories of people regularly seeing Bram seated at a table in the garden writing - which of course would have included him finishing off Dracula during his first couple of years there.

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Obviously, as many DracSoc members as possible stayed in the Kilmarnock Arms, but as they only had a limited number of available rooms, I was amongst a group of five who stayed up the road in the Cruden Bay Bed & Breakfast instead. I had absolutely no complaints about that, though - it was a very comfortable place with a genial host called Ian who enjoyed hearing all about our exploits and regaling us with his anecdotes, and bless him had gone to the trouble to make us feel welcome by decking the place out with vampire-related tat finery and even leaving a copy of Dracula out for us in the reception area in case we needed to refresh our memories!

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Later on in life, Bram obviously came to find Cruden Bay too busy and bustling for his tastes, and instead began staying in a cottage at the even smaller village of Whinnyfold.

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This overlooks a bay with dramatic rock formations, where seals were resting and calling out eerily when we visited. Apparently, it features heavily in one of his later novels, The Mystery of the Sea, which is entirely based in the local area, and features the ghosts of centuries' worth of sailors who have drowned on the rocks emerging from the mist and climbing, zombie-like, up the zig-zag path to the top of the cliffs.

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Between Cruden Bay and Whinnyfold is a beautiful curving golden sand beach, along which Bram used to like to walk, either with his wife Florence, or on his own with one hand behind his back and his head bowed, deep in thought as he worked out the next stages of his latest story.

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Here you can see Mike Shepherd (on the right holding a sheaf of paper) guiding a select handful of DracSoc members along the beach, talking to us about the local landscape, what we know of Bram Stoker's visits there, and the various ways in which it inspired his writing.

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One such feature, at the Cruden Bay end of the beach, is this little cove, known as the Watter's Mou', about which he wrote a short story of the same name.

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Just as we got to this, three deer, who had been startled by a man nearby walking his dog, came bounding past within a few metres of us, over a fence and off across a beautiful big green field of ripening wheat.

The biggest and most Gothic attraction, though, was Slains Castle, which stands on the cliffs just beyond the Watter's Mou' at the north end of the bay, and can be seen from almost anywhere within the village. Today, it is a ruin, having been de-roofed and partially demolished by an owner who no longer wished either to live in or pay taxes on it in the 1920s, but in Bram's day it was a splendid stately home, which he may well have visited. Certainly, it has two particular features which have their counterparts in Dracula's castle, which itself is clearly perfectly habitable with only a few partially-ruined features (the chapel, the battlements) in the novel. One is a tower perched right over a cliff-edge, which I struggled to really capture with my phone camera, but in real life very much lives up to the following description from chapter 3 of Dracula: "The castle is on the very edge of a terrific precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything!"

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The other is an internal octagonal room which may well have been the inspiration for these sentences from chapter 2: "The Count halted, putting down my bags, closed the door, and crossing the room, opened another door, which led into a small octagonal room lit by a single lamp, and seemingly without a window of any sort. Passing through this, he opened another door, and motioned me to enter." Obviously, octagonalness is likewise difficult to capture in a single shot, but anyway this is the room in question - though unlike the Count's equivalent, clearly it did have windows:

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With or without those two features, though, Slains Castle is a very splendid place to explore, offering all the fun of ruination but also a largely-intact structure which means you can get a good look at the architecture underneath the original decorative facade, almost as though the outer finery had been peeled away, and also means that there are lots of enticing spaces to poke noses into and discover. Since it is still privately-owned and not maintained as a tourist attraction by Historic Scotland or the like, there are no health-and-safety features, it's all entirely at your own risk, and indeed a local woman called Jill who is campaigning to get the castle preserved and protected pointed out to us how one doorway lintel had collapsed since her own last visit only two weeks earlier. So, I join her in hoping that the remaining structure will be bought up by the Scottish government, stabilised and made safe for visitors in the near future. But at the same time, in its current state it makes for a wonderful playground to explore, so long as you pay due care and attention, and I'm very glad I got to see it this way.

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This book presents a transcript of and commentary on a journal kept by Bram Stoker between 1871 and 1882, which was left by his wife Florence to their son Noel, and passed down from him to Noel Dobbs, Bram's great-grandson, who lives today on the Isle of Wight. It was clearly more of a commonplace book or writer's notebook than a personal diary of the kind Stoker's characters write in Dracula, and contains 310 entries consisting of ideas he's had, bits of poetry, scenes he's observed in daily life, stories and jokes people have told him etc. Indeed, it's not unlike the sort of stuff people put on social media these days, with one entry in particular which records his inner turmoil after a child has called him ugly striking me as particularly classic LJ / DW fare! Most date from his mid-twenties to early thirties when he was living in Dublin, working for the civil service and writing theatre reviews in the evenings, although a few reflect his transition to London to work for Henry Irving, which happened in 1878.

The editors, Dracula scholar Elizabeth Miller and Bram's great-great-nephew Dacre (whom I went to hear speak last November: LJ / DW), present the entries thematically, under headings such as 'Humour', 'Personal and Domestic', 'The Streets of Dublin', 'Theatre', etc., rather than in the order presented in the original book, which I wasn't sure about at first. But I realised as I read that since this isn't a diary, the entries don't build on each other in any meaningful way, many of them aren't dated and indeed several seem to have been copied into the book from other sources (presumably scraps of paper) some time after they were written, there was no very compelling reason to present them in their original order. Meanwhile, grouping them thematically (but in their original order within that theme) does create some sense of how Bram's life and thinking evolved over time in different areas, and perhaps more importantly allows scope for an editorial introduction to each section contextualising and commenting on the notes. These are substantial (ten or more pages each for nine different sections, as well as an overall introduction and coda), so that they add up to what is almost a biography of Bram during his Dublin years, and indeed supply a lot of the sort of detail which I wanted and was disappointed not to get from David Skal's biography when I read it recently (LJ / DW). As such, I learnt plenty from them and enjoyed doing so.

Bram's actual journal entries are certainly fascinating if you're interested in the evolving thought-processes of the man who would go on to write Dracula. There is a (shortish) section entitled 'En Route to Dracula' which documents the emergence of his Gothic sensibilities, such as a memo to himself to do a dramatic adaptation of Poe's 'Fall of the House of Usher' or a couple of jottings for story ideas which relate to motifs later used in Dracula. But they are interesting for general social history too, as a record of the life and thoughts of a middle-class Victorian Dubliner. We learn quite a lot about his social life, work life and the general comings-and-goings of contemporary Dublin, which of course include quite a lot of obvious deprivation and inequality. Indeed, precisely because he was an aspiring writer, honing his skills as an observer of human life and capturing scenes and interactions which he found in some way striking or poignant, he is probably a better-than-average witness to his surroundings. I will confess that I only skim-read most of his sentimental and generally-mediocre poetry, and didn't always find the jokes and anecdotes he wrote down particularly funny, but in general I found him genial company, and am glad to have absorbed a slightly more rounded picture of him - not to mention a couple of little insights into his knowledge of the ancient world which will be useful for my Classical references in Dracula paper.


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I saw this at the Cottage Road cinema last week with the lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313. As it is only 66 minutes long, and the Cottage Road crew like to make a proper night out of their classic screenings, it was preceded by the 45-minute comedy short A Home of Your Own (1964), dir. Jay Lewis, which is about the various happenings and antics on a building site as a new housing development is being built. It doesn't have any dialogue as such, although characters do sigh, mutter, tut, etc., so the focus is all on slap-stick and visual gags such as somebody walking straight across a bed of concrete which another guy has just finished smoothing out, but it was lots of fun and we enjoyed seeing it. Also very good for spotting lots of people you recognise from more famous contexts, like Ronnie Barker, Richard Briers, Peter Butterworth (of Carry On fame) and Bernard Cribbins.

After a short intermission complete with ice-cream tray, it was time for the main feature: one of Mae West's earliest screen roles, adapted from a Broadway play which she had written herself. Obviously Mae West is amazing, and nothing much I say could do justice to that, or cast any additional light on her awesomeness, so we will take it as read. But an evening of her wicked drawl, sassy lines and slinky frocks is certainly a delight. Indeed, in addition to her own no-nonsense, sexually-liberated, self-directed central character, Lou, the story features multiple well-defined women and offers up plenty of scenes of just them speaking to one another, which definitely makes it stand out from amongst the standard fare of the day. One of them is a black woman, who although in a typically-subservient role as Lou's maid does get plenty of her own dialogue and actively contributes to Lou's various schemes and machinations. Wikipedia tells me that this character was specifically and deliberately brought on board by West as a way of seeking to combat racism in the entertainment industry, which reflects well on her.

It's a gritty dog-eat-dog world that Lou inhabits, with at least one absolutely psychotic former lover in jail and dodgy deals going on all around her, and she is certainly no angel. One plot-line sees her colluding in having a girl who came into the bar where she works as a singer to attempt suicide shipped off into what we're presumably supposed to understand is prostitution on the Barbary Coast. But the overall thrust of the piece is that men constantly do women wrong, like this girl who has been strung along by a man whom she didn't know was married, and that it is about damn time women got their own back. There is so much double-dealing and so many personal rivalries that I found the plot a bit confusing at the end because I couldn't remember what everyone's agenda was. But anyway, it all ends up happily for Lou, who gets the one man who might make an honest woman out of her, and indeed for the girl who had attempted suicide, as she has the whole ring of traffickers busted and arrested. A fantastic evening and I hope not the last of Mae West's films I'll get the chance to see on the big screen.


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Taped off [twitter.com profile] TalkingPicsTV a million years ago and watched last weekend for light entertainment. This was the first serious attempt by a production company other than Hammer to capitalise on the success they had had with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958). Indeed, they hired Jimmy Sangster, who had written both, to do the script, which makes it of interest straight away, and that's before you factor in Barbara Shelley, who had also already been in a couple of Hammer films and is just wonderful anyway.

Despite the 'Vampire' of the title, the film is more Frankenstein than Dracula. The chief villain, Dr. Callistratus, runs a lunatic asylum and conducts experiments relating to blood types and the artificial preservation of life on patients strapped to beds in a dungeon room beneath a laboratory with tubes full of bubbling coloured liquids. We eventually learn that local people accused him of being a 'vampire' because of his blood experiments and staked him through the heart, but he survived thanks to some kind of culture which he had introduced into his own body (it got very hand-wavey here). Although his hunch-backed servant, Carl, bribed a drunken doctor to resurrect him by performing a heart transplant, the culture has left him with an incurable condition in which his own blood is destroying itself - so he needs constant blood transfusions to survive. In other words, we're more or less at the exact mid-point between the lightly pseudo-scientific vampirism of Hammer's Dracula and the fantastical science of their Frankenstein. Callistratus himself looks more like a corpulent Lugosi than either Lee or any Frankenstein I can think of, though, and indeed the hunch-backed Carl too reflects an ongoing debt to the Universal movies of the '30s and '40s.

It's not exactly a brilliant film, but it's better than the very low expectations I had for it. Most of the performances are competent, if sometimes a bit hammy, there is a modicum of reflection on corrupt justice and the ethics of medical science, and there's a nice sense of tension and peril building up to the climax. Certainly, Barbara Shelley does her job well as a rather nervous young woman who is nevertheless determined to rescue her fiancé from injustice even if that means facing danger herself, and some of her frocks were absolutely fabulous. It's a pity that Talking Pictures' rather shonky print meant I couldn't see them as well as I would have liked to, but then again the same shonkiness probably helped to hide a lot of sins in the cheap sets department. Nonetheless, I did notice that the people who made this ('Artistes Alliance' / Tempean Films) clearly had quite a lot more studio space available than Hammer, as some shots really made a point of showing off large interior spaces.

On the very much down side, Shelley's character is subjected to an icky attempted rape by a corrupt official - a motif which seems to have been thrown into films of this genre and period all too often for the sake of cheap titillation with no real plot value. Other offenders are Captain Clegg, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Blood on Satan's Claw - and that's just off the top of my head. The one that I'll allow is Witchfinder General, where I think it does serve a purpose in conveying the general brutality of the circumstances, and in making Richard's commitment to marrying and protecting Sarah afterwards a more potent reflection of his love for her.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated to note that Callistratus' servant Carl develops an affection for Shelley's character (Madeleine) which motivates him to prevent her rape and then help her and her fiancé (John) escape the prison, all because he has earlier seen her image in a locket taken from John by the guards. This reminded me straight away of Klove helping Sarah and Simon in Scars of Dracula because he has similarly seen her picture long before, and in turn made me wonder where the trope actually originates - here? Or in another common source? It sort of relates to Dracula being taken with Lucy's image and then tracking her down to claim him for his own in Hammer's film of the same year, which of course gives us a link through Jimmy Sangster as the script writer - but a villain deciding he will have a girl he's seen in a picture isn't quite the same as a servant rebelling against his master to save a girl he's seen in a picture, and it's the latter I'm really interested in. If anyone knows more about where the trope originates, let me know! Certainly, it would be truly sad if by the time of Scars Hammer had sunk so low as to have ripped this motif off directly from this, a second-rate rip-off of their own films...


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4. Dean Owen (1960), The Brides of Dracula

This is a novelisation of the Hammer film Brides of Dracula (1960), which is bloody great and which I've reviewed in its own right here: LJ / DW. I've read and reviewed two other Hammer Dracula novelisations before – John Burke (1967), Dracula, Prince of Darkness (LJ / DW) and Angus Hall (1971), Scars of Dracula (LJ / DW) – and from comparing the Scars one in particular with a copy of the shooting script, I'm confident that it was normal practice for the authors to write them from these scripts. That makes them fascinating reading, especially in cases where I can't access the script itself, mainly for what they reveal about the creative decisions made during production but also to some extent because they can clarify and flesh out details which were intended by the original scriptwriter but didn't really come through in the final film. In addition, they can add extra details supplied by the novelist which I am at liberty either to incorporate into my personal Hammer Dracula head-canon or to reject (according to preference), and when they are well-written they are just good and enjoyable takes on stories I love anyway.

Unfortunately, this one isn't particularly well-written. In fact, it is a particularly egregious example of a male writer writing for a male audience without the faintest notion that women are sentient human creatures who might potentially pick up and read the novel as well, and wish not to be portrayed as male playthings within it. We're all familiar by now with the classic 'breasted boobily' caricature of such writing:

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Well, here is Marianne, the main female character, being introduced on the first page as the carriage in which she is travelling thunders through dark Carpathian forests:

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Her trajectory through the story is largely the same as in the film, but at almost every step the extra detail which the novelist adds is utterly skeevy in tone. A series of male characters tell her that a girl as pretty as she is shouldn't be travelling alone in this part of the world, size her up to see if she actually is as pretty as they thought, and contrive to get their paws all over those curves we heard about when we first met her. Shockingly to anyone familiar with Peter Cushing's utterly gentlemanly performance in the actual film, this includes Van Helsing himself, who full-on shags her within two pages of bringing her back to the Running Boar after finding her unconscious and (again unlike the film) half-naked in the forest. Those who have any respect for women, and particularly those who are also Peter Cushing fans, may wish to skip over the following passage, but I feel compelled to share it nonetheless just to demonstrate that I am not making it up – although the absence of either character's name from the passage also rather suggests that it is actually a generic sex-scene which the writer had stored away waiting for next time he would need one.

Novelisation Marianne and VH.jpg

Don't get me wrong – Hammer also very definitely sexualised and objectified their female lead characters. But because they were British and had to respect the rulings of the censors in order to ensure a general release, they did it all with rather more decorum and style than this. So far as I can tell, this novelisation was written and published by an American company for an American market, and I would hazard a guess that the author had never actually seen a Hammer film. After all, they were only just establishing their reputation for gothic period horror at the point when he must have written it. So it is a bit of an oddity and comes across much less like a precious supplement to the film and much more like a badly-mangled version of it compared to the Prince and Scars novelisations. But then again it does have an awesome pulp fiction cover (again bearing no relation to the film), so there's that:

Novelisation.jpg

Meanwhile, somewhere beneath the surface of this misogynistic and off-tone novelisation still lies the shooting script that I'm really interested inCollapse )

Alas, of the Hammer Dracula films only this, Prince and Scars were ever novelised, so I have read them all now and it's a pity to have ended up on this one which is a) badly written and b) reveals at more or less every step of the way how much better the final film was than the pre-production shooting script. However, that's interesting to know and makes me appreciate what the production team did all the more. Apart from the slight weirdness of Marianne getting engaged to the Baron when she ought to know he's mixed up in some pretty weird business and might well be a murderer, the film is one of Hammer's strongest, and the characterisation of the Baroness, the existential threat posed by the Baron and the business with both Gina's coffin-clasps and what she says to Marianne after she has come out of it all contribute a great deal to that. Thank goodness for the creative drive towards perfectionism which everyone who worked at Hammer seems to have subscribed to at this point!


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This is short story collection subtitled 'A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories' which I bagged for a bargain price at the Dracula Society auction in Whitby last autumn (LJ / DW). It basically aims to trace the evolution of vampire mythology, mainly in fiction but also in accounts of real folk beliefs, up to the point when Dracula was written and a little way beyond. That made it a very useful research resource for the paper I am writing about Classical references in Dracula, as it would allow me to get a sense of the extent to which they were a standard characteristic of the genre before Bram wrote. I already knew that much of both Polidori's 'The Vampyre' and Byron's fragment (here called 'The End of my Journey') take place amongst Grecian ruins, for example, but wanted to see whether the same equation persisted beyond high Romantic literature. Obviously I would not dream of assuming that Bram read every story in this book, but for some stories it's clear from tropes which he absorbed and replicated that he did, so anything Classical sitting alongside them is of particular interest.

The full table of contents reads thusCollapse )

I'm not going to review every single one, so anything which I haven't commented on specifically below can be assumed to be a very enjoyable story to read. But these were my thoughts on a few which particularly struck me - for good or ill:

'The Deathly Lover' - this was originally published in French in 1843 under the title 'La morte amoureuse', and is often also known as 'Clarimonde' after the vampire main character. It is actually set in Italy and told from the perspective of a priest, who falls under the spell of Clarimonda (as her name is spelt in the English translation I read) and begins leading a strange double life, where he is a priest living in a simple hut by day and her lover living in the lap of luxury by night, to the point where he no longer fully knows which is his real life and which a dream. We don't know for sure that Stoker read it, but a scene in which the priest cuts his finger while paring some fruit, and Clarimonde leaps out of bed to suck at the blood certainly resembles the scene in which Dracula does much the same after Harker cuts himself shaving. In another passage, she is also compared in short succession to both Cleopatra and Beelzebub, which is likewise very similar to the ways in which Bram associates Dracula both with Classical antiquity and the Devil, and is exactly the sort of stuff my paper will be about.

'Varney the Vampyre' - one of several entries in the book which is actually an extract from a much longer text, rather than a complete short story. The original is in fact c. 667,000 words long! Like most people who are into vampire fiction no doubt, I have occasionally harboured ambitions to read the whole thing, perhaps even as part of an online reading group with other people at an instalment a week. But this extract, which was simply the opening instalment of the story, reminded me that although it is fun in its own way and doubtless an influence on much later vampire fiction, it was very much hammered out with the aim of filling the maximum amount of magazine space for the minimum amount of intellectual effort, and thus utterly hackneyed and melodramatic. I mean, yay for that, but I have a finite lifetime so I think I will prioritise better things.

'The Mysterious Stranger' - Bram pretty clearly read this as well. It's set in the Carpathians, and involves travellers beset by wolves and a mysterious tall pale man who can command them at will. He proves to live in a semi-ruined castle, visits the main family of the story as an apparently-human guest but refuses all food and drink while their daughter grows pale and sick, and is eventually defeated using much the same sort of vampire lore as applies in Dracula. I was additionally fascinated to notice that while Bram does not seem to have made anything out of this line: "Azzo [the aristocratic vampire] stretched forth his hand, and grasping the sword in the middle, it snapped like a broken reed", Jimmy Sangster, the script-writer for Hammer's Dracula, Prince of Darkness certainly did:

Sword snap gif.gif

(Sorry, for reasons I can't figure out, it seems to be necessary to click through to see the gif in action. It's worth it, though!)

'A Mystery of the Campagna' - this basically constituted hitting gold re Classical references, as the vampire in this story is literally a Roman woman named Vespertilia, buried by her husband in a large sarcophagus inside an ancient catacomb, who still lures, ensnares and feeds upon the inhabitants of a villa on the land above up to the story's present day (the 1880s). There is a Latin funerary inscription to translate and everything! Unfortunately there's no particular reason to believe Bram ever read it, but it certainly shows what antiquity can lend to a vampire story, building logically on Byron and Polidori's precedents and anticipating Anne Rice's Roman vampire characters by a solid century. This volume's introduction to the story annoyed me intensely by 'explaining' that the Campagna of the title "refers to a populous region in southern Italy now usually spelled Campania", though. It really isn't - the main characters are artists living in Rome, one of whom decides to rent a villa in the countryside outside the city in order to concentrate on his art, so it is very literally and specifically set in the Campagna. I'm pretty sure the internet contained enough unambiguous information about both the Campagna and Campania already in 2010 to mean that the editor of this book has no real excuse for not understanding the difference.

'Let Loose' - I hadn't read this before, but it was one of the best discoveries of the book for me, mainly because it is just really well written and conveys an atmosphere of mounting fear extremely effectively. It's about a young man who goes to draw a fresco which (for some reason) is on the wall of a rarely-visited and securely-locked church crypt, and of course hears strange noises and inadvertently frees a Something while he is down there working. It's quite Jamesian in the way it builds up the tension through small, unsettling details, but I should warn that anyone who loves dogs (and even I was charmed by the one in this story, who is called Brian) might find the end rather distressing.

'A True Story of a Vampire' - this, by contrast, was easily the most unpleasant story of the collection by dint of its skeeviness. It is sort of a take on 'Carmilla', in that it involves a vampire coming to live in the house of its victims like a cuckoo in the nest, and indeed it announces the link by naming the main female character who narrates the tale 'Carmela'. But she is not the vampire. Instead, he is an adult man and his victim is her younger brother, Gabriel, who runs about the garden in short trousers playing with birds and squirrels. Furthermore, the vampire preys on Gabriel specifically by kissing him on the lips, which seems to drain his energy in some psychic fashion. Now, obviously although Carmilla presents as a teenage girl, and thus of a similar age to her victim, she is technically centuries older, in fact of course vampires are an enormous bucketful of metaphors, and most people therefore read 'Carmilla' as a thinly-veiled story of lesbian teenage love. On the same basis, this story reads as a thinly-veiled account of predatory paedophilia. So, not good.

'The Tomb of Sarah' - this was published in December 1897, so about six months after Dracula, and is the first story in this collection to show clear signs of Stoker's influence. The vampire lore is much the same, involving for example the use of mortar infused with the host and a sacred circle, and most tellingly of all the vampire lady 'champs' her teeth exactly like every female vampire in the whole of Stoker's novel. It's fairly run-of-the-mill as an actual story, but fascinating to see Stoker's tropes (most of them of course collected in turn from elsewhere) bursting into the mythos.

I think that's it. Several of the others were very good; some I had read before but often not for a long time. Generally a very good collection, apart from the editor's inexplicable ignorance of the Campagna. Definitely more than worth the couple of quid I paid for it.


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And this one I watched last night as much-needed distraction / relaxation, having taped it off the telly-box some time ago. It is the third of Hammer's mummy movies, and the story itself is pretty standard by-the-numbers mummy fare - archaeologists open up a long-lost tomb, ignoring warnings of a curse; a sacred shroud found within bears a text which animates the mummy of a slave who long ago swore to guard its royal occupant; that mummy, commanded by a fanatical present-day Egyptian, picks off the members of the excavation party until it is stopped; the whole is unapologetically British-colonialist in outlook. Probably the only thing that's slightly interesting or unusual is the fact that it is stopped by the female member of the excavation party (of whom there is only one, of course) reciting a counter-incantation in ancient Egyptian which stops its murderous rampage and causes it to crumble into dust - but even that only really follows in the footsteps of The Mummy (1931; LJ / DW), which also did a whole lot more of interest besides.

But, it is a Hammer film, so a lot of the fun for me lay in spotting and appreciating their regular stars and characteristics motifs. André Morell is always reliable, while I thought Michael Ripper (in a typical servant-type role) did a particularly fantastic job of conveying his character's longing for his English homeland, disappointment when he realises he isn't going to get there, and confusion and fear when attacked by the mummy. Also very enjoyable was Catherine Lacey, dear to me from The Sorcerors (1967; LJ / DW), which she must have made only just after this, and which draws on something of the same malicious old hag with a magical capacity to view and control events going on elsewhere. And Roger Delgado, four years before he became the Master in Doctor Who, playing a somewhat similar role involving malign intentions and magical control. It's a great pity, though, that he is blacked up to play the part of an Egyptian character, as are most of the actors in such roles.

Special mention should also be made of the set of fire-buckets which were actually just part of the somewhat out-dated fittings at Bray Studios, but often had cameo roles in period Hammer films. I know they occur in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), and here they are again on the wall in the hotel where the main characters stay after the excavation. That hotel itself is splendidly fitted out in coloured marble and ornate pilasters thanks to the ever-wonderful work of Bernard Robinson, although in my view the external street sets are even better in this film. They remind me of the ones which Paul and Maria run through together a year later in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), and I think represent Bernard and the wider Hammer team really getting on top of what they could do with a small space and a smaller budget.


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11. Lady Bird (2017), dir. Greta Gerwig

I saw this a couple of weeks ago with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 at the Hyde Park Picture House. I don't think it needs a detailed review from me, as anyone who wants to see it has already done so and knows what they think of it, and there's loads of detailed comment and analysis all over the web which I don't feel I have anything particularly unique to add to.

So, just a note really to say that I really enjoyed it. The main character reminded me quite a lot of my sister, who is almost exactly the same age as her, had similar hair and wore the same pentacle on a black cord around her neck, had very similar friends and dramas around them at the same age, and had a strained but ultimately loving relationship with our mother. I particularly enjoyed [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313's hearty chuckles during the scenes in which Lady Bird rebelled against Catholic authority - e.g. lying on her back with her friend Julie eating communion wafers while talking about masturbating in the bath. And I thought the most powerful scene in it was when Lady Bird's mother delivered her to the airport to fly to college in New York, used parking charges as an excuse not to stay and say a proper goodbye, and then the camera stayed on her face as she drove away in the car, gradually changing from steely aloofness to powerful emotion, and making the decision to loop round and go back, only to find by the time she had done so that it was too late and Lady Bird had gone.


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Starburst magazine ran a film festival in late August 2016, which I went to with friends and wrote up on my 'starburstff' tag (LJ / DW). It was badly advertised and organised, but actually the films, the guests and the friends I went with were all great, so we had a brilliant time - something I particularly needed back then, as it was still less than two months after my Mum had died. They attempted to put another one on about a year later, but I guess got even lower take-up than the previous year, so that it ended up being cancelled. This time, though, they hit upon the cunning ruse of giving away the tickets for free, which of course meant people snapped them up and it went ahead this time. (Clearly their business model does not really depend on box-office takings.) Andrew, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy and I went along and enjoyed a mixture of brand new and vintage films and the delights of the local food outlets, while periodically boggling out of the windows at the snow swirling upwards between the towers which make up most of Manchester's Media City area, and wondering nervously how we were going to get home. Thankfully, all trams and trains were running smoothly today in spite of the weather, which is more than I can say for Friday when I travelled over. So I'm now safe and warm on the sofa, and able to write up what I saw:


6. The Gatehouse (2016), dir. Martin Gooch

This is basically the story of a ten-year-old girl called Eternity who likes digging in the woods. Eternity is the kind of girl who, when she digs up what looks like an eighteenth-century lady's pistol buried in a tin box, steals a book on guns from the library by stuffing it under her coat (but does give the girl on the desk a cheese sandwich on the way out), finds out what she needs to restore it to working order, talks her Dad into taking her to the hardware store and tells the man working there that it's none of his business when he queries what on earth she wants all this stuff for anyway. And not only is she the central character, but the motifs and logic of the story are those of an imaginative, strong-minded ten-year-old girl too, involving magical stones, a horned god roving the woods turning people into trees, a secret chamber under her house, people who appear to have been shot dead turning out to be fine after all (possibly the blood that looked like jam really was jam?), and her playing a central role in helping the horned god to sort everything out. In fact, it’s a lot like the sort of story my six-year-old niece Eloise tells me when we play with her story-cubes. And while a film matching that description could be dreadful, this one really wasn’t, because all of the characters were so believably written and played (very much including Scarlett Rayner as Eternity, in what I see was her first film role), the horned god was shot just on the right side of obliquely enough to keep him mysterious and stop him looking too much like a guy in a suit, and actually the whole thing was very impressively framed and edited and shot, making very good use of some nice British countryside.

The trailer is a bit misleading, because both Eternity and her Dad are troubled by post-traumatic bad dreams following the death of her mother (in a highly-implausible boating accident which also comes across like the kind of story dreamt up by a ten-year-old), and a lot of the soft shocks which the trailer chooses to foreground are actually those dreams rather than the ‘real’ (insofar as it tries to be anything of the sort) main story. Meanwhile, it entirely misses delights like local teenagers Poppy and Daisy’s drunken walk home from the pub, Poppy's folk-Gothic Lithuanian-accented tarot-reading friend, or Eternity’s Dad teaching her to call up (imaginary) Roman legionaries to help see off the school bullies. Actually the Romans were bumping about quite a lot in this story, not only as Eternity’s personal bodyguard but also as the people who supposedly first built a structure on the site of the gatehouse which she and her Dad now live in. For a moment at the end, Eternity called up her imaginary legionaries to protect her against the horned god, and it looked like we might actually get a stand-off between the might of ancient Rome and the spirits of the British woodlands, which I would have been very interested in. It was not to be, but a great film nevertheless, and in my view the best of the new productions I saw during the festival.


7. Black Site (2018), dir. Tom Paton

The festival schedule had a different film by the same director lined up in this slot, but as the editing on this one had just been completed this week, he decided to treat us to a test screening of the new piece instead. I was a little bit sad about this, as the scheduled film (Redwood) was about vampires in the woods, but then again this one was very solid and it's always exciting to see something absolutely brand new which hasn't reached the general public yet - so I didn't mind too much in the end.

Black Site draws on Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, but the format of the film is 'trapped in an enclosed space with something bad', as per (for example) The Thing or (as [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya pointed out) Die Hard. The enclosed space in question is the Artemis complex, an underground military facility used to deport Elder Gods who have returned in weakened form to our universe (I think - I'm not sure I fully followed that bit). Once they have been tracked down by field agents and ‘bound’ into human bodies, they are brought to the Artemis complex for deportation back to hell - a complex process which requires a deportation agent to recite a text which he has memorised. Most of the time, though, it’s a quiet place run on a skeleton staff, which only comes into action when a deportation candidate is brought in. As as result, it's not as secure or well-maintained as it should be, so between that and the complexity of the deportation process, there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong.

Our main character is Ren Reid, who saw her parents killed by the Elder God Erebus as a child, and is now working at the Artemis complex, desperately trying to qualify as a field agent and get out of there, but constantly failing her psych test because of ongoing trauma from her childhood experience. Then one day Erebus himself is brought in for deportation, along with the deportation agent (a rather clueless public-school type) and closely pursued by a group of cultists who want Erebus back so that they can carry on drinking the blood of the succession of human vessels they had been trapping him in before the field agents bust in and took him from them. Chaos ensures, and most of the film then consists of Ren fighting her way through the cultists while protecting the clueless deportation agent, so that she can get him to Erebus at the centre of the complex and complete the deportation.

It was a well-paced, well-crafted story making excellent use of a well-chosen location. I particularly enjoyed the confrontation with Erebus at the end, which proved not to be fighty at all (as he was held safely captive behind an Electronic Light Field - ELF, geddit?), but instead focused on dialogue in which he told the humans just how insignificant they appeared from his out-of-time perspective, and eventually revealed that he had set the whole thing up from the beginning because he wanted to be deported anyway in order to be reunited with his love, Nyx, deported 20 years earlier. (So it was only the cultists getting in the way of the Artemis complex's normal procedures after all.) I am a real sucker for supernatural beings whose power is such that they are simultaneously dangerous to humans and yet also possessed of insight and perspective we can only dream of (it's a lot of what I also like about vampires), so this ticked my boxes in a big way - and all the more so for tagging it onto real-world ancient Greek mythology.

It was also good on female representation. Besides Ren, it also features two other well-defined female characters who are far from constrained by gender roles - her savvy, hard-headed boss and the samurai-trained leader of the cultists. A conversation between Ren and the boss about her career prospects secures a Bechel pass, while we all enjoyed a trope-aware scene at the end in which the deportation agent tried to suggest to Ren that as the 'hero' of the hour, he should get the girl, and she snorted and told him it was never going to happen. It didn't do so well on race, though. It gave Ren a black friend / mentor, but of the four main good human characters (along with Ren, her boss and the deportation agent), he was the only one not to survive the film, and the way this played out was definitely tropey - heroically trying to protect others and then entirely focused on motivating Ren to carry on as he dies. We were also under-whelmed by the American accents which the actually mainly British cast had been asked to adopt. On the whole, though, jolly good and a worthy follow-up to The Gatehouse.


8. The House of Screaming Death (2017), dir. Alex Bourne, Troy Dennison, Rebecca Harris-Smith, David Hastings and Kaushy Patel

This, by contrast, was just terrible! It was meant to be an homage to the great British horror films of the 1950s-'70s, and had adopted in particular the Amicus speciality of the portmanteau format. The framing narrative consisted of Ian McNeice, sitting down to tell an audience whom at first we couldn't see some stories from the bloody history of 'Bray Manor'. You'd think you couldn't go too far wrong with something that had Ian McNeice in it, and the trailer had conveyed a generally promising impression. It's also worth saying that the films of Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the like were all low-budget and contain much which is rough around the edges. What they do offer, though, is decent acting, characters, stories, period settings, direction and dialogue - which this did not.

Would you, for example, enter the pub in a village where you are staying, and, on the back of having been (rather improbably) told earlier by the local priest that several local people had disappeared about a year ago, announce at the top of your voice to the entire assembled company, without any preludes or introductions, that you wished to express your sympathies for their recent losses? No? Well, a character in this film did. He also turned up in the village without a hat, stood at the bar in shirt-sleeves with no cuff-links, said 'OK' and ran past visibly-modern radiators, even though it was all supposed to be set in 1888. Meanwhile, another story featured a character explaining how she had once murdered someone using a stake from a fence in the process of construction while we saw a flash-back of the action, except that in the flash-back she was very clearly wielding a garden fork, not a fence-stake. Plus all of them relied heavily on scenes of people standing still and delivering exposition to one another, while we had got a good twenty minutes into the film before a single woman spoke.

At the very end the framing story offered the chance to excuse the utterly inept period detailing at least, since it turned out that all of the main characters from the stories were gathered together in one time and place as the audience listening to Ian McNeice's narration, after which he proceeded to murder them all. So maybe they had never 'really' inhabited the various time-periods when their stories were supposed to be set at all, and were actually just the modern victims of a modern serial-killer. But that is to cut the film a lot of generosity for something which it gave no convincing sign of having thought through in advance, and I personally didn't have any such generosity left to give after everything we'd sat through for the previous two hours. Not actually the worst film I've ever seen, but very, very disappointing.


9. Tremors (1990), dir. Ron Underwood

Our final two films were oldies, so I won't bother with plot précis. I've only seen Tremors the once before, on TV when baby-sitting around the age of 15 or so. I wasn't expecting much from it, but I remember getting sucked into its silly fun at the time, and can very much see why now. For what is essentially a wild west film (but with worms instead of armed bandits), it's not bad for diversity either. Finn Carter as the geologist, Rhonda, has a purpose and agency of her own, isn’t overtly sexualised, contributes plenty of good ideas throughout and indeed is seen by the two main male cowboy characters as an authoritative source of information. Sure, Kevin Bacon's character does ‘win’ her at the end (in exactly the trope parodied in Black Site), but there's a knowingness about it even here in the way he doesn't do it in self-assured alpha-male fashion, but is clearly pretty nervous and has to be chivvied along by his friend. In the racial diversity stakes, we have a Chinese store owner who dies, but a Mexican character survives, and like everyone else in the cast gets to make his own contribution to the rescue effort by having the idea to set a tractor running to distract the worms, and the bravery and physical skills to do it. All in all, it's one of those films which actually just ends up reminding you how little progress we've generally made on diversity in film almost thirty years later (for all that the past few years have served up some stand-out exceptions). Probably my favourite moment of this viewing was sitting next to [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya, who is a palaeontologist, when Rhonda observed that there are no fossils of anything like the worms threatening the town, and that therefore they must 'pre-date the fossil record'. She head-desked. I also kept thinking Kevin Bacon would end up riding one of the worms, but I guess I was getting that mixed up with Dune. His cliff-face grand finale defeat was great anyway.


10. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), dir. Ed Wood

Another very special genre classic, which I last saw a little more recently that Tremors, but only by about three or four years. As [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya observed, you've had one hell of a film-watching day when (thanks to The House of Screaming Death), this is definitively not the worst film you've seen. But of course the reason everyone loves it is the surreal charm of its particular form of ineptness, underpinned by a sort of cheerful exuberance which somehow carries you along for the ride. We howled with laughter throughout, in a fond and appreciative way. My only real disappointment is how little Vampira really gets to do in it, and I'm now keen to watch some of the other films which Maila Nurmi played in her Vampira persona, so that I can enjoy more of her obvious excellence.


With that, we called it a day, and [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy headed off for a terrifying white-out drive along the M62, while Andrew, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya and I merely walked across the square for dinner at Prezzo. Here's hoping we're all back in Manchester before long for more from the Starburst crew - but ideally without the snow!


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I went to see this with big_daz on Wednesday night at the Everyman, Leeds. It's the second new release I've seen in the cinema this year, which is already more than I manage some years in total. If there were more films like this to go and see, that would be very different.

It is framed in multiple ways as a fairy tale. One is the two bookended voice-over sequences which begin by describing the main character, Elisa, as a princess and end by talking about her happy ending. They turn out to be voiced by her neighbour, who has spent his life painting advertising posters but is quickly being made obsolete by the camera, who keeps his television permanently tuned to old black-and-white musicals and comedies, and who ponders whether he was born too early or too late. That is, we are being told a story by a man disconnected from reality whose job is to sell fantasies. Elisa herself we first meet fast asleep on her couch, sunk deep into a watery dream-world, while throughout the film sound and light from the cinema over which she lives leak up into her apartment, and at one point she herself breaks out into a black-and-white song-and-dance routine to voice the love for the creature which she cannot speak. Perhaps some time in the decade before 1962 (the film's dramatic date) she has sat downstairs watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, absorbed its soundtrack in her sleep, and been living it in her dreams ever since? Later on, she returns the favour, sending the watery by-products of her own fantasy romance dripping onto customers nodding off in the auditorium below when she floods her bathroom to turn it into an aquatic playground. In fact, between her voicelessness and the fact that she was both found by water as a baby and ultimately finds her happiness there, she may as well be the Little Mermaid, on land only ever temporarily while she finds her prince.

All these markers of fairy-tale status are of course crucial cues in allowing us to accept the extraordinary story of a romance between an ordinary woman and a humanoid amphibian with magical powers. But they also allow us to enjoy another kind of fantasy alongside it: that of a bunch of underprivileged outsiders successfully sticking it to The Man. Elisa is mute. Giles, her ageing advertising-designer neighbour, is gay. Zelda, her best friend at the facility where they work, is black. And infiltrated into the facility's team of scientists is 'Bob', aka Dimitri, a Russian spy who has come to feel as strongly about science as he does about the motherland. Meanwhile, The Man himself manifests as Colonel Strickland, the facility's authoritarian, racist, misogynistic boss, who tortures the creature as much for fun as to learn anything from it and who takes the decision to vivisect it rather than trying to study it alive without it even occurring to him that this might be something to pause over, let alone actually doing so. In all this, he's the successor of Dr Mark Williams from the original film (LJ / DW), but much more starkly militaristic and exaggeratedly nasty. And boy, is it satisfying to see him out-foxed by our plucky band of misfits, pulling off the creature's liberation from the facility while he can't begin to imagine that they could even be capable of any such thing.

This might all sound rather heavy-handed, except that each character is drawn with such humanity it's impossible not to believe in them. In fact the entire story is approached with the same utter seriousness which makes Hammer's dark fairy-tales just as compelling. No-one here has their tongue in their cheek, or behaves like an avatar standing in for a particular social group. Instead, each has their own inner turmoil and believable home-life (Zelda's lazy husband, Dimitri's careful ironing), including Strickland, whose career trajectory still doesn't quite satisfy his perfect all-American wife. On both sides of the balance, it's important that these characters aren't clichés and don't jump straight into their assigned roles. Elisa's friends need a lot of persuasion before they'll help her rescue the creature, while we see the system that creates Strickland in the even less sympathetic General Hoyt above him, and in how easy it is for a smarmy car salesman to talk him into buying an expensive Cadillac in a colour he doesn't like.

The film is also dripping with deeply symbolic detail, which likewise might have seemed over-done if it weren't for the fairy-tale framing and the believability of the characters. Most obvious is the colour-palette, all muted, swampy greens and blues in scaly patterns to suit the aquatic theme, but also to set off occasional departures the more starkly - like the red dress and shoes which Elisa is suddenly wearing the day after she and the creature have found out how to express their affection physically. Perhaps next most obviously, the oppressive machinery of capitalism. Vents and pipes above the creature's tank resemble not only the original Gill-Man but also (to me at least) the Machine-Mammon from Metropolis (1927). Elisa, Zelda and their co-workers are slaves to the facility's clocking-in system and CCTV cameras. And when the creature staggers into the cinema below Elisa's apartment, he finds it showing scenes of slaves working in the mines from The Story of Ruth (1960).

shape-e-23118.jpg Machine Mammon Metropolis.jpg

The cinema complex itself is called the Orpheum, perfectly underpinning Elisa's use of music (and boiled eggs) to win the confidence of the creature - though she plays it jazz on a portable record player rather than singing to the lyre. The facility is called the Occam institute, which drove me to Wikipedia - I know the basic principle and couldn't see how it might apply to this story, but found my answer in the biology section, where it turns out that it has featured quite heavily in debates around evolution and the matter of whether or not any animals share human-style psychology. There we are very much amongst the concerns of del Toro's story. Finally, in case it wasn't clear enough how rotten Strickland is, he spends most of the film with two of his fingers, severed by the creature after one too many electric shocks and reattached by surgeons, blackening and reeking as the attachment fails and they die on his hand. Towards the end, in one of several body-horror moments which had me squirming in my seat and putting my own fingers over my eyes, he acts out just how literally he has gone to pieces by pulling them off and throwing them at the terrified Zelda. I'm sure there is much more besides.

Nothing quite stops the niggling world-building questions bubbling up. Like, if the creature is 'from the Amazon', why does it seem to need saline water and return quite happily to the ocean at the end? And how exactly would its ability to switch between lung- and gill-based breathing systems be any particular help in the Space Race, as both the Americans and Russians seems to think? But ultimately none of these matter next to Elisa's coy, satisfied smile and the electric blue lights flickering across the creature's body. For that, everyone involved deserves my profoundest thanks, and I only hope the cinema industry as a whole is watching and learning.


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A few weeks ago, I toddled over to [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313's house to watch her DVD copy of this, as I was aware of the impending release of The Shape of Water, and wanted to see the film which inspired it. I've yet to get to The Shape of Water (though I'm hoping to do that this coming week), but in the meantime I am so glad I've finally seen this film in its own right. Of course I'm generally of the opinion that most horror movies are about far more than just a monster chasing a girl - otherwise, I wouldn't enjoy the genre so much. But this is one of the ones which I might now choose to show as an example to someone unconvinced of that position.

For starters, it is strongly infused with both an environmentalist and an anti-colonialist critique. The Black Lagoon of the title is far up the Amazon, and the Creature a product of that environment. The team of geologists who go up there and disrupt its world find fossils in the rocks which look exactly like it, and dialogue about how very little has changed in the Amazon since the Devonian period (from which the fossil originates) encourages us to draw the obvious conclusion - that this creature is a surviving member of the same species, which has been living there, undisturbed and unbeknownst to humans, for millions of years. Meanwhile, we are given plenty of scope for reading almost everything the creature does as an entirely natural reaction to a bunch of alien invaders storming in and assaulting its territory. Even its initial attack on two geological excavators who are waiting in camp while their leader goes to do some lab analysis on the fossilised web-fingered hand they have found, and which serves the narrative purpose of establishing that the creature can be dangerous, can also be read as its entirely understandable response to them disturbing the remains of its ancestors, exacerbated by their own instinctive response of attacking it as soon as it enters their tent. This early attack scene strongly suggests that the creature possesses very human-like emotional responses and intelligence, too. Having killed the camp workers, the creature leaves one of their severed hands standing upright in the middle of the tent, in what I am pretty sure is meant to be a pointed response to their treatment of the fossil: I do to you as you have done to my ancestors.

Once the action moves from the site of the initial fossil discovery to the Black Lagoon itself, similar patterns continue. The creature is clearly fascinated by the expedition, and particularly with Kay Lawrence, played by Julie Adams. But the humans' response to realising it is there is to want to capture it, and indeed to use potent chemicals which have the side-effect of stunning every single fish in the lagoon to do so. The audience is left with plenty of room to sympathise as the creature too becomes violent, and again shows its intelligence by blocking their boat into the lagoon with a barricade of fallen trees. I was reminded very much of Frankenstein, in which it's perfectly easy to imagine an alternative fork for the story involving Victor treating his creation decently from the start and it never becoming a monster as a result. (Not that Universal actually allowed for this in their own treatment of Frankenstein, which was a lot of the reason why I didn't like it: LJ / DW.) Here, the team of scientists are not responsible for having made the creature in the first place, but by showing how their behaviour leads to its actions, the film makes them partly culpable for what happens. And because they are led by white Americans and operating in South America, this in turn supports a reading which is critical of broader white exploitation of both landscapes and peoples.

The dynamics within the team allow for more detailed working-through of these larger themes, too. In particular, there is quite a lot of tension between them concerning different possible responses to the creature. Dr Mark Williams, who has been characterised from the start as mainly driven by money and personal ambition, wants to capture it, and doesn't mind at all if it dies in the process, while others argue for leaving it alive and studying it in its natural habitat. So that allows different possibilities to be aired, and our sympathies are very much steered towards the 'study it in its natural environment' option, as that one is being voiced by a nicer character. (I rather wished they'd actually gone ahead and done it, as the creature is largely treated within this story as though it were the last of its kind, and I would have liked that issue to be aired and investigated.) There are other aspects of the team dynamics which rather undermine the progressive headline take, though. In particular, the local people involved in the story (the two camp workers at the start and the crew of the boat which goes to the lagoon) are all characterised as rough, uneducated and subordinate to the white characters, with no particular interest of their own in their home landscape and environment. Likewise, Julie Adams as the film's sole female character is very much in an Attractive Assistant role - theoretically a scientist, but actually there mainly to support her man and of course become the object of the creature's interest.

The creature itself, by the way, is always spoken of as male by the characters in the film, and the cast and crew in a very good 'making of' documentary included on [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313's DVD. To be fair, the people inside the suits (there were two, one on land and one in the water) were indeed male. But was the creature? No-one in the film gets a chance to look at its biology in any detail, and nor do we have any idea what it thinks about itself. So I've decided I prefer to subvert the face-value presentation and imagine the creature is female, and thus that its interest in Julie Adams is a case of same-sex, though different-species, attraction. I wouldn't want to cast it as unproblematically romantic, though, whatever the genders involved, as it is actually quite stalky - there's a lot of the creature watching her and reaching for her while she is utterly unaware it is doing so. But there is certainly something very poignant about the famous shots in which it mirrors her swimming under the water. I look forward to seeing Guillermo del Toro work through the potential relationship between two such beings in detail.

Creature from the Black Lagoon mirroring.gif

Nor indeed are those the only strikingly-beautiful shots in the film. Far from it. I didn't realise until we watched the making-of documentary afterwards, but apparently the film was originally shot and released in 3D, because the producers realised that it was going to have to involve quite a lot of extended underwater scenes during which the characters could not speak to each other. So, to pre-empt audience boredom arising from lack of dialogue, they aimed to make those scenes more engaging via the use of 3D. Obviously, we didn't see it that way (though I would love to!), but we were still watching a film whose producers had put a lot of effort into making it visually interesting. Even without the 3D effects, the underwater scenes are absolutely gorgeous, as I think the gif above attests, and indeed the film as a whole very nicely put-together.

Well, that's it then. I am ready for Shape of Water, AND furthermore I am actually up to date on my film and book reviews!!! I don't think I have been on top of both of them at once since at least 2015, and I can't tell you how relieved I am to have finally got here. I can read and watch whatever I want now, without feeling ground down at the thought of yet another addition to a huge back-log. I could even write about my actual life a bit! Or do whatever I want. Who knows what joys and wonders I will discover in this brave new world...


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I saw this in early January at the Hyde Park Picturehouse with a chap I know through local Lib Dem activism called Troy. Much as I had enjoyed The Force Awakens for being "much the same as the original three films, except that the characters now have new names and faces" (LJ / DW), I am also glad this one chose to break the mould and subvert some of the tropes which the series has developed. It would be a bit boring to keep on re-treading the same old ground, and it was fun here in particular to see Poe Dameron's brave and rebellious escapade revealed as completely pointless. The whole thing could of course have been avoided if Vice-Admiral Holdo had just explained to him what she was planning and why a bit earlier - but then again, problems which could have been solved with a bit of basic communication are at the heart of an awful lot of fiction and drama. It's hard to have a good story if everyone completely understands one another from the start.

Besides, while Poe's escapade may have been 'pointless' in straightforward plot terms from the rebel point of view, actually as far as world-building and story-telling goes it very much isn't. Without it, we as the viewers would miss some very revealing insights into the nature of the society which has both created and been shaped by the victory of the First Order - the casino full of wealth and privilege which turns out to be based on weapons-dealing, the rogue hacker, DJ, whom we expect to be an anti-authoritarian hero but turns out to embody the selfish cynicism which has infused the galaxy, and the dirty stable-kids at the bottom of the heap, looking and hoping for something better. Actually, I found that last bit about the kids less than entirely convincing - those kids are too young to remember or expect anything different from what they know, and I'm all too aware from contemporary UK politics how easy it is for the people most crushed by any system to be most susceptible to absorbing and internalising its ideologies. But, that aside, it's important to how this kind of story works to have people who symbolise the sort of better world the heroes are fighting for, and it's important for Rose and Finn, who barely know anything different themselves either, to see that and have it to drive them on through some seriously adverse circumstances later in the movie.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Rey's disillusionment with Luke, her determination to train herself up anyway, and his heroic self-sacrifice at the end. I also very much liked how Kylo Ren has developed. In my Force Awakens review (LJ / DW), I wrote: "Obviously he's going to be redeemed in the third film - that is clearly where the entire story-line is leading." I now think I'm wrong about that. He has become the leader of the First Order, and I don't think you can come back from that. But I loved all the yin-yang stuff between him and Rey, the moments in which he appeared to have decided to throw his lot in with her and the denouement which revealed that for him that was actually only a temporary alignment of interests. Their fight-scene together against Snoke and his guards was beautiful to watch.

The saddest thing of all about it was how obvious it is that the final film in the sequel trilogy was clearly set up to revolve around Leia Organa. Of the three original main characters, the first film was Han's, the second Luke's, and here at the end we come down to a tiny handful of rebels with nothing but hope to keep them going and Leia to tell them to hang onto it. Now, she won't be able to do that. It seems a bitter irony of the kind Carrie Fisher would have been quick to see - women are always made to wait too long, promised that their great moment is coming, until it becomes too late. Doubtless creative solutions will be found, but I wish she and we could have had the Leia-centred film she always deserved.


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Last October, Andrew Hickey wrote an excellent blog post to mark the 25th anniversary of the broadcast of Ghostwatch (1992), a BBC production with a rather special place in cult TV history. I have always wanted to watch it, and his post forcefully reminded me why, as well as revealing that it is now available on a DVD two-set along with The Stone Tape (1972), which I have also always wanted to watch. I therefore put them on my Christmas wish-list, and Santa (acting through the medium of my sister) kindly obliged. Arguably, neither is really a 'film' - they are both one-and-a-half hour long scripted BBC TV dramas, which I guess have been packaged together as they both involve people investigating paranormal phenomena. But now that I no longer have a back-log of some twenty actual films to write up, I can expand the limits of what belongs on this tag a little. And besides, I want to write about them anyway.


1. The Stone Tape (1972), dir. Peter Sasdy

I should have loved this. After all, it was made in the early seventies, directed by a man who regularly worked for Hammer (e.g. he directed Taste the Blood of Dracula), and concerns the supernatural with what turns out to be a significantly folk-horrorish vibe. If I'd watched it at the right time in my life, I probably would have loved it. The fact that I didn't I think stems partly from the very fact that it has been elevated to such cult-classic status over the year, and partly from the fact that I now live in a world that allows me to be alert to gender disparities - but many of the people who have raved about it either didn't, or do and don't care. This effect is very neatly captured in the 'Cultural significance' section of its Wikipedia page, where the final paragraph quotes six people in a row saying how wonderful it is... but all six of them are men.

The result was that I already knew the core story-line before I watched it - in essence, that what appear to be ghosts haunting a cellar turn out to be memories written into its stones, and extending far back before the construction of the cellar to the prehistoric stone-beds they were quarried from. Knowing this meant I didn't have the capacity to be wowed by that revelation. It was already a given for me. But I certainly did have the capacity to notice that there is only really one significant female character in the story - Jill Greeley, played by Jane Asher - and that her basic role in the story is to be sensitive to and scared by the ghosts. She is part of a team of scientists who have been sent to an old country house to conduct intensive research into potential new sound recording methods, and in fact her framing within that team is an artefact of the historical period during which men did the 'proper science' and women programmed the computers. She is literally introduced at one point as "Jill who programs our computer". But the men around her repeatedly dismiss her concerns, block her investigations and eventually drive her into a situation where she ends up dying, horribly, alone in the haunted cellar.

The script doesn't entirely celebrate this behaviour - we're clearly invited to think that at least some of the men are assholes, and we're also given enough material to see that Jill is actually very bright and generally correct in her insights, so that if the men had listened to her earlier things might have turned out a lot better. But still, the positioning of her as the 'sensitive one' alone is enough to make the story cringeworthy and alienating for a twenty-first century female viewer, and the notion of memories being recorded into stone is nothing like enough to compensate for that. I just can't see myself feeling tempted to watch it again.


[I watched another film in between these two which I will return to, but am skipping it for now for the sake of reviewing both parts of the DVD set as it is now packaged.]


3. Ghostwatch (1992), dir. Lesley Manning

Thankfully, I liked Ghostwatch a lot better. The Wikipedia page describes it as a 'reality–horror/mockumentary television film' and provides lots of useful production context, while Andrew's excellent review also explains the concept, gives some good examples of how it works, and points out the crucial importance (way beyond the entertainment value of a Halloween ghost spoof) of the fact that it set out to encourage people to critically evaluate what they see on TV.

I watched it with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, and we found ourselves fascinated by the way the premise had been worked through, as well as for the insights it gave into early '90s culture. It was noticeable that the family at the centre of the hauntings consists of a single mother and her two children, and that this appears to have been done specifically because it would be easy for the audience to believe that the occupants of such a 'broken home' might be more than usually sensitive to, or even a target for, supernatural horrors. So something a little bit like the hypersensitive Jill Greeley in The Stone Tape was still going on here - but to nothing like the same cringeworthy extent, and with much more to compensate for it. There was even a female academic being interviewed 'live' in the studio!

Though Andrew is right that the whole production is incredibly cleverly put together, it did give itself away at a very early stage when what was labelled as 'university footage' from a bedroom in the haunted house panned and zoomed towards the action as soon as something started happening. A fixed CCTV camera wouldn't do that, and a fixed CCTV camera is what you would use if you were trying to get an objective record of what was happening in the room without a) introducing human bias or b) requiring 24-hour human monitoring. So that broke our suspension of disbelief by revealing the hand of a director striving to deliver a dramatic experience. Other revealing flaws included talking to somebody 'live in New York' from the studio with absolutely no delay on the line, and the fact that all of the supposedly 'ordinary' people in it, including various children, people gathered in the street to watch the 'documentary' being filmed and callers phoning into the studio, spoke clearly, articulately and concisely rather than being shy, mumbling, or going on about trivial details for ages - as real people actually do when they find themselves on TV.

Other than that, though, there was very little to give it away as anything other than an absolutely genuine chunk of early '90s reality television, complete with all the presenters you would expect to see fronting it. I was just sorry that in practice, we were watching it a little over 25 years later, and thus couldn't fully see how it would have looked alongside the regular TV productions of the day. The lighting, camera techniques, and reporting techniques looked different from what we see on comparable news and reality programmes now, but I'm no longer quite able to say how well they matched those of 1992 - though my guess is 'very well indeed'.

As for the story, it is a fairly simple 'horrible thing happened here once and hasn't been laid to rest' ghost story, but that is absolutely right for what is purporting to be a documentary about a real haunting case. The story itself should be quite tropish and formulaic, precisely to underpin the sense of realism, while the clever stuff lies instead (as Andrew has shown) in the presentation and the way it makes you think about what you are seeing. We did think it got a bit silly at the end, as the 'ghost' escaped from the ordinary suburban house where it had first manifested and began making lights blow out and cameras roll across the floor in the studio from which Michael Parkinson had been charismatically interviewing guests throughout. I thought a much better line to follow here would have been to capitalise on the psychology of Mike Smith, stuck in the studio, seeing his wife Sarah Greene apparently in grave danger in the house. This opportunity isn't completely missed - we do see Smith getting a bit distracted from his designated task of monitoring the studio phone-lines towards the end of the show. But if the events he's seeing from the house are real, he should be absolutely flipping his lid, shouting at the studio team, demanding people at the filming location go in after his wife, and generally going utterly to pieces out of a combination of fear and impotence. That could have been a lot more psychologically compelling, and indeed convincing, than the OTT 'everything going crazy' we actually got at the end.

Still, though, a very impressive piece which I felt deserved its place in cult TV history. I only wish I'd felt the same about The Stone Tape.


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Reading an academic book on Kindle

Last year, before I went to Australia, I bought a Kindle so that I could load it up with books for my trip and thus reduce the weight of my luggage. I've found it very amenable for leisure-type reading, but today for the first time I tried to use it for academic reading, and found the experience utterly frustrating and tedious.

Reading in a linear fashion is fine, but of course that is not the reality of much academic reading. Kindle books are well set-up to support footnotes - they pop up at the bottom of the screen, and you can also move back and forth between the 'page' you are on and the footnotes section with a single click each way.

The problems kick in when you want to flick back and forth between the text and the bibliography (e.g. to check the full title of an abbreviated reference in the notes) or between the index and the text (e.g. to see what the author has to say on a particular topic). I do understand that I can move back and forth between different parts of the book either by memorising a location number and using the 'go to' function, or by using that view where you can see nine pages at once and there's a slider at the bottom. But both are much slower and more cumbersome than the traditional method of having one finger in the bibliography / index and the other in the text.

For similar reasons, I also struggled to get an overall sense of the shape and trajectory of the book. I could see the table of contents, but without page numbers I couldn't see how long each chapter was, so it wasn't easy to see how much space the author had allocated to one or the other topic. Nor could I find the plates referred to at various points in the text. Plates aren't usually paginated, so wouldn't be listed in the table of contents or list of illustrations, but at least in a physical book you can see them, just by looking at the fore-edge.

Theoretically, the Kindle's capacity to highlight passages and annotate them should be super-useful for academic reading, but again in practice I found both processes so cumbersome that I stopped bothering, and just took notes on my computer, the same way as I would while reading a paper book. It did occur to me at the very end of the day that that particular problem might have been resolved by using the Kindle app on my tablet, rather than my actual Kindle, since the tablet has a much more responsive touch-screen (which would have made the highlighting easier) and the keyboard which pops up when required is larger (which would make the annotating easier). But even then, the other frustrations described above would still remain.

If you've used a Kindle for research-focused reading, what have your experiences been? Are there hints or tips which I'm missing, or is it just always like this?


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This is a New Zealand horror comedy which [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 gave planet_andy on DVD for his birthday, and which I watched with them just before Christmas.

On one level, it's about mutant zombie sheep. On another, it's about the conflict between GM (and similarly interventionist approaches to farming) and good old-fashioned tradition. But mainly, it's about mutant zombie sheep.

The production values on the sheep themselves were actually very high, so that it was difficult to tell the difference between the real sheep they had filmed running around menacingly and the zombie sheep puppets they had created, except by their behaviour on screen. They'd done an impressively good job of rendering people being turned into mutant zombie sheep or getting torn apart by them, too.

Along the way, we got lots of nice evil scientists and capitalists, some very earnest environmental activists, plenty of kick-ass action and at least one sheep-shagging joke. I am confident that this is the only horror film I have seen so far, and probably the only one I will ever see, in which the monsters are eventually defeated by setting fire to a sheep's fart.

Not much else to say about this, really, except that it was excellent silly fun. BUT this is actually my final film write-up for 2017, and that is truly liberating. I will start on 2018 forthwith...


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On Friday night, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy and I wended our way to Batley Library for The Book of Darkness and Light, a two-player ghost story show. I wasn't 100% sure what to expect in advance, other than promises of spookiness, but TBH that was enough for me! As it transpired, the set-up was for Adam Z. Robinson to act as the main presenter and narrator of stories which he had written, while Ben Styles lent them the perfect atmosphere with his violin, and an assistant with a lap-top generated other sound-effects. Adam's role was very much like Robert Lloyd Parry's approach to telling M.R. James' ghost stories, in that he dressed in an Edwardian style, took on the mannerisms and some of the actions of the characters during his performance, used a few simple props (an aged book, a tankard, a candle) and did the entire 90-minute performance verbatim from memory. The differences were that the stories themselves were his own original compositions, he had worked with Ben Styles from the start so that story and music were inherently inter-twined, and occasional 'voice-overs' from off-stage characters (e.g. letters, newspaper reports) gave him short respites during the performance.

The evening began with Adam introducing a framing narrative about how the Book of Darkness and Light (represented by a prop book which looked genuinely like it had come straight off the shelf in an alchemist's study) had somehow come into their possession, and that they would share three stories from it with us. When the first of those stories began with Adam explaining that it represented a testimony in court taken from the documents of a legal firm called Magnus, Alberic and Barchester, I knew I could snuggle down in my seat, safe in the knowledge of a very pleasurable evening ahead. The story transpired to be set in the present day, as it revolved around an MP whose role in applying very contemporary-sounding pension cuts came back to haunt him in a direct and literal manner. The language was quite Jamesian throughout, though, as were the descriptions of a creeping damp horror becoming more and more present in the MP's bedroom. It also had a nice false shock moment when the MP thought he had seen something horrific over his shoulder in the mirror, but it turned out to be just his dress jacket hanging on the back of the door. My one reservation about this story, though, was that its morality felt too simplistic, to the point of wish-fulfilment. I'm afraid I rolled my eyes in particular when I heard a line about how the MP was eager to get along to a Commons debate about MPs' pay, and thought immediately of those stupid memes with fake pictures about that very issue. Plenty of the victims of James' ghosts are villains who deserve everything they get in a similar way - Dr Haynes in 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', who proves to have murdered his way to an Archdeaconry, is a very good example. But the line about the pay in particular just seemed too much like easy low-hanging fruit (as the popularity of those memes proved), while James' ghosts don't tend to literally shout "You did this!" at their victims. That aside, though, a good start to the evening.

The middle story was shorter and simpler, and boiled down to a wicked stepmother tale. Here, the stepmother was a dancer, and the star of the stage, but gradually her young stepdaughter began to eclipse her until, consumed with jealousy, she ordered her to practice her dancing in the stairwell of the theatre, locked both of the doors which led to it, and then set the whole place on fire so that the girl died. The story is told in the journal of an urbex photographer, who has gone there with a friend, drawn by the story of the girl's death - but not entirely expecting to find her there, still dancing on the stairs. This one didn't pretend to be anything other than a simple, straightforward ghost story (terrible thing happens, echoes of it still imprinted at the scene of the crime), but it was nicely told, and the way Adam narrated the girl's death-scene, still dancing and dancing in spite of the fire until she can do so no longer, was particularly effective.

Finally, the third story was the absolute highlight of the evening for me. It centred on a historian in the early 1950s going on a research trip to view a village roundhouse (or lock-up), and discovering not only that some dark horror lurks within, but also that it had been built directly over the site of a hanging-tree used for executing witches. No simple morality this time - the main character's only flaws are being a bit overly-convinced of his own cleverness, fatal Jamesian curiosity, and failing to recognise that he is in a horror story. He takes rooms on one side of the village square, from which he can see the roundhouse in its centre, and night after night he watches an eerie and unsettling child standing before the roundhouse door, facing away from him, and prompting some mutterings about local parenting which reminded me very much of Arthur Machen's story 'The Happy Children' which we saw an adaptation of in Whitby (LJ / DW). Each time he sees the child, it is slightly further back from the roundhouse, and slightly closer to the house where he is staying, but when it disappears one night, does he realise that it is in the house??? Nope - at least, not until he encounters it one night on the stairs, that is! From there, things transpire pretty much as you might imagine - and the rising sense of tension as it got closer and closer to his bedroom door, and finally to the poor man, curled up terrified in the bed itself, was delicious.

The ending for him was not a happy one, but we came away giddy with the thrill of it all, and only sorry that this was the last night on the current tour. The good news is that they are already planning a new show for autumn/ winter 2018 - and [personal profile] miss_s_b, [profile] hollyamory, [personal profile] magister and Andrew Hickey can bet their boots I will be evangelising wildly about it when they do!


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In 1928, an unauthorised Turkish version of Stoker's Dracula was published. Like Makt Myrkranna a generation earlier, it's a free adaptation rather than a translation. For example, it bears the title Kazıklı Voyvoda (Impaler Voivode), which is what the Ottomans called the historical Vlad Dracula, includes dialogue spelling out explicitly that he is the exact same person (rather than hinting allusively at the idea like Stoker), and shifts the post-Transylvania action to Istanbul rather than London. This film is based on that book, but adds its own layer of adaptation as well by updating it to the 1950s. There's a pretty good page explaining all about it here (annoying auto-playing video, but you can kill it and read a transcript underneath instead), and if you're lucky enough to speak Turkish, the original film is here.

Unfortunately, I am not, so I had to watch this version instead, which a) is a very shonky print indeed, b) has had the original sound-track completely overwritten by discordant organ music throughout (except for one dancing scene) and c) has subtitles which were clearly generated with the help of automatic translation software. Of these flaws, it's the shonkiness of the print that's really irritating. It meant I struggled to tell what was going on half the time, and certainly couldn't appreciate what seems (from a quick glance at the Turkish-language version linked above) to have been pretty decent camera-work. All I can really say is that possibly some effects were quite surreal and phantasmagorical and some shots nicely composed, but I'm not 100% sure. The subtitles, by contrast, were absolutely charming. I had fun counting the multiple different ways in which they spelt 'Dracula' - at least eight by my reckoning, although the only ones I can remember now are Dracula, Drakula, Drukala, Dragula, Draqula and Draquelle. I was also highly amused when the moment came for him to proclaim his past as the legendary Impaler - or, as the subtitles had it, the Poker! But the best moment of all was when our 1950s Dracula asked Azim (the Jonathan Harker character) to write three emails to his friends because the postal service was so bad. Brilliant.

These frustrations and sillinesses aside, it was a fascinating adaptation to watch. Despite being in some ways two good hearty steps (novel adaptation, then film) away from Stoker, it actually retains a surprising amount of detail from the original, and more than some films which claim to be faithful adaptations. For example, it includes scenes of Dracula crawling down the wall of his castle, Azim hitting him on the forehead with a shovel and Sadan (the Lucy character) saying she is floating in green water and that it feels both sweet and bitter when Dracula bites her. The first two of those are rare in film adaptations, and I don't think I've ever seen another one which retains Lucy's description. Some of the unexplored corners of Stoker's novel also get filled in as well. I particularly appreciated the landlady in Bistritz adding weight to her pleas to Azim not to go to Dracula's castle by explaining that her son didn't listen to such warnings a year ago and is now dead. I've always wanted to know what experiences she and her husband have had before Jonathan Harker arrives which cause them to react so strongly when they hear where he is going, and I think the producers of this film (or the author of the novel it's based on?) were right to identify this as one of the implied possibilities.

Meanwhile, there are all sorts of intriguing little changes, too - some obviously for pragmatic reasons, some for more dramatic ones. Pragmatic changes include just the one vampire bride (a popular budget-saving measure) and no Demeter (ditto). Dracula does seem to arrive into Istanbul by boat, but this is conveyed simply by Guzin (Mina) and Sadan (Lucy) meeting people carrying boxes from Romania up from the shore. Sadan's mother is included in the story (not often the case, and probably reflecting the strength of Turkish family structures) and dies in similar circumstances to Stoker's original, but there's no wolf crashing through the window (again for obvious budgetary reasons). And garlic entirely takes the place of crosses, as is appropriate for a non-Christian context and as Zinda Laash (LJ / DW) also did for the same reasons (though additionally ditching the garlic and the stakes).

Less obviously pragmatic / logistical changes include Dracula having a servant in his castle, who conveys some of what were his lines in the original novel: for example the warning to Azim not to fall asleep anywhere except his bedroom and the library. This I like - I've always been quite invested in the idea of Dracula having human servants in his castle, as it demonstrates his power to bend people to his will and the extent of his domination over the local populace. He also seems to have some additional supernatural powers which don't come from Stoker - specifically the ability to materialise out of nowhere (though Stoker's Dracula can solidify from mist into human form) and to make a piano play ghostly music using nothing but the power of his will.

Guzin (Mina)'s characterisation is also quite significantly changed - or at least, developed quite considerably along its logical trajectory. Far from being a school-teacher (only ever an off-page role for Mina anyway), she is a show-girl, and generally very much the independent, modern 1950s woman. In one scene, she teases her husband by telling him that she is knitting something for 'another stud' who will visit them in eight months' time. What she means, of course, is that she is pregnant, but he is utterly oblivious, and I don't think ever cottons on until after the end of the main story. Her profession is also used quite deliberately for titillating belly-dancing sequences, as are scenes of her in the bath. I suspect this material would have seemed quite saucy anywhere when this film was made, let alone Turkey specifically, but presumably it was done in the expectation of boosting box-office takings. Certainly, it's another point of connection with Zinda Laash, which gives Dracula's vampire bride a seduction-dance and includes scenes of dances in the local bar as well. What I don't know is whether Turkish cinema in this period had as strong a tradition as Pakistani and Indian cinema of more-or-less obligatory dance sequences. In any case, here it all paves the way for an excellent climactic scene where Dracula traps her in the theatre where she works, commands music out of the piano and makes her dance just for him - now uncannily like The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (LJ / DW), in which he does just the same to the dancer Lakshmi.

Overall verdict - a very enjoyable version which was probably better in its original form that I could appreciate from the version I saw (but then again gained a lot from its terrible subtitles!). I'd definitely like to see this in a better-quality print, and I also really want to read the novel it's based on. An English translation actually came out only a few months ago, but seems to have been released as a print book only in the USA, which is a bit annoying and the main factor that has stopped me actually buying it so far. I'll definitely get to it at some point, though.


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I saw this one with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and [profile] planet_andy at the Cottage Road cinema as one of their Classics, and thus accompanied by the usual vintage ads at the start and intermission part-way through, including a lady with an ice-cream tray.

I'm never going to be hugely set on fire by any crime drama - it's just not my thing. But I could see this was a good one. It's all very tightly-plotted, with lots of fine detail in the dialogue and characterisation, so that not a line or action is wasted and you need to keep on your toes to follow everything. The costumes are fab (especially on the ladies), and the cinematography is very effective - although since the effect it is often striving for is a sense of tension, unease or claustrophobia, it isn't quite accurate to call it beautiful. And it's always nice to enjoy the presence of well-beloved faces: for me here, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in particular.

Apparently for Greenstreet, who is most famous as the proprietor of the rival bar to Rick's in Casablanca, this was his first screen role (though he was already well experienced on the stage), but he certainly seems well at home in front of the cameras. He absolutely owns the scene in his hotel room where he strings Sam along as a prelude to drugging him, as well as the one at the end when Sam finds him and his henchmen waiting in his apartment and they all pass a tense night of confrontation before he finally discovers that the falcon is a fake. I do love me a good villain.

I'm sure there's bucket-loads more which could be said about this film, but that's all I got.


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