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I watched this because it is a Hammer film with Christopher Lee in it. Well, I mean and Michael Ripper and Oliver Reed and Marie Devereux (too briefly!) and Andrew Keir and Desmond Llewellyn and a bunch of other favourites - but mainly because of Christopher Lee. It isn't a horror film, though, but rather one of Hammer's swash-buckling adventures, as the title suggests. And for all the pirateyness, it involves the minimum possible amount of screen-time set on board ship, because obviously Hammer couldn't have dreamt of affording that. Rather, they bought in some stock footage for the beginning, built an interior cabin set, commissioned a matte painting of a sea-scape for the end, and set the rest on an island which is very obviously Black Park with a few half-dead palm fronds stuck around the place.

This means that the plot feels more like a Wild West adventure set on the Pitcairn Islands than anything else - although in fact both the islanders and the pirates who come to attack them are French. The islanders consist of a Huguenot colony who have been living in isolation for several generations now, and a fundamental tension has developed amongst them between the strict and traditionally-minded elders of the community and the younger generation who want something different and less oppressive. The analogy here for the real-world contemporary tensions between the pre- and post-war generations is obvious, and there's some interesting stuff about how both sides have their own competing interpretations of what the colony's original founder (old Symeon) stood for. But ultimately this aspect of the story rather peters out, eclipsed by the attack of the pirate gang (led by the lovely Mr. Lee) who come to raid the settlement and abscond with the treasure which they are (rightly) convinced it must be hoarding.

The sexual politics are very typical of Hammer during this period, in that they are playing around with the flouting of traditional values, but ultimately don't quite want to condone their overthrow. Early on, we are invited to sympathise with a young woman (Marie Devereux's character), who is afraid of her brutal husband (one of the traditionally-minded village elders), and has fallen in love instead with one of the young idealists. But ultimately these two cannot be allowed to have a sustained relationship or happy ending, because that would be to condone adultery. Instead, she isn't quite killed directly for her sins, but in trying to escape a crowd of villagers bent on punishment, she runs into a river where she is devoured by piranhas (hence the 'Blood River' of the title). Effectively, then, she is punished by God - or whatever divine agency you might want to imagine.

Christopher Lee is of course absolutely great as the pirate captain, who obviously has enough education and breeding by comparison with his men to convince the same young idealist that he will help him to overthrow the village elders and create a better community, but is in fact utterly ruthless and ready to sacrifice anyone at all in pursuit of the treasure he desires. In other words, it is the perfect Christopher Lee role. He gets a good death scene towards the end, which involves him being pinned to a tree with a sword (though it was obviously cut in the version I saw on Talking Pictures), which along with the piranhas and some sadistic punishments dished out to the young idealist after he has been sent to a prison camp by the village elders would have delivered the sorts of thrills Hammer audiences came to see. It's a pity, though, that Lee was obviously asked to play the captain as having one shrivelled hand. Nothing ever comes of that plot-wise, and indeed I don't think it was ever mentioned in the script, but obviously it's another one for the Evil Cripple file. Similarly, there are a couple of black pirates in his gang, presumably to help convey the exoticism of the settings, but they never get to speak.

The dullest parts of this film for me were the fight sequences, which I am Just Not That Into - especially an extended blindfolded fight sequence between two of the pirates, which just seemed to go on forever to little effect, and was ultimately only over which of them was going to be allowed to rape one of the village women anyway. In fact, this never happened as a rescue party arrived in time, but it gave an already very boring fight an unpleasantly icky edge. It also seemed to me that a lot of the strategies employed by the pirates were downright stupid, such as attacking the village en masse from the front, rather than sending a small party round the side while the villagers were all busy holding off the main attack; or stopping to sleep in the forest after they have seized the treasure and thus allowing the villagers to catch up with them, rather than just ploughing the hell on through the night to reach their ship and escape. But whether this was 'meant' to appear stupid, as a way of characterising the pirates as a not particularly effective force, or was simply the result of insufficiently careful script-writing, I'm not sure.

Anyway, worth watching overall as part of my general long-term exploration of both Hammer's oeuvre and Christopher Lee's, but I would be surprised if I found myself rushing back to watch it again.

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Oops, I've let a bit of a film review back-log accrue again... Let's see what I can do about that this afternoon.

I saw this one with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 at the Hyde Park Picture House. I found it OK, with some good performances, period settings and nice camerawork conveying an appropriately Gothic atmosphere where relevant (as in the Villa Diodati) but without undermining the basic realism of the film. Unfortunately, though, it plays pretty fast and loose with the actual facts of Mary's life - which was part of my complaint about The Happy Prince and Oscar Wilde (LJ / DW). Overall, it didn't irritate me anything like as much as The Happy Prince, because Mary simply wasn't a smug, entitled arse in the way that Oscar Wilde was, and nor was the film quite so intent on portraying her life as a tragic work of art. But it definitely did want to suggest that absolutely everything which happened to her before the publication of Frankenstein was all systematically and almost divinely destined to culminate in the production of that book, which didn't actually leave much space for her agency as a human author rather than a passive cork, tossed on the waves of life.

Here are just a few examples of the departures from reality which I noticed, based on the pre-holiday reading I did for our DracSoc trip to Geneva in 2016, and the exhibitions we saw while we were there (LJ / DW):

Mary meets Percy Shelley while staying with the Baxter family in Scotland, after she has been sent away there by her stepmother.Mary literally missed meeting Shelley for the first time because of this stay, as he came to London while she was away after securing the patronage of her father, William Godwin. They met only after she had returned, during his regular visits to the family home.
Neither Mary nor any of the Godwin household initially know that Percy has a wife and child, and Mary finds this out to her shock when they turn up outside her father's bookshop to ask where he is.All of them already knew all about the wife and child well before Mary became involved with Percy, because he had brought them to the Godwin family home to introduce them to everyone (though Harriet did turn up demanding for Mary and Percy to be kept apart once the relationship had begun).
Mary and Claire first set eyes on Byron at a theatrical demonstration of Galvinism, complete with experiments on frogs' legs.It was actually at a lecture on Milton delivered by Coleridge. Mary's knowledge of Galvinism came later, through conversations at the Villa Diodati.
Percy's friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg sexually assaults Mary in their home, in a move which comes as a complete surprise and (obviously) a shock to her.Percy had suggested to Mary in advance that she and Hogg should sleep together, and although she hated the idea at first, they corresponded about it. In those letters Mary seems interested but wary, but nothing ever came of it in the end.
Byron invites Percy and Mary to stay in his villa in Geneva and welcomes them as soon as they arrive.Claire conceives of the whole notion of tracking him down there and persuades the others to follow. They arrive two weeks before Byron and spend the intervening time in a hotel, waiting for him to turn up.
Mary writes the bulk of Frankenstein in run-down rented rooms in London.She wrote most of it while travelling onwards through Switzerland and into Italy after the Geneva stay.

Many more things are omitted, such as Mary and Claire's other siblings, Shelley bursting into the Godwin family home to propose a suicide pact with Mary as a way of escaping Harriet, and an earlier elopement to the continent by Mary and Percy (taking Claire with them). I am less concerned about omissions, which are necessary to convey a story coherently in the length of the film, but the distortions of reality here actively worked against one of the central claims of the film. On the one hand, it kept trying to show us how her life fed into her work, but on the other it wasn't even presenting her real life, but another fictionalised life which did not in fact lead up to the novel we know.

I could appreciate and give credit for some of what the production team were trying to do in the course of this, such as showing clearly how difficult it was for a woman to be taken seriously as an author in the early 19th century, as well as the brutal and disastrous consequences of the patriarchy generally and Byron and Shelley's notions of free love particularly for women with no access to contraception. But I felt that some other narrative decisions made for serious missed opportunities, and that applied particularly to the real complexities, drama and evident intellectual calibre of her relationship with Shelley, all of which were largely thrown away in favour of a pretty conventional troubled romance story.

In short, I'm glad I saw this (because I was always going to want to) and it's certainly better than The Happy Prince, but it could still have been an awful lot better than it was.

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Electoral Services questionnaire

Interesting. I've just reconfirmed my eligibility to vote in elections in Leeds, prompted by a letter about it which arrived yesterday. I did the actual confirmation online, and after I'd done so a text popped up asking me to fill in a survey on my experiences of the election process in Leeds. Naturally, being geekily interested in these things, I took the opportunity. Most of the questions were, as I expected, on fairly simple / basic things, such as how easy I find postal voting, how regularly I vote, and what experience (if any) I'd had with contacting our local Electoral Services Department. This one, though, really made the electoral reformer in me sit up and pay attention (click if it's too small to read, and you should get the original):

ERS election questionnaire.jpg

I'd already said in a previous answer that I always vote in all elections, so I couldn't say that any of those would make me more likely to vote, but I hardly wanted to anyway. What a dreadful set of options! Thankfully, they offered a box underneath so that I could explain my answers:

ERS election questionnaire answers.jpg

The people administering this questionnaire are Electoral Reform Services, whose business is precisely this - to provide the voting apparatus for surveys and elections. They happen to be partially-owned by the Electoral Reform Society, who know all about STV as their primary purpose is to campaign for it, and indeed share my concerns with online voting and voter ID too - but they won't have had any input into the questions for this. Rather, the questions seem to have come from the Electoral Commission, who are responsible for running and ensuring the fair conduct of public elections in this county, and have here employed Electoral Reform Services to conduct the survey. Since some of the questions referenced types of elections which don't apply in Leeds (e.g. mayoral contests), I assume the same survey is being offered to people confirming their electoral eligibility online all over the country.

Given all that, it worries me a lot to see these questions, as it suggests a very real risk of the methods listed being introduced (or extended, in the case of voter ID which has already been piloted to poor effect) in this country. And yet still no prospect of any actual improvements to our electoral system, such as STV. :-( I only hope they get a lot of responses along the same lines as mine, basically saying "All these ideas are rubbish - STV NOW!"

If you share my concerns and get the chance to fill in this questionnaire yourself, please feel very free to use my answers as inspiration.

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June #bookaday meme

At the end of May, my friend [personal profile] rosamicula posted this image on Facebook for a book meme designed to be played out during the 30 days of June:

Bookaday prompt list.jpg

Although I could see from the image that it had originally been designed as viral advertising for a publisher, and a poke around on Twitter revealed that it was four years old, the prompts instantly sparked lots of thoughts and ideas, so I decided to go for it. With a bit of careful forward planning, I managed to keep it going faithfully on both Twitter and Facebook every day throughout the month, despite the fact that I spent about a third of it away from home (on holiday in Scotland, visiting my family or in Swansea doing external examining), and I felt that it captured quite a faithful cross-section of my academic and personal selves. A little belatedly, and before the posts entirely disappear down the drain of social media, I'm now transposing the results here, so that a few different people can see them and I stand some chance of finding them again in future.

Lots of books under this cutCollapse )

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A coda to the 1940s Universal Mummy sequels I saw recently, and really just a note to say I did, because [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 was quite right - this ain't up to much. Abbott and Costello's slap-stick farce and jokes which depend on implausible misunderstandings just isn't my sense of humour, and here a lot of it is both weak and desperately over-played. The Mummy himself is barely in it, when he is he looks more like he's wearing a boiler suit than bandages, and multiple scenes of characters (usually Costello) oblivious to the fact that he is right behind them rely too heavily on him stopping when they stop, rather than pressing on relentlessly as was the whole point of him in the first place. It's just fundamentally a mistake to put monsters into a film like this and expect them to retain any frisson of real terror or even make any sense at all.

Since I watched it for the sake of seeing how the series ends up, though, I will note that the plot set-up is broadly like the four 1940s sequels, but the Mummy's name has changed from Kharis to Klaris and his princess' from Ananka to Ara. So far, so par for the course - after all, their followers change part-way through the 1940s sequels from the priests of Karnak to the priests of Arkam. The tenuous continuity built up over the sequels has gone, though - we're back in Egypt rather than the USA, and the old back-story about the Mummy being condemned to burial alive for trying to resurrect his princess is long forgotten. There is one weird and probably accidental form of silent continuity, though, in that her burial-place in this film is located in front of (what must be a blown-up back-drop photograph of) the ruins of Karnak. I'm sure it's just because those are some of the first ruins anyone will see when searching through photo archives for pictures of ancient Egypt, but hey - it creates a little in-story nod back to the name of the original priesthood, all the same.

The film does contain an excellent lady villainess (Marie Windsor as Madame Rontru) who is after Princess Ara's treasure, two nice dance sequences (by a troupe which I learn was called Chandra Kaly and his dancers) and a rather random but very good jazz number (Peggy King singing 'You Came A Long Way From St. Louis'). Otherwise, though, it's entirely missable.

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This is one of Hammer's non-horror films, shown recently on the excellent [twitter.com profile] TalkingPicsTV channel. It's a crime drama, and for Hammer was clearly a B-feature: you can tell because it is in black and white, despite them having moved definitively into colour for their horror pictures several years earlier, and according to Wikipedia the total budget for it was £37,000 (contrast £81,000 for Dracula three years earlier). It's an absolute cracker, though, with well-scripted characters masterfully acted by Peter Cushing, André Morell and the like, and a beautifully-paced plot which keeps you guessing right up to the end. I sort of watched it with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, although not quite in the usual way of being present in the same room together. She was in her house and I was in mine, but as we both knew the other was watching it we exchanged texts as we went along, marvelling at the wondrous talents of Mr Cushing and the twists and turns of the plot.

Because of those twists and turns, I'm going to put the rest of this review under a cut, just in case there is anyone out there who might wish to watch it unspoiled. I do heartily recommend doing so if you have the opportunity. But if you've already seen it or don't care about spoilers and do want to know what it's like, click on...Collapse )

All in all, a thoroughly good evening's watch, and a strong reminder that there are still many Hammer gems awaiting me, both within the horror genre and without.

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I should probably impose a personal moratorium on watching, listening to or reading anything to do with Oscar Wilde, because he just makes me irritable and grumpy, and that isn't nice for me or anyone else. I completely understand the importance of his status as a queer icon. That's why he fascinated me in my mid-teens, and I can absolutely understand how important he must be to someone like Rupert Everett (who wrote, directed and starred in this) - a gay man born while homosexuality was still illegal, who has clearly had to negotiate a lot of homophobia throughout his life and career, and who works in the same professional sphere that Wilde also inhabited. But over the years I've found that for me, Wilde's smug arrogance and selfish, manipulative behaviour towards both his wife and many of his friends outweigh the credit that he is undoubtedly also due for defying prejudicial social norms. As the world I live in has changed and stories which once had to be suppressed have been discovered and shared, I've also of course found that plenty of other brave queer people in the past negotiated the same minefields as he did, including in some cases serving the prison sentences, without also being assholes. So I just can't scrape up much sympathy for him these days.

In full fairness, we do see plenty of his ass-hattery in Everett's film. It's nothing like as much of a white-wash as I found Wilde (1997; LJ / DW). But for my taste it did lean too heavily on unsubtle symbolism and syrupy clichés. Examples of the former would include the scenes in Dieppe, where Wilde is pursued through the streets by braying English homophobes to the point where he is cornered and beaten up in a church - but he gets to roar righteous yet dignified condemnation back at them for the twenty-first century audience to cheer at. Or his orgy with Bosie and various local young men in their villa near Naples, complete with an angry local mother who comically doesn't realise it's a gay orgy and begs forgiveness for disturbing them when she realises there are no women there, pointedly cross-cut with Constance and their sons' joyless, pious Christmas. Meanwhile the most syrupy of the syrupy clichés must be the decrepit Wilde telling the story of The Happy Prince to the two orphan boys who have rescued him from a drunken stupor on the streets of Paris, once again cross-cut with scenes of him reading the same story to his own children in happier days.

I pick those three episodes out in particular because as far as I can tell by checking back to Ellmann's biography, there is no record of any beating-up or roared words of defiance in Dieppe (though there were a few social snubs), or of Wilde reading stories to orphaned Parisian boys, while there is positive evidence that Bosie had left Naples well before Christmas in the year when they stayed there. So in other words, these three events aren't in the film because they are part of Wilde's known life history which had to be included. Rather, they have been invented by Everett for this film, and as such show us clearly what kind of figure Everett wants to sculpt Wilde into - tragic, rather mis-guided, but tugging hard on the twenty-first heart-strings and telling a very neat story about homophobia in twenty-foot-high neon letters as he goes. The real problem, though, doesn't actually lie with Everett's inventions. The feeling that everything in the film is narrativised, every scene laden with a conscious symbolic weight which the author is begging us to 'get', comes right from Wilde himself, who appears to have lived almost his entire life to that end. It's annoying enough in Wilde himself, and doubly so when magnified by Everett.

I should say that this film is meticulously researched, beautifully shot and well acted. In many ways it is about as good a film about Wilde's last years as it would be possible to make, and I do think it was quite brave of Everett, whose personal brand has always rested so heavily in his looks, to take on Wilde at his syphilitic end, complete with blotchy face, infected ear and vomit down his front. I am also probably more than unusually irritated by Wilde at the moment due to feeling like he rather hijacked a recent biography I read which was supposed to be about Bram Stoker (LJ / DW). And nor do I really think that stories with a conscious symbolic weight are necessarily a bad thing, though I have written with that implication above. On that, I think that in a story which is not based on real life, and therefore where the audience knows the entire narrative could readily be constructed for the sake of conveying a symbolic point, it's fine and can indeed be excellent; but when a real person is narrativised that way, either by themself or others, it becomes an irritating arrogance, because it amounts to a claim that that person is a work of art. In any case, I am going to try very hard to remember to take this film as my final reminder to steer clear of Oscar Wilde in the future - much as I now do with Stephen Fry for similar reasons. Life's just too short.

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Recently, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 acquired this Universal Mummy movies box-set, so we have been working our way through it.

2018-06-03 18.59.24.jpg

We saw the first one, The Mummy (1932) a couple of years ago, and really loved it (reviews here: LJ / DW), but two years is still recent enough that we didn't feel ready to re-watch it yet, so instead we plunged straight into the sequels. The first four of these were churned out in pretty rapid fashion during the early 1940s, and at times it's obvious that they were money-spinners produced as cheaply as possible. Certainly, none of them quite come up to the impressively fresh and intelligent standard of the original. They basically all have the same plot (mummy, brought to life by the latest in a long line of human devotees, murders a couple of secondary characters before carrying off a girl and then being destroyed) and they are rife with racist and colonialist cliches which the first film at least attempted to engage intelligently with (white archaeologists with a scientific understanding of the past vs. cowardly, superstitious and criminal 'natives', as they are literally called). But around that there is a lot of interest to the series, including some of the camerawork, the individual character portrayals and simply the opportunity to watch the genre evolving and its possibilities being explored and extended. They are certainly of interest to the Hammer fan, since it was really the four sequels, rather than the original film, that they used as the basis for their own The Mummy (1959), including the character names and the concepts of a mummy buried alive for trying to revive a dead princess, being reawakened himself by a modern-day disciple, being transferred out of Egypt to a western country and encountering the modern reincarnation of the princess there. More on all of this in the individual reviews below...

14. The Mummy's Hand (1940), dir. Christy CabanneCollapse )

[We watched She Done Him Wrong at the Cottage between these two (LJ / DW), hence the jump from 14 to 16.]

16. The Mummy's Tomb (1942), dir. Harold YoungCollapse )

17. The Mummy's Ghost (1944), dir. Reginald Le BorgCollapse )

18. The Mummy's Curse (1944), dir. Leslie GoodwinsCollapse )

There is one more Universal mummy movie from this (broad) era, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, who has seen it before, says it's terrible and she doesn't want to do so again, and I entirely believe her. However, I've always been a completist, so she's let me borrow the box-set in order to watch that one on my own. I will indeed before long, but I've already watched two other completely unrelated films since, so I will close this review here and put that one up separately when I get to it.

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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.

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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:


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:

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(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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