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Classical Dracula and War of the Worlds

I'm uncomfortably aware that I haven't written anything other than WIDAWTW posts for over a month, or indeed commented much on other people's entries. The approach of term coincided with the local constituency party that I am chair of having to go into high alert due to the likelihood of a General Election being called at any moment, so it has all been teaching-related activity and campaigning. Last weekend, though, I took myself down to London for an epic weekend which combined delivering a talk on Dracula and Classical Antiquity to the Dracula Society on the Saturday evening with going to the immersive musical version of Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds the following day - and today I finally have a day off to write about it.

Dracula and Classical antiquityCollapse )

Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds - the immersive experienceCollapse ) Then at the end, we were invited to pose in our pairs for pictures in front of a green-screen, of which this was very much the best final result for me and Fiona, pretending to be menaced by Martians:


I'm normally pretty cynical about that kind of add-on money-making ploy for an experience which you've already paid quite a considerable amount of money for, but given that it had actually been a really enjoyable afternoon, and that the full set of pictures came complete with a digital download code which meant that we could both access them, I decided to go for it. All in all, A++ would fight my way through red weed again.

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6. Arthur Machen (1894), The Great God Pan

I read this because it was published while Stoker was writing Dracula, and both use pagan gods to stand for the abject, evil and Satanic - though Machen's novella focuses almost wholly on that idea, whereas in Stoker's Dracula it's only part of a tapestry of related concepts. The Great God Pan is part of efflorescence of fin-de-siècle stories and artworks about Pan, mainly inspired by an anecdote about his death in Plutarch, De Defectu Oraculorum 17 and thoughtfully examined in this 1992 book chapter, which I wanted to get to grips with as part of Dracula's context and a possible influence.

Having read it, though, I don't think the influence is particularly strong or direct. Both certainly reflect similar anxieties about what lurks beneath the façade of contemporary civilisation, within us, in the past and / or in the untamed places of nature - but those themes are more or less what all horror stories are about. And both present their stories as a collection of accounts from different viewpoints which only gradually come together - but again, many late 19th century novels did that. What makes them quite different is that Dracula is manifest and present within his eponymous novel, whereas Pan does not manifest directly to any of the point-of-view characters in Machen's. Indeed, he isn't wholly an embodied being at all. Rather, Pan, Satan and Nodens are all treated as attempts to express by metaphor an evil too horrific and inhuman for human minds otherwise to understand; as much something psychological, or the pure concept of evil itself, as anything embodied. As one character puts it, "Such forces cannot be named, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined except under a veil and a symbol, a symbol to the most of us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale."

That was all slightly disappointing to me, as I was hoping for something both a bit more embodied and a bit more ambiguous - a Pan simultaneously alluring and terrifying, who might sound sweet music through wooded glades and yet also leap savagely with snorting nose and bloodied fingernails upon the unwary transgressor. Machen's Pan doesn't really span that divide, existing rather on the wholly-terrifying side of the equation. I shall have to browse through the book chapter I've linked above for something more along the lines I was looking for - unless anyone reading can recommend a different fin-de-siècle story or novel which comes closer to ticking those boxes? Do I want G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday or Saki's 'The Music on the Hill' (which sounds good anyway), or what?

Anyway, although it wasn't quite the novel I was expecting or perhaps really wanted, I still got good value out of reading this one. The way it draws on Classical motifs, and especially the landscape and gods of Roman Britain, to construct its image of evil reminded me of the realisation I had made while watching the BBC TV version of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit that it is in part a response to the discovery of the London Mithraeum (LJ / DW). I guess this novel, and other material like it, also forms part of the literary backdrop which made Kneale's story possible.

It does some interesting things with story structure. The chapters from different points of view I've already mentioned, but the final chapter is literally called 'The Fragments', and includes texts with deliberate lacunae in them to bring the story to a dim, half-understood conclusion which the reader is left to patch together. This is essential to the way Machen has dealt with Pan throughout, the whole point being that no human mind can witness him / it without going insane. And it plays around nicely with the relationship between city and country. Pan is unleashed in the remote Welsh / Romano-British countryside, but his worst effects are felt in the heart of London. So Machen uses rural metaphors to describe the encroachment of the rural (primitive) into the city (civilised). One dimly-lit London street looks "as dark and gloomy as a forest in winter", while in another "the wind blew as blithely as upon the meadows and the scented gorse".

The critical reception section of the Wikipedia page is right to draw attention to its outright misogyny, though (third para). The force which Pan represents is brought into the world in the person of a woman, Helen Vaughan, whose main modus operandi is to lure men to her and then drive them to kill themselves. Even worse, she is born in the first place by the actions of a doctor who performs a brain operation on her mother, Mary, and who justifies his actions to a demurring friend on the grounds that "I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certain starvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, to use as I see fit." Mary, by the way, is only seventeen, and in addition to seeming to think he has the right to perform experimental brain surgery on her, the doctor has also evidently brought her up to call him 'dear' and solicit kisses from him in what read to me as a very power-abusing relationship. The operation destroys Mary's mind, while her body survives only long enough to give birth to the child, Helen, (always the true purpose of women in misogynistic novels) and while the doctor does come to regret his actions by the end of the story, it's not at all clear that he would have done if it hadn't been for the consequences which followed. Both Helen and Mary also exist only from the two-dimensional perspective of the male characters - Helen never speaks, but just goes round being evil and ruining men; Mary speaks a few lines before the doctor's operation, but only to submit meekly to his will. Still, Wikipedia also tells me that there is a feminist response to the novel called Helen's Story by Rosanne Rabinowitz which tells the whole story from Helen's point of view - and that could be truly awesome.

If you'd like to read The Great God Pan yourself, the whole thing is on Project Gutenberg, and I can confirm that their free Kindle-formatted version works very nicely.

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AND FINALLY (for now), this is a fairly standard narrative about a dysfunctional family bumping each other off for an inheritance with Frankie Howerd thrown in for comic relief, which I watched with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 after it was screened on Talking Pictures recently. It wasn't awful, but it dragged a lot more than it should have done given the suspenseful potential of the plot. Frankie Howerd was relatively toned down, perhaps so that he would fit appropriately into a story about family murders, but it ended up feeling like an unhappy compromise - neither funny enough nor horrific enough to entertain. To be fair to it, the sets and a lot of the cinematography were actually very good, and we had fun spotting all the cliches and guessing what was going to happen. But it wasn't a patch on comparable British horror comedy Carry on Screaming.

Since no more need be said about this film, I hereby declare myself UP TO DATE with reviewing at long last. That's basically taken me the whole of the bank holiday weekend, but it was a worthwhile investment. Who knows what crazy things I might get up to now!

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I saw this one with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313. We noticed that it was on its last week of screening in Leeds despite only having been released a couple of weeks earlier, and that the cinema wasn't exactly packed out, so I'm guessing it perhaps hasn't done as well as hoped. And that's a pity because I thought it was great on all levels - cast, story, jokes, songs and historical detail.

The setting is the Boudiccan rebellion, and the main storyline follows a Roman boy, Attilius (or Atti for short) who is forced into the army by Nero as a punishment, and a 'Celtic' (I would have preferred 'British', but I get why they did this) girl, Orla, who is desperate to be a warrior but whose Dad won't let her as she is too young. Their utterly wholesome narrative involves her taking him prisoner, them falling (very chastely) in love, and both of them eventually coming to realise that war is actually a bad thing as it tends to end up with people being hurt.

The research was really solid, and what I particularly liked about it was that the script not only reflected a strong knowledge of the relevant source material, but that it also drew direct attention to the nature of those sources and their problems. So we saw a classically-megalomaniacal version of Nero being told that no-one really knew what had happened to Boudicca, and dictating his own preferred version to his tame court historian - who, for bonus meta-referential points was Horrible Histories' real-life historical consultant, [twitter.com profile] greg_jenner. Then, as if that weren't enough, a Roman rat popped up over the closing credits to tell us all about the conflicting historical accounts of the events depicted. The value of that for children just getting to grips with history is immense, and I was so pleased they had taken the time to do it.

I was also pretty impressed by the way they had handled the topics of Roman imperialism and cultural change, both inevitably raised by the historical period and setting. We were shown very clearly that most of the 'Celtic' characters weren't in the least bit interested in Roman 'civilisation', while those who were (as represented by them e.g. incorporating Roman columns into their round-houses) didn't consider having their political autonomy arbitrarily taken away a reasonable price to pay for it. As a children's film, it had to come to a happy ending after Boudicca's rebellion, so we didn't see that being brutally repressed (in fact, most of the final battle was conveyed as a dance-off), and instead the Romans and the 'Celts' reached a cheerful accommodation with one another. But even this was very much about characters who had developed mutual respect for one another's cultures over the course of the film, rather than the Celts coming to appreciate 'what the Romans have done for us'. In short, if a generation of future Classics / Anc Hist students are out there watching this, I should get fewer in my classes assuming that Roman imperialism was a beneficent civilising mission.

There were too many great jokes and inter-texts to list in detail, but obviously it was beyond wonderful to see Derek Jacobi reprise his role as Claudius for a few short minutes, before being bumped off by the machinations of an almost equally wonderful Kim Cattrall as Agrippina. I thought there was a touch of David Morrissey's Aulus Plautius in Britannia lurking behind Rupert Graves' Suetonius Paulinus, too, as well as in the design of the Roman camps and the way Atti was treated after being recaptured from Orla (though this was obviously a very sanitised, child-friendly version of what happens in Britannia). As for jokes, watching in Yorkshire I think my favourite had to be seeing the Brigantes (our local tribe) portrayed with strong Yorkshire accents. Overall a great watch and a most worthy addition to the canon of screen portrayals of Roman Britain.

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16. Midsommar (2019), dir. Ari Aster

As this is a recent release still screening in some places, I will cut the bulk of this review. That's not to say it's a film that would seriously be ruined by knowing a bit about what happens in it, though. In fact, once the major parameters are established, it proceeds with dreadful inevitability towards its end-point, and that's a lot of how it generates its sense of horror. So if you're sure you'll like it and would prefer to see it unspoiled, go ahead - it's great. But if you're not sure and would like to use this review to help you decide, you won't really lose anything by reading it. And if you've already seen it and want to share views, come hit me up in the comments!

Rest of the review under hereCollapse )

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I've already written up the International Vampire Film and Arts Festival which I attended in July in its own right (LJ / DW), but deliberately saved reviewing the films I had seen there until I'd written up a large back-log of earlier viewings first. Now, their time has come.

13. Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974), dir. Brian ClemensCollapse )

14. Interview With The Vampire (1994), dir. Neil JordanCollapse )

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

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I saw these with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and [twitter.com profile] HickeyWriter in June at the Stockport Plaza, a very splendid Art Deco cinema which looks like this:

2019-06-20 18.32.06.jpg

11. The Devil Rides Out (1968), dir. Terence Fisher

I've seen this one at least twice before, but surprisingly a search of my LJ / DW archives suggests not since I started reviewing all of the films I watch here systematically. At least, that is to say, I've half-watched chunks of it several times on the Horror Channel during that time, but not sat down and paid full attention from beginning to end of the film, which is my criterion for whether I then write the film up 'officially' or not.

Anyway, it's obviously great, in ways no-one particularly needs me to recap here. But I will note two things. One is that I became irreverently obsessed with the fate of the Eatons' car. We're primed for a casual attitude to cars by the Duc de Richelieu's response when Rex asks to borrow one of his - "Yes, take any of them" - but the Eatons have made no such offer when Rex arrives in it at their house with Tanith, and she takes the first available opportunity to slip into the driver's seat and escape. That's literally all they've ever seen of Tanith, but they are good people who trust and like Rex, so when he then asks to take their car in order to chase after her, they generously agree. I decided to pay careful attention to the outcome of all this, and the answer is that he then totals the car in the forest at the end of a high-speed chase, and when he and the Duc de Richelieu return to the Eatons' house (with Tanith and in yet another car), he says nothing at all about it and they don't ask about it, then or indeed ever at any point for the rest of the film. It's one of a few loose ends or unexplained transitions in the film, another being why Rex becomes so committed to helping Tanith in the first place, and led me to comment at the end that I felt the film must have been heavily, and not always entirely successfully, compressed from Dennis Wheatley's novel. [twitter.com profile] HickeyWriter, who has read it, agreed.

The other thing which struck me was about how the special effects during Mocata's (remote) attacks on the magic circle look on a big screen. Several of these effects have been pilloried over the years, and indeed a Blu-ray version in which they have been CGI enhanced was released in 2012. I'm pretty sure we were seeing the original, unenhanced version, but nonetheless the Angel of Death in particular actually looked really good and impressive to me on a big screen. It's to do with the angle of vision and the size of the image when you are sitting in a cinema seat, which together mean that it really looms over you as the horse is rearing and snorting. I think we too often forget this sort of factor when criticising special effects in vintage films - they were designed to capitalise on the spatial set-up of a cinema auditorium, and inevitably lose a lot of that impact the moment they are transferred to a home viewing environment.

12. Plague of the Zombies (1966), dir. John Gilling

This one I have reviewed here before (LJ / DW), so I won't repeat myself. But it was great to be able to drink in the fine details of the sets thanks to the big-screen image, which also made Dr Thompson's nightmare about being surrounded by zombies in the cemetery particularly effective.

We left on quite a high at the end of the night. Seeing the two as a double bill was splendid, although coming after the paciness, wit and crackling performance of Devil, Plague did come across as a shade more pedestrian and B-movieish (as indeed it and The Reptile avowedly were next to Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin). Still, more Hammer double bills in cinemas within a reasonable distance of my house will always be a good thing.

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Just over a year ago, in June 2018, I went on holiday with DracSoc to Cruden Bay (formerly known as Port Erroll), a little fishing village on the east coast of Scotland where Bram Stoker spent several summer holidays and probably wrote most of Dracula. As part of the trip, we met up with local resident Mike Shepherd, who had been researching Bram's visits to Cruden Bay, and guided us around the place pointing out Stoker-related landmarks and explaining what he did there. At the time, he had basically finished this book and was in the process of looking for a publisher for it, so he walked around clutching sheafs of print-outs from it, and periodically reading relevant passages - mainly quotations from Stoker's work. Here's a picture of Mike talking to some slightly chilly DracSoc members about Bram walking up and down Cruden Bay beach and the inspiration he drew from the sight and sound of the sea, with just such a sheaf in hand:

2018-06-11 10.14.58.jpg

The book was published later that year, went straight on my Christmas list, and now I have read and very much enjoyed it. Most of the information about Bram's visits there I knew already from what Mike told us during our trip (and which I wrote up after the holiday: LJ / DW), but it was nice to see a few extra historical pictures in the published book, and I also learnt a bit more than I'd fully grasped before about Cruden Bay's development during the years that Stoker was visiting. Basically, he was a bit of a pioneer, discovering the village by chance during a walking holiday when it was still very remote and isolated. But soon after his first stay there in 1894, major local developments began with the aim of turning it into the 'Brighton of Aberdeenshire' - and the name change from Port Erroll to Cruden Bay was part of this, as it was judged to sound less related to trade and hard work, and more charming and idyllic. Work began in 1895 on a local railway station which was completed in 1897, while a hotel and golf course opened in 1899. So as Stoker continued to visit annually, the village changed entirely from a quiet retreat to a popular resort full of contemporary notables. This was obviously great for the local economy, but changed things rather for Bram, and probably explains why on his last visit there in 1910 he stayed in a cottage at Whinnyfold, at the other end of the bay, which would have been markedly cheaper as well as quieter - particularly important for him by that time on grounds of ill health.

Alongside Mike's careful research into these sorts of historical details is a second thread to the book, which he hinted at during our visit but kept closer to his chest. This is all about how the natural landscape and local customs of Cruden Bay may have appealed to and inspired Bram, given his well-documented passion for the similarly nature-venerating and pantheistic poetry of Walt Whitman. There's certainly a basis for this. Whitman poems like 'On The Beach At Night Alone' and 'With Antecedents' do speak of the oneness of all things in nature, and the acceptance and syncretism of all faiths as reflections of a single spiritual truth. And Mike quotes plenty of examples and passages from Stoker's work which reflect similar thinking - e.g. Esse, the main character in his novel The Shoulder of Shasta, who is explicitly described as a pantheist, or the mystical / magical old woman Gormala in The Mystery of the Sea (which is set in Cruden Bay and which I need to read urgently!), whose beliefs are described as deriving from 'some of the old pagan mythology'. I found this helpful and interesting, and it certainly gave me more of a sense of what had impressed Bram so much about Whitman's poetry than Skal's biography (LJ / DW), from which you would be forgiven for concluding that it was wholly about repressed homosexuality. But I also think Mike might be indulging slightly in projection and wishful over-thinking when he makes statements like these:
"Bram discovered an entire world-view in Walt Whitman's poems and connected with them. This was an outlook that led from his childhood connection with nature and progressed to an acceptance of pantheism. This encompassed and subsumed the Protestant faith of his boyhood." (p. 179)

"I walk along the same beach every day trying to imagine what Bram Stoker was thinking when he walked there some 120 years ago. My suspicion is yes: Bram believed in a mystical universe, that land is the realm of the material world and the sea is the living embodiment of the spiritual world. It's essentially the age-old belief of the Port Erroll fishermen; that a nameless spirit resides in the sea." (p. 203)

"Here's what I think. Bram Stoker's spiritual outlook appears to be more or less that of Walt Whitman: it encompassed all religions past and present and rejected none. If a religious belief was real to the person that held it, then their gods and spirits were real to Bram Stoker. That the fishermen of Port Erroll could simultaneously hold Christian and pagan beliefs would be seen as natural by Bram." (p. 206)
I totally get where Mike is coming from on all of this, and I appreciate the way he has signalled this thinking as his own opinion, rather than verifiable fact. But the idea that Bram Stoker consciously identified as a pantheist in a way that 'encompassed and subsumed' his Protestantism, or believed that all gods and spirits were equally real, doesn't ring true to me from what else I've read about him (quite a lot by this stage!). He was certainly fascinated by other religious traditions and enjoyed probing at their implications in his creative writing. There's a very good article about the religious implications of Dracula (which requires a JSTOR subscription or library to access in full but has a reasonable abstract here), which reveals some fascinating unresolved and probably unconscious tensions and implicit dark undercurrents in the way Stoker portrays various Christian traditions and their relationship with (what were seen as) superstitions. That is, it's clearly all a locus of unease which he keeps circling back to, and I think it's perfectly accurate to say he was fascinated by and sympathetic to ideas like pantheism. But still, at face value he always remains resolutely Christian and indeed somewhat pious in his proclaimed outlook.

I didn't mind too much, though, because in the process of exploring the potential relationship between Stoker's beliefs and local pagan traditions Mike devoted two whole chapters to them - taking 'pagan' to mean pretty much anything relating to the veneration of nature, unnamed spirits, superstitions and anything not sanctioned by the church. Stoker himself does get rather left behind during those two chapters, which both more or less begin and end with brief comments along the lines of "this is the sort of stuff Stoker might have heard about or been inspired by when he visited Cruden Bay", but I was perfectly happy to read about them in their own right because I love that stuff. There were a few things which rang Wicker Man-ish bells for me, like a reference to Shoney, god of the sea (to whom Lord Summerisle offers barrels of ale). And I was particularly tickled, for surname-related reasons, to learn about the custom of the Goodman's Croft or Fold - a small area of agricultural land deliberately left untilled for the 'Goodman', a generic word for landowner here meant in the sense of a spirit living on the land. I've always understood it before just to mean (along with Goodwife) a wholly generic term similar to 'Gentleman', but I like the idea of it meaning a spirit of the land a lot more.

Overall a very interesting book which needed writing, which Mike as a Cruden Bay resident was the perfect person to undertake, and which will especially appeal to those who (like me) enjoy a bit of Scottish folk tradition as well as the work of Bram Stoker

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I first saw this during my trip to Australia in 2017 on a friend's telly-box (LJ / DW), but as I had never seen it in the cinema I was very happy to go along and watch it again at the Hyde Park Picturehouse with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 recently. It is, after all, very good.

Some things which particularly struck me this time, and / or I didn't mention last time, included the very effective use of silence and stillness throughout the movie. It creates a compelling sense of focus and isolation around Oskar and Eli when they meet in the play-area of their apartment building, underscoring how separate from everything around them their friendship is. And once that's established, it contrasts nicely with the sounds we do hear - yelling from Oskar's bullies, the buzz of conversation in the bar where the adults hang out, the roar in Oskar's ears as he is being held underwater in the pool.

Perhaps because I was seeing it on a big screen this time, or perhaps just because I already knew the story so could pick up smaller details, I also noticed that sometimes when Eli is in vampire-attack mode, CGI is used to make them appear both older and more savage. I really liked that - both the subtlety of it, so that you may or may not consciously notice it, and the properly frightening, supernatural edge it gives to the character (who could otherwise risk becoming too humanised). And although I had certainly remembered how touching the portrayal of Eli and Oskar's relationship is, I had forgotten that from time to time the film is also darkly humorous - as when we learn that Eli has appeared to save Oskar's life and make short work of his tormentors by seeing severed limbs and heads falling into the swimming pool from Oskar's underwater perspective.

In my head, this film now belongs on a list of five exceptionally-good (for different reasons) vampire movies which we've been lucky enough to have in the last now-slightly-more-than-ten years. In chronological order, those are:
  • Let the Right One In (2008)
  • Byzantium (2012)
  • Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
  • What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
I will be only to happy to consider further additions to the list if anyone wants to recommend any, or indeed release them!

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I saw the first Iron Sky film in the cinema when it came out in 2012 (LJ / DW). This one, the sequel, did get a cinema release, but in Leeds only one cinema offered a showing if enough people signed up in advance and not enough did, so [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I watched it via Google Play instead.

I was surprised as we watched by how very little I remembered about the first film, but now I've realised it came out in 2012 I'm less so. (If you'd asked me to guess its release date before I checked, I would have said 2015.) It left me a bit at sea at the beginning of the film, as we were evidently meant to recognise some of the characters as descendants of people from the original film, but I couldn't remember anything about their parents so [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 had to remind me. It didn't really matter too much once things got going, though.

Like the first film, it was funny and knowingly silly. There's a lot to be said for a film whose climax features a fake alien lizard-Hitler riding a tyrannosaurus rex through a moon colony. It was fun to see a fake alien lizard-Caligula crop up briefly part-way through, too. But I see looking back at my review of the first film that I complained about its unsubtlety in some areas, and I felt like that again this time about their parody of Apple cultism, in which a slavish adoration of Steve Jobs and everything he ever produced had become the main religious cult on the moon base. It would have been OK as a one-off passing joke, but as things are it was over-played. Still, it made for a fun afternoon.

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This one I learnt of at the Polidori conference I went to in April (the one I never wrote up but did upload some pictures from). It was mentioned in a paper about Byronic vampire narratives of the 1960s, and although the speaker said quite explicitly that it wasn't a very good film, they also said that it featured a character going off to Greece and becoming involved in occultism, Peter Cushing, a scathing speech about reactionary Oxbridge academia, and a random psychedelic orgy scene which had clearly been tagged onto the rest of the movie in a desperate attempt to attract audiences. Though I like a good horror film as much as anyone, I also have a lot of time for brilliantly inept horror films, especially ones made in the 1960s and '70s, so this sounded fantastic to me. Luckily, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 agreed and had a copy, so we watched it.

It was indeed gloriously terrible. Not even the combined forces of Peter Cushing, Patrick Macnee and Edward Woodward could save it. The plot was confusing, most of the acting was dreadful, there were all sorts of continuity errors (like a lady going out of her apartment without any jacket on, but miraculously having acquired one as she stepped out into the street), and the dialogue was clearly written by someone who knew the sexual revolution had occurred but hadn't had any direct personal involvement and furthermore absolutely insisted on 'no homo'. [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 actually wrote down some of the choicest examples of this at the time, which included:
  • "I'm not a homosexual, you know."
  • "Now let's skip the rather special case of the homosexual vampire."
  • "You have your voyeurs, transvestites, narcissists, bestialists..."
  • "Vampirism is a sado-masochistic sexual perversion affecting frigid women and impotent men."
  • "Are you trying to tell me that a girl sucking blood from a man's neck can induce an orgasm?"
  • "Some men can only make love in a coffin."
Somewhat oddly, it also made pretty good use of location footage in Oxford and (I was surprised to realise half-way though) both Kyrenia and Salamis in Cyprus, which I visited with [personal profile] rosamicula two years ago. A nice collection of shots of both from the film is visible here, but I'm afraid I did the same with the Cyprus trip as the Polidori conference - uploaded pictures here, but never wrote a post to put them into. I guess I may as well at least drop a couple of the ones which match up best with the film in here:



All in all, we had a mightily enjoyable evening watching this, eased along by the good offices of a couple of vampire cocktails apiece. Our only disappointment was that the shoe-horned psychedelic orgy scene turned out to have been excised from the cut of the film we watched - but luckily it was included as an extra on the DVD. Marvellous.

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7. Targets (1968), dir. Peter Bogdanovich

Various colleagues in the School where I work have caught on to my horror-loving ways, with the result that I was asked to review Murray Leeder (2018), Horror Film: a critical introduction for a film studies journal earlier this year. Feeling slightly fraudulent, I agreed, and was glad I had because it is an excellent book which has hugely enhanced my own appreciation of horror films. The review isn't out yet, but I've been enthusiastically recommending the book to others ever since reading it.

Naturally, one of the things I got out of it was a list of horror films which I hadn't previously seen or registered the existence of, but would clearly enjoy, and this went straight to the top of that list. Leeder argues in the book that horror is a particularly self-referential genre, for two main reasons. One is that non-mainstream genres tend to work that way anyway - they build up and rely on a committed audience with a strong knowledge of the genre, so there is a lot of mileage to be had out of in-jokes and inter-texts. The other is that horror in particular draws a lot of its impact from the inherent uncanniness of visual effects. This has been true since the early days of phantasmagorias, but in a film context it includes things like the weirdness of seeing realistic-looking moving images of people on screen whom the audience knows are not actually there, as well as the additional levels of similar weirdness made possible by sound effects (e.g. disjunctions between what we see and hear), the use of colour (consider Suspiria) and digital effects. Horror is always trading on these, but often also chooses to draw direct attention to the uncanniness through meta-references.

In the book, Leeder capitalises on all this by using examples of scenes and dialogue from the films he's discussing to introduce a topic, before going on to talk about it in more analytical and theoretical terms. This film was one of the ones he used in that capacity, mainly to discuss the shift from Gothic horror to serial killer movies at the end of the 1960s, but also as an example of a film dealing meta-referentially with the figure of the horror star and the uncanniness of the projected image. This caught my attention in a big way (the meta-referential horror star was the main thing I liked about Fright Night (LJ / DW)), so, having determined that it was available via Google Play, I persuaded [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 to watch it with me.

It is a low-budget film made by an early-career director lucky enough to have impressed and secured the support of Roger Corman. As a result, Bogdanovich was able to make use of Boris Karloff, in one of his final few screen appearances, because Karloff owed Corman a couple of days' work from another project and Corman gifted them to Bogdanovich. Karloff plays Byron Orlok, an elderly horror star with an obviously meta-referential name, who feels he has become obsolete in a world of real-life horrors filling the newspapers, and whose films are derided as camp. However, they are still shown as having a huge cult following, and Orlok somewhat reluctantly agrees to make a final promotional appearance at a drive-in theatre showing one of his movies, represented by footage of Karloff's actual performance in Corman's The Terror.

On the day of the film screening, an example of the very real-life horror Orlok despairs at breaks out in the Thompson household. Bobby Thompson appears to be the perfect American man with his clean-cut appearance and attractive wife, but deep problems lurk below the surface. He and his wife still live with his parents, with all the weird tensions, overtones of failure and implications of a broken society that entails. Gradually we realise that he is unemployed but hiding it from his wife and family. He collects guns. You can see where this is going. His storyline was apparently modelled after a couple of examples of recent real-world shooters in the US (Michael Clark in 1965 and Charles Whitman in 1966), and begins with him coldly and methodically shooting his entire family, before sniping at cars from the top of an oil storage tank and finally holing himself up at the drive-in theatre where Orlok's movie is due to screen.

The main effectiveness of the Thompson storyline comes from the imperceptibility of the slip between an apparently ordinary life and a killing-spree. We can see that he is at odds with and closed off from his family, but he never goes into a rage or appears to struggle with the terrible consequences of what he is contemplating, and nor are we prompted to respond viscerally to his actions via dramatic music or high-speed action sequences. He just starts quietly killing as though it were a logical continuation of the life he has already been living, tidying away the bodies of the first few members of his family so that the others will not recognise what is happening and cause a scene. The fact that he begins in the very ordinary domestic setting of the family home creates the same jarring effect, as does the meticulousness of his planning - for example, eating a sandwich lunch he has made for himself on top of the oil tank. This all adds up to a far more terrifying indictment of what is wrong with the society that has produced him than a sudden flip-out would do, and of course it all only looks massively more horrible and damning some fifty years later when the problem has only grown.

At the drive-in theatre, Thompson makes a hole in the cinema screen and begins shooting the audience through it - a very clever little prod at the relationship between the safely imaginary horrors we choose to watch on screen and the unwanted reality of violence. A horrible dramatic tension is maintained for several minutes as the audience of Targets see what he is doing, but most of the audience at the drive-in movie within the film still haven't realised yet what is going on. (He's using a silencer and of course most of the victims are inside their own cars.) There are some very effective and quite harrowing shots of the results of his carnage, and then chaos as people catch on and scramble to get away. The two parallel stories of the film finally come together as Orlok confronts Thompson, who is momentarily confused by the actor from the movie appearing for real in front of him, and uses the opportunity to thwack Thompson's gun out of his hands with his walking stick, allowing the police to arrest him. The film closes on a final shot of a single car left in the drive-in lot - Thompson's, which he is now unable to collect.

I'm not usually a serial killer movie fan, but this is an exceptional commentary on what gives rise to them as well as a fascinating reflection on the horror genre. If you're a horror fan and haven't seen it, it is an absolute must-watch.

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Life is genuinely a bit quieter for me at the moment than it has been for a while, and (touch wood) should stay that way until the end of August, so I'm taking the opportunity to try to get back on top of things a bit. I've been tidying and cleaning my house so far today, and now turn my attention to my unblogged film list - not that I am really likely to make great inroads into it today, given that I am probably going out to see another film this evening. [profile] ladylugosi1313 will appreciate just how far I am going back to review this one, although luckily I did take some notes on it at the time, so I have at least something of a starting point.

Anyway, this is a classic and very famous Powell and Pressburger film which centres around the lives and loves of a ballet company engaged in putting on an adaptation of 'The Red Shoes' by Hans Christian Anderson. The story tells of a young girl who yearns for a pair of beautiful red shoes, but when she acquires them through the manipulative machinations of the evil shoemaker, she finds that they compel her to dance on and on until she dies. Roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, we are treated to an amazing sequence, probably some 15-20 minutes long, which is just the company performing the ballet. The relevant cast members were all actual professional dancers, so it is essentially a filmed version of an actual ballet performance, but enhanced also by the potential of what film allows them to do. This ranges from the relatively simple and obvious business of close-ups and camera tracking, which a static audience in a real theatre can't benefit from, to special effects such as the girl seeing a vision of herself already dancing in the shoes when she peers in to the shop window to wonder over them, and then her dancing through fantastical landscapes using an early version of what's now green-screen when she is first experiencing the joy of having acquired them.

Around this, the story of the ballet company echoes the narrative of feeling compelled to dance with tragic consequences in a real-world setting. The lead role in the ballet is played by Vicky Page, who is just emerging into the ballet world as a new rising star, and feels a strong vocational compulsion within herself to make her way in the profession and be the best dancer she can be. This is externally personified by Boris Lermontov, the ballet company's director, who takes her as his protégé and demands of her to devote her entire life to dancing. But meanwhile she also falls in love with the company's composer, Julian Custer, and runs off to marry him - only to discover and admit to a jealous Boris some months later that his career as a composer has taken over, and she has barely danced since their marriage. It is tragic and terrible and very emotively played, but it does essentially boil down to a very gendered story about how a woman can't have both love and career success. Even worse, because Vicky's own internal conflict about this is externally personified into the two men, it is largely framed as a conflict between them within which she has no real agency. Vicky's response is thus to run in tears from the theatre, horribly compelled by the red shoes she is wearing, and jump from a terrace into the path of an oncoming train. That is, two men fight over a woman until she breaks.

It was a visually very beautiful film, beyond the ballet scenes I've already mentioned. The colour was over-saturated, but with a taupe tint - probably largely because that was what they could achieve using still quite early colour technology, but it looked amazing anyway, with the red shoes themselves incredibly rich. Some of the cinematography also reminded me of Fellini's films - especially shots of people looking smallish and isolated in large, splendid rooms which accentuated their fragility. Some of the dialogue struck me the same way, too. Fellini's characters often make very simple, even banal, statements which acquire a lot of their meaning from context, and these characters quite often did the same. Fellini was in his late 20s and just getting started in the film industry at this time, so maybe he saw it and picked up some ideas?

Anyway, very beautiful and effective overall, as long as you can look around the inherently rather misogynistic central conceit.

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Two weeks ago, I attended IVFAF, a vampire festival combining an academic conference, a creative congress (i.e. authors talking about their work), a film festival, a number of theatrical performances, a Bram Stoker walk, a cabaret and a ball all into one glorious five-day event. I've been following their activities on Twitter / FB for a while, but their last three events had been in Romania and at times of year when I already had a lot on. This one, though, came to the Highgate area of London, and I decided it was worth devoting a week of summer holiday time to going along.

Back in April, I went to a different two-day conference marking the bicentenary of John Polidori's 'The Vampyre', which also took place in Highgate (though at a different main venue). I never wrote it up here, though I did upload an album of pictures intending to use them as the basis for a never-written entry, mainly of our visit to Highgate cemetery complete with a few screencaps from Taste the Blood of Dracula, which used it as a location. I went along to that conference purely out of interest as a listener, but by the end of it I'd realised that specialists in Gothic literature aren't always in the best position to unpick 'The Vampyre's engagement with Classical antiquity, and indeed that that engagement was considerably deeper and richer than I'd previously realised.

IVFAF 2019 also took the bicentenary of 'The Vampyre' as one of its themes (along with the Highgate Vampire craze and Hammer's vampire films), and I registered for it from my academic email address, which prompted the organiser to ask whether I was planning to offer a paper. Fresh from the recent Polidori conference, I said yes, I probably would, and indeed re-read both Polidori's story and Byron's related Fragment and made some notes on them. But then as the abstract deadline drew closer I looked more soberly at the other tasks I had to do during the same period, and realised that it probably wouldn't actually be a very good idea, so I didn't submit one. I decided I would just go along in the same spirit as I had to the Polidori conference, to enjoy other people's papers and the films, shows, walks and partying around them. Except that then, about three weeks before the conference, I got another slightly plaintive note from the organiser saying that he was holding a slot for me on the programme, and could I send in my abstract? And it turned out I couldn't resist this, so I had yet another look at my calendar, identified three days I could claw out to write the paper after all, and knocked an abstract together. So that is how I turned what was supposed to be a week's holiday into three days of intensive paper preparation followed by travelling down to London and delivering it.

It was fine, though. I had been right in the first place that there was a good paper's worth of things to say about how both Byron and Polidori's stories engaged with Classical antiquity, was able to compile it into a perfectly respectable paper in three days, and indeed managed to identify some quite specific source material for each of them which I don't think has been fully explored before. So it was all in the bag by the end of the Monday, leaving plenty of time for me to relax, travel down to London and settle into my aparthotel on the Tuesday. I even found time that evening (equipped with advice from a few FB friends) to get my nails done in suitably vampiric style in a local nail bar, ready for the week ahead.

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My paper was scheduled for the first day, which was nice as it meant I could get the worky bit over and done with and then enjoy the rest of the festival. I made sure to attire myself appropriately, and did my thingCollapse )

The other papers were good to listen to tooCollapse )

I didn't spend so much time in the creative congress, which was largely scheduled in parallel with the academic conference, but I mean you might as well sit and listen to Kim Newman being interview by Stephen Jones (editor of The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories in which Kim's first Anno Dracula story appeared) if you've got no other pressing commitments.

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The Bram Stoker walk was another highlightCollapse )

DracSoc chair Julia also attended the academic conference, while additional members Adrian and Pat joined us at various points in the evenings for dinners, shows and films. We saw two productions by the Don't Go In The Cellar theatre company: 'Sherlock Holmes versus The Sussex Vampire' (which also included versions of The Creeping Man and The Devil's Foot) and 'Dracula's Ghost', in which a very pale-faced lawyer named Mr Leech (whose true identity I'm sure you can guess) periodically visits the widowed Mrs Bram Stoker, interspersed with relating the story of his life. The first was done as a one-man show (as are most DGITC productions), with the audience cast as criminals in Sherlock's memory palace, and worked pretty well, but we felt that Sherlock as a character did struggle a bit without other characters to be clever at. The second was an absolute cracker, though. The inclusion of a second actor on stage playing Mrs Stoker probably helped, but it was basically a whirlwind tour through more or less every possible vampire and Dracula-related story you can think of, all incorporated into and referenced within Mr Leech's life story. My favourite moments were a mention of D.D. Denham (Dracula's alias in The Satanic Rites of Dracula) and a scene in which he meets and speaks with Kali - partly because this references one of the very unmade Hammer Dracula films we'd heard Kieran talking about the previous day, but also because it was just done so effectively, by the actor who'd also been playing Mrs Stoker putting masks on both her face and the back of her head, and undulating her arms in a very divine and otherworldly manner.

I didn't make it to any of the new shorts and feature films which were screened during the days, again because of clashes with the academic conference and Stoker walk, but I did get to three evening showings of vampire classicsCollapse )

Finally (though not chronologically as it took place on the Friday - but the grand climax of the festival anyway), there was the combined cabaret night and ball at the Birdcage in Camden, some of which was NSFWCollapse )

Plans are afoot already for next year's IVFAF, quite possibly to be in Santa Cruz with a Lost Boys theme. I'm not sure I'll make that, but having the chance to go this year was definitely a good thing, and now I even have another Classical vampires paper to maybe think about writing up properly some time soon. Dracula first, though...

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This is Christopher Lee's first feature film, made when he was on a training contract with Rank (the 'Rank Charm School'), which the ever-wondrous Talking Pictures were kind enough to show some time ago. He has only a small role in it, playing a beautiful young man in a night-club with all of about two lines, but the film as a whole proved to have much more to offer beyond his small appearance (which is far from always the case with Christopher Lee films), and I would highly recommend it.


It is set in 1938, i.e. ten years before its release date, but with a framing narrative in the present day which alerts us that a murder has been committed. Ten years earlier, the main story begins in the nightclub where Christopher Lee is one of several louche young things lounging around a table waiting for something to happen - and it is he who has the honour of identifying the lead male character, Paul Mangin (Eric Portman), as a 'Lord Byron' type when he sweeps in imperiously. Mangin is a classic tragic tormented hero who wears cravats, rides around town in a hansom cab and turns out to own a vast faux-Renaissance Venetian palace full of ancient jewellery, fine dresses and the titular corridor of mirrors. That night, he woos society girl Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney), taking her to his home, introducing her to his fantastical other-world and encouraging her to try on some of the dresses - which she discovers are perfectly tailored to her size.

We gradually learn that he is deeply invested in a fantasy regarding a woman named Venetia who lived in the 15th century, believing himself to be her reincarnated lover and just waiting to find the woman herself - Mifanwy, of course. She becomes embroiled into it all, flattered by the attention and seduced by the fairy-tale setting which he has created, allowing him to turn her into a mannequin draped in Venetia's clothes and a living doll who dances on his command. He keeps taking cigarettes out of her hand, gently but firmly schooling her out of the 20th-century modernism which they represent. Seductive though it all is, she increasingly discovers that she doesn't like the way the whole scenario erodes her sense of will and self-determination, and breaks away from Mangin for the Welsh landowner she really loves - but not before returning for one last night to the faux-Venetian ball which he has put on in her honour. There, he takes her refusing his proposal of marriage very badly, chasing her through the mirrored corridor, and the murder which had been foreshadowed from the start occurs. Returning to 1948, Mangin is now the one who has been transformed into a mannequin - a wax model in the gallery of horrors at Madame Tussaud's.

In some ways the film reminded me strongly of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (LJ / DW), released only two years earlier. It has the same basic set-up of a young woman finding herself in an outsider's palace full of wonders, as well as some similar visuals such as flowing drapes around the bed. But it certainly ends up quite differently. I also felt I'd seen some foreshadowings of Hammer's Dracula in it. Mangin's whole demeanour towards and pursuit of Mifanwy is quite in line with Lee's Dracula, as is his identification with the past and the design of his house (opus sectile floors, a hallway with a gallery and staircase, his study complete with the accoutrements of a Renaissance man, stone eagles in the garden). He also transpires to have a house-keeper called Veronica who tells Mifanway that she is a prisoner and that Mangin has consumed her youth and can appear at will, and he even wears a long black cloak at the climactic Venetian ball. But I'm sure these are all really just a matter of a general mid-century consensus on how to portray a Byronic villain and his house rather than any meaningful connection between the two films.

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This one I think I spotted on Amazon and put on my wish-list for kind family members to buy as a Christmas present. It sets out to answer puzzles and questions raised by Stoker's novel, with the one that really caught me eye being the theory that Quincey Morris is actually a vampire in league with Dracula, based mainly on the fact that he allows Dracula to escape at a couple of crucial points in the action. But on reading I discovered that this theory isn't original to Sutherland - rather, he's picked it up (as he quite freely acknowledges), from another source: Franco Moretti 1983, Signs Taken for Wonders. Much the same was true for most of the book, with many of the sources being blog posts (including several I had already read), while a certain sloppiness of detail betrayed a superficial grasp of the material on the author's own part (e.g. anyone who has a passing familiarity with Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films would know instantly that The Tomb of Ligeia could not have been released in 1982, as he has it).

So, while I appreciate the proper and careful referencing, this is basically a work of synthesis rather than that of a single sharp mind picking carefully over the novel's loose threads. Also, there was no acknowledgement at all of what to me is a crucial difference - that between explanations based on what is there in the text (such as the theory that Quincey may be a vampire), and explanations based on what we know about Stoker and his authorial process (e.g. Why does Van Helsing swear in German? Because Stoker originally conceived of the character as German but later changed him to Dutch, probably based on a combination of characters from Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly). I'm down for both, but they're not the same and I have already read bucket-loads of serious-business books offering the latter. I wanted the fannish story-expanding of the former.

Still, it was a fun book to read, and did include some really interesting insights. I've long been intrigued myself by the following claim of Dracula's, reported by Jonathan Harker in his diary of 8th May:
"Fools, fools! What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?" He held up his arms.
There are three things a vampire could mean when he says something like that:
  1. The conventional human meaning - I am directly descended from Attila.
  2. I myself am Attila
  3. I bit Attila and drank his blood during his lifetime
Either of the latter two would have to mean he was far older than Vlad III Dracula, but oddly that possibility seems to have been almost entirely ignored by Dracula commentators. (Not that they are mutually exclusive - an immortal vampire able to walk around in daylight can be multiple different historical figures across the generations.) Sutherland has picked it up, though - and as far as I can tell in this instance on his own initiative. In fact, it's his answer to the titular question of the book - Who is Dracula's Father? He ends up suggesting that Dracula may be a child conceived on the night of Attila's death, which was also his wedding-night to a new wife, which to me is slightly weaker than "I am Attila" or "I bit Attila", but still at least gets something out of the line. Props for that.

Another interesting observation is that
When blood is spilled on the floor, from Seward's arm which Renfield has cut in a maniac moment, he laps it up. Thereafter he seems to know everything that Seward knows. He owns him.
That is, Renfield is able to secure a similar telepathic connection between himself and Seward after drinking his blood to the one which Dracula has with Mina in the same circumstances, even though he isn't a vampire. I'd have to read the relevant parts of the novel again to know if the text really bears out what Sutherland says, but if it does, it sort of suggests something interesting about how Stoker is trying to portray vampirism - that the magical properties of blood-drinking aren't rooted in the condition of vampirism (and thus restricted to the vampire characters), but are to some extent inherent in the blood itself - the blood is the life. What distinguishes vampires from humans then isn't so much a quasi-medical condition of the body, but rather that they have recognised and given themselves over to this knowledge and the power that it brings, which is entirely consistent with what Stoker says about Dracula learning his secrets from the Devil in the Scholomance.

Finally - and I can't believe I didn't notice this one before - Harker leaves Bistritz for Dracula's castle on the eve of St George's Day, which his landlady explains means that at midnight "all the evil things in the world will have full sway". But as Sutherland also points out, Dracula's name means 'son of the Dragon' (as Stoker knew), and St George is famous above all as a dragon-slayer - which is what Jonathan, an Englishman and thus a knight of St George (at one point in the novel, Van Helsing literally calls them 'knights of the Cross') will do at the climax. It's another of Bram's Good vs. Evil dichotomies, as well as an index of Jonathan's character development - from the innocent traveller, out of his depth and at the mercy of supernatural things at the beginning, to the swooping hero, defeating them at the end. Nice.

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This is a multi-authored novel which I picked up in Whitby when I was there with fellow DracSoc members last September. It's a response to both Stoker's novel and a lot of the wider mythos around it, particularly the life of the historical Vlad III Dracula, and like the original novel it uses an epistolary format (or modern equivalents) throughout. It consists of five main chapters (or dossiers of documents), each dealing with different periods and settings and each with their own individual authors, as follows:
  • Bogi Takács, 'The Souls of Those Gone Astray from the Path' - set during Vlad III Dracula's imprisonment in Hungary, this mainly consists of letters between two rabbis, through which we learn how Dracula has been transformed into a vampire with the help of Mátyás Corvinus, and then fakes his own death on campaign in Transylvania and infiltrates the Hungarian court in the person of Mátyás' new wife, Queen Beatrix.
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky, 'Noblesse Oblige' - covers the life of Erzsébet Bathory, who is preyed upon as a young woman by Dracula and whose response is to conceive an intensive loathing for him and spend her whole life equipping herself to fight against him by trying to unlock the secret of how to extend and take life from others herself via gruesome experiments. I.e. it is the classic "she hates him so much she becomes like him" narrative.
  • Milena Benini, 'A Stake Too Far' - set during the vampire panics of the early 18th century, we follow a doctor sent out to Croatia on the orders of the Empress Maria Theresa to tackle the problem. The twist is that there really are vampires on the prowl in the area - Vlad himself, and his brother Radu, also a vampire and his sworn enemy.
  • Emil Minchev, 'Children of the Night' - a single long letter from Vlad Dracula to an associate in London, relating how he is planning to move there to provide sufficient nourishment for his three daughters (the vampire women who live in his castle in Bram's novel), after they have drunk the area around his castle dry. Most of the letter is actually about their mother, a local woman named Yaga whom he discovered had supernatural powers and became his one true love, but who died shortly after giving birth to them.
  • Caren Gussoff Sumption, 'The Women' - flipping mainly between the late 1960s and the present day, this tell the stories of Lolo, a descendent of the Szgany who served Dracula before his death, who has come to London to study and nearly becomes a victim of Mátyás Corvinus, and Dani, her trans daughter who is figuring out how to tell her mother who she really is as well as how to take on Corvinus herself.

The five stories are tied together by a framing narrative, in which a Jonathan Holmwood (born in 1947 to judge from his email address) sends Dani (of the last story) a series of files, each with a covering note, consisting of the dossiers of documents which make up the first four stories and which he has gathered himself over a lifetime of research into his own family's brush with Dracula. Given the multiple authorship, I found the collection as a whole surprisingly coherent - and of course an epistolary format featuring completely different characters writing each section helps with that, because of course their voices should sound a bit different anyway. I also really enjoyed the stories overall, both individually and collectively. The historical contexts were extremely well-researched (by which I do not just mean repeating 'facts' from primary sources, but sometimes also interrogating and deconstructing them too), the references to Stoker's novel (and occasionally other related fiction - e.g. golem stories, Le Fanu's 'Carmilla') were clever and well-informed without feeling over-played, there was loads of foregrounding of usually-silenced types of characters (Jews, women, trans people, Romany people), the characterisation generally was strong and absorbing, and the stories were full of intriguing scenarios and details.

However, I did find the fourth story broke my suspension of disbelief a bit. Dracula's true love, Yaga, proves to be a sort of spider-woman - she makes webs, paralyses and devours her prey, and gives birth to their three children in giant eggs, after which she explains that they have to eat her as their first meal, and that in order for them to do so Vlad has to kill her himself with his own bone, having stripped the flesh off his finger to do so. I know it seems silly to be complaining about the unrealism of magical spider-ladies in a novel about vampires, but there it is. She was just a step too far for me, and then it didn't help that in the fifth story, Dracula is just unceremoniously dead (I think we're supposed to understand that the events of Stoker's novel have happened to him between the fourth and fifth chapters), and instead the enemy has become Matthias Corvinus, but the novel ends before any kind of confrontation even with him. So, cool as both Lolo and Dani are as characters, and for all that Dani does get to come out to and be accepted by her mother, any kind of final reckoning - or even meeting - with the big vampire villain is just missing. Maybe there will be a sequel?

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4. Nosferatu (1922), dir. F.W. Murnau

Obviously I’ve seen this before, but I wanted to revisit it because I am going on this Dracula Society trip organised around its locations, studios and director in May / June (excite!), and [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 was very happy to join me in the enterprise. We found a nicely-restored version online, which was beautifully crisp and also contained several scenes neither of us could remember seeing before – e.g. the escape and pursuit of a prisoner from the asylum called Knock. It looks like quite a lot has been rediscovered and reinserted into the film since I last saw it, as the version we watched was about 1h30 long, whereas I’m pretty sure I only remember it being just over an hour previously. And it has gained a great deal in the process, with more time to establish the story at the beginning and all of the characters and the relationships between them coming across as better developed and more convincing.

We also attempted to match it up with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313’s blood-red vinyl copy of the soundtrack which Hammer composer James Bernard wrote for the film in the 1990s, but since that was about 50 minutes long and the film more like 90, it was never going to be a perfect match! Periodically we either paused the record or went back a bit, but most of the time they were well out of sync. It didn’t really matter, though, as both were just so amazing and while the music was clearly designed in the first place to match the tone of particular scenes, it was all broadly Gothic and atmospheric, so it was never really at odds with the action.

The special effects deployed in the grand finale, when Count Orlok fades into nothing in the morning sunlight, are famous – not least because this scene first introduced the notion that sunlight is fatal to vampires. Orlok rising up in his coffin on the Demeter, presumably done by putting him on a board which could be pushed up using some kind of hidden mechanism, is almost as well-known. But over the years that had meant I’d come to assume they were the only two special effects shots in the film, and actually on rewatching I was struck by how much more widely they are used. Others I noticed included Orlok opening a door without needing to touch it in his castle, similarly unrolling a tarpaulin without needing to touch it on the ship, suddenly appearing sitting on his coffin in the ship and passing through the door of the warehouse in Wisborg without needing to open it at all. Speeded up film was also used at several points to show the supernatural speed of his movements, and negative image when his carriage is thundering through the woods. This is all just one particularly good example of why film showed itself so early as a medium well-suited to fantastic stories. Even the simplest special effects can do such a lot to convey supernatural activity, and Murnau was right there on front line of the technology.

Though Nosferatu was famously pulled after Florence Stoker sued its producers for copyright infringement, and was supposed to have been entirely destroyed, it had already been distributed overseas before this happened, and as a consequence never really ‘disappeared’ in the way you might expect in those circumstances. Rather, bootleg copies continued to circulate in both the UK and the US (I would link to pages explaining this, but between how fiddly that is on my tablet and how shonky the train wifi is, I’ve given up – just Google Nosferatu bootleg if you want to read about it). With that in mind, I’m now pretty sure after having rewatched it that at least somebody involved in the production of Hammer’s Dracula (1958) had seen it. The destruction-by-sunlight ending is almost enough to guarantee that (and indeed the wider impact of that scene also shows how the film continued to influence storytellers despite Florence’s efforts), but in addition to that there are also scenes of Hutter (the Jonathan Harker character) looking at the bite marks on his neck in a mirror which match up well with Hammer, as does Orlok conceiving a desire for his wife (Ellen, the Mina character) after seeing a framed picture of her amongst Hutter's possessions in the castle. Dracula being able to open doors without needing to touch them crops up later in Hammer’s Scars (1970), as well. Love me an inter-text.

Anyway, I’m now very excited indeed for my holiday and will be sure to take many pictures when I am there!

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I saw this one with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and planet_andy at the Howard Assembly Rooms. It is the second in a series of films about the character of Fantômas, a dastardly criminal, which were themselves based on a series of novels in the Penny Dreadful tradition. Not that I knew any of that when I went into the theatre, mind. I was like, “OK, this seems to be starting part-way through the story”, but now that I realise it was part of a longer-running sequence, I understand why. In fact I think these films functioned a bit more like a TV series than like feature films as we know them today.

The print was beautifully crisp, which paid off straight away with an opening sequence just consisting of close-up shots of characters’ faces – very expressive and detailed. The story was silent, although with a lot of inter-titles and letters between characters shown on screen to convey the plot. These made me realise that I can read the amount of French which the producers of a film expect me to be able to read in the time allocated perfectly well, and I can read the amount of continental cursive script which the producers expect me to be able to read in the time allocated perfectly well, but I cannot do both. Anyway, it didn’t matter, I got the gist – basically lots of murders, fraud and deception, with chases around Paris, explosions and a train-crash along the way.

The film was also accompanied by live music from an Icelandic band called amiina, who were apparently the string section for Sigur Rós. Not that that means a great deal to me, as I have never knowingly heard any of Sigur Rós’s music, but anyway I absolutely loved what we heard on the night – driving and hypnotic and well-attuned to the film without attempting to parody the music of its original era. I must check out a bit more of their stuff.

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‘Kay, so I’m on a train to London, and I’m going to try to use the time to catch up with some film reviews. We’re going back to January for this one, which I saw with [personal profile] glitzfrau at the Hyde Park Picture House. Anyway, I probably don’t need to say a great deal about it, given that everyone in the world has seen this one, and indeed that it has won multiple awards including an Oscar since.

Anyway, it’s great. It is a story all about women maximising the power available to them in a male-dominated world complete with explicit lesbianism, and everything about the production at every level is superbly well-executed. Olivia Colman deserved her Oscar for how well she acted having had a stroke alone. The moment we saw her, before anyone said or did anything, I recognise straight away what was supposed to have happened. The lighting was also brilliant – one of the most natural-looking depictions of candle-lit interiors I have ever seen, which are very hard to do on film. And Rachel Weisz looked so amazing in her breeches during the shooting scenes, that was worth the entrance price on its own.

As a historian, though, I think the thing I’ll appreciate it for most long-term was its overt creative anachronism, as seen in e.g. many of the clothes, the awesomely-funny dance-off, the music (Baroque Greatest Hits but with a modern twist), etc. No production is ever going to be 100% historically accurate – only actual history was ever that – and attempting to do so can ham-string a good story that would otherwise resonate strongly with its modern audience. So lampshading it by making it clear that for all the truthiness, this isn’t actually the ‘truth’ seems like a good solution. Maybe there’s a general drift in that direction in the creative industries at the moment? It’s certainly what the TV series Britannia has been doing for example. Anyway, I like it and I hope the immense success of this film will encourage more in the same vein.

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