ITV digital Monkey popcorn

4.-7. Two Hammer films and two more recent horror movies

The pandemic has put a bit of a hole in my movie-watching, mainly because I was doing so much of it with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 before it started, but also because my Lib Dem chairing duties make it very difficult to ring-fence the time to sit down and watch a movie on my own without the prompt of a friend wanting me to do it with them. There's almost always an email to write, an agenda to put together, a printing task to do or some other chore accompanied by a weight of obligation that I tell myself I should get that done this evening, and then maybe watch something nice tomorrow. Guess what has always happened by tomorrow, though.

The same problem rather applies to writing about them too. It's always postponable until I have just sorted out X, Y and Z - but in fact the alphabet never ends. Anyway, I feel physically pretty under par this weekend and just need to ignore the to-do list for a bit. Let's see if I'm up to briefly recording some films I've watched instead.


4. Twins of Evil (1971), dir. John Hough

This is a Hammer vampire film whose reputation as being more concerned to titillate its audiences than tell a good story precedes it. As such, I went in with rock-bottom expectations, and therefore quite enjoyed it when it turned out to have a reasonably coherent storyline after all. I won't rush to see it again, but I have seen worse Hammer films. Speaking of which...


5. Moon Zero Two (1969), dir. Roy Ward Baker

Yeah, this was extraordinarily bad. It's a futuristic sci-fi story about mining on the moon, presumably released to capitalise on moon-mania sparked by the landing that year. I watched it on 9 May 2021, because that is the day when the story begins, plus I knew it would be the day after the local election count finished, so I would be knackered and very much in need of a brainless story to watch. But despite that attempt to create a feel of special timeliness around my viewing, I just could not get into the story. There were a few fun retrofuturistic costumes, including some ladies with excellent purple curly hair, but the whole story was just too reliant on boring dialogue about mining delivered in static indoor settings by characters I didn't care about.


6. Ghost Stories (2017), dir. Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman

This is a recent British ghost story anthology film which is overall good and delivers some nice scary thrills along the way. It's filmed in Yorkshire, which meant I recognised the locations, including scenes of a stage psychic shot in the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds. Given that the one time in my life I have actually been there was not long before the pandemic to see a spoof psychic with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, that was pretty cool. The individual stories are tied together by a connecting narrative in which each is told by a witness to a sceptic investigating reported ghost sightings and trying to discover the truth behind them. It seemed to be going a bit silly towards the end, but the silliness then turned into a quite effective deconstruction of the connecting character, who Collapse ). It centres issues of discrimination by making the connecting character Jewish, showing how his childhood was marred by bullying and his father flying into a rage about his sister's Muslim boyfriend, and including a black priest in the first story. But it's also almost entirely male-centred, with women featuring only as monsters or distant, one-dimensional mothers / wives / daughters appearing only briefly to further the men's stories. A pity, because other than that it was pretty good.


7. Dracula Reborn (2015), dir. Attila Luca

I watched this one last night and it is extremely bad! The plot is supposed to be about a group of journalists from Vancouver and Paris who are trying to track down a vampire cult led by Dracula, and follow it to Transylvania. Unfortunately, the vampires themselves are styled in silly cheap cloaks and clown-white make-up which just makes them look like grotesque clichés. The editing is also often quite bad, and the logic of the plot set-up is ill thought-through. We hear news bulletins saying that the Dracula clan are like celebrities and the press are too scared to attack them. But we never see anything of this celebrity - how is it manifested? What hold does it give them over the press? Are they able to use it to draw in their victims? Instead, a string of bloodied corpses is left all over Paris, and we're shown individual killings being reported in the news. Shouldn't the press be collaborating in suppressing those reports if they're supposedly so in thrall to the vampires? Also, if the vampires are like celebrities, why is it particularly hard for the journalists to track them down? And what do the journalists think is going to happen when they do track them down? They keep saying they want to find and interview a missing girl who they believe has been turned into a vampire, and / or interview members of the vampire cult. But they also know that everyone who comes across the vampires in any way is brutally murdered, increasingly including their own contacts, and yet don't seem to try to do anything to find out how to protect themselves against the same fate. Literally none of it makes the slightest bit of sense, and it's only worth watching at all as an object lesson in the difference between a superficially cool-sounding concept and a genuinely well-developed story.

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Lee as M.R. James

8. J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1970), The Vampire Lovers and other stories (film tie-in edition)

I've got so behind with book reviews that I'm here reviewing a book I read in July last year. It's partly because of an intensive autumn / winter (teaching) and then spring (LibDemmery), but it's also because I got a bit stuck on this particular review, wanting to articulate complex things about the presentation of narrative raised by the stories but just always being too tired every time I opened the file. I still don't think I've done it particularly crisply, but I'll settle for getting at least something posted at this stage.

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The book in question is a rather random collection of J. Sheridan Le Fanu stories published to tie in with the release of Hammer's The Vampire Lovers in 1970. I bought it probably some time between the ages of about 10 and 14, when I used to comb through baskets of books labelled '10p each' on the floor in charity shops and a farm shop which my Mum often took us to, pulling out anything which looked Gothic horror-related. I recognised Peter Cushing on the cover of this one and knew it should be promising, though I hadn't seen The Vampire Lovers at the time. I remember reading Carmilla back then, and I suppose I read the rest of the stories too, but having forgotten all about them it seemed like time for a re-read. That said, I actually skipped Carmilla itself this time, as I read it on its own relatively recently after going to a theatrical production of it (LJ / DW). So I focused primarily on the other stories this time.

It got me thinking about Collapse )

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ITV digital Monkey popcorn

3. The Grass is Greener (1960), dir. Stanley Donen

This was screened on Talking Pictures TV, but I watched it as part of a Zoom-based meet-up organised by Scalarama Leeds. We logged in and chatted for half an hour before the film, then switched the Zoom off to watch it in our separate abodes, and then logged back in to discuss it afterwards.

It's based on a 1956 West End stage-play, and we agreed that it felt like it in the sense of being a bit static and set-bound. It also felt weirdly on the cusp of two different eras without quite managing to make the clash between the two exciting or dynamic. It's basically a drawing-room farce about a love triangle, lightly updated for the post-war era, and within which the American millionaire love-interest played by Robert Mitchum and the husband's London socialite ex-girlfriend played by Jean Simmons felt rather out of place by comparison with the slightly down-at-heel aristocratic central couple. The comedy also sat alongside some quite sincere emotional moments without the two really setting each other off all that effectively either.

Still, Jean Simmons in and of herself was a definite highlight, in a role which to me rather anticipated Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly the following year. And there were some good scenes. There's a split-screen phonecall at one point between the husband and the love-rival, with Jean Simmons and the wife leaning in to hear and comment on what the person on the other end is saying and both couples paralleling each other's actions and words, which we thought was quite cleverly donw. And some quiet-but-effective comedy moments, like when the wife, wanting to offer the love-interest a drink during their first meeting so he would stay a little longer, mused that it was a bit too early to offer him a cup of tea, so he helped himself to a massive G&T instead.

Nice to watch as part of a group and discuss afterwards, but I wouldn't go out of my way to see it otherwise.

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Asterix Romans

2. The Dacii (1967), dir. Sergiu Nicolaescu

This film came to my attention because I noticed people were tweeting about it on the ClassicsTwitterMovie hashtag. It was too late for me to join in the communal watch by that point, but I saved the information and watched it myself a few weeks later. It's available on Youtube with English subtitles, though you have to actively turn them on by clicking on the cog, bottom right.

It is the second Romanian film I have watched, the first being Vlad Tepeș (1979) in February of 2015 (DW / LJ). I had made some attempts to learn some Romanian already at that point, ahead of a visit there that May, but only from a teach-yourself book - I hadn't yet discovered Duolingo. I see I judged in my review that I was able to understand about one word in a hundred, which wasn't much to celebrate! Watching The Dacii was a sober reminder of how far I still have to go, despite being 3/5 of the way through the Romanian Duolingo course now. Romanian speakers seem to go at a similar speed to their Spanish cousins when speaking to each other, which would explain why I've needed to make a lot more use of the 'speak at half-speed' button on Romanian Duolingo listening exercises than I ever have with German. On the other hand, I definitely understood a lot more than I did in 2015. The subtitles seemed to appear on a slight delay by comparison with the actual speech, which meant that once or twice I was able to parse a shorter sentence before the translation appeared. For longer sentences, I was probably understanding something more like about one word in three, but not really getting the time I needed to figure out what the sentence as a whole might mean before the next one started. Still, it is progress.

The story deals with the Dacian resistance to Domitian's campaign against them in AD 86-88, led by Decebalus. As such, it belongs to a wider genre of stories about antiquity which similarly focus on resistance to Rome's military might by peoples from the same geographical area as the contemporary nation making them. Comparable material from other nations includes the Asterix books, Los Cántabros (1980), a whole German mythology around Arminius and a similar British one around Boudicca. Rather like most of these other examples, the Dacii are cast as fighting not merely to defend their own territory, but as the last great hopes for resistance to Rome, all of which is made quite explicit via opening dialogue between a Roman at the gates of a Dacian fort and the inhabitants within. This seems to fit with Romanian foreign policy at the time, at least insofar as I've gleaned it from Wikipedia, which involved Ceaușescu in the early years of his regime winning popularity by taking a stance against the authority of the Soviet Union. Wikipedia also tells me that the film itself is extremely popular in Romania, standing as their second-most-watched historical film and fourth most watched of all time, so it seems that message of brave nationalism did indeed resonate.

The basic plot sees the Romans turning up for conquest and taking a Dacian encampment after an epic siege with a cast of thousands and lots of good details like a siege tower and a battering-ram with a roof covered in soft sacks to protect the men wielding it. The two sides then send ambassadors to one another, but both are clearly basically preparing for further war. The Dacians manage to ambush the Romans in a narrow pass, throwing rocks and felling trees on them a bit like the Ewoks. But this is not the end. Things culminate in a major battlefield confrontation, where although the Dacian leader Decebalus and a sympathetic Roman character named Severus try to defuse things, the Romans march forward anyway and we fade to an ancient battle scene relief. It's hard to map the events of the film very closely onto the actual history of Domitian's campaigns, as several licences have clearly been taken. E.g. history records that the Roman general Fuscus died in battle during the campaigns, but the film has him dying as the result of a sword-fight with Severus. Perhaps the decision to end with the battle and not show who wins was a way of capturing the somewhat ambiguous / unfinished outcome of the campaigns themselves? It seems a slightly odd choice given the evident desire of the producers to deliver a nationalist message, but perhaps it was better for them than either a) showing an outright Dacian victory, which wasn't really true, or b) Decebalus ending up suing for peace and becoming a Roman client king, which didn't really fit Ceaușescu's stance of resistance to the USSR. The mid-battle ending instead allows the producers to send the audience out of the cinema with the message that the battle of resistance against external authority is never-ending ringing in their ears.

Meanwhile, there's a lot going on around that bare-bones outline of battles and their outcomes. First the Dacians. Our sympathies are clearly supposed to lie with them. Charming pastoral hunting scenes early on in the film secure that, and contrast sharply with establishing scenes of the Roman characters which show Domitian's generals conspiring to undermine him and the emperor himself more concerned with gold than victory. The Dacians are coded in various ways which make the analogy with contemporary Romanians very clear - for example they wear embroidered clothes much like traditional Romanian garb, and send their women and children away from war to the mountains in carts much like the ones used there today - what Stoker calls a leiterwagen in Dracula.

But they are very much also the noble barbarians of the ancient Greco-Roman sources, which likewise suits the nationalist agenda very well. They wear the Phrygian caps and carry the dragon-headed standards shown on Trajan's column and various other Roman victory monuments. In the early siege of the Dacian encampment, the Romans manage to take only one prisoner alive, who promptly grabs a sword and kills himself. Later on, Decebalus explains to the sympathetic Severus, who has been sent to him as an ambassador, that the Dacians always fight to the death because they have no fear of it, and die laughing because they are going to their god, Zalmoxis. Indeed, there is lots of Zalmoxis business as the film goes on, which was one of my favourite things about it. Once Decebalus has resolved on war, he reluctantly agrees on the advice of his priest to send a message to Zalmoxis via his son Cotizo using the ritual of impalement on three spears (described by Herodotus), which they then proceed to do in front of this rock formation, which some people say is the face of Zalmoxis. I'd love to know whether that association predated the film or was created by it. Zalmoxis takes his time to respond, but does, sending torrential rain which floods the plains where the Romans are, causing them all sorts of trouble. It is all very cool stuff to see enacted on screen.

Decebalus himself is of course idealised as a wise and capable leader. We meet him for the first time when he is overseeing training contests (so, showing appropriate leadership in a state based on warfare), and then see him with his council of advisers being cautious yet firm and taking the necessary measures to protect the Dacian women and children. The councillors respond by casting doubts on Decebalus' strategy, which I found interesting because the motif of the wise leader surrounded by doubters and hot-heads was something I also recognised from Vlad Tepeș (1979). I am going to place a guess that this was part of Ceaușescu's self-fashioning, and I can see how that would be a useful narrative for an autocratic leader to create about the relationship between their own personal qualities and those of the people around them. He must have created it early, though, because (just guessing from its release date) this film probably went into production only about a year after he took power. Anyway, in the film Decebalus is of course proved right by the course of events, but is still having to rein in hot-headed generals right up to the final battle scene, where they force full-blown warfare despite his attempts to resolve things via intelligence rather than machismo.

Meanwhile, the Romans are fairly recognisable as the relentless military machine portrayed in many a Hollywood film, except here presumably standing for the Soviet Union rather than the Evil Brits. We see huge numbers of them marching to relentless music, but they are also humanised and characterised. Severus, the sympathetic one who spends time with the Dacians and comes to understand them, is of course portrayed as skilful and likeable from the beginning. On the other side, we have Fuscus, who is shown early on conspiring to undermine Domitian, and later decimates (literally) a legion whom he thinks have let him down. Domitian is of course a classic Bad Emperor, who sits arrogantly on Burebista's throne in the Dacian camp after the Romans have captured it to receive ambassadors from Decebalus, and has a tame historian following him round writing everything down - presumably in a suitably panegyrical manner.

Overall, definitely one I'm glad I watched. It certainly is nationalistic, but so are many Roman historical films, and it was fascinating to see that from a specifically Romanian angle. It's not naturalistic or subtle as a piece of cinematic art, but it makes the most of the assets Romania could command in the 1960s - beautiful landscapes and lots of people. And it's good to find that the time I've spent on Duolingo has had at least some impact at least. Here's to further progress!

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Hastings camera

Casting the Runes location pictures: St Mary's Street

In June, for the sake of some exercise and something to do in a COVID-afflicted world, I walked down to Kirkstall to take some photos of the ITV studios there which appear in the 1979 adaptation of M. R. James' Casting the Runes (LJ / DW). I've been waiting ever since for it to snow, so that I could have a go at visiting another of the production locations in the right weather conditions, and on Thursday it did. Sadly, I couldn't go off on a jolly on Thursday itself, or Friday, as I really needed to finish the first draft of the paper I was writing before the weekend. But the snow was still more or less hanging on today, so I decided it was time to get out there.

This time, I visited St. Mary's Street, where the rectory in which Karswell lives is located. I knew that the actual church there was long gone - even in the 1979 production, you can see that it's semi-ruinous, and indeed in some shots you can actually see JCBs etc. on the site, presumably preparing to demolish it. What I didn't know until I got there, though, was that the building used for the rectory itself is actually still there, at the back of the site where the road does a dog-leg. So that was quite an exciting discovery.

My pictures are far from a perfect match for the screenshots from the production itself. The snow conditions would have been much better on Thursday when the snow was falling, as it is in that section of the production. As with my last trip, I also quickly found that neither of the cameras I had with me (my actual digital camera and my phone) could replicate the shots perfectly. In particular, the cameras used on the production obviously had the same kind of long lenses which allow newspaper photographers to make it look like loads of people on a beach are all really close together because the distance between the foreground and background is telescoped. My pictures of the rectory aren't well-matched to the screenshots, because I didn't expect it to be there so didn't take along any reference pictures. Even when I did have reference pictures, I couldn't always match the angles precisely, because there are currently a load of builders' huts immediately to the right of the pedestrian bridge as you look at it which blocked a lot of the views. And there has been a lot of building work across the New York Road (a new road which goes to York, obviously, not a road to New York) from the site since the original production was filmed.

Nonetheless, I had a reason to go out of the house, I got some exercise, and I saw details in my city which I wouldn't have paid any particular attention to otherwise. Collapse )

To help put the above in context, here are a couple of general views of the area as it really is now:

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On my way home, I walked past an advertising hoarding at the bottom of Cross Chancellor Street. For those who aren't local, I should explain that the people charged with naming streets in Leeds have for some reason historically been peculiarly unimaginative. Rather than give each street its own individual name, they frequently just take one name (e.g. Harold, Welton, Hessle, Thornville, Estcourt) and simply give a whole batch of streets that name, distinguishing between them via the second part of the name. So you get Harold Terrace, Harold Grove, Harold Avenue, etc. Sometimes, when one street intersects with another, the second one is called 'Cross [first one]', e.g. Chapel Street and Cross Chapel Street. Here, the result has been Cross Chancellor Street, which makes me smile every time I see it.

Anyway, I took a moment to look closely at the adverts pasted up on it, and especially the dates of the events they were advertising. As I had strongly suspected, they turned out to be a bit post-apocalyptic. Not all of them specify a year, because the people who designed them didn't expect them to be up long enough for there to be any ambiguity about that. But they are all for events between February and May 2020, most of which must never have taken place. It's going to take us a long time to come back from this. :-(

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Cyberman from beneath

1. The Abominable Snowman (1957), dir. Val Guest

I recorded this off the Horror Channel relatively recently, and watched it last weekend. The story is more or less what you would assume from the title and the time, involving a group of white western explorers who go searching after the 'Yeti' in the Himalayas, and the local monastery community and guides with whom they interact. The Hammer film is based on an earlier now-lost teleplay by Nigel Kneale, and having built up a picture of his style from various iterations of the Quatermass stories and The Stone Tape, I certainly recognised various signature characteristics here. There is a sensitive soul who is particularly susceptible to the calls of the Yeti up in the mountains, who isn't a woman because no women go on the expedition in the first place but is rather a Scotsman, perhaps telling us something about how Kneale perceived them. Later on, the one woman in the film also demonstrates her great sensitivity by doing a mad dash up the mountain to rescue her husband because she can tell from the monastery that he's in danger. There is also the idea that the Yeti are primeval beings who are / were perhaps superior in wisdom and intelligence to homo sapiens, though for once they don't also turn out to have been aliens all along. The story ends with the main identification-character and only survivor of the expedition (John Rollason, a scientist played by Peter Cushing) insisting that he never saw any Yeti up in the mountains in order to cover up their existence and protect them from further human interference.

The whole set-up of the story is colonialistic. Quite apart from the pursuit of the Yeti, the western characters treat the locals as mere servants (at best) or superstitious savages (at worst). But there is some effort at least to portray the people at the monastery (who I assume are meant to be Tibetan, as they are headed by a Lama, though it's never specified) as having a real and valuable culture of their own, e.g. via early establishing scenes in which their Lama shows a local knowledge of plants unknown to John Rollason's science. There is also certainly a fully developed critical contrast between Rollason's scientific curiosity, driven by the desire to achieve a greater understanding of humanity, and capitalistic greed encapsulated by an American member of the expedition, Tom Friend. Friend in some ways appears ahead of Rollason in recognising the capacity of media like television for opening up mass access to knowledge. But ultimately he just wants to show the Yeti on TV for his own benefit, as we realise when he turns out to be happy to claim that a monkey they've trapped is the real Yeti, and then also causes death of another expedition member by giving him blank ammunition so he can't harm a real Yeti in the process of trapping it.

Cushing is of course everything you'd hope for as Rollason. There is a lovely example of his famous facility with props early on, when he is presented with a purported Yeti tooth while still in the monastery, and rather than just turning it over in his hand while delivering his dialogue, he immediately whips a tape measure out of his pocket and takes its dimensions. This is followed by a very interesting editorial cut directly from a close-up of the tooth to the mask of some kind of mythical being with one tooth missing being shaken in the air during a religious ceremony in the monastery courtyard, perhaps designed to suggest that the circumspect locals know of and venerate the Yeti. Though Cushing had already done The Curse of Frankenstein by this time, Hammer were still using colour only for their horror pictures. This one is more in the line of fantasy / action, so it remains in black and white, but conveys its Himalayan setting via some very impressive location footage filmed with stunt doubles at La Mongie, a ski resort in the French Pyrenees. Combined with sets at Bray (the monastery) and Pinewood (the mountain top locations) for the actors and a matte painting for long shots of the monastery by Les Bowie, it does a pretty decent visual job by the standards of its time.

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Megara flowers

Mint

I know my sense of smell is pretty strong, but sometimes it surprises even me.

I just did the annual job of writing down a list of people I'd received Christmas cards from (I generally aim to reciprocate the following year), and when I picked the final one up it smelt of mint. That seemed a bit surprising, but when I looked round I realised that in fact for two days between me taking the cards down and me writing the list, the pile of cards had been lying on top of a box of mints - with that one on the bottom.

The box had been closed all that time, and only had two mints left it in it anyway. But still it had apparently imparted enough scent for me to detect on picking up and opening the card.

I've also been known to notice plants growing in gardens several metres away, or that a particular item is available in the supermarket, not because I see them, but because I smell them. Plus these days of course it's a bonus sign that I (probably) don't have COVID! Long may that happy state continue.

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Dracula Scars wine

7. Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu (1994), In Search of Dracula (updated and revised edn.)

After reading Peter Tremayne's Dracula Unborn (LJ / DW), I decided it was finally time to read the book which had inspired it, and so many others like it, in the first place. I read Florescu and McNally's Dracula, Prince of Many Faces, which focuses on the historical Dracula, three years ago (LJ / DW), and for a long time have felt that I didn't really need to bother with this one, given that I've also already read multiple debunkings of it. But, given what a big impact it has had on Dracula-related fiction, I felt in the end that I needed to know for myself what had and hadn't come from here. As the title of my post shows, I read it in the updated and revised 1994 edition rather than the original 1972 version, but I think it is good enough. The authors did not revise their central thesis between the two, and indeed restate it proudly and enthusiastically in the updated edition, though the preface also lists various new sources of evidence which they consulted.

I was basically right that it's both poor literary analysis and poor history. A lot of statements about what Stoker knew about the historical Dracula are pure assertion or speculation. Phrases such as 'It is likely Stoker heard the legends connecting Dracula to this region' (Bistrița) abound. And much of the information about the historical Dracula is completely unreferenced, which is hopeless when the primary sources for him are so contentious. They need not just referencing but constant direct engagement and discussion to get anywhere. McNally and Florescu are sometimes capable of doing that, but not consistently enough, and in particular they seem to have a complete blind spot when it comes to Romanian oral folklore. They treat this a reliable source which can be used to 'confirm' stories from the manuscripts and printed pamphlets, without considering that the folklore legends may stem from people reading the same sources centuries ago. Regarding the location of Dracula's supposed grave at Snagov, they even literally say 'We are inclined to accept the idea that the actual grave was the one near the altar, the one sanctioned by local folklore - always a useful guide in resolving enigmas associated with Dracula' (pp. 113-4). No. You cannot do that. Oral history is just not a reliable source over those timescales.

I was right that this was where Peter Tremayne got the idea about a second castle in the Argeș valley, but this is one of the claims which McNally and Florescu only really have oral tradition to support. According to them, local tradition in the area of Poenari castle claims that the name 'Poenari' originally referred to an older castle on the opposite side of the river from the one visible today (pp. 66-67). They say that the older castle stood on the site of a Roman-era fortress, and that its stones and bricks were used by Dracula to rebuild the castle on the other side of the Argeș now called Poenari. But they can't show any evidence of the older castle's existence - all they say to support it is that they were told about the remains of a low-lying wall at the bottom of the hill which might have formed part of its defences, and shown re-used stones in the local church and chimney-stacks and Dacian-period artefacts in the museum. There are no pictures even of any of these reused stones and artefacts, so it's basically pure hearsay, and they don't even claim to have seen the supposed low-lying wall themselves - only been told about it.

They are similarly vague and even self-contradictory about supposed underground passageways leading from the castle which is now called Poenari and out into the Argeș valley. The reality is that no such passageways are now identifiable, but they are convinced they must have existed nonetheless, because local oral tradition speaks of Dracula escaping from the castle that way in the context of a Turkish attack. So the tunnel is described on that basis (p. 72), and they also say that a visitor in 1912 reported seeing remains of the sunken passageway before the castle was damaged by an earthquake (p. 75), but don't say anything about who this visitor was or quote their account. As for who built it, they describe a winding staircase at Bran leading from a hidden stone covering next to the well in the main courtyard and out onto the knoll on which it stands, and assert that Dracula was so impressed by this that he installed something similar at 'his castle on the Argeș' (pp. 63-64). But, just a few pages later (p. 68), they claim that at the end of the fourteenth century, a Wallachian prince and his supporters retreated from the Tartars to the same castle, and when the Tartars stormed it they found nobody there, because the prince and his retinue had fled through secret passageways to the banks of the river. That story can only be true if there were already secret underground passageways at the castle half a century before Dracula's time, meaning that he had no need to install them himself.

Most of the book is like that. Much of the information in it seems interesting, but it crumbles on closer examination, just leaving you feeling irritated that you bothered in the first place. That said, I did notice for the first time thanks to this book that the St Gall manuscript about Dracula, a translation of which it contains, compares him directly to Herod, Nero, Diocletian and other persecutors of Christians. That's interesting, because I've been working on a theory for a while that quite a lot of the contents of the 'horror stories' which circulated about him is actually drawn from existing traditions about other tyrannical monarchs, and that sort of direct comparison confirms that at least some of the writers knew what tradition they were writing in. I also learnt from this book that one of the best-known portraits of Dracula comes from a collection at Ambras Castle in Austria specifically put together as a collection of curiosities by Ferdinand II, Archduke of Tyrol, which also includes the well-known portrait of the so-called wolf-man, Petrus Gonsalvus and his children. I knew it was called the 'Ambras portrait', but wasn't aware of that wider context, which is of course very typical of how almost every aspect of Dracula and his story has been perpetuated over the centuries. The castle, and Innsbruck where it is located, both look lovely, so I must try and go there some time once that sort of thing is possible again.

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Dracula 1958 cloak

6. Peter Tremayne (1977), Dracula Unborn

This is a terrible-brilliant book about Vlad as Dracula, and the first of a trilogy. It's one of many written following the publication of Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally (1972), In Search of Dracula, which took their (rather over-egged) argument that Stoker's Dracula was based on a profound and detailed knowledge of the life of the historical Vlad Dracula, and spun glorious fiction out of it. Florescu and McNally misunderstood how Stoker (and indeed fiction generally) worked and their case has now been comprehensively deconstructed, but the opposite extreme of arguing that Stoker's Dracula has nothing whatsoever to do with the historial Voievod is also just as wrong, and in any case I don't really care and still love the connection. It is my personal head-canon. So books which adhere to it are my happy place.

This one presents itself in grand Gothic tradition, just like Dracula, as an authentic 'found' document - specifically the memoir of Mircea, son of Vlad Dracula, written in 1480, discovered by Abraham Van Helsing in a Russian monastery in 1898, translated and annotated by him, and then 'found' again by Peter Tremayne in an Islington street market. The story starts in Rome, where Mircea, twenty-two years old, has recently been orphaned following the death of his mother, Dracula's second wife, who had fled there for safety in 1462 when Dracula discovered she was having an affair. He is well-to-do but gets himself into trouble after seducing the wife of a local prince, and decides that the time is right to take up an invitation from his older half-brothers, Vlad and Mihail, to return to Wallachia and claim his share of their birthright now that Dracula is dead. Naturally, when he gets there, he finds them living in a remote and spooky castle, appearing only at night and plotting to turn him into a vampire so he can help them restore the house of Dracula to its rightful mastery over the world. Meanwhile, Dracula himself is not as dead as people have been led to believe...

'Peter Tremayne' is apparently a pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, who is also a Celtic historian and now best-known for the Sister Fildelma murder mystery series. I actually think it's fair enough for a non-specialist historian not to have debunked Florescu and McNally's theories about Dracula for himself, especially since the main grounds for questioning their claims came from the study of Stoker's notes in the 1980s. Meanwhile, his historical grounding is clear throughout, and he has certainly absorbed what was known about the historical Vlad in the the late '70s pretty thoroughly and gives room in the novel to different perspectives on him. Mircea begins the story believing that his father was a popular ruler who had been just to punish the Saxons for trying to overthrow him, but as he meets Saxons on his journey through Wallachia who don't know he is Vlad's son, he discovers that to them he was a bloodthirsty tyrant. Later, in Tirgoviste, he meets an abbot in whose view Vlad was driven by an excessive puritanical austerity which led him to punish the immoral, but also wonders whether the horrific stories about him can really be true, or invented by his enemies to discredit him. Others note that VLad may have been harsh and ruthless, but at least he drove the Turks out, while Mircea himself knows of plenty of other contemporary rulers who impale at least as much of Dracula - including John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester (aka the Butcher of England).

That said, some bits of Tremayne's background research felt like they had been crow-barred in for the sake of it. On the way to Wallachia, Mircea travels through Dubrovnik, but no action takes place there. Rather, it is mentioned, we are treated to a paragraph about its history, economy and demography which reads for all the world as though it had been copied out of an encyclopedia, and then we just go straight into "When I left Dubrovnik, I noticed almost immediately a drop in temperature." So... why bother with a copy-and-paste description of what was actually nothing more than a staging-post on his journey? Meanwhile, there are plenty more nods to Stoker's novel beyond the simple presentation of the story as a first-person documentary account. E.g. Mircea sees blue flames flickering in the darkness as he approaches Castle Dracula, which his coach driver stops and bends over to do something. Later, he learns that one of the ways Dracula may have become a vampire is by dabbling in sorcery and conjuring the devil, while in the final moments of the novel Dracula tells Mircea he has not won because he will spread his revenge over centuries and has only just begun.

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After all this, the actual ending felt slightly disappointing. Mircea fights off most of the vampires with a sword blessed by the Pope, through which he feels some kind of magic power surging as he lifts it against them. That felt like a bit too much of an easy solution, I think - as when a Doctor Who story is essentially solved by waving the sonic screwdriver. During the sword-fight, a candelabra is knocked over into a tapestry, setting the castle ablaze, and Dracula himself is lost somewhere in the flames - which of course creates plenty of opportunities for him to escape and go on to further adventures. As Van Helsing spells out in a final note appended to the manuscript, that includes those recorded by Stoker.

If there's another book out there which combines Stoker's Dracula, the historical Dracula and Hammerish notions of vampirism as rooted in ancient paganism, I'd sure as hell love to read it. Until then, this one will enjoy a special place in my heart, despite its occasional ineptitudes and rather weak ending. I remain unclear as to why it is titled 'Dracula Unborn', as I couldn't see that that title matched up with any of its characters.

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Cyberman from beneath

20. Rare Exports (2010) and 21. 30 Days of Night (2007)

These were my Christmas Eve and Christmas Day viewings, thematically linked by the fact that they are both about human beings eking out a living in marginal conditions on the edges of the habitable world, and beset by Things out there in the darkness.

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So, OK I guess, but I've definitely seen better, and of these two films I enjoyed Rare Exports a lot more.

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