Saturday, September 20, 2014

Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film: Cultural Transformations in Europe, 1732-1933 – review

Author: Erik Butler

Release Date: 2010

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: For the last three hundred years, fictions of the vampire have fed off anxieties about cultural continuity. Though commonly represented as a parasitic aggressor from without, the vampire is in fact a native of Europe, and its "metamorphoses," to quote Baudelaire, a distorted image of social transformation. Because the vampire grows strong whenever and wherever traditions weaken, its representations have multiplied with every political, economic, and technological revolution from the eighteenth century on. Today, in the age of globalization, vampire fictions are more virulent than ever, and the monster enjoys hunting grounds as vast as the international market.

Metamorphoses of the Vampire explains why representations of vampirism began in the eighteenth century, flourished in the nineteenth, and came to eclipse nearly all other forms of monstrosity in the early twentieth century. Many of the works by French and German authors discussed here have never been presented to students and scholars in the English-speaking world. While there are many excellent studies that examine Victorian vampires, the undead in cinema, contemporary vampire fictions, and the vampire in folklore, until now no work has attempted to account for the unifying logic that underlies the vampire's many and often apparently contradictory forms.

The review: It is a singularly impressively difficult task to undertake; attempting to “account for the unifying logic that underlies the vampire's many and often apparently contradictory forms.” A Grand Unified Theory of the media vampire, so to speak.

In truth Butler does not succeed, in my opinion anyway, which is not to say that this book is without merit – indeed it is brimming with merit. I just think that such a theory, such a logic is ethereal – running from the light like Nosferatu at dawn and obfuscated by each piece of literature, theatre or film that does not fit in with the logic.

However Butler takes us on a fascinating jaunt through the hubbub of the media vampire drawing into parallel with cultural changes in Europe. The date range should have kept us firmly away from the burgeoning Hollywood vampire but it does rear its head on occasion.

Interesting to me was some of the sources that I had not come across before. Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is now in the “to read” pile as is Memoires of my Nervous Illness. The latter by Schreber has a chapter built around it and, whilst I believe that its association with vampirism might prove to be less overt, I find the idea of it fascinating.

This is not a book, however, for the casual reader. Butler has a PhD in comparative Literature and thus this volume is very scholarly – not that it should put you off, and his style prevents the contents from becoming dry, but the warning is there. Indexing, citation lists and notes are all present and correct allowing the student to use the volume properly as a source itself. 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Written in Blood: A Cultural History of the British Vampire – review

Author: Paul Adams

First Published: 2014

The blurb: The British Isles has a remarkable association with vampires – chilling supernatural creatures of the night. From the nineteenth-century writings of John Polidori, James Rymer, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, to the modern literary horrors of Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley and Kim Newman, the vampire casts a strange and compelling shadow that spreads from the realms of fantasy into the world of the living. Here you will find vampire murderers and vampire hunters together with the real-life mysteries of Croglin Grange, Alnwick Castle, the Vampire of the Villas, the Yorkshire Vampire and the enduring phenomenon of London’s famous Highgate Vampire.

In this thought-provoking book, illustrated with never before seen photographs and drawing on extensive original research, writer and paranormal historian Paul Adams explores the fascinating history of British vampirism in both fact and fiction. With extensive chapters on the post-war revival of Gothic cinema horror and the influence of cult studio Hammer Films on the vampire in British television and music, here is a modern guide where every page is truly written in blood…

The review: Paul Adams takes us on a whistle-stop tour of vampirism as it ties in to British culture, running the gamut from 1816 to 2013 and looking at everything from Penny Dreadfuls through to Hammer films and beyond. He looks at legends (such as Croglin Grange) and some of the earlier appearances of the restless dead (as recorded by William of Newburgh and Walter Map). He touches on continental Europe, of course, and delves into vampire murderers – which does see him veering off the Isles as well as into general occult orientated killings, I think as a need to pad out what would have been a thin chapter had he remained in Britain.

Mostly I found his writing balanced, the discussion of the Highgate Vampire steered a fair line between the two primary personalities involved in the case without fawning over either. The book is quite tabloid in its brevity, in places, but Adams chose to write an overview – each chapter may have generated a reference book of its own. The writing style is chatty and engaging but the book does have a bibliography and indexing, allowing further reading into the subjects.

Given the general balance shown, I found it (possibly unfairly) unfortunate that he had not unearthed the potential controversy surrounding the authenticity of the Penny Dreadful story, The Skeleton Count, or, the Vampire Mistress. But, then again, my own reference bookdid not pick up on this when written. More unfortunate was the continued association between Count Dracula and Prince Vlad III. Adams’ suggests that Stoker “immersed himself in the history of the Wallachian warrior knights Vlad Dracul (d 1447) and his son…” but there is absolutely no evidence of this. For more on this please see my article. That aside the balance in the book – when looking at competing theories, was well maintained.

All in all, a fine primer on a plethora of vampire related topics. 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive – review

Director: Jim Jarmusch

First released: 2013

Contains spoilers

One issue I have about the place that I live is that if a film is slightly from left field there is a very good chance it will not play close to home. We have two multi-screen cinemas and, at best, we might get a more unusual film on for a week at one of them but often – as was the case with this film – it came nowhere near home.

So I have waited for the DVD and waited with anticipation as the word seemed to be good, the film was garnering praise… I wanted to like the film, I really did, but as I sat and watched it I realised that the praise was perhaps more a reaction to the fact that it simply wasn’t a teen vampire flick than the quality of the film itself.

Eve spinning
Now, don’t get me wrong – there is an excellent cast, and the film does not purport to be a horror flick. It is a slow, character driven piece that could have eschewed the vampirism altogether to a degree. It looks at the human condition through the eyes of immortality – but fails to actually explore this in a meaningful way. But let’s look at the story (or what story there is, at least). The film begins with stars, which begin to spin in the sky, these become a record and the record segues into main characters Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) with the camera spinning like the record. It shows infinity, tied to music, tied to the characters – who are together though physically separated – and feels like an old psychedelic music film.

Adam checks a guitar
He is in Detroit, the building awash with old tech. She is in Tangiers. A man, Ian (Anton Yelchin, Fright Night) visits him with guitars for sale and we get a comment about Adam having seen Eddie Cochrane play one model… he catches himself, on YouTube he adds. Adam pays for the guitars and then asks Ian if he can have a wooden bullet (brass casing, with dense wood bullet) made for him, for an art project – Ian agrees and then discovers that the toilet is still out of order and offers to get a plumber. Adam reacts negatively but then says he intends to fix it himself.

John Hurt as Kit Marlowe
She is in Tangiers and walks through the night, ignoring shady salesmen, until she gets to a café where she meets her old friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, Hellgate). He tells her (again) not to use that name in public, she makes a “cryptic” comment about dropping hints and he hands her some of the “good stuff” from the French Doctor and we have hit my problem with the film. It starts with name dropping, Adam dropping in the name of Eddie Cochrane is the beginning of a long list of name dropping through the film, but it seems without purpose.

Drinking (bottled) blood
The vampires seem to dislike humanity, referring to them as zombies and yet name drop them all the time. (As an aside, zombie entered the English language, as far as I know, in 1819 and was a name of a ruler of runaway slaves – given the very cringe worthy dialogue such as Liege Lord this still seemed too modern though it could have worked generically if they had bothered to properly age the vampires.) The “cryptic” Marlowe commentary reflects around the idea that Shakespeare never wrote his plays and Marlowe did. Not only are the hints that Eve suggests unnecessary, as that conspiracy theory exists anyway, but the constant referencing of Marlovian Theory got tiresome (and why have a picture of Shakespeare and claim he had to be used as Marlowe was ‘dead’ but also call him a hack). One reason why the vampires disliked humanity was the fact that they had even managed to pollute their own blood (thus many persons' blood had become undrinkable), and so the vampires had to go to great lengths to get clean blood.

strange tech - an aside, not a story
Those great lengths were apparently buying them from reputable sources, who ensured that the blood was good. There was little of a storyline around this, it just was. So, after Eve travelled to America to see Adam, her husband, because he seemed down, we touch upon his suicidal tendency but that goes nowhere. Perhaps the story was about his music, but he seems to be releasing it whilst staying under the human radar and yet freaking out if it is played anywhere – that wasn’t the story. Perhaps (and the film has lots of embryonic good ideas that aren’t expanded on) it is his strange (Tesla related) technology that is beyond humanity – but that isn’t it, either.

quick dissolve
Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up and is a bad girl, apparently, without the caution the other two show. So perhaps that’s the story? Well, she does eat Ian and so they kick her out and then dump his body out in some chemical soup that immediately eats the flesh away. But there is no real consequence to her, nor them (although they do decamp to Tangiers). The meaningful camera shots of Ian meeting traders in music when out with the vampires lead to nothing. To be honest the entire sister storyline reminded me of the flick Kiss of the Damned only that did it so much better.

Mia Wasikowska as Ava
The character aspect of the film failed. This was down to dialogue that seemed hackneyed, full of (historical) name dropping (for the sake of it) and reaching for a philosophical point that it never got close to achieving. This is despite the fact that the film had a very strong cast who worked well despite the dialogue, fighting through to offer us characters that the script drew as wisps. There are good ideas floating in here, such as the technology that Adam has or the powers of psychometry that the vampires seem to have – being able to age things by touch – that are there but seem underutilised (if utilised at all). Eve seems to commune with nature to a degree but we get no expansion there either.

The film ended and I felt underwhelmed. I felt disappointed also, as I had really wanted to enjoy it – perhaps my expectations were a tad on the high side… I can’t say it deserves more than 5 out of 10 and that is generously awarded due to the efforts of the players.

The imdb page is here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Honourable Mention: Door to Door (Director’s Cut)

Sometimes I find myself in a quandary as to whether something should go down the review line or the honourable mention line. If it is a film then, if it is online for free, I tend to go down the honourable mention line, but then it is indexed separately on the blog and can be missed by visitors.

As a result, I think I may well merge the index of honourable mentions and successful “Vamp or Not?”s in with the standard indexes. However, ultimately with the blog re-jig in mind, I decided that this 2011 short film by Chris Zdyrski should have an honourable mention as it is available for free viewing over on vimeo (at time of posting).

The film starts with a Grandma (Ruth Bowen) tucking a young boy (Jarod Bowen) in at night. He asks for a story, a scary one. She obliges and says that the story is scary because it is true. The story starts off innocently enough – indeed for those who have seen the Princess Bride, it may have been enough to illicit concerned commentary from a young boy. It was a story of a beautiful girl (Jennifer Wonder) who liked to walk in the sun.

Jennifer Wonder as the girl
The story turns darker as the grandma says that the girl was cursed, as the girl was a vampire. This did illicit response as the boy suggests vampires cannot walk around in the sun. The Grandma tells him that this bit of vampire lore is untrue – after all vampires would want to disguise their weaknesses and a little bit of falsehood can obfuscate the truth. Vampires, she explains, try to hide their kills but the girl hunted in daylight and was often careless – she had never been taught, having been turned against her will and then left by the one who made her.

The grandma explains that she would go door to door and always managed to get invited in to houses, but would have to move on soon enough. After decades she vanished but the last place she was seen was their very neighbourhood. Of course you know there has to be a payoff here but I shan’t spoil it. The pace is languid, which suits it, replicating that hazy moment when bedside stories are told. The very short nature of the piece means that more is left unanswered than explained.

At the time of posting there was no IMDb page.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Classic Ghost Stories: Wailing Well – review

Director: David Bell

First aired: 1986

Contains spoilers

Wailing Well was one of the shorts written by master of the ghost story M R James and, as such, you might wonder why I am looking at it here? Well, despite the V word not being mentioned there is definitely a vampiric element to this tale and it was adapted for television in the short BBC series Classic Ghost Stories.

The series aired in 1986 and was narrated by Robert Powell. Each episode was essentially Powell telling the story, with occasional scenes of actors in some. This did not have the acted moments at all, rather it had a few photographs of a boy scout troop and one particular scout, Stanley Judkins.

Stanley Judkins
Judkins is a miscreant but is at camp. The map that the scouts have shows a copse of trees and brambles, in a field, with a red ring drawn around it – an area forbidden to the boys. Looking at it, in the distance, Judkins begins to wonder and a passing shepherd tells them that it is wailing well a place avoided by all. The scouts can see that the field has tracks through it and the shepherd confirms that they would belong to a certain three men and a woman – no-one knows who they were but they were bad ‘uns, when they were alive.

Robert Powell
Of course, the next day, Judkins goes to the forbidden field and the boys (with a scout master) see him stalked by strange skeletal figures, who eventually get Judkins in their grip. The scout master returns with the body of the boy, cut down from a branch where he was found hanging, and, “There was not a drop of blood in the body.” Vampiric enough, but more so when we hear that from that day onwards the field was haunted by three men, a woman and a boy.

The story is a classic – of that there is no doubt – and Powell a masterful story teller. As a piece of TV, however, I would have much preferred to have seen visual representation of the events also. However, it is what it is and delights for 15 minutes. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Queen of Blood – review

Director: Chris Alexander

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

Never judge a book by its cover, but… if the DVD cover for auteur Chris Alexander’s first film, Blood for Irina, was wonderfully retro, then the poster for sequel(ish) film Queen of Blood is simply magnificent.

The film, of course, shares its name with the 1966 sci-fi vampire flick but that is all they really share. If this film shares with anything, it has to be Jean Rollin and, in particular, lead actress Shauna Henry (reprising the role of Irina) seems to be channelling Françoise Blanchard’s performance from the Living Dead Girl. But how to review… that is the question.

Blood for Irina was difficult to review. A mood piece, with little dialogue, it moved like the fevered dreams of the director committed to film. Queen of Blood has no dialogue, rather you are pushed along by the soundtrack, by the imagery, by Henry’s physical presence. I should say that the screener I had access to had an incomplete sound mix and so I am expecting the final mix to really push the viewer along as, even in its incomplete state, it was an integral and satisfying part of the experience.

first kill
Having seen Blood for Irina was very useful to the experience. I stumbled across the earlier film but I went into this with some sort of expectation of what Alexander would be doing. That said, story-wise, they are separate beasts. This seems to be (until the final segment of the film that steps into a contemporary world) set in the past, the clothes the actors wear tell a tale of the old west, perhaps. The film is split into three sections – Birth, Death and Rebirth. In Birth we see Irina emerge like a primeval spirit from a pond and, in the first instance, see her taken in by a man (a widower by the visual clues).

killing nail
She turns on him – but the attack seems without malice. Irina is simply being Irina, acting as her nature dictates. Her attack is one that sees her digging her fingers into his throat – the same method employed by Catherine Valmont in the Living Dead Girl. We note that Irina has one particularly long and sharp nail. She then walks the paths of Alexander’s dreams, killing those she comes across. Yet they are all mesmerised, placid before her. However there is more than one predator.

preparing a stake
We also see a preacher (Nivek Ogre) and he – like Irina – is a killer. We see him strangle a victim at one point. He also knows what she is, it seems. He whittles what seems like a rather thin stake, until we see that he makes a cross of it and then lashes it into his fist. The two, of course, will conflict and it is an interesting juxtaposition that sees the man of God being the immoral killer and the vampire being a force of nature, killing but not evil, welcome by her victims. There is another story that emerges out of the film but I don’t want to spoil that at all. I should also say that the visual nature of the story – and the dreamlike quality – do not lend themselves to me regurgitating the tale here either. Really it should be experienced.

How to score? The film is low budget but beautiful in its construction. A dream that will turn many off, to be fair, as this is arthouse stuff and not standard horror. It is a sequel in spirit to Blood for Irina but superior I think, Alexander becoming more confident in his filmic language. I was really rather taken with it though and, if I appreciated Blood for Irina then Queen of Blood has lead me to anticipate Chris Alexander’s future work. 6.5 out of 10 is fair I think, Alexander’s film making becoming stronger with this offering and, I hope, laying the groundwork for stronger films to come.

The imdb page is here.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Money, Vampires & Weed – review

Director: Richard Poche

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

We’ve seen a couple of films by Richard Poche before. Previously we have looked at A Candle in the Dark and Crimson. Neither were brilliant films by a long stretch but Poche clearly loves his filmmaking and that has to count for a lot.

This film is a short and is on a couple of video sites for free viewing. As such I would possibly have just given it an Honourable Mention but it is also commercially available on Amazon, and when hard earned cash is involved then it’s got to be a review.

This film, unlike the previous two, was played as an off-kilter comedy. It features three girls, Kirsten (by process of elimination, as she isn’t on the IMDb credits, Mary Black), Heather (Kate Hamilton) and Jade (Nikki BreAnne Wells). They’ve just finished work – they all have dead end jobs – and are going home in Kirsten’s car (where pothead Jade has hidden some weed) when they are carjacked at gunpoint by a woman, Vivian (Christina Johnson). She makes them take her home – to Kirsten’s house to be precise.

Vivian is not well
The woman is desperate, she has a bag of money and the girls can’t seem to take the situation seriously – Jade skins up and Kirsten suggests that Vivian call 911 because she seems ill. Vivian, for her part, starts raving about vampires – indeed one particular vampire called Victor (Cliff Poche, who was in both the mentioned Richard Poche films and reprises Victor in a short film, Blood Money, that sounds to be rather similar to this film but with different actresses). It is his money she has stolen. Vivian drops dead.

getting tooled up
The girls realise that there is someone outside, and he may have got in the house (especially as a stoned Jade has offered an invitation) but then again, there is also $200,000 dollars in a bag and a question over whether their friendship can survive greed… As to whether it does or not, well you’ll have to watch the film. I can tell you that the bag of money also has a stake, holy water and garlic in it. The gun has silver bullets (though how they can tell just by looking at it is any one’s guess). The vampires prefer the dark and seem to be able to appear and disappear at will.

blood at mouth
The film was better than the previous two by Mr Poche but it had issues, not least of which were unrealistic reactions by the girls. That said, it was a comedy and done in an off-kilter sort of way, and so that might be ok. The comedy, however, was not laugh out loud funny – more mildly amusing. The acting wasn’t mind blowing but it wasn’t too bad either – taking the fact that the reactions seemed off as an issue with the script rather than the actresses.

All in all it probably deserves 4 out of 10. The score for Richard Poche’s films is slowly going up and that is no bad thing.

The imdb page is here.