Thursday, October 22, 2015

Visiting and Revisiting: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) Pt. 2

This is Part II of a two-part article in which my friend Rik Tod Johnson (The Cinema 4 Pylon) and I discuss the 1977 film version of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. To read Part I on Rik’s website, click here.

Rik: Besides the character of Montgomery, whom you mentioned in passing [in Part I] (and who I feel is still played very strongly by Nigel Davenport), there are a couple of other major characters in the film we haven’t touched on. First, there is the Sayer of the Law, who serves as quite literally what is imparted in his name. In this version, Richard Basehart, whom I knew very well from television on Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, plays the Sayer. When I first saw the Sayer of the Law in this version of Moreau, I never made the connection that it was the captain of the Seaview wearing a mask, even though upon reflection, his basic features can be made out underneath the makeup. Because I was never enamored of Basehart as an actor (I always thought he was kind of stiff), I likewise never really connected with his performance here. I did spend time teaching my brothers to recite The Law after I saw the film, as I coached them into performing scenes from the film so we could run around as Beast-Men, but it really wasn’t because of him.

Aaron: Of the three films, Richard Basehart struck me as the most forgettable Sayer of the Law. That may be a combination of both acting and makeup, as I found the look to be fairly nondescript. It’s basically a ring of white hair around his face and a vaguely canine nose that from many angles looks merely like a larger-than-average schnozz. Obviously this is to give the Sayer of the Law a distinct appearance, apart from the humanimals but yet not quite human, and yet it lacks anything distinctive. He could just be another shipwrecked soul. Bela Lugosi’s Sayer of the Law was also less distinctively animal than some of the other beasts in Island of Lost Souls, wearing what was essentially fur glued to his face, but Lugosi has that voice, and those eyes! He’s a captivating presence even when he’s not speaking, and seems otherworldly at all times. Richard Basehart basically let the makeup convey the animalistic side of the character, while remaining fairly human in his actual performance.

Rik: Lugosi has always seemed like the perfect choice for the Sayer to me. His performance resonates with me the most (as I expect it would with a majority of humanity). The casting of Ron Perlman in the 1996 version seems like the most obvious one to make, especially given his success in playing characters saddled with extreme makeup effects. And Perlman is a very strong actor. The problem for me is I cannot recall his performance at all when I think back to the film. For that matter, I have a hard time recalling anything except Brando and his little person pal. And that ice bucket. Oh, that ice bucket…

Aaron: Yeah, Perlman had a great look to him in the film, and he was fine with what they gave him to do, but that film is such a mess that it’s hard to pick anything out aside from Brando and his increasingly bizarre character choices.  

Rik: I would love to remember his performance, but I simply can’t. I saw the film last when it came out in the theatre, and I think, apart from seeing scenes in the Stanley documentary, have largely expunged it from my mind.

The last major character we haven’t tackled is the one I would most love to, and that is Maria, played by a lovely, fragile-looking Barbara Carrera. In my memory, I continue to think of Carrera as a Bond girl of that period, but she wasn't in a Bond flick until the non-Broccoli Never Say Never Again in 1983, where she played Fatima to Connery's returning super-spy. I fell in love the instant I saw her on the cover of that Moreau novelization. She basically represents the puma in the novel who will ultimately battle Moreau to the death, and Lota the Panther Woman in the 1933 version who is at the center of all the bestiality hubbub regarding that infamous take on the tale.

Here, her character is sweet but really rather dull, almost like she is being used only for scenery (much like the cover photo that drew me to her) and/or to throw us off the scent a bit. I had always assumed just from her appearance on the island that Moreau had experimented on her. She also walks around holding an ocelot much of the time, which says to me they were at least trying to make us believe she is more than what she appears. The final scene on the boat, when a passing ship discovers them, is very strange. When we first see the lifeboat (the Lady Vain, the one in which Braddock first arrived, so that now he leaves the island the same way), we only see Maria, her face obscured by her hair. When Braddock, now changed fully back to his human form, crawls out from under his blanket, her back is to us. It is pretty clear to me that they are at least hinting that she has transformed into something else. Braddock gets distracted by the noise of the ship's horn trying to get their attention, and we see only one shot of Maria's face, and she looks unlike she does anywhere else in the film. Yes, she is crying, but her eyes seem very odd and her face seems puffier. Then the film is over.

It makes me wonder if there was an alternate ending filmed where we see her eyes are yellow as she begins to transform. Honestly, I thought she was starting to change into a cat when I went to the film that first time. And it stuck in my head that she was, and every time I see it since, I always get riled up about the ending. But there are two very good reasons for my belief that she is some sort of ocelot or panther woman: the original movie poster. The top third of the frame is definitely a female who goes through the process of switching into a ferocious panther. Since this does not appear anywhere in the film, it leads me to believe it may have been filmed and then cut (I can't imagine why you would go to the expense and then trash it, unless it was really terrible).

The second comes from the novelization, which as I mentioned is based on the original screenplay. This is the final paragraph of the book: "Maria spoke no words. She only opened her mouth, revealing two fangs, two puma-like, animal fangs."

What is your take on Maria and the case of the missing panther-woman, Aaron?

Aaron: I think anyone with any sort of familiarity with this story would recognize Maria as a panther-woman from the very outset, when she first arrives on film. Certainly the ocelot she’s constantly carrying with her would be another clue, for those not yet in the know.

And so I find it odd that the film tries to be coy about it at all. Possibly that was a move meant to keep some of the stricter censors off of the film’s scent, because when Michael York and Barbara Carrera first have sex, my initial thought was ‘wow, so the film actually went there’. If the film had been more upfront in stating that she was actually a cat, I doubt those love scenes would have been included. But then, why continue that coyness even to the end? It’s obvious as soon as the two of them are adrift on the life raft, just from the character’s positions alone, that something is wrong with Maria, and yet the film keeps holding off on showing us what we already know, only to let the shoe drop with a literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it insert shot of Maria with a slightly lumpy face. It’s strangely anticlimactic, giving the ending a weird shapeless feel, and leaves so little an impression that even the film’s Wikipedia page neglects to include this information in the otherwise rather detailed synopsis.

Rik: Not much respect has been paid to the film in its releases on video. I had a VHS copy for many years, which I replaced with the MGM Presents Midnite Movies DVD when it came out in 2001. The only special feature is the original theatrical trailer. It would have been really nice to have a commentary to confirm some of my suspicions about the Maria character. I just found out that it was released earlier this year on an all-regions Blu-Ray disc, but there are no extra features that I can find, apart from a widescreen 1:85:1 frame, which I already have on my DVD version. I doubt we will get many answers about it anytime soon, if ever.

While I loved the makeup of the humanimals when it came out, time has not been kind. They seem rather immovable and too inorganic to me. While I like his work, it is not surprisingly to learn that John Chambers, who won an Oscar for the original Planet of the Apes, was the creator of the makeup effects. Tom Burman is credited with the makeup design. I know Burman from many horror and fantasy films he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s (though he now wastes his talent on things like Grey’s Anatomy… still, steady work is nice). How do you feel about the makeup work?

Aaron: Well, I’ll say that it makes sense now that I know the makeup effects artist worked on Planet of the Apes, because the designs and execution here have a similar rubber-mask feel, and are not expressive at all. Everyone’s expressions are constantly fixed, and when characters speak the mouth remains almost motionless but the nose portion of the mask will wobble up and down unrealistically. That said, I don’t think they look horrible in their design. They do look a bit like mythical beasts, and not so much like what I imagine transmogrified man-animals would look like, but they are distinctive enough that I could see being impressed by them if I had seen this at the age you had seen it.

We keep going back to it, but if you look at some of the beasts in Island of Lost Souls, they look like what you’d imagine when you think of someone cutting up animals and piecing them together like jigsaw puzzles. Some characters will have features that look vaguely catlike, and then a segment of their face will be clearly avian. It’s truly nightmarish, and another example of why that film stands head and shoulders over the rest of the films made. Compare that with this version of the film, where many of the non-featured humanimals seem to just have lumpy, furry faces, like maybe their having an allergic reaction to something. Outside of the main creatures, I don’t think you can look at most of the humanimals in this version and deduce what animal they used to be. They all have very similar physiognomies.

Rik: Something of which you may not be aware, Aaron, and I really wasn’t at the time, but the character of M’Ling, the Beast-Man servant, is played by Nick Cravat. Growing up watching The Crimson Pirate (and another swashbuckler featuring Lancaster called The Flame and the Arrow), I knew Cravat as Burt’s right hand guy, a generally mute character with whom Lancaster would perform acrobatics in the film. They were best friends since childhood and real life, and performed in the circus together for years before Lancaster broke through in Hollywood. His appearance with Lancaster in Moreau was the last of their nine film appearances together. I also knew Cravat from a small role in Disney’s Davy Crockett film. I never picked up on Cravat even watching the credits, probably because I really didn’t know his name at the time, just his face, which is absolutely obscured by makeup (though once again, it is easy to make out his basic features if you know what he looks like in real life).

Aaron: I’m not familiar enough with Nick Cravat to have picked him out of a lineup, but I think you’re glossing over what may be his most pertinent bit of work history prior to this: Cravat was apparently the Gremlin in the original Nightmare at 20,000 Feet episode of The Twilight Zone.

I feel bad for not mentioning M’Ling before now, because he is quite a sympathetic character who also has some important bits of business to do. But the character seems underutilized in this film, showing up every once in awhile, and disappearing for so long that when he helps Braddock and Maria escape at the end I had kind of forgotten him. The character gets no real chance to develop on his own.


Rik: My final take on the film is that I still enjoy it after all this time, though it pales in comparison to Island of Lost Souls. Lancaster's performance holds up for me, as do those of Davenport and York. But in the end, the film feels today like a Hallmark production (the ones regularly aired on NBC and CBS in the '70s, not the current TV network), or like a Reader's Digest condensed version of the tale, where they have scrubbed some of the more inflammatory material to make it palatable to the general public. For production value alone and the latent memories I have of it, this version still warrants a 6/9 on my scale, which is "good". But I would prefer people watch Island of Lost Souls if they want to see a really incredible version of this story (whether or not they end up loving it as we do).

Aaron: That’s a good point about this feeling like a condensed or sanitized version of the story, which also strikes me as a bit bizarre, because my favorite parts of this film, dealing with Braddock’s transformation and Moreau’s downfall at the hands of his creations, strive towards something that could be genuinely challenging. This movie hints at something more inflammatory than some of the other moments in the other versions, and yet the film seems to pull back from those ideas before completely committing to them. If it had gone farther in those directions, and actually addressed any of the philosophical implications of what it means to be human, or whether we can ever conquer our own natures, this could have been a classic for the ages. Reading this back, I feel like I come across as too harsh on the film, which is not as bad as I maybe make it out to be. As it is, I think my rating would be slightly lower than yours. I’d give it a 5/9 on the same scale you use, which in my eyes means it was worth seeing, but I didn’t completely like it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Beyond the Beyond

Growing up in Anchorage, there was a distinct lack of arthouse theatres. We weren't lacking for theatres in general, as I can recall 5 within a reasonable distance from where I lived growing up. That may not sound like a lot, but it was more than sufficient for a population the size of Anchorage. But these theatres were multiplexes, albeit smaller than the 16 or 18 screen behemoths that would come later. As a budding cinephile, I was confined to whatever titles became big enough to play in these cinemas (and whatever I could convince my mom to let me see), or I had to wait- sometimes years- for a sought after title to make it to video. This could be a sort of hell for a young man developing an interest in moving beyond the mainstream, into the deeper, murkier waters on the fringe.

My discovery of the Capri Cinema in my Junior year of high school (which would have been 1995) came as a great boon. The Capri is one of the things I miss most about my teen years, despite the fact that I only saw a handful of movies there, and discovered the place just 5 years before it eventually closed down. It's no secret why it took me so long to find the place; the Capri was a single screen theatre, with a maximum occcupancy of less than 100 people, located in a strip mall near the edge of town, a place I never had a reason to visit unless I was heading north out of Anchorage. It also, for the 70s and 80s, showed porn films on the weekends, which probably kept it off my family's radar when it came time to find a movie to see. By the time I discovered the place it had transitioned to almost entirely foreign or arthouse films, with some retrospective screenings thrown in, though these were also usually cult or indie films.

The screen was small, even for what you might be expecting, and the seats were often threadbare. There was a small cafe attached to the screening room, where you could purchase your snacks, peruse lobby cards for various old movies, or play a game of chess by the shopfront window. The place was modest and empty, is what I'm trying to say. But before I give the impression that this was a quaint, old-fashioned movie house, I should confess that there was an air of dinginess about the place. A residual seediness left behind, possibly, from the Capri's former life as a porn theatre. The place was small and had that clean-but-dirty feel, and the bathrooms were located inside the actual screening room, down a short hallway right next to the middle row of seats.

The Capri, circa 1995 or so.
The first film I saw there was The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls In Love, a coming-out and coming-of-age micro-budgeted comedy that a friend invited me to. While I remember enjoying its modest charms, I have a more distinct memory of feeling slightly uncomfortable at being the only man in the almost sold out theatre. That isn't incredibly bizarre, though, considering how small the occupancy of the place was. At least the men's room was empty. The final film I saw there was probably the deeply odd John Holmes film Disco Dolls in 3D, and yes, it was in actual 3D. Faded and faulty at over 2 decades old, but still in 3D. I did not check on the status of the men's room that night. There were a few more pictures in between, including the life changing weeklong run of Lost Highway, but the one I want to write about today is The Beyond, the 1981 magnum opus of Italian schlockmeister Lucio Fulci.

The Beyond was originally released in 1981, but garnered a re-release in 1998 through Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder distribution company. At the time Tarantino was honoring the exploitation films that had inspired him, while also distributing a pair of current films from directors he loved(Sonatine and Chungking Express). It was clearly a labor of love, not money, and after only 3 years and a mere 6 films Rolling Thunder shut down in 1998, At the time I was in my first of college, and a diehard zombie fan, seeking out any and all zombie films regardless of quality, and loving them all. If you were to tell that 20 year old man that within a decade he would be sick to his bones of zombies, he would have laughed in utter disbelief. Hard to imagine, but yes, we have reached saturation point for zombie entertainment. Back then, though, zombie movies were still largely the purview of the hardcore horror hounds. Zombies were definitely not the cool monster of the moment, which meant that a bad zombie movie pre-2000 was made, typically, by people with a love for the genre. A lack of resources and talent, maybe, but still a genuine love, which made even the worst films somewhat enjoyable to watch. And so 20 year old me was happily devouring the classics, like Dawn of the Dead, while also gleefully digesting the schlock, like Redneck Zombies. Seeing in the Anchorage Press that the Capri would be playing an infamously gory Italian zombie film from the genre's earlier renaisscance was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. The Beyond is bad, make no mistake about it, but it's also incredibly distinct and hauntingly bizarre. A real good-bad movie.

The plot of The Beyond is a bit difficult to summarize, not so much because the plot is complex, but because the manner in which it all hangs together is not very well conveyed to the audience. I've seen the film well over a dozen times, and I'm still struggling with how to piece it all together in a way that makes sense. What I can say with some certainty is that the film concerns a rundown hotel in New Orleans that is situated over one of the seven doors to hell (there is a similar door to hell in Fulci's earlier film, City of the Living Dead, which is otherwise not connected at all to this film). When a young woman, Liza (played by Catherine McColl) inherits the hotel and decides to renovate and reopen, she inadvertently wakes the ghost of a painter who had been killed in the basement by an angry mob. The ghost begins opening the door to hell, causing a small but bloody zombie infestation, along with several other odd incidents which may or may not be supernatural.

Lucio Fulci was never a subtle filmmaker, and he never allowed budgetary restrictions to keep him from committing to film whatever crazy, ambitious special effects shot that came to mind. In the film Don't Torture a Duckling a man falls off a cliff, and lands face first on every sharp, gravelly, rocky outcrop on the way down. If that sounds gruesome, imagine that instead of a realistic fake corpse, he's filming what is clearly a department store mannequin with blood packs on its head. The budget is larger in The Beyond, but that level of effects work remains, and it appears that the extra money went into quantity not quality. And to top it off, Fulci shoots all of this in direct, bright light. Where another director would try to use shadows to mask some of the shoddiness of the effects, Fulci constantly puts them front and center.The effects are fake, but go so over the top and are so in your face that they attain a strange level of fascination and disgust.

When I first watched The Beyond at the Capri, my friends and I had the entire place to ourselves, save for one lone movie lover in the front row. We sat in the back and had an uproarious good time, laughing hysterically at much of what was onscreen. The other patron, I found out later from Rand, the Capri's owner/projectionist/ticket taker/concession-stand operator had left the movie at one point to complain about the noise we were making. I was grateful to Rand for not giving us a talking-to at the time, but age and wisdom have led me to sympathize more and more with that guy, out alone for a fine time at the movies, only to have his evening ruined by a quartet of loud know-nothing college kids. At the time, however, it seemed like a completely justifiable response to a film where a character researching at a library falls off a step ladder hard enough that he is paralyzed and unable to fend off a dozen or so tarantulas that look too cheap for dollar store Halloween sales. When these fake spiders begin clicking and squealing as they chew on a cheap foam head, what is the appropriate response, if not laughter?

As soon as The Beyond was announced on a DVD release, I snatched up the limited edition collector's tin from Anchor Bay, and invited every friend I had over for a night that turned out to be just as raucous and enjoyable as the theatrical experience, only now with pizza. The next night I invited over friends again, and had another screening for those that couldn't make the initial viewing, or who just wanted to hang out again. The night after that, as soon as I got home from work, I made some dinner and popped in The Beyond as I ate, and I watched most of the film before falling asleep on the couch. At the time I lived alone, and this became my routine for about a week. I would self-hypnotize myself by putting on The Beyond and just drifting off to sleep with the film's odd, dreamlike rhythms and bizarre Danny Elfman goes Prog Rock soundtrack. The music may be what really dragged me under the film's spell, as I also found myself listening to the CD while on my daily commute to work. A gradual shift began to happen in my attitude towards the film. At first I was simply trying to recreate that original fun-filled atmosphere, but increasingly I began to fall under the film's sway.

The defining moment where I realized the film had won me over from ironic enjoyment to authentic love was on the 3rd night watching it alone, when something in the movie legitimately chilled me. The moment comes when mysterious blind woman Emily, who has been warning Liza to stay away from the hotel, actually comes to the hotel to explain some of the plot to her. They speak of Schweik, the artist/warlock who had been murdered in the hotel. Emily touches one of his paintings, a grey, mist-filled landscape full of low rock formations that look like bodies trapped in the ground, and her hands begin to bleed. She screams in terror, and runs from the hotel. The scene sounds eerie on its own, but the way it's edited together is inexplicably bizarre. First we see Emily run out the door, then we get the shot again in slow motion, with all sound taken out of the film. The film repeats closeups of Emily's feet running across the carpet, still in slow motion and without sound effects, but intersperses them with shots of a man's feet running towards the camera at regular speed and with heightened sound effects. The final shot is a slow motion shot of Emily running away followed, finally, by her seeing eye dog (who has not been in any of the preceding shots). For some reason on this night, after seeing the film a half dozen times, I was finally seeing how bizarre this scene was. I found it completely inexplicable and utterly nightmarish, and that feeling never went away.

[For those curious, I now believe the scene described above is implying that Emily's seeing eye dog has been possessed by Schweick's spirit, as much later in the film Emily is mauled to death by the dog while surrounded by the other resurrected corpses and spirits from the film. But this is also after a strange speech where she says she doesn't 'want to go back' and that they cant take her back. We can assume 'back' means 'back to hell', but there's nothing else in the film that addresses this, so it's still a bit mysterious.]

At their best, Fulci's films push their excesses into the level of sublime, dreamlike unreality. He's not the most artful director, and many of his films can be a chore to get through, but when he's firing on all cylinders his work succeeds almost in spite of itself. In The Beyond, many scenes appear unrelated to anything going on before or after, and though there is nominally a plot, the main characters seems strangely unaware of it. Liza knows creepy stuff is happening in her hotel, but doesn't seem to be aware of the body count or the supernatural nature of many of these deaths. David Warbeck, playing a local doctor who falls in with Liza, is closely connected to the zombie plotline, but even he remains blissfully unaware of the deaths occurring among his coworkers until almost the very end.

When I first encountered The Beyond I felt like this randomness and lack of connective tissue was accidental, the sign of amateurish filmmaking. Certainly the rest of Fulci's filmography did little to dissuade me of that belief, as things like plot and reality often take a backseat to mood and shocking gore. But as I watched the film repeatedly, I began to sense a certain intent behind the surrealism, a sinister dreamlike logic where scenes seemed to lead into each other even if the script didn't wholly support that idea. Researching the film today for this piece, I find that my assumptions were entirely correct, as the film began as an homage to Fulci's idol Antonin Artaud, the French playwright and sometimes surrealist. The movie was originally going to be a haunted house film where the carnage within the hotel was the only strand linking the narrative digressions. The German backers of the film wanted a zombie film, as zombies were considered the hot property of the time, so Fulci rewrote the script and made it more linear, though clearly some of that surrealism stayed in. Towards the end the film starts to go all in on the surrealism, as things like time and space begin to fall apart. Characters leave rooms only to end up in locations on the other side of town, and things finally end with Liza and her doctor friend trapped in hell, blindly returning to the same location no matter which way they run. It's amazing that I found this stuff funny when I first saw it.

After a week of constant viewing, my desire to watch The Beyond cooled, and my pace slowed to once every couple years, more often if I have a friend interested in watching it. The soundtrack remains in semi-regular rotation, jumping up in the charts every Halloween season. Today the film remains a cherished part of my own personal cinematic pantheon. Though it may not get the attention or respect that others in that company receive, it's still a strong and important reminder that every film is worth a deeper look, and that even the crappiest looking schlock can have it's strengths and secrets to tell. You've just go to be ready to listen.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Halloween Movie Roundup Pt. 1

I've been slipping in my duties as a Halloween celebrant. I had planned to have mini-marathons of movies every week, and write something every day about horror (films/comics/music/books/games), and yet here it is halfway through the month and I've written less than I had originally hoped (though I am not displeased with my output, truth be told), and I've seen a lot less movies than I had planned. I still watch at least one horror movie a day, but I have had only one day in which I've had one of my desired mini-marathons. Extended hours at work for the season, on top of a bifurcated sleep schedule caused by past-midnight work hours and the need to get my daughter to school in the morning make it so my available times to write about and/or watch movies is a bit smaller than ideal. Add to that the fact that the Fall TV season has just started up, and I find myself falling behind (pun definitely not intended). I mean, I know I should be watching my recently arrived Vincent Price bluray set, but The Flash is just so much fun, especially now that they've introduced Jay Garrick and Earth-2, and are gleefully referencing the nerdiest of Flash mythology.

I've got a piece I've been working on for a few days, which I thought would be a quick and easy movie writeup, but continues to grow at a rate I hadn't anticipated. But in order to keep my blog active and try to keep some consistency, I feel the desire to get something out there today. So I've decided to do a quick roundup of the films I've watched this Halloween season, that haven't yet made it into longer pieces or reviews. Keep in mind I started my season back in mid-September, and then committed wholly to it around the 18th of that month, when Universal started their annual Halloween Horror Nights and I began spending my every work night in the Bates Motel. It seemed appropriate.

Darkness Falls (2003): This movie seems to have fallen from people's memories since it was released barely over a decade ago, despite the fact that it was fairly high profile at the time of it's release, at least for horror films. It opened at #1 in the box office, and more than quadrupled it's budget, and yet I don't know many people who could tell you what it's about, even those that have seen it. And now, just a month after having seen it myself, I'm having trouble remembering it. This film is like the supernatural menace in a Stephen King novel; you begin to lose all memory of it once it's been defeated. The film, if I'm recalling it correctly, concerns an urban legend concerning a kindly old woman who was burned as a witch by a nervous and angry mob who believed her guilty of child murder. She was innocent, of course, and now she appears to any child on the night they lose their last tooth and kill them if they look at her.

This film came out at a time where I was trying to see every horror movie that came out in theatres. Darkness Falls was one I just never felt any desire at all to see, and yet now when I saw it on Netflix I figured a bit of forced nostalgia could be fun. The biggest problem I have with this film is really one of editing. Every time the Tooth Fairy (the moniker given to the vengeful spirit, for obvious reasons) pops up on screen the film goes crazy, with tons of shaky, whip-pan camera movements and rapid fire editing. This makes the moments of the film that should be the scariest come across as goofy and nearly indecipherable, which is a shame, because the design of the Tooth Fairy is pretty cool, actually. Unfortunately you rarely get a chance to admire the design, and it's marred by some unnecessary CGI enhancements.

Cottage Country (2013); Tyler Labine (Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil) and Malin Akerman (Children's Hospital) play a yuppie-ish couple heading out to the country for a romantic getaway at Labine's parent's luxury cottage. The arrival of Labine's bohemian brother, with girlfriend in tow, provides a growing list of frustrations, prompting Labine, in a fit of rage, to murder his brother. The two leads in this film, and the generally lighthearted tone, had me hoping for a nice dark comedy, and to be fair that's pretty much what this film is. Unfortunately, it really only has one joke; that of the two proper, uptight yuppies driven to murder and the complications that arise from trying to hide the crime. There's a good concept here, in the way the couple becomes more honest with each other the more people they kill and the more lies they have to tell everyone else. But as I said, there's no variation in the humor, and no deep exploration of that theme. Things just get more shrill and drenched in flop-sweat as the film progresses, culminating with a finale that, I think, was supposed to put an ironic button on everything, but really just felt like cheap cruelty to the characters.

Waxworks (1924): I'm not sure if this is the first true anthology film, but it's at least a very early example of one. It's also not much of a horror film, though it sometimes gets credited as one. In truth it covers several genres, mostly historical fantasy, and only the final segment could be considered horror. Directed by Paul Leni, whose earlier silent epic The Man Who Laughs is mostly remembered for inspiring the visual look of The Joker, the film concerns an unemployed writer arriving at a wax museum answering an ad calling for someone to write adventures about the wax figures to be used as part of their displays. Each segment casts the writer as a character in a drama concerning the figures, which include Ivan The Terrible, Harun al-Rashid, and Jack the Ripper. The final segment, where the writer falls asleep and dreams he is being pursued by the Jack the Ripper figure, is the only one that can be considered anywhere near horror. The segment is full of multiple exposures which lend the already-distorted sets an even more confusing and disorienting dimension.

Waxwork (1977) & Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992): I must have had wax figures on the brain, or perhaps amazon prime was acting as an oracle and had somehow divined that I had watched Waxworks earlier. For whatever reason, I chose to revisit this vaguely remembered film from my childhood, about, you guessed it, a wax museum where the exhibits come alive. About 10 minutes in I was regretting my decision, as the characters were all, without fail, obnoxious idiots. Not in a 'I'll enjoy seeing these people die' sort of way, but in a 'I can't believe I'm still watching these people' sort of way. I'll admit my enjoyment grew as the movie went along, and the cast of characters dwindled a bit. I'll also say that I think I enjoyed the second film, where the characters are no longer encountering wax figures but are just slipping through time to visit various horror themed incidents, to the first, though I enjoyed the plot of the first, where the exhibits were portals to alternate worlds, and each victim was a sacrifice to open the gates of hell (or something) more. The second film seemed to just go for broke in being fun and nonsensical. It's not a classic, it's not a great horror comedy, but it has more of a sense of humor and brings up some more inventive scenarios. Also it has a Bruce Campbell cameo, which was great fun.

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Visiting and Revisiting: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001) Part 1

Welcome to the second edition of Visiting and Revisiting with Aaron Lowe (Working Dead Productions) and Rik Tod Johnson (The Cinema 4 Pylon). The focus of this column, intended to be a semi-regular feature on both our sites, is to review films that one of us has already seen, possibly even multiple times, but the other has somehow put off watching over the years. Sometimes we get surprised when one or the other has not seen a fairly well known film, so we felt this was a good way to not only give the film either a fresh or updated viewing, but also to allow us to discuss the film at length afterwards.

Aaron: I saw Ghosts of Mars in the theater in 2001, if not on opening weekend, it was pretty darn close. I was 23, and I loved John Carpenter. Despite a few films in the ‘90s that I chose to ignore, he had never really let me down. Vampires, his previous film, I had seen on opening night, and despite its less-than-stellar reputation, I really enjoyed it. The fact that I liked — but didn’t love — Ghosts of Mars was, I reasoned, a testament to Carpenter’s consistent history of ridiculously enjoyable genre fare. Its low ranking when compared to his previous efforts spoke not so much to Ghosts’ lack of quality, but to the fact that it’s hard to top yourself when your filmography contains Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, to name just the first three that pop into my head. For nearly a decade, Ghosts of Mars appeared to be Carpenter’s last theatrical film, which meant that I felt more defensive of it than I might otherwise. I had more than a few discussions where I came to the film’s defense, but arguments such as ‘sure, it’s not his best, but it’s more fun than you remember’ struck me even at the time as apologetic and noncommittal.

Ghosts of Mars begins on the red planet, with a ghost train arriving in the city of Chryse. The train’s sole passenger, police officer Natasha Henstridge, is unconscious and handcuffed, and there is no sign of the crew or her fellow officers. Brought before a tribunal, she recounts the story of how she was sent to the small mining colony of Shining Canyon to retrieve Desolation Williams, a particularly nasty outlaw accused of slaughtering dozens of civilians. What she and her fellow officers find is a ghost town, with everyone either dead or missing, and Williams (Ice Cube) still locked in his jail cell, while just over the hills, a band of resurrected Martian warriors readies themselves for battle. The majority of the film concerns the cops teaming up with the criminals to defend themselves against the titular ghosts of Mars.

The flashback structure used here, where the hero is discovered by people in authority and forced to tell their story while some larger threat grows outside, is one that Carpenter had previously used for In the Mouth of Madness, and that sort of self quoting is something he does a lot in this film. The film’s most obvious precedent is his own Assault on Precinct 13, which told a similar story of cops and criminals forced to cooperate in order to defend themselves against a common enemy massing outside. The score and editing seemed designed to quote his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ as well, most notably Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, while the isolated location and idea of being replaced by an alien intelligence recalls his classic The Thing. You mentioned in one of our discussions the connection to The Fog, which is his earlier film about a mist that brings violent ghosts with it. It’s such an obvious reference that I am utterly ashamed to have not noticed it all these years.

The one thing I’m most looking forward to with this entry of Visiting & Revisiting is that we’re both approaching this with different histories, but with a certain shared level of clarity; you, as a first time viewer, and I, without the rose colored glasses through which I first saw the film. If I’m being honest, the film has several glaring problems, but I still think it’s more fun than its reputation suggests, and is also clearly a film no one but John Carpenter could make, or at least no one else would make it in this way. That alone gives it some value in my mind, as I prefer the relative failure of this, which still feels like a Carpenter film, to the failure of The Ward, his first (and to this point only) theatrical production since. The Ward makes a good contrast, because it’s a competently made film, but completely devoid of anything you look for in a Carpenter film. The result felt lifeless and generic to me, which is not a comment that I believe can be made about Ghosts of Mars, despite what the title tells you.

I know you’ve only very recently seen this film, though I also know you’re a fan of Carpenter in general. Any reason for the fifteen-year wait?

Rik: Ghosts of Mars came out to theatres at a crucial time for me. I was still beat down from the previous two films from one of my favorite directors, John Carpenter. I had seen all of his films in theatres starting with The Fog in 1980 (I snuck in… too young to buy a ticket) through Vampires in 1998. Escape from L.A. (1996) had been the first cinematic beating I took from the Master (though frankly, I did not like previous film, his remake of Village of the Damned, all that much). I liked portions of Escape from L.A. well enough, and it was grand to see Snake Plissken back in action, but goddammit, that surfing scene is still absolutely horrible and murdered the overall picture for me to this day. Vampires came after I had seen so many better vampire films, I could not get into any of the characters, and I thought much of it was lazy filmmaking. Three years later, Ghosts of Mars comes out and I just look at the trailer and say, “Hmm… not today.” I thought Carpenter was just spinning his wheels, and had really sort of given up the ghost (without actually giving up the ghost).

I avoided Ghosts of Mars until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided that I should at least watch the one remaining film on his professional resume that I have not seen. After all, since Ghosts came out, Carpenter had shown there was still life in the old boy yet with a couple of episodes a full decade ago for the Masters of Horror television anthology, one which I thought was pretty good (Pro-Life) and one that I thought was amongst his best work (the more well-known and regarded Cigarette Burns). He also came back to theatres in 2010 with the aforementioned film, The Ward, which I liked a bit more than Aaron. I didn’t care if it was missing many prime Carpenter touchstones, chiefly because Amber Heard gives me serious Ward.

And so, one morning I popped in Ghosts of Mars, and while I did not like much of it, I did not hate it either. From the outset, it was pleasing to immediately fall into that sense you can only get from a Carpenter film, which has been my chief reason for sticking with him all these, well, decades. Carpenter is a filmmaker who sticks tight to his bag of tricks. Like De Palma, he is the sum of his early influences, but unlike De Palma, whose slavish devotion to Hitchcock is both his most charming component and his ultimate downfall, Carpenter is harder to pinpoint. Yes, he is admittedly and obviously a big Howard Hawks guy — and Ghosts of Mars’ referencing of Carpenter’s own Assault on Precinct 13 likewise registers new echoes of its forerunner, Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) — but Hawks himself was hard to hold to a set genre, and was comfortable adapting his fast-talking, tough guy style to anything thrown at him. Carpenter exists more in a specific genre, but is one of those filmmakers — whatever his influences — that has such a consistency of mood and tone to his overall oeuvre that it is hard to mistake most of his films for the work of another director. Cronenberg, Lynch, Maddin… they too have been able to do this, but except for Cronenberg’s last few films, their work has generally resided on the more extreme end of modern filmmaking (and in Maddin’s case, often the fringe), where a director can get away with this. Carpenter has been more of a Hollywood guy, and so the fact that even his most mainstream works still contain his undeniable essence behind the camera points to how strongly he has been able to brand his own style.

Aaron:  Yes, the film’s story is old hat for Carpenter, and many of the stylistic touches are as well, but there is one wrinkle in the film I really enjoy, and that is the film’s flashback structure. The entire movie is a flashback, but repeatedly the film bounces back even further as a new character is introduced and we learn their story. We also see the same events from different angles depending on which character we’re supposed to be focusing on in that instance. This isn’t exactly Rashomon, but I enjoy the way we get multiple perspectives all branching out from the main perspective of Natasha Henstridge recounting this story, and I enjoy the editing techniques he uses to differentiate which level of a flashback we’re in. The main timeline uses a lot of crossfades, as scenes fade directly into the next with no fade to white or black. Flashbacks are entered through use of one of those fades, while the flashbacks-within-flashbacks use various forms of screenwipes to transition between camera shots. The crossfade is something he uses a lot in normal scenes as well, as he uses it to cut out a lot of incremental movement. At first I thought this was Carpenter aping a then-popular technique, popularized by Robert Rodriguez in El Mariachi and Desperado, but listening to the commentary it seems like it was a choice Carpenter made in order to give the rather slow opening a sense of momentum. I have to admit, it does give a sense of creeping momentum to everything. I don’t think it entirely succeeds, but I believe it gives a sense of impending, continual danger. And as you said, it lends the film that distinctive Carpenter touch, as he’s always been a director that enjoys putting an ominous, pulsing score behind everything.

[To read part two of VIsiting and Revisiting: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, click here]

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Make Mine Midian

As I confessed earlier this month, The Thing scared me off of horror films for years, and it wasn't until 6th grade, maybe even Jr. High, that I actually waded back into the waters of horror films. This reintroduction was largely aided by a quartet of new additions to my family; four cousins by marriage raised on HBO and late night cable. It was through this motley group that I began to watch scary movies, and actually enjoy them. They gave me a new context through which to experience horror, as through them I learned the joy of being scared in a group, of finding humor in the leering monsters and outrageous death scenes. It maybe helps that the first movie I recall watching with them was Nightmare on Elm Street 4, which is grotesque, but also funny.

Surprisingly, considering my feelings now, I argued against this choice. I was, I'll admit, afraid of the film, and of betraying to my much more confident older cousins just how cowardly I was. I knew nothing about Nightmare 4, but I had heard all about the original NoES from a classmate who would entertain kids during recess by recounting the plots to all the R-rated horror films he was allowed to see. I remember the surprise I felt when I first saw Aliens and discovered it was a fun action movie, not the harrowing dread soaked nightmare I had been constructing in my mind. I had an idea of what Nightmare would be like, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

The eldest of my cousins, probably sensing my concern, reassured me that Nightmare 4 was far from scary, that it was more of an adventure film. Shockingly, this worked, and I say down to enjoy the film, which I actually did enjoy. My cousin was right; Nightmare 4 is one of the least intentionally scary films in the series (next to part 6). The movie was definitely a perspective changing event, but my full conversion was yet to come. I was less afraid to watch horror films, but I still did not seek them out, and they weren't what I would call favorites. I know I watched other horror movies during this period, but none of them really struck a nerve. I certainly can't remember any specific titles. At least, not until Nightbreed.

Nightbreed came out in 1990, but we watched it on HBO, which would place it, most likely, in 1991 or '92, which coincides with my memory of still being in Jr. High. I can vividly recall sitting in front of the TV in my cousin's living room in the middle of the night, the lights out and the house quiet. I'm not sure when in the film I realized I was watching something special, I just recall a slowly dawning realization that I had been looking at things from the wrong angle. The monsters in Nightbreed were, physically, some of the most gruesome I had seen, and yet rather than objects of fear, derision, hatred, or mockery, these monsters were noble creatures; men and women who inspired respect, empathy, and admiration.

Nightbreed was a revelation, or as close to one as a godless heathen like me can come. By the time the film had ended, with the monster tribes of Midian splintered by unbeaten by the cruel, pitiless humans who feared and envied them, my consciousness had shifted. I no longer viewed monsters with fear and terror, but with entertainment, awe and wonder. I was fascinated with the worlds of monsters, madmen, ghouls, and ghosts, and I devoured the stories and movies they inhabited with a fascination in their habits, their physiognomies, and, yes, the technical craft that went into their creations.

Nightbreed became one of my first (and few) purchases on VHS, and considering the lower access to films in a pre-internet age, it was a film I watched repeatedly. It was a few years, however, before I read the novella the film was based on, Cabal. It was, perhaps oddly, on a spring break trip to Florida to visit my grandparents during freshman year of High School. I remember devouring the novella, and the other stories in the collection, while sitting in the back of my grandparent's RV. It was a revelation of another kind. I had been reading Stephen King for a few years at that point, and Clive Barker's style was quite unlike what I was used to in horror fiction. Stephen King is, for all his shocking violence and populist politics, a conservative writer at heart. His stories almost always enforce the status quo, and usually result in a return to normalcy, with the horrific or bizarre triumphantly defeated and banished from the world. Clive Barker, by contrast, is more anarchic, and his stories never return to the status quo. His characters are always changed by their encounters with the incredible, for good or ill (and honestly, it's for good more often than it's for ill).

I quickly devoured Barker's novels in the same way I had burned through King's works, and through it all I continued to return to Nightbreed. As I aged, some of the films flaws stood out to me, though I continued to love the work. There seemed to be an odd flow to the course of the story, as some elements that seemed like they should have been more important received little screentime. Suspecting the work of interfering studio hands, I did the almost unthinkable and wrote Mr. Barker a fan letter, expressing my admiration while also asking about the possibility of missing scenes. To my surprise, he wrote me back fairly promptly and said that yes, nearly 45 minutes had been cut out due to studio notes, but he was working on a DVD special edition that would be released that fall. This was in 1997. Fast forward a decade, and still no director's cut. Word got out that Warner Bros. had lost track of the original film prints, and did not see it as profitable to seek out the materials, let alone pay for the necessary editing and production work required to put the film out.

I gave up hope of ever seeing the extended Nightbreed, until online whispers began to mention the existence of recently discovered VHS master tapes in Germany that contained a rough cut of Barker's original vision. These sources were compiled with the existing film to produce the Cabal Cut, a Barker-sanctioned-yet-still-unofficial reconstruction of the film. The Cabal Cut used footage that Barker himself would have cut out of the film, and the quality of the new elements was... poor, to put it charitably, yet reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It turns the cult of Midian had been growing steadily over the decades, and the renewed attention finally sparked a determined effort to restore and release Clive Barker's original vision for Nightbreed. So, in 2014, after nearly two decades of waiting, I finally received my three-disc limited edition bluray of the fabled Nightbreed Director's cut.

It was more than I had hoped for, honestly. I watched it twice that first day, and adored every minute of its dark fantasy. Or, at least, nearly every moment; Narcisse's unexpected demise still hurts, but everything else is perfect. The added scenes redeemed every complaint I had about the film previously, as the romance between Boone and Lori gains much needed dimension and reality, where in the theatrical version it felt a bit forced The acting across the board improved, as instances of uneven performances proved to be due to lack of context. New scenes explained some previously odd line readings as we finally see what the characters were supposed to be reacting to.

For some it might seem odd that Nightbreed is the horror film that continues to be the most important in my personal development. The concept of monsters being merely misunderstood is an old one- only a fool with no reading comprehension skills would believe Frankenstein's Monster to be the villain of that story- yet I'd never seen it presented like this. these weren't piteous, confused freaks, they were individuals with their own mythologies, laws, and beliefs, with emotional lives as complex as any human character. The monsters of Midian present an ideal of sorts, an Eden for any child who has ever felt damaged, lost, or alienated. For a young me, just entering my teens, it was a clarion call I could never refuse. My home has been with the monsters ever since.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Tea and Murder: The Amicus Anthologies, Part One

I previously announced that this October would be the year of the vampire, as well as the year of the themed viewings, as I find myself watching (and writing about) vampire films more than I normally do, and also watching a few horror series start to finish (Nightmare on Elm Street, the Universal Dracula sequels) and some films featuring certain horror icons (Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff). There seems to be another theme emerging this year; anthology- or, as the British say, portmanteau- films. First up were the two official Creepshows, followed quickly by my discovery of several Amicus films streaming on Amazon Prime. I was previously familiar with their EC Comics adaptations, Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, and the discovery of more dark, brooding, and grisly stories was cause for some excitement in my home.

Amicus were, for while anyway, contemporaries of Hammer Films, and often an Amicus picture will get credited as a Hammer picture by people who don't look too closely at title cards. It's not too hard to understand the confusion, though, as they were both churning out horror films during the same period, and Amicus would often hire Hammer mainstays Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Ingrid Pitt. Often these actors would come in for a day or two of work, allowing Amicus to slot them in as a lead in one of their many anthology films, where in a regular film they would probably only be able to afford an extended cameo. Beyond the casting and the general genre of 'horror', the differences between the studios become very pronounced. Hammer horror films were famous for their garish technicolor blood and salacious-for-the-time sexuality. Amicus, on the other hand, was more buttoned down, fairly bloodless and sexless, with a much more proper undertone. The protaganists in Amicus films tended to be older- at least middle aged- and more bourgeoisie. The men in Amicus films drank tea and listened to classical music while reading the financial times. The women prepared meals and shopped. The films were steadfastly British, and watching them can feel as comfortable as sitting in a high backed chair before a fire and drinking a cup of Earl Grey.

The favorite starting point for Amicus' portmanteau films is when a newcomer arrives at some locale and begins asking questions of the locals, who in turn tell the stranger(s) stories ranging from outright supernatural to just oddly eerie. Amicus were inspired in this field by the classic film Dead Of Night (1945). Dead of Night was for decades the high water mark in anthology films, and it remains a classic to this day. The template of a group of strangers telling their stories is one Amicus ran with throughout the studio's existence. The Amicus films tend to have four or five short segments, and a framing story that links them all together. Generally the final story in the film will bleed into the events of the framing story, as everything comes together for the grand finale.

Of the two films I watched this week, Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood, my favorite wraparound comes from the latter, in which a Scotland Yard detective investigating the disappearance of a famous actor hears from various locals about the previous tragedies that befell the actor's rented home. The stories are generally not great, but there's a consistency of tone and quality that makes the viewing experience a pleasant one. Of the four stories, I think my favorite might, blasphemously, be the final one, in which we learn what happened to the missing actor. It's silly, and jokey in a way the film hasn't been up to this point, but it's also silly fun to see Jon Pertwee (in the middle of his run as Doctor Who) as a wonderfully vainglorious horror actor meeting some of his greatest fans, who also just happen to be vampires (apparently I have vampires on the brain). My least favorite of the stories, also possibly blasphemously, is the Peter Cushing segment. He's a great actor, and great in this story, but something seems off in the segment. It's either too long or too short. If it had been shorter it might have lent more punch to the suddenly violent ending, but if it had been longer it may have had time to imbue the story's slow pace with the feeling of sadness and loneliness only hinted at in the film.

At the end of the film, the realtor who had sold the house to each of its occupants turns to the audience and asks us if we've guessed the secret of the house. "It reflects the personality of whoever lives in it, and treats him accordingly" he says, before asking if perhaps we would like to live there. It's fun, and explains why in each story the ghoulish elements are so radically different, but it also suggests that the PeterCushing segment, in which he becomes obsessed with a figure in a wax museum that reminds him of a lost love, is a red herring. It is the only story in the film in which the violent, morbid events happen entirely outside of the house, which suggests Peter Cushing would have been the house's ideal tenant. He seems a bit lonely, but otherwise perfectly content in the house, and he would have lived a mostly satisfying life, had he not had the bad luck to run into that crazy wax museum proprietor.

How amazing is this poster? Even if it spoils every segment's endings.

While I prefer the wraparound story in The House That Dripped Blood, the story in Asylum is probably the more traditionally 'grand guignol', with an idealistic young psychiatrist arriving for his new position at the titular asylum. He's told by a wheelchair bound Patrick Magee that the previous head of the asylum went mad a few days prior, and is now a patient with an entirely new personality. He's told that he should interview the patients, and if he can deduce which patient is the doctor, than the man will be qualified for the position. It's a bit ridiculous, right? But it fits the earth-yet-heightened mood of Amicus' horror productions, and feels of a piece with the moody, gothic stories the films take their cues from.

As with The House That Dripped Blood, Asylum was written entirely by Robert Bloch, and based on his stories. Director Roy Ward Baker is able to maintain a pretty steady mood of foreboding, sinister unease through some of the weirdest stories Amicus ever produced. The first story concerns a man who kills his wife, but gets his comeuppance thanks to the fact that his bored suburban housewife has been dabbling in voodoo as some sort of new age affectation. It goes a bit overboard with the creeping disembodied appendages (apparently against Robert Bloch's wishes), but is enjoyably adequate. Things take a turn for the truly bizarre in the second story, as a tailor recounts the story of a bizarre customer (Peter Cushing) who gives him a unique, glowing material and specific instructions on how to tailor a suit that can bring back the dead. It's the final story that elevates the bizarre to the truly insane, however, as the doctor interviews a patient who tells him all about his methods of soul transference, which he uses to control small, fake looking robots with miniature models of his own head. When the robots are destroyed, they are revealed to have organs and blood in them. It's one of the strangest things you're likely to see in a film this year, yet also treated  with the same matter-of-fact straightforward attitude Amicus seems to bring to every production.

Amicus produced, as far as I can tell, 8 portmanteau films in total, of which I've now seen 4, along with several other horror and thriller films. Though they became known primarily for their horror films, Amicus actually began with a pair of musicals before transitioning to horror with the portmanteau films. They continued to vary their output, though usually staying firmly within pychotronic areas. They produced a pair of Doctor Who films in the sixties, and a string of 'prehistoric' films(including a childhood favorite, The Land That Time Forgot) before effectively closing up shop in 1975. They never achieved the success or acclaim of Hammer Films, which they so clearly wanted, but the films have been growing in cult appeal for decades now, prompting a US producer to revive the brand, pretty much in name only, though they did release the 2007 Stuart Gordon film Stuck, which one could conceive as being on the same continuum as those earlier films. For me, though, I'm just looking forward to diving into whichever film I can find next, which means that this post, like so many others this month, is...

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Visiting and Revisiting: John Badham's Dracula (1979) Part 2

[This is the second part of a two-part, crossover event. The first part can be found over at the Cinema 4 Pylon, which is run by my pal Rik. To read Part One, please follow the link here. This is the first in a new series of regular posts between our sites in which we sit down with films one of us is a lover(or defender) of, yet for some reason the other has not seen. To start this off we've chosen the 1979 version of Dracula, and we now take you to the discussion already in progress]

Aaron: John Badham's Dracula is a marvel of production design, and is gorgeously shot by Gilbert Taylor, who heightens the gothic atmosphere through crisp, greyish cinematography. This is not as lush or baroque as Coppola's version [Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992], but still conveys a sense of decaying majesty through the hectic asylum where Dr. Seward works, Carfax Abbey where Dracula resides, and the mist-covered fields and forests between both locations. Carfax Abbey, in particular, is one of those structures that only seem to exist in movies, with the large head-shaped entryways and looming architectural flourishes.

I've always said that everything about Coppola's version is near perfect, aside from the casting. Beyond Keanu Reeves' ridiculous attempt at a British accent, everyone in the film seems to be operating on different frequencies, and none of the casting gels. Here, however, Frank Langella is the centerpiece to a cast that seems more than up to the task. His performance as Dracula is less bombastic than many other portrayals, and certainly reads as less obviously dangerous than many other screen vampires, and he brings a sense of composed regality to the character of Dracula, to the extent that it is completely understandable that men would respect him and women would be easily wooed by his attentions.

You mentioned in the first part of this crossover post that the men aren’t buying Dracula’s brooding presence, but I think that’s mostly confined to Jonathan Harker’s jealousy of the Count’s clear sexual prowess. Dr. Seward seems rather taken in by Dracula’s presence, and seems excited to be around someone so exotic. Once Van Helsing shows up, however, things begin to change in that regard.

Rik: You may be right on the Harker thing, though I was taking his reaction as representative of men on a larger scale should they encounter a similar situation as the one Harker does with the Count. We are working from a rather small sample from which to gather evidence.

Apart from Ryder and Reeves in the Coppola version, the one actor I continue to struggle with is Anthony Hopkins. I now feel he is miscast, though I didn’t think so at the time. Tom Waits is far too broad in his acting as Renfield, but it is consistent with Waits’ persona in general, and he does look great in the film.

Aaron: I’ll agree with the Hopkins statement. I enjoyed him quite a bit when I first saw that film, but his performance hasn’t aged well. He’s hammy in a way that the rest of the film tends to veer away from. I'm curious what you think of Renfield in this version. He seems almost under the Count's spell in the very first scene, but he doesn't end up doing much for him throughout the film.

Rik: I think he is indeed under the Count’s spell from the start. But, while Tony Haygarth portrays him decently enough, I think this may be the most unnecessary occurrence of Renfield in a Dracula film in history. He is merely there to spit out half intelligible inanities and eat bugs. Maybe he is just meant as wallpaper, to help continue the general atmosphere of decay and lost humanity.

You told me you have a problem with a particular bat in a particular scene? Want to explain?

Aaron: First, let me say that I agree with your take on Renfield as well. Were I not familiar with the underlying story, I would wonder what his function was, as there doesn’t seem to be any real reason Dracula would want him around. As for the bat in question, it comes during what I believe to be the biggest signifier of when this film was made: a sex scene within a swirling red vortex of mist. It's an effect that could easily read as cheesy, but through the use of the score, and the performances of the characters, has a sense of epic grace to it. That is, until the unnecessary bat imagery pops up. Superimposed over the image of Dracula and Lucy in the throes of sexual ecstasy is the silhouette of a flying bat. You pointed out, which I was unaware of, that this segment was directed by James Bond opening-credits maestro Maurice Binder, which makes perfect sense looking back on it, but doesn’t quite redeem the bat in my eyes. I think it turns what was already symbolic and lushly romantic into something a bit too crass and on-the-nose.

My one real complaint with the film, aside from that silly thing with the bat, is the very end of the film. A triumphant happy ending is just fine, and in fact the final showdown is pretty dynamically staged and quite exciting. It's a bit of a letdown, then, when the Count is inexplicably able to get up and fly away, in what may be the worst special effect in the movie. I'm not sure why it was added in, since it literally comes at the last minute and does little in the way of add any dramatic dimension to the proceedings.

Rik: I will agree that the bat in the montage is unnecessary, but the bat part that bothers me most is when Lucy goes to visit Dracula at Carfax, and when the doors open, behind Dracula at the back of the room is a giant, extremely detailed bat with wings outspread. He just moved into the place and has little time to find a fabulous decorator. Where did the bat come from, eh? The only thing that I can figure is that this proves Renfield purpose in the movie. I need to check the credits to see if he is responsible for the set decoration.

Badham claims he intentionally left the ending ambiguous, where it is not supposed to be clear to the viewer if that is just a wind carrying the cape off or if the Count lives on somehow. He also says that they were trying to hint that Lucy may be pregnant, and that they were not trying to suggest a sequel. I have my take on it, based on the evidence at hand. What do you think?

Aaron: I feel like that isn't very well implied by what we see on screen. The cape is clearly moving steadily and not quite with the wind, and the process by which they got it to move makes it look like a large, black paper airplane. Lucy’s smile to me seemed to imply that she knew Dracula had escaped, and was cheered by the fact.

Rik: A helicopter is pulling the cape, and yes, it looks too smooth for it to be the wind. I think he has escaped somehow. Lucy is definitely still under his spell, and I just thought the smile was in remembrance of their passion. But, is she pregnant? Can an undead vampire’s boys still swim? Doubt it, but it has happened in other films and TV shows. Badham offers it as a suggestion in his commentary, and he also says they did not mean to imply there could be a sequel, but I think he is full of beans.

Aaron: So, I think we’ve pretty much covered the film itself. Are there any other aspects you’d like to cover? I’d just like to point out the John Williams score, which is a much more tender, sweeping, and romantic mode than I’m used to hearing from him. It also sounded oddly familiar to me, and I think Wojciech Kilar might have reworked or quoted from his soundtrack quite a bit for the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola version.

Beyond that, maybe we can cover a bit of the Dracula mythology, because I found myself thinking of a few aspects I’d never considered before, based on how they’re presented in the film. What do you think of Dracula’s apparent ability to turn everyone he kills into a vampire? In order to turn Lucy, he needs to give her his blood, and yet everyone else he kills becomes a vampire as well. Assuming he didn’t give his blood to Mina, what do you make of her later resurrection? I’m assuming her appearance, markedly different from Dracula (more monstrous and decayed), indicates this is what happens when he feeds without sharing blood. If so, this shows a remarkable lack of care for where he leaves his victims, and seems a little short-sighted if he plans to make London his home.

Rik: I don’t think he really cares, or at least, the Dracula in this film version doesn’t really care. If I recall correctly, Dracula’s purposes for going to England are hinted at in the novel as that he wants to expand, over time, his race of beings, and that London is unprepared for dealing with someone of his power, unlike the people of his homeland. I think it is just pure bad luck for him that the place he chooses to start his eventual conquest has a connection to Van Helsing, who will figure out how to combat him.

Aaron: That brings up a good point, actually. Do you believe the Dracula story is about the triumph of the new world over the old, or an argument that we need to retain the knowledge of the old world? The fact that Dracula has lived for centuries in Romania only to be killed almost immediately after arriving in London speaks to the idea that the new world is able to vanquish the nightmares and demons of the old. And yet the new world only triumphs because of the superstitions and beliefs of the less technologically advanced older world.

Rik: I don’t have much to add to that summation of the story. It seems a fairly obvious case for such a metaphor to be derived from the story. The second part, regarding the irony that it is the old world knowledge that delivers ultimate defeat to Dracula rather than any modern technology, that is the most interesting to me.

Aaron: Also, the boat passage from Romania to London has always bothered me for some reason. It seems uncharacteristically risky for the Count. He’s clearly not averse to using human assistants, and yet he foregoes that security and sequesters himself for a long sea voyage, putting himself completely into the hands of possibly untrustworthy strangers. There are so many things that could have gone wrong on that trip, even without his habit on feeding on the crewmembers in a way that draws suspicion to his mysterious crates of Transylvanian soil. I suppose it speaks to the animalistic nature of the Count, who must feed even if it puts his life in danger.

Rik: Obviously, a vampire must feed. It’s always important to pack an extra lunch or two on a long trip, and the Demeter makes for a handy, seagoing lunch box.

Joking aside, I agree with your assertion of his animalistic nature being in charge. It seems his bloodlust gets the better of him on this trip, throwing aside his normal caution of humanity at large. But it shows the difference between the people of his old country – who are accustomed to the superstitions of vampires and how to keep them at bay – and those from other lands, as most of the sailors may be. In the normal course of things, a couple of sailors die on the trip, and your mind, as a fellow sailor, is going to look first for rational reasons this may have occurred. The reasonable must be approached as a possibility first; otherwise, you are a loony. It might take you a while to come around to “Hey, someone died on this ship… that means there must be a vampire on board.” You and I have each seen a zillion monster movies, so we would automatically think, were we in that situation, that a vampire is a likely suspect. But we are not the men on the Demeter, nor are we in their time. And vampirism, we must assume, is something none of these sailors have dealt with… ever. As the death count grows, and irrationality takes hold, certainly they might believe that something evil is among them, but at that point, it is too late. Their paranoia will get the best of them and they will not be operating with all of their faculties at top gear, which will make it all the easier for the Count to hold sway. I think mainly that Dracula is hedging his bets with the sea trip, knowing that he must take this opportunity to survive, as his homeland has become too dangerous for him.

Aaron: Well, I believe that brings us to the end. It has been a blast, good sir, writing up this piece with you, and I look forward to the future editions of Visiting and Revisiting. Thank you to all who have read through both of our sites, and we hope you'll come back to join us again for the next film in this series, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001). I'll be starting the conversation on that one, and finishing up over on the Cinema 4 Pylon. See you soon!