strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
These reviews are out of sequence, in the sense that I watched four other films before them which I haven't posted about on LJ yet. I have started writing about all four, and indeed started my write-up of Romania, too, but I am not doing a great job of actually completing LJ posts right now. So I am going to suspend sequentiality in favour of what I actually feel like writing and might manage to complete.

[livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I already had a film-watching session lined up for this Sunday just past anyway, but in the wake of Christopher Lee's death we revised our programme in his honour. Since [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan is a huge Peter Cushing fan, and Lee and Cushing were such great friends, it seemed most appropriate somehow to use the occasion to watch two Lee / Cushing collaborations which neither of us had previously seen. So, I hastily acquired House of the Long Shadows and The Skull and we got stuck in.

14. House of the Long Shadows (1983), dir. Pete Walker )

15. The Skull (1965), dir. Freddie Francis )

This means that I have now seen 21 out of Lee and Cushing's 24 collaborations, and two of the remaining three are pretty spurious (Hamlet 1948 = controversy over whether Lee is actually visible on screen within the final film at all; The Devil's Agent 1961 = Cushing's scenes deleted). As for the experience of watching Lee's films now that he is no longer with us on this Earth - it feels bittersweet. On one level, his very gift was his films, and we still have those. But on another, it is sad to know for sure now that there won't be any more, that he himself can no longer be part of the discourse around the ones he made, and that one more living link with the creative output of the past is gone. It all feels a bit like someone turning up the lights at the end of a really amazing film, and having to face up to the fact that the story is over and the magic has gone. A slightly thinner, greyer world, in other words. I'm just glad he was in it for so long, and did so much while he was here.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I was planning to write about my holiday to Romania today, but then I woke up after a much needed lie-in to the news that Christopher Lee had died, and the truth is it would probably never have occurred to me to want to go to Romania at all if it hadn't been for him. So I will write about him instead.

I've long known that I first saw him in Hammer's Dracula (1958) when I was eight years old, and thanks to the Radio Times online archive I've recently been able to pin that down a little more precisely. On 28th December 1984, BBC Two broadcast a late night double-bill of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. My Dad recorded it on our at that time very new and exciting home video recorder, and soon afterwards (I don't know exactly how soon, but within a few days or weeks, I think) decided that these X-rated films would be suitable viewing for his eight-year-old daughter.

He knew what he was doing. Dracula in particular struck a chord with me which has resonated ever since. Within a year, I had bought and devoured the novel. Within two, I had moved outwards into the wider world of vampire fiction. Within three I had bought my personal horror bible, and was busy working my way through its Vampire chapter with a particular focus on Hammer's other Dracula movies. I have carried on in much the same vein ever since - and it was absolutely definitively Lee's performance as Dracula which started it all.

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If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have spent my teens steeping myself in Gothic fiction and horror movies. As a result, I would probably never have felt inclined to drift into the Gothic sub-culture in my Bristol days, or have made all the friends I did then and later as a result. I could never have watched The Wicker Man when I got to Oxford, might never have felt the same resonances in the city's May Day celebrations, and would never have had the Wicker Man holiday which [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos and I enjoyed two years ago in Scotland. Indeed, I would never have watched any of the awesome movies on this list - or any of the rubbishy second-rate ones, either, which I have hunted down and sat through (often accompanied by the ever-patient [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan) just because he was in them. Nor would I recently have bothered reading all about the real life Vlad III Dracula. My parents going to Romania in 1987 would have meant nothing particular to me, and nor would I have joined the Dracula Society and gone on the holiday there with them which I have just got back from.

While we were in Romania, Christopher Lee had his 93rd, and sadly we now know his last, birthday. We happened to be in Sighișoara, where the real life Vlad III Dracula was (probably) born, so I marked the day by nipping out of our hotel early in the morning, crossing the town square and tweeting this selfie from outside the house where he grew up.


Little did I know that the man who had sparked off my interest in Dracula in the first place was already in hospital. Little did I know how few days he had left.

I won't try to claim that I have always considered Christopher Lee to be the perfect human being. I've said plenty of uncomplimentary things about him in the past on this journal. There's no need to repeat them today. But he brought such wonderful stories so powerfully to life - not indeed just by acting in them with such presence and professionalism, but by doing it to such an inspiring degree that already by the mid-1960s people were writing roles and producing stories so that he could inhabit them and bring that magic to them. There is no question that the whole world of fantastic drama and fiction has been immeasurably stronger for his contribution to it. So I am truly, truly grateful for the wondrous worlds those prodigious acting talents have transported me to, and for the real-world doors and pathways they have opened up to me as a result. And though I never met him, and now never will, it felt good to share the same planet with him for the past 38 years. I am very sorry now that that time is over.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I'm out campaigning more than ever now, and very much need undemanding downtime when I'm not if I'm to keep on top of my day-job alongside it. Watching films is a good way to achieve that, but reviewing them not so much. So the goal here is to rattle through four film reviews in a hundred words or so each - and I'm not allowed my dinner until it's done. With a bit of luck that will clear the slate for the time being, so that I can watch another one this evening!

7. The Resident (2011), dir. Antti Jokinen )

8. The Vault of Horror (1973), dir. Roy Ward Baker )

9. What We Do In The Shadows (2014), dir. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement )

10. Nocturna (1979), dir. Harry Hurwitz (as Harry Tampa) )

Well, that'll be a slightly later dinner than I was intending, but hey - I'm up to date, and can happily watch one of the (classic) Hammer horror films I borrowed from [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan last night while I'm eating. :-)

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strange_complex: (Gatto di Roma)
People who don't have much time should probably learn how to write short film reviews. Let's see how I get on with that...

This was a recent purchase of [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's, which has also been in the 'high priority' section of my Lovefilm list for a while, and which we watched together. It is a Universal picture starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and is based very, very loosely indeed on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name. When I say loosely, I mean that it contains a black cat, and involves a dead wife, but otherwise it has pretty much nothing to do with the original whatsoever.

Stylistically, it is a Gothic horror, involving such motifs as a dark and stormy night, an innocent young couple finding themselves trapped in a dangerous situation, a hill-top house, an apparently-charming host with malevolent intentions, a decades-old personal feud, the supernaturally-preserved corpses of beautiful women, the afore-mentioned black cat, and some Satanic rituals. Yet at the same time it is more profoundly concerned with the issues of its present day than any other Universal film I have seen. It's often forgotten that Universal tended to translate their Gothic stories to a present-day setting, and it's forgotten for the perfectly good reason that apart from putting the leading ladies in 1930s frocks, this makes almost no difference whatsoever to the setting, action or dialogue. But this film is basically all about the hangover horror of the First World War, and the impact it had on the lives of those who survived it.

Thankfully, this aspect of the film is discussed in detail in this excellent blog post, saving me the trouble! But the executive summary is that Lugosi's character had suffered terrible wrongs at the hands of Karloff's during the war, they are both still psychologically trapped reliving their old feud and the horrors of the war, and the main setting for the film is a luxurious modernist house built directly over a concrete First World War fortress and only thinly veiling the horrors concealed below. It is also one of the first horror films to do any of this so clearly and directly, a full 20 years after the war had broken out, which says quite a lot about how difficult it is for any society to process and assimilate true horror on that sort of scale enough to weave it into its stories. Once it had happened, though, it was very powerful - or so we felt. Had the exact same story of personal feuds, dead wives and Satanic rituals been told in a more traditionally Gothic setting, it probably would have seemed fairly run-of-the-mill and unoriginal, but the engagement with recent history gave it an urgent emotive power which we were really struck by.

Other than that, the film's main stand-out features include some very beautiful frocks, absolute flying sparks in the confrontations between Lugosi and Karloff (an epic pairing which would make the film worth watching on its own, regardless of anything else), and some completely mad cod-Latin from Karloff in the climactic Satanic ritual, which is basically not a Satanic ritual at all, but a load of proverbs cobbled together with no concern whatsoever for what they might actually mean. This is of course an interesting insight into Universal's estimation of their audiences in the 1930s, who were clearly not expected to notice this. In fact, it reminded me of the All Purpose Latin After-Dinner Speech from Henry Beard's book Latin for Even More Occasions - and as such made the film a lot more fun than it would have been if someone had sat down and written a SRS BSNS ritual for the scene.

Only down side - our sympathies are clearly meant to lie with Lugosi's character rather than Karloff's, since Lugosi has spent 15 years in a Hungarian prison camp during which time Karloff has stolen both his wife and his daughter and built himself the luxury house where the action takes place. But this was scotched for me very early on by a scene set in a train carriage, which sees Lugosi reaching out to stroke the hair of a sleeping woman who is a stranger to him. This transpires to be because she reminds him of his lost wife, and seems to have been intended to convey the tragic suffering of his character - but for me it just set off Extreme Creep Alarms which meant I could never really fall into the role of cheering for and sympathising with him which the rest of the film seemed to expect of me.

Other than that, though, top notch stuff, and very definitely a must-see for anyone interested in the direction which horror films were taking in the mid-1930s.

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strange_complex: (Clone Army)
This is a good, solid Hammer production, shot when they were more or less at the height of their commercial success, and about a year before they moved out of Bray Studios. I'd vaguely seen bits of it before (mainly on the Horror Channel, I think), but decided it was worth watching properly - and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was kind enough to lend me the disc.

It has everything you would expect from Hammer in this period1 - ambitious sets, a coherent script, a reliable cast, some heaving bosoms and a few soft shocks. I also remember thinking while watching it that the editing was rather good, with some nice cuts from Scene A featuring one set of characters, to Scene B featuring another set doing something which either cast new light on the actions in Scene A or was thematically linked to it in some way. But that was a couple of weeks ago, I didn't write down any specific examples and I have of course forgotten them now. So we'll have to take that on faith.

Most of the zombie stories I have encountered in my time (some of which are gathered under my 'zombies' tag) have post-dated Night of the Living Dead (1968), and thus presented their zombies as brain-hungry corpses, reanimated by some kind of natural or scientific disaster which lies beyond human control. But this one belongs to an earlier phase in the evolution of zombie mythology, which engages directly with Haitian voodoo tradition. The zombies of this film are reanimated deliberately by a local squire, using voodoo rituals which he learnt during a spell in Haiti, so that he will have mindless slaves to work in his tin-mines.

This set-up actually makes zombies functionally very similar to vampires, and certainly this is how Hammer treats them here. The squire himself is a rather arrogant aristocrat who makes romantic advances towards the heroine, Sylvia, but turns out to have a dangerous and violent dark side. In other words, he is basically Dracula. Even more strikingly, he 'attacks' his victims by engineering situations in which they will cut themselves (e.g. on a piece of broken glass), so that he can steal their blood and use it later on to enslave them via his voodoo rituals. Once this has happened, they become pallid and sick-looking, begin to respond hypnotically to his will, and soon die, only to emerge from their graves again as full-blown, grey-skinned slaves to the squire's command.

Meanwhile, an eminent doctor is summoned to the village where all this is happening by the young male lead, investigates the phenomenon by opening coffins (only to find them empty, of course), and eventually manages to defeat the squire by setting his voodoo dolls on fire, which in turn causes the zombies they control to do the same. The doctor isn't quite the same as the original Van Helsing from the Dracula films, because he doesn't know about zombieism before the film begins, and thus has to find out about it from a book. But he is very definitely a close equivalent to the Van Helsing-type figures of Hammer's later Dracula / vampire films.

So, yes, a tried-and-tested formula is being applied here (Hammer had three Dracula films plus Kiss of the Vampire under their belt by the time they made this, whereas this was their first and only foray into zombieism). In fact, the Cornish setting also functions much like Transylvania - remote, rural and replete with superstitious locals. But at the same time, its tin-mining industrial history also offers the scope for approaching zombieism as an allegory for the aristocratic exploitation of the poor - something which vampirism can also do of course, but which wasn't particularly deeply woven into any of Hammer's Dracula films until The Satanic Rites of Dracula, in which he appears as a property magnate.

But while the squire's industrial slavery was clearly handled critically, no such critique is apparent in the film's treatment of race relations. This, of course, comes up due to the voodoo themes of the story, but all of the black actors who were cast as a result are either scary Others who bang drums and wear grass skirts, or a servant of the squire's who literally calls him 'masser' and tries to impede the good doctor in his quest to Defeat Evil. I'm not sure whether this is better or worse than having no ethnic minority characters at all, which is what most Hammer films do - probably worse on balance. But while I think it's important for 21st-century viewers to call this stuff, I also think it's pointless and blinkered to dismiss films from the 1960s for reflecting the social attitudes of the age. That, in fact, is part of their value.

Overall, then, a cracking little number which is a good example of Hammer's capabilities and very nearly an entry in their vampire canon, even while actually being an interesting mile-post in the history of zombie films.


1. Close chronological siblings include Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), The Witches (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967).

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
As mentioned previously on these pages, I have a Horror Bible, which I bought when I was about 11 or 12 years old. In it is a page which looks like this:

Horror Bible Dracula page

I had seen Christopher Lee as Dracula already when I bought the book, of course, and caught up with Bela Lugosi about ten or fifteen years later. But the other two have only become easily available to me now that the Golden Age of Amazon, Lovefilm, YouTube et al. has dawned. I saw and reviewed Louis Jourdan's Count Dracula in October (and am of course very sorry indeed that we lost Louis himself just this weekend). So Langella's performance was the last of the iconic Draculas which I still needed to catch up with. It hardly needs saying that I watched it with fellow horror aficionado [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, but for once this time I actually have a live witness to her Dracula-enabling tendencies: [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula will testify that while discussing plans for our next film session in front of her, I asked what we should watch, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan gleefully replied "Dracula!" So it's totally not my fault.

Alas for us, though, Langella's Dracula is most definitely the weakest of the four. That's not to say it is an utter waste of time. Visually, it was stunning )

I quite liked the broad strokes of how the story was approached, too )

Meanwhile, on the downside, no setting or scenery could possibly have compensated for the fact that Langella himself just was not Dracula )

And then there is the stuff that just leave you asking - WTF? Like the vampire-hunting horse, for example. )

Other points to note include Donald Pleasance as Dr. Seward and Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing, but both of them unfortunately pretty much dialling it in. Also, Unexpected Sylvester McCoy as an unconvincing and inept guard in Seward's asylum. Langella's Dracula, like Jourdan's two years earlier, dutifully scaled the walls of the asylum face-down like a lizard - though he could hardly not have done after such a recent example. And a climactic chase sequence involving Dracula and Lucy (or was it Mina?) heading for the coast to escape their pursuers by ship borrowed heavily from a similar chase at the end of Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness, complete with visuals of a cloth-covered wagon containing a coffin bouncing up and down with the ruts in the road.

But now that I have seen this, noted down its key features, and (above all) ticked it off in my Horror Bible, I do not think I am likely to revisit it again.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I'm starting my films of 2015 as I mean to go on - that is with vintage horror, just like in 2014. [livejournal.com profile] steepholm's post yesterday about an Edwardian horror film reminded me that some time ago I had bookmarked an even earlier one, and the neatness of starting my year with what is widely considered to be the first horror film ever made appealed to me - especially since I knew I would be able to progress onwards to the Edwardian one afterwards. Thus my evening began.

1a. Le Manoir du Diable (1896), dir. Georges Méliès

The history of film begins, as we all know, in Leeds, with 1888's challenging and poignant Roundhay Garden Scene. Given that people had already been using all manner of special-effects technology (still cameras, lights, distorting lenses, paper cut-outs etc.) to create otherworldly vignettes for years, and that the Victorian fascination with the Gothic was at its greatest height yet, it is no surprise that within eight years, somebody had put the new technique to work in creating the world's first horror film. Nonetheless, we shouldn't let that inevitability distract us from how amazing it is that we can actually see this film, just over 118 years later. (I say 'just over', because it was originally released on Christmas Eve 1896, placing it in the fine and time-honoured tradition of Ghost Stories at Christmas.) To be clear about exactly how early we are talking, this film was released the year before Bram Stoker's Dracula was published. You may read more about it at Wikipedia, and indeed watch it for yourself right here.

It isn't exactly horror in the sense of 'intended to scare', of course, as the Wikipedia page rightly says, but then again neither are lots of films, books and plays which end up being placed in the 'horror' category. Like most category descriptors, the 'horror' genre falls down pretty quickly on close analysis, but we still stick with it anyway because it is simple and widely understood - so I'm not going to fret too much about all that. This certainly is the first film with fantastical, diabolical, supernatural, Gothic goings-on - and that's good enough for me. Indeed, it features a quasi-vampiric protagonist, who is presumably the diable of the title, but notably transforms from a bat into a human-like creature at the beginning of the story, and is defeated by a crucifix at the end (sorry if that's a spoiler for anyone ;-) ), which is very exciting.

Everything seems very simple to 21st-century eyes, of course, and yet at the same time it is surprising how much of what film can do has already been recognised and pressed into use only 8 years after its invention. We are basically looking at a theatrical vignette, filmed with a single static camera, but stepping beyond the constraints of live theatre by using the camera's ability to compress and edit time via cuts, so that people and objects can be made to appear and disappear. We also have special effects props hanging from wires (the bat), people appearing in puffs of smoke, and 2D mattes (the cauldron). As yet, though, there are no intertitles (which were invented in 1903, apparently), so the story has to be simple enough to follow without them. And of course Gothic melodrama lends itself well to that situation, since a basic battle of good vs. evil doesn't need to rely on deeply-felt personal emotions of the sort which need articulating via words or close-ups.

In short, a fascinating glimpse into both the early history of film and the evolution of Gothic horror - and since it's only three minutes long, you can be pretty certain that it will reward that small investment of your time.

1b. The Mistletoe Bough (1904), dir. Percy Stow

This is the film which [livejournal.com profile] steepholm posted about. It is a telling of a widely-known ghost story called The Mistletoe Bough, which you can read about here, and was most popularly known at the time when this film was made through a song by Thomas Haynes Bayley published in 1884, which the film seems to follow fairly closely. You can watch it for free on the BFI website, and it is only 5 minutes long - so again, well worth the investment.

We are only eight years beyond the previous film here, but the technological leaps forward are striking (as, of course, they also are between Roundhay Garden Scene and Le Manoir du Diable over the same time-period). Everything is still very theatrical, as cinema would continue to be well into the 1930s (and television the 1960s), right down to being able to see the shadow of the 'stage-front' on the back wall in the opening ball-room scene. But where Le Manoir du Diable had one location, this one has six (ball-room, house exterior, steps to the tower, tower interior, generic black background to seeking scene and house drive-way), and in one of them the camera-person even uses a panning shot to follow the bride as she comes out of the house and looks for a place to hide. Since this film is telling a known story, it is able to convey a slightly more complex narrative than Le Manoir du Diable, but technological innovation helps here too in the form of the newly-invented intertitle; one is employed to signal that thirty years have passed between the mysterious disappearance of the bride and the discovery of her terrible fate.

Even more strikingly, we have the appearance of a new special effect. While Le Manoir du Diable used cuts to signify appearances and disappearances, The Mistletoe Bough gives us the ghost (or a dream?) of the bride, slowly fading in the arms of her husband when he tries to embrace her. This really was interesting, because I have more than once heard it said that the scene of Count Orlok fading in the sun at the end of Nosferatu (1922) is the first use of such an effect in a horror film - which I now know is definitely not the case. I suppose it goes to show the folly of declaring anything the 'first' whatever in cinematic history, given how much of its early output is now lost or little-known. The actual mouldering corpse of the bride, as discovered thirty years later by her husband, is kept off-screen though - we only see his and another man's (the butler? a friend?) horrified reactions as they look into the chest. My guess is that this was done out of concern for what could and couldn't be shown on screen, rather than limited props / effects resources, since a skeleton in some rags isn't too hard to do. But either way it felt like a precursor of the later grand horror tradition of keeping shonky special-effects 'monsters' off-screen as much as possible.

As for the story itself, it is intended as genuinely tragic / horrific this time, and did indeed give me a horrified thrill as the bride met her fate, and again as her husband realised what had happened to her. The theatricality still gives it a strong melodramatic edge, though, which reduces the sense of realism, and the scenes of the wedding party utterly failing to find the bride in spite of there being only one very obvious place where she could possibly have ended up are more comical than I suspect they were meant to be. Meanwhile, the titular mistletoe bough itself doesn't actually seem to play any part in the plot - it is simply there to signify a winter / Christmas setting for the story, apparently matched by the real-world season when the film was made, to judge by the bare branches on the trees and what might be remnants of snow on the ground (or could just be unevenly-worn gravel on the drive). As such, then, this too fits neatly into the Ghost Stories at Christmas tradition, making this a good time of year to have discovered it.

1c. Cross-roads (1955), dir. John Fitchen

Finally, having arrived at the BFI website to see The Mistletoe Bough, I couldn't help but notice that one of the other features offered on the same page was this 20-minute ghost film starring Christopher Lee. This is exactly the sort of early / small-scale work from his filmography which it's generally very hard to get hold of, and I certainly hadn't seen it before. So I snapped up the opportunity to watch it, urged on by the information that it was one of his first forays into Gothic territory, and features what would soon become his signature screen trick of a portentous close-up into his narrowed, piercing eyes. You too may have the pleasure here, though I'm afraid this time you will have to pay one English pound for the privilege.

It's worth it, though - at least if you are a Lee fan, anyway. Because he is the ghost at the centre of the story, and because his purpose is to wreak horrible revenge on the man whom he considers responsible for his sister's death, there really is a great deal here which he would draw on again in his role as Dracula three years later - icy charm, supreme self-assurance, a menacing physical presence, a sudden switch from congenial politeness to cold anger, and of course those piercing eyes. Those are all in his performance, and could equally well occur in a story about an ordinary human being bent on revenge - but it does help, too, that the story imbues him with both supernatural powers (able to cut off a telephone line, prevent an unlocked door from opening and be unaffected by bullets) and limitations (he has only until the same hour as his untimely death to wreak his revenge). All very satisfactory indeed.

Cinematically, we're obviously in an utterly different world with this film from the two above, so I won't try to draw strained comparisons with them. But this one stands as an interesting insight into the nature of the film industry in its own time, all the same. I'm not quite sure what it was originally produced for, as neither my best Christopher Lee book nor the internet is providing any answer to that question, but I do know it came out of a low-budget operation called Bushey Studios, and my guess is that it was a B-feature short to be shown at cinemas before a main movie. The editing is abysmal, with multiple cuts between different camera-angles that don't follow fluently from what was happening before, most of the acting (including Christopher Lee's) is pretty mannered, and some of the dialogue is cringe-inducingly banal. I don't think audiences were willing to accept editing of this quality in particular for much longer, though it's not the only similar example from around this time I have seen (and I suspect the others may have had Christopher Lee in them as well). But the lighting is nice, and there's quite a pacey car-chase scene through central London at the end, too, which is not to be sniffed at.

All in all, a very enjoyable little adventurette through early horror film history, and certainly a great start to a new filmic year which I hope will continue in much the same vein.

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strange_complex: (Cleo wink)
Borrowed recently from Lovefilm, and watched last night as a treat after a heavy day of Lib Dem Christmas card delivery.

We must have taped this off the telly some time in my early teens, as I clearly remember having a copy of it in the family house, really liking it and watching it quite regularly on boring Sunday afternoons. I hadn't seen it since I left home though (and heck knows what's happened to the taped copy), so I borrowed it to see whether it was as good as I remember. It was!

The story is based on Bram Stoker's novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which I must confess I have never read. Wikipedia gives good plot summaries of both, though, so I won't bother repeating either, but will simply link for those who are interested:Judging from those, the essential elements of the stories are pretty similar, but The Awakening updates everything to the present day, and puts more emphasis on the personal and psychological troubles of the Egyptologist who unearths the mummy - his marital problems, his career obsessions, his weird relationship with the teenage daughter he has barely ever seen. And there is no doubt at all about what has happened to both Kara (the mummified princess) and Margaret (his daughter) at the end.

Wikipedia also tells me, in what is clearly a rather contested Reception section, that this film is apparently widely considered rather dull. Indeed, others seem to agree. It's a fascinating phenomenon, this one - you grow up with a film in the pre-internet age, form your own opinion of it, perhaps with input from one single review (my Horror Bible thinks it's great!), and only discover years later that you are utterly out of step with the majority consensus. But in this case I really cannot understand what the people who claim this film is boring are on about. From where I'm sitting, Charlton Heston does a great job as Corbeck, the lead Egyptologist, conveying very effectively the range from his buoyant exuberance when he first makes the find of a life-time to his increasingly-unhinged vulnerability as he begins to realise where it is leading him. And the plot builds just nicely from a straightforwardly-realistic depiction of an Egyptological dig at the beginning, through a series of strange and unsettling events which reflect the parallel development of Corbeck's unhealthy obsession with his find, and via a sequence of inventive and memorable deaths to a poignant ending in which he just has time to witness his own illusions shattering before meeting his own horrible fate. There is a strong sense of inevitability as the events march towards their terrible climax, and yet always tension too as we are given reasons to hope that the characters will manage to overcome the ancient evil and escape their fates.

Watching it now, what I really liked about it was its central concern with academic obsession, and the terribly damaging effect it can have on the person experiencing it and on those around them. I can definitely relate to that. In fact, in many ways Corbeck's character arc reminds me quite strongly of Stourley Kracklite's in Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect, another film of which I am extremely fond. Both characters are obsessed with a little-known historical figure whom no-one else really cares about (Kara, Boulée), both have marital problems, both lose control of their big research projects, both put up undignified fights to get them back, both lose all sense of proportion in the process, both are aware of their own impending doom and helpless in the face of it, and both essentially end up causing their own deaths. It's just that in The Awakening, the drama and tension of this arc is manifested partly via supernatural happenings.

Obviously when I originally saw this as a teenager, I couldn't have related quite so profoundly to the academic-obsession theme, but I was of course already very geeky. I had definitely spent more than my due portion of hours shut away in my bedroom, reading about Egyptian mythology. So I think even then I would have found something that spoke to me in Corbeck's obsession with an ancient Egyptian princess, and his half-hope, half-fear that he might be able to bring her back to life. Certainly, I remember being very much taken by the climactic scene in which he carries out the resurrection ritual, at the end of which he breaks open the mummy's jaw so that she can 'breathe' again, only to first realise to his horror that the magic was all an illusion and all he has done is irreparably damage his precious find, and then realise to his even greater horror that the ritual has in fact worked, but not in the way he had imagined - Kara has indeed come back to life, but in the body of his daughter. This part, of course, is a classic 'be careful what you wish for' story - rather like The Monkey's Paw, for example.

Meanwhile, this is a surprisingly big-budget film for a British horror movie. Even the nay-sayers seem willing to concede that its sets and location footage, including extensive scenes set in actual Egypt, are superb, and the camera crew certainly get good value out of them. The early scenes on the dig are infused with a powerful sense of the close heat of the Egyptian desert - another aspect which had really stuck with me since I last saw this film as a teenager. There is some clever editing work going on as well, usually to suggest terrifying and supernatural things without actually showing them. For example, when Corbeck first finds Kara's tomb, the sounds of his hammer-blows as he opens the outer seal reverberate along the valley, where they are cross-cut with scenes of his wife back at the camp experiencing simultaneous spasms as she goes into a premature labour with their child. This is just enough to suggest, without actually stating, that there is a profound connection between the dead Egyptian princess and the new-born baby - just the right level to leave that suggestion on at this stage of the story, so that it can develop more fully and horrifyingly later on.

I will concede that the young lady who plays Corbeck's daughter, Stephanie Zimbalist, puts in a pretty unexciting performance - but even then, maybe that's only appropriate to the story, given that she is meant to be 18 years old and basically just a cipher waiting to be possessed by an evil Egyptian princess. It's probably a good thing the film ends just as that possession takes full hold, because I'm not sure Zimbalist could have carried full-on evil very convincingly. Other than that, though, I really can't see how or why this film deserves such mediocre ratings on the various review aggregator websites. That said, I note that many of the negative reviews (e.g. this one) draw their unfavourable comparisons specifically with Hammer's earlier take on the same Stoker novel, Blood From The Mummy's Tomb, and I won't dismiss that part of what they say. So it's onto the Lovefilm list with Hammer's effort, for future viewing and a comparison of my own.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
Watched this afternoon with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy for one of our regular Sunday afternoon horror sessions.

I've seen it before, but it was some 20 years ago now, while a first-year student at Hiatt Baker Hall in Bristol. What I remember most about it was it being very slow, and that certainly wasn't a false memory. There are long, evocative shots of carriages driving along causeways, ships crossing oceans and Isabelle Adjani running through a plague-ridden town, while plot and dialogue languish neglected in the background. In all fairness, those long shots are extremely beautiful, and together with the rather dreamlike behaviour of the characters and atmospheric strains of the music they are clearly meant to capture the spirit (if not the exact characteristics) of the 1922 Nosferatu's Expressionism - just as Herzog explicitly says in a little featurette included on the DVD. But it did mean that our attention sometimes drifted rather from the story, and we found ourselves giving voice to frustrated exclamations along the lines of "FFS, get on with it!"

The story follows the template of the 1922 Nosferatu pretty closely, though it reverts to the original character names from Stoker's novel, which was safely out of copyright by the time it was made. Weirdly, Lucy and Mina's names are basically swapped over for no particular reason, so that they match up with the wrong characters - but never mind! As a Dracula adaptation, a few things particularly struck me about it, some of which I believe are also to be found in the 1922 version, though it is a while since I watched that (and not, as far as I can tell, since I started reviewing films on LJ in 2007):

Early on, a Transylvanian villager warns Jonathan Harker that Castle Dracula is nothing but a ruin, and that only people who have already entered into the world of the phantoms and spirits who inhabit it see anything more. Sure enough, when Jonathan arrives, he sees and enters a very plausibly Eastern-European-looking castle, but the scenes set within it are interspersed with long shots showing a ruined shell, as if to imply that that is the reality and his experience is an illusion. I really like this idea - it is good and Gothic and spooky anyway, and also means that the fact the historical Dracula's family castle is a ruin doesn't have to get in the way of it also being an opulent trap for the unwary traveller, if seen in the right light.

There is some lovely shadow-work involving Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu, which definitely does derive from the 1922 film, but is used in different settings. I was especially taken by a scene soon after he has arrived in Wismar (where the main human characters live), and his looming shadow falls over the house where they are gathered in the warmth and light within.

The agency in the film belongs almost entirely to Lucy (or Mina by any other name), Isabelle Adjani's character. Dr. Van / Von Helsing (the subtitles kept oscillating between the two) is utterly useless, refusing to believe in all this superstitious vampire nonsense, while although Jonathan Harker makes it back to Wismar, he never really recovers from being nibbled on by Dracula in his castle, and just sits there all feverish and vampirish in the corner. So it is she on her own who works out from a book given to Jonathan by the Transylvanian villagers what is happening and how to stop it - that is, by making the same tragic self-sacrifice as her equivalent character, Ellen, in the 1922 film. Quite a few Dracula adaptations allow Mina (aka Lucy here and Ellen in 1922) to kill Dracula at the end of the story, but I can't think of any other in which she also acts as her own Van Helsing figure, let alone in the face of cold water from the real Van Helsing. And yet its roots are in the 1922 version of the film - at least, as far as I can tell between the Wikipedia plot summary and my own hazy memory. The 1922 take seems to do less to disempower the men, while Ellen's self-sacrifice is of course the age-old and utterly sexist trope of male bestiality being tamed by feminine purity at a fatal cost to the woman concerned. But the 1979 take, while preserving that sacrifice, shifts the power-balance very much in Lucy's favour by making Van Helsing unable to grasp the truth and Jonathan unable to break free from Dracula's influence. I definitely liked it, anyway.

There is some proper hand-stapling Gothic dialogue, like the following from Count Dracula:
Time is an abyss... profound as a thousand nights... Centuries come and go... To be unable to grow old is terrible... Death is not the worst... Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities...
In fact, there is a quite intense scene between him and Lucy in which she spouts much the same kind of stuff, so that between that and the final scene where she willingly gives herself to him in order to save the town and her husband, there is a definite sense of tragic, forbidden attraction between them, which also worked very nicely.

All in all, definitely worth watching again, especially after having seen the 1922 version (which I hadn't when I first saw this). But, as I said to [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan afterwards, that'll probably do me for another 20 years.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Mirabile dictu, I am now on top of BOTH film reviews AND Doctor Who reviews, so at last I am able to move on to book reviewing. I have three unreviewed books in the queue, two of which I aspire to knock off today.

Like The Historian, this book came my way courtesy of the Notorious Dracula-Enabler of Old Meanwood Town, and I moved straight onto it after finishing the former. It is a very different book, though. Where The Historian was all about the atmosphere, this one is all about the action. There are dramatic carriage-chases, deadly duels, monsters on the Underground, encounters in dark alleyways, campaigns of vengeance stretching over generations - all the makings of a Gothic romp, really. But the prose is pretty ordinary; functional, rather than beautiful. And the authors' claims about what the novel is doing make it difficult not to scoff.

The background is that the Stoker family missed out on a lot of the potential revenue generated by the original novel, because some kind of minor technical mistake was made when filing for copyright for it in the USA. This came to light during negotiations with the Universal film studio in the 1930s, and once it had been revealed, it meant that the family lost all rights over any adaptation of the story. Meanwhile, a screenwriter and horror geek called Ian Holt had long been looking for the opportunity to write a Dracula sequel. Through various networks of Dracula enthusiasts, he eventually managed to meet Dacre Stoker, Bram's great-grandnephew, and they agreed to collaborate on this novel. So Ian Holt could benefit from the profile and marketing opportunities afforded by the Stoker name, while Dacre Stoker could re-establish a Stoker family stake in the Dracula character.

All of this is explained in an Afterword at the end of the book, in which both authors tell their 'story'. Unfortunately, though, between this Afterword and the novel itself it is patently obvious that a) Dacre Stoker is no writer (he literally says "Ian reassured me that, even though I had never written a novel before, I could do it"), and b) that Ian Holt is in truth much more of a film geek than a Bram Stoker aficionado. So we end up with this novel, which presents itself as The One True Sequel to Stoker's novel, but actually throws a lot of Stoker's canon out of the window, preferring the filmic traditions instead. Examples include:
  • Sunlight is fatal to vampires - famously invented for the innovative special-effects climax of Nosferatu (1922)
  • Carfax Abbey is in Whitby and next to John Seward's Asylum - invented for the stage-play to slim down the number of different locations, but popularised by Universal's Dracula (1931)
  • Renfield is a former partner of Peter Hawkins, Jonathan Harker's employer - Universal again
  • Lucy, who of course occurs only in flash-backs in this novel, having met a sticky end in the first one, is repeatedly described as having red hair - sounds like Francis Ford Coppola to me.
The in-story explanation for all this is that Stoker wrote his novel after a stranger (later, of course, revealed to be Dracula) related the basic events of it to him in the pub, but that those events were not related accurately in the first place, while Stoker also adjusted and embroidered them as he wrote them up. So this novel incorporates both Stoker's novel and Stoker himself, who appears as a character, but can also either keep or discard any of the details of Stoker's novel which it fancies, by simply declaring that those details either were or weren't 'true' narrations of the facts. Thus the surviving characters from Stoker's novel - John Seward, Mina and Jonathan Harker, their son Quincey, Arthur Holmwood and Van Helsing - all exist within this novel, and indeed young Quincey Harker finds out about Stoker's work and confronts him angrily about its resemblance to his family's real experiences. But those aren't actually quite the same as the events experienced by characters with the same names in Stoker's novel.

In some respects, this is fine, because it allows room for the exploration of the experiences and perspectives of Stoker's characters not covered in the original novel. But talking about those gets spoilery ) But the purely mechanical changes which favour film-canon over book-canon felt off to me in a book explicitly positioning itself as a sequel to Stoker's novel. This is what the Afterword has this to say about the issue:
"Our dearest wish is all Dracula fans - of the book and of the films - will read and enjoy our sequel. To this end there are several areas which we felt that film fans had so embraced and had become so engrained into Dracula legend that we could not overlook them. To the literary purists we apologize, but we feel this is a necessary concession, made in the hope of once and for all harmonizing Dracula fans."
Is it just me that finds their self-appointment as the 'harmonizing' healers of Dracula fandom breath-takingly arrogant? And naive, for that matter. But that aside, I don't think it is necessary to do things like move Carfax from London to Whitby so that people who know the story of Dracula primarily from its film adaptations can enjoy this story. Besides, the experience of reading it is one of encountering less a deliberate and clever merging of myths, and more a distinct impression that its authors couldn't actually be bothered to read the novel properly. Basically, it feels like this is the Dracula screenplay which Ian Holt always wanted to write, and probably had written well before he met Dacre Stoker, awkwardly and not entirely successfully re-configured to fit the opportunities offered by the collaboration.

That probably sounds hugely snobbish, but there you are. People get annoyed if what they find when they open the covers of a book doesn't match what is promised on the front. In fact, you can end up cancelling out the goodwill you would have achieved by being more honest about what you are doing that way. Because it's not actually as if this book is dreadful in and of itself. Like I said, the new angles on Stoker's characters which build on what he wrote, rather than contradicting it, are fun. And there are some quite good inter-texts which again don't contradict Stoker, but enrich the story by evoking the wider tradition around his text, and thus in turn drawing meta-referential attention to its status as a work of fiction. Those get spoilery, too! )

Basically, then, this is a cracky mash-up of Stoker's novel, its many filmic adaptations (though especially the American ones), a load of other Gothic tales, and some historical people and events, all wrapped up into a ripping adventure yarn with a surprisingly brutal ending. As such, it's a pretty good read. But the definitive sequel to Stoker's Dracula it is not.

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strange_complex: (Lord S not unenlightened)
I had a pretty epic day yesterday, going down to London for a second crack at the British Library's utterly excellent exhibition, Terror and Wonder: the Gothic imagination, followed by giving a talk on Augustus in the medieval period to a 200+ audience at the British Museum as part of a joint Roman Society / Association for Roman Archaeology conference. Both of those deserve posts in their own right, really, but between them they left me knackered to the extent that I didn't wake up until almost noon today, and meanwhile what I actually want to do with the tiny fragment of the weekend which remains to me is write about this interactive film screening which I attended with the lovely Andrew Hickey and magister on Thursday. So there it is.

Obviously, I have seen this film a few times before (previous LJ reviews are collected in the 1970s section of my Christopher Lee film list), including four times on the big screen. But it's one I will never knowingly miss in any format, still less an interactive sing-along version. So it was with high excitement (and only moderate transport-related shenanigans) that I made my way to the Holbeck Urban Ballroom with two equally enthusiastic friends - and we were not disappointed.

The full experience actually involves quite a lot more than merely singing along. On entrance, we each received not only a pagan 'hymn book' containing all of the lyrics for the film's famous songs, but also a goodie bag containing a special selection of items for later use. The point of these was to eat or do appropriate things mirroring what was going on screen at various stages during the film, and as it happened I was accidentally given two of the bags as I went in. Although I declared this fact very honestly, the chap giving them out advised me to keep quiet about it and waved me through, so I was able to bring my second goodie bag home at the end of the evening and photograph its contents. In the order in which were instructed to use them (left-right, top-bottom), these were as follows:

Sing-along-a-Wicker-Man goodies

And their purposes were:
  • Smartie - communion wafer from Howie's scene in church on the mainland
  • Shoe-lace - the poor wee lass's navel string
  • Lollipop sticks - for re-consecrating the abandoned church adjoining the graveyard
  • Frog - for curing our / Myrtle's sore throat
  • Crispy bacon - one of the foreskins from the chemist (yum!)
  • Foam banana - the closest available approximation to the apple which Howie munches while Lord Summerisle is showing him around his gardens
  • Smiley sticker - for anointing each other ready for sacrifice in the Wicker Man
I think you can already see from the list alone a) how much fun that was but also b) how it actually really did work to blur the distinction between audience and characters, making us feel on some level like we were participating in the action of the film. The singing, of course, did the same - and that, too, was more than just singing. In a warm-up session beforehand our hosts, David Bramwell and Eliza Skelton (daughter of Roy), talked a bit about the film and some of its lore, and got us laughing along at some of the stories about it - like how Lindsay Kemp (who played the landlord, Alder McGregor), stormed off down to London part-way through the production, and had to be sweet-talked back by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer. We then collectively learnt the right actions for the Maypole dance, and got our singing voices in gear by singing 'Gently Johnny' to their live accompaniment (on the grounds that it wouldn't be in the film itself, as we were going to watch the short version). Then, as the film played, David and Eliza held up signs telling us when to sing each 'hymn', when to eat our goodies, and when to hold up our hand-bags in tribute to Lindsay Kemp's flounce, as well as commenting on some of the film's incongruities (like the bizarre rock guitar music used during the cave chase scene), and prompting us to join in with some of its big iconic lines - like Howie's screams of "Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!" as he perceives his fate, or the islanders' communal prayers as the sacrifice is prepared. Also, every time Howie got his photos of Rowan Morrison out to show to people and ask if they had seen her, Eliza and David came up to the audience with copies of the same image, asking us to pass them around. You might think on a casual viewing that Howie only does that a couple of times during the film, but actually when you get passed the picture yourself too on each and every single occasion, it turns out to be six - by the last of which the thing itself had of course turned into a running joke.

Basically, it was all about a collective celebration of a film which (nearly) everyone there knew incredibly well and loved dearly. Just being part of such a cheerful love-in, surrounded by people who greeted all the best lines with the same enthusiasm as me, was fantastic fun, but the immersive experience of participating in so much of the action really did offer a new way of engaging with the world of the film that went beyond the surface tongue-in-cheek tone of the evening. You feel something more of Howie's helpless isolation in the closing scenes when, like him, you have just had your neighbour stick a yellow circle in the middle of your forehead, and a disturbing complicity with the villagers as you are belting out 'Sumer is i-cumen in' while he burns to death. And coming still relatively fresh from my Wicker Man holiday in 2013, so that I have recent memories of having actually stood at more or less every location used in the entire film, the two experiences together combined to make it all seem very, very real indeed.

Me walking along the sea-break at Plockton
Me walking along the sea-break at Plockton
Photo by [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos

Sing-along-a-Wicker-Man tours the country regularly and widely, and I thoroughly recommend looking out for it if you are a fan. It would probably be better to catch it in spring or summer than autumn or winter if you can - though cold days and dark nights are generally very conducive to the watching of horror films, this viewing did drive home to me that The Wicker Man really isn't a winter film, and works best when the sap is rising. But any time is very definitely better than none.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
OK, I'm on a roll. I am going to get on top of film reviews today. I'm going to do it. Not Doctor Who reviews or book reviews. That would be crazy! But film reviews - yes. So here we go.

I saw both of these last night in a Halloween-themed double-bill at the beautiful Art Deco Stockport Plaza, each one introduced by a man playing an organ which rose up at the front of the theatre, and in company with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, Andrew Hickey and a young lady in a Dracula T-shirt.

36. Thir13en Ghosts (2001), dir. Steve Beck

We were disappointed to find ourselves sat in front of the 2001 remake of this film, rather than the 1960 original by William Castle, complete with Illusion-O which we had been expecting, but so it goes. We had paid, so decided to sit through it. Part-way in, I realised that I had seen some of the middle sections of the film before while channel-hopping on TV, and yet it also became clear not much later that I hadn't seen the end. In other words, I had been sufficiently unimpressed at the time not to bother with more than about half an hour of it.

Now that I've seen the whole thing, I can't say I've changed my mind. It has Tony Shalhoub in it, who is most famous as Monk, and whom I really like in that role. And I guess it helps to provide a small extra insight into his career, since he started as Monk the year after this film, which also features him playing a man broken by the death of his wife in a fire, and (in this case literally) haunted by her ghost. So it looks like a pretty major factor in why he was cast. Otherwise, though, it is a fairly standard modern horror film full of under-developed characters and nonsensical business about ancient magical machines, and relying on crude shocks to excite the audience. As a Classicist, I did like the concept of the titular ghosts of the story being contained by Latin words written on glass, but then again we were never given any idea what the Latin said, or even allowed to read it properly as the cameras scrolled over it, so even this boiled down to little much more than "Latin! Isn't it cool?", which is nice but a bit unsatisfying.

In summary, I'm glad I didn't drive all the way to Stockport just for this.

37. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), dir. Terence Fisher.

This, on the other hand, was more than worth it! I have seen it before of course, including on the big screen, which experience I reviewed earlier this year, so I won't repeat the points I made there (mainly about queer readings). I will repeat my enthusiasm for it, though. The lavishness and ambition of the production (by Hammer's standards at the time) are obvious, but I think what really gives it staying-power are all the small but beautifully-observed details (whose equivalents in Dracula (1958) very much fuel my ongoing passion for that film, too). For example, the way the horse rears up when the body of the condemned criminal which the Baron has just cut down from the gallows falls into the wagon it is hitched to, as if to signify the horror of the natural order at what he is planning - a horror which the Baron is of course completely oblivious to. Or the way that after the Baron has killed Professor Bernstein, destroying a wooden balustrade in the process, the continuity is carefully set up to show us that the balustrade is never repaired properly for the rest of the film, but merely patched up with a single beam of wood, so that we are constantly visually reminded a) that the Baron has little interest in anything other than his experiments, and b) of the lengths he is prepared to go to in their pursuit.

It's possible to pick flaws in this film if you want to. For example, though Phil Leakey's design for Christopher Lee's make-up as the Creature is epically good on the whole, there are a few scenes where it become apparent that he didn't quite think hard enough about how it would match up with the collar of his costume, so that you can quite clearly see where the latex face-covering abruptly stops and Christopher Lee's neck begins. Also, the person who plays the blind grandfather in the woods (one Fred Johnson, apparently), is frankly awful, to the extent that he is roundly out-acted by the all-of-seven-years-old little chap playing his grandson. But next to the genre-defining Gothic visuals, the utterly compelling performances by Lee and Cushing, James Bernard's pitch-perfect music and the crisp efficiency of the script, those are very small beans indeed. I will happily watch this one again and again.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
OK, next up on Overdue Film Review Club we have this BBC adaptation of Dracula starring Louis Jourdan, which was originally broadcast all in one go at Christmas 1977, and which I watched last weekend with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. I have wanted to see it for a very long time, as it is widely acknowledged as the adaptation most faithful to the original novel, and I can now confirm that this is very definitely true. Not absolutely everything is by the book - for example, Mina and Lucy are made into sisters, while Quincey P. Morris steals Arthur Holmwood's surname, and the latter isn't otherwise represented in the story. But other than that it follows the structure, events and feel of the novel more closely than any other adaptation I have ever seen. Episodes which almost universally get discarded, like Mina and Lucy's encounter with the seaman Swales in Whitby, the scene where Dracula gets to speak out for himself and pour scorn on the vampire-hunters at his house in Piccadilly, or the shoot-out between the vampire-hunters and the gypsies at the end, are all present and correct, as Stoker would recognise them - and it was absolutely fantastic to see them.

Thanks largely to Doctor Who, I have seen enough television from the 1970s to say that by the standards of their time, the production values here are absolutely mint, too. People were still producing television quite noticeably inferior to this in the late 80s and indeed the early 90s. Some of the special effects look dated now - particularly colour-saturation and negative inversion of a type used regularly on Top of the Pops at the time (example). But even those are being used in a commendable attempt to convey the surreal, dreamlike effects of vampirism, which was actually still very effective in terms of creating the right atmosphere for the story. Other than that it has all stood up extremely well, and must have eaten up a pretty hefty chunk of the BBC budget for the year of its production. The costumes, locations, sets and props are seriously impressive, with Dracula's castle in particular looking both historically-plausible and properly unkempt and Gothic at the same time, and they had even acquired a real bat for some close-up scenes (though it unfortunately also had a rubbery, be-stringed stunt double). Whitby features prominently, as do various settings in London (including Highgate cemetery), while the internet tells me that Dracula's castle was played primarily by Alnwick Castle in Northumberland (supplemented by sets for the interiors) - and that would explain why it looked so good.

Of course, telling Stoker's story accurately, and pouring a lot of money into the effort, doesn't automatically result in a high-quality outcome. Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970) also ticks both of those boxes, and has Christopher Lee in the title role to boot, but it is still ill-paced and tedious to watch. Thankfully, this production is a great deal better. It is long (150 minutes in total), but in general used the time very effectively to develop the characters and build up the story-line. There was a short phase in the run-up to the climactic encounter with the Count in the Carpathians where we did feel that a few scenes were being rushed through in order to get to the end on time, but perhaps even that is worth accepting for the quality of the material around it. For example, the scene in which Mina and Van Helsing cower amid the snowy Carpathians within a circle made of crumbled holy wafers while the vampire brides call and gesture all around them was really well done, and worth the rather rapid montage needed to get them into that position.

Certainly, ample space is given to character development, and the actors (almost all) make good use of the material. Louis Jourdan may not be Christopher Lee, but he does turn in a great performance as Dracula here - beautifully creepy from his very first appearance, exuding a powerful, self-confident sexuality in his interactions with his victims, and yet with a note of impatient world-weariness to his character that speaks of the many centuries he has lived through. I did miss Dracula's violent out-bursts, though, which seem to have been neither scripted nor acted into Jourdan's part. Even when he catches his vampire brides dining out on Jonathan Harker, he is merely a little firm about expressing his displeasure - and I definitely like Christopher Lee's utter explosion of rage in the equivalent scene (albeit with only one bride) in Hammer's Dracula much better. Frank Finlay as Van Helsing and Jack Shepherd as Renfield also deserve special mention for two utterly compelling performances, although on the other hand it does need saying that Quincey P. Morris' 'Texan' accent was face-palmingly bad, and his performance as a whole lacklustre alongside it. In fact, it seems to have been the first role of an unremarkable career for him, and it shows.

This was never going to dethrone Hammer's Dracula as the ultimate telling of the story for me, and if only because of when it was made it couldn't really hope to outshine Nosferatu (1922) or Bela Lugosi's iconic Dracula (1931) either. But it is definitely in their league, and far stronger than some film versions I could mention. I can certainly recommend it as a way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I saw this almost three weeks ago now, and have been wanting to write about it ever since, but life is busy, and this was never going to be a short review. I thought it was great, though. It hasn't been getting the best reviews, apparently, but I haven't been reading them anyway, because I was always going to watch this with a different eye from most critics, so I don't really care what they think. Rather, it was obvious to me from the first trailers I saw that this film was going to do something I have long yearned for in a Dracula movie - make a proper attempt to explain how the historical Vlad III Dracula might have become a vampire, and do it by using something very much like the Scholomance mythos (in brief, an underground Devil's school which is part of Romanian folk-legend, is exactly where Bram Stoker says Dracula got his dark powers from, and may ultimately derive from genuine ancient pagan religious practices).

I am fundamentally positively disposed towards the idea that the Dracula of vampire legend should have begun his life as the historical Voievod. It really enriches almost any Dracula story for me to have that wealth of back-story sitting behind the character (whether or not Stoker himself used the historical figure as anything much more than a bit of vague window-dressing). I also like the idea of vampirism having its roots in ancient paganism, which the Scholomance legend can evoke without needing to be explicit about it, and which is toyed with in Hammer's Brides of Dracula. So I went into this film already loving it for even having attempted to bring all that to life on screen. And I came out feeling that even if it hadn't been the perfect movie, or told the story in quite the way I have sketched out in my own head during idle moments, it is still probably the best shot the modern-day film industry will ever take at stitching together the two.

Of course, because I'm a historian, my perfect Dracula-the-vampire origin story would respect what we actually know of the historical Dracula to the letter - but no-one else would want to go and see that film, because it would be dry, dull and dramatically unsatisfying. Meanwhile, the word is that Universal were basically using the film to fly the kite for a reboot of their 'monsters' back-catalogue in the form of a superhero-style multi-verse. So what they needed to do was to turn the historical Dracula into a classic 'troubled hero' type figure. Their take is that he was so determined to protect both his country and his family against impossible odds that he accepted the power of vampirism in full knowledge of its potential dangers, and as a result achieved what he wanted for others, but paid a terrible personal price. This adds up to a fine dramatic arc, and leaves them at the end of the film with a sympathetic superhero figure with a dark past - just what they needed! But history does get pretty distorted in the process.

As it happens, I've just finished reading a Proper Academic Book about the historical Dracula (to be reviewed in its own right shortly), so I am in a very good position indeed to spot the historical inaccuracies in this film. Here are some of them - and the reasons why Universal apparently introduced them )

Not super-accurate, then, in short. But my list is not meant as a stick to beat the film with. As I've shown, all of its deviations from the historical record (as we know it) have an obvious dramatic justification in terms of the story it wanted to tell. And in any case, this isn't a historical drama. It is a superhero / vampire movie. Having gone into the cinema to watch a film about the historical Vlad III Dracula turning into a vampire, it would be pretty churlish to then insist that everything else about the film should be entirely historically accurate (much as I, personally, would pay big money to see that film nevertheless). Meanwhile, for all that individual events are obviously distorted, embellished or entirely invented, I actually think that overall, the feel of Dracula's reign was captured pretty effectively. My guess is that someone did some pretty careful historical research during the early stages of this film's development, and that although quite a lot of what they found out was later laid aside for dramatic reasons, much of it survived to inform the outlines and atmosphere of the story.

Certainly, the basic situation of Dracula as a warlord in a small, geographically-remote country, vastly out-resourced by a neighbouring imperial power, is pretty effectively conveyed. The outlines of his conflict with the Ottomans are roughly right, too, even if the outcome of the final confrontation with Mehmed II is bobbins. And the landscape through which the action unfolds feels plausible too - the castles, the forests, the monasteries - even if the details aren't precise. OK, so it's all a bit Game of Thrones-ified (directly in the casting of Art Parkinson as Dracula's son and the location filming in Northern Ireland, and indirectly in the feasts, drapery and Dracula's improbably-blonde wife), but again, this is a fantasy film, and as such jolly well should be in dialogue with other productions in the same genre. Also, the special effects employed when Dracula used his vampire powers to control the weather and lay the smack down on the Ottoman army with his cloud of bats almost made me wonder if they'd been developed on the basis of some of the descriptions of those very same battles from the Ottoman primary sources. This is the sort of passage I'm thinking of:
Being told about the defeat of his army which he had sent to prevent the Moldavians' attack, [Vlad] Țepeș found nothing better to do than to attack the mighty Sultan. On a dark night, his heart full of wickedness and accompanied by his Infidel army, he flew like a black cloud towards the army of the wise Sultan, attacking him... At midnight the army of Wallachia started like a torrent towards the Imperial camp and made their way on horse into the middle of the triumphant army. The Turkish soldiers thrust their fiery swords deep into their black hearts. The heaps of corpses which poisoned the earth were so high that the victims of the slaughter could be easily seen even on such a dark night. [Source: Appendix II.E, Treptow 2000]
OK, so in the film the heaps of corpses are Ottoman, rather than Wallachian, but if you've seen it I think you'll recognise the sorts of scenes which are being described here.

There is an obvious political problem with telling the story of Dracula's historical conflicts with the Ottoman empire in a 21st-century context, though. It is essentially an east vs. west narrative, and if your superhero origin story requires you to cast Dracula as the hero, that means the Ottomans - i.e. a bunch of Muslims - are going to appear in the role of the enemy. Some of the problems with the way the Ottomans are portrayed in the film are outlined in this New Statesman article, although I'm afraid the article as a whole really annoyed me, because it perpetrates massive historical inaccuracies about Dracula even while complaining about the film's inaccuracies regarding the Ottomans. (For the record, the Ottomans did not attack Wallachia to 'quell' Dracula's 'blood-thirst', but because he had stopped paying tribute to them, and nor did the Hungarians arrest him because they had 'had enough of his grizzly antics' either, but for their own reasons of political expediency.) The issue is definitely there, though. I don't think it's quite as bad as the similar set-up in 300, where the Persians were literally portrayed as inhuman monsters, but it's true that the Ottoman characters in Dracula Untold are portrayed as aggressive, arrogant, amoral, authoritarian and materialistic, in contrast to the brave, honourable, individually-developed and impoverished Wallachians (or Transylvanians, as the film has it). Some of the dialogue also reflects very contemporary-sounding prejudices. In one scene, two Wallachians / Transylvanians approach the Ottoman camp, and say something along the lines of "Have you ever seen anything like it?" "Soon everyone will be Turks". I could really have done without that - and, rather sadly, I don't think I can really conceive of a world in which an American-made east vs. west film would ever be made without at least some of it.

But so far I've talked about this largely as though it were a historical drama, and it is not. On the supernatural side of things, I've already said how thrilled I was to see that the film-makers had decided to have Dracula become a vampire thanks to an encounter with a devilish creature in a cave - i.e. something very much in line with the Scholomance mythos. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script, this character, who is played by Charles Dance, was explicitly presented as the Roman emperor Caligula, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. Certainly, as filmed, the character is portrayed as power-hungry, eaten away with corruption, and keen to become master of his own deadly set of supernatural games. (His last line, "Let the games begin", seems to suggest that he has only just got started on an elaborate master-plan, presumably to be unveiled across a series of further films.) All of that matches up well enough with Caligula, but seems to have been ironed out during production into a more generic back-story, in which Dance's character is simply an ancient magician, rather than any specific individual. And honestly, although the prospect of a film about Dracula which also had a Roman emperor in it would have been Really Quite Exciting, I think that was the right choice. The original conception would have distracted from and complicated the main story, while the more generic version allows room for him to be whomsoever the viewer might choose - including Zalmoxis if you like it that way (which I do!).

Anyway, Dance is absolutely fantastic in that role, bringing to it every ounce of the great British villain tradition in a manner which Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes or indeed Christopher Lee could be proud of. Indeed, most of the cast were pretty impressive, although some of the characters which they were playing could have done with being developed better by the script. After Bram Stoker's Dracula, I think there is a whole generation of film-goers who react viscerally against the idea of any story-line involving Dracula's love for his wife surviving over the centuries and being rekindled by her reincarnation, which unfortunately does happen at the end of this film, but if you can bring yourself to give that a pass I think it was quite effective to include his wife in the story, so that we could see the impact of the changes which he undergoes on that very personal relationship. She is the first one to realise that something very bizarre has happened to her husband, to try to help him cover it up, and eventually (of course!) to suffer for it, while he has to grapple with and try to resist the intense urge to drink her blood. And although she obviously has to act within the framework of an essentially medieval society, she is clearly delineated as strong and capable character - again in quite a Game of Thrones-ish sort of way.

Meanwhile, the overall look of the film, and especially the clouds of killer bats, was just great, and I particularly loved the spectacle of hordes of properly ghoulish-looking vampires stalking through the battle-fields towards the end of the film, helping Vlad to wreak hideous vengeance on his enemies. If you think you might like it, those visuals alone make it worth catching in the cinema, rather than waiting for the DVD. And thankfully, I've just about managed to get this review up while you still have time for that.

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
Regular readers may have spotted that I have been watching quite a few films with Christopher Lee in them over the last few months. This was all kicked off by me going to see Dracula (1958) on the big screen in Manchester last autumn, and it's still Lee-as-Dracula that I am truly interested in. But there are only so many Dracula films with Lee in them available, and I have watched all of those since that fatal night, in several cases repeatedly. Once they ran out, I had no choice but to keep myself going with a) other tellings of the Dracula story and b) other films starring Christopher Lee - ideally ones in which he played a character as similar to his Dracula as possible.

My personality inclines towards the systematic and the completist, so once I get into this sort of mind-set, I quickly start wanting to Make Lists, so that I can tick things off on them and see how far I have got into whatever fannish territory I am exploring. This is why I am still ticking off every classic horror film I see in my personal Horror Bible, even though I know it's meaningless. And I have been here before with Christopher Lee as an actor, too. Ten years ago, I printed out the full list of screen appearances from his IMDb page, and I have been faithfully ticking off each one as I saw it on that ever since as well. Here are two pages from the list - the front one, including the symbols I used to distinguish between films I had merely seen at some point, had seen in the cinema, and owned my own copy of, and a typical page from further into the list:

CL print out front page CL print out typical page
Click to embiggen, obvs, if you're mad enough.

Recently, I've been using that list quite intensively to choose new films to watch, and of course to tick them off when I have seen them. But after printing it out in 2004, I also began systematically blogging all of the films I watch on this journal in 2007. The obvious step forward, then, is to convert the list into digital form, meaning that it can easily be updated (unlike the printed copy) whenever Sir Lee makes a new film, and that I can link directly from the master list to every single one of my reviews (where they exist). Beautiful!

So that is what this post is for. Fleetingly, people will see it on their friends pages, but really it is a permanent master-list for me, to keep track of my Christopher Lee film-watching and to add in the links when I write up new reviews of his films. Times have changed enough to mean that I no longer care very much whether or not I own any of his films, since most of them can now be rented within a few days from Lovefilm or the like, so I have discarded that category from my original IMDB print-out. I do, however, still care about whether I've seen them on the big screen, since that is quite a different experience from the small, so that is indicated by the word 'CINEMA' in all-caps after the entry. Simple bold text = seen, link = reviewed, a number after an entry relates to second or subsequent reviews, and I've also separated them into decades for ease of reference.

2010s )

2000s )

1990s )

1980s )

1970s )

1960s )

1950s )

1940s )

Now that I have updated and compiled the list, I am in a position to report that I have seen just over a quarter of Christopher Lee's screen appearances. If you walked up to Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman or even Kevin 'six degrees of separation' Bacon and gushed about how you were such a huge fans of theirs, and had seen a quarter of their films, an awkward silence would probably ensue, because what you would be saying was that you had watched 17, 16 and 20 of their films respectively. They would probably conclude that you weren't really that big of a fan. But with Christopher Lee, the quarter-point comes at 70 films - more than Brad and Nicole (though not Kevin) have yet made. I have actually seen 75.

That said, I'm pretty clear that it would be a really bad idea to attempt completion on this list. Lee has appeared in a lot of films I really love, particularly in the two decades between 1957 and 1976 (as you can see from the concentration of bolded text around that portion of the list), but he has also appeared in a lot of utter tripe, too much of which I have already found myself watching recently in my quest for something - anything - to scratch the Dracula itch. I also don't much like war-films or thrillers, both of which belong to a category of films which I disparagingly dub 'men with guns', and he didn't half make a lot of those in the 1940s and '50s.

That said, there is once sub-category of his films which it is worth aiming for completion on, and that is the ones in which he co-starred with Peter Cushing. They are not all classic horror films, but the combination guarantees a much closer match to my personal preferences than Lee on his own does, and even when they aren't horror films, you are still getting to see an iconic screen pairing developing and maturing. With that in mind, I was careful to grab a complete list of their screen pairings with someone recently posted to a community I'm a member of on Facebook, and that follows below with the same basic mark-up as before of bold = seen, though without linking to the relevant reviews, because those are in the above list already.

Lee and Cushing's joint screen appearances )

So I am actually within reach of completing that list, with only 7 6 5 3 out of 24 entries (some of them rather spurious) still to go. Now that one is worth shooting for!

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
Watched this afternoon with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, this is one of those films I should have seem bloomin' years ago, but somehow hadn't. It's an Amicus portmanteau film, featuring four stories about tenants in the same creepy, isolated old house, and starring not only Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (each in their own separate segment), but also Denholm Eliot, Ingrid Pitt and (slightly more surprisingly) Jon Pertwee. It is not, of course, to be confused with Hammer's The House That Bled to Death, which I did see many years ago, and is an episode from their Hammer House of Horror TV series featuring a house doing pretty much exactly what it says in the title.

The stand-out characteristic of this film for us was the sheer volume of meta references to the wider horror / fantasy / macabre tradition. The agent who lets out the house to each set of tenants, for example, is a Mr. A.J. Stoker of Hynde Street, Braye (this review includes a screen-cap of his to-let sign). The significance of 'Stoker' should be obvious; Bray Studios was Hammer's main base in the late '50s and early '60s, and I think Hynde is probably a reference to Anthony Hinds, one of Hammer's most prominent and prolific producers and screen-writers (though the spelling obviously also recalls Hyde of 'Jekyll and...' fame).

There is much more, though. The house boasts a fabulous library of horror-related books, both literary and academic. Just a few of the titles I can remember seeing on screen include Dracula (of course!), The Vampire: His Kith and Kin by Montague Summers, The Haunted Screen by Lotte H. Eisner, a compilation of stories by authors such as Mervyn Peake (as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out, a portmanteau book for a portmanteau film), another book called The House Of Death, etc. Meanwhile of course the established star image of the leading cast members was milked for all it was worth. Denholm Elliott's character was tormented, Peter Cushing's a kindly gentleman, Christopher Lee's brusque and stand-offish and Ingrid Pitt's alluring and (before long) a vampire. As for Jon Pertwee, who had been playing the Third Doctor for about a year on screen by the time this was broadcast, his first appearance was in a yellow vintage car - not actually Bessie, but jolly similar-looking.

Each story segment was individually very good. They are all the work of Robert Bloch, and contain twists which make it almost impossible to discuss them without being spoilery. But anyone who enjoys British horror films of this era will definitely like them. They are very nicely directed indeed by Peter Duffell, who explains some of his aims and techniques in a 20-minute featurette included on the DVD - like coloured lighting, and good dramatic use of a large staircase and gallery, at the top of which characters can appear, looming above / behind others down below. The location settings are excellent, too - obviously the house itself above all, but also some nice scenes on the streets of a local small town in Peter Cushing's segment.

Of the four segments, though, we felt that although the fourth was very good in itself, it was a bit out of place alongside the other three. The film is full of meta-references, as I've noted above, but this one tips into playing them overtly for laughs, and that felt a bit jarring after the atmosphere of disquiet carefully created in the three previous stories. The fourth story is Jon Pertwee and Ingrid Pitt's, and I've already mentioned its opening scene with him in a pseudo-Bessie above. Things continue from there. He is a horror film actor - perhaps a role which might better have been given to Cushing or Lee, but then again it is played so meta and hammishly that it might have seemed over-kill hanging on their shoulders. He declares that he grew up with the great classic horror films, including Dracula, but carefully specifies that he means the one with Bela Lugosi, "not this new fellow" - the new fellow whom we had just seen in the previous segment, of course. Then he buys a vampire's cloak from the elderly proprietor of a costume shop, played by Geoffrey Bayldon - then famous as Catweazle, but, as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan realised, made up and costumed to resemble Dr Pretorius from Universal's Bride of Frankenstein (1935). And then the full-on vampire stuff with Ingrid Pitt begins, and it is all very silly and great in and of itself - but just not quite right after a series of tense psychological horror thrillers.

Other than that, though, a real classic, and one which certainly delivered the goods as a Christopher Lee film. He wears The Jacket (fans will know the one I mean) in some scenes, but also a very nice finely-tailored dark suit in others, speaks in the clipped, authoritative manner that his Dracula uses when he gets the chance (beginning of Dracula (1958), several scenes in Scars), and stands around being tall and looking down his nose at people quite a lot. We also get a good range of cold politeness, violent anger, suppressed fear and some excellent painful roars and contortions. I'm fairly sure [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan would express the same satisfaction with Mr. Cushing's contribution to the work, and can certainly report that she made some very approving comments about his wearing of cravats.

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strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Very neatly, [livejournal.com profile] wig tagged me for this meme on LJ, and TAFKAK tagged me for it on Facebook on the same day last week. So I shall answer it in both places, but obviously LJ lends itself better to nice formatting and having space to make some actual comments about the books. I have taken the concept of the books 'staying with me' seriously, and thus listed ones which both meant a lot to me at the time of original discovery and to which I have returned regularly since. They are listed (as best as I could remember) in the order in which I first encountered them.

L. Frank Baum (1900), The Wizard of Oz
This stands for the whole series, of course. I was certainly quite obsessed with them by the age of six, and indeed a picture of me reading one of them to my friends on that birthday can be seen here. The 1939 film was important too, of course, and I'm pretty sure I had seen it by that age, but there were more of the books, with far more wonderful characters and adventures than the film could deliver. Dad used to read the books to me as bedtime stories, I used to read and re-read them myself, and of course there was a great deal of dressing up, playing at being characters from the books and so on with the very friends shown in the picture, and especially [livejournal.com profile] hollyione. A lifetime love of fantastical stories was to follow...

Alison Uttley (1939), A Traveller in Time
Did loads of other people read this as children? I don't hear it mentioned very often as a children's classic, but it was another big favourite of my childhood, and has literally stayed with me in the sense that I still have my copy of it. I haven't done that for many of my childhood books - though the Oz series are another exception. Doubtless one of the attractions all along was the fact that the main character, a young girl from the 20th century, is called Penelope. But also, time travel! While staying in a Tudor manor house, she repeatedly finds herself slipping back to its early days, and interacting with characters from the reign of Elizabeth I. Clearly at the roots of my love of both fantastical time travel stories, and the real-life dialogue between present and past.

Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula
Ha, I hardly need to explain this one right now, do I? See my dracula tag, passim, for details. First read, as far as I can tell, in early 1986, when I was nine years old, on the back of having seen the Hammer film the previous autumn. Left me with a love of all things Gothic, which has waxed and waned but never really left me ever since. As the wise [livejournal.com profile] inbetween_girl once said, you never really stop being a Goth. At best, you're in recovery. Or perhaps lapsed, would be another way of putting it.

Diana Wynne Jones (1977), Charmed Life
Initially read via a copy from the school library aged 9 or 10, this came back and 'haunted' me with memories of a book of matches, a castle and a strange magical man in my early 20s. By then, the internet was advanced enough to have forums where I could ask what the title of the book I was remembering might be, and to deliver an answer within a few hours. So I bought a copy, swiftly followed by copies of the other Chrestomanci books, and then copies of multiple other DWJ books (see my diana wynne jones tag for details). As an adult, I can see that the real appeal of DWJ's writing lies in the combination of her light yet original prose style, imaginative vision and sharp understanding of human interactions, but as a child I'm pretty sure it was all about the unrecognised magical powers and multiple interconnected magical worlds. As per the Oz books, I really love that stuff.

Gene Wright (1986), Horrorshows: the A-Z of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre
In 2010, Mark Gatiss presented a documentary series called A History of Horror, during which he held up a book about horror films which he had owned since childhood, and explained how it was his personal Horror Bible, which had opened up to him the wonderful world of the genre. From the reaction on Twitter, it instantly became clear that everyone who had grown up loving horror films before the emergence of the internet had also owned such a book, and this is mine. I bought it at a book fair in about 1987 or 1988, devoured it greedily, and have been faithfully ticking off every film in it which I have seen ever since. Of course, the internet has long rendered such books obsolete, and insofar as this one was ever comprehensive at the time of original purchase, it certainly isn't now. So it is utterly meaningless to tick off all the films in it, as though somehow the end goal is to tick off every single film in the book - at which time, I don't know, a fanfare will sound and a man in a rhinestone suit will pop out to tell me I've won a prize, or something? But I still add a tick each time I see a new film from within its pages anyway, because heck I have been doing so for 25 years, and I'm not going to stop now. Besides, it's not like I care about horror films made after 1986 anyway (I struggle to care about those made after 1976, TBH), so it doesn't matter to me that it is enormously out of date.

Douglas Adams (1979), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
First read c. age 11, and read at least another 8 times since. I know this because I have kept a tally of how many times I read it in the front of the book - classic geekish behaviour, of course. Once again, it's basically all about travel to wondrous other worlds, but this time instead of being magical (Oz, Chrestomanci), historical (A Traveller in Time), or supernatural (Dracula, everything else in Horrorshows), they are in space! It's not actually like I discovered adventures in space for the first time from Hitchhiker's, because of course I was also watching Doctor Who on a regular basis in parallel with all of this reading material, with which of course Hitchhiker's is intimately linked. But yeah - given everything else which has already appeared on this list, it is no big surprise that I loved Hitchhiker's.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. AD 120), The Twelve Caesars
And now my list radically changes tack, because having established that I love stories about the fantastical, the rest of it is made up of books which mark key stages in the emergence of my academic interest in the ancient world. I am not, of course, unaware that this in itself also basically boils down to yet another interest in a wondrous other world, albeit one which actually existed in this case. Really, the mode of engagement is very similar - we have little snippets of information about the Roman world (texts, objects, places), just as we have little snippets of information about fictional fantasy worlds (texts, screen portrayals, merchandise), but there is also so much we don't know, and are at liberty to extrapolate from what we do. Plus the similar-yet-different qualities and the opportunity to compare and contrast can let us think about our own world in ways that just don't open up if we only think about it directly. And so I found a way to apply the thought-patterns and approaches I'd been developing from early childhood to something which grown-ups thought was admirable and serious, and which it was possible to acquire prestige and eventually even money through studying. As for Suetonius himself, he is here because he was one of the earliest ancient authors I really came to feel familiar with and fond of, mainly during A-level Ancient History. Tacitus may well be clever and sharp, but there is always a judgemental, sanctimonious undertone with him that I don't very much like. The things which interest Suetonius, by contrast, make him seem so utterly human - but there are also all sorts of clever structures and allusions to discover in his text on close reading, which together make him incredibly rewarding. I once literally hugged my Penguin copy of Suetonius to my chest as a sort of talisman when feeling alone, upset and in need of comfort. I can't really imagine anyone doing that with Tacitus.

J.B. Ward-Perkins (1991), Roman Imperial Architecture
One of the first books I bought about ancient material culture (as opposed to texts), in the context of a module on Roman architecture which I did in (I think) my second year as an undergraduate at Bristol. While strictly about buildings rather than cities, it nonetheless includes a lot of material about how those buildings fitted into the urban landscapes where they were located - unsurprisingly, since Ward-Perkins himself was really interested in cities first and architecture second, and wrote one of the earliest English-language books on the subject. So it is to this book which my interest in Roman urbanism can really be traced, and I still turn to it occasionally when I need to get to grips with a new (to me) city.

Christopher Hibbert (1987), Rome: the biography of a city
This one is from my third year at Bristol, and the best undergraduate module I ever did - Responses to Rome with Catharine Edwards and Duncan Kennedy, which was all about post-Classical responses to ancient Rome from the medieval period to the present day. I sat in those classes falling in love with Rome, and then went home to pore through this book and the wonders within. I still return to it in order to refresh my memory of medieval myths about the city's ancient past, Grand Tourism or fascist appropriations, all of which I have needed to do in the past few years.

Greg Woolf (1998), Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul
And finally, the book which I consulted most frequently while writing my PhD thesis. It had utterly redefined thinking about the relationship between Rome the state and its provincial populations, killing off tired old paradigms of 'beneficial imperialism' (think: What have the Romans ever done for us?) for good, so would have been important no matter what province I had used to look at the relationship between Roman ideas about the urban periphery and the reality on the ground in a provincial setting. But since I had chosen Gaul as my own main case-study anyway, it was gold-dust. Fifteen years later, it remains at the forefront of scholarly thinking on the topic, and thus still features regularly on my module reading lists, amongst my recommendations to research students, and indeed in the bibliographies of my own published works.

I'm not tagging anyone, because pretty much everyone in the world has done this meme already by now - but feel free to take this post as a prompt to do it yourself if you haven't and want to.

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strange_complex: (Lord S not unenlightened)
Teal dear summary - both of these films are incoherent messes, and Christopher Lee isn't even in them terribly much, but the moments when he is on screen are excellent!

29. 1941 (1979), dir. Steven Spielberg )

30. Scream and Scream Again (1970), dir. Gordon Hessler )

If the world were a truly good and beautiful place, someone would by now have extracted all of the scenes with Christopher Lee in them from 1941, and all of the scenes with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price in them from Scream and Scream Again and stuck the results on Youtube. However, as far as I can tell, they have not. We must suffer onwards in our imperfect and fragile existence.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
(Also known as Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel, The Snake Pit and the Pendulum,The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism and about a zillion other alternative titles. Not to be confused with Castle of the Living Dead, which is completely different. Obviously!)

Another entry here in the series 'Other Gothic Horrors Starring Christopher Lee Which I Haven't Seen, And Which Ideally Feature Him Playing A Character As Similar To Dracula As Possible, And / Or Also Star Peter Cushing And / Or Vincent Price', and this one was a corker! Well, at least, it is a corker by 1960s Euro-horror standards. Here are three reasons why it is worth watching:

1. It is visually splendid. This is mainly thanks to being filmed in Bavaria, and making exceptionally good use of the setting. I was particularly charmed to recognise Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which does a huge amount to create the appropriate fairy-tale atmosphere for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and is such a perfect gingerbread town that it is a struggle to believe it can possibly be real. But in all fairness, the set, prop, make-up and costume departments are all performing at a very high level too. It isn't exactly an expressionist film in the full-blown sense of German cinema from the inter-war period, but it definitely has many of the same sorts of visual design touches, and these are some of its biggest strengths. See, however, point 3 on my 'downsides' list, below, which alas means that a film which must have looked absolutely bloody fantastic when it first came out is now difficult to discern through all the dust and scratch-lines.

2. It is utterly unashamed to ramp the Gothic horror clichés up to the absolute max. The basic approach is quite similar to Castle of the Living Dead, in that this film is essentially a pastiche made up of scenes and motifs drawn from successful previous horror titles. This time, the two chief source texts that I could recognise are Edgar Allan Poe's 'Pit and the Pendulum' (very obviously mediated through Roger Corman's 1961 film) and Dracula, Prince of Darkness, which had come out only the previous year. Poe / Corman contribute a castle full of dungeons and torture chambers, where a group of travellers experience new and more inventive horrors at every turn, while Prince contributes an evil Count who is supposed to be dead, but gets resurrected by a creepy and incredibly loyal servant. According to Jonathan Rigby, Mario Bava's La maschera del demonio is a big influence too, and while I haven't seen it myself the Wikipedia description certainly backs him up. Rather than merely repeating or mimicking its predecessors, though, the watchword for this film seems to have been to make everything about them MORE - more blood, more dungeons, more dark and scary forests, more unsettling interior décor, more bubbling potions, more mad villains, more distressed damsels. That's not always a good thing in horror films, because often all the subtlety of the earlier takes on the story dies a horrible death in the process, but somehow here it just came across as really joyous and exuberant and fun. It's like they said to themselves, "Let's not muck about! This is a Gothic horror film. We know what our audience wants, and so do they, so let's do it properly!" And they did.

3. It has Christopher Lee in it, playing a character very similar to Dracula. This is of course a subset of point 2, but it is a very important subset! His character is called Count Regula, which clearly (as for Count Drago in Castle of the Living Dead) was the closest name they could think of to Count Dracula without attracting a law-suit. The film opens with a flash-back of him being executed in the town square 35 years before the main story begins for drinking the blood of 12 women in an attempt to secure immortality. He didn't quite manage it, needing 13, but thanks to some hand-waving and some kind of elixir of life, his servant is able to resurrect him for the main story anyway, so that he can chow down on his final victim and seal the deal. He looks a bit grey about the face, wears a floor-length black coat, and suffers from an aversion to crosses, while his first words to the travellers who have been unfortunate enough to end up in his dungeons are "Welcome to my house". All in all then, he is set up as a first-rate Dracula-substitute, and he utterly delivers the goods in his performance, too - lots of good icy aristocratic vengeance-fixated evil, some nice bursts of anger when he is thwarted, and some fine anguish when everything starts going horribly wrong for him at the end. In short, this film is even better than Castle of the Living Dead if you're after a cheap Lee-as-Dracula fix and have run out of actual Dracula films to watch - which is, of course, exactly my position.

On the down side:

1. The dialogue is all dubbed in post-production. Although Christopher Lee definitely speaks his own lines in the English-language version, and I'm pretty sure most of the other actors do too, still actors recording their lines in a studio almost always come across as wooden by comparison with in-context performances recorded on set. Also, I'm not sure all the actors were of a terribly high calibre in the first place anyway - particularly someone called Vladimir Medar, who plays a highwayman-disguised-as-a-priest comic relief character.

2. The gender politics of it are utterly Victorian. The main female character, Baroness Lilian von Brabant, is actually quite well played by Karin Dor, especially in a scene where she has been drugged and convinced that she is someone else, but gradually comes to realise that something isn't quite right and she can't be who she thinks she is. Nonetheless, the character clearly exists purely to function as a victim and / or sexual object. At one point, I thought she might experience a bit of character growth by having to face up to her fears in order to rescue her male companion (much as Willie does in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), but no - she just ended up fainting with terror instead, while he got on and rescued himself. In fact, at the end of the entire experience, she begs him to tell her that it was all just a dream - and he reassures her that it was. Bah! This sort of stuff is, of course, characteristic of both the genre and the period, but it's not inevitable. Compare, for example, Diana in Dracula, Prince of Darkness (one of this film's sources), who is full of the spirit of adventure from the start, and even grabs a gun and has a good old shoot at Dracula at the climax of the film. Strong women could exist in horror, even in the 1960s - but this film does not have any.

3. The visual quality of the DVD transfer is absolutely appalling, especially at the beginning. I don't normally get particularly exercised by this sort of thing, but what you get if you borrow this movie from Lovefilm is basically an utterly unrestored film projection, complete with visual noise, distorted colours and massive streaks running down the screen, all simply transferred to a digital disc. I don't mind any of those features on an actual original film reel which I'm viewing in the cinema, as there it is all part of the experience of engaging with a vintage print. But I kind of expect a DVD print to have undergone at least some very basic clean-up in the process of being transferred to a digital format, and this just really hadn't.

In short, not perfect, but one of the downsides isn't the fault of the original film-makers, and the other two are pretty much par for the course in this genre, so it's not like anyone who likes this sort of film won't be expecting them. Meanwhile, the upsides more than compensate. Don't expect it to change your life, but do expect it to make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
These were both re-watches, so I have linked to my previous write-up from the title of each, and am just noting here what struck me this time round.

25. Captain Clegg (1962), dir. Peter Graham Scott

This film depends a great deal on concealed identities, which of course means that the second watch is an entirely different experience from the first, since you know this time in advance who everyone is. It would be worth watching it a second time for that reason alone, in order to read the behaviour of the main characters in the knowledge of their secret identities before they are explicitly revealed, but I think this one would be worth watching a second time anyway.

Peter Cushing is genuinely magnificent in it, carrying the film with very much the same effortless authority as his character leads the village within the story. A 'making of' documentary on the recently-released DVD version which we watched first reported on how he had done things like consult a friend in the clergy in order to learn how to play his role as the Rev. Dr. Blyss convincingly, and it shows - as indeed the same meticulous approach usually does for all of Cushing's roles. He doesn't carry the full weight of the film alone, though. The story is rich with well-defined and well-played characters, each with complex agendas of their own, and much of the pleasure of it lies in seeing how they all play off against one another towards the dramatic climax.

The DVD also included a short documentary about the Mossman Carriage Collection (now housed at the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton), which provided most of the horse-drawn vehicles used in Hammer's gothic films, and often also their drivers in the form of collection owner George Mossman. [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I both agreed that we would love to visit this collection, and also slightly scared ourselves by alternately exclaiming things like "Ooh, that's the hearse from Risen from the Grave!" and "I'm sure that's in Curse of Frankenstein!" throughout the documentary, only to have our identifications confirmed moments later by the narrator. We may just be a little bit geeky...

26. Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

It was well worth seeing this a second time, too, as the surreal nature of the film and the way that characters drift in and out of it with little dialogue can make the story quite hard to follow. To some extent this stems from the deliberate concealment of identities, as in Captain Clegg - in particular, the identity of the vampire is revealed only slowly. But it is also a more general function of a dreamlike and fragmentary narrative. Even on a second viewing, when we knew in advance who everyone was, there were still several scenes which puzzled us, as characters went off and did things for no discernible reason that we could fathom.

But it remains beautiful and atmospheric and hugely worth seeing, and there are also definitely some aspects of the story which you can appreciate better if you are already familiar with the characters. For example, the story has no real 'Van Helsing' figure in it, but a book of vampire lore left to the hero by the deceased father of the girl who is being attacked plays the same role of informing previously ignorant and sceptical characters about what vampires are and how to fight them. At regular intervals, characters in the story sit down and read sections from this book, which scroll slowly across the screen so that the audience can read it too, and then in the next scene we see the very principles which we have just learnt about in action. For example, we read in the book about how a vampire was once helped by a local doctor, and then see the doctor in Courtempierre doing the very same thing. On first viewing, this is all supposed to help us work out who the vampire is and that the doctor is in league with her, but on a second viewing when you already know this it can be recognised as a nice piece of structuring with overtones of dramatic irony (since the characters are not yet in a position to understand what the viewer has realised).

I wrote in my last review of this film how it uses motifs which also crop up in some of Hammer's Dracula films, such as a woman at an inn greeting a late-night traveller from an upstairs dormer window (Julie and Paul in Scars (1970)), or an older, wiser man passing on a book of vampire lore to a younger man on his death so that the latter can take on the job of protecting his female charge (the Monsignor and Paul in Risen (1968)). Another one I would add now is the idea of vampirism as a compulsion which those in the grip of it cannot resist, even though they are revulsed by their own behaviour, which is explained in the book and is also very much how Van Helsing describes it in Dracula (1958).

The chain of links from one to the other need not be direct in any of these cases, especially since Vampyr was not exactly a huge hit in its own day, and I'm not clear that it even got a contemporary UK cinema release. Most of these motifs can also be found in other vampire films - e.g. vampires as revulsed by their own actions is in Dracula's Daughter (there, as here, applied specifically to a female character). But the similarity of the passing-on-the-book motif especially is so strong that it does make me wonder whether Anthony Hinds, who wrote Risen (and in fact Scars as well), had seen Vampyr and recycled the ideas directly. He would have been a bit young, I think, at the age of 10 in 1932 to see it on first release even if it had been available in the same country as him, but it's possible he got the opportunity at a film club or something like that.

Anyway, a most enjoyable afternoon, and long may they continue!

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