strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
So, I went to Romania. And it was completely amazing! Too amazing for one LJ post, actually, so what I am going to do is type up a sort of overview here, and then follow that up over the next few days and weeks with a series of themed posts, complete with pictures, about particular aspects of the holiday. Those will cover roughly:
  • The historical Dracula
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Hammeresque architecture and scenery
  • Health and safety gone (not 'gone mad' - just... gone)
  • Flora, fauna and topography
  • People
  • Misc other awesomeness
I think those are the main categories, but if I think of anything else I will add it in.

Anyway, the holiday came about in the manner which I have described here. Basically, I noticed that a London-based group called The Dracula Society which I'd been following on Twitter for a while was planning pretty much my dream trip to Romania, calculated that I should just about be able to fit it in time-wise even during the exam-marking season, and so joined up, paid my deposit and waited excitedly. As I said in the linked post, it was obviously a calculated risk committing to a 12-day holiday with a bunch of people I didn't know, but I'm very glad to say that my calculations were correct. On the basis of their website, I'd concluded that they were "a bunch of moderately-eccentric middle-class people having fun being a bit geeky - exactly like me", and this was confirmed when I arrived at the airport to meet them, and found one of them carrying the same Hammer Dracula bag as me. They were also extremely generous and welcoming to a stranger in their midst, which I felt very touched by and which made it easy to slot smoothly into the group dynamic. So it was lovely to be part of this vibrant and enthusiastic team pursuing excitement and adventure through the Carpathian mountains, and I have come back glad to have acquired a new circle of friends.

One thing I hadn't actually quite realised before I set off is that travel is actually the true raison d'être of the Dracula Society. I'd assumed they had grown towards that from a foundation based on monthly talks and meetings, but actually I discovered on chatting to some of the longer-standing members that the group had come together in 1973 precisely so that they could travel together to Romania - obviously not something that you could very readily do as an ordinary tourist at the time. They went for the first time in 1974, and again in 1975, and although they have since broadened out their travelling interests to include a range of other places of Gothic interest, they still return there on a roughly 6 or 7 year cycle. This is great news for me, because basically it means that I have now discovered an awesome bunch of people who organise holidays to awesome places on a regular basis, and will be very happy for me to join them on future ventures. Next year, they're planning a trip to Geneva to hang out in the general area of the Villa Diodati and celebrate the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend which gave rise to Frankenstein and The Vampyre - and assuming the timing fits in OK with my work commitments, I am totally going to join them!

The exact itinerary for our holiday can be seen here, and was basically generated by members of the Dracula Society sketching out all the places they wanted to visit, and then a company called Travel Counsellors pricing it up and handling all the logistics. We had a dedicated bus, driver and guide for the duration of the holiday, and toured around from location to location, staying in 8 different hotels over 11 nights (so no more than two nights in any one location). That made for a very busy holiday, especially since we packed a lot into every day, and some of what we did was quite physically demanding too - especially climbing hills to castles and steps inside medieval bell-towers, both of which we did a lot! So it was not exactly a chill-out holiday. In fact, it was so busy that I genuinely struggled to find the time to buy postcards or stamps, and at least twice we didn't arrive at our intended accommodation for the night until 10pm. But then again there was plenty of time spent sitting on the coach gazing out over beautiful mountainous landscapes, and the occasional morning or afternoon free for wandering round lovely medieval towns, sitting in cafes, or simply curling up in our rooms. Maybe it was just the sheer excitement of being there, but I never felt as tired out as I'd feared I might, especially after the rather epic efforts required to get my dissertations marked before leaving, and certainly arrived home feeling refreshed and invigorated - which I think is rather the point of holidays, isn't it?

Guided bus tours can be hit and miss, of course. I haven't been on many, actually, but I learnt enough about both historically ill-informed and boring guides on an eastern Mediterranean holiday with my sister in my early 20s to be aware of the dangers. Happily, though, the guide we had on this holiday was absolutely excellent. He was cheerful and enthusiastic, incredibly well-organised, unfailingly helpful and patient, really knew his stuff and was a delight to listen to and talk to. His name was Stefan, and he was so central to the success of the holiday that although this isn't really a picture post (that's what the follow-ups are for), I'm going to include a couple of pictures of him in action here, telling us all about the the baroque Banffy Castle in Bonțida to (as you can see) rapt attention:

SAM_2808.JPG no title

The pictures encapsulate pretty accurately both the weather we enjoyed and the types of sites we visited, too. Beautiful early summer sunshine for the most part, though with occasional wind, rain or oppressive heat, and an endless succession of incredibly interesting and beautiful historical monuments and landscapes. The monuments in particular would be difficult to visit in the way we did without an experienced local guide, because a lot of them weren't open on any kind of regular schedule - you had to know who the local key-holder was, and Stefan spent a lot of his time while we were travelling phoning ahead to arrange meeting up with that person to collect the key and let us in. But from our point of view it was impressively seamless, sweeping up in our coach and straight in through the gates to discover the wonders behind - and that is of course the real benefit of going on an organised tour. There are some places which weren't on the itinerary for this holiday which I'd like to visit (mainly sites in Wallachia connected with the historical Dracula), and I think now that I'm familiar with the country I would feel happy enough to do those myself, equipped with a hire car and a willing friend, and probably on a rather more leisurely schedule than the DracSoc tour. But I'm really glad I got started this way, with such incredible privileged access to the absolute best places Romania has to offer in the areas we visited.

As for the particular places we went to on this holiday, though, they were absolutely stupendous and consistently surpassed my expectations. I knew I would find the Dracula-related locations exciting, of course, as well as the general feeling of being in the real landscape which inspired both Stoker and so many of my favourite films - and I did. But although I was quite willing to mosey about the various fortified churches, monasteries, non-Dracula-related castles, towns, villages and landscapes also featured on our itinerary, I didn't expect them to be quite as spectacular as they were - or so easily relatable to the wider imaginative world of the Dracula story, either. More or less every medieval tower, every mountain valley and every local person walking by in traditional costume could be related back to one of the Draculas (historical, Stoker's or Hammer's) somehow or other. And all of them were just beautiful and awesome and exciting in their own right anyway. I'll save the details for my photo posts, since they're better shown than told, but in summary I cannot praise Romania's sites and landscapes highly enough.

Indeed, I would now recommend Romania very strongly to anyone as a holiday destination. I found all the people we encountered extremely polite, friendly and helpful, and in the contexts where we were operating (hotels, cafes, restaurants, tourist sites) they almost all spoke very good English - though they also patiently appreciated my halting attempts at phrase-book Romanian too! Those two classic tourist banes - pushy traders and pick-pockets - were utterly absent (though we didn't go to Bucharest, so I wouldn't want to offer a guarantee against pick-pocketing there, any more than I would in any other capital city). And though once or twice I was approached by plaintive-looking gypsy children whose parents watched from a short distance away, they weren't pushy either - and hey, begging also happens in the UK. A lot. Meanwhile, by UK standards everything there from a cup of coffee to a hotel room is incredibly cheap, costing typically I would say about 1/4 of what it costs here. The entire 12-day holiday, including flights from Luton, entry to all the sites we visited, the dedicated service of our bus, driver and guide, at least two meals a day, and accommodation in what were clearly the best hotels in each location cost me £1,376 in total - i.e. about £100 a day once you take out the cost of the flights. You just couldn't begin to get what we got for that money as a tourist anywhere in western Europe.

Obviously, countries which come across as cheap to western European tourists are also those with comparatively weak economies. Many parts of Romania are still barely touched by mechanised agriculture, many of the city apartment blocks put up in the Communist era are in serious need of structural repair work, and the country definitely took a hit during the credit crunch. But it's also very obvious that life has changed a great deal in Romania from what my parents experienced when they visited in 1987 - everything falling apart, barely anything in the shops and children begging for biros in the street because they had nothing to draw with. Standing at the top of a medieval tower in Sibiu, I could see around me three very distinct rings of construction - a sizeable medieval / early modern market town, an actually relatively narrow band of Communist-era blocks, and a vast explosion of post-Communist construction beyond:

Sibiu bands.jpg

I was also struck by how many property plots in the predominantly rural area of Maramureș had new-build houses either recently completed or under construction next to what was clearly the old cottage / farm-house, and how marked the upgrade was from the one to the other. Basically, people are replacing their 3-4 room traditional houses with 8+ room palaces - according to Stefan, partly on the basis of the local agriculture but also by going to do seasonal work in the construction industry in Italy. Good for them. Meanwhile, the shops and markets are bustling, the food (bar one or two disappointments) is good, and people seem to be really enjoying their lives. All in all, then, Romania comes across as a busy and growing country, and I'm not surprised to see from Wikipedia that, recent blip aside, they are doing pretty well on the whole. It's just that these things are relative, and of course an economy can grow a lot when it starts from a very low bar and experiences vastly improved access to prosperous neighbouring markets over a short period. Still, what can western European tourists like me do to help Romania keep on moving upwards? Go there, spend money, and have a brilliant time. I was happy to do my bit!

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

ad72024.jpg

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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).

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is a Romanian film about the historical Dracula, which tells the story of his main reign from taking the Wallachian throne in 1456 to his arrest on the orders of Matthias Corvinus in 1462. It isn't legally available to buy in the UK, so I watched it on Youtube (complete with English subtitles), partly to see if it would help me in my current efforts to learn Romanian, and partly of course for its own sake as a portrayal of Dracula.

On the language-learning front, it wasn't a great deal of help, mainly because I just haven't learnt enough yet to be able to pick up new words or constructions from context, but perhaps also partly because the sound-quality on the Youtube video is pretty poor, making everything sound a bit distant and unclear. I'd say I was able to recognise something like about one word in a hundred, which obviously wouldn't get me very far in a real-life situation! But hopefully I will at least have tuned in to the rhythms and structures of Romanian just a little bit while watching it, and maybe if I come back to it shortly before actually going there, I will find by then that I can get more out of it.

On the portrayal-of-Dracula front, though, it was absolutely fascinating. It is, of course, a product of Communist Romania, released right in the middle of Ceaușescu's time in power, and needs to be understood in that light )

That's not to say it isn't also deadly serious history )

There was one scene which really jarred for me from a political / moral perspective, though, while not needing to be there at all from a historical one. This concerned the story from the pamphlets about Dracula and the beggars )

I also noticed that there wasn't a single woman in a speaking role throughout the entire 2hr15m film )

Despite such reservations, though, I really liked the film as a piece of drama. The story is dramatically plausible, following a satisfying narrative arc from Dracula's noble aims at the start of the film to his tragic downfall at the end. And its star, Stefan Sileanu in the title role, is absolutely excellent. He really inhabits the part, endowing it with all the intensity, self-belief and sense of purpose which really have to be there for Dracula's actions to come across as convincing, but also showing us the moments of vulnerability and despair which also have to be there for him to appear human. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which some of his enemies fled into an Orthodox church for sanctuary, but Dracula ordered them to be dragged out and punished anyway, leading to a crackling set-piece between him and the priest about the rights and wrongs of what he is doing. Furthermore, he has fantastic eyebrows, wears excellent hats throughout (nicely modelled on the historical portraits), and looks good on a throne or a horse:

Helmet Intense With torch Enthroned

That said, if you weren't super-into the history, I suspect the 2hr15m running time and Romanian-language soundtrack would be off-putting. For me right now, though, it was great!

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Given my current obsession with Dracula and the fact that I am a historian, it's pretty obvious that sooner or later I would want to read up on the historical man behind the myth. I also wasn't going to be satisfied with one of the many popular works on the topic. I wanted Proper History. In fact, what I really set out in search of was an English-language translation of the primary sources. Some of these are available online, such as one of the German-language pamphlets about him printed in Nuremburg in 1488 here. But those are very obviously highly sensationalistic, to a degree which makes the Historia Augusta's Life of Elagabalus look moderate and objective. Meanwhile, I could see that better material must be out there, such as the official document which this image of his signature was taken from. And I wanted to read it!

So I did my research, and very quickly this book stood out from amongst a large and rather motley field. Online reviews and tables of contents confirmed that it includes some 50 pages of translated primary source material (about 1/5 of the book), including official documents and letters from and about Wallachia, Ottoman Chronicles, a Byzantine historiographer, one of the German pamphlets and a Hungarian court historian. This isn't an absolutely comprehensive collection. The official documents and letters are 'selected'; Treptow for some reason omits the Russian pamphlets also published about Dracula (which are as sensationalist as the German ones, but to different effect); and he also cites at certain points, but doesn't present in full, the observations of Pietro Tommasi, the Venetian ambassador to Buda. But I could see in advance, and can confirm now, that it is very definitely the fullest available English-language source collection for Dracula currently on the market.

That would have been enough to make me want to buy it, but meanwhile, my investigations had also made it clear that the other 4/5 of the book were the thing I wanted next most after the primary sources - a proper scholarly analysis of the historical Dracula. This Amazon review from a history professor planning to use it in their teaching sounded particularly promising, while I also found a syllabus for a college course at Rutgers in which it plays a central role (and which I think is taught by someone different from the Amazon reviewer), and a Masters thesis published online which cites it extensively and admiringly.

All eminently promising, you would think. Surely no reason to hesitate about buying a copy? Except that there was, and is, because the author is a convicted paedophile )

Thankfully, once I had accepted the stain on my soul by buying it, the book did at least turn out to be everything I was hoping it would be as a work of history. The first few chapters, which provided background information about Wallachia and its politics in the period when Dracula came to power, were relatively unexciting, as they were primarily synthesis, but then Treptow turned in earnest to the reign of Dracula himself, and I found myself reading a chapter which began like this:
Communist historiography created the image of Dracula as a class hero who struggled to curb the abuses of the evil boyars. This thesis has been repeated so often that it is usually taken for granted, without realizing the political motives that inspired it. Precisely for this reason the relationship between Vlad III and his boyars must be reconsidered. [p. 73]
"Aha!" I thought, virtually rubbing my hands with glee, "now we are about to get some proper history!" And we did )

That's not to say I think this is the most perfect book about Vlad III Dracula that could ever be written, and it certainly doesn't attempt to be the most comprehensive. Biases and omissions )

So there is definitely more for me to read and discover about the historical Dracula than this book alone could tell me, but that's fine – that's how history is, and I'm glad I still have more to find out (and access to a University library to help me with it). Nonetheless, I think I was right in choosing it as my starting-point, because the historical analysis in the first 4/5 of the book was lucid, well-supported and above all transparent, while of course the translations of the primary sources in the final 1/5 now mean that I am very nearly as well-versed in the actual evidence for Dracula's reign as any expert in the field. Like most ancient rulers, his big attraction here is that the available evidence is so limited that reading it all doesn't take very long – and as I say repeatedly to my students, this means that you quickly can get on to the business of analysing and debating it, which is the really fun bit of history.

Of the sources themselves, the documentary sources (deeds, letters, decrees) are clearly the most useful for learning about the actual activities of Dracula as a ruler. Indeed, many of them are written (or dictated, or merely signed off) directly by him in the first person, which is the very best primary evidence you can ask for from any historical ruler. But I must say my favourite to read were the Ottoman sources )

After reading the collection as a whole, I also now feel much clearer than I did before on the whole issue of impalement )

I have certainly learnt a lot about late medieval eastern Europe from this book, which has in turn helped me think about various aspect of ancient politics and warfare by comparison and contrast. Reading about almost any monarch whose power essentially rested on military strength also helps me to understand Augustus better in the same sorts of ways, while one whose source-issues and reception history bear such close resemblances to Augustus' is particularly helpful. But of course I didn't just come here for a real-world history lesson, but also to flesh out the back-story for my favourite fictional vampire. I'm well aware that Bram Stoker knew pretty little about the historical Dracula, and was a bit confused about what he did know. But what if, in spite of that, you want to play the game of splicing together the two?

The truth is, it's difficult to do plausibly. The biggest problem is that the historical Dracula had at least two children between losing his throne in 1462 and regaining it in 1475, and then died in warfare only months after the latter event. If you assume both a) that vampires can't have children, and b) that his motivation for becoming a vampire would have been to achieve political success, then you end up stuck in a blind alley, because he can't have become a vampire until after he had finished having children, and by that point in his life his political successes were qualified at best. It also doesn't help that, like most Wallachian monarchs, he went round founding or granting bequests to churches and monasteries, and writing letters full of phrases like "by the grace of God", "we swear before God", "with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ", etc. - all of which would surely burn in the mouth of any vampire Dracula.

Then again, there are occasional phrases in the primary sources which leap out at anyone looking for a spot of vampirism. Like in Dan III's letter to the people of Brașov and Țara Bârsei, where he says that Dracula has broken faith with the Hungarians "following the teaching of the Devil", or the various references in the Ottoman sources to him flying through the battle-field "like a black cloud", or the story from a poem written shortly after his imprisonment (annoyingly omitted from this book) about him dipping bread in people's blood and eating it. There is also the fact that one of his most famous military attacks took place at night. All of this is of course either perfectly easily-explicable in ordinary human terms, or probably made up – but if you want to, it does provide just about enough fodder to build up a story in which he dabbles with vampirism and / or is assisted by a vampire for some years, but doesn't actually become one himself until at or shortly before the moment of his (historically ill-documented) human death. That is good enough for me.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I still have a veeerryy long list of book, film and TV reviews to write up, and maybe I'll get to some of those later today. But first, I want to write about the thing I saw last night while it's all fresh in my mind, and that is a contemporary dance production of Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company. As ever for these things, my companion for the evening was the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, and of course for both of us the obvious comparator was the recent ballet version by David Nixon which we also saw together at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. We were in no doubt that both were amazing, but found it much harder to decide which we thought was best. In the end, obviously, you don't have to decide (though it's a fun and often quite useful way to figure out what you think of two different performances individually) - you can have both! But their takes on the story certainly were different, and would appeal to different states of mind.

Where the ballet was very romantic, with a heavy emphasis on unfulfilled longing, last night's version was much more brutal, visceral and ghoulish. As it happens, both chose to open with scenes featuring Dracula on his own, introducing their take on the character, and the contrast between those two scenes encapsulates the difference very nicely. Ballet!Dracula rose smoothly from his coffin in a cloud of mist, completely naked apart from a very small pouch, and strode with perfect poise and balance away from the audience and out through a dark Gothic doorway at the back of the stage. It was basically all about the eroticisation of a supernaturally-powerful male body. Dance!Dracula, clothed in a slightly industrial-looking cropped-sleeved black shirt and trousers, instead performed a number which had him at times revelling similarly in his supernatural strength and power, but at others lapsing into the shambolic zombie-like movements of a reanimated corpse. Meanwhile, strong side-lighting cast dramatic highlights and shadows across his face and limbs, emphasising his non-human nature as a spectral creature of the night.

So, a very different take on the character which persisted and developed throughout the show. Ballet!Dracula was tormented by his own bloodlust, approached his victims like a fairy-tale prince, and had a (cheap, stretch-velvet) billowing cape which he used to convey the batlike side of his nature. Dance!Dracula preferred a trench-coat, didn't muck about when attacking his victims, and conveyed his bestiality rather through snarls and contortions. And obviously the same logic and feel applied throughout the show - for example, in the contrast between the ballet version of the vampire brides, who moved powerfully yet fluidly in fine billowing white robes, and the contemporary dance versions, who did much more snarling and clawing and wore ragged blood-stained dresses (with the obvious implication being that they were too monstrous and inhuman to care about the stains). In fact, there was a lot more blood all round in the dance version. I'm pretty sure we never saw any in the ballet - it was all allusive and impressionistic. But in the dance, punches were thrown, victims bitten and stakes hammered home, all to distinctly gory effect.

Both productions definitely maxed out on the Gothic aesthetic, with wrought-iron arches, dry ice, and a very great deal of black. But this one played around a little more with its temporal setting. The music used was from various different eras, ranging from the baroque to the modernist, while although the costumes centred around the Victorian / Edwardian, they nodded towards something quite modern for Lucy and Mina, and (along with the music) also switched into the early 20th-century jazz era for some scenes involving the vampires. The first of these happened when Dracula caught Jonathan Harker with his brides in the castle, whereupon the audience of course expects anger and fighting, but this was actually played out by the brides handing Dracula a top hat and cane, and him dancing to what I've worked out this morning was Arthur Collins' 1905 hit The Preacher and the Bear, while Jonathan cowered in the corner. This sounds kind of ridiculous, and I wasn't quite sure about it myself at first. But it did work as a way to convey the evil of Dracula - not just attacking his guest, but toying with him via the juxtaposition between the jolly song and his own incongruously brutal appearance, and through lyrics which make it apparent that he treats hunting his human victims as a game. And it really paid off in the second half, during Dracula's attack on Lucy, when the three vampire brides could be seen dancing the Charleston in the background. By that time, the motif had really sunk in, so that the spectre of these ghoulish creatures dancing a jazz number as Lucy died horribly had become incredibly effective and properly unsettling.

There were all sorts of other similarly clever, creative touches along the way as well. Like in the scene where the team of vampire hunters find Dracula's boxes of earth in the cellars of Carfax and crumble holy communion wafers into them. Here, the three vampire brides crouched at the corners of the stage - not really 'there' in story terms, but present all the same - winding up mechanical rats and letting them loose to run across the floor. As with the jazz dancing, on paper that sounds too silly to work, but it really did, conveying the feel of a dank and creepy cellar alive with vermin beautifully. Also very good was the handling of chase scenes, which were generally conveyed by on-the-spot running which was somehow done so effectively that you almost forgot that it was on the spot, and simply embraced the sense of movement. This was done for the carriage ride taking Jonathan to Dracula's castle in the first half, and Dracula's retreat back home with the vampire-hunters on his tail at the end - no mucking about with scenes on trains or boats here, but just a straightforward on-the-spot foot-chase, which nonetheless managed to stand effectively for an epic journey through the night across Europe. In both cases, wolf-headed dancers also appeared at certain points to run alongside the carriage or the vampire Count, helping to build the sensation of a high-speed chase in the same way that Roman artists would put in eagles or hares to show that a person was moving quickly.

Then at the end, the eventual fate of the brides was to be captured by a vampire-hunter each and strung up on the wrought-iron Gothic arches of Dracula's castle, in a way which visually resembled both the impaled victims of the real Vlad III Dracula, and (as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out) the three figures of the Biblical crucifixion scene. Dracula himself, meanwhile, succumbed to the wiles of Mina, who embroiled him into an increasingly-frantic dance as the sun rose, so that eventually he could not escape its rays and crumpled defeated onto the floor. I always have a lot of time for Dracula productions which let Mina herself kill him (as for example in the version we saw at Kirkstall Abbey last summer the one I saw in Belfast in 2005 and of course the original 1922 Nosferatu), but with or without that the ending of last night's performance was certainly stronger than the ballet version, which I noted at the time slipped into a bit of an anti-climax after its wonderful love-duet between Dracula and Mina.

As for this production's take on the story, what I've already said above will indicate that it included some departures from the novel, but on the whole it was pretty true to the outlines of Stoker's novel. This is of course for largely the same reason as the ballet version - both stories were told silently through the medium of dance, so they relied on their audience knowing the basic story already, and any major departures from the original would be confusing. Like the ballet, though, it only had a limited time to get its story across, so some trimming was necessary. The Demeter was in this time (and was very well done), as was an excellent montage of vampire!Lucy feeding on little children, but Renfield and the asylum were out, and perhaps most surprisingly of all there was also no identifiable Van Helsing figure. Of course, this being a silent drama, none of the characters had in-story names, but the vampire-hunters were represented by three men - a doctor, a priest and a flamboyant wealthy gentleman, all of whom were suitors of Lucy and all of whom took a more or less equal role in the business of vampire-despatching. Obviously, the priest was the one whipping out crosses and communion wafers, while the other two map fairly closely to Dr. Seward and Lord Godalming, but Van Helsing was neither a priest nor a suitor, and also definitely was an outsider from the point of view of the rest of the group.

The dance style itself sometimes came quite close to ballet, including things like male-female duets in which the male dancer does a lot of lifting and supporting of the female dancer, dancing on pointed toes, etc. But there was a lot else in there this time - jazz-dancing moves, as I've mentioned, gypsy dances in a village on the way to the castle, ballroom-style dancing and all sorts of leaps and contortions which I suppose come under the general heading of modern dance. Like the ballet version we saw, this one also took advantage of the strength of its male lead to show the famous scene in which Dracula crawls head-first down the wall of his castle - but although it was clever and impressive, in all honesty this was something which the ballet version did better, both in terms of how the scene had been set up and the actual execution of the move. I think that is probably representative of the general difference between the two as performances, actually. I found myself more often wide-eyed in wonder at the technical skills and grace of the ballet performers than I did the contemporary dancers. But that is simply a matter of different genres, really, and both very definitely deployed the capabilities and motifs of their formats very well indeed to tell the sorts of stories they wanted to tell.

In the end, I mainly just want to see both of them again, which unfortunately isn't possible for live performances. I missed certain aspects of the ballet in last night's contemporary dance version - especially the homoerotic tension between Dracula and Jonathan Harker, and the vampire brides' sheer exuberance in their own femininity and vampirism. But I did enjoy the visceral brutality of this performance, and the clever creative touches like the mechanical rats and the impaled / crucified brides, while its Lucy was absolutely amazing and did get the exuberant enjoyment of her own vampirism which had rested more with the brides in the ballet. The romantic emphasis of the ballet probably reflects not only the tendencies of the genre (for all that it certainly pushed the boundaries of what ballet does very hard indeed), but also the fact that it was first developed in the 1990s, in the wake of Bram Stoker's Dracula with its Mina / Dracula love-story. By contrast, the Mark Bruce Company version is more obviously a product of the early 21st century, and reflects the grungy, visceral aesthetic which horror films have taken on in the interim (Hammer's The Woman in Black springs to mind, for example). I have room in my heart for both - though not, I should stress, for Bram Stoker's Dracula itself, which is Just Rubbish.

I included a trailer video of the ballet version in my previous review, so I shall finish by doing the same here for the Mark Bruce version:


See it if you possibly can.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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!

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I saw this on Tuesday evening with notorious Dracula-enabler [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, and it was absolutely captivating. I'm not a big ballet-goer - in fact, I think the last live ballet I went to was a performance of The Nutcracker at the Birmingham Hippodrome with my mother during my mid- to late-teens. But when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out that this was on, recommended it highly based on having seen it previously, and suggested that we go along, I didn't take much persuading. Well, let's be honest, I'll find time for pretty much anything with 'Dracula' in the title right now. But I could see straight away how a ballet version of the story would have the potential to really bring out its fantasy, romance and visual spectacle - and I was not disappointed.

Ballet dancers, of course, can move in ways which most human beings cannot, and this is a great boon when playing supernatural characters. You can take for granted incredible feats of strength and agility and suitably animalistic movements on the part of all the vampire characters - Dracula, his three brides, and a transformed Lucy. More deliberately supernatural, and different from the human characters in this ballet or the supernatural ones in other dramatic performances, were two particular feats performed by Dracula himself - gliding side-ways, almost as though floating, and literally crawling out of a window head-first, exactly as described in the book. The latter can briefly be seen in this trailer video (at 0:25), which indeed is worth watching in full (it's only 1m15s long) for a good sense of the general splendour of the performance:


It was perfectly clear how both were done - the former by using the tight scuttling movement that ballet-dancers do (I don't know the technical term) while his feet were hidden below the length of his cloak, and the latter by supporting himself with powerful arm-muscles on two vertical bars running down either side of the 'window', while hooking onto the horizontal dividers of the frame with his feet. But still! I couldn't dream of doing either, and seeing another human being right in front of my eyes deploying what (to me) were effectively supernatural powers was an amazing experience. In these days of CGI special effects, it's easy to become blasé about seeing human beings doing apparently-impossible things, so that it becomes hard to relate to the combined fascination and repulsion which Stoker's characters experience on encounters with vampires. But seeing such physical feats being performed live gave a much more powerful sense of the strangeness of difference than I think any screen-trickery could ever quite manage.

Those weren't the only places where the strengths of ballet as a medium for story-telling were well-deployed, either. Other simple yet clever examples included the scenes where Dracula physically manipulated human characters like marionettes to represent hypnotically bending them to his will, or where Renfield's mental torment was conveyed through powerful contortions - not a case of supernatural movement this time, but another good use of a ballet dancer's exceptional physical capabilities to convey difference. And in a context where all of the characters were flowing and floating around the stage in a rather surreal fashion all the time anyway, and there was no dialogue, it also seemed very natural to convey one character's thoughts about another by having them appear at a slight distance. This was how we first met Mina, for example - as a 'vision' in a white dress dancing lightly across a corner of the stage, prompted by Jonathan's longing for her while he is imprisoned in Dracula's castle.

And oh, how well ballet conveys longing and yearning of all kinds! The absolute high-light of the piece was a love-duet between Dracula and Mina in the second half, which seemed to go on for ever, yet which I still wanted never to stop at all. But the early scenes in Dracula's castle of course offer lots of scope for homoerotic longing, too - "This man belongs to me!" and so on. There was some great business between Dracula and Jonathan Harker, where Jonathan would be sitting at a desk studying legal documents, with Dracula hanging over his shoulder on the brink of succumbing to the urge to bite him - but then Jonathan would notice and Dracula would shift smoothly into pointing out something on the page in front of him. Indeed, they had a proper male-male duet too, with Dracula guiding and steering Jonathan's movements in one of his mind-control sequences. That's something which ballet as a format, with all those finely-toned male bodies, has the potential to do incredibly well, and yet of course isn't common in classical ballet AT ALL because of the prevalent social mores at the time when most of it was developed. And much the same could be said for the vampire brides, where the strength of the dancers was used to show them as casually powerful, in complete command of their own bodies, and enjoying the hell out of playing around with a helpless Jonathan Harker. Sure, OK, so Dracula was always going to turn up at the end and tell them to quit it, but they got an extended scene of potent, jubilant femininity before that - a world away from the fragile characters female ballet-dancers are usually asked to play, and quite the most exuberant vampire brides I think I've ever seen.

As for how this ballet related to other tellings of the Dracula story, it largely follows the contours of the book, although it is inevitably impressionistic given the relatively short running-time (c. 1h 45m of stage time), emphasis on character moments and dramatic confrontations, and absence of dialogue. The perpetual dilemmas about where Lucy, Mina, Seward, Holmwood etc all live in relation to Dracula's castle become largely irrelevant when no-one in the story is speaking words like 'Whitby', 'London', 'Carlstadt' or whatever. Possibly Dracula travels to wherever-it-is by ship - but equally, the lashing wind and water which we hear may just be a storm outside Lucy's drawing-room window. It doesn't really matter. On this impressionistic level, the only identifiable 'departure' from the book was a party held to celebrate Lucy's engagement to Arthur Holmwood (at which she shockingly turns up on Dracula's arm!), but since that allowed for some very nice formal dancing scenes which gave roles to members of the company who otherwise wouldn't have been in the production at all, it seemed like a good inclusion.

The sets were probably closest to the 1931 Universal Dracula, in that they were neither realistic nor entirely abstract, so matched its expressionistic spirit. They were certainly really good, anyway - lots of broken castles and abbeys, but also lavish ballrooms and bedrooms, and an excellent carriage pulled through clouds of dry ice by burning-eyed horses. There are quite a few traceable footprints of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) here too - e.g. in Dracula's shoulder-length hair, the very Elizabethan-looking collar worn by Lucy after her transformation, the fact that Dracula and Mina's story is cast as a romance (though thankfully without any hints at reincarnation), and the portrayal of Seward as morphine addict ([livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan - I checked that one, and this is indeed where it comes from). But there was a touch of the rattish Nosferatu to Dracula's look as well, and of course the absence of spoken dialogue inevitably recalls the format of the 1922 movie.

Because nothing is perfect, I do have to note here that after the highlight which was Dracula and Mina's love-duet, the dancing did seem to fall into a bit of an anti-climax, especially as the team of vampire hunters dashed around the stage in search of Dracula with no obvious sense of purpose to their movements. And while the costumes were generally amazing (especially a long beaded frock-coat worn by Dracula to Lucy's engagement party), his standard attire of a long high-collared crushed-velvet cloak unfortunately looked very much like it had come from a cheap fancy-dress shop. But all in all, this really was a fantastic performance and a great night out. If you ever get the chance to see it, grab it with both hands.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

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.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I went to see this ten days ago with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan at Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton. Thinking back, I believe it is the fourth stage adaptation of Dracula which I have seen in my lifetime, with the previous three being as follows:
This was a different adaptation again - this one by John Godber and Jane Thornton, to be precise - and it was by far the truest to Stoker's novel which I have ever seen in any medium. Most of the dialogue was taken directly from the book, with the only real deviations occurring where actions and speech which are reported 'off-stage' (as it were) in the novel were translated into direct speech and action on the stage. Even then, the epistolary format of the original was preserved where possible, for example by showing people receiving and reading out letters from one another.

Obviously, a 1.5-hour stage adaptation couldn't hope to convey the entirety of the novel, though. Quincey Morris was omitted, as he often is, and so were Renfield and two of Draculas' three brides, while Dracula's journey on the Demeter was reported only from the point of view of Whitby residents after he had arrived. But other than that, both the language and the spirit of the novel were really well preserved, mainly thanks to a clever impressionistic approach used for some of the wider sweeps of the narrative. For example, the opening scenes in which Jonathan Harker travels to Dracula's castle were not played out in full, but instead conveyed by a sort of montage of key words and phrases spoken by cast members standing in a line on the stage - "Welcome to Transylvania"; "Please - for your mother's sake"; "For the dead travel fast"; and so on. All instantly recognisable and highly evocative, yet sketched out lightly and efficiently so that we could get on to the more detailed scenes set in the castle. On the whole, I think you would struggle to find a better translation of novel to stage than this one, although I had one small regret about it, which was that some of Mina's stronger scenes (e.g. where she takes the lead in gathering and sorting through all the records for the group of vampire-hunters) had dropped out, so that she lost some of her agency as a result.

The production itself was an amateur one, and we saw it on its opening night, but it was pretty good when judged on those terms. We were particularly impressed by the people playing Dr. Seward and the sole vampire bride (who also doubled-up as the maid who removes the garlic flowers from Lucy's room, thus creating nice extra layers to the narrative, since of course the maid would be helping Dracula if she is also his consort in disguise!). The rest of the cast were all perfectly solid, though we weren't so convinced by the decision to cast the same person as both Jonathan Harker and Arthur Holmwood, since it meant he was both Mina's husband and Lucy's fiancé, which had unintended resonances, and besides his chemistry as Arthur with Lucy was completely non-existent, so that when Van Helsing instructed him to kiss her it seemed more like a reluctant school-boy kissing his aunt than the impassioned kiss of a concerned lover. As for Dracula - well, it's a difficult role to play without slipping into pantomime, especially on stage where you cannot be as subtle as on film; he could have been better served by both the costume and the make-up departments; and we weren't sure the decision to have him speaking in a mock-Eastern European accent, or laughing maniacally from time to time was well-advised. But at least it looked like he was enjoying his evil machinations, and he definitely came across well when he got the chance to confront the band of vampire-hunters directly, and hurl some proper scorn and disdain in their general direction.

I think [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was probably right to observe that £10 is a bit steep for amateur theatre, even in this inflated day and age, and on such a hot summer night I could have done with an interval and a long cool drink half-way through. But then again, they pulled in a good audience, filling about 80% of the seats I think, so I guess they had judged their price point about right. Anyway, a good bit of Draculising is always worth leaving the house for, and I would definitely show up for a performance of this particular adaptation again.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Back in November, I pondered the question of why Dracula invites Jonathan Harker to his castle in the 1958 Hammer film, and concluded that it was because he is a bookish sort who genuinely wants his library put in order (i.e. Dracula does not simply lure Jonathan there with the intention of killing him). In comments on that post, both [livejournal.com profile] matgb and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan drew my attention to the existence of The Historian, in which a rather different Dracula likewise lures a series of librarians and / or historians into his clutches for the same purpose. Not long afterwards, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, Dracula-enabler that she is, found me a copy in a local charity shop, and I got stuck in.

Between them, [livejournal.com profile] matgb and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan used words like 'dull', 'dry' and 'ponderous' to describe it, but while it is certainly slow-moving, and has various other flaws which I shall cover below, on the whole I absolutely loved it. Though set in the 20th century, it is basically about modern characters slowly working out that the historical Vlad III Draculea not only survived his own death and became a vampire, but is also an active threat to them in the present day. I am increasingly finding the historical Dracula almost as fascinating as the Hammer Dracula - and Hammer do, thankfully, provide just enough of a thread to link the two together in the first film, via Van Helsing's single line, "Records show that Count Dracula could be five or six hundred years old."1 So naturally the story of how the one became the other then becomes of great interest, and this book seemed to me a very compelling and impressively historically-grounded take on that story. (Another rather more fantastical and action-oriented take on the story hits cinemas in October.)

That's not to say it's perfect. It takes a long time to get going, and a lot of the early material in particular is basically gratuitous scenery porn )

A few other things could have been tightened up a bit, too )

Anyway, I have criticised a lot, but that's because this book was so close to being really incredible that its flaws are frustrating. So let's move on to some of the things I liked about it.

One was the meta-fiction )

Another thing I liked were the inter-texts )

And then there is the portrayal of Dracula himself - a topic which becomes rather spoilery )

Oh well, he was good while he lasted. And meanwhile some interesting ideas are left tantalisingly-unresolved for ongoing musing. In particular, the precise nature of the relationship between the daughter who is the main narrator and Dracula, which also can't be discussed without spoilers )


1. Obviously, so does Stoker in his novel, which is nice, but the Hammer films are the primary canon to me, even though I'm well aware that that is rather unfair, given that Stoker created Dracula-the-vampire in the first place. I guess as a Classicist I am just comfortable with the idea that the first version of a story doesn't necessarily need to be viewed as the definitive one, and while Stoker's novel is certainly extremely good, I just prefer the Hammer films for all sorts of reasons - and saw them before I read the novel anyway, so that they did come first for me.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I watched this as part of my current project to explore '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', with the specific emphasis here, of course, on the 'As Similar To Dracula As Possible' clause. So similar, in fact, that his character is named as Dracula in the title - although not within the film itself, where he is only ever referred to as 'le Comte' and 'le Prince des Ténèbres'.

I have known of this film for a very long time, and have always longed to see it, but this is one which I literally could not have got hold of 10 years ago (when I last had a systematic go at tracking down Christopher Lee films I hadn't seen), as the DVD which I have now bought was only released in 2009. What I knew about it before seeing it was that it is a French-language vampire comedy, and that Christopher Lee generally claims that he was 'tricked' into playing a character which would be presented to the public as Dracula )

Anyway, however it happened, I'm glad he agreed to take on the role, because this is a great little film, and who but the man who had in recent decades so utterly defined the role could possibly deliver such as perfect spoof-Dracula (or generic equivalent thereof)? Plot summary )

There are quite a few nods to the Hammer films, and Lee's role in them, throughout all of this. The film opens with a classic carriage-driving-through-misty-woods scene, complete with obligatory roadside shrine, as seen in many a Hammer film, while the ending with the curtains and the sunlight has got to be a direct parody of the dramatic death-scene from Dracula (1958). The Count's wheeze of finding work as an actor, and thus getting to feed on attractive ladies in the course of his work while 'passing' as a human being who simply remains in character as a vampire off-screen is also obviously playing on the way Christopher Lee himself had become identified with his role as Dracula - and this is the biggest reason why I'm so glad he did the film, as that joke just wouldn't have worked with anyone else. And there are many other small details in the costumes, sets and use of vampire tropes which Hammer fans will definitely recognise.

That said, the Count is both written and played by Lee in a quite different way from the Hammer Dracula. This is a comedy, after all, so the malicious machinations, fiery rage and uncontrollable blood-lust of the Hammer character wouldn't be entirely appropriate. Rather, the Count of this film is largely indistinguishable from a rather haughty, short-tempered and selfish human being. He is also quite often the butt of the film's jokes. There's one sequence in particular, after he and his son have fled their castle and got separated, when his coffin is trawled up out of the sea by a British fishing vessel, and he ends up staggering around the streets of London, bedraggled, smelling of fish, desperate for blood and comically failing to score any. His first attempted victim turns out to be an inflatable sex doll (remember, this is a French comedy from the 1970s), and his second foils him by walking through a glass door - which he then crashes into and painfully slides down into a heap on the floor. Then there are the multiple scenes in which he is just about to seduce Nicole, and Ferdinand (who by that time is interested in Nicole himself) interrupts with a series of trivial queries, much to the Count's considerable frustration. In other words, though he's certainly a vampire, and is definitely chasing after Ferdinand and Nicole with ill intent by the end of the film, he's never scary.

Yet despite the combination of the nods to Hammer and the jokes at the Count's expense, this is much more than a simple parody, either of the Hammer films specifically or of the Dracula story more generally. Its strength is that it gives its characters their own stories and explores its own themes - especially the dynamics of the father-son relationship, which is obviously well beyond the scope of most Dracula stories. The contemporary-Paris setting is nicely used as well. Ferdinand's time spent down and out in low-paid jobs in particular gives rise to some quite moving and realist depictions of the largely immigrant community who take him in, and who live in squats in abandoned warehouses on the edge of town. There are some nice portrayals of the film, advertising and hotel industries, too, and the characters who inhabit them, all taking advantage of the comic genre to poke fun at their obsessions and hypocrisies.

The film was originally recorded and released in French, along with a German dubbed version. An American English-language dub was also released in 1979, but apparently it isn't so much a translation as a completely different (and much less subtle) story, with considerable chunks edited out and Lee's character dubbed by somebody else. Given that his voice is one of his major selling-points as an actor, I decided I couldn't be doing with that, so I bought this DVD, which contains both the French and the German versions, and watched the French one instead. In that (though not in the German print), Lee speaks all of his own lines, and to his credit I must say that I could hardly even tell he wasn't a native French speaker. I have got rather tired of his repeated boasts in books and interviews about how he speaks about ninety thousand foreign languages with perfect fluency, but he certainly acquitted himself well in French for this film - although obviously speaking lines written by someone else is a rather different matter from conversing in your own right.

Of course, this does mean that you need to be able to understand either French or German well enough to follow the film in order to enjoy it in its original intended form, since there isn't even a version with English subtitles currently available. But if you can, I'd definitely recommend it. I would have to issue one content warning for it, which is that one technique Ferdinand uses in order to 'win' Nicole from the Count is to fake a power-cut, thus tricking his father into leaving their hotel room, and then take advantage of the darkness to dress up in the Count's dressing gown and seduce Nicole while pretending to be his father. Her reaction on discovering what he's done when the lights come on is to shrug, smile and accept it, which is pretty icky from an informed-consent perspective, especially when coming from a character who is otherwise coded as the likeable hero of the film. But other than that, it is a charming comedy with a lot going for it, and definitely worth watching for any fan of Christopher Lee as Dracula.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Yesterday, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I hankered down with pop-corn, rose creams and mugs of our steaming hot drinks of preference for another vampire film marathon. We started out by carrying on where we had left off last time, with the next in Hammer's Dracula sequence, Risen from the Grave, but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had seen the film after that, Taste the Blood only a few weeks ago, and drew the line at carrying on to Scars of Dracula, so for our second film we watched a recent acquisition of hers instead, Vampire Circus. We'd both seen it before, but alas too long ago to quite remember what we were letting ourselves in for. By the time we'd dragged ourselves to the end of it, I think we'd both have welcomed Scars of Dracula as a masterpiece by comparison. That's not to see we didn't enjoy laughing ourselves silly over its utter shonkiness, though.

17. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968), dir. Freddie Francis

Despite the fact that this is my favourite of the Victorian / Edwardian Dracula sequels (AD 1972 wins if you include the Seventies ones), I have only reviewed it once before in this journal, so it's not too crazy to say a bit more about it here. Although in a way all I really want to say is "I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it." I shall try to be a little more articulate about why, though.

Everything I said in my last review still stands - the perfect contrast between the cheerful inn scenes and the properly dark Gothicism of the dank cellar or rocky mountainside; the sense of purpose given to the narrative by its central theme of faith vs. atheism; and the wonderful effectiveness of having Dracula spend so much of his time lurking in the shadows and manipulating other people into doing horrible things for him, rather than doing them directly himself. I don't think I really said anything about how great the direction is last time, though. I said that the sets were good, and they are, but good sets need good camerawork to really bring them alive, and this film very definitely has that. We get lots of interesting angles and nice compositions - like framed shots, or shots looking past a significant prop towards the main action. Apparently, Terence Fisher was originally lined up to direct this film, but was replaced by Freddie Francis due to illness (or injury, depending on what you read), but I think it's quite likely that the film gained a fair bit from this substitution.

Actually, one thing which I particularly love about the world-building for this film is that we don't just get some very nicely-made studio sets - we also get a proper attempt to convey something of the landscape which they belong within. The previous films in the sequence have given us long shots of Dracula's castle, but this one also inserts establishing shots of the little village at the foot of the mountain, the larger town where most of the action takes place, and the landscape of mountains and rivers around it. And yes, OK, those establishing shots are basically just postcards held up in front of the camera, but even this simple touch makes the whole thing seem so much more real and engaging to me. Since this was the first film in the sequence not directed by Terence Fisher, and suddenly we get this opening-up of the landscape, I assume it reflects Freddie Francis' input, and am very grateful to him for it.

I should also have said more in my previous review about the (unnamed) Priest, and how very much he adds to the narrative, but since I didn't it is perhaps best now in any case to point the way towards this excellent review which I've found since, and which I think really hits the nail on the head about the Priest. As its author points out in the fourth paragraph down, the Priest is the true protagonist of this film. It is his weakness which leads to Dracula's resurrection in the first place, and his eventual discovery of strength after a long and clearly very traumatic struggle which defeats him at the end. Where the Monsignor represents straightforward faith and Paul represents straightforward atheism, the Priest in between them represents a much murkier middle ground - a faith too weak to protect him against evil. He himself is a far more interesting character as a result, while his weakness also gives Dracula just the opening he needs for his manipulative evil, in turn making this film's Dracula one of the most deliciously domineering and chilling of the sequence. So the Priest-as-Protagonist is a very important device here, underpinning a lot of what I really like about this film, and I'm grateful to the author of the linked blog post for articulating that for me.

18. Vampire Circus (1972), dir. Robert Young

So, yeah - from the sublime to the ridiculous, eh? Like I said, we'd both seen this before, but in my case that was at least 15 years ago now, and while drunk, so I had remembered vague things about a circus of travelling vampires entertaining some villagers with tumbling acts before turning all fangy, but had not remembered how nonsensical the story as a whole is, how unconvincing the characterisation, how banal the script and how mannered the acting. The IMDb tells me that this was Robert Young's first go as a director, and I'm afraid it really shows. It's not like he hasn't done good things since - the first series of ITV's Jeeves and Wooster, for example, or the whole of G.B.H. (which is amazing!). But while the raw materials here (script, actors, sets) might have been knocked into shape by an experienced director, Robert Young clearly wasn't in a position to do that. You can tell, because there are actually some actors in this film capable of putting in a decent performance - Thorley Walters, for instance - but it just doesn't happen.

The result was that we spent pretty much the entire film in MST3K mode, laughing at the bad wigs and utter density of most of the characters, giving them advice which we knew they weren't going to take, and trying to figure out what on earth we were even supposed to think any of them were doing, or why. Which was fine, and we had a great time doing it, of course, because that is part of the charm of Hammer films - even when they are beyond shonky, they provide plenty of chuckle-fodder for anyone familiar with the conventions of the genre. Particular hilarity was derived from the obvious sock-puppet panther which at one point attacked some characters in a forest, and from the wobbly (though in fairness nicely-designed) Eastern Orthodox church set which was suddenly introduced out of nowhere at the end. Oh, and I also enjoyed spotting this (modern) bust of a youthful Augustus in the local doctor's house, as well as a set of Piranesi prints of Rome remarkably similar to ones also seen on Dracula's castle walls in Scars just a couple of years earlier.

The film definitely belongs to the era when Hammer was increasingly relying on shocks and nudity to rake in the audiences, rather than characterisation, narrative or atmosphere. The back of the DVD box reported that it was banned for a while due to its suggestions of bestiality, and the horror film reference book I've had since 1986 also mentions the 'hints of bestiality and incest'. It's certainly true that there is incest in it (a pair of non-identical twins who also seem to be lovers), and the fact that some of the characters can turn into animals does I suppose suggest bestiality of a sort, although none of them get up to sexytiems with human beings while in their animal forms - only ever their human forms. But neither my 1980s book nor the 1970s censors apparently seemed to think there was anything to say about the fact that almost all of the vampires in the film seemed intent on preying on children - an element which is played much more blatantly than the incest or the bestiality. Vampires feeding off children does go right back to Stoker's novel, of course, and it can be played non-sexually, with the emphasis on a more abstract form of evil vs. innocence. But in this post-Operation Yewtree world the sight of a male vampire with bad make-up and a frilly shirt advancing on a child with lustful eyes conjures up all-too-real horrors. The fact that no-one seems to have batted an eyelid over it at the time certainly tells a story of changed values.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.

Profile

strange_complex: (Default)
strange_complex

April 2017

M T W T F S S
     12
3456789
101112131415 16
17181920212223
24252627282930

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Wednesday, 28 June 2017 03:51
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios