strange_complex: (Strange complex)
2017-08-10 10:17 pm

Brisbane

The second in my series of travel replication posts.

4th July: first impressions of Australia )

5th July: actual conference )

8th July: post-conference curiosities and miscellanea )

10th July: Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary )

In this case there's not terribly much I want to add, as the phone pics and FB posts pretty much covered my experience of Brisbane. But I will just pop up this one photo of me delivering my conference paper, which I was sent by the organisers after I arrived home. It shows me pretty much as I would want to think I look when giving a talk - engaged, confident, enthusiastic. And it proves that I really did do some work while I was out there, and not just swan around hanging out with exotic animals all the time! ;-)

Me delivering my paper
strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
2017-02-04 09:36 pm

3. Zinda Laash, aka The Living Corpse / Dracula in Pakistan (1967), dir. Khwaja Sarfraz

This is a Pakistani version of Dracula, based very heavily on Hammer's Dracula (1958). If that sounds like a tricky thing to imagine, this trailer may help a little:


I watched it with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan a couple of weeks ago, and it took us a while to get the measure of it. Neither of us had ever seen a Pakistani horror movie before, so we had no knowledge of the genre's standard motifs and expectations. A lot of the pleasure of watching low-budget horror movies for us lies in laughing at the obvious wig glue, day-for-night filming, wooden / hammy acting, etc. But because we didn't know what was 'normal' for this kind of film, we also didn't know what was relatively successfully or unsuccessfully done in this particular example. And the fact that it was an adaptation of a British film we know extremely well exacerbated the problem. When the Pakistani film-makers interpreted aspects of that film in ways that to our eyes seemed inept, was it OK to laugh at that (in the way we would at a British cheap Hammer rip-off), or was that just incredibly racist?

After watching the film itself, we then also watched two documentaries on the DVD, one interviewing the makers of this particular film and one about Indian and Pakistani horror films in general, which between them gave us a better picture of the industry, the people involved in it, where they were starting from and what they were trying to achieve. In essence, much like Hammer in the first place, Pakistani film-makers basically churned out stuff they thought would be fun without taking it too seriously, especially during the 1980s. But this particular film seems to have been an early attempt to take on the western Gothic horror genre, so of course it was produced by people who were not hugely familiar with its tropes and motifs. In some places that meant lots of creativity and vitality, but in others it just missed the mark - at least for us. I'm sure Pakistani viewers feel the same when they see westerners trying to take on their stories.

The plot for this film is very close to Hammer's Dracula, although an opening sequence sees the 'Dracula' character (here initially a human being called Professor Tabani) using classic movie 'sciencey-science' equipment (bunsen burners, conical flasks, long distillation tubes, etc.) to make an elixir of life. By implication, he expects to remain human but become immortal when he drinks it, but instead he dies and becomes an undead vampire! This of course picks up on the scientific feel of Hammer's own take on the vampire myth (at least in the first film), where Dracula cannot turn into a bat or wolf, and vampirism is presented as a contagion with symptoms similar to addiction. In fact, for all we know, Hammer's Dracula could originally have become a vampire in the same way - the issue is never explicitly addressed in their films. In Zinda Laash, though, it does get them into a bit of trouble later on in the story. The professor is supposed to be the first ever to have produced the elixir of life, and yet it turns him into a known creature called a vampire with known weaknesses (particularly sunlight). So the plot and dialogue vacillate a little between whether the characters involved understand the nature of what they are dealing with or not.

There is also a bit of a muddle around what the Jonathan Harker character (Dr. Aqil) and Van Helsing character (here, his brother) know or are motivated by in the early stages of the story. When Dr. Aqil arrives at Professor Tabani's house, he claims that he has just turned up on spec for no particular reason, and indeed Pakistani hospitality culture probably means he doesn't need to use any subterfuge to get in there in the way that Harker does by pretending to be a librarian in the Hammer film. Aqil then proceeds to take notes on odd aspects of the Professor's behaviour, and apparently knows enough about vampires to dispatch the Professor's female companion, while his brother later confidently explains to his fiancée's family that Aqil was turned into a vampire while at the Professor's house. So far, so in line with the Hammer film - we are meant to understand that they are vampire-hunters, and know the Professor's true nature from the start. Except that towards the end of the film, when they return to the area to try to rescue the Mina-character, they seem to need the man who runs the local bar to explain to them how the Professor became a vampire and how to destroy him. It is actually this bar-keeper who comes closest of all to playing the traditional expository Van Helsing role within the story, leaving me puzzled as to what Aqil and his brother actually did know at the beginning.

Anyway, things basically settle down to the understanding that the Professor is a vampire in the broadly normal sense of that term. But many of the usual western motifs of vampirism are missing, not least of course because the cultural context is non-Christian. Crosses are never used or mentioned, and nor in fact are garlic and wooden stakes. Instead, the Professor and his minions can be killed by stabbing them with a knife, shooting them with a gun or exposing them to sunlight. (This last of course provides the exciting climax, much as in the Hammer film, except that the Van Helsing character knocks the shutter off a window accidentally, rather than pulling down curtains deliberately). Hammer's comic relief characters (the undertaker, the frontier guard) are also utterly gone, but in their place we get lots of song-and/or-dance sequences, along the lines most of us are familiar with from Bollywood films (except of course that this isn't a Bollywood film, as it is Pakistani not Indian). These were incongruous on one level, as sequences like that amongst what is otherwise ordinary acting and dialogue almost always feel quite shoe-horned in, but also amazing and awesome in their own way, and in their very incongruity - especially the first one, which was the Professor's vampirised assistant doing a drapery-flouncing dance in order to seduce and bite the unfortunate Dr. Aqil. Very different from Valerie Gaunt's exceptionally English pretence at helpless victimhood in Hammer's equivalent scene.

The assistant is the first of three women to be attacked or pursued by the Professor, and I felt we learnt quite a lot about 1960s Pakistani fears around female transgression from all of them. Certainly, Omar Khan, himself a horror film director, explained in the documentary on the DVD that female victims in Pakistani horror films are always coded as transgressive - e.g. they have blonde hair or smoke cigarettes. In this film, the assistant's fate was pretty much sealed from the moment she entered the Professor's laboratory, found him absent, and immediately made a beeline for the drinks tray on the side to pour herself a glass. This didn't directly kill her, but it did come immediately before her discovering the Professor's prone body behind the sofa (and dropping the glass in shock), and then as soon as he had been buried and come back to life, she was the first one he went for. Later on, the Lucy character (Shabnam) dies not because she persuades the maid to get rid of the garlic keeping Dracula away (as per Hammer), but because she persuades the maid, who has been sitting watching over her in person, to leave the room altogether - i.e. she is left unchaperoned. And the Mina character (Shirin) gets into trouble because she goes off on her own and gets into a taxi, which of course turns out to be being driven by the Professor himself. So, yes, there are some pretty direct messages there.

The acting seemed strangely variable to my eye. Sometimes, it was very stagey and melodramatic, but sometimes characters showed no signs of the emotional responses I would have expected given the circumstances - e.g. people staking vampires like it was utterly routine and no biggy, or simply standing stock-still on their last mark while another character did or said something dramatic. I would need to watch it again to check whether this was a case of the same actors behaving differently in different scenes, or rather a matter of clashing acting styles. The soundtrack music was also very varied, ranging from traditional-sounding Pakistani music during the song-and-dance routines, to cheerful popular music in exterior travel scenes and lots of ripped-off cues from James Bernard's original Hammer Dracula soundtrack during the most Gothic scenes. Lovely though this was to hear, it sometimes missed the mark for me by using the music 'inappropriately' - e.g. using slow, creepy music for chase scenes, or dramatic action music for seduction scenes. But that's what is bound to happen when you are not deeply familiar with a musical genre and it all sounds generally western and Gothic to you. Again, I'm sure westerners would make the same sorts of mistakes with what they perceived simply as 'Bollywood music'.

The cinematography was generally pretty impressive, with some nicely-composed shots and effective chase sequences, as well as particularly good use of a crumbling old-fashioned building for the exterior shots of the Professor's house. The main action of the film is set in the 1960s (another departure from Hammer), but this building looked like it might be a left-over relic of the colonial era. I'm not well-enough versed in Pakistani architecture of any kind to be sure, but if so that added some excellent resonances to the motif of vampirism. The Professor himself was Pakistani, rather than white British, which would have ramped the symbolism up all the higher, giving us the vampire as an undead remnant of the former colonial power, still haunting the land a generation after the Raj itself had been expelled. But still, just situating him within that setting hinted at the issues without overdoing it, while affording us some nice shots of crumbling brick-work in the process.

Overall verdict - a fascinating watch, for which I'm grateful to DracSoc chair Julia Kruk for the recommendation, and which has made me curious to explore the world of Pakistani horror and fantasy a little further.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
2017-01-15 08:19 pm

2. Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948), dir. Charles Barton

Seen on Thursday night round at [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's place after nourishing bowls of home-made minestrone soup... the healthy effects of which we then trashed by eating half a packed of chocolate-coated ginger biscuits each while watching the film.

I had never seen an Abbott and Costello film before, but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan grew up on them, and indeed she reckons they were the first context in which she encountered the classic gothic horror icons. Despite the '... meet Frankenstein' of the title, this one doesn't actually feature Frankenstein himself, but rather his creation (played by Glenn Strange), whom they correctly refer to as 'Frankenstein's monster' at first, but later slip into calling 'Frankie'. But much more significantly as far as I'm concerned, it also features Bela Lugosi in the only time other than the original 1931 film that he explicitly played Dracula on screen. (BTW, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, the not-technically-Dracula Lugosi role which I keep trying to tell you about but forgetting the name of, where he played alongside a woman who was a huge fan of his, is Mark of the Vampire. We should definitely see that some time.)

Inevitably, in a comic context and 20 years later, Lugosi plays the role as a bit of a parody of himself. His cloak is too shiny and looks like he got it from a fancy dress shop, there's rather too much in the way of mesmeric finger movements, and we couldn't really understand why he needed to keep pulling his cloak up over his face so much. But, on the other hand, it is very definitely his Dracula, and the role also gave him lots of scope to pretend to be human and be all duplicitous while he was about it, which was fun to see. He gets a bit of that in the original 1931 film, conversing with people at the opera and in Dr. Seward's drawing-room, but there seemed to be more of it here, plus some rather more full-on neck-biting action than he ever got back in 1931.

Also on board are Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf-Man, and a lovely voice-cameo from Vincent Price at the end as the Invisible Man, so it is quite the monster-fest overall. Add to that some absolutely beautiful frocks on some strikingly self-possessed - nay, sassy - female characters, and some very impressive sets (castles, cellars, laboratories) and it is definitely worth watching. I don't know that I'll rush to see more Abbott and Costello films - it's not really my style of humour, and is difficult for a 21st-century British woman to relate very deeply to. But I'm certainly open to more of their Universal Monsters cross-over flicks, should they happen to cross my path.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
2017-01-07 04:27 pm

27.-32. Film review catch-up

I'm off to the cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan tomorrow, so that's a good incentive to finish off this film review catch-up project first so that I have a clean slate for tomorrow's new entry. The first three of these should always have been reviewed together in the same post anyway, as they were part of a series of Universal Monster Movies which the National Media Museum mounted on Monday nights during October and November.

27. Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning
I've reviewed this in excessive detail before, while for us this particular screening came fairly hot on the heels of our own viewing of the parallel Spanish version. But this was my first experience of it on the big screen, and it certainly deserves the detail and grandeur which that ensures - especially for the scenes set in Transylvania, in the darkened garden of Seward's asylum where Dracula lurks, and in his lair in Carfax Abbey. Everything is just beautiful, from the Art Deco bat which supplies the background for the opening credits to the gentle toll of the church bells at the end as Mina and Jon(athan) walk up the curving staircase out of Dracula's crypt. I will never quite be able to come to terms with the opossums running around in Dracula's castle, the piece of paper stuck to Lucy's bedside lamp which was obviously meant to improve the lighting for shots from one angle but was left very obviously in place for shots from the other, or the utter cardboard-cutoutness of Jon(athan) Harker, though.

28. Frankenstein (1931), dir. James Whale
This was the next in Universal's series, and in the National Media Museum's screening schedule. I've seen it before, but a long time ago and never on the big screen. Two main things to say. One, Boris as the creature is amazing. There is a real sensitivity in his performance, successfully conveying a living being with an agency and agenda of its own. His make-up is incredible as well. Forget all the clunky rip-offs and parodies of it you've seen. The original is actually exceptionally detailed and carefully-designed, with the hands and arms to me looking especially convincing as those of a reanimated corpse. Two, the way the human characters treat the creature is downright distressing, and indeed I found the whole moral compass of the film shockingly off-kilter. The biggest problem for me was that the in-story explanation offered for why the creature turns bad is that when Fritz (Frankenstein's assistant) goes to steal a brain for it, he comes back with what is literally labelled on the jar an 'abnormal brain', and which we have heard a medical scientist explaining accounts for the 'brutal and criminal life' which its owner had lived. I know this sort of thinking was rife in the early 20th century, and used to justify a lot of shitty oppression too, but it makes me so angry that I would struggle to overlook it in any circumstances, while in this particular film it anyway utterly destroys the potential moral nuances of the story it is trying to tell. Labelling the creature as an irredeemable criminal before it has even been brought to life quashes all chance of exploring the impact of Frankenstein's thoughtless act on his own creation, and also pre-excuses the appalling behaviour of the humans towards it once it has come to life. In fact, it means there's no real point portraying that behaviour anyway, as the motif of the brain means the creature was always going to 'go bad', however it was treated. So there are half-hearted nods towards exploring the creature's perspective, identifiable in Boris Karloff's performance and the scenes in which the creature is ill-treated, but in the end they have no moral weight because of the pre-destination symbolised by the brain. Meanwhile, the much louder message is the depressingly-simplistic one - "Look, you shouldn't try to play God because your creations will inevitably just be bad and go bad!" At the end, the poor creature dies screaming in agony in a burning mill (again played very affectingly by Boris), and we then just switch straight to the human characters unproblematically celebrating it all with a wedding party. Horrifying, but not in the way intended.

29. The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund
The following week we had The Mummy, which I found much more satisfying. This time, its moral dimension is pretty sound, with some interesting commentary on the ethics of colonial archaeology in particular, and indeed a good understanding of how archaeology works in general (e.g. why simple bits of pottery are often much more important than golden treasures). Just one small complaint on the antiquities front - a priestess of Isis really cannot be described as a Vestal Virgin. 'Vestal' doesn't just mean generically sacred or holy - it means specifically consecrated to Vesta (the clue is in the name). This film boasts an unusually (for the time) autonomous female main character, Helen Grosvenor, who is the daughter of the governor of Sudan but has chosen to live quite independently from her parents in Cairo, expresses disdain for the various men who attempt to court or control her, and indeed ends up destroying the mummy at the end of the film in spite of the fact that she is his reincarnated lover. I've often complained about that particular trope (e.g. here re Blacula 1972), since it consistently strips women of their agency, but here far from it - instead, she actively decides that she doesn't want to be with Imhotep, and uses the resources which are her equivalent to his own magical powers (her connection to Isis, whose priestess she once was) to defeat him. All of this, of course, is pretty easily explained by the fact that story's original author was a woman. Visually, the film keeps up and indeed excels the standards of sets, make-up and costumes from the previous two films, including the wise / clever decision to show Boris in his full mummy make-up only on his first appearance, and after that have him looking more or less like a normal human being, but with a serious skin condition. He gets to speak properly in this film too, using the dialogue to infuse his character with a malevolent charm that I know well from Christopher Lee's roles. His performance is also ably supported by an adorable fluffy white cat - I wonder if he was the first film villain to have one? Finally, I was fascinated to note that in a flash-back sequence where Imhotep shows Helen scenes of their past together in a pool, the images are shot like a silent movie: less crisp than the surrounding footage, no use of close-ups, and the overlay of classic silent-movie style music (in contrast with almost no soundtrack music in main film). Like the white cat, I can't help but feel this must be a cinematic first, as the medium of film was still so new at this time that there can't have been many earlier opportunities to deliberately use the conventions of out-dated film technology to signify 'the past'. Very clever, and very creative.

30. Fear In The Night (1972), dir. Jimmy Sangster
Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan round at her place. It's a Hammer production with Peter Cushing, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins in it, but not one of their horror films - rather, a thriller. That said, it does play heavily on the possibility that there might be something supernatural going on for a long time, which of course Hammer's reputation put them in an excellent position to do. The story is set in the time when it was made, which meant lots of very enjoyable Seventies clothes, cars and street scenes, and revolves around a young woman who is experiencing repeated and very unsettling nocturnal physical attacks. The male characters around her dismiss her experiences as symptomatic of an over-wrought imagination, and for quite a long time it looked like the grain of the story might be leaning in that direction too. I began to get fractious, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had to convince me to stick it out. But then the real truth began to emerge, her experiences were entirely vindicated, and indeed the film proved to be very sympathetic towards those affected by mental health issues - not only the heroine but Peter Cushing's character as well. So a very satisfying watch after all, and I'll definitely want to see it again some time now that I know the 'twist'.

31. Night of the Demon (1957), dir. Jacques Tourneur
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey at the National Media Museum as part of a series of ghostly stories screened in the run-up to Christmas. I've seen it on the big screen before, and reviewed the experience. Indeed, I see that I spent a lot of that review discussing how it sits alongside Hammer's horror films, and I had similar responses this time. The importance of the deceased Professor Harrington's diary account in helping the characters figure out what Karswell is up to reminded me a great deal of how Jonathan Harker's diary functions in Hammer's Dracula (and in neither case comes from the source text), while the way Karswell turns on and mocks his own mother also reminded me of the relationship between the Baron Meinster and his mother in Brides of Dracula. Since both of those films were made after this (though only just in the case of Dracula), the direction of influence would go from here to Hammer, but that's entirely typical of how they worked - soaking up contemporary stories and conventions and building them into their own productions. Meanwhile, Andrew noted that by making John Holden a sceptical outsider literally flying into an island full of superstitious believers in the supernatural, the story also had quite a Wicker Mannish feel. It is, of course, all quite a long way from M.R. James' original, but I am reconciled to that, especially on a second viewing. In and of itself it is a great movie which deserves to be regularly rescreened.

32. Rogue One (2016), dir. Gareth Edwards
And my last film of 2016, which I saw with Mr. and Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero. It was in fact my first experience of seeing a film on an IMAX screen, as well as being a 3D screening, so it was all pretty impressive and mind-blowing both visually and aurally. The story was great, and I've enjoyed all the fantastically detailed articles about its world which have appeared since, like this one about data storage standards and this one about archaeology. Three cheers for stories which inspire that kind of fan-work! It's true that it could have had more women in it, and let's keep demanding the best on that front, but it was certainly epically better for women than any of episodes I-VI, as well as being impressive on ethnicity and disability, so let's also cheer the direction of travel. Much discussion has also been prompted by its use of CGI to recreate characters from the original trilogy, but I'm afraid I found this only technically impressive. Peter Cushing's recreated face was pretty good, but of course CGI cannot capture the unique humanness of a real person's performance - indeed, even a very convincing impression will only ever be a pastiche, missing the unpredictability of the original person. Most strikingly, the voice wasn't his at all, and since that was always such a central part of what Peter Cushing had to offer, its absence was bound to disappoint. Leia I found less problematic, partly because her face was only on-screen for a few seconds, and partly because they had been able to use an old clip of Carrie Fisher's voice from the time - but of course it was also rather heart-breaking to see her at all so soon after Carrie's sad death. Meanwhile, Darth Vader of course did not need CGI to return to our screens, and it was fabulous fun to see him in full-on evil action again. That said though, part of the power and fascination of Darth Vader in the original films is discovering slowly and with increasing horror just what he is willing and capable of doing. (Even if you have seen the films before, the reactions of the characters within the story lead you through the process of discovering this all over again.) Here, he pretty much launched straight into evil machinations and force-choking, leaving no room for the suspenseful frisson of gradual discovery from the earlier films. Still, I guess that reflects the reality of a modern audience's expectations - you simply can't keep redoing the suspense if they're just going to be sitting their with their pop-corn going "Yeah, we know he's evil - cut to the chase!" It's just a pity Darth's character-development won't ever really work now if the films are viewed in story order - but then I guess that was already ruined fifteen years ago by the whole prequel sequence giving away his relationship to Luke.

OK, I am up to date on my film reviews! Now just gotta do the same for books... and Doctor Who... :-(

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
2016-12-30 05:50 pm

5.-8. Film review catch-up

As noted in September, there is a big gap in my film review write-ups for this year. And indeed book reviews stretching back into last year. All sorts of things have got in the way - illness, elections, death, work - and I'm never going to be able to review things I watched or read several months ago as fully now as I might once have done. However, it is weighing on me and I do want to catch up. So here begins an attempt to do so, even if only briefly for each item.

5. Casablanca (1942), dir. Michael Curtiz
A Cottage Road Classic, seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. We came out marvelling at how beautifully-crafted it is, in spite of the world being in such turmoil while it was made, and how every single word and image in the film is so rich with meaning. We also reminded ourselves that part of the reason it is so powerful is that almost every person in the film was a real-world refugee. Indeed when I Googled to refresh my memory of the details, I realised that half the reason I know this is because of an LJ post by [livejournal.com profile] nwhyte from 2014 cataloguing the cast's backgrounds. Thanks for that!

6. Jaguar Lives (1979), dir. Ernest Pintoff
Lent to me by magister because it has Christopher Lee in it and I hadn't seen it. It's basically an absolutely dreadful martial arts action film, which gives away its own supposed twist both in the title and in an opening scene featuring one character assuming that another had died, while it was all too obvious to the audience that he could easily have escaped alive. Lee's performance is perfectly solid of course, as they always are, in a role clearly based on his portrayal of Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, and Donald Pleasance puts in a good turn being utterly deranged as well. But there will be no need for me to watch this film ever again. I can now tick it off on my list of Lee's performances, and let it rest unmolested.

7. Dracula (1931), dir. George Melford
Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, this is the Spanish-language version of the Universal Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, filmed with a different cast at night on the same sets. The performances of the women in particular are more passionate than in the English-language version, but the main thing that struck us was that much of the action just took longer to get through, as is reflected by the respective running-times of the two films: 1h25 for the English-language version and 1h44 for the Spanish one. It's certainly worth watching for afficionados, but we did feel it start to drag a bit at times.

8. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
The celebrated recent Iranian vampire film - well, sort of, in that it is set in Iran and deeply engaged with Iranian culture, but was actually filmed in California by a second-generation Iranian immigrant. Again I watched this with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, I think in the same evening as Dracula, and we were very impressed with the beautiful black-and-white photography and somewhat surreal atmosphere. Actually, the whole thing reminded me quite strongly of Martin, both in its portrayal of small-town life and its problems, and in the way it plays around with the established convention of the vampire genre. The girl of the title is a vampire, but she also protects the human women in her town, saving them from predatory men by killing them herself, and eventually offering a form of escape for the main character from the hopeless world he had been trapped in.

OK, that's a start. There will need to be a lot more of these entries. Sorry in advance if they get boring!

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
2016-12-24 11:07 pm

Christmas in the cottage

Well, the little children slumbering upstairs do not know it yet, but Santa has been!

2016-12-24 22.27.10.jpg

Personally speaking, I'm hoping this will be the sort of Santa who comes down my chimney tonight:

chris santa.jpg

Look at his beautiful face! Such a fetching shade of green...

Merry Christmas, everyone. :-)

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strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
2016-11-08 11:43 pm

Horror exhibitions road-trip

The other cool Dracula-related thing I did recently was to go on a little road-trip with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan to see two exhibitions dedicated to our favourite kind of horror films: British productions from the 1950s to '70s, and especially those made by Hammer. As luck would have it, the exhibitions we were interested in overlapped by about a week (over Halloween, natch) and were both located in the east Midlands area. So although each was quite small and it would have seemed a bit of an endeavour to go to either one from Leeds on its own, between the two they made for a very agreeable day out.

Our first port of call was Northampton, where the city's Museum and Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of film posters entitled 'Scream And Scream Again: The Golden Age Of British Horror'. It's actually a touring exhibition, put together by an organisation called Abertoir who run a horror festival in Aberystwyth, so although the Northampton showing has finished now, it's worth looking out for it at a museum near you in the future if you like the sound of it. It wasn't huge, consisting of probably about 25-30 posters plus some collected front-of-house publicity stills in a gallery about the size of a typical village hall, but it provided a very well-selected cross-section of some of the best films of the era.

2016-11-02 12.31.24.jpg

More pictures under here )

We also both really liked Northampton as a whole. Neither of us could remember having been there before, and we did see it at its best in lovely sunshine and still-mild weather, but it certainly struck us as worth visiting. In fact, a lot of people I know would enjoy the regular collections of museum itself, because Northampton has a proud history as a major cobbling centre, so basically the whole ground floor of the museum (apart from the temporary exhibitions gallery where the horror posters were) is entirely devoted to SHOES! Victorian lace-up boots, clompy glittery platforms, fancy stilettos, you name it. You can get a taste of the sort of thing they have from their Shoe of the Month blog feature.

We found lots of interesting architecture in the town centre, of which I made a particular point of capturing some of the Art Deco highlights )

Our next destination was De Montfort University, Leicester for The Monsters of Hammer: A Screen Bestiary. This is the work of the University's Cinema and Television History research centre (CATH), who now hold Hammer's scripts archive (as well as a growing collection of other Hammer-related material), and were also responsible for the unique staged reading of a never-produced Dracula script, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula which I enjoyed SO MUCH last year. Needless to say, I've been following their activities very closely ever since (and indeed before), so I was very excited for this.

The exhibition had been set up in the University's Heritage Centre, and was physically even smaller than the Northampton one, but they had packed a lot in! We spent a good hour-and-a-half there, compared to about 30-45 minutes in Northampton, and although that's probably more than most normal human beings because we are so geeky about Hammer films and needed to examine each item in detail, discuss it at length and take loads of photos, it is still probably good for almost an hour's interest even if you just look at each item and read through the text once. First, some general pictures to show the overall layout, size and feel of it all:

2016-11-02 16.28.13.jpg

Again more under here )

What I'd really like is for them to start publishing some of this material. I see in my mind's eye The Ultimate Hammer Dracula Script Collection, including a) the shooting scripts from the movies that were actually made, b) any earlier variant versions of those and most importantly c) all the ones which weren't produced at all. I don't even know if that is possible - presumably even the unmade scripts are still in copyright, so I can certainly see that it would be complicated. But I think publication has to be the ultimate end-goal of the whole project. Otherwise, for the vast majority of the public the difference between the scripts just not existing at all and lots of time and money being spent looking after, researching and cataloguing them will remain barely detectable.

Anyway, for now I would definitely encourage everyone who loves Hammer films to get along to DMU's Heritage Centre, enjoy their amazing exhibition, and fill in enthusiastic feedback forms to help support CATH's work and enable them to secure more research funding. It's open until next May, so you have plenty of time. :-)

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
2016-11-06 10:38 pm

World Dracula Congress, Dublin

I have been doing lots of cool Dracula-related things lately, but until now haven't had the chance to write them up. They really need it though, as I will definitely want to remember them. So for today this is what I did two weeks ago at the Fourth World Dracula Congress - the latest in a series of ad hoc academic conferences on Dracula which began in Bucharest in 1995.

I wasn't actually sure I would be able to go to this until quite late in the day, as it was scheduled for a Thursday and Friday during term-time, but Friday is our regular research day anyway, and as luck would have it a lecture which I deliver fortnightly on Thursdays did not fall in that week. So off I went! Obviously the choice of Dublin for the venue reflected its status as Bram Stoker's birthplace, and indeed I had already made sure to visit his houses on my previous visits to the city: one of which in 2014 I managed to write up on LJ, and the other of which in 2015 I don't seem to have done, but involved visiting his childhood house on the edge of the city. Indeed, the whole conference actually took place in the same venue as the Augustan poetry conference which was the reason for me going over in 2014: the Long Room Hub on Trinity College campus. It was quite strange operating in the same venue but in a rather different capacity: last time academic, this time fannish. But that distinction only held true for me personally. The conference as a whole was very much an academic event, and indeed more so than I'd expected really. Every paper I heard was strong, and some represented really significant steps forward in our knowledge of Dracula: the novel, its author and the rich mythos behind it all. I'll highlight the two which that most held true for first, and then sketch out the others a little more briefly and by theme.

The first highlight paper was by Hans de Roos on Makt Myrkranna, the Icelandic 'translation' of Dracula )

My second highlight paper was by Paul Murray, author of 'From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker', which was initially published in 2004 but released in an updated edition in 2016 )

So those two papers between them were worth the price of admission alone. But then there were lots of other awesome papers! I have grouped them into themes, which in some cases reflect the way they were grouped for the conference, but in others do not. This is just how they come together for me.

Biographical papers )

Literary papers )

Papers on place )

Papers on Dracula from a Romanian perspective )

Papers on historically-attested 'vampire epidemics' in eastern Europe )

And then of course as if the conference were not enough, I also thoroughly enjoyed my third visit to Dublin in as many years. My main companion was Julia, chair of the London-based Dracula Society (i.e. the people I went to Romania and Geneva with), with whom I shared a room at Stauntons on the Green, a pleasant autumnal walk across a park from the city centre. We enjoyed several nice meals together, tried various Irish whiskies, met up with Julia's friend Brian Showers of the Swan River Press who organised a Ghost Story Festival in Dublin earlier this year, took a tour of Trinity campus including its splendid Long Room, and popped into Sweny's chemist, a historical pharmacy which features in James Joyce's Ulysses and is now run by volunteers as a literary centre and site of historical interest. Plus, after Julia had departed for her earlier flight, I mooched around Dublin a little more on my own, tracking down Sheridan le Fanu's house and buying a jolly nice new pair of flares. I close with a few photos of the sights of Dublin )

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
2016-09-03 07:32 pm

Starburst international film festival: Friday

The tl;dr version of this film festival is that the content was awesome, but the organisation was really pretty poor. It was a first-time event, so didn't have an established loyal customer base, and it hadn't been advertised anything like as effectively as it could have been, so that I know a lot of people who might have wanted to go to it didn't know about it until very late in the day, and in fact it is quite possible that the organisers and guests outnumbered the paying customers. The timing was also frequently off-schedule, leaving us either waiting up to an hour for something to start, or rushing from one thing to another without a chance to get the dinner we'd planned for in between. Thankfully, it was never quite so bad as to mean that I missed anything I'd been looking forward to as a result, but I really hope they get better at both advertising and timing if they run this festival again, as otherwise it is doomed to failure.

Anyway! I'm going to write it up day by day, to keep the entries manageable. This is the overall schedule for the Friday, which true to the organisational spirit mentioned above was released at around 8pm on the evening before the festival was due to begin, i.e. way too late for most people to make sensible arrival plans in advance.

Friday schedule.jpg


Getting there and settling in )

Scream Queens: Caroline Munro and Martine Beswick )

19. Gothic (1986), dir. Ken Russell with intro by Stephen Volk )

20. Dracula A.D. 1972, dir. Alan Gibson )

Thus our first day ended, and it was back off to my snuggly student nest-bed for a rather short night's sleep ahead of day two...

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
2016-01-22 10:03 pm

2. Hotel Transylvania (2012), dir. Genndy Tartakovsky

Watched last weekend because it was on and I was both curious and in need of some brain down-time.

Fundamentally, it's a zany kids' comedy, with the central premise being that monsters are more afraid of humans than we are of them (cf. Monsters, Inc., etc.). The reason in this case is that Dracula (their unofficial leader) lost his wife in a fire at the hands of an angry torch-bearing mob, and has never got over the trauma. Instead, he has built a hotel far away from humanity for his monstrous chums, and keeps his daughter there wrapped up in an over-protective bubble, so that she will never go near humans (they drink blood substitutes, of course) and he won't risk losing her. Only then a back-packing human wanders into the hotel by accident, and he and Dracula's daughter fall head-long into teenage love. Awkwardness, hurdles and hilarity ensue, until true love triumphs, everyone learns to get along, and Dracula realises that he needs to let his little girl take control of her own destiny.

So far, so predictable and not really worth watching. But nonetheless it is a mainstream popular reception of my beloved Gothic horror genre, and in that light I found plenty to keep me interested, particularly where the visual design was concerned. Basically, Hotel Transylvania's monsters are Universal monsters.

hotel_transylvania.jpg

You can tell especially from Frankenstein's monster, who boasts the classic Boris Karloff high squared-off forehead design, but also from the white stripe in his bride's hair and the fact that there is an Invisible Man at all (represented, of course, by the floating glasses). There have been many Mummies, Frankensteins and Draculas, but few other film treatments of the Invisible Man besides Universal's. I'm not quite sure how the Mummy ended up looking (to my eyes) like the Oogie-Boogie Man from Nightmare Before Christmas, but I assume there is some sort of missing link of which I am unaware. Please comment if you know what it is!

The castle, though, is quite plausibly Hammeresque, and for me was the highlight of the entire film:

hotel-transylvania-pic05.jpg

As for Dracula, he is almost equal measures Lugosi and Lee. He has inherited Lugosi's turned-up (rather than turned-down) cloak collar, black (not greying) hair and eastern-European (rather than RP British) accent. But he has Lee's black-from-head-to-toe clothing (no white bow-tie or six-pointed medallion), his height and his fluid movements, and most striking of all his moments of SUDDEN RAGE when provoked, complete with burning red eyes and snarling fangs.

Hotel_transylvania_angry_dracula.png

If that's not Christopher Lee, I don't know what is. Certainly, it is lovely to see yet one more testimony to the iconic status of his Dracula.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
2016-01-10 05:17 pm

4. John Burke (1967), Dracula - Prince of Darkness (in The Second Hammer Horror Film Omnibus)

This is the second Hammer Dracula novelisation I was able to get hold of, and I read it during my holiday to Romania in May / June. I took copious notes on it at the time, in a notebook which I was also using (in a different part of it) to record my experiences of the holiday as a whole. On the day when we travelled to Actual Dracula's Actual Castle, I got confused about which part of the notebook was supposed to be for which purpose, so that the section which is meant to contain my Prince of Darkness notes now at one point reads like this:
Shandor would normally offer the hospitality of the monastery to everyone, but stops himself and decides to insist the 'wagoner' must stay outside because of the situation with Dracula. Knows nothing from the outside must be carried in.
The mountains are starker now - patches of bare, sheer rock. But still hugging the river.
A simple mistake, obviously, but somehow also a beautiful symptom of exactly what I went on that holiday to achieve - a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between the magical world of Hammer's Dracula and the reality of the Carpathian mountains. Certainly, I couldn't have picked a more perfect setting for reading the novel than my seat on a coach winding its way through the actual Carpathians, or a more perfect mind-set for exploring Actual Dracula's Actual Castle than having just put down the book to get out of the coach.

I haven't been able to check this novel against the film's original shooting script, but I am reasonably sure that, like the Scars of Dracula novelisation, it was written from the script before the film came out, rather than by sitting and watching the film. One of my reasons for thinking this is that the town known as 'Carlsbad' in the film is called 'Josefsbad' in the novel. It seems very unlikely that a writer whose brief was to create a faithful novelisation of the film would make a change of that sort, but details like that quite often were changed during the production of Hammer's films. So it's probable that 'Josefsbad' is the name used in the original script, and thus also the novel. Similarly, some of the details of what the castle looks like are different in the novel from the film - e.g. the travellers pass through a gateway before reaching the main door, and the main hallway contains a curved staircase. Again, it's unlikely that a writer working from the film would change these details, so they must reflect the descriptions in the original script, as opposed to Bernard Robinson's actual sets, which represent a compromise between the script descriptions and what was feasible with the space and budget he had available.

If I'm correct about this, the novel goes some way towards helping to resolve one of the 'controversies' around this film - namely, the issue of whether the original script gave Dracula any dialogue or not. Christopher Lee claimed the script did include dialogue for Dracula, but that he thought it was awful and refused to speak it, whereas Jimmy Sangster (who actually wrote the script) said that he never included any dialogue for Dracula in the first place. Sadly, Christopher Lee was famous for saying things in interviews which were neither plausible nor internally consistent (put less politely: lying), and Sangster's claim is certainly supported by the novel, which indeed does not include any dialogue for Dracula. But only a look at the actual original script could resolve this 100%. If it is held in the archive recently acquired by The Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, then checking should be trivially easy now - but I haven't come across anyone saying that they've looked, or what they discovered if so.

Meanwhile, although this novelisation again follows the story of the film very faithfully, Burke clearly made a conscious decision to structure his telling of it in a slightly different way, and in particular to present each of its nine chapters as much as possible from the viewpoint of a single character. I found this very effective, especially for chapter 4, which presents the ritual resurrection of Dracula entirely from Klove's point of view, and chapter 8, which covers everything from Helen's attack through the monastery window to Dracula's abduction of her from Diana's point of view. The effect is to give us something quite similar to what Angus Hall did with the Scars novelisation - that is, insights into the inner worlds of these characters of the type which can't quite be conveyed on screen - but in a slightly more sustained way. For example, we learn a lot in chapter 4 about Klove's experiences during the many years while he has watched and waited for an opportunity to resurrect his master and the extent to which he really does think of the resurrection itself as a religious ritual, while chapter 8 of course puts us inside Diana's head during Dracula's attempt to make her drink his blood from a wound which he scratches into his chest. This scene actually isn't played quite the same way as in the film - in the novel she eventually finds the will to resist, which she most certainly does not in the film. But in any case, Burke's selection of his point-of-view character for both chapters is extremely effective and adds powerful extra dimensions to the story.

I particularly enjoyed the final, climactic chapter, covering the chase from the monastery to the castle and Dracula's final demise. It had a lot of multi-sensory descriptive detail - the fading light of the sun, the dusty road, the foaming horses, the shriek of wood and iron as the run-away wagon crashes on the castle bridge - and a real sense of action and urgency. Indeed, a lot of the details in this chapter made it much clearer to me than the film has ever managed how much this sequence was supposed to recall the climatic chase at the end of Stoker's novel, with Dracula likewise being carried along in a coffin on a rough wagon through a winter landscape, and the vampire-hunters catching up with him just as the sun is about to set.

Dracula's icy demise made much more sense as described in the novel, too, freed as it was from the budget and special-effects constraints at work on the film. In the film, the final fight takes place on a solid platform of ice, and the audience is asked to accept that Dracula is somehow stupid enough to end up trapped on the only loose chunk of that ice, rather than just running the hell away as soon as the first cracks appear, and climbing up the castle wall to escape. But in the novel, all of the ice breaks up, and very quickly too. Charles just about manages to escape to one side and climb the bank, while on the other Dracula tries to edge along the last pieces of remaining ice towards a protruding buttress of the castle wall, which he could use to climb up off the ice to safety - but is prevented from doing so by a final collapse which plunges him into the water.

In fact, this scene as described in the novel reminds me somewhat of the resurgence of spring and vitality after the winter frosts which happens at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and helps to defeat the White Witch. There is a sense that nature itself - not just Father Shandor's rifle - is playing its part here, throwing off the dark grip of winter to let life through once again and defeat Dracula. I'm sure all of this was lovingly described and envisaged in Sangster's original script, and I entirely understand why realistic breaking ice was rather beyond the effects capability of the production crew. But anyway, it's nice to finally understand what is meant to be happening during an ending which I've always found very frustrating and annoying while watching the film. Perhaps I'll be able to watch it more charitably in future, now that I know what they were trying to convey.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
2016-01-08 10:27 pm

3. Fred Saberhagen (1975), The Dracula Tape

In 1976, Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire, a novel presented in the form of a vampire's taped confessional, reporting on his life and experiences from his point of view. One year earlier, Fred Saberhagen had done much the same, except that his vampire was Dracula.

I don't think either can have been aware of the other's work until after they had completed their own. Interview with the Vampire was an intensely personal novel whose gestation period stretched back to a short story written in the late 1960s, and its manuscript was complete by 1974. I haven't been able to find an equivalent project history for The Dracula Tape, but obviously the fact that it was published before Rice's novel means Saberhagen is very unlikely to have had any opportunity to read hers before submitting his. Rather, I think we are seeing the combined effect of a) the explosive potential of taped conversations being rather in the air thanks to the role they had played in the Watergate scandal, and b) the general shift towards sympathetic portrayals of vampires at this time, also visible a year later in the heavily romanticised 1977 Broadway version of Dracula starring Frank Langella (later turned into Dracula 1979). In other words, it's simply two authors responding to the same zeitgeist.

Another bit of zeitgeist which left its mark on Saberhagen's novel (though not Anne Rice's) was the publication of In Search of Dracula by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally in 1972. This was the first publication to argue that Bram Stoker based his Count Dracula directly on the Wallachian Voievod Vlad III Dracula, and to make the real-world history of the latter accessible to Anglophone readers. It inspired a whole wave of creative works fleshing out the connection between the two after its publication, including the BBC radio play 'Lord Dracula' which I listened to recently, this documentary starring Christopher Lee and many others. So it's no big surprise to find that Saberhagen's Dracula explicitly is Vlad - though this doesn't actually have very much impact on the detail of the novel, since its main concern is with the same time-period as is covered in Stoker's novel, several centuries after Vlad's human life-time.

The story which Saberhagen's Dracula relates, at once to a tape recorder and to the frightened great-grandson of Mina Harker and his wife, is simply that of Stoker's novel, but as experienced from his point of view. Saberhagen had obviously read the novel closly, and offers a nice subversive reading of it. We learn that his Dracula was genuinely trying to pass as human at the start of Jonathan Harker's visit to his castle, using the visit as practice in doing so before moving to the busy metropolis of London, but had underestimated how difficult it would be and found to his frustration and consternation that he kept failing at it - as, for example, when Harker cuts himself while shaving. Every ostensibly-damning detail in Stoker's novel is carefully explained - that wasn't a baby in the sack he threw to his three brides but a squealing pig; the wolves which appear at the castle door when Harker tries to leave are there to escort him safely to the main road, not frighten him back into the castle; Lucy dies not because of his blood-drinking but because she is given transfusions from the wrong blood group; etc. etc. Dracula himself only takes human blood with the person's consent (otherwise drinking from animals), he of course truly loves first Lucy and then Mina, and he and Mina eventually enter into a conspiracy to fake his death and thus throw the vampire-hunters off his scent.

As a flipped perspective narrative, it's pretty well done. That said, Saberhagen's prose is nothing like Bram Stoker's, and he does himself no favours by showing this up very starkly in the earlier parts of the story through extensive direct quotations from the novel, which his Dracula then deconstructs and retells. I understand why he felt the need to do this - basically the fear that people might not 'get' his rewritings if they didn't have the original account easily to hand to remind them of the story as Stoker had originally told it. But personally I'd prefer him not to have done it quite so much, even if he had been able to write like Bram Stoker. It felt to me like wasted space which could have been used instead for extra new story, and made the whole narrative feel too closely tied to the structure of Stoker's. I was also unconvinced by the relationship between Dracula and Mina, which seemed to be suddenly announced as a Great Love without any very clear basis that I could see - but this seems to be a common complaint for me with fictional love-affairs, which I have written about in relation to Dracula (1979) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) to mention only the Dracula-related instances (it doesn't only annoy me in Dracula stories; it's just that I tend to write more about those than anything else).

Still, I'm glad I read it. I've known that this novel exists since 1994, because it has a detailed entry in a vampire encyclopedia which I bought in that year, and of course have been hungry ever since to hear Dracula's story from his perspective - but it has only been recently in this eBay-enabled age that I've been able to access a copy. It's certainly better than Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt's attempt at a similarly redemptive narrative, and is interesting for the place it holds in the ongoing evolution of Dracula fiction.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
2016-01-03 10:17 pm

2. Angus Hall (1971), The Scars of Dracula

Now I am going to attempt some book reviews. I am seriously behind on these. I read this particular book last February, and while that's not a problem in this case because it is a Hammer Dracula book, so I took detailed and obsessive notes about it at the time, that isn't true of everything I read in 2015. So this particular review will probably be ludicrously long, but others are likely to be rather brief.

Anyway, just as Target Books began producing novelisations of Classic Doctor Who TV stories in the 1970s, usually based on the original script rather than the broadcast version (not least because these weren't always available by the time the novels were written), the same thing happened for quite a number of the Hammer films. Not all were novelised, but of the Dracula series, Brides, Prince and Scars were done in this way; and of those, Scars was the one I managed to pick up for a reasonable price on eBay first. As it happens, I also managed to obtain a copy of the Scars shooting script, written by Anthony Hinds, around the same time, as an optional extra along with a book I bought from Peveril Publishing. So I was able to read the two against one another, as well of course as considering how they compared to the film.

As a result, I can be 100% confident that this novel was indeed written by working directly from the script. The plot and dialogue follow it exactly, and the descriptive passages in the novel often use the exact same wording as the descriptions of actions and locations found in the script (which, of course, unlike the dialogue, could not possibly have been taken from the film). Indeed, some of the location descriptions used in the novel don't match what was eventually shown on the screen (budget restrictions often led to scaling-down), but do match the original script. This isn't to say novel and script are identical, though. Hall was clearly at liberty to embellish, and in this spirit has taken some sequences described in the script in a slightly different direction from what was done in the film. He has also included some scenes that aren't in the version of the script I read at all - though they may have been in earlier drafts. Certainly, the version of the script I read has quite a lot of notes in it stating that scenes had been deleted or omitted, and sometimes that is exactly where the extra scenes appear in the novel. Both novel and script also confirm what I've read about Dracula's opening resurrection scene in various books about Hammer films - that it was added at the last minute at the request of Hammer's distributors at this time, EMI. This matches up with the fact that isn't in the script or the novel.

Another way in which both script and novel differ from the final film relates to the castle - and now that I've read them I finally understand what the film was trying to get at here in a way I never did before. In the film, we see the main body of the castle being set on fire early in the story, but then soon afterwards Dracula and Tania are living in the very same rooms perfectly happily, without any sign of fire damage. Dracula mentions that the beautiful furniture etc visible in the rooms is 'all that was left - after the fire', but we never see any visible signs of fire-damage. The script and novel both reveal what was meant to be the set-up, though - that the Great Hall of the castle had collapsed in on itself in the fire, leaving only two usable areas: the servants' quarters, where Dracula moves his remaining good furniture, and one bedroom, with the two connected only by slimy / charred / draughty corridors. This would have been really cool and interesting, picking up rather nicely on Stoker's original vision of Dracula living in visibly straightened circumstances, yet with the evidence of once-great wealth all around him, but it just wasn't followed through in the film - probably for the practical reason that the interior sets were reworked from Horror of Frankenstein, made just before this, while the exterior sets and long-distance models were developed separately. The result is that the exteriors and interior don't match up sensibly, and the interiors are all rather too grand to look convincingly like servants' quarters. That's just what they had, so - whaddayagonnado?

Comparing the novel to the film, Hall gives us a slightly more supernatural Dracula than what we see on screen. Right from the start, Hammer had elected to write out Dracula's ability to adopt anything other than human form for budget reasons - Peter Cushing's Van Helsing calls the idea that he can turn into a bat or wolf a 'fallacy' in the first film. With Scars, a sequence in the script describing a sleeping Dracula locking eyes with a bat which flies into his crypt is interpreted in the film as meaning that he has given the bat telepathic instructions, which it then flies off to obey, but in the novel Hall turns this into Dracula himself actually becoming the bat, and flying off to wreak his revenge on the local villagers directly. Similarly, as Paul stumbles through the forest after being kicked out of the village inn, Hall describes the mountain mist crawling down his collar as though it were alive - perhaps just atmospheric embellishment, but perhaps also meant to make us wonder whether it is actually Dracula or one of his vampire hordes who have temporarily adopted a misty form, and are checking him out as a potential victim?

Hall also proves himself good at creating a suitably Gothic atmosphere through his descriptions of rugged, inhospitable landscapes, vegetation and weather. He has to do this to create the right effect in the absence of Gothic-looking visuals, of course, but Hall's writing is successful enough to make some scenes distinctly more chilling than they are in the film. This is true for the afore-mentioned scene of Paul stumbling through the forest through enveloping mists, and for another one of Klove advancing on Sarah with ill intent towards the end of the story, which Hall makes ten times more obviously rapey than it comes across as on screen. (I'm not saying having rapeyness in stories is a great thing, but if you are going to do it, you should convey the horror as clearly as possible, which Hall does.) In short, Hall's novel is overall slightly better qua novel than the film is qua film - though, in fairness, Hall didn't have to come up with the original plot, so could concentrate more on stylistic matters instead when he wrote it up. Also, let's be honest, we are starting from a pretty low bar with this particular film. ;-)

This isn't to say he always had his eye entirely on the ball - after all, we are basically talking about a cheap paperback which was probably knocked out in no more than a month. For example, he gives us a big scene all about how tired Julie is because her last customers have stayed until 2am and she has then had to clear up after them before going to bed, only to be followed by dialogue two pages later about how no-one in her village will open up after dark. He also makes both Paul and then later Simon recognise the name Dracula, and know something of his terrible reputation, before they meet him - something which the film itself steers clear of, and is a mistake in my view. The logic of the films is always that the large towns which people like Paul and Simon come from represent the normal, civilised world, within which horrors such as Dracula are unimaginable, and that he can only flourish in out-of-the way villages where the combination of isolation, ignorance and fear allows him to get away with his terrible acts unchecked. If normal chaps like Paul and Simon know about him all the same, that begins to fall apart, which in turn erodes the very delicate balance of disbeliefs which allow the whole story-world to function.

On the other hand, Hall sometimes strives to smooth over unresolved plot peculiarities from the original script, including one which I hadn't even noticed. This came in chapter 15, when Hall seeks to explain why Simon and Sarah would hitch a ride in a farmer's cart when they go off to look for Paul, when they're clearly both from wealthy families who would have their own carriages. Hall's explanation is they think they'll get more response from the locals if they pretend to be a penniless couple - a nice idea, and it does more or less match up with Simon's attempt in the film to pretend they're students. Another possibility which occurs to me, now that I'm alerted to the issue, is that they are trying to hide what they're doing from both sets of parents, who would naturally worry, and might even insist on involving the police, who would then try to arrest Paul for his alleged assault on the Burgomaster's daughter.

Meanwhile, because he is writing a novel rather than a film script, Hall can offer us some insights into the inner lives of his characters. He does this for most of them, but it is particularly striking and interesting for Dracula, who is usually so aloof and impenetrable. E.g. at the start of chapter 10, when Dracula first sees Paul, we learn that he feels jealous of Paul for being young, human and vital. I'm not sure that's quite how I see Dracula, but it certainly has a basis in Lee's performances, in which he always attempted to convey what he called 'the loneliness of evil'. Hall also gives Dracula some considerable extra dialogue towards the end of the novel, especially when Simon comes face to face with him in his crypt having just discovered Paul's grisly fate. There are no deletions marked in the script I have at this point in the story, and I think it's unlikely that Hinds would have written such a long talky scene into what is more or less the climax of the film, so I think this must be original to Hall. But in a novel its very welcome to have the main protagonist and antagonist confronting one another properly, and of course more than welcome to have some extra lines for Dracula himself, who here shows us his arrogant (or self-confident, depending on your point of view!) faith in his invulnerability just before his fall.

Hall also makes the characters of both Julie and the Priest considerably more plausible than they come across on screen. In the case of the Priest, this isn't entirely Hall's doing - the Priest was already rather more convincing in Anthony Hinds' script than he comes across as in the final film, where he behaves so bizarrely (trying to stop the villagers attacking Dracula, wimping out for no clear reason whenever an attack does take place) that it is possible to read him as being in league with Dracula. In both script and novel it is much clearer that he is supposed to be a re-hash of the Priest from Risen, and as such is simply a weak and scared man with some traumatic memories. But Julie's transition from a plot avatar to a believable character seems to be entirely Hall's doing. Her dialogue and actions are much the same as in both script and film, yet the glimpses into her inner thought-world which Hall adds somehow give them a purpose and meaning which weren't at all obvious before. This is very definitely an improvement.

Finally, here is a list of small points of world-building detail which Hall inserts into the novel, but are not made explicit in the film or the shooting script:
  • Chapter 1 - states explicitly that the story is set in Transylvania, and that Kleinenberg is 10 leagues (i.e. 30 miles) from the village / castle area.
  • Chapter 7 - the border which Paul crashes through in the run-away carriage divides Transylvania into two self-governing states. This means than both Kleinenberg and the castle are in Transylvania, but also helps to explain the unwillingness of the police officers from Kleinenberg to go as far as the castle in their investigations.
  • Chapter 8 - the inn in the village near the castle is called the Castle Arms.
  • Chapter 21 - Dracula's coach is driven back to the castle from the village after Sarah and Simon have used it to escape by 'Klove perhaps - or one of his allies in the village'. Actually it can't be Klove, who was left behind in the castle and wouldn't have had time to catch up with Sarah and Simon and collect the coach. But the passing reference to Klove having allies in the village is interesting. I think he must, as indeed must Dracula, directly or indirectly, in every one of these films to exercise the control he does over the local area. (The film, by contrast, doesn't attempt to explain how the coach gets back to the castle, although from what we see in Prince it's reasonable enough to assume that the horses simply returned home by themselves, responding to Dracula's supernatural influence over animals.)
  • Chapter 22 - this provides more detail about Klove's connections with the local community, specifying that he has a cousin who is an apprentice to a local blacksmith, and who helps return Dracula's coach whenever it gets abandoned, which happens two or three times a year. This in turn suggests that Dracula uses his coach to lure victims to his castle on a regular basis, but that those schemes quite often go awry.
  • Chapter 24 - here we learn that Klove himself used to be an apprentice in Kleinenberg, where he regularly saw Sarah as a child, before being sold into Dracula's service. Also, since going into Dracula's service he has sometimes seen her there again on journeys to Kleinenberg. Backstory FTW! Personally I like the bit about Klove being an apprentice and Dracula regularly visiting Kleinenberg, but not so much the bit about Klove being sold into Dracula's service. Hall has some further dialogue which specifies that he is sold for money, but this is to completely overlook Dracula's supernatural powers, and thus what is distinctive and interesting about him as a character. He shouldn't need to buy servants when he can clearly use his hypnotic powers to compel them into loyal service for nothing, and / or the promise of dark powers to string them along in the hope of some eventual reward.
  • Chapter 26 - this offers a few glimpses into what might happen after the end of the story as filmed, in the form of a flash-forward set during Sarah's journey from the church which she has fled after the bat attack to the castle: "Later, when asked by the police how she had reached the castle, she was unable to give a coherent answer." Her fragmentary memories include trying for help at the inn, being thrown out, and riding a stolen horse up to the castle (as opposed to running / walking there, which is what the script and film have). It is of course perfectly obvious that Sarah and Simon would end up being interviewed by the police after their experiences in the castle, since the police are already in pursuit of Paul over his alleged treatment of the Burgomaster's daughter - but heaven knows what they would make of Simon and Sarah's story!

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
2015-10-26 08:59 pm

Theatre: Nosferatu by the Proper Job Theatre Company at the Carriageworks, Leeds

This I saw on Friday, in company with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy. It takes its cue from the 1922 film Nosferatu, but it certainly isn't a straightforward adaptation of it. Rather, it is set entirely on board the ship carrying Count Orlok from Varna to Whitby, and follows the experiences of three surviving ship-mates (one fervently religious, one superstitious, one harshly rationalistic) as they are driven to terrible thoughts and deeds by their dread cargo in a single dark hour before the coming of the dawn.

Those ship-board scenes, of course, are also in Stoker's novel, not to mention many other versions of Dracula. Indeed, this stage play began with the captain scribbling furiously in his log, narrating entries in a broadly Stokerish style (and a beautiful Irish accent, no less!) as he brought it up to date. But what ties it specifically to Nosferatu (1922) is the visual style - partly the set and props, but above all Count Orlok himself. This is in spite of the fact that we never actually see him. Rather, the story is driven by his terrible presence down below in the hold, and after the captain of the ship finally climbs down to investigate what is there, and we hear a scream and see the slap of a single bloody hand on the (translucent) cabin door, he begins to take on the mannerisms and clothing of the count. Even then, it's slightly too simple to say that he becomes possessed by Orlok's evil. There is something much more complex going on about the effects of fear and isolation on the human mind. But his hands increasingly become Orlok's clawed hands, and he abandons the long duster-coat he had been wearing to reveal that Orlok's buttoned jacket had been there all along, just underneath.

This is a perfectly solid set-up, and there are plenty of things about the play I enjoyed. I particularly liked the lady who sat throughout the performance on one side of the stage with a cello and a microphone, providing siren-like singing and eerie music when required. There was also some clever trickery which allowed ship-mates who had just died to be discovered already wrapped up inside tarpaulin body-bags that had been lying on the side of the stage since the story began. But fundamentally, this was the kind of play in which people move around in slow-motion through a series of mannered poses, and one character will say something portentous and rather meaningless like "time is an ocean", after which the other characters pick up and echo the same refrain: "time..." "time is an ocean". I'm afraid I am instantly turned off by that. It is just too difficult to pull it off without sounding like a parody of utterly pretentious avant-garde theatre. In this case, they also made it worse by frequently shifting into song as well - and not always very melodically, or even entirely in tune.

So although I really liked the idea of the absent-yet-present Count, driving everyone mad without ever needing to appear in person, in the end this play was just trying rather too hard for my taste. I don't actually regret the evening spent watching it, but I won't be rushing to see another play by this theatre company again.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
2015-10-25 12:07 pm

24. The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (1970), staged reading at the Mayhem Film Festival

This was not actually a film in the conventional sense - rather a staged reading of an unproduced film script - but I'm including it in my 'films watched 2015' tag nonetheless, because it was very close, and I know that's where I'll look for this review in the future. The script in question was written by Anthony Hinds, joint architect (along with Michael Carreras) of Hammer's horror heyday, and it was originally intended as the seventh entry in their Dracula franchise, to follow after Scars of Dracula (1970). There's a good blog post here which explains the production context and what happened - basically, Hammer's distributors, Warner Bros., had some assets locked up in rupees in India, and this was intended to be shot on location as a way of unlocking them. In the end, it never came to pass, and the script instead lay forgotten in Hammer's script archive, until the collection was passed to the Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, and examined properly by some experts. The obvious interest of this one was quickly recognised, and arrangements put in place for its first ever public airing in Nottingham last Saturday evening as part of the Mayhem Film Festival.

The event was billed on the Mayhem website as "Jonathan Rigby to narrate long-lost Dracula script from Hammer archive", with the further information that he would be "accompanied by a group of actors" - and quite honestly, that was more than enough for me and I went on that basis. But in practice it really undersold how much effort they had gone to to bring this script to life. What actually happened was that Rigby read all the scene descriptions and directions from the original script, while a cast of seven voice actors did the dialogue, sound effects were provided by a two-man crew with laptops and a mixer, a live sitar player did his thing at the appropriate moments, and occasional visual effects were projected onto a screen in the middle. These included opening and closing credits, as well as a close-up of Christopher Lee's eyes in full Dracula mode whenever his signature character was required to stare piercingly at a variety of young ladies during the story - which happened quite a lot. I took a few photos myself, but this one, which Jonathan Rigby posted on Facebook after the event, best captures it:

Full view of cast and eye by Ashley Bird.jpg

You can also see thirty more from an enthusiastic audience member here, including perhaps the most touching moment of all - the words ‘In memory of Sir Christopher Lee, 1922-2015’ displayed as part of the closing credits, to great cheers and applause from everyone present.

In short, then, it was a lot like watching a live recording of a radio play, except for the occasional use of the screen. And this was absolutely excellent for me, because I went there knowing that this might be the only time I ever had the chance to hear the contents of this script, but that I was also going to want very badly to be able to revisit and reconsider the story. So I took a note-book, and was able to sit in the second row, right behind the sound crew in the seats of the first row, looking up occasionally but mainly just listening intently and scribbling and scribbling madly across the page, until I had filled up 33 A5 pages in two hours with basically everything that happened in the entire script, including some verbatim dialogue. Meanwhile, as I wrote and listened, an entire film played out, as if by magic, in the inside of my head. I have read a few Hammer scripts before, and their descriptive text usually goes quite well beyond the purely practical. This one was no exception, describing a decaying Maharajah's palace as a ‘gaunt edifice’ whose corridors are lined with faded brocade and crumbling trophies, or speaking of the 'cold light' of the early dawn and someone being 'ground to bone-meal', for instance. So it was very easy to visualise the right sorts of settings from Rigby's narration, while the sound effects gave them the appropriate texture and the voices of the various actors populated them with living characters. Indeed, I am well enough steeped in Hammer's visual style to mean that often I could see in my mind's eye exactly the sorts of sets and costumes they would have used, the camera angles they would have chosen, and the composition of the shots.

All of which was incredible and amazing and breath-taking, because Hammer's Dracula franchise is my favourite film sequence bar none, and yet its last entry appeared in 1974, and I was born in 1976, so I never had the opportunity to see any of its films fresh on first release at the cinema. Indeed, it's some 25 years since I saw a Hammer Dracula film for the first time at all in any context, so I find it difficult now to remember or imagine what devouring one I haven't seen before is actually like. The raw experience of an entirely new Hammer Dracula story, with absolutely no idea what might happen next at any point, was something I never expected to have again - and this performance was the closest I have or will ever come to experiencing that not only on my own at home in front of a video, but live and completely fresh in the cinema with a whole audience around me doing the same. Walking up the cinema aisle at the end of the performance, I found myself overwhelmed almost to the point of tears at the sheer magnitude of what I had just witnessed, coupled of course with the sad knowledge that I may never have such an experience again... Well, that is, unless the same team get themselves together and do a performance of Lord Dracula - the other unmade Hammer Dracula film lying in the CATH archive, which is an 'origins' story linking the Hammer Dracula with the historical Vlad III Dracula. I don't think I have to explain to regular readers of this blog how and why that is basically the story I consider myself to have been put upon this earth to hear.

So, having talked about the performance at the Mayhem Film Festival, I'm now going to review this story qua story, in the way that I have every other Hammer Dracula story on this blog. The obvious difference of course is that you, dear reader, are almost infinitesimally unlikely to have 'seen' it. That means we need to start with a brief plot summary. It is utterly spoilerific, as is everything I say from this point onwards in the review. But given that as far as we know at the moment, this story will never be released in any other format, you may as well read on and at least find out what happens in it. )
strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
2015-10-04 11:12 pm

20.-22. Film-watch catch-up part II

20. Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb (2014), dir. Shawn Levy

I watched this on DVD from Lovefilm in August while writing my half of a co-authored chapter on Augustus on screen, so that I could check a) whether this latest entry in the franchise cast any further light on whether Octavius (Steve Coogan's character) is meant to have anything to do with Octavian / Augustus or not, and b) what exactly was meant by the character listed on the IMDb cast-list as 'Augustus statue'.

In case you too are burning to know the answers to those questions, I can report that Steve Coogan's Octavius still has no connection to the historical Augustus - it's just a classic case of name-borrowing. There were some distinctly slashy moments between him and the cowboy Jedidiah, though, that were just subtle enough to go unnoticed by children and a certain type of adult, but very definitely there for those of us who like to look for that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the Augustus statue turned out to be a bust of Augustus wearing the civic crown, who shouts to Octavius and Jedidiah from inside his glass case to try to warn them that they are standing inside a model of Pompeii, and are about to be killed in the eruption. In fact, the entire scene is on Youtube, so we may as well have it here:


This film is set in the British Museum, but oddly they don't have a head of Augustus anything like the one seen in this clip. In fact, as far as I can tell, the bust in the film is actually modelled after this one in the Glyptothek, Munich, also known as the Bevilacqua Augustus (after an Italian collection it once belonged to). The British Museum does have a very famous head of Augustus - the Meröe head, which was even the subject of its own little exhibition at the end of last year. So you might ask why they didn't use that. But we flip back and forth between careful reconstructions of actual British Museum galleries and completely invented spaces throughout the whole film, and besides it's not like this bust even needs to be Augustus at all anyway. Titus would have been a rather better choice, given that Vesuvius actually erupted during his reign.

The rest of the film was much as we've all come to expect from Night at the Museum films - fun, but not exactly life-changing. But there was one other scene which deserves noting down here for its Classical receptions relevance. The premise of the film is that Larry (Ben Stiller's character) brings the magic tablet which has been bringing museum exhibits in America to life to the British Museum, where obviously it has the same effect on the exhibits there. So as he and the pals he has brought over from America explore the galleries of the British Museum for the first time on the night of their arrival, all the exhibits around them are also coming to life for the first time - and behaving rather confusedly and erratically as a result. Put that idea together with probably the most famous of all the British Museum's galleries - the one containing the Parthenon sculptures - and what you get is the strange spectacle of figures from the relief friezes groping and leaning outwards, while half-broken marble bodies from the pediments limp and writhe weirdly across the floor.

It's good as an early scene in the film for building up creepy tension before the later and more threatening exhibits, but I also liked the angle it cast on the sculptures themselves. Art historians wax lyrical about how 'mobile' these sculptures are, but seeing them literally trying to move in a fantasy film throws into sharp relief what a rather silly thing that is to say about a solid stone statue. And then we get all caught up in stuff about Greek ideals of bodily beauty, including this recent exhibition which was actually at the British Museum (though after this film came out), which rest very heavily on looking straight past the badly damaged condition of a lot of surviving Greek art to a perfect original which now exists only in our imaginations. So, similarly, seeing these statues as broken bodies moving with a far-from-ideal grace rather punctures all that stuff too, and perhaps allows the statues to be the rather fragile artefacts they actually are, rather than the icons of something else which they are often treated as. So, in short, I came to this film for Augustus, but stayed for the Parthenon marbles.


21. The Wicker Man (1973), dir. Robin Hardy

We've reached late August now, when I went to see this with the lovely Andrew Hickey, miss_s_b and magister at the Hyde Park Picture House. We were so convinced it was going to be the (so-called) final cut which came out two years ago that we got ourselves all confused when it wasn't, and couldn't work out what version we had seen. But I think on sober reflection that it must just have been the short version - i.e. the film as it was originally released in cinemas in 1973. It's just that who ever watches that when you have longer versions available? So to us it seemed strange and unusual - hence our confusion.

It was a really nice, sharp clear print, though, with full rich colours and every tiny detail standing out in bold, eye-catching fashion, so I spend most of the film just wrapped up in small points of set-dressing and the behaviour of extras. I have seen it a lot of times, so as with the Dracula films, it doesn't take me long to tread the familiar paths of thought which the film provokes, and after that I am at my leisure to go off the regular pistes and into strange territories of my own. This time for some reason (perhaps because I was watching it in a gas-lit cinema), I became fascinated with the question of whether or not Summerisle has its own electricity supply. The answer is that although you see plenty of oil-lamps in interior scenes, so the islanders clearly aren't solely dependent on electricity for their lighting at least, Summerisle definitely does have an electricity supply as Howie switches on an electric light using a pull-cord when he breaks into the chemist's dark-room. So we must then ask how it is produced, because I can't somehow see Lord Summerisle entering into any kind of contract with a mainland electricity supplier. I think something like the hydroelectric power system at Cragside in Northumberland provides a suitably independent and Victorian solution, though, except that of course on Summerisle the source of the power would probably be tidal instead.


22. Tempi duri per i vampiri (aka Uncle was a Vampire, 1959), dir. Steno (aka Stefano Vanzina)

Finally, while I was in Whitby with DracSoc only three weeks ago, we had an early dinner on the Sunday evening, and then all piled into one couple's hotel room to watch this. Like so many of Christopher Lee's films, and especially the ones in which he plays vampires, I have wanted to see this for literally decades, so it was very exciting indeed to be hanging out with people who felt the same way. OK, so it is a '50s Italian comedy, with lots of jokes about put-upon men and busty ladies, which I probably wouldn't find interesting in the normal course of things. But what makes it so fascinating is that it features Lee playing Dracula-by-any-other-name (he's actually called Baron Rodrigo), only one year after his first iconic appearance for Hammer, and years before he would play the role again for anybody else. Well done to the Italian director for spotting the commercial potential of Lee in that role so early, and for helping Lee to establish himself as a European, as well as British, film star along the way.

Irritatingly, the English-language version of the film uses someone other than Christopher Lee to speak his lines, so you don't get his trade-mark voice. But the way he plays the ancient and noble Rodrigo is very much in line with his performance as Dracula in the Hammer films - demonic outbursts, anguished looks and all. Indeed, it would I think be possible to slot this film into the Hammer Dracula canon, since it is set at the time of its release, and no other Hammer story occupies that time-period. So this could be a little Italian vacation which the Hammer Dracula enjoys before turning up in London in 1972 to be 'resurrected' by Johnny Alucard. Certainly, he talks of having to move from tomb to tomb and castle to castle (presumably in order to keep his identity a secret), so we only have to add that 'Rodrigo' is an assumed name, and he can easily be Dracula in disguise.

The direction is quite different from the Hammer films, though, and doesn't always lend Lee quite the same gravitas as they managed. I felt the lack of shots allowing him to loom over the viewer, or close-ups of his blazing eyes. In fact, this director just didn't really seem to do close-ups at all. His characters were consistently shot at most from the waist up, and often in full length, almost like an early film. And actually the take on vampirism is pretty different, too. Lee's Baron Rodrigo is tired of his life as a vampire, and half-way through the film manages to pass the curse onto his nephew, meanwhile allowing him to retire to his tomb for uninterrupted eternal rest. I'd reconciled myself to that being it for Lee's appearance in the film, but about half an hour later he reappeared, thanks to a Buffy-like scene in which the nephew shook the curse back off again after a moment of true love, and eventually managed to end the film in happy comedic style, walking off set with an attractive young lady on each arm.

Quite an oddity, then, but I'm very pleased to have seen it, especially in company with fellow aficionados. And actually it turns out the whole thing is on Youtube, so I can give it another look whenever I feel like it. Meanwhile, there's just One More Time and The Magic Christian to go, and I will have seen every Lee-as-basically-Dracula appearance there is. A sad thought. :-(


And for now - that's me up to date! On films, at least. Books are a whole nother matter...

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
2015-09-17 11:18 pm

Weekend in Whitby

I spent last weekend in Whitby with various members of the Dracula Society - i.e. the same people I went to Romania with at the beginning of the summer. Back when I lived in Oxford, I attended the annual Whitby Gothic Weekend at least three times. As far as I remember they were the Aprils of 1999 and 2000 and the October of 2001, but I didn't have a livejournal back then to record the great events, so who knows! Anyway, between the fact that the WGW always falls during term-time, and that even from Leeds Whitby is still at least a two-hour journey away, I have failed to go again ever since. So when the Dracula Society chair let me know that a few members would be there in mid-September for a long weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to put that right.

It wasn't a formal Society trip like the Romania visit - just a group of friends hanging out in a place of relevance to their interests, really. Most of the time we bimbled around the place, shopping, sitting in pubs and cafes, enjoying the local sights and so forth. But Julia (the Society chair) does like to look after us all, so she had recommended places for us to stay and made bookings at local restaurants for evening meals, while on the Sunday morning we all met up together and walked around some key sites of relevance to Stoker's novel and to the Dracula Society. For me, this made just the right balance, with plenty of opportunities to get together and do things, but also plenty of time to just wander, relax and bump into one another randomly.

I deliberately didn't take my digital camera, reasoning that I had been to Whitby and taken photos of it before, there are zillions of pictures of it all over the internet anyway, and I would prefer to just concentrate on being with people and experiencing the town. But of course once you get there, you get caught up in the beauty of it all, and our little walk around on the Sunday morning in particular brought up various things I wanted to photograph after all. So three cheers for smartphone cameras.

We began our walk by dropping in on the Great Man himself - or at least the guest-house where he and his family stayed when they visited Whitby )

Following the West Cliff round and turning as it does into the harbour mouth, you come to East Crescent, where this little row of houses looks out over the harbour itself )

Meanwhile, on the corner between the two where the cliff curves inland is the Royal Hotel, and in their lobby is a portrait of Bram Stoker donated by the Dracula Society on their first formal visit to Whitby in 1977 )

Actually, while I was in Whitby, Julia and her partner Adrian were kind enough to sit me down and show me a documentary made about the Society in 2003, its 30th anniversary, by one of its members who worked as an editor for the BBC. It includes interviews with the founder members, spliced together with a presenter's framing narrative, hand-held video footage of the trips they have taken over the years (including the earliest ones to Romania), and numerous spots on TV documentaries and quiz-shows. The Society was formed primarily to travel to Romania, but after a few years they decided to branch out and try some other things - hence the Whitby visit and the donation of the portrait in 1977. But honestly it was so funny hearing the founder members talking about the Whitby visit in the documentary, saying how obviously it had been quite difficult to plan it all from a distance. This from people who had already been to Romania while it still lay behind the Iron Curtain! Yes, Yorkshire is evidently alien indeed to people from That London...

By 1980, though, they had recovered enough from the experience to venture a return, and this time dedicate a bench in collaboration with the local council. I saw footage of the dedication ceremony too, in the documentary. In truth it is a bit of an Archimedes' bench by now, in that much of it has been replaced since 1980, including the dedicatory plaque. But it still sits proudly at the top of the Khyber Pass looking directly across the harbour towards the church and abbey on the East Cliff, and thus commemorating the various scenes in the novel when Mina and / or Lucy look in the same direction and see either Lucy and / or Dracula in the churchyard. The pictures below show both bench and view )

We gathered collectively at the bench at least twice for tuica brought back from the recent Romania trip and general collective toasting, as of course you would if you were in a town which contained a bench commemorating the Society you had come there with. Here, stolen from Julia's Facebook page (for which I hope she'll forgive me if she sees this!) is the group shot from the Sunday evening, taken before we all went for dinner in one of the restaurants on the west harbour pier.

DracSoc in Whitby.jpg

A lovely lot, all of them.

That was it for the (really very in)formal elements of the weekend, but while we were there plenty of us of course went up to the Abbey and inside the church )

It was strange all round, though, returning to the site of Whitby Gothic Weekends long past, and feeling the ghosts of that event and its people all around me. Even though it still goes on, for me it is something that belongs squarely at the turn of the century - and there I was again, doing almost the same thing, but not quite. Actually TBH one of the most striking differences was that back then I was a student, but now I have a salary, so that instead of staying in the cheapest places we could find, eating at takeaways and agonising over every tiny little purchase, I stayed in a luxurious room beautifully decorated in purple and gold, ate out at nice restaurants and Just Bought a pair of Whitby jet earrings (which I've always wanted) without worrying about it. Other than that, I hung out with people of a broadly gothic inclination, exchanged much the same kind of geeky in-jokes with them as Goths do, and enjoyed the Stoker-infused gothic atmosphere of the town. It was a little more about sharing a love of narrative and a little less about dressing up and listening to bands, but the lines are very blurry. Or maybe that was just all the tuica...?

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
2015-08-23 10:44 pm

Dracula-related treasures at the Mossman Carriage Collection, Luton

Last weekend, the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I set off on a Hammer horror-related adventure, the first leg of which took us to Luton. More or less every person to whom I mentioned the Luton part of this endeavour curled up their lips in disdain, from which I gathered that Luton's public image is more or less equivalent to Birmingham's. But, just like Birmingham, Luton is actually well worth visiting for the under-rated treasures it offers to the intrepid visitor. In our case, the main attraction was the Stockwood Discovery Centre - once the grounds of a stately home; now home to a multiplicity of attractions, including gardens, adventure playgrounds, a local history museum and the the Mossman Carriage Collection.

What was so exciting about the Mossman Carriage Collection? Well, it contains more or less every horse-drawn vehicle ever to appear in a Hammer horror film, not to mention at least 50 other films made between 1937 (Doctor Syn) and 1985 (Out of Africa) besides. Basically, if you have ever watched a British-made film or TV production from that period which featured a carriage, the odds are it came from this collection. The man behind it was George Mossman, a Luton businessman born in 1908, who realised just at the time when horse-drawn transport was passing out of regular use that it would be a) fun and b) a good idea to buy up and restore some of the many carriages which were by then languishing away in barns and coach-houses across the country. Lending them out to film companies was of course one way of helping to make back the cost of buying and restoring them, and on Mossman's death the collection passed to the Luton Museum Service in 1991.

Before we went, I spent the best part of every evening for a week screen-capping every single carriage to feature in a Hammer Dracula film, and combing through the pictures on the Mossman Carriage Collection website to try to identify them. I'm glad to say that on arrival, my identifications proved 100% correct, so below each cut which follows you will find historical information about the carriage in question as taken from the website, pictures of it as it appears today, and screen-caps showing it in use within the Dracula films. Any pictures with me in them were of course taken by my trusty travel companion and acclaimed professional photographer, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. Oh, and it's important to note that the paint colours on the carriages today don't always match up with how they look in the films, but as the website notes explain for the Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus (first entry, immediately below), Mossman himself was quite happy to repaint them as required for film commissions. In most cases, I was able to confirm what previous colours each of the carriages had been painted by simply looking closely at the inevitable scratches in the finish to see the previous layers.

Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus, about 1880 )

Hearse, about 1860 )

Town Coach, about 1860 )

Victoria, about 1890 )

Brougham, about 1860 )

Round Backed Gig )

So far, so lovely, then. But after this, things got a bit frustrating. Because on arrival, we discovered that a wedding reception was going on inside the largest room of the collection, housing on my estimation at least half of the carriages. And we were not allowed to go in. That's pretty damned annoying when you have travelled all the way from Leeds to get there, I can tell you - especially when there is nothing on their website to warn potential visitors that this might happen. I'm pretty sure that there were at least three more carriages in that room which were used in the Dracula films, but I could only see one of them well enough to get a photograph of. Thankfully, it was the carriage I was second-most excited about seeing after the hearse, but I would really have liked to see it a lot better than I did - to say nothing of the other two which I think were in there.

Travelling Chariot, about 1790 )

There are a number of other carriages in the Hammer Dracula films which I never could identify on the Mossman Collection website, and after having visited as much as I could of the collection and looked through their excellent souvenir brochure as well, I have concluded that this is probably because they never came from it in the first place. From about 1970 onwards, Hammer must have been hiring from somewhere else - or possibly even making their own replicas, which would of course have had the advantage of being able to be bashed about a bit in the course of filming if needed. Certainly, I can't identify the Hargood family coach in Taste, the coach which Paul falls into from the window of Sarah's party in Scars, or the coach from the famous opening chase-through-Hyde-Park sequence at the beginning of Dracula AD 1972.

Meanwhile, the Mossman Collection Carriages of course had a wide and varied film career which went well beyond the world of Hammer. On the whole, I didn't worry about this - indeed, I didn't even worry about Hammer films other than the Dracula cycle. There's only so much film-geekery one brain can manage, after all. But I was excited to stumble across a replica chariot which its information panel informed us had been custom-made by George Mossman for use in Ben Hur (1959):

Replica Roman Chariot )

The fact that I was able to stand in it was in keeping with the collection's general policy, which was that genuine antique carriages had 'do not touch' labels on them, whereas visitors were allowed to sit or stand (as appropriate) in the replicas. This seems reasonable, but on the other hand I'm not sure they have thought hard enough about the heritage value of even some of the replicas, especially where they have appeared in really famous films like Ben Hur. Certainly, they don't draw very much attention to it. Only one small section of the museum mentions it, and this was the only information panel I saw which linked up a specific vehicle with a specific film. Meanwhile, as you can see in the photos, the decorative detail on the chariot is badly degraded. At first we assumed that this was just because it had been made in the first place of materials which had naturally perished over the years, but this is a picture of the same chariot from the collection's souvenir brochure:

Roman chariot from brochure.jpg

And this is it again in a video which was playing in one of the rooms of the museum:

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Judging by the hair and clothes of the people in the video, it must have been made within the last ten years at most. And meanwhile, when we looked closely at the chariot we realised that all the damage to its decoration is concentrated on the side of it which faces outwards from the arched entrance-way where it stands, and hence towards the elements. So in other words, at some point in the last ten years it has been placed facing into an open courtyard, and the result is that an iconic prop used in one of the biggest block-busters of the 20th century, which was fine ten years ago, has degraded into the state seen in the above pictures.

This makes me feel really sad, not only because it is a neglectful waste, but also because it is surely very short-sighted on the part of the museum management. Film tourism is a real thing, as our own visit proved, and the value of a prop from a film like Ben Hur is only going to grow as time goes by. Imagine being able to say at the time of its centenary in 2059 that you have a chariot used in that film! You know, a film which is famous for its chariot races... Except that a prop which is rotting away in the rain is going to be a lot less of a draw than one which has been kept in good condition.

In fact, I think the Mossman Collection could do with getting some film specialists to collaborate with them asap to draw up a proper and comprehensive list of all the films its vehicles have been used in, complete with screen-caps of the kind I've done here for the Dracula films, which could be displayed on their website and within the museum. They could reach whole new audiences by publicising that information properly - but right now, it is acknowledged only fleetingly and incompletely. It is up to geeks like me to create their own guide to the carriages used in the films they are interested in if that's what they want to see - and while I will do it and enjoyed the results enormously, even I would have been glad of a guide which covered just the other Hammer films at least.

A bit of a sad note there at the end, then, and the wedding reception thing was annoying too. But on the whole I would very much recommend a visit to the Mossman Collection, especially if you are a British film geek. You just might need to be prepared to do your own research in advance...

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
2015-07-26 10:28 pm

Romania photo posts 2: Bram Stoker's Dracula

This is the second in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

Bram Stoker never visited Romania, drawing his descriptions of the country and its history entirely from library-based research. But that doesn't mean you can't trace the footsteps of his characters through the actual landscape if you do go there - and that, of course, is exactly what the Dracula Society likes to do. The relevant parts of our holiday are shown below, in the order in which they occur in Stoker's novel (though that wasn't the order we did them in).

The novel begins with Jonathan Harker in Bistritz (nowadays more usually spelt Bistrița), writing up his diary from the Golden Crown hotel, where he is staying overnight before travelling up the Borgo Pass to meet Dracula's carriage. The Golden Crown is an invention of Stoker's, but in the early 1970s, an enterprising local businessman built his own 'Coroana de Aur' to capitalise on the western interest in Dracula tourism )

Bistritz is Bistritz, though, and we had plenty of time to wander around it before our lunch. This is what it actually looks like )

In order to reach Castle Dracula, Harker travels up the Borgo Pass from Bistritz in a stage-coach, through "a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road". Stage-coaches weren't available to us, but from time to time Harker's coach also passes "a leiter-wagon - the ordinary peasants' cart - with its long, snakelike vertebra, calculated to suit the inequalities of the road". These are still in common use in Romania, and enterprising local farmers are very happy indeed to earn extra money transporting parties of Dracula-obsessed tourists through the Borgo Pass, just like Jonathan Harker. Thus it was that on our seventh day, we did this:
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More horseyness )

Dracula failed to meet us at the top of the pass, no doubt because it was still daylight, but his castle awaited:
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More castleyness )

Stoker's novel ends with a wild chase back to Dracula's castle, which sees the party of vampire hunters catching up with the gypsy cart carrying the count back home just as the sun sets. As Mina puts it in her journal:
The sun was almost down on the mountain tops, and the shadows of the whole group fell upon the snow. I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well. As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.
The count's triumph is short-lived, of course, but still there was something about watching the sun set over the Borgo Pass from the terrace of the Hotel Castle Dracula which momentarily brought him back to life, and will stay with me forever:
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strange_complex: (Vampira)
2015-07-26 01:45 pm

14. Blacula (1972), dir. William Crain

I've known that this exists, and is a 'blaxploitation' film, for a very long time (not least because it is featured in my Horror Bible), but had never tried to track it down until very recently. Without actually having researched what blaxploitation entails, I had assumed it would be all white-perspective exoticising stereotypes about black Americans - especially stuff to do with funk, afros, tight spandex pants, etc. As it turns out, while there are a few scenes set in a disco bar, and that bar has its fair share of customers with afros and tight clothing, actually both this film and blaxploitation as a genre are very different from what I had expected. The genre term 'blaxploitation' as a whole is less about exploiting stereotypes for economic gain (as I'd assumed), and more about exploiting the economic spending power of black audiences by appealing directly to their interests - including, of course, their interest in being portrayed as three-dimensional human beings with agency of their own on screen. In the context of this particular film, that translates into a black director, a cast full of meaningful, positively-drawn black characters, and a script which engages directly with race issues in its plot and dialogue. As such, it's distinctly better in its handling of race issues than most mainstream screen productions manage to be today, including those produced by companies like the BBC which are honestly trying to be diverse and inclusive (see e.g. the Black Dude Dies First trope being rife in Doctor Who).

This particular story kicks off in 1780, when an African prince named Mamuwalde goes to ask the help of a powerful white European aristocrat in suppressing the slave trade and freeing his people. Unfortunately, the particular European aristocrat he picks is Dracula, who is pretty keen on the slave trade, and furthermore conceives a liking for Mamuwalde's (also black African) wife and starts saying incredibly racist / sexist things when Mamuwalde objects about how he should be flattered that a white man thinks his wife attractive. To punish Mamuwalde for his insubordination and his wife for rejecting his advances, Dracula then turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, locks him in a coffin so that he will be tormented by blood-lust forever but unable to get out to slake it, and locks his wife up in the same room so that she will die hearing his cries of thirst from within the coffin. So we have white European treatment of black Africans literally presented as vampirism, and our sympathies are entirely directed towards the black victims.

Fast forward (almost) two centuries, and the box containing Mamuwalde is transported to 1970s Los Angeles, with predictable results. Here, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was absolutely right to point out that Mamuwalde adapts rather too easily to his vampire nature. The whole point at the beginning was that vampirism was meted out to him as a cruel punishment, but that isn't really followed through in the main story. It's not that he becomes completely evil - he remains a sympathetic character, still basically searching for his long-lost wife. But there could have been a lot more pathos and self-loathing about his actual vampirism in the portrayal - as, for example, was done so well in Dracula's Daughter. After all, he is basically condemned to a life where it's now impossible for him not to enslave people himself - and in the light of the opening sequence he should have a bit more emotional conflict about that.

The long-lost wife story also rather stuck in my craw. Inevitably, he very quickly comes across a 20th-century woman who looks exactly like his 18th-century wife, and tells her all the usual sort of stuff about how she is his long-lost wife's reincarnation, they are destined to be together, etc. This is of course a well-worn trope, and I think I have reached the end of my tether with it. It is almost always the female character who is reincarnated, purely so that an immortal male character can still have their designated love interest, so that it reeks of male privilege and women existing only as objects for male attraction. It also completely robs the female character of all agency, as any independent choices which she might have made crumble in the face of her Manifest Destiny. And so it plays out here - and in the process serves up yet another case of characters allegedly falling in love on screen without us as the audience being given any very compelling evidence for why they might have done so, exactly as happens in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) in the context of the same trope.

In spite of those niggles, though, the film as a whole is ace. Partly that's just because I'm always eager for new takes on vampirism, and partly because I'm a sucker for contemporary-set '70s films full of awesome flares and enormous collars. But on a more universal level, William Marshall in the title role is genuinely compelling, with lots of power and gravitas to his performance, and he is surrounded by loads of really well-developed secondary characters too. Interestingly, these included a gay male couple, and several independently-minded female characters with jobs of their own who were not defined in relation to any man - e.g. a photographer and a taxi cab driver. It would be an exaggeration to claim these characters as paradigms for equality - the gay male couple in particular live up to camp stereotypes in that they are interior designers; their penchant for the aesthetic is to 'blame' for Mamuwalde's resurrection because they buy up his coffin and bring it to LA; and naturally they are punished for this by becoming his first victims. Similarly, both the photographer and the taxi cab driver meet sticky ends. But all four of them are presented as having real agency and meaningful lives of their own in a way that pretty rarely applies to the same sorts of characters in other films of this era - so I think there may be a case for saying that in casting aside mainstream stereotypical treatments of black characters, blaxploitation films also to some extent opened the door to better portrayals of other under-privileged groups at the same time.

In short, I'm glad I watched this, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I have already devoured the sequel as well. Review of that to follow.

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