strange_complex: (Me Huginn beak kiss)
A couple of weeks ago, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I spent a very enjoyable evening at the Howard Assembly Rooms in the Grand Theatre building, Leeds. The first half of the evening consisted of a lecture by Christopher Frayling, roaming around the various topics of a book he has recently published, which takes his friendship with the author, Angela Carter, as a spring-board for a miscellany of broadly Gothic topics. I must admit to not having a terribly deep knowledge of Angela Carter's work before we went. I have heard a radio adaptation of her short story, 'The Lady of the House of Love', which I thought was amazing; the film version of The Company of Wolves has been waiting patiently on my Lovefilm list for several years now; and that's about all I got. I definitely came away wanting to get to know her work better, though.

Frayling spoke mainly about their friendship and shared interest in the strange, the fantastic and the Gothic while they were both living in Bath in the 1970s. This was a world in which he had tried to get the local council to extend its series of plaques commemorating the visits of Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and Jane Austen to include Mary Shelley, who spent six months living there in late 1816 while working on Frankenstein, only to receive a snobbish and bureaucratic reply indicating that the author of such a sensationalist novel was hardly worthy of the honour. Yet there, in a pokey little house which she could barely afford to heat, lived Angela Carter, busily redefining both feminism and the Gothic on her own terms. She and Frayling geeked out together over vampire books, screenings of classic films (e.g. Nosferatu (1922)), the ballet and much more, while she kept notebooks of their conversations and used snippets of them years later in her work.

In between the bits on Carter herself, Frayling scattered snippets of his thoughts and experiences on related topics, showing us for example pictures of his visit to Romania in the mid-1970s (most of which looked more or less identical to my own from two years ago) or talking about the film we were about to see: its 18th-century origins, Cocteau's particular take, and how it had directly inspired much of Disney's animated version (e.g. the anthropmorphic household objects). He concluded with some thoughts on how the status of Gothic literature (and, implicitly, film) as a subject of study has changed since his days in Bath with Angela Carter, from the radical and innovative to the new mainstream.

Then, after a short break, it was on to the film itself. It is visually beautiful in a way I can't really do justice to simply by describing it. To 21st-century eyes used to watching a lot of fantastical screen drama, it may only appear averagely creative and opulent, but I'm quite sure it must have seemed incredible in a France only just emerging from the end of a devastating war, and it remains entrancing and engrossing today. The story itself is told fairly straightforwardly, but actually it was the first time I've really sat through a full telling of it in any form, and I spent quite a lot of the time, especially during the early stages of Belle's time in the palace, thinking "Gosh, this is basically Cupid and Psyche, isn't it?" You know - one of three daughters ends up living in a magical palace far removed from normal humanity with a husband who has strange powers, only appears at night and begs his wife not to look at him directly. Indeed, it turns out from the Wikipedia page on the original fairy tale that I was not the only person to have noticed that.

That page doesn't make any mention of Diana in the original fairy tale, however (although I wouldn't take that as proof that she isn't in it!), whereas she is an important element in Cocteau's film. His Beast explains to Belle that Diana's Pavilion in his palace grounds contains the true source of his riches, and entrusts her with a golden key to it which she conscientiously does not use. Her greedy human sort-of-boyfriend, though, has different moral standards, and breaks into it to try to steal the Beast's riches, only to be shot by Diana and transformed into a beast himself. So this looks to me like Cocteau going back past the fairy tale to draw on its Classical antecedents - not straightforwardly or directly, since it is Venus as Cupid's mother who is the source of his power, but rather by choosing an appropriate equivalent figure for the rather different character of the Beast, whose animalistic nature as a hunter is indeed Diana's domain. Besides, Diana had form for turning people into beasts as punishment: ask Actaeon.

There are fairly obvious metaphors going on here about sexual restraint as well, given that Diana-the-huntress is famously virginal. Cocteau makes a big point of the Beast respecting Belle's personal agency and autonomy, for all that she is his prisoner - itself a role she has chosen voluntarily to pay off her father's unwitting crime of cutting a rose for her. He tells her that he will ask her each evening to be his wife, but accepts her repeated refusals with grace and humility, treating her with nothing but kindness and devotion. When the Beast gives her the key to the temple of Diana, asks her not to use it, and she respects that wish, she too is choosing not to violate this potent symbol of his chastity. This is also a shift in their relationship, as he grants her a form of power over him, and she repays his behaviour by respecting him in return. Set alongside all this, though, her left-behind boyfriend, Avenant, stands as a contrasting example, quite happy to break into the virgin goddess' temple and plunder its treasures, and reaping the punishment for doing so.

I have no idea how this sits along the typical themes and concerns of Cocteau's work, because I just don't know enough about him, but anyway, that is how this one seemed to me. I'm certainly up for a bit more of his stuff, should the occasion arise.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
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)
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: (Fred Astaire flying)
My first film of 2017, seen this afternoon with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House. They were, of course, showing it in tribute to the late Debbie Reynolds, and I'm pleased to say that she got a healthy audience and a round of applause at the end.

Ironically, having made a point of clearing my review backlog so that I could start my 2017 film reviewing with a blank slate, I find I don't have a huge amount to say about the actual film which I didn't already say four years ago when we saw it at the Cottage Road cinema. I can certainly say that I came out of the second viewing feeling just as enthusiastic about it as after the first, though. It is a bit bare-faced about crow-barring the song and dance numbers into the plot, but you forgive it anyway for doing so with a nod and a wink, and for being so consistently funny and beautiful the whole way through. And I think it's probably humanly impossible not to be just a little bit in love with Gene Kelly by the end of it all.

One thing I see I didn't mention in my last review (but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan did in a comment!), and which deserves due tribute, is this wonderful Silent Movie Vamp Lady in her spider-web dress:

Singin spider web dress.png

Singin spider web dress 2.JPG Singin spider web dress 3.JPG

Simply, wow!

One more thing which should be noted here, and which I've only just realised while filling in the tags for this entry: I have now been reviewing all the films I see here on LJ consistently for ten whole years. Here's where it all began, with Metropolis in January of 2007. I have sometimes got behind on my reviews, and felt burdened-down as a result, but overall I am heartily glad that I have done it. It has definitely helped me to get an enormous amount more out of what I see, both at the time of viewing and while writing about it afterwards. I think it has also enabled me to home in more efficiently on films I will actually like. Whether I will keep it up for another ten years from now remains to be seen, but I certainly don't intend to stop any time soon.

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