Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Vampire Week Part 7

Rank: 5
Title: Martin
Director: George A. Romero
Country: USA
Year: 1977
See full review here.

Rank: 4
Title: Blade
Director: Stephen Norrington
Country: USA
Year: 1998
Wesley Snipes had been acting for more than a decade and had even built a slight reputation as a trained martial arts action hero, but it wasn’t until “Blade” (1998) that he became a household name. Adapted from the comic by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, “Blade” is one of the best examples of pure-action vampire filmmaking.

The central character’s history as a dhampir (half-vampire/half-human) daywalker (immunity to UV) is setup in the prologue and positions him as an ideal vampire hunter. His mixture of martial arts (hand-to-hand and armed with the inevitable blade) and Woo-style bullet ballet certainly helps, too. Wesley Snipe’s icy-cool urban hunter overturned the ignominy of dubious blaxploitation crossovers like “Blacula” (1972) and developed a popular African American action hero unlike any seen before (outside the original comic). His well-armed, all-black costumes complete with hip sunglasses modernized the tradition of dark antiheroes and served as an influence for such films as “The Matrix.”

Blade has his work cut out for him exterminating a city-wide infestation of vampires who significantly influence the political and economic spheres from behind the curtain. The so called “Shadow Council” of elite vampire rulers is teetering on the brink of civil war. Ambitious “youngster” Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff, channeling Kiefer Sutherland from “The Lost Boys”) wishes to explicitly enslave the human race, while the incumbent vampire ruler Elder Dragonetti (Udo Kier) preaches relative restraint. Blade has allies in the form of trusted, crusty weapons expert Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) and the requisite romantic interest, Doctor Karen Jenson (N'Bushe Wright). Jenson is working on a cure for vampirism and has a bite mark to spur her efforts. Meanwhile Blade sets about making the nighttime safe for human muggers and rapists once again.

Director Stephen Norrington knows how ratchet up the coolness, creating a chilling mirrorworld somewhere between a gothic nightmare and a noir dystopia. The film’s second scene (one of the best), sets the tone by following a bewildered hipster into a secret nightclub that raves inside an industrial meat locker. It all seems like a grand party until the sprinkler system starts spraying animal blood and the dancers turn into vampires. Blade busts in and from there on out, the scene is all intense action. The meticulous sense of place, riveting combat and strong central lead carry the film through later scenes that are a little shaky (including a so-so final battle) and lift the narrative over occasional plot holes.

Followed by two sequels that drop to decent and then to bad.

Rank: 3
Title: Mr. Vampire
Director: Ricky Lau
Country: Hong Kong
Year: 1986
“Mr. Vampire” is considered the seminal example of the “hopping vampire” cycle in Chinese cinema, and it popularized and proliferated Hong Kong action-horror in general. The story rests on the shoulders of two bumbling underlings (a favorite archetype of the nation’s popular cinema) who happen to be acolytes at a Taoist temple. Their elderly master is Kou, a priest blessed with an abundance of mystic trivia, as well as martial art skills. This comes in handy when cheapskate burials result in a wave of angry undead corpses, led by a vampire and joined by a sexy evil spirit with supernatural powers of her own.

Ricky Lau’s refreshing blend of horror, comedy and martial arts is a surefire recipe for mirth-muffins. The fast-paced tale is packed with expert fight sequences and slapstick humor (both showing his skill at split-second timing), always indulging in low-brow revelry, and yet never stooping so low that it sacrifices the characters or narrative. The special effects are so cheese-tastic that they are sure to please 80’s-philes, while the use of canted camera shots, extreme angles and plenty of fog sells the over-the-top style by backing it with genuine talent.

“Mr. Vampire” spawned plenty of sequels and dozens of imitators, including the superior, though sadly vampire-less, “Chinese Ghost Story.” The unusual depiction of hopping vampires is a blend of Western and Buddhist mythologies: in Chinese lore, the dissatisfied dead are possessed by their earth-trapped souls and search for living flesh. Unlike in the Western mythology, they still suffer the indignities of rigor mortis (hence the stiffness and the need to hop without bending the knees). They can even mold and rot! Though not actually the first of the subgenre (the inferior “Encounters of the Spooky Kind” came out in 1981), it is probably the best.

Rank: 2
Title: Nosferatu, Symphony of the Night
Director: F.W. Murnau
Country: Germany
Year: 1922
Despite being one of, the earliest versions of the Dracula legend, “Nosferatu” remains one of the subgenre’s pinnacles, enduring as a paragon of German Expressionism. Since the production company refused to acquire the rights for the source novel, the screenwriters were forced to get a bit creative with the names and the finer points of the plot. However, the changes work to the picture’s benefit, scrapping the cumbersome epistolary structure, streamlining the cast of characters and writing a superior (and thematically more resonant) ending.

The names vary based on the version, but generally Thomas Hutter is the name of the protagonist, a real estate agent who is helping the creepy Count Orlok move to London. After a sea voyage, an encounter with the superstitious locals and a ride aboard a phantom carriage (that races with impossible speed), Hutter finds himself at Orlok’s castle. There the Count becomes obsessed by a picture of Hutter’s fiancée, and after several attempts to drain the man’s life fluids, he levitates his coffins into a wagon then sets sail for Great Britain. Hutter flees the premises, but loses time recovering in a hospital. Orlok arrives on an empty death barge. His coffins disgorge an army of rats and the Black plague sweeps the city, with victims exhibiting a pair of curious neck marks. Hutter races home, but the only path to salvation bears a bitter toll.

Murnau’s assured direction creates a vividly twisted and macabre environment of utter unnatural terror. The careful choice of mise-en-scene, the fast, harsh editing and the then-impressive special effects make for a mesmerizing vision of gothic malevolence. The tinted versions are particularly effective, but Murnau’s lighting and cinematography is still grippingly in pure black and whites since he choreographs every shadow like other directors would dancers.

Much of the credit also goes to Max Schreck, who gives (to my mind) the definitive vampire performance (certainly the best of the silent era). With his long fingernails, rat-like features and bent spine, his physical appearance instills fear, disgust and pity. His stiff, gangly and insidious movements derives an audience reaction with every gesture; every twitch. The Renfield character is also quite disturbing, effected with all the laughing, hopping and bug-eating that only Expressionism can deliver with such relish.

Rank: 1
Title: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Director: Jaromil Jireš
Country: Czech Republic
Year: 1970
Based on the 1935 romantic-surrealist novel of the same title by Czech author Vítězslav Nezval, Jires’s allegorical film shows an immediate intention to plunge deep into the subconscious roots of the vampire mythology. The film follows Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), a young girl on the cusp of sexual awakening. She is caught somewhere between the naïve fairy tales of childhood and the unsettling changes of maturity while beset by incestuous vampire phantasms.

Though Valerie’s grandmother and a priest who claims to be her father both make oblique seductions, their motives (lust, blood-thirst, draining-youth, repression, etc.) remain unclear. The girl expresses more curiosity and whimsy than fear and, when her own actions fail to keep her safe, resorts to her cousin and a pair of magical earrings. A chain of shifting identities, surreal images and mystical adventures finally culminates in a transcendent spring-rites picnic.

Visually the film upturns every vampire film convention, using soft focus and an abundance of shimmering light to paint an impressionistic dreamscape of pure whites and colorful pastels. The sets cast an ethereal mood characterized by gentle breezes blowing through cobwebs and curtains, yet remain haunted by a disturbing sexual tension. That neither Jireš nor Valerie seems particularly upset by the oddity and danger in the air forces the audience to view the events as something more than horror and the protagonist as no mere victim.

The experimental cinematography and often surprising camera positions are complimented by the keen sound design. The repetition of signature noises (like the gentle ring of bells when Valerie’s earrings work their magic) and renaissance folk music creates added connotations and connections, ultimately weaving a spell over the audience and seducing them into its otherworldly charm. The film pays tribute to our exhilarating, frightful, inevitable passage into adulthood with the warmth and imagination of a child.

Fans of traditional horror, particularly the blood and guts variety, may have trouble getting into “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.” For me it remains a personal favorite and a fitting way to end Film Walrus’s week of vampires.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Vampire Week Part 6

Rank: 10
Title: Shadow of the Vampire
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Country: USA
Year: 2000
A hit on the indie circuit, “Shadow of a Vampire” is a fictional account of the 1922 “Nosferatu” production, with much borrowed from reality. Eccentric, egomaniacal genius F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is determined to realize his cinematic vision, despite lacking the full resources and support de rigueur for executing such grandiose visions. The director is confident of at least one asset: his lead actor. The obscure “performer” is currently living in a cave near the Czechoslovakian shooting location.

The rest of the cast has a little trouble adjusting to Count Orlok (Willem Defoe doing a brilliant Max Schreck impersonation), who takes method acting to the extreme by living inside his repulsive makeup and creepy persona. After he starts eating raw bats and lurching towards jugulars with thirsty longing, his costars begin to worry that he might be exactly what he seems to be. As Murnau continues headlong with his legendary shoot, the tension builds towards the climactic scene (both for the film-within-the-film and the film-that-is-the-film).

The over-the-top performances showcase the clash of egos and obsessive drives that lend directors mythic legacies and fill pages of gossip columns. Merhige underlines the self-destructive thrill of the director and the all-consuming identity-loss of acting all-the-while generating postmodern grins and generation-old shrieks. The inspired casting makes much of the magic possible; even Udo Kier has a role to ensure this film’s cult status.

Rank: 9
Title: Irma Vep
Director: Olivier Assayas
Country: France
Year: 1996
If “Les Vampires” shouldn’t count as a vampire movie, “Irma Vep” shouldn’t even be considered, but oh well. “Irma Vep” is a post-modern movie-within-a-movie about a French director who passionately wants to remake Feuillade’s seven hour silent “Les Vampires” with Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung as the eponymous villain. Though the film is a satire aimed in many directions at once, it keeps a warm heart and personal focus. I found myself instantly won over by the director (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his insane idea.

Maggie Cheung is great as herself, providing some cross-cultural conflict, an inexplicable determination and a surprising affinity for the role. Assayas’s troubled shoot allows him a chance to riff on the film industry, cineaste culture, the art world, celebrity worship and relationships (including the perennial vampire theme of lesbianism now channeled through an informed modern realism) with equal parts humor, humanity and insight. The skin-tight cat-woman suit that Mrs. Cheung must wear for the part becomes the object of multiple fetishes and a way of unlocking inner spaces long repressed (and not just sexual). The power of the role soon consumes the actress in unusual ways.

Despite the dogme-95 mod-grittiness, the film comes off hip and breezy. It culminates in an unexpected triumph in the midst of a seeming implosion and, for those with the spark of whimsical avant-garde rebellion, provides one of cinemas most magical final sequences.

Rank: 8
Title: Frostbitten
Director: Anders Banke
Country: Sweden
Year: 2006
With the release of “30 Days of Night” in theaters now (October 2007), it’s hard for me not to notice that Sweden’s Anders Banke beat it to the punch (though his film will probably be seen by 1/100th as many people). The premise of both films is a horror story in the polar north where midwinter nighttime lasts for months at a time; the perfect breeding ground for a vampire horde.

“Frostbitten” begins in 1944 where a Swedish voluntary detachment of the Nazi army is lost and freezing in the Ukraine wilderness. They take refuge in a cabin where the previous occupants have just fled (the fireplace is still hot). That night, one of them wonders how the former tenants left considering that the door and windows were all snowed in…

In present-day Sweden a girl named Saga is moving into a night-drenched town with Annika, her single mother. Annika is a doctor at a near-empty hospital where Beckert (you’ll have heard this name in the WWII prologue) is running some private genetic experiments. His patient wakes up from a year long coma and takes a bite out of Annika, his drugs get stolen for a wild high school party and just about everything that can go wrong does.

Banke’s brilliant premise and clever title were enough to get the DVD into my player, but the exhilarating opening scenes sealed the deal. It isn’t evident from the start, but the director has a crazy, offbeat humor that really works, perhaps because it never completely overtakes the action or horror. The post-modern wit and amazing spontaneity (a la “Scream”) is a welcome solution to the usual teen-horror traps and manages to avoid, subvert or cheerfully mask the expected genre clichés. I’m sure it’s already been said by others, but “Frostbitten” does for vampires what “Shaun of the Dead” did for zombies. I mean, how can you not enjoy a teenage vampire falling (and being impaled) on a wooden garden gnome and lamenting that it’s the “uncoolest” way to die?

Despite the nods, winks and smiles, Banke has a morbid streak and brash fatalism. Rarely does a teen horror movie get so overwhelming and hopeless. This is not a movie where the vampire is just a surrogate serial killer with a few super powers. Instead, they are a cross between an army and an epidemic, a force that is violent, powerful and nearly irresistible. “Frostbitten” sets a stake against your heart and keeps pounding it till the show is over.

Rank: 7
Title: Vampires in Havana
Director: Juan Padron
Country: Cuba
Year: 1985
Cult Cuban animation director Juan Padron made one of his most successful outings with “Vampires in Havana” (1985). The free-wheeling, chaotic adventure dashes through a crowd filled with popular genres, exotic ideas and surprising subtext with an energy and exuberance matched by the films many chase scenes and action pieces. Our hero, Joseph Amadeus Dracula is an anti-government, trumpet-playing ladies man with the charisma of an imperturbable rascal and the determination of an idealistic political posterchild.

The prologue introduces us to Joseph’s uncle, a top scientist working on a potion to cure vampires of light sensitivity. His early high-profile failures force him into exile but he continues to test new formulas on his unwitting nephew. Joseph grows up without ever knowing his true nature and spends most of his time playing subversive trumpet anthems and reassuring his rebel-compatriot girlfriend that he harbors no love for the VIP mistresses he “interrogates” undercover (and under covers). The truth is revealed in short order to the American and European vampire gangs and to the skeptical Joseph. Far from making the family rich and happy, the announcement triggers an elaborate series of assassinations and espionage. The American side tries to eradicate the formula to preserve their empire of simulated tropical nightclubs (which would flounder if vampires could visit real beaches), while the European consortium tries to steal the brew and market it as a wonderdrug.

The result is a clever, hilarious and often bawdy adventure with multiple threads diverging and merging over the course of a couple madcap days. Juan Padron is as good at providing an entertaining time for audiences as he is as at flinging stinging barbs at national and international socio-political targets. The script is full of puns and playful twists and is informed as much by period Cuban culture as it is by the more esoteric points of vampire mythology. Skilled vampire assassins show up that can transform into dogs or spheres of pure energy (that can pass through matter!), and all these unusual superhuman powers get foiled in amusing and creative ways.

The animation itself suffices for the story but clearly suffers from the budget restrictions and hesitant commitment to style. The film has the definite 70/80’s look of “Schoolhouse Rock” and a touch of caricature that’s too broad for the idiosyncratic premise. While not a terribly satisfying visual presentation, the film nevertheless has a pleasant feel and retro cuteness lost by slicker high-budget animations. The lightning pace and inspired story keep the faded look from seriously marring the experience.

Rank: 6
Title: Vamire Hunter D: Bloodlust
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Country: Japan
Year: 2000
“Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust” (2000) is a sequel to the 1985 original, both of which are based on Hideyuki Kikuchi’s long-running series of popular novels. The films take place in a strange, visionary universe more than 10,000 years in the future. Humanity consists of disorganized and squalid hamlets regressed to medieval conditions despite the decaying remnants of technological glory. The significant presence of mutant creatures and supernaturally gifted humans implies a past speckled with nuclear conflict although only the relatively-recent war against the vampire “Nobility” is explicitly treated. The Nobility has long been in decadent decline and has the few surviving grandmasters are hunted by powerful killers like D and the Marcus brothers.

D is an effeminate, aristocratic dhamphir who can daywalk, exert inhuman strength, leap over huge distances and call upon the powers of his unusual familiar: a demon spirit embedded in and named after his left hand. Left Hand is a cynical, independent-minded symbiotic mystery (no back-story or explanation are provided) with vaguely defined special powers useful for mild deus ex machinas. The Marcus brothers are a team of mercenary superheroes consisting of four brothers and Leila, a woman who eventually takes a liking to D. T

D and the brothers are both hired by a wealthy human whose daughter, Charlotte, has been kidnapped by the vampire Count Meier Link. Link has hired protection in the form of several demonic creatures, including a shape-shifter, a shadow-creature and a werewolf-variation. An episodic series of battles, ambushes and showdowns paves the road to a haunted castle, where plot complications, a maniacal vampire spirit and a rocket ship await.

Yoshiaki Kawajiri directs what may be the most creative vampire tale ever filmed, an epic that could never have been visualized without the fanciful excesses of anime. The dark post-gothicalyptic artwork is raging with atmosphere. Not one for subtlety (see “Ninja Scroll” [1993]), Kawajiri overwhelms our senses with imaginative sequences and sheer quantity, be it armies of mutant zombies, showers of arrows or rooftop seas of twisted crucifixes and castle spires. Every location has a memorable ambience. Each duel between D and a mutant legion of Link has a clever twist. Each character might not possess a very real, original or developed personality, but all of them at least have a unique and rousing ability for dispensing violence.

Kawajiri’s anime comes together quite well, with the art and story traveling hand in hand. Those who have not read the books (like myself) will find some of the motives obscure and a few of the events rather arbitrary, but the action, imagination and illusion of depth easily sustain the film. The 13 episode anime series “Hellsing” (2001) made similar attempts at outrageous vampire mayhem, but sorely lacked the creativity, variety and class that “D” possesses. John Carpenter also tried his hand at developing a team of vampire hunters not far off from the Marcus brothers, but his “Vampires” (1998) is a total mess.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Vampire Week Part 5

Rank: 15
Title: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
Director: Brian Clemen
Country: UK
Year: 1974
Despite a slew of better-known alternatives, my favorite vampire film out of Britain’s Hammer Studio has thus far been “Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter” (1974). It stars Horst Janson as the dashing, German captain of the title. After several young maidens get transformed into dry, brittle old-lady corpses the nearby English villagers become understandably upset. The curious deaths spur community leader Dr. Marcus to call in extra help. Kronos, a man who staked his own family after coming home from a military campaign and finding them “turned,” and his hunchbacked henchman Professor Grost are soon on the case.

Much of the film (particularly in the first two-thirds) is modeled off of the British mystery approach (with Kronos and Marcus/Grost as Holmes and Watson surrogates) meaning there’s more sleuthing and less action than audiences might expect. Kronos immediately diagnoses the town as having a bad case of youth-sucking vampirism and begins conducting interviews. Reports suggest that the monster terrorizing the region is very old, but the Captain notes that the vampire should be rather young by this time (having stolen so much life energy). As more children die, the vampire hunter falls back on his repertoire of esoteric paranormal investigation techniques like burying dead toads to monitor life-draining activity and forging a sword out of melted sacred relics. Though most imitators scrapped the investigative focus, Captain Kronos served as the prototype for many vampire hunter films to come including “Blade” and “Vampire Hunter D.”

Brian Clemens’s plot framework is actually good (not a Hammer hallmark), although his direction is not quite up to the same excellence. Keep an eye out for a western-style saloon scene where Clemens replaces the usual quick-draw gunfight with some flashing blades. The narrative packs an interesting mystery and a handful of unexpected twists and turns – unfortunately, too many are horded until the last fifteen minutes. The final scenes are standouts, with some long-awaited swordplay and a series of dark revelations.
The visuals are slightly above average for Hammer (which isn’t saying much), and the low budget is stretched intelligently to get in some good costumes and a few choice sets. The filmmaker gets plenty of mileage from the brooding, primal woodlands (the predominant backdrop) which manages to terrify and allure viewers and victims alike with the lingering sense of pagan rites and untainted wilderness.

Incidentally, Kronos rescues a beautiful gypsy woman named Carla who becomes a somewhat inconsequential love interest. Though conspicuously extraneous it helps that she’s played by Caroline Munro of “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Star Crash” ‘fame.’

Rank: 14
Title: Blood and Roses (And to Die with Pleasure)
Director: Roger Vadim
Country: France
Year: 1960
Despite a twenty year head start on Bram Stoker’s novel, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story “Carmilla” has never had the cultural penetration of “Dracula.” That’s a shame, since Fanu’s prior vampire tale is an interesting story in its own right, but too often gets adapted into purely exploitive lesbian schlock. Thankfully, Vadim fosters the eroticism without losing the Victorian elegance and subtle atmosphere totally abandoned in films like “Lust for a Vampire” and “Lips of Blood.”

The plot is not particularly close to the original, but has a classically gothic romanticism of its own. Leopoldo De Karnstein is a rich descendant of former vampires (an onus long since eradicated during a zealous village uprising), who is engaged to the beautiful, impossibly naïve Georgia (Elsa Martinelli). Meanwhile his sister Carmilla (Annette Vadim) nurses her repressed love for him and undergoes mild trances that might be mere moodiness, but might be the telepathic hypnotism of her undead ancestor Millarca (notice the anagram?). A firework celebration for Leopoldo’s engagement sets up old German bombs at the family burial plot and exposes the hidden crypt where Millarca is buried. Her spirit lures Carmilla to her sarcophagus and then takes control of her body. Still behaving somewhat wistfully, the fused souls undertake a deadly gambit for Leopoldo’s love.

Except for Leopoldo’s wide-eyed frozen smile, the acting is fairly decent and possibly benefits from the stilted delivery and hesitant movements. Vadim is clearly more concerned with showing off the beauty of his cast (his favorite approach) than in refining their delivery, but he does well by not overtaxing their talent. The voices (especially Millarca’s breathy French-accented narration) and the antiquated piano melodies give the film a timeless grace and evocative tone. It helps that the visuals are composed with poetic serenity leveraging the reoccurring visual motif of Carmilla drifting through abbey ruins and dusk-dimmed forests wearing a faded wedding dress.

While noticeably light on the gore and horror, this film can work for sensitive viewers willing to immerse themselves in the feel and timbre of its presentation. The ethereal, other-worldly power of “Blood and Roses” is most intense during the firework display and its smoke-shrouded aftermath and in the impressive, surreal dream sequence near the end.

Rank: 13
Title: Les Vampires
Director: Louis Feuillade
Country: France
Year: 1915
Despite the title, this film is a bit of an iffy pick since it contains no actual vampires. Rather it follows the exploits of an evil French gang that goes by the name “The Vampires.” Nevertheless, the moniker is fitting, since the villains operate by night in skin-tight black outfits and invoke a surge of nationwide fear with their heinous, unstoppable crime wave. Indeed, there is something almost supernatural about their surreal resourcefulness which includes hypnotism, all manner of poisons and a cannon that emerges from a fake fireplace.

Our nominal protagonist, Philippe Guérande, is an investigative journalist who gains an unlikely sidekick in the form of Inspector Clouseau-like Oscar Mazamette. These two scant heroes tend to take a back seat in this film serial dominated by criminal masterminds, including the Grand Vampire, Venomous (the poison-brewing chemist extraordinaire), Satanas, Moreno (who heralds from a rival gang) and the infamous Irma Vep (whose name is a suspicious anagram).

Though a bit slow in patches (the crossover from 25 fps hurts it a little), the film is dripping with the mood of shadowy jewel thieves slipping into crafty disguises and creeping between dastardly cabals. The action is surprisingly adept (car chases in 1915!) and the plots and counterplots are pleasingly clever. The level of intrigue is often astounding: In any given group of five characters, four will be in disguise, three will be seeing through the disguises, two will be Vampires and one will have a bomb hidden in his top hat. This intertitle gives an idea of the fairly outrageous fun to be had:

“Enslaved by the hypnotic power of the bandito Moreno, his mistress Irma Vep murdered the fake Count Kerlor, actually the Grand Vampire.” But is he really dead? “Les Vampires” is not for everyone. As a silent film that runs nearly seven hours long (you heard me), it can be arduous for anyone. Don’t try watching it all in one go. The film predicts, but falls somewhat short of Fritz Lang’s gangster serials of the 1920’s like “Dr. Mabuse” and “Spies.” Try those vampire-less works first. “The Night Stalker” (1974) tried to update the premise of a journalist tracking vampires in the skeptical present of Las Vegas, but the made-for-TV movie fails to hold up to time despite the record setting ratings in its day.

Rank: 12
Title: Underworld
Director: Len Wiseman
Country: USA
Year: 2003
Terrible reviews met the release of “Underworld” in 2003, perhaps due to it slinking forth in the shadow of efforts like “Batman,” “Blade” and “The Matrix,” from which it clearly borrows heavily. Though it owes a great debt to those better efforts, Wiseman also adds other branches to the bloodline (namely power-driven gangland epics like “The Godfather” and the star-crossed family-feud literature like “Romeo and Juliet”), resulting in the birth of an interesting creature. If Underworld’s heritage is too much for it to live up to, it still comes through as highly engaging entertainment.

The setting is a rain-drenched, nightland of leftover Matrix sets and faux-gothic masonry. Amidst the urban milieu of a mostly-absent humanity are two warring races: Vampires and Lycanthropes (werewolves). Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a top “Death Dealer” for the vampires, who have achieved an upper hand over the past few centuries. She works for Kraven, the regrettably whiny and annoying leader of the vampire clan, and carries out werewolf assassinations by night. She detects the stench of betrayal after discovering that her foes are better armed and more numerous than suspected. The intrigue only intensifies when she learns that the werewolves are led by Lucian, a werewolf allegedly killed by Kraven, and that they are stalking a human whose blood may hold the key to a new era.

The script is surprisingly elaborate and worthwhile for a blockbuster action movie; and I was surprised to see how much time and development went into it. There is so much back-story and backstabbing that the sense of moral ambiguity and societal collapse is quite palpable. Plot holes and loose ends hover in the alcoves, but rarely jump out to damage the sweeping story arc. The acting has just enough spine to shoulder the load, but Shane Brolly (as Kraven) and his enamored assistant (is puppy-love really so common amongst century-old warriors?) are painfully lame. Kate Beckinsale is unexpectedly well-suited to the role, bringing a lithe, leather-clad sexiness and a dark, brooding gravitas where most pop actresses wouldn’t have bothered.

Len Wiseman’s directing is questionable at times especially for being so visually derivative. While I can pretty much tolerate watching neo-noir and gothic environs getting recycled for eternity, he cribs exact shots from recent films and takes his iffy slow-mo gun-battles a little too seriously. Theft aside, I found the film irresistibly entertaining and watchable. Len Wiseman’s music video sensibilities aren’t always on the money, but his desire to have fun thankfully outpaces his desire to seem cool (although sometimes the race is close). It’s exactly the type of approach a vampire vs. werewolf movie needs, and it yields a well-balanced guy-movie.
A sequel and a planned prequel follow.

Rank: 11
Title: Cronos
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Country: Mexico
Year: 1993
Guillermo del Toro made his feature length debut with “Cronos,” (no relationship to Captain Cronos, Vampire Hunter) an unusual take on the origins of vampirism. Jesus Gris is a kind and moderate antiques dealer who looks after his granddaughter, Aurora. One day he breaks a strange statue and finds an even stranger golden crest. When it comes in contact with his skin, it attaches itself and stings him. Over the next few days he finds his youthfulness returning and is pleased that both his physical looks and former vivacity are restored. He soon becomes addicted to the golden treasure despite some dubious side-effects: a terrible craving for blood and an inability to die no matter what the bodily harm. Meanwhile, the wealthy Dieter de la Guardia is clutching desperately to life and sends his ruthless nephew (Ron Perlman) on a quest to procure the vampire device in a bid for eternal life.

Many of del Toro’s signature touches are apparent in this early effort. His humanist approach is apparent in the character development, which changes the tone of the horror to something deeply personal and moving. Jesus’s mixed motivations are exasperated by the temptation to recapture his youth and to hold on to life. This could be seen as not just for his own sake, but to look after his lonely granddaughter. Dieter’s lust for life is similar, but portrayed as more malevolent, and his nephew is caught in a position where he feels compelled to carry out his uncle’s orders but secretly wants him to die as soon as possible. This eventually clashes with the uncle’s “eternal life” agenda. Del Toro grounds us to the perspectives of an old man and a young child, forcing us to view life from both ends, and asking us to see the intrinsic benefits of its natural order. It is only in upsetting this order that leads to true tragedy.

An interesting touch is the idea of vampirism as explicitly parasitic. Indeed the magical golden amulet is given a grounding in reality (for the audience’s omniscient eyes only), though a shot that shows the clockwork mechanics of the inside and the presence of insect trapped inside that feeds on blood and excretes a “cure” for death. This shot is only one example of the playful, unexpected flow of camera movement and cinematography. The look of the film is quite distinct, with vivid colors contrasted with deep shadows (giving a slightly comic-book feel). The excellent application of rich colors, the memorable use of make-up (not for the villains so much as the good-guys) and the judicious injections of special effects make the film’s production values seem higher than they really are.

Though del Toro doesn’t get quite the performances he would conduct with “The Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the cast does far outdo the standard set by horror movies. They are far from typical vampires and victims and the extra emotional depth, elicits genuine care and sympathy. The film still has its share of scares, gore and disturbing moments, but middle-brow viewers will appreciate the added emotional weight and thematic complexity.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Vampire Week Part 4

Rank: 20
Title: Hour of the Wolf
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden
Year: 1968
Bergman considered this his only true horror film (though much of his work is filled with psychological terror), and though it never uses the word vampire (neither does “Cronos,” “The Hunger” or “Near Dark” for that matter) there is reason to include it on the list. The ambiguity lies in the manifestation of vampirism which may be corporeal, but could just as likely be hallucinogenic or dream-vision.

Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) is a reclusive painter who is tormented by inner demons and apparently outer ones as well. He isn’t sure what to make of his unsettling visions or his fear, insomnia and erratic behavior as time and loneliness erode his sanity. His only comfort is his wife (Liv Ullman) who loyally tries to understand and empathize with her emotionally-distant husband – to the point where she begins to experience his hallucinations. These phantoms take the form of a faceless woman, who instructs Mrs. Borg to read her husband’s diary. The secret she finds inside splits their relationship apart and plunges them both into a deeper circle of hell.

Even by Bergman standards, the first half of “Hour of the Wolf” is pretty slow-moving stuff. The breakdown of marriage and existential crisis themes have been done better by Bergman both before and after, but the horrific visions are definitely worthwhile. They build towards a creepy crescendo in the film’s latter half, particularly when the action shifts to enormous castle. Therein lives an undead family of aristocrats, the only other occupants of the island, and a haunting dread that shatters the souls of our unfortunate protagonists.

The film is deeply personal, with references to Bergman’s youth and own marital difficulties. It’s far from biographical, considering that the tone is so other-worldly and the links to reality so tentative, but one can sense the director’s familiarity with the psychological circumstances. The B/W cinematography is beautiful though depressing. Every character, every prop and every acre of fallow earth seems cruelly blighted by an uncaring god. Don’t expect this film to cheer you up, but it might make you feel thankful you aren’t Borg or his wife.

The hour of the wolf, if you are curious, is the one just before dawn when most deaths occur and phantoms have their strongest hold.

Rank: 19
Title: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
Director: Guy Maddin
Country: Canada
Year: 2002
See full review here.

Rank: 18
Title: Versus
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Country: Japan
Year: 2000
While “Versus” includes vampires and so qualifies as a vampire film, it could equally be counted as a zombie romp, samurai epic, yakuza flick or martial arts opus. In addition to a genre adoration that would do male teen proud, Kitamura demonstrates a hyperactive excitement for comic carnage taken to the nth degree, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

A reincarnated samurai-turned-yakuza thug escapes from jail to meet up with his trigger-happy gang in the aptly named “Forest of Resurrection”. When a dispute breaks out over a recently kidnapped girl, one of the flunkies gets killed and immediately returns as a zombie; that’s when it occurs to the gang that they’ve been burying bodies in these woods for years. The corpses take that reflective moment as their cue to rise from the grave.

An all-out frenetic battle ensues, with expressive, free-flying camerawork and uzi-rate editing. From this point on, the movie is essentially one continuous fight scene with government agents (hot on the heels of the escaped convicts) joining in along with vampires, demon lords and more. Flashbacks invite us to watch the waging of this war in previous centuries (allowing for some samurai showdowns), and the ending gives us a taste of the cyborg-enhanced future hell that awaits in the next iteration.

The outrageous excess and no-holds action is violent enough to offend parents and senators but is treated with an eye-winking nonchalance that makes it more amusing than terrifying. I’m not quite sure whether Kitamura knowingly satirizes low-attention-span action fodder, but he certainly outdoes it and makes us laugh in the process. Most of the shock and humor comes from the jaw-dropping gumption of the director and choreographer, who leave us constantly aghast that they went so far. The lack of realistic grounding does have its downside, though, and neither the characters nor the story pull the audience in. The two-hour running time easily exhausts its welcome, proving that pacing isn’t all about quick cutting and combat.

Best enjoyed with a bowl of popcorn and a group of friends who like kung fu and gunplay at least as much as horror.

[Image: First off, let me apologize for selecting the worst of the several poor DVD versions as my introductory image. I took one look and couldn't resist using it, although the film isn't nearly as cheesy as this cover would imply.]

Rank: 17
Title: Daughters of Darkness
Director: Harry Kumel
Country: Belgium
Year: 1971
One of the best and earliest of the lesbian exploitation vampire films, “Daughters of Darkness” remains one of the few in its denigrated subgenre to bear redeeming fruit. The plot loosely adapts from Fanu’s “Carmilla,” moving all the action to grandiose hotel eerily empty in the cold non-tourist season. Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig recalling her enigmatic performance in “Last Year in Marienbad”) and her nubile secretary/lover Ilona Harczy are the only guests. Though they look young and beautiful, the aging hotel clerk and a homicide detective recognizes the countess from her last visit, 40 years before.

Stefan and Valerie, a pair of runaway honeymooners whose marriage is already off to a bad start, decide to check into the relic of bygone majesty and try to relax in the dour village. Bored and brooding, Stefan and the three women lounge around in the opulent hotel lobby, where it quickly gets difficult to tell who is seducing who. Kumel languidly brews the tension over a fatally erotic undercurrent. Some dark secrets are exposed and the stage is set for a series of sexual power plays. Hardly any blood is spilt until the last act, when deadly emotions and frustrations boil to the surface and vengeance comes calling.

Kumel proves his superiority to Jean Rollins and Jesus Franco (the two better-known “luminaries” of the lesbian vampire subgenre) by giving audiences plenty of sexually-charged sequences and ample nudity without seeming as sleazy as his rivals. The cinematography is marked by dreary weather, crumbling sumptuousness and an old-world vibe torn by bold scarlet gashes (dresses, lips, blood). The acting is OK, led by the icy, elegant Delphine Seyrig, whose performance is echoed by Catherine Denueve in “The Hunger” (1983). The deep-seated unhappiness of the protagonists is allowed to mire in public view, while the mysterious allure of the countess’s siren beauty serves as a lure driving the others to wreck their lives against her shore.

Audiences expecting purely art-house antics or a maximum of blood and breasts will probably both find stretches of disappointment, but the balance means an arresting vampire film straddled on the art/exploitation borderlands. If you prefer more sex and less moodiness, try “Vampyres” (1974) (also called “Daughters of Dracula”), and for those who prefer the reverse, try the classier “Blood and Roses” (1960) or “The Hunger” (1983).

Rank: 16
Title: The Last Man on Earth
Director: Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow
Country: USA/Italy
Year: 1964
Vincent Price stars in this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend,” the first of several versions that would include “Omega Man” (1971) with Charlton Heston and the upcoming “I Am Legend” (2007) with Will Smith. Though far from brilliant, this bargain bin (public domain) low-budget flick is surprisingly entertaining, grim and thoughtful.

Dr. Robert Morgan (Price) is the last man on Earth. He earned that distinction when an epidemic turned the planet’s population into vampire-zombie hybrids. Flashbacks detail the scramble for a cure, the mass burning of bodies and the final descent into post-apocalyptic collapse. Morgan, who is immune to the disease, has spent months foraging and staking by day and holding out in his suburban makeshift fortress by night. The army of undead foes he battles are not much of a serious threat; they shamble with the lethargic gait of brain-dead zombies and suffer the vampiric weaknesses of garlic, fire and light.

Eventually the doctor encounters another human and, lucky for him, it’s an attractive babe. She seems a bit unhealthy and behaves suspiciously, foreshadowing the inevitable catch: she’s actually an agent from a community of infected rebels who use regular serum treatments for temporary resistance to the disease. Her intentions aren’t exactly pure, but he uses his own blood to cure her anyway. The whole ‘flesh and blood granting salvation’ quickly spirals into a weird Jesus metaphor with a fittingly Biblical ending fit for long contemplation.

The empty, bombed-out sets owe their minimalism to budgetary constraints as much as any intentional evocation of an existential wasteland, but the results are powerful nonetheless. Like the monsters, the pacing is slow, but it helps capture the tedious, grinding half-life of the haggard hero. When things pick up in the final act, our patience is repaid with increased action, interest and symbolism.

“The Last Man on Earth” paved the way for many later psychological horror films especially 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” which has a similar look and setting. The inner torment of Morgan’s character is fairly severe. For starters, he witnesses his entire family die. Then there’s the former laboratory colleague that leads nightly zombie assault on his modest home; as a nasty reminder of Morgan’s failure to develop a cure. When he finally meets another survivor, he discovers that he’s already murdered some of her people in the past (mistaking them for vampires) and that she intends to kill him. The depressing tone continues into the ending, which holds little hope for humankind. However, a glimmer of redemption may exist for the new breed.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Vampire Week Part 3

Rank: 25
Title: Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan)
Director: Mario Bava
Country: Italy
Year: 1960
When I was first compiling the candidates for my vampire countdown, Mario Bava was the only director who I was sure would make the list twice. “Black Sunday” (1960) (also known as “The Mask of Satan” and a plethora of other titles), Italy’s answer to “Dracula,” is the better known of the two, although it isn’t quite as fun as my other pick.

The film begins in the 17th century, where Asa Vajda and her sorcerer lover are put to death for witchcraft. The first shot is of fire, but Asa isn’t lucky enough to be merely burnt alive. Instead she is branded with a searing iron and then has a mask with inward-pointing spikes nailed into her face. The terrifying scene famously intercuts between Asa’s reaction and a first-person view of the mask heading towards the camera lens. It is interesting that while the film has many scares to come (perpetrated by the vampires), none are quite as brutal as this first act committed against them.

A sudden downpour prevents her body from being burnt into oblivion, and so instead she is buried in the crypt of her ancestors. Centuries later she is accidentally discovered by a pair of traveling doctors (Kruvajan and Gorobec). They can see her face through the glass cover and break it to retrieve a trinket. When a bat startles the men, Kruvajan cuts his hand on the glass and the blood trickles onto the lips of Asa’s corpse, slowly setting about the process that will revive her (the scene is echoed in many vampire films to follow, such as “Underworld”).

Using witchcraft, sorcery, telepathy, hypnotism and plain old-fashion deception, Asa regains control of her castle, revives her unholy groom and begins murdering all those who stand in her way. Complicating things further is Gorobec’s budding romance with kindly local girl Katia (played by Barbara Steele, who also plays Asa). Asa plans to drain Katia’s blood to gain eternal life, and she has some pretty dastardly tricks up her sleeve to accomplish her plan.

Bava assembled some of the finest B/W sets since the heyday of classic 1930’s horror, and though it makes his images seem a couple decades out of date, it does brilliantly revive the haunted, labyrinthine castles and cobweb-strewn crypts of yesteryear with loving care and craftsmanship. Barbara Steele’s enormous deer eyes and thick black mane allow her to alternate between demonic animalism and innocent beauty in her dual roles. The rest of the cast is less memorable, but also not as bad as your typical Italian horror production. Bava pulls out all the stops for his exciting climax, a structural emphasis that can be seen in the ending twists and signature shocks of his later gialli.

Rank: 24
Title: Dracula (Horror of Dracula)
Director: Terence Fisher
Country: UK
Year: 1958
Terence Fisher’s “Horror of Dracula” (1958) remains one of Hammer Horror’s best works and it continues to be well-received be genre enthusiasts today (something which can’t be said for most of Hammer’s canon). Though based on the Bram Stoker novel, it makes bold and interesting departures that result in a movie that still feels fresh and able to surprise – even to those over-familiar with the story.

It starts with the arrival of Jonathan Harker at Dracula’s lair. This version has Harker as a mild-mannered librarian, and when Dracula heads out to fetch some books for him, a desperate woman appears and begs for rescue. Harker reacts with confusion, but it is later revealed that he is actually undercover and intends to kill the evil count that night. His plans are shattered when the damsel in distress turns out to be an undercover vampire (such intrigue!), and though he succeeds in staking her, Dracula is alerted by her screams and subjugates Harker, turning him into a minion of darkness!

The plot switches over to Harker’s fiancée Lucy, her brother Arthur, his wife Mina and Van Helsing, who is initially not welcomed by the distraught skeptics. Helsing eventually convinces them to help him, although not until after Lucy has been killed, revived and staked. They begin a frantic search for Dracula’s coffin, but an unexpected person beats them to it and they fail. Soon Mina is acting strangely (for example, receiving scars from crucifixes that touch her skin), tipping off the men-folk that Dracula has already chosen his next victim. That night they guard all the entrances, but Dracula still gets to Mina’s bedside. After all the twists have been pulled, it’s time for a fairly lack-luster showdown redeemed by an enthusiastic death sequence.

Low production values and unexceptional directing don’t do too much damage to this film, which is probably best remembered for the winning pairing of Peter Cushing (as Van Helsing) and Christopher Lee (as Dracula). The two help raise the acting out of the poor house, although their subsequent pictures were not always as successful; Hammer disgorged at least four lamentable sequels in an attempt to milk this one for all it was worth. Their female costars are not given as juicy of roles, but this adaptation became notorious for the then-scandalous sexuality of Dracula’s bond with Lucy and Mina. Dracula’s nightly visits are greeted with frank lust by the woman and his erotic appeal contrasts interestingly with Jonathan as a reserved librarian and Arthur as a prim husband.
The script is a welcome reworking with sprinkles of plot twists and British humor. However, make sure to keep expectations low if you are unfamiliar with the output of Hammer Studio. If you do find yourself enjoying this film, check out Fisher’s next best film, “The Devil Rides Out” about a satanic cult.

Rank: 23
Title: Night Watch
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Country: Russia
Year: 2004
“Night Watch” (2004), based on the books by Sergey LuKjianenko, launched Russia’s most successful movie franchise (it outsells “Lord of the Rings” in its home country) and gave audiences an interesting new take on the old vampire legend. In this revisionist tale, the world is balanced between the forces of light and darkness (OK, nothing new there) and supernaturally gifted prodigies from either sides take shifts guarding the 12 hour periods intrinsic to their rivals. Hence the Day Watch patrols the daytime activities of the good guys while the Night Watch keeps the vampires at bay.

Anton Gorodetsky is an unassuming citizen of a bleak, black-rimmed Moscow when he starts to catch glimpses of the future, not to mention impossible agents invisible to everyone else. He is soon identified as an “Other” who is destined to use his special powers for either the light or dark alliances. Several years after he makes his decision, Anton comes across Egor (a boy who may tip the balance and trigger a final war) and Svetlana (a young woman with a cursed vortex spinning above her head). It’s clear that the century long truce is about to fall apart, and Anton is at the center of it all.

Timur Bekmambetov’s blockbuster production has a little trouble finding its identity. The grimy, lived-in Moscow locations are great, with a busy mise-en-scene that shows hard-work and attention to detail. Unfortunately the CG is occasionally weak and far too overdone. It has the visual bluster of a slick Hollywood knockoff that is willing to let poor acting and dialogue slip, so long as the effects seem impressive. It is certainly a bit of a shame because the central story is quite interesting and hints at an off-screen universe replete with a history, mythology and sociology of epic scope and grave import. The acting could use a boost with Konstantin Khabensky’s Anton managing his working-class average-Joe side but choking on the serious and emotional segments.
The film has two sequels, “Day Watch” (2007) and a TBA finale. Reports are that “Day Watch” is superior even to the first part of the trilogy, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Rank: 22
Title: Planet of the Vampires
Director: Mario Bava
Country: Italy
Year: 1965
Few attempts at combining vampire horror and science-fiction have worked, but Mario Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires” might be my favorite for the sheer camp pleasure that results from trying. This Italian feature has a smattering of psychedelic 60’s charm, eerie atmospheric horror and pulp-comic space opera all rolled into one.

The starship Argos picks up a distress signal from an unexplored planet. They are able to approach, thanks to their meteor deflection device, but are assailed by a telepathic bloodlust and only barely manage to pull themselves back from a self-destructive orgy. Their sister ship, the Galliott, is not so lucky and ends up crashing on the surface. The Argos crew lands and starts to search the hostile surface, a bleak landscape of barren rock, curling fog and deadly magma. Patches of vividly colored light (in Bava’s greens, pinks and purples) streak through the darkness.

An expedition to the Galliot discovers that all of the crew is either missing or dead. Strangely, the corpses look less like crash fatalities and more like homocides. The bodies are buried, but they don’t stay stiff for long – soon the Argos is being terrorized by their own undead (which look and act more like zombies than vampires, but oh well.). A few screaming beauties and ray-gun battles later, a desperate escape attempt is mounted, but it only leads to the laughably “terrifying” twist ending.

Bava flutters his trademark eye for visual flamboyance, seemingly unaware that he has almost no budget and a cast of untalented hacks. In fact, the international medley of actors was unable to communicate with each other or the director. Bava just let them speak whatever language they were comfortable with (legend has it that some scenes originally have four different languages being mumbled) and then [poorly] dubbed over them later. The props are a couple of sorry scraps left over from other films, and set designer Giorgio Giovannini was forced to use mirrors, multiple-exposures, creative relighting and varied camera angles to give the impression of a large landscape. When it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it’s certainly quite amusing.
Though campy, “Planet of the Vampires” is often credited with helping inspire many serious sci-fi horror outings. The synthetic black uniforms, for instance, with their yellow trim and lightning bolt insignias would influence costume design for decades to come. One of the most famous sequences, where crewmembers from the Argos find the derelict debris and skeletal frames of a giant doomed forbearer (long ago killed by the same power that has trapped them), is cited as an influence on the H. R. Giger set designs in “Alien.”

Rank: 21
Title: Rabid
Director: David Cronenberg
Country: Canada
Year: 1977
Cronenberg’s low-budget second feature is a vampire-themed voyage into body-horror that is not for the squeamish. Rose (porn star Marilyn Chambers) is the victim of a ugly motorcycle crash in the quiet countryside. As she lies in critical condition at an experimental plastic surgery lab, a pair of doctors make the ethically dubious decision to try out their latest method in a bid to save her. Their grafts of highly adaptive tissue are miraculously successful, but have unpleasant Cronenberg-esque side-effects, like an evil orifice that opens in her armpit and a phallic stinger that emerges to suck blood.

Rose, now an unwitting abomination, breaks free to feed on the populace, which spreads a rage-inducing bloodlust disease that soon threatens all humanity. Securing any possible chance of survival requires locating the haywire patient amidst the nightmare of bloodthirsty zombies (similar in nature to “28 Days Later”).
This grim, gore-soaked shocker is not as well written, shot or directed as other Cronenberg films (even his earlier “Shivers” is better), but it’s hard to care when the point is the grisly mayhem and unashamed violence luxuriously poured before the spectator’s eye. Rarely (outside the 70’s indie circuit) do even horror films ever get so unremittingly pessimistic. The cinematography is dirty and grainy, but packs the immediacy of a news camera capturing a bloody riot. The story is rather simple, short and nasty, but suffices to set up one terrifying scene after another. There is just enough sympathy earned by the monster and her string of male morsels for the audience to care, and a handful of unsubtle commentaries on sexual and social behaviors to make you think – if you want to.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Vampire Week Part 2

Rank: 30
Title: The Addiction
Director: Abel Ferarra
Country: USA
Year: 1995
Abel Ferarra’s low-budget B/W vampire art-film is one of the more aberrant results of the 1990’s vampire explosion. Set in Ferarra’s usual New York City, the films re-imagines the city as a locus of soul-crushing physical addiction and mind-bursting intellectual nihilism. Lili Taylor takes on a rare lead role as a bright philosophy student who runs into a vampire one night (Annabella Sciorra looking memorably menacing) and soon spirals into a personal hellhole of pain and cynicism.

The film reaches for the stars with its heady blend of (often conflicting) philosophies. There is enough outright BS to keep everyone unbalanced, an effect immeasurably aided by Taylor’s unreliable mental narration. Perhaps most successful is the central metaphor of addiction, paralleling the insatiable craving for blood with the drug-dependent society of the New York fringe. Ferarra’s talent is often buried under layers of gore and monologue, but his thoughts on substance abuse and psychology are far more coherent (if you can believe it) than the similarly ambitious, but less satisfying vampire cult film “Ganja and Hess” (1973).

Taylor adequately communicates the inherit ups and downs of desperate need and unwholesome fulfillment. Her tortuous personal odyssey culminates in a graduation party of orgiastic hedonism and a prolonged collapse into moral bankruptcy. Christopher Walken has a cameo offering a possible way out, using a system of spiritual meditation and strict self-control to lead a life vampiric moderation. Taylor’s character insists on finding her own path and the ambiguous ending leads us unsure of her ultimate success.

The black and white cinematography is a definite notch above Ferarra’s usual graininess and rough imagery. The boldness of the gritty landscape with the austere crispness of the camerawork lends a contrast of in-your-face realism and inaccessible detachment. The film is undeniably talky and pretentious and yet quite sincere in its desire to communicate the tearing disparity between intellectual heights and physical depths. Throughout the feature references to global traumas, high art, scarred counterculture and personal suffering drive home the message hard… whatever that message is.

Rank: 29
Title: Vampyr: The Adventures of Allen Grey
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Country: Denmark/France/Germany
Year: 1932
The well-regarded Danish director Dreyer, departed somewhat from his art-house dramas to make this early vampire film. Though outwardly embracing the horror explosion going on in America, within minutes its clear that Dreyer has an unconventional take on the vampire world.

Allen Grey is an unlucky wanderer without much background who finds himself in a strange region near Courtempierre. He is plagued by disturbing visions (possibly hallucinations) of the local peasants behaving in ghostly and unnatural ways. Unsettling shadow-plays take place in the fields, and sparse buildings suggesting the proximity of a dark mirror world. Allen takes up with a beleaguered lord in a cavernous castle and soon perceives the danger (both from illness and malicious outside forces) that are driving his daughter, Leone, to her deathbed. Overcoming his fear, our protagonist sets about to end the reign of the powerful vampire witch behind it all.

“Vampyr” is probably the most insufferably slow vampire films of all time and requires a fair bit of patience to endure. The creative visual effects and silent-era atmosphere reward viewers who can tolerate the olden style. Fans of Dreyer will appreciate of his minimalist perfection of texture and framing. The cinematography is cast in glowing, faded grays and saturated whites (an effect which coincidently causes lights to “bleed”), while shadows are reserved for silhouettes and arty compositions. Julian West (Allen Grey) is not compelling as an actor or character; the real interest lies in the demonic agents of evil and the nightmarish events of the cursed countryside.

Avoid this one if you are only a fan of the glossy vampire blockbusters of the past two decades. However, those with a taste for horror films in the vein of “The Phantom Carriage” (1921), “Haxan: Witchcraft throughout the Ages” (1922) or Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath” (1943) will find another favorite.

Rank: 28
Title: Dracula
Director: Tod Browning
Country: USA
Year: 1931
Bela Lugosi created one of the most enduring portrayals of the infamous Count in this 1931 monster-movie classic. It is probably the most famous and oft-seen Dracula movie though it is not without its disappointments. It is also the first official adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, though it still contains many deviations – notably the ending (which always seems to get changed). The celebrity-infested borefest which is “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) keeps the original finale wherein (spoiler alert), Dracula is chased back to Transylvania and killed by a minor character while being transported by gypsies.

So what is the default cinematic Dracula story? Quick summary. Renfield goes to Dracula’s Transylvania castle to sell him a plot of land (Carfax Abbey) in London. He becomes the vampire’s insane minion, and the two head to England, where he harasses seduces and bites Lucy, a sought-after beauty. John Seward (usually Lucy’s fiancé, but here the father of her friend Mina) dispatches her. Dracula turns his attention to Mina who is saved by Seward and his vampire-expert friend, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing who puts an end to the eon-old villain by driving a wooden stake through his heart.

The film is rather sparse and simple, conforming to Universal’s successful horror model which relies little on gore and effects and more on tension and mood. Unfortunately, Tod Browning channels too much of the Victorian novel’s aloof air and gradual pace. He also translates, to detrimental effect, the stage play’s static perspective and limited character movement. Possibly the only beneficial inheritance was Lugosi, who played the hematophagous hell-spawn on the stage. The sets lack the style of later adaptations, but come closer to realism and the early scenes in Dracula’s cyclopean castle and vaulted catacombs make up for the menace missing in the later indistinguishable studio standbys.

Lugosi is the reason to see this film. He looks and sounds the part, though his physical movements are a bit restrained. His glowing eyes come courtesy of an off-screen assistant who shined pen-lights into his pupils. The Hungarian accent is all his own, and elevated otherwise ordinary lines into some of the most memorable quotes in horror history. In the first scenes alone you get: “Listen to them, Children of the night. What music they make,” (referring to wolves howling), “I never drink… wine,” and the frequently sampled, “And now… I leave you.”

Tod Browning directed better all-around horror films like “The Unknown” (1927) and cult classic “Freaks” (1932), but “Dracula” would live on in the popular conscious. For my own taste, I prefer Universal’s other horror franchise, “Frankenstein.”

Rank: 27
Title: Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (Nosferatu the Vampire)
Director: Werner Herzog
Country: Germany
Year: 1979
Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night” is one of the few explicit remakes of a former vampire movie, taking its inspiration from the unofficial 1922 film “Nosferatu” and not Bram Stoker’s novel. This has some advantages, like a pre-existing supply of creepy moments and expressive gestures to draw upon, but also limits the creativity and mad genius Herzog is so known for.

The plot is almost identical to “Nosferatu’s” pared-down retelling. Jonathon Harker heads abroad to sell Wismar (usually London, but changed to match the sets and locations of the earlier German feature) property to a reclusive count. Harker’s host hones in on an image of Jonathon’s fiancée, Lucy, and is smitten. He agrees to buy a neighboring estate. Dracula then wields his powers over Harker and even (through dreams or some other telepathic bond) influencing Lucy and Harker’s employer, Renfield. Harker is eventually freaked out enough by life in the musty den of supernatural dread to try escape, accidentally incapacitating himself in the process. Nosferatu, accompanied by the plague, supersedes him to Wismar. In the cataclysmic chaos of death and disease, the count tries unsuccessfully to woo Lucy. With the help of Van Helsing and Harker’s tattered guide to vampires, Lucy learns that Dracula is the [cause of] the plague and can be destroyed through a sacrificial gesture.

The story is inevitably dull for anyone who has been through the Nosferatu/Dracula motions more than once or twice. Herzog has made changes, but his script surgery is a subtle operation and I was honestly disappointed by his lack of revisionist vision. Some of the best tweaks include a virtual flood of rats, Dracula’s self-loathing and pitiable decay and a twist ending where the vampiric legacy lives on. Herzog keeps things heavy and stylish, but with a distinct German New Wave malaise and nihilistic torpor, rather than the expressionistic play of light and shadow so integral to F. W. Murnau’s interpretation. The inspired use of Krautrock trailblazers Popol Vuh for the soundtrack enhances the detached, otherworldly ambience.

Perhaps where this version succeeds most is in the casting and acting (the three leads are each amongst my favorite European performers), something which is quite rarely true for the subgenre. Klaus Kinski makes one of the best Draculas of all time, fully committing himself to the grotesque makeup design and eccentric behavioral quirks. He brings a great deal of nuance and emotion to the character, developing the doomed melancholy and bruised romanticism more often attributed to Frankenstein’s monster or King Kong. The role of Lucy belongs to Isabelle Adjani who manages to be both sensual and distant and comes off deeper and creepier than is usually called for. Veteran actor Bruno Ganz has the most thankless role as the nominal protagonist, Jonathon Harker, but still puts in a solid performance as a bewildered man totally out of his league in the face of paranormal powers.

Rank: 26
Title: The Hunger
Director: Tony Scott
Country: UK
Year: 1983
“The Hunger” opens with a cult music video sequence of Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which is reason enough to see the movie for some. If you’re like me, the chance to see Catherine Deneuve as a refined bisexual vampire queen with David Bowie as her dying lover is worth the rental price. However, the movie as a whole is never quite the indie masterpiece that these parts should sum up to.

Part of the problem is Tony Scott’s direction, which fails to explore anything below the surfaces he so admiringly presents. Some of the problem lies in the Whitley Strieber source novel and the unfocused adaptation. What little plot we’re given is spread thin across a vampire love-triangle where passions flare, but yearnings are never fulfilled.

Miriam (Deneuve) is an ancient vampire with culture, class and poise to spare. Every few centuries she takes a new lover (the latest is Bowie’s John) and grants them temporary immortality with the nourishment of her blood. Unfortunately, it never lasts. At the end of their prolonged, youthful life, her partners age rapidly. Unable to die, they are trapped in decrepit skeletons too weak to rise from the attic coffins where Miriam collects them.

In John’s last few hours, he visits an aging specialist (Susan Sarandon) who refuses to believe his claims and feels guilty when she sees him literally fall apart before her eyes. When she goes looking for him later, she meets Miriam and the two enter into a dance of distrust, disgust and seduction.

Tony Scott is a born stylist, and it often accounts for both his appeal and undoing. “The Hunger” has the look and feel of wealthy gothic chic, and the mood would, honestly, not be quite the same without the slow pacing, gracefully panning long takes and minimal dialogue. Though it probably could have benefited from more characters, sets and plot developments, it still excels at indulgent decadence, and remains required viewing for the hipster elite.

Vampire Week Part 1

Rank: 35
Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Director: Fran Rubel Kuzui
Country: USA
Year: 1992
Vampire hunting meets high school teen melodrama in this kitschy satire of 1980’s popular culture. Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson) is a ditzy cheerleader who awakens to her destiny as a vampires slayer under the tutelage of Mr. Merrick (Donald Sutherland). After a rocky start she adjusts to her new lifestyle, juggling shopping, spirit rallies and combating the undead. Her opponents include Paul Reubens and her nemesis, Lothos (Rutger Hauer), while her fellow-student allies include rising stars David Arquette, Hilary Swank and Luke Perry.

Somewhat of an uneven comedy, “Buffy” does get laughs for the diehard commitment to the era when gauche fashion ruled and being shallow was totally rad. There is a generous dose of parody aimed at teen and horror movies, too, though the film often adopt the clichés it hopes tries to poke fun at. The writing – an early flexing exercise for Joss Whedon, whose fame would far eclipse the hack director – sometimes holds back from introspection and development to make room for memorable quips and quotes.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is fated to lurk in the shadow of its TV-based off-spring, a series that trumps the movie in almost every regard. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a shame that fans of the franchise turn their backs on the first attempt since it has a shameless trashy charm of its own. Most of the faults lie with the movie’s glib tone, which failed to recognize the value of giving characters just enough depth to be relatable to its target demographic. Most Buffy acolytes agree that the less funny show is actually more fun, but you’ll still have a good time with the movie.

Age warning: not for viewers over 35.

Rank: 34
Title: 30 Days of Night
Director: David Slade
Country: USA
Year: 2007
Slade’s follow-up to “Hard Candy” (2005) is a similarly cynical, amoral horror film intent on manipulating audiences through any tactic available. However, the director does a better job balancing his desires to punish and intrigue the audience. He manages to draw us into the brutality and desperation in his film though he botches many scenes that could have been so much more.

Barrow, Alaska is plunged into darkness for 30 consecutive days during the heart of winter. A team of vampires trick a drifter into cutting the power and sealing all exits leaving the town ripe for the sucking. As soon as the sun goes down, the vampires launch a wrathful blitzkrieg, a lopsided battle that wallows in wanton slaughter. The bloodbath is outrageously wasteful since within days the vampires must wander the street trying to expose the few quivering survivors. Slade gives mixed messages about how much we are supposed to actually care about these humans and ultimately we don’t, but their deaths are visceral enough to make viewers flinch anyway. The vampires (led ably by Danny Huston), however, are brilliantly chilling and shockingly diabolic. They speak their own language, hunt with lethal voracity and emit a vibe of undiluted evil.

The dialogue, internal logic and editing are poorly handled, but the intensity, action and cinematography propel the movie over its pitfalls. The manic frenzy of the initial attack establishes the vampires as overwhelmingly powerful necessitating that the action shift from opposition to survival. Blood-drenched slush colors the desolate streets between the lightless abandoned houses while dismal snow reminds us of the deathly cold. Slade never manages to harvest the potential atmosphere, but he does make the setting a bleak backdrop for a dire game of cat and mouse.

“30 Days of Night” is at its most powerful during its scenes of gruesome violence, panicked flight and utter hopelessness. Unfortunately, the audience has to suffer through a great deal of insulting insincerity, especially a misguided attempt at a “family comes first” theme. The hardcore horror fans who complain that vampire flicks can no longer deliver real scares, now have something to indulge in.

Rank: 33
Title: Pitch Black
Director: David Twohy
Country: USA
Year: 2000
I’m well aware that “Pitch Black” (2000) is not technically a vampire movie, but it has enough similarities that I count it. Beside, “Pitch Black” accomplishes many of the goals of vampire films far better than many overt depictions, especially when it comes to preying on nyctophobia – the fear of darkness. In my opinion, this picture is one of the best sci-fi vampire films to come along (though I have yet to see “Lifeforce”) and its willingness to up the stakes on both genres helps black out its admitted flaws.

I suspect the greenlighting of “Pitch Black” went something like this:

Screenwriter: “Lets remake last year’s “Bats” but with Vin Diesel!”
Producer: “Um… no. “Bats” was an artistic and financial disaster.”
Screenwriter: “But what if we set it IN SPACE!!!”
Producer: “I like the way you think.”

Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) is a hardened criminal sadist being transported to a new prison aboard the spaceship Hunter Gratzner. A meteor shower forces a premature landing (of the crash variety) on an sweltering desert moon lit by three suns. The survivors, including the volatile Riddick, find two unpleasant omens on the barren chunk of rock: a mining ghost town where not even bodies remain and a race of cave-dwelling, carnivorous “bioraptors” (which implicitly suggests that roboraptors exist, though sadly none appear). The good news is that the bioraptors are deathly allergic to the ever-glaring sunlight. The bad news is that every 22 years there is a three-way solar eclipse and the last one was about 21.999 years ago.

That premise alone should be enough to gauge whether you are going to like this movie or not. If no movie about an army of flying space raptors exploiting an eclipse to ravage Vin Diesel could ever please you, then don’t bother. For the rest of us, this is a movie that makes a promise and keeps it. That promise would read something like this: we are going to plunge a bunch of forgettable characters (and Riddick) into pitch blackness and kill them, one-by-one, swiftly and gorily. In truth, the film has a fair bit of style and tension considering the mini-blockbuster budget. There is a palpable anticipation as the darkness falls partly for fear that everyone will die and partly in excitement for how awesome that is going to be. Vin Diesel clearly has a good time in his role. Personally, I think they could have skimmed the obnoxiousness off the top of his personality and still had enough prison-toned savagery left to seem cool.
“Pitch Black” was made to be discovered twenty years from now and hailed as a cult classic by adoring B-movie junkies. For that reason it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that this one is fading fast into obscurity.

Rank: 32
Title: Near Dark
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Country: USA
Year: 1987
“Near Dark” (1987) was the first, and arguably the best, of several questionable attempts to combine the vampire film and western (“From Dusk till Dawn,” “John Carpenter’s Vampires”). Much like the handful of vampire/sci-fi hybrids, I end up with admiration for the potential in the idea, yet disappointment in the execution.

Adrian Pasdar plays Caleb, an average angsty country lad in Oklahoma. He falls in love with a girl named Mae, which turns out to be a bad, since she’s a vampire. After Mae chomps on his neck during a make-out session, the two are forever bound to each other, and less romantically, to her “family” of psychopathic vampire friends. The central crisis facing Caleb for most of the movie is his adjustment to their lifestyle, a hedonistic amoral eternity of nightly bleed-and-burn campaigns. His pacifism doesn’t mesh well with his vampirism (he would starve if not for Mae’s pampering) or with his ruthless friends who would really prefer to kill him off and be done with it. Parallel to these developments is Caleb’s father’s desperate search for his son, which ends in an awkward confrontation and a kidnapping plot that runs through the last act.

Kathryn Bigelow has a fairly decent eye for action (her resume includes hits like “Point Break” and “Strange Days”), but her insistence on doling it out sporadically makes for inconsistent pacing. Two scenes stand out as exhilarating peaks: a bar fight that is stirred into vampire feeding frenzy and daylight holdout where every bullet hole creates a deadly lance of light. There is more action in the final third of the film, but it also becomes more generic. The kidnapping plot is weak, and almost every aspect of the climactic battle is overdone and nonsensical, capped by a concluding cop-out.

The characters are a mixed bag. Bill Paxton is fine as the head of the vampire family, and the romantic leads are passable, though they lack range. The rest of the pack fares less well, and I found myself particularly annoyed by Homer, an obnoxious sadist trapped in the body of a punkish boy.
The genre-mixing should be an easy sell if you’re already a fan of both horror and westerns. There’s also a lot to be said for the attempt (however successful you find it) to scale between personal development (identity, romance, family, conscience) and blockbuster action.
Rank: 31
Title: Isle of the Dead
Director: Mark Robson
Country: USA
Year: 1945
“Isle of the Dead” (1945) may be the only vampire film to take its source inspiration from a painting, rather than a novel or short story. The picture in question is the titular 1880 landscape by Arnold Bocklin, depicting Charon and an unknown passenger rowing towards a rocky atoll. The painting was a favorite of Hitler, Lenin, Freud, Strindberg, Rachmaninoff, Lovecraft, Giger and Zelazny, among others, and was also adapted – with impressive accuracy – into another movie, “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes.”

“Isle of the Dead” is the product of RKO’s classic horror line, produced by Val Lewton (“The Seventh Victim,” “I Walked with a Zombie,” “Cat People”) and directed by Mark Robson. Boris Karloff plays Pherides, one of Greece’s most unsympathetic generals from the first Balkan war. Oliver Davis, an American war correspondent doesn’t agree with the general’s vicious tactics (killing civilians and subordinates alike), but inexplicably agrees to join him on a voyage to his wife’s island grave. They are quarantined on the island with some natives, a sick woman and her vivacious nurse, who the superstitious locals believe is a varvoloka (basically a vampire). As the diverse internees die off one by one, everyone airs their own opinion of the cause, ranging from medical logic to irrational fears to spiritual legends. By the end, the islanders have inflicted more pain and suffering on each other than any plague or vampire.

I often feel rather alone in liking this movie, which gets trashed for its low-budget, average sets and verbose, unpolished screenplay. I think to some extent I am drawn to the contrived premise, which crams an impossibly disparate band of potential victims into a tiny pot (the island), and then slowly turns up the heat. The wordiness may let some of the steam out, but there is still plenty of tension and mystery. One could argue that the dialogue is too explicit in its thematic concerns, but it also forces audiences to engage with the psychological situation of the characters. This helps, since the bulk of the film taps its horror from sources like sickness, paranoia, witch-hunting, claustrophobia and uncertainty, rather than monsters, violence or gore (though there are some sudden trident kills). Meanwhile, the use of shadow and darkness – especially the heavy sweltering nightfall, where fears materialize and death comes calling – gives the bare tropical sets a grateful rest and lets the cinematography take over.
Fans of the original “Dracula” movies or its B-grade sequels should give this one a chance.