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.


Mad Dog said...

Oh boy, if Magus ever sees that you okay'd a Kitamura film, he'll freak. :p

FilmWalrus said...

How can you not enjoy Kitamura? He may be the world's shallowest director, but he has the shameless action love of a monster formed from merging Woo, Bruckheimer, Schumacher and Bay. It goes so far over the top that it scales all my walls of resistance.

Unknown said...

Oh, since the new Rocky movie was so good, and all?

Just saying.

Mad Dog said...

He added Matrix shit to Metal Gear Solid, a classic of video game storytelling.

Let's see you explain your way out of that one.

Anonymous said...

Metal Gear Solid IS a classic of video game storytelling!! ESPECIALLY MGS2! How is it not?!? If Versus gets a free pass MGS most certainly does too. =(

And I DO have a gang of kung fu and horror loving friends and we turned Versus off after 30 minutes. We even fast-forwarded through to look for action. We just saw spinning camera angles and guys doing Power Rangers stunts. We almost snapped the disc in half too out of blind rage but I decided to pawn it off at Gamestop instead. The clerk guy was like "Awesome movie." :|


- Magus :3

FilmWalrus said...

I really like MGS. All of them. And the storytelling. I'm not really entirely sure why we're talking about that...

Sounds like "Versus" should have fit your MO, but didn't, for whatever reason (I never said it wasn't obnoxious attention-deficit fodder). There are plenty of films that outwardly seem made for me, but I panned anyway. Take "Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter." That should have been absolutely hilarious and instead I wanted to drive stakes into my eyes as I watched it.

There are, after all, 35 vampire films on this list so I'm sure there will be something for everyone (except mothers and senators, as usual). There is still a kung-fu vampire movie yet to come on the list, and I bet you'd like it much better; I did. :)

Unknown said...

I agree with what you said in your review, basically that Versus is totally awesome, but then gets repetitive and just recycles the awesome, making it...less exciting.