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.


Mad Dog said...



At this point if Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust doesn't show up and take a crap on Underworld's chest, I shall be disappointed.

FilmWalrus said...

You heard me. Not only did I like "Underworld," but I liked it better than Bergman's go of it. Rosenbaum can come to my house and steal my junior cubscout coca-cola-supports-independent-filmmakers movie critic certificate and I don't care. This is a freakin list of vampire movies, and Underworld supplied a wicked-awesome vampire hottie kickin werewolf ass. And they actually got a decent script for it past a swarm of producers who would rather make "Van Helsing"!

But, yes, "Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust" does beat it out. The top 10 only gets more idiosyncratic and arguable (including 2 movies with unambiguously no vampires) so I'm notching my palisade, sticking guns out the slits and getting ready for an all-out defense.

In my defense, I've had to watch about 60 movies total now, and I'm going a bit crazy...

FilmWalrus said...

Did you notice how I watched a seven-hour silent French movie only to find out there were no actual vampires? CRAZY-fangs gnawing at my eyeballs and bats bats bats all arond my glric neklce. GlawaaAhh

Unknown said...

omg, the cover of Blood and Roses rules SO MUCH.

...And Walrus? Eeep.

(Although Fright Night did sort of incite a different kind of horror and violence than it intended. SHUT UP STUPID SPIKEY HAIRED FRIEND DUDE.)

Unknown said...

I am an undying fangirl of Underworld - no pun intended but I am. I also cannot stand Beckinsale. She was tolerable in UW I want to hunt down Wiseman and shoot him for what he did for the second film. I am holding out high hopes for the 3rd Prequel praying they can salvage the original story line between the lycans and vampires. And Thank God! Beckinsale WON'T be in the third film.

I must admit your reviews have me considering seeing afew of these films and aside from UW I've not seen nor heard of any of them. Thanks! ^^

FilmWalrus said...

The other type of Raven,

Thanks for the interest and for standing up in support of UW. I must also admit that I don't like Beckinsale either, and considering the roles she gets, I don't think her agent does either. However, I think she actually clicks as an action hero and she does indignant well (which came up a lot in the movie).

By all means, check out some of the other titles on the list. Keep in mind that the taste is pretty eclectic and many of these are nothing like UW, but whether you're into old-school or modern, arty or actiony, there should be others on here you'd enjoy.

FilmWalrus said...

My comments about Rosenbaum hating me for ranking a Bergman film below "Underworld" were surprisingly misguided. I hadn't yet gotten around to reading this article in the NY Times:

Rosenbaum's not getting a lot of love from that one. I've rarely seen him so defensive as his attempts to justify his slams at the late director.