Sunday, January 25, 2015

Vamp or Not? Circle of Fear: the Phantom of Herald Square

Ghost Story was a one season long anthology show based on horror themes (rather than simply ghost stories). It changed names halfway through, becoming Circle of Fear. We have already looked at the episode Elegy for a Vampire from the Ghost Story period and this episode aired under Circle of Fear.

This episode was directed by James H. Brown and first aired in 1973. This was actually nearly a review but I felt it probably better fell under "Vamp or Not?" due to a turnaround in the lore.

David Soul as James
It starts with a young woman (Judie Stein) being attacked by an old man (Victor Jory). Cutting to daytime a businessman, Matthews (Murray Matheson), looks at the world through a telescope. He turns his attention to the young man in his office, one James Barlow (David Soul, Starsky and Hutch: the vampire & Salem's Lot). James asks for an extension but is refused and warned not to have any more complications, this is said whilst showing him a newspaper indicating that the girl at the start was murdered. James says that he's lost control of the old man, and Matthew says that this sometimes happens but isn't his problem. When James leaves, Matthews picks up the phone and tells someone that James is considered to be on a first warning.

seeing Holly
James is walking in the park when an old lady approaches him. She says she is called Peggy (Meg Wyllie). James avoids her. At a lake he spots a young woman drawing; drawn to her he introduces himself. She is called Holly (Sheila Larken) and at first she is resistant to him. However he manages to charm the art student to a degree but she has to go to class. That evening, coming home, she is accosted by the old man who warns her not to see the young man again. She runs from him and drops her sketchpad.

turning young at day break
Cutting the story short, they fall for each other but of course he actually is the old man as well. Essentially, as an 88-year-old he didn't want to die and so sold his soul for eternal youth. He is younger during the day and reverts to being old at night (the changing effect being produced by superimposing the two actors over each other). His old self now wishes to die but his young self does not. Every so often he has to charm a girl into making a commitment to him. How often is not answered, but Peggy couldn't have been too long ago. When the girl makes a commitment he is able to maintain his youth. So far so very youth stealing energy vampire. However I did say there is a turnaround in the lore.

Murray Matheson as Matthews
Normally this would be cut and dried for me, but for the dialogue suggesting that rather than him draining the youth from his victims, they instead take on his age. This does intrigue me and makes him more of a giver than a taker. You might be wondering what Matthews gains from the bargain? Clearly those he represents are aware that eventually life will become stale for the one granted immortality and, at that point, they will ask for death and then (I assume Hell) gets the soul. Although age is given rather than youth stolen I still think this is a take on the energy vampire and therefore I'm going Vamp.The episode itself was interesting and its always fun to see David Soul, however it had a repeated romantic music refrain that was more misplaced than the song Strange Love in Lust for a Vampire and this nearly drove me to distraction.

The episode's imdb page is here.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Honourable Mention: the Saragossa Manuscript

Directed by Wojciech Has and released in 1965, the Saragossa Manuscript is a cinematic version of Jan Potocki’s opus the Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

You will recall that this book received an Honourable Mention as the novel, which was released piecemeal between 1805 and 1815, did mention vampires but they were, more than anything, a fleeting visitation within the novel.

In the case of the movie the vampires, the Zoto Brothers, are present (as they are a main opening plot device) but never mentioned as vampires. You might recall that the novel mentions the difference between the vampires of Hungary and Poland to the vampires of Spain (the previous mention relays the full quote). That quote is partly given in film but the English subtitles say zombie rather than vampire – it is also not clear that the dialogue refers to the Zoto Brothers.

the manuscript
So the film itself has a book found (the manuscript is not created in exactly the same way) and then we go back in time to see the adventures of Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) a new Captain of the Walloon Guard. The adventures he has, and the stories he hears, are selectively but accurately lifted from the novel text. However the conspiracy wrapped around him is much more explicit, sometimes even farcical, and the complexity of stories within stories curtailed.

with the cousins
He does, however, encounter his Muslim cousins Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka) and Emina (Iga Cembrzynska) and, following this, awakens under the gallows of the Zoto brothers, faced with the prospect of being haunted by them and wondering whether his cousins are real or actually the undead brothers haunting him in another shape. The brothers are seen in action when we hear the story of Pancheco (Franciszek Pieczka) the demoniac.

the Zoto brothers with the eye
The actions of the Zoto’s are more akin to a haunting than vampirism – though, of course, poltergeist-like activity was an aspect of some vampire folklore – and physically dangerous as they pluck out the amorous young Pancheco’s eye. Their victims are bedevilled by the pair – who sometimes take the form of seductive women and at other times appear as the rotting corpses of the hanged pair – until, if Pancheco’s tale is consistent with all victims, they go mad (or are possessed, as the hermit (Kazimierz Opalinski) would have it).

under the gallows
An excellent three hour movie, split into two parts, that is perhaps even more humorous than the novel. If I felt the novel was more Baron Munchausen than Arabian Nights, then certainly this film is. It draws caricature characters in places, which adds to the absurdist feel (especially in the case of Alfonse’s father (Slawomir Lindner) ). Well worth your time and of genre interest – even if the ‘vampires’ do nothing recognisably vampiric and are not mentioned as such in subtitles.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Urn: Dracula of the Apes – Book 1 – review

Author: G. Wells Taylor

First Published: 2014

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Dracula of the Apes picks up where Bram Stoker’s Dracula left off and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes began. Genres collide in this thrilling horror/adventure fiction hybrid.

Dracula’s Gypsy servant Horvat has the special duty of preserving his master’s body if the worst should ever happen—and the worst has happened!

Van Helsing’s team of vampire hunters has decapitated the count and reduced him to dust and ashes.

Horvat’s instructions are simple. Dracula’s remains must be stored in a special urn and bathed in blood while en route to South Africa where a mysterious ally will see to his resurrection.

But fate steps in off the African coast and a shipwreck casts Horvat and his precious burden into the jungle setting of another literary classic.

The Review: G Wells Taylor has done something audacious and conflated the literary figures of Tarzan and Dracula and, you know what, its blooming good fun. A few things to note at the head of the review, however. I have not read any of the Tarzan books and thus am familiar only through movies. Also this book is comparatively short, probably best described as a novella as it comes in at around 163 pages. As I review it I am reading book 2 and considered waiting to review all three books together. I decided against this as the style of Book 2 is different and Wells Taylor has rightly split the story into volumes.

The style of this is epistolary, like Dracula, but all from the diary of the gypsy Horvat. He had instructions from the Count of what to do should disaster strike and has gathered the vampire’s ashes into a special urn and is transporting them to South Africa – all the time keeping the primal sludge, which the ashes have become, damp with blood (human or animal is fine) – where another vampire will restore Dracula to his former undead glory.

Whilst heading towards Varna, Horvat is protected by wolves that track his progress but hunted by ghoul like creatures. We never get to fully learn what these are. The book changes – following Horvat being shipwrecked and believing the flooding of the urn with saltwater to have destroyed his master totally – to something more akin to Robinson Crusoe. Of course there would be no series if the vampire had been utterly destroyed but I’ll let you read the book to see how that plays out.

I was unsure whether this was going to work. The vampirism is light in this volume as it is mostly focused on Horvat but Wells Taylor gave him a strong voice and the book kept my attention and definitely entertained. 7 out of 10.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Viy (2014) – review

Director: Oleg Stepchenko

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

I am a fan of the story Viy. The original short by Gogol has been filmed several times. Black Sunday is allegedly based on the story but the connection is very loose indeed. That said the film is definitely a vampire movie. The 1967 adaptation, Viy, eschews much of the vampiric aspect from the story but does include hagriding – a traditional form of psychic vampirism. It also has the central witch animate after death reminiscent of the Strigoï vii and mort. It would be remise not to mention Sveto Mesto, a fine adaptation in its own right.

fairytale feel
This version was actually slated for release in 2009 (along with another adaptation that seems to have been lost at the moment) to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Gogol’s birth. It unfortunately seemed to vanish itself but I kept a weather eye out for it. Recently I discovered it had been released on Russian DVD – but without other language subtitles. Then I discovered it had also been released in Thailand. The Thai DVD has either English or Thai audio and subs – the English audio being partially dubbed as the film was produced in Russian and English.

caught in bed
Why partly in English? Because the film adds much to Gogol’s basic story and the film starts in England in 1701, where the Lord Dadli (Charles Dance, Underworld Awakening & Dracula Untold) is storming through his house accompanied by a group of servants. He approaches a certain room with stealth, so as to not to alert the occupants – his daughter (Anna Churina) who is in bed with Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Green makes a run for it whilst professing his love. He is a cartographer and will make his fortune, he suggests. He gets to his coach – a steampunk like coach drawn by horses but controlled from inside the cab and complete with road measuring wheel at the back.

sitting vigil
Cutting across Europe, we hear a voiceover tell us about the eyes of Viy, an eternal God. In a beautifully realised fairytale landscape we see maidens put wreaths with lighted candles into a lake, Tradition says if a man picks up a wreath he and the girl are destined to be together. Nastusya (Agnia Ditkovskite) walks from the lake calling for her friend Pannochka (Olga Zaytseva). Pannochka is lying deathlike in the water when she grabs her friend who falls in herself. Nastusya is saved by some half unseen beast like shape with seven horns. Pannochka’s father, Sotnik (Yuriy Tsurilo), comes to his daughter who dies in his arms but first says that a seminary student, Khoma (Aleksey Petrukhin), must read the three nights of prayer above her.

after the third night
Khoma is brought to Sotnik who offers him 1000 gold coins to perform the vigil. We see him taken to the church and become locked in but the next scene is actually the third night of vigil. He is singing prayers when he notices the coffin is empty. Flowers seem to fly and he draws a chalk circle around himself. The flowers seem to be caught in a vortex, flying around the circle and around the great crucifix. A spectral creature lunges towards Khoma. The scene is over in a flash and then we see the village priest, Otets Paisiy (Andrey Smolyakov), given Khoma’s fee to deliver. We see him above Khoma’s body, having dropped the coins, crying that the church is cursed. He has two Cossack brothers board the church up (though they steal the coins first) and one loses an eye after a fall from the roof when he tries to board-up a hole.

the seminary students
At this point I was a tad disappointed. Khoma’s story seemed to have been greatly curtailed – don’t worry though, his encounter with the hag and the first two nights of vigil are relayed later on in flashback. As Jonathan makes his way over Europe, sending letters back to his love, he has no idea she is pregnant. I was unsure about these cut scenes to his lover – they added little to the film. With supplies low, Jonathan picks up two seminary students, Gorobets (Anatoliy Gushchin) and Khalyava (Ivan Mokhovikov). They tell him how they and Khoma stayed at the watermill of the village and Khoma vanished.

This leads us to them being allowed to stay by the old woman who lives in the mill and her sexual overtones towards Khoma. We actually see that her silhouette is that of a young woman… with a tail. She jumps on Khoma’s back and rides him through the night sky – in a reflection he sees that her face is that of Pannochka. This hadridding is the only overtly vampiric aspect to the film, the blood drinking that comes into the original story is lost and the Strigoï vii and mort like aspect is deliberately blurred (in a way that is too spoiler heavy to explain). It is telling that the stories round the hagridding and the first two nights are third hand, as Khoma is dead (or missing, according to his friends) - could they possibly be true?

Viy with eyelids lifted
The film plays with a theme of superstition and science but deliberately blurs the lines. The villagers are treated to a sign consisting of demonic visions but it is apparently the product of magic lantern technology (not too much is done with this, unfortunately). The English scientist is driven to the village when cadaverous wolves with glowing eyes that seem to be able to vanish into smoke chase him down. He uncovers a very earthly conspiracy but is driven to do so after visions where he sees Cossacks becme demons and then meets Viy himself. Viy is well done visually but the death that comes from his eyes (if his heavy, long eyelids are lifted) is reserved for the sinner and he is portrayed almost as a benevolent nature God who is pushing for justice.

groping blindly
The imagery through the film does work well. The first two nights of vigil are particularly well done. One has Pannochka blind, groping for Khoma as demonic roots and vines engulf the church interior. The second has a flying coffin that bleeds when struck with a hatchet. The story, however, is partially stifled by the new additions. I got the feeling of screenplay changes altering direction and leaving little reminders of previous drafts that were superfluous. That’s not to say that the story is bad (after all, the Gogol story is still central) and the changes that were made to the primary characters worked well enough – but it could have done with cleaning up.

The dubbing was somewhat annoying – but unavoidable if I was going to see the film. Hopefully an original dialogue version with English subs will become available at some point. I liked the fact that the seminary students looked as though they had walked out of the 1967 version and I did enjoy the film (not as much as some other versions, but nevertheless). 6.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tom Holland’s Twisted Tales

Director: Tom Holland

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

Anthology films always run the risk of being hit and miss. However when the entire thing was written and directed by Tom Holland the man behind Child’s Play and Fright Night (1985) one expects a little more.

This is a long effort, just under 2.5 hours, and some of the pieces are better than others. Unfortunately stories such as Mongo's Magik Mirror worked less for the actual segment and more for the fact of Ray Wise (Reaper), who stars in that segment, generally being a magnificent actor. Each piece was introduced by Tom Holland but when it came to the vampire segment, Vampire’s Dance, things went seriously wrong.

smoking hand
More a ten minute afterthought (which I’m guessing went along the lines of, “I’m famous for Fright Night, I’d best do something with vampires”) this was initially let down by having a non-linear structure (which, if done well, I would enjoy) minus the necessary storyline. So we get Lisa (Lisa McLowry) waking up on the floor and nearly burning her hand in sunlight. She goes through to a bar where Tom Holland is the janitor sweeping up and asks him where they all are?

vampire imagery
We also see, intercut, her quest the night before to find her missing roommate. She asks a bouncer if she can look in the bar and meets Shaun (Shaun Benson) who takes her through to a room where couples dance (in ways that can only be described as expressionist). For some reason Tom Holland appears and addresses the audience from a small mirror through the piece, whilst Lisa somehow gets wind of the danger and reveals a large mirror (she somehow knew was covered up behind the DJ) to warn the humans that there are vampires there – to no avail; cue feeding frenzy.

Fright Night t-shirt
She, of course, is turned for reasons unexplained. And that’s it. Bunkum, but there are some nice vampiric images appear during the feeding frenzy and I really did like the fact that the bouncer was wearing an Evil Ed Fright Night t-shirt. But the piece itself was so throwaway and had pretensions, due to its non-linearity, that it couldn’t support. The “idiot’s guide” commentary from Tom-Holland-in-the-mirror was odd, obtrusive and out with the other tales in the anthology.

For the vampire segment only – 2 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ghost Story: Elegy for a Vampire – review

Director: Don McDougall

First aired: 1972

Contains spoilers

Ghost Story was a one season long anthology show based on horror themes (rather than simply ghost stories). It changed title halfway through the season, becoming Circle of Fear. This change also saw the removal of the wraparound section, which was essentially introductions by Winston Essex (Sebastian Cabot) owner of the hotel Mansfield House. This actual episode was part of the series when it was called Ghost Story.

In the wraparound protagonists who were either in or connected with the actual episode's story might be mentioned. In this episode Essex talks about a professor named Pendergast who had died but had left a manuscript at the hotel. It was a treatise on modern-day vampires.

running from the vampire
The story proper begins with David Wells (Hal Linden) writing in his dairy. In voice-over we hear that he is frightened and that the spells are getting worse. With Pendergast dead there is no one to help him. His vision blurs... And clears when he is on the Street. A woman, clearly a co-ed, is walking across campus, she decides to take a short cut through the cemetery. A man (clearly Wells) appears behind her, she panics and runs, falls and screams as we see Wells' sweating face.

Laura the love interest
In a faculty staff meeting we see Wells and his friend Frank Simmons (Mike Farrell) as well as other faculty members. Chief of Security Owen Houston (Arthur O'Connell) has decided that, following the murder of another student, the faculty should start civilian patrols. Wells is volunteered to patrol the cemetery. Later that night we see a woman, Laura Benton (Marlyn Mason ), near a building. She goes to a door, enters the building and up to the apartment. It is clearly Wells' apartment. Frank arrives and doesn't recognise the woman who is an intruder. She explains she used to live there, which he finds to be a perfectly acceptable explanation for her being in someone else's home. Outside the apartment they meet Wells and this rather clumsy character introduction adds in a love interest for Wells.

looking as mad as a box of frogs
Wells has Pendergast's manuscript that the professor had asked him to proof just before he died. Within it Pendergast argued a scientific explanation for vampirism, citing chemical imbalances that led to a biological need. Wells searches the manuscript for answers, whilst agonising over his memory gaps and wondering if he is a murderer. Meanwhile detective lieutenant Thorpe (John Milford, Spider-woman in Dracula's Revenge) believes he has caught the killer; the coed’s boyfriend. Things turn weirder when Frank is passing the cemetery, sees a figure (which to us is clearly Wells) and recognises Pendergast.

digging up Pendergast
When Frank tells Houston about this, Houston discloses that the murder victims all had suffered neck wounds. This leads to a midnight cemetery visit were Wells, Frank and Houston dig up Pendergast's corpse with a stake handy. Later dialogue indicates they used it, we're not sure why Wells would have gone along with this. I won't spoil how the rest of the story goes.

nice to see Mike Farrell
This wasn't the best episode in the series, though it was nice to see Mike Farrell as I'm a big fan of M*A*S*H. Keeping the vampire's identity secret from the audience, rather than the character, might have been a good idea. Given that Wells tells us that he's still getting over the death of his wife (after two years), buying the blossoming relationship with the woman who was caught breaking and entering his apartment just doesn't ring true. The cops arresting the unseen boyfriend when the coed wasn't the first victim seemed off. As Wells has no memory of the events one wonders why he believes he might be a vampire.

Despite all this, as part of the series this was a fun piece of 1970s horror hokum. 5 out of 10. The episode's imdb page is here.

Bonus Bits: there were some other episodes worth mentioning on the blog.

the concrete captain
The first is of genre interest because of a name. The Richard Donner directed episode the Concrete Captain aired in 1972. A husband and wife, Ed (Stuart Whitman, the Monster Club) and Kate (Gena Rowlands, Paris, je T’aime), are on an anniversary trip. Ed buys Kate a keepsake, a model of the concrete captain. This is a local landmark said to be where a captain washed up on shore, became trapped in rocks, was put out of his misery with a harpoon to the heart and then buried in concrete. The reason for the mention is that the captain was called Jonathan Harker (Glenn R. Wilder). One might think this coincidence but given that Jimmy Sangster wrote the screenplay I believe this was a definitive nod to Stoker's Dracula. The imdb page is here.

Michael-James Wixted as Bobby
The second of interest was an episode called Alter-Ego. Directed by David Lowell Rich and also airing in 1972, this story centres around Bobby (Michael-James Wixted) a young lad who has broken his leg and is stuck in his bedroom. He summons an alter-ego but it is an evil version of him who goes on to wreck his life. Bobby becomes more and more ill but also the alter-ego kills the pet cat and hamster both of which seem to be depleted down to husks. The life also seems to be drained out of flowers. Though this is deliberate and targeted I didn't think there was enough for a "Vamp or Not?" as we have no evidence that the alter-ego is actually feeding. The imdb page is here.

After the series became Circle of Fear there was one more episode that would interest us. I intend to look at the episode the Phantom of Herald Square in a future article.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Honourable Mention: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was a work, in French, by Polish author Jan Potocki and is somewhat difficult to date. Potoki has the manuscript described as being found by an unnamed French soldier during the sacking of Saragossa. It is said to be the journal of a young officer of the Walloon Guard, Alphonse van Worden that describes a period of 66 days.

Potoki actually circulated a proof edition of the first 10 days in 1805 – and the full form of the work was only released posthumously, following the authors suicide in 1814. I think, to be fair, we should offer a date of 1805-15.

Alphonse is travelling to take up his commission in Madrid and is travelling across the Sierra Morena region with a guide and muleteer, both of whom vanish. He stays in an abandoned inn and from there encounters a vast array of characters who tell him their stories. Eventually the book starts to have stories within stories within stories and cuts between storytellers as they are available, making quiet a complex weave. But I guess you are wondering how vampires come into this.

The night he stays in the inn he meets twin Moorish princesses, Emina and Zubeida, who claim to be his cousins – though he is a Christian and they Muslim. Having told him some of their story they have him drink a draft so that they might know each other in their dreams. When he awakens he finds himself below the gallows of the hanged brothers of the bandit Zoto. It is said that the brothers are vampires and come down from the gallows at night. Later Alphonse discovers that they are not Zoto’s brothers (as they are alive and well) but innocent men hanged in their place as an example.

Alphonse had been asked by the sisters to tell no one of his encounters with them on his word of honour – a promise he maintains. This continues even after a demoniac describes his encounter with his unfaithful mother-in-law and her sister in the same abandoned inn, how they transformed into the brothers and hunted him down whilst haunting him. The insinuation being that Emina and Zubeida might be the brothers in another form. Indeed a Cabalist also tells him that there have been changes to the ranks of demons and “Vampires, among others, are new inventions, if I may put it that way. I myself distinguish two species: the vampires of Hungary and Poland, who are corpses which leave their tombs at night to suck human blood, and the vampires of Spain, who are foul spirits who assume the first dead body they come across, turn it into any imaginable shape and…” His description ends there. At one point it is suggested that heaven has allowed vampires to assume the shape of the two hanged men in the valley.

Alphonse is torn between whether the twins are real or the vampires assuming that shape, and whether all that happens is a conspiracy to encourage him to convert to Islam. Indeed the sisters (whom he sleeps with, together) throw away the relic he wears that is a sliver of the true cross, this is after Zubedia had recoiled and grown pale on hearing what his locket contained. As the stories unfold we lose sight of this part of the set up until almost the end of the novel and the vampire aspect is touched upon but never really the focus, more a fleeting visitation – hence the honourable mention. I did feel that the end of the novel felt rushed compared to the rest which was long and rambling, cutting across many styles and yet consistently fascinating at the same time. There is also a brief mention of succubus during a Gypsy Chief’s tale.