Sunday, November 18, 2018

Ghoul – Season 1 – review

Director: Patrick Graham

First aired: 2018

Contains spoilers

This is an Indian mini-series, made for Netflix and combines a dystopian future with the supernatural and – if we are going to be honest – a large dollop of the Thing (1982) and does so with a massive amount of style. The horror (and gore) building through the three episodes until it crescendos.

First thing, of course, is I am going to have to tackle the fact that it is based on a version of the Arabian Ghoul before someone comments and says “it’s a ghoul not a vampire”. The fact is the two creatures have been closely linked for quite some time. The ghoul as a creature from Arabic myth entered into Western consciousness as it was mentioned several times in the Arabian Nights, as translated into French by Antoine Galland in the 18th Century. The story of most interest is The History of Sidi Nu’uman, which tells of a man suspicious because his new bride never seems to eat. Long story short he follows her to a cemetery and witnesses her indulging in eating the dead with the other ghouls.

fanged teeth
Cut forward to 1821 and E.T.A. Hoffmann published a story entitled Vampirismus as part of his Die Serapions-Brüder. There is every chance that the story title was added by an editor as the story is essentially a reworking, into a modern Western setting, of The History of Sidi Nu’uman. Jump forward a century and Dudley Wright adds the same story into his reference book Vampires and Vampirism and Summers conflates ghouls and vampires in The vampire, His Kith and Kin (1928). Ghouls were used in the work of HP Lovecraft and his ghoul story Pickman’s Model (1927) was reworked by Neil Gaiman, with a vampiric twist, in his film A Short Film About John Bolton.

the squad
In this case we start with a man cutting into his own flesh so that he can gather his own blood to paint out a glyph, a blood ritual that will summon the ghoul – we’ll come back to this. We are in an India of the near future, a radically different place from now. There is a military clampdown and a rampant (and I daresay popularist) nationalism. We follow a military raid on a terrorist base, looking for terrorist leader Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj). A man approaches the squad, saying “they’re all dead”. When they get to where Saeed is there are bodies and he sits there. He whispers something to the squad leader.

Radhika Apte as Nida
Jumping back a month and Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte), a young Muslim woman, is in a car with her father (S.M. Zaheer). He is taking her back to the academy of the National Protection Squad, where she is being trained in interrogation techniques, but he is complaining about raids and the burning of books. He reveals he has books that he has rescued in the car and his lecture notes – he’s been teaching off-syllabus. They reach a checkpoint and he becomes defensive but Nida intervenes to get them past. However, she thinks on his actions and the propaganda she is fed, and reports him – he is sent to a re-education centre but not before she reveals she has done this to him.

torturing Saeed
Nida is pulled out of the academy early and posted to a detention centre (the one her father was sent to). There is a difference of opinion of how to treat her. Commander of the post, Colonel Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul), wants her put on the squad who are to interrogate Ali Saeed (who is being transported there that day), but his Lieutenant, Laxmi Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), doesn’t trust her and thinks she is a terrorist/sympathiser. It soon becomes apparent that Saeed is more than he appears and this is shown at first through mind games that get his interrogators turning on each other. Quickly it is revealed that he is the ghoul.

it's behind you
So, what are its powers – having been summoned, its purpose is to reveal their guilt and eat their flesh. There seems to be some level of telepathy involved, so that it can manipulate people – causing fights and generally freaking people out. However the primary power is that the ghoul will eat the flesh of victims and take the form of the last person it bit (hence dropping the pronoun to it). This transformation can occur whether the victim is alive or dead. This leads to the Thing aspect, with the series playing with the “who is it” card a few times. The ghoul can reveal sharp teeth, talons and black eyes. It does also appear to be very physically hardy.

hunting the ghoul
I really enjoyed this. It had a dark atmosphere with the dystopian setting, the torture/detention centre, the characters who were all fatally flawed one way or another and the gore and violence that built through the three episodes. It was superbly acted and, yes, it was derivative but in a good way. Whether you’d throw this into vampire filmographies depends on how wide you cast your vampire net but this ghoul certainly eats fresh flesh and not longer dead corpses (as is the norm through a lot of ghoul material) and can shapeshift (again not a power normally put in ghoul related material, more a vampiric power). 7.5 out of 10 and recommended.

The imdb page is here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

An Accidental Zombie (Named Ted) – review

Director: Anne Welles

Release date: 2017

Contains spoilers

This is a kooky little comedy that is inoffensive but perhaps lacked either a little depth or a little offensiveness to give it that bit of an edge. That said it is a genuine little piece with a nice edge of comedy.

That comedy comes from absurdism that remains unexplained through the entire film, the viewer has to just accept that certain things are, go with it and the film contains an internal logic that then works.

Cameron McKendry as Ted
It starts with Ted (Cameron McKendry) heading to work and dropping papers as we hear a conversation between his boss Frank (Kane Hodder) and Frank’s new secretary Bonnie (Tanya Chisholm). This gives a background to the workplace. It is a place that takes discarded skin, renders it (in boilers in the basement, known colloquially as Hell) and turns it into new things – suits, lingerie, purses. It sounds ridiculous because it is part of the thread of absurdism I mentioned. Ted seems to step in some gore on the way in and explains to Frank that he has had an accident and a report will be late.

Akari Endo as Livia
Meanwhile Bonnie has noticed Ted’s skin and asks (as Frank has just mentioned a new worker initiative – "don’t be a zombie") whether Ted is a zombie. This is something he gets accused of often – though he repeatedly states that it is a skin condition (it runs in the family, though his parents adopted him) he picked up during a vacation to the Caribbean. A woman, Livia (Akari Endo), enters the office – thinking the building abandoned and trying to get out of the sun. We notice she has fangs. Ted is emotionally struck by her but she leaves, dropping a card for Dr Lovio (Tami Brockway Joyce) – who treats disorders of the paranormal.

Chad Eric Smith as Wolfgang
Ted attends the therapy in order that he might meet Livia – there is also a real Dr Lovio (Izzy Church), a psychologist, dismissive of her sister’s practice. It is a group therapy and there is Wolfgang (Chad Eric Smith) a werewolf with alopecia, Grendel (Jordan Liddle) a cave troll who became smart and Evie (Christina Nigra) a fairy who got big. Livia has been feeling strange since a holiday in Romania – fangs and strength being mentioned. Whilst there she met a botanist who always went out at night. She denies that she is a vampire.

So the film follows Ted and Livia getting together, both in denial about what they have become. There is a sub-plot about his kooky family and his Poppy (Timothy Brennen), who is apparently dying and suspicious of Ted’s skin condition – not being overly tolerant of zombies. There is a further sub-plot of a group of co-workers going missing, whilst one co-worker, Mel (Mary Druzba), repeatedly suggests that Ted ate them. This could have stood to be explored more and felt too throwaway. Ted himself often suffers visual hallucinations – of brains, blood etc…

Its all very gentle and, as mentioned, inoffensive. But it is professionally drawn together and the cast do well with amusing but thin material. The missing co-workers thread might have added character, and more importantly narrative depth, to the production had it been expanded. As could the sub-plot of the gold-digging sorceress with her claws in Poppy, which was dealt with in a rather cursory manner. Both plotlines offered a route to a much more fulfilling film, whilst keeping the “in denial” central plot point fresh. Though it didn’t do this it isn’t as though the film didn’t work. It did, but it could have been much more. 5.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Short Film: the Phantom Hour

From 2016 and directed by Brian Patrick Butler this is an 8-minute short film that takes some inspiration from the expressionist films of yore and we see this as it opens in the stylised intertitles and the establishing picture of a building in the expressionist style. The fact that the film lists out “the players” at the head also makes us think of a earlier age of cinema.

A dinner party has been organised for four strangers – though the (bug eating) chef Bryce (Brian Patrick Butler) has fouled up the dinner and they have brought chicken takeout. The guests are there for different reasons one (Morgan K. Reynolds) thinks it is a casting call, another (Dakota Ringer) is there to buy weed and another (Raye Richards) to buy sold out concert tickets. The fourth (Connor Sullivan) is carrying a wooden stake…

Just as well as their host, Nikolai (Luke Anthony Pensabene), happens to grow a pair of front placed fangs and does not get on with wooden crosses. Who will prevail? Only watching the short will answer that question but it is an amusing effort and the expressionist aspect works really rather nicely – it is all situation, however, with little plot and narrative. Perhaps a tad more style than substance. However sometimes that’s all you need.

The imdb page is here.

On Demand @ Amazon US

On Demand @ Amazon UK

Monday, November 12, 2018

Vamp or Not? We are the Flesh

Controversial art/horror film Tenemos la carne (which is actually 'we have the meat') was a 2016 Mexican film directed by Emiliano Rocha Minter and I feel slightly disingenuous running this as a ‘Vamp or Not?’ as it kind of isn’t – despite part of El Topo’s negative deconstruction of the film having a section entitled “Fin – we’re all rape vampires in the real world” and asking “so they’re vampires now, question mark.” Yet it certainly is a film that plays with vampire tropes. It reminded me, in part at least, of A Nocturne: Night of the vampire though that was tonally more than anything and A Nocturne has much more narrative.

Now I will also say that I don’t share El Topo’s dislike for the film but I can certainly see why it was disliked. This is non-narrative with an inner desire to shock when perhaps shock became overused. However I was mesmerised by the film and, in particular, blown away by primary actor Noé Hernández’s expressive performance as Mariano.

Noé Hernández as Mariano
So we start with him, specifically him building a still essentially. He uses bread pulped in water, as the primary fermenting ingredient to make (as he states) gas – but clearly hooch. Now I have seen suggestion that the film is post-apocalyptic and I understand why one would feel that way. He seems to be alone in a building until siblings Fauna (María Evoli) and Lucio (Diego Gamaliel) enter his world. They say that they have wandered through the city and there is nowhere to go. Later still we get others in the place, and notice that the bread he uses appears fresh and he trades the moonshine for trays of eggs through a pulley system in a wall. My feeling was this was more a rendition of a purgatory or Hell – but even that steps aside from the ending.

As it is the two siblings are coerced to work with him and they construct a cave like surrounding in the building. Building a frame and then papering it – but it does appear to be a cave once complete and also the womb. He encourages the siblings to have incestuous sex and masturbates over the scene – dying at the point of orgasm. So, we have a theme of incest, which is a theme that ties into the vampire genre, and then la petite mort leading to his actual death. The incest aspect ties in as a cause of vampirism – the act sometimes said to lead the perpetrator(s) to become vampires after their death.

the constructed cave
Vampirism is often seen to be an analogy for sex (and deviant sex at that) hence incest being a cause. Certainly there was also a connection between necrophilia and vampirism with historic figures such as Sergeant François Bertrand called vampires (in Bertrand’s case he was dubbed the Vampire of Montparnasse) due to their necrophilia. As this film lurches through deviance and excess it should come as no shock that Fauna eventually has necrophilic sex with the corpse of Mariano. However the act causes the corpse to vanish and then be reborn within the womb like cave.

feeding Lucio
Fauna is the most dominant of the characters. She not only (at Mariano’s urging) instigates the incest and becomes insatiable, she also feeds her brother her menstrual blood, rapes a woman (when more people are found for the rooms/cave) in a sapphic attack and beats the reborn Mariano because she feared he had left them and wouldn’t return. She is with Mariano as her brother lies injured and they have a soldier held captive – Lucio stabilised by Mariano putting his mysterious drug, which we have seen him occasionally use, in the wound.

feeding blood
As they hold the soldier Mariano assures him that they will not kill him for the various reasons that someone might kill. Rather they will kill him simply for his blood and his flesh and “all the exquisite substances inside you”. They slit his throat and bleed him. The film cuts to the pair looking at each other, blood on their mouths as they flap – it is almost as though they have transformed into birds (through their movements). Then they feed the blood to Lucio to revive him and, so, we have blood drinking and an apparent transformation, though I would say it is more shamanic than anything else. Mariano uses the flesh within the still as he previously used bread – making a communion connection as well as the vampiric trope. (Later Mariano will declare that those in an orgy should drink his blood, “as warm as Holy Mary’s c*nt”, underlying the religious subversion occurring in the film as well and strengthening the idea that this might be some form of Hell).

the scream
So, there is blood drinking (with transformative and restorative applications) and sexual practices that (through the genre’s development/journey) have been tied into the figure of the vampire – be that aggressive lesbianism, necrophilia or incest. This isn’t necessarily a vampire film but it certainly uses the tropes (and I’d like to think that the multi-layered film uses them knowingly). This is not for the faint-hearted, there are hardcore sexual aspects with a desire to shock, no narrative as such, ambiguousness aplenty and some gore. However if you appreciate that in a film and want to see a stupendously animated performance this might just be something you want to see. Ultimately I’d say it is of genre interest.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Black Violet – review

Director: István Várady

Release date: 2017

Contains spoilers

That Black Violet would appear, according to IMDb, to be István Várady’s directorial debut makes it an astounding effort – not perfect certainly but astounding nonetheless. A black and white, certainly arthouse effort that, either deliberately or accidentally, seems to summon the spirit and mythology of Jean Rollin - whilst offering enough of an intertextual genre basis to shorthand aspects of the vampirism in the story.

The film steps slightly out of linear storytelling by splitting the story into chapters and placing chapter 4 ahead of the other chapters. More could have been done with this – in terms of non-linear construction – especially as there is an aspect within the film’s internal mythology that steps out of time. Before the chapters, however, we get a prologue.

on the beach
We see a couple on a beach. They are Zelda (Kayli Tran), who narrates the section, and her dream-man (Jimmy Flint-Smith). We discover that this was a regular dream the young woman had, of being with a man, of being inseparable, of being safe and, yet, at the end the dream would fade and vanish. I do not think it was deliberate, and it might have been something to do with how the Californian sun impacted the quality of lighting on a black and white shoot, but my mind was drawn during the scene to Track of the Vampire {aka Blood Bath} - note this is not a quality comment.

sugar skull
From that scene we head into Chapter 4, subtitled the Devil. Jennifer (Megan Desboro) and Carmen (Val Vega) are sat out in the desert as Jennifer makes Carmen up in the style of a sugar skull. Carmen wants revenge over her little brother for melting a limited set of Homies figures she owned. They see a man, Pepin (Scott Vance), staggering around holding a rock. They approach him and he asks about Córdoba but they say they are in California. Jennifer decides they should take the obviously confused man with them. There is a house nearby that she has access to whilst the owner is in jail.

As they walk, Pepin complains of thirst and they give him water. He bites into the plastic bottle rather than remove the lid and he quickly vomits the water back up. He tells the two that he wishes to give them something for their service and offers them dog teeth, the only thing he has on him, they refuse and he is further confused – swearing that he knows a village where he could trade such teeth for a suckling pig. They get to the house but it's locked and Jennifer has to break in, leaving Carmen with Pepin who is asking about the war against the Moors. She breaks in but when she steps out of the house again she stops in shocked horror and the camera turns to show us Pepin feeding on Carmen. Jennifer’s screams end when Pepin breaks her neck.

Danielle Henderson as Kennedy
We get moments of a train system and Kennedy (Danielle Henderson) who appears to be a cleaner for the train company. Later we see she lives in a nicely furnished apartment, the only resident in the block. The intertitle for Chapter 1 is the Hermit and Kennedy is said hermit. It is unlikely that she needs to work and she keeps herself to herself – watched over by Altmann (Iván Kamarás, Dracula (2013 series)). They are both vampires turned by Pepin. Kennedy is not consuming blood and does a ritual to stave off the hunger – the Killing Hunger as Altmann describes it.

the Horned God
The ritual sees Kennedy consuming a concoction and passing out, coming round upon a beach. On the beach is the Horned God (played by both Ashley Watkins and Calliope Tsoukalas) who is served by two hooded Spanish priests (Jose Garcia and Béla Lugosi – at least according to IMDb). As things develop we discover that this is a dimension out of time and space. It was this aspect that reminded me so much of the works of Rollin, who used the beach as a motif. In Rollin's the Nude Vampire the other-dimensional home of the vampires is displayed as a beach.

coughing up bullets
Later in the film we discover that vampires are not necessarily magic or miraculous and so cannot heal from damage. However an injured Kennedy, who has been beaten and shot, manages to get herself to the beach and is healed by the horned God. When she awakens, she coughs up the bullets. It is also a place where Pepin, who has awoken early from his deep sleep, can be taken to heal his psyche – an early awakening can cause psychosis and amnesia. The Horned God is intimately connected with turning someone into a vampire. Vampires are long-lived – Pepin is 3000-years old, need blood but do reflect and can go into the sun. Kennedy’s lack of windows in her apartment is about feeling secure and not due to the sun.

Kennedy and Zelda
Story wise, Kennedy takes Zelda under her wing. Zelda is being forced to work for a crime family (as a hostess) a hostage from another family. They quickly become lovers, and Kennedy shares the truth of her nature with the mortal girl. There is also the question of Pepin, of who awoke him and why. The film does fit neatly together by its conclusion but, in some respects, could occasionally have done with more narrative explicit moments. The IMDb page description suggests the film “intimately explores the idea of growing beyond violence” – however the end of the film would seem to be more creation through negativity (and a violent outburst).

Scott Vance as Pepin
The film is very well constructed. The black and white photography is beautifully rendered and the direction competent with moments of excellence. The soundtrack works well but it is the performances that probably make this more than anything else; Danielle Henderson carries the lead well, ably supported by Kayli Tran but it is Scott Vance who steals the show as Pepin – with a fantastic performance. The film is pretty darn arthouse, will resonate well with Rollin fans and deserves 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

When Brave Men Shudder: The Scottish origins of Dracula – review

Author: Mike Shepherd

First Published: 2018

The Blurb: Gripped by the demon of inspiration, he entered into the mind of the infamous Count Dracula…

The year: 1895. The place: a remote Scottish fishing village. Bram Stoker is feverishly penning his cadaverous tale of vampire horror as his family look on aghast.

Everything was conspiring to produce those words of gore... everything. What were the supernatural influences he found in the village? Who was the mystic poet who dominated his restless thoughts? Why was the pagan world trying to communicate with him?

Family memories, maps, photographs and newly-opened archives provide the untold story of how Dracula came to be written. Long untold and now never to be forgotten, this is the tale of a book that shocked the world, a book that would make the brave shudder…

The review: Over the years there has been a faction, if I can call it that, which suggests that Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire was the inspiration for Castle Dracula and/or the direct inspiration for the novel. What Mike Shepherd, a resident of Cruden Bay, has done is take that concept and – through a variety of evidences looked into the truth of this.

It is well established that certain sections, or perhaps even the majority, of Dracula was written when Bram Stoker took his month-long holidays in Cruden Bay. The fact that he wrote two other novels set specifically in the area shows his love for the place. We also know that he had made plans for a vampire novel, which became Dracula, before ever visiting the village. Indeed, Shepherd's even-handed approach to this is revealed when he states “It’s part of local myth that the sight of Slains Castle inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula. This is incorrect…” and goes on to explain the motif of the castle in pre-Cruden Bay notes. However, I think it is fair to say that its presence above the village will have influenced (consciously or subconsciously) and Shepherd reveals that Slains had (and the ruins still contain) an octagonal room – a feature specifically mentioned in the novel and that Stoker had visited the castle as a guest.

In truth, the uncovered information this volume contains about Dracula specifically (such as the octagonal room) could have been the subject of a journal paper. The book is expanded further as the author explores Stoker’s relationship with the location and draws in subjects such as his long love of the poetry of Walt Whitman. The book is then more about Stoker – man and author – than Dracula, his famous opus. This volume is expanded further still with details of the local area; historical, sociological and mythological, which I have to say were fascinating in their own right. Shepherd does offer much in the way of supposition, about the book and the man – but that is fine, as he is clear that it is supposition and is not possibility passed off as hard fact.

The writing style is chatty, enthusiastic and clearly filled with a passion for both the author he examines and the location. One piece of clarification, if I may, when addressing the novel Lady of the Shroud the author suggests “She appears to be a ghost”, but she was actually posing as a vampire. Given that this touches on the legendary creature of Stoker’s famous novel I felt it was a missed moment of connectivity – but very, very minor in the grand scheme. 7 out of 10.

In Paperback @ Amazon US

In Paperback @ Amazon UK

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Bitten: Victoria's Shadow – review

Director: Grant Austin Waldman

Release date: 2001

Contains spoilers

The streaming video industry has pluses and minuses due to its insatiable need to promote new content. On a plus side it will plumb the depths of various film industries, offering us rarities. On the other hand, it will purchase any old tosh to satisfy its need for content. In this case it really has plumbed some depths.

Staring scream queen Brinke Stevens, the only thing it really does right is look so atrocious that the poor effects get lost in bad photography.

That poor photography hits you as the credits explore a graveyard. Black and white photography in a graveyard should have been an easy ask, a moment where, despite budget, the film looked to have a little class (and probably a little cliché, but nevertheless). It looked simply dreadful with washed out photography. The film continues in black and white at the (night time) funeral of Mary McPherson who was killed with violence apparently – but not as much violence as the scriptwriter applied to the dialogue, leaving it battered and bruised. At the funeral are Victoria (Brinke Stevens) and Jacob (Bill Rodd), the latter promising that they will find Mary's assailant. Incidentally neither actor looks like the 16-year-old that it is later intimated they are.

Victoria asks for a moment alone at the grave, as the mourners leave, and Jacob returns to the carriage. Behind her is a man with an eyepatch – the family doctor, Dr Ayres (Joe Schofield), who she greets before screaming as he attacks her (yup, he’s a vampire). Later Dr Ayres tends to the injured and insensible Victoria at home – telling Jacob not to mind the contusions on her neck. He finishes her off (and someone sees as they peak through the window). The next day the priest – in a monumentally poor performance – tells Jacob that the locals believe she has been attacked by a vampire and want to cremate her. Jacob takes her to a family tomb, with her favourite jewellery, breaks his cane in half and stakes her.

into the crypt
Into colour and we are present day and Max (also Bill Rodd) and Carl (Matt Oppy) are DJs (and not the cool kind). Their girlfriends, Julie (Laurie Reeves) and Tonya (Andrea Emmes) respectively, are worried about their gambling and have reason to be as the lads are in some amount of debt. However, they should have been more worried that the director used close up shots of them and yet still failed to compose his shots in a competent way... Be that as it may, Max has a way out. He cleared out a family attic and discovered Jacob’s diary (Jacob being his great Grandfather – no mention is made of the new wife he must have had post Victoria). He knows that the family crypt has her jewels and – after being threatened with violence and losing another bet – they go and raid it. Now, given the corpse is still fresh from the 19th century – warm even – and the journal suggests that the cane and a family crucifix are keeping her from raising as a vampire… yup they take cane and crucifix as well as the bag of jewellery.

Victoria rises from the grave, eats the first person she comes across and then finds Ayres – who lives in an (apparently) abandoned amusement park haunted castle type edifice. In there he tortures humans with his mad scientist sidekick (nothing comes of that thread) and was about to get someone to remove the stake (he’s taken his sweet time) when Max did the business. Why did he wait? Apparently, a vampire cannot resuscitate another vampire – no one knows why! Max, meanwhile, has a psychic link with Victoria and sees her attacks in his dreams and she, on the other hand, has decided that he is Jacob…

Brinke Stevens as Victoria
Phew… after all that it plods to its less than thrilling conclusion and I could barely contain my boredom. There is no reason to like the characters in this sub-Dark Shadows plot line (Mac and Carl being like Willie Loomis, with the ancestor vampire being gender swapped). They are glib about the happenings, and the girlfriends are both glib about it when told and unconcerned with where the boys’ sudden windfall came from. Cinematography is bad, scripting worst and even a seasoned trooper like Stevens can’t make the story come alive. 1 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

On Demand @ Amazon US