Monday, May 21, 2018

Gender in the Vampire Narrative – review

Editors: Amanda Hobson & U. Melissa Anyiwo

Release date: 2016

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Gender in the Vampire Narrative addresses issues of masculinity and femininity, unpacking cultural norms of gender. This collection demonstrates the way that representations of gender in the vampire narrative traverse a large scope of expectations and tropes. The text offers classroom ready original essays that outline contemporary debates about sexual objectification and gender norms using the lens of the vampire in order to examine the ways those roles are undone and reinforced through popular culture through a specific emphasis on cultural fears and anxieties about gender roles. The essays explore the presentations of gendered identities in a wide variety of sources including novels, films, graphic novels and more, focusing on wildly popular examples, such as The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and Twilight, and also lesser known works, for instance, Byzantium and The Blood of the Vampire. The authors work to unravel the ties that bind gender to the body and the sociocultural institutions that shape our views of gendered norms and invite students of all levels to engage in interdisciplinary conversations about both theoretical and embodied constructions of gender. This text makes a fascinating accompanying text for many courses, such as first-year studies, literature, film, women’s and gender studies, sociology, popular culture or media studies, cultural studies, American studies or history. Ultimately this is a text for all fans of popular culture

The review: It wasn’t a shock, despite the title of the book being “gender”, that this volume was concentrated upon one of the genders (and, in the one ostensibly male orientated chapter, the focus was the female gender) and, in so doing, had a very feminist perspective. Whilst it wasn’t a shock it seemed like a waste. Not that there isn’t a place for feminist studies (indeed I’d have bought the book had it been accurately titled The Female in the Vampire Narrative) but the genre has so many other perspectives to explore.

In a book on gender I would have liked some of the contributions to examine gender identity and genderqueering within the genre. Certainly, there is opportunity to do so and that would have added an extra dimension to what is, generally, an excellent collection of articles.

It was great to see Florence Marryat’s work getting some attention as well as da Sweet Blood of Jesus, however there were some minor missed opportunities (beyond the massive one mentioned).

When discussing Byzantium, Hobson footnotes to point out the connection to  the Vampyre: A Tale but misses that Darvell is a reach over to Byron’s fragment that the Vampyre was based on. Kristina DuRocher suggests that vampires came to life, via the medium of film, rather than resting in the reader’s imagination – looking squarely at the Twentieth Century. However, this ignores the phenomenal popularity of the vampire on the stage at certain parts of the Nineteenth Century. There is also a serious under-estimation of how many films featured Dracula as a character. And, as a pet peeve, there is a chapter looking at La Belle Dame Sand Merci and Christabel. Although author Ana G Gal recognises that the neither poem's antagonist is “a vampire in the strictest sense”, I do not subscribe to Christabel being a vampire poem at all.

Minor points however (even the Christabel point as there are counter arguments) and the point about exploring gender identity and non-binary gender is a wish and certainly not an indication of quality/worth. This is, overall, a great volume. 8 out of 10.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Vamp or Not? Burnt Offerings

I was contacted by Adrien who wanted to mention the 1976 Dan Curtis film Burnt Offerings to me. Based on a novel by Robert Marasco it was a film that Adrien felt should be on TMtV.

I’m always happy to get suggestions and this is one that deserved, at the very least, to have the ‘Vamp or Not?’ treatment and also contained tropes within it that would emerge perhaps more famously in other (horror) films in years to come. It also boasted a small but astounding core cast. So, why the ‘Vamp or Not?’ – well, if we have a vampire here it is a vampiric house.

David and Ben
The film starts with a car and in it are Ben (Oliver Reed), his wife Marian (Karen Black, Children of the Night (1991) & Night Angel) and their son David (Lee Montgomery, Dead of Night & Mutant). They are going to see a country house that is up for rent (at a reasonable price). When they arrive it is a mansion rather than a house and Ben assumes there must be a cottage/gatehouse for rent. They knock at the door and it is eventually answered by the handyman, Walker (Dub Taylor).

Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth
He confirms it is the main house that is for rent and goes to get the lady of the house, Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart). Whilst they are waiting David goes to play outside and Marian discovers the conservatory, but all the flowers are dead. Roz makes her appearance. They are renting the house out through summer and it is reasonable, she confirms, but wants to check their suitability first. She asks a few questions and we discover that Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) will be coming with them. They are soon joined by Roz’s wheelchair using brother, Arnold (Burgess Meredith).

Karen Black as Marian
The rent is just $900 dollars for the summer but there are catches – they must see to the house upkeep through the summer (Walker, it becomes apparent, will not be there). Also, their mother will remain in the house, she is elderly and they will need to bring her a tray of food three times a day. Ben is suspicious and asks for time to think about it. Back home, in bed (as sirens wail outside) it is clear that Marian has set her heart on spending summer there and Ben confirms they’ll take the house. When they arrive to take tenancy, however, the siblings have gone, leaving them a note and keys. Marian tries to check on Mrs Allardyce but she does not open her bedroom door and, indeed, doesn’t touch the trays left for her for at least the first week.

The film slow burns, with a layer of uncanny enough to keep the viewer on edge but without doing too much. The personalities of Ben and Marian change. His a little, a game of rough-housing with David, in the pool, turns violent and he later admits that he wanted to hurt his son – though that seems to shock him back to normal but he becomes suspicious of the house and Marian’s behaviour. He also starts dreaming of his mother’s funeral, from when he was a child, and hallucinating the hearse and driver – who has become the personification of death in his eyes. Marian becomes obsessed with the house and Mrs Allardyce’s rooms. In the room are photographic portraits and the siblings mentioned her collection (and suggested they numbered into thousands).

the flowers in bloom
The most marked change is with Aunt Elizabeth who turns from an elderly but still sprightly woman to a weakened old lady who becomes more and more confused. This culminates with her becoming frail and, suddenly, whilst in bed we hear a crack. This is her arm snapping, her bones have become so frail, and as they wait for a doctor both her and Ben see the hearse driver come into the room and she dies. After her death the flowers in the conservatory are suddenly in full bloom and Marian does not attend her funeral (refusing, off screen, to leave the house and Mrs Allardyce).

terror in the face of death
The idea of someone becoming obsessed with the building would be explored after this by Stephen King in the Shining (and later still by Kubrick in the classic film of King’s book). However this does seem very much to be the house devouring the energy of the occupants (we’ll come back to Marian) rather than assimilating (Jack, in the shining) someone into its ghostly menagerie. This is underlined later when, during a storm, Ben hears a cacophony, which is shingles being knocked off a low roof as wood slats peel from the house revealing new slats beneath – the house devours the occupants and renews itself.

obsession leads to possession 
This scene leads to Ben trying to escape with David, through the storm. However a tree falls on the driveway, blocking their escape. Ben tries to move it but tendrils of vegetation wrap themselves around his leg, pulling him over – this concept would be taken to a further extreme later in the Evil Dead. As for Marian, we see her start wearing clothes she has found in the house, eating Mrs Allardyce’s meal tray and slowly becoming the house’s matriarch. As we never see Mrs Allardyce we might assume that she was never there – perhaps she is a personification of the house itself, which could then be indicative of a vampiric possession of Marian.

So… the house devours life energy. It takes this slowly, it would appear, or quickly (through accidental death, as nearly happens with David when he is almost suffocated as gas leaks into his room). It can alter the perceptions of the residents (causing hallucinations and altering moods). This life energy allows it to renew itself (becoming younger, as it were). It is apparent it has killed a large number of residents (as the portraits are said to go into the thousands). All in all, I think Adrien was right and this is Vamp.

The imdb page is here.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos – review

Author: Gerry Duggan

Illustrator: Salvador Espin

First published: 2016 (TPB)

Contains spoilers

The blurb: She is Shiklah-undisputed Queen of the Monster Metropolis below Manhattan! In the world that was, she married Deadpool, the Merc with the Mouth. But nothing on Battleworld is quite as it was. Now, she commands the Howling Commandos: Werewolf by Night! Frankenstein's Monster! The Living Mummy! Man-Thing! And Marcus the Centaur! What would her late husband think of that???

The review: Part of Marvel’s 2015 Secret War Event, this starts with a fight between Dracula and Deadpool, the former winning as he (against his promise) used his vampire powers and then took Deadpool’s body, put it in an acid filed chest – to prevent regeneration – and disposed of it. Deadpool does appear in this, therefore, but as a ghost and narrator.

Shiklah is a demonic entity and – in Marvel canon – married Deadpool but eventually divorced him and got together with Dracula. She devours lifeforce through a kiss. In this alternate version she is forced, after being widowed, to become Dracula’s fiancée. However, she intends to betray him and persuades him to let her take her brother’s ashes to rest, though her real quest is to find the pieces of the Sceptre of the Manticore. Dracula sends the Howling Commandos with her, but they intend to betray him too.

We also get a fleeting visitation of Blade (or an alternative version, thereof), who is a member of the Thor Corps.

The graphic is competently drawn but I wasn’t wowed by the art and is very short (in fact the trade paper back is padded with an old issue of Werewolf by Night and it still feels too short). It is a passable read but nothing special – 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Empire of the Dead Act 3 – review

Author: George A Romero

Illustrator: Alex Maleev

First published: 2015

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: It's zombies versus vampires — with desperate citizens caught in the crossfire — as the legendary George Romero unleashes the final chapter in his undead epic! Who is kidnapping the children of New York City, where are they taking them, and why? Meanwhile, Dr. Penny Jones has a nasty surprise coming her way when she conducts a zombie autopsy on Xavier. As Election Day looms, will Chandrake retain his rule, or will Chilly Dobbs have his day? And will the election even matter as the warring factions of rebels break through into the city? As Jo tries to make a break from the remote vampire compound, Detective Perez makes a terrifying discovery. It's the moment everyone's been waiting for: all-out zombie versus vampire warfare! Who will rule the Empire of the Dead?

Review: After a fantastic Act 1 and perhaps a tad weaker Act 2 I have to admit the series conclusion was more whimper than bang and that is sad given the early strength.

The best was I can describe it is threadbare. We get an assault on New York that is lacklustre and the conclusion of the mayoral race was thin.

All isn’t bad however, we get a genuine zompire moment when we discover that swat officer turned zombie Xavier – who has been taken into surgery following a headshot (not an autopsy as suggested in thee blurb) is regenerating – indeed she is spontaneously healing. They realise that she had been bitten by a vampire before being turned into a zombie and she is a hybrid of the two types of dead. This does beg the question of why vampires who died previously didn’t become zompires, rather they turned.

Of course, there is an underlying social commentary to the story as a whole – it wouldn’t be Romero otherwise – but it feels a little shovelled on rather than subtly underlying. If I sound too negative, I apologise. It just was disappointing after the excellent start and, despite being not as good, it still is a quality volume (just not as quality). 6 out of 10.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Monster Squad – review

Writer: Frank Barbiere*

Illustrator: Brent Schoonover*

First Published: 2016 (TPB)

Contains spoilers

*Barbiere And Schooinover were primary writer and illustrator but the collection contains one issue of S.H.I.E.L.D. written by Al Ewing and illustrated by Stefano Casell.

The Blurb: Hidden deep beneath Area 13 lies the clandestine headquarters of S.T.A.K.E. - a top secret division of S.H.I.E.L.D. that houses aliens, mythical beasts and all manner of extra-normals. Now, under the command of legendary soldier - and newly resurrected Life Model Decoy - Dum Dum Dugan, these monsters step out of the shadows and defend the world against threats too dangerous for normal men as the All-New, All-Different, all-too-literal Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

The review: The Howling Commandos are the supernatural side of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and in this graphic are made up of Dum Dum Duggan, Warwolf, zombie Jasper Sitwell, Vampire by Night, Man-Thing, Manphibian, Orrgo, Teen Abomination, and Hit-Monkey. Later in the run Glyph also joins the squad.

Clearly, from a TMtV point of view Vampire by Night is our main draw but also, we discover, that unbeknown to S.T.A.K.E., Dracula is being held below Area 13 and is being experimented on – the Dracula story does not come into this volume and we see his incarceration in passing only.

Vampire by Night is the niece of Jack Russell – aka Werewolf by Night. In Marvel comic cannon she has the option of becoming a vampire or werewolf between dusk and dawn – though she is human/powerless during the day and can walk in daylight. We do see her take on wolf form but it is as a wolf and not as a bipedal werewolf.

Actually, the joy of this edition is Dum Dum, the original Duggan died but his consciousness was digitized and is beamed into a supply of robotic bodies, being sent to the next when one is destroyed or very damaged. Stillwell’s zombie form is less articulate than some versions of him.

The story mainly sees the Commandos trying to gel as a team and take on Sphinx – an Egyptian myth orientated villain. It is rip roaring fun and worth a read. 6 out of 10

Friday, May 11, 2018

Family Blood – review

Director: Sonny Mallhi

Release date: 2018

Contains spoilers

This kind of came out of left field. I’d seen no pre-release build up, it was released straight to Netflix and Netflix didn’t even flag it to me, it was a random stumble across, which of course makes a release worrying.

This follows the well-worn trope of the vampire representing the addicted and sets itself within an addict’s world. Whether it does that well or not we shall soon see. However, first we get…

James Ransone as Christopher
Darkness, and heavy breathing. Kristen (Carson Meyer) is hiding in a closet and the camera focuses closely to her face, the tear that falls silently. Until she steps out and into the devastated house. She calls for her mom and her brother. Eventually getting to her mom’s room. She reaches to the closet door and a voice says “Don’t”. It is Christopher (James Ransone), presumably in a relationship with her mother, she ignores him and pulls the door open.

In the closet are the dead bodies of mother and brother. He tries to explain that he really did love them, as he loves Kristen. He’d have loved to have made them like him but he couldn’t help himself and it’s too late, they’re dead. Kristen is holding a cross up to him – it doesn’t work, he confides, he wished it did. He tells her to go and she runs but at every entrance she goes to he is there, clearly moving with super human speed. Just before he kills her he takes out his dentures revealing a set of fetid fangs – I’ll come back to those later.

Vinessa Shaw as Ellie
A 12-step meeting, and whilst Eddie (Ciaran Brown) speaks the camera focuses on Ellie (Vinessa Shaw, Hocus Pocus) until it is her turn to speak. She is a recovering addict, at first she liked to drink and then moved to prescription pills (though she brings herself short as she is not meant to reveal her substance of choice). She has just moved to the area with her kids, who she lost and then regained custody of. For Ellie this is a new start but that seems daunting.

Kyle and Meegan
As things progress we see that 13-year old Amy (Eloise Lushina) wants things to work out with her mom but older brother Kyle (Colin Ford) is sceptical and that is making him act out (in the first week of school he gets in two fights, is wrongly accused of tagging a poster and sets off the fire alarm getting suspended). He falls for also rebelling, true tagger of the poster and artist Meegan (Ajiona Alexus) and the film fails by not showing us their burgeoning romance in anywhere near enough detail to give a climax moment the necessary impact. Meanwhile, at the next 12-step meeting Christopher is there and talks about his addiction causing him to rip through people (of course he means literally).

Eloise Lushina as Ellie
Eddie wasn’t at the meeting and Ellie goes to the park in which he stays. She is on a swing when he appears and offers her pills… she falls, takes the pills and gets on the swing stoned. Eddie looks to go to her (clearly up to no good) when a hand grabs him and cracks his head. Christopher goes to Ellie and, biting his wrist, feeds her his blood. He then grabs Eddie’s body, drags it off, and leaps really high with it. Ellie comes round and staggers off the swing; Christopher breaks her neck. She comes round, staggers to her car, falls – cutting her head – and drives home.

myoglobin moment
So, in the morning her head (injured at the car) is healed but she soon discovers she can’t keep food down and she yearns for something. We get all the standard bits and bobs – her buying a steak and tasting the myoglobin, attacking a cat (what is it about fledgling vampires and cats) and trying to come to terms with the changes. Christopher tries to insinuate himself into her life and is rebuffed and then quickly allowed access. The kids try to cope (or mostly Kyle, to be honest, Amy is fairly kept out of it until the finale).

a new high
However much was a bit silly or too shorthand. Having killed a person in the dark basement and the body being seen, at a distance, by Kyle, he didn’t ask what’s wrong with her, he asks why Ellie killed her. The V word is rarely used and Christopher shows confusion at what he is and then disavows that assertion when noticing Kyle researching ways to kill a vampire and disagreeing with most of the suggestions. Christopher, in a rather cool line, suggests “What first appears as a monster is only there to keep you safe”, whilst acting opposite, hitching Kyle up the wall by the throat, tossing him the length of the landing and over the banister to drop down to the ground floor. Such a fall should have 1) killed 2) paralysed 3) broken bones or 4) knocked out – or a combination thereof. Kyle miraculously survives without much damage to show for it.

fetid fangs
And the fangs. The idea that the fangs are permanent and covered with dentures… ok. But the fact they are fetid and broken… these vampires heal remarkably fast, so why not their teeth. It was a stylistic choice, probably symbolic of their addiction, but not a logical one. So how do they die – pretty much, stake through the heart – but a subsequent decapitation and cremation might not go amiss. It looks as though the invitation rule holds, until Christopher reveals he was just being polite. Garlic doesn’t work but reflections do vanish eventually.

a family at stake
If the film failed it was in developing themes to make us believe the relationships. Christopher’s insinuation into Ellie’s life is remarkably fast (though that might have been a comment on addiction). The relationship between Kyle and Meegan is so shorthand that, as mentioned, it wreaks the impact of a finale event. That event was fairly shocking anyway, in one sense, so making the effort earlier in the film would have made it powerful. All in all there are other, much better, films using vampires and looking at addiction and there are better films on the impact of a vampire on a family unit. There was a vein of nihilism in this that should have been mined for all it was worth. In the absence of that, 5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Classic Literature: Dracula: The Ultimate, Illustrated Edition of the World-Famous Vampire Play

Authors: Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston

Editor: David J Skal

First Published: 1924 (Deane), 1927 (Balderston), 1993 (this edition)

You may recall I looked at the Stoker stage treatment of Dracula as classic literature. Part of the reason for that was the closeness to the original text and partly because I don’t want to get into reviewing theatre scripts.

The latter reason still stands but these two distinct scripts are classic in their own rights. Although they stray from Stoker, in some respects, the earlier script by Hamilton Deane was the first official treatment as agreed by Florence Stoker. When it was taken to the States it was substantially rewritten by John L Balderston for the American market. The subsequent play featured Bela Lugosi in the title role and was part of the basis for the eventual Universal Dracula (1931) screenplay (for the full, convoluted, story of the development of the screenplay I recommend the volume Tod Browning's Dracula). The 1931 film (and star) perhaps shaping the popular understanding/view of the story/character more than the actual novel did.

This volume contains both treatments and, being edited and annotated by Skal, is a treasure trove of sidebars and illustrations. Deane made the story much more of a sitting room drama and also did some interesting things such as make Morris a female character (the gender swap simply designed to open an additional female role, but is interesting just the same).

Another thing that is of great interest is the fact that, in the 1920s, werewolves and vampires were still conflated. We know that much of the Count’s appearance in the original novel owed a debt to Sabine Baring-Gould’s the Book of Were-wolves. In a later volume, the lady of the Shroud, Stoker definitively conflates the two types by saying: “The Wehr-Wolf is but a variant of the Vampire.” In Dean’s play we get the line from Van Helsing: “the present illness of madam Mina, is the work of a ‘Were-Wolf’ or vampire.” If one imagines the wily old Dutchman is just edging his bets, one needs to remember that all his apotropaic devices are geared towards vampires.

Balderstone is perhaps more explicit. In Balderstone Mina and Lucy’s names are swapped and so when they read of the turned Mina preying on children on Hampstead Heath the question is asked, “You think the Werewolf has done this too?” This underlines how the werewolf and vampire were interchangeable. In fact, whilst Deane uses garlic as an apotropaic, Balderstone uses wolfsbane.

This interesting point aside, this is an essential volume for fans of Stoker’s novel, the Lugosi film, the stage play (if lucky enough to have seen a revival of it) and the genre generally.