Monday, July 22, 2019

Use of Tropes: The Death of Halpin Frayser

Born in 1842, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce is widely accepted as an important and influential author within American Literature – a critic, who wrote fiction in a variety of genres, he is perhaps best known for the Devil’s Dictionary. I’ll come back to the author, and his place in contemporary vampire media, at the end of this article but for now will concentrate on his short story The Death of Halpin Frayser.

I came across The Death of Halpin Frayser in Vampire Tales: the Big Collection and the 1891 story’s inclusion might confuse as it is not directly obvious that it is a vampire tale (though it certainly a tale of the supernatural). However, it does play with some tropes from the genre (from the underpinning folklore) and I think it well deserves its place in that volume.

The story itself is complex as its chapters jump between chronological times and also a dreamlike state (or perhaps a haunted state) and stark reality. Chapter 1 opens with a short discourse on the return of the dead and whilst mentioning spirits that return, suggests “yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked.” Ascribing this description to Hali, Bierce names these as lich and suggests that even someone benign in life might become malign in death. It then describes the titular character Halpin Frayser, a 32-year-old who was sleeping in the forest – a dreamless sleep, from which he wakes and says a name, Catherine Larue (a name unknown to him), before falling back to sleep and into a dream.

This dream, which some have said is inspired by Poe’s Ulalume (1847), is more nightmare than dream. He follows a road, though he senses its evil nature, into a forest and the description is majestically macabre:

A shallow pool in the guttered depression of an old wheel rut, as from a recent rain, met his eye with a crimson gleam. He stooped and plunged his hand into it. It stained his fingers; it was blood! Blood, he then observed, was about him everywhere.The weeds growing rankly by the roadside showed it in blots and splashes on their big, broad leaves. Patches of dry dust between the wheelways were pitted and spattered as with a red rain. Defiling the trunks of the trees were broad maculations of crimson, and blood dripped like dew from their foliage.

He feels as though he is perhaps guilty of something but cannot ascribe that feeling to an event and eventually dips a twig into the blood and starts writing in a notebook (we see his poem later) but stops midsentence as “he found himself staring into the sharply drawn face and blank, dead eyes of his own mother, standing white and silent in the garments of the grave!

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce
The next chapter goes back in time and we discover about Halpin’s childhood in the South – an unusual child he was perhaps neglected by his father (as he was dreamy and a poet, albeit a poor one). His mother, however, doted on him. As he matured it seemed that they grew closer, he calling her Katy rather than mother, and, indeed, Bierce suggests incest as he intimates “The two were nearly inseparable, and by strangers observing their manner were not infrequently mistaken for lovers.” Of course, this opens a trope for us as incest, in some sources, is a sure-fire path to vampirism. Be that as it may, Halpin undertakes to travel to California, prompting Katy to tell him of a dream that she believes portents his murder by strangulation. She, at first, suggests going to California as well, but eventually stays out of duty to her husband whilst Halpin leaves. Unfortunately Halpin, whilst in California, is shanghaied and then shipwrecked on an island for six years.

Chapter three returns to Halpin’s nightmare, the forest and the restless body of his mother. She grabs him by the throat and strangles him – much as the portent suggested would happen to him – and in his dream he dies. Of course, a vampire, in folklore, was as likely to strangle you as to suck your blood.

Chapter 4 switches perspective and we meet a Deputy of the Napa area, Holker, and a detective from San Francisco called Jaralson – who is hunting a murderer named Branscom. The murderer cut the throat of his wife who, in turn, is buried in Napa. Jaralson believes that Branscom returns to the grave of his wife. Branscome was not the murderer’s real name and the wife was a widow who travelled to California to find a relative. On the grave, however, they find the strangled Halpin and a notebook that contains a partial poem – the stanza’s are very simplistic compared to Ulalume, the stanza’s constructed as quatrains with dual rhyming couplets. However, the content reminds one (with the earlier prose description of the dream) of Poe’s verse, which was about a lover unconsciously finding the grave of his love – strengthening the incest theme in Bierce. Poe’s poem describes a “ghoul-haunted” woodland.

Jaralson remembers that Branscome’s real name was Larue and his wife’s previous name was Frayser – making her Catherine (Katy) Larue. The detectives put Halpin’s murder down to Branscome but hear a “a low, deliberate, soulless laugh… …a laugh so unnatural, so unhuman, so devilish, that it filled those hardy man-hunters with a sense of dread unspeakable!” The obvious answer is that the lich, or revenant, of Katy Frayser/Catherine Larue has killed her son, as the portent warned, with him stumbling upon her grave by happenstance. Joshi, in The Weird Tale (pp161-162), suggests that in the unseen scenes Katy, widowed, travelled to San Francisco, found Halpin who married her under an assumed name and subsequently murdered her. Whichever version you subscribe to, the restless nature of her corpse should not be in question. She is considered by some to be a zombie, or a precursor thereof (see Pulliam & Fonseca’s Encylcopedia of the Zombie) but, to me, the blood motif (albeit the motif is around the blood soaked forest, which might represent Halpin’s unremembered crime, if you subscribe to Joshi’s theory), the incest and the strangulations are certainly tropes from the vampire genre.

Getting back to Bierce, his death is shrouded in mystery as he travelled, in 1913, to Mexico to observe the Mexican Revolution and vanished – rumoured whilst travelling with rebel troops. This was used as a backstory that saw him face vampires, and indeed become one, in From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter.

You can read the story in the following collection:

On Kindle @ Amazon US

On Kindle @ Amazon UK

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Fear Files: Har Mod Pe Darr – episode 11 – review

Director: Unknown

First aired: 2015

Contains spoilers

This is an Indian horror anthology show that appeared on Netflix (in the UK at least). The blurb from Netflix for this one said: “A policeman who enters an old mansion comes face to face with a group of vampires who occupy the space within its walls.”

In truth this nearly became a ‘Vamp or Not?’ as we have a witch character – perhaps spectral, but corporeal in the time of the show, yet there are some vampire tropes connected and talk of her being able to raise undead creatures.

the Swami
The episode starts 200 years before and a Swami performs a ritual to bind a woman. We do not see her but we see the chains being bound around her wrists, which glow with the energy he imbues them with. He has sealed her but, when the stars align in the same way, the blood of someone from the Suryavansh dynasty can free her and with her powers she can bring the dead to life.

Inspector Singh
Cut to modern times and a man runs through woods pursued by a second. The chaser nearly catches his quarry but is cut across the hand with a knife for his trouble and the first man gets into the grounds of the mansion. The chaser is the new inspector, Singh, and presumably he is chasing a suspect. We see his blood drip to the ground outside the mansion and seem to be absorbed, causing vein-like cracks to appear – we can bet, therefore, that he is of the Suryavansh dynasty. He sees the suspect enter the house.

the swordsmen
Inside we see the suspect fall with his throat slit. Singh enters the mansion and hears a woman crying out for help. He is suddenly attacked by two swordsmen and manages to hold them off before falling through a door (the swordsmen don’t follow and seem to have lost him despite seeing him go through the door). In the room he finds a woman, Devika, who was the one calling for help. She realises he has a gun and he introduces himself and realises that he forgot about it when faced with the swordsmen – it would have done him no good, she suggests, as they are blood drinking demons and not men.

Elsewhere a Swami and a woman conduct a ritual. The woman has an odd look – with a fine line in madcap facial expressions, she is clearly a younger actress with heavy prosthetic makeup on her arms to make them look withered and long grey hair. They suggest that Devika will kill them but it is also clear that the show is trying to make us think that this woman is the witch (Devika tells Singh that she is the daughter of the mansion’s current owner) but very quickly twists that around with major clues – Devika looking to camera and her eyes turning red. Singh confesses that he looked in the mirror when holding Devika and she had no reflection and so he had guessed she was the witch too.

red eyes
As for blood-drinking, Devika constantly complains of a thirst and grabs a water urn that the suspect has been strung above (Singh doesn’t see the man hanging high up). Who hung him like that is unclear – when he died, Devika was trapped behind holy twine binding a door that Singh removed. Though it is entirely possible that the swordsmen, who are there to protect the Swami and the old woman, killed the suspect, it isn’t clear why they would then string him up. Whether it is blood she drinks or water infused with blood is also unclear. To kill the witch she must be stabbed three times with a ritual dagger.

no reflection
The series (that I have watched so far) suffers generally from too many middle-class family units (often mom, dad – who often owns a factory – and kid) being terrorised by the supernatural and a juxtaposition of traditional beliefs/superstition being met with modern incredulity. It is a formula too often played. This episode does not have that, indeed it is a thick slice of Indian-gothic with creepy mansion, evil character, magic at play and (of course) a dashing hero. As such I rather enjoyed the episode, though the narrative could have been tighter. However, for a made for TV episode it isn’t too bad at all. 4.5 out of 10.

The series imdb page is here.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Short Film: Vam-PIE-Her

This was a short children’s animation from 2016, directed by Samantha McEachin-Ifill, and strongly fits into the mainstreaming of vampires through the medium of children’s programming that I discuss in Growing Up with Vampires.

In this case, seven-and-a-half years old vampire Willow Coffington (FeliceSkye Hutchinson, who voices both primary characters and narrates) is the outsider – but is so from the other vampires and monsters due to her distaste for blood, preferring Fanga (B Positive) a blood replacement made from blood oranges. So it is that she is hanging out alone at Halloween when she spots something interesting going on in a house.

blood supplement
Human child Olivia is baking a pie for her father. Willow and Olivia quickly become friends and Willow discovers a taste for pie and a flare for baking it. At 7 minutes that’s all there is to it but it is interesting how the outsider element becomes “outsider from the monsters” and that this plays heavily into the trope of the vegetarian vampire – quite a common trope when it comes to kid’s entertainment where blood is thought to have to be avoided if possible.

The imdb page is here.

On Demand @ Amazon US

On Demand @ Amazon UK

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Honourable Mention: The Friday Night Death Slot

The Friday Night Death Slot is a point in broadcasting where popular perception is that there will be little to no viewers and a programme placed there will receive poor viewing figures. The conceit behind this 2015 portmanteau film, directed by John Migliore, is that in that slot (on every broadcasting channel) is a horror programme presented by horror-host Johnny Ghoulash (John Migliore, Ninjas Vs Monsters). The film’s surround is thus the Horror-hosts parts plus events surrounding his sole viewer.

The film uses shorts, fake trailers and fake adverts to make up its bulk and it is with one of the adverts that we are concerned.

Andre Guantanamo as Nigel
We meet Nigel Oscar Feratu III (Andre Guantanamo – in a role he has played in various Migilore products). Nigel tells us that as a suave and debonair vampire it is not always possible for him to consume a blood sausage in polite company. However, he has discovered that EDIC (Electronic Dissipated Intravascular Coagulation) devices can be safely used recreationally – think e-cig/vape machines for blood. The advert is brief and it is the only vampire element of the film, so a fleeting visitation and a honourable mention here.

The imdb page is here.

On Demand @ Amazon US

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Shrunken Heads – review

Director: Richard Elfman

Release date: 1994

contains spoilers

So recently I was contacted by Matt from Vampire Film Reviews who mentioned the Full Moon Pictures' movie Shrunken Heads. Indeed, I’ll let Matt’s words speak for themselves when he said “I recently had the misfortune of watching Shrunken Heads. There is so much wrong with this film it's hard to know where to start.

Anyway... the eponymous, crime-fighting "shrunken heads" eventually show up in the film, and each of them has specific characteristics/powers not shared by the others. One of them has fangs and attacks people by biting their neck and (presumably) sucking their blood. It is only a very minor aspect in the film, and I am not sure if it fits into any of your fringe categories (Hon. Mentions; Vamp or Not). I just thought I should let you know in case you did not know this film ((although I fear that you will never forgive me if you sit down and watch that tripe)).

the eponymous Shrunken Heads
And overall it is a good précis of the film but I am never sad if someone directs me towards a film that may be vampire, the film might make me sad – but not the tip and so Matt has my thanks for directing me to this. Now, I did consider looking at this under “Playing with Tropes” as it does… but you know what, though the aspect is minor in the film, the character himself is a main player and is there (either human or head) through the film and so this one deserves placing on vampire filmographies.

the kids
Looking at a more detailed synopsis we are in New York and meet Tommy (Aeryk Egan), his friend Bill (Bo Sharon), and new friend just moved in to the neighbourhood Freddie (Darris Love, Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel). These are the good kids who like comic books – in fact they go over to a newsstand run by Mr Sumatra (Julius Harris). There are also the bad (and older) gang, the Vipers, run by Vinnie (A.J. Damato), who are petty criminals and bullies. Sally (Rebecca Herbst) is Vinnie’s gal but is at heart a good girl – and Tommy has a bit of a crush.

Cutting the opening down a bit, essentially the good kids manage to shop the Vipers to the police and get them arrested but the gang are bailed through local mobster Big Mo (Meg Foster). Tommy and Co. are taken hostage by her (to scare them) but manage to get away with a sack of slips from Mo’s numbers racket. She sends Vinnie after them with the task of dealing with them and he and his gang murder the three kids – they aren’t caught. Rumours had gone around about Mr Sumatra, that he was a cop in Haiti. Certainly he is the only small business not paying protection, quite happy to face the gang down, and was a member of the Tonton Macoute and is a Vodou Bokor. We see him attend the funeral of the boys and here we get to the main thrust of the film.

lightning bolt
Off camera he takes the boys’ heads and over a period of time prepares then, shrinking them and reanimating them so that they can take revenge on those responsible for their deaths and clean up the neighbourhood generally. The three heads levitate and fly around (reminiscent of a Krasue, without the guts and heart dangling beneath) and have different powers – Tommy, for instance, can blast a lightning bolt from his forehead. For our purpose we are interested in Bill.

In life Bill was obsessed with jelly beans – indeed he doesn’t animate immediately and his spirit is enticed into his flesh with a (blood covered) jelly bean. It is (kind of) logical therefore that his head develops fangs. We then see him, on attacks, biting into necks and, though not explicitly stated, we can presume (as Matt suggests) that he also sucks their blood. They are sent out into the night to get their first victims and we discover that the villains they kill return as zombies who wish to clean up trash.

So essentially, we have three tropes seen in the genre – firstly the fangs, secondly the presumed blood drinking (or at least biting the necks) and lastly the creation of zombies. The latter isn’t common, of course, but is a part of some vampire vehicles – notably Rabid where the vampire is patient zero for the zombie/infected plague. But is the film any good?

Julius Harris as Mr Sumatra
My first reaction was relayed to Matt as “Just watched it and it was oh so bad and yet strangely compelling” and I stand by that. It is poor but it is Full Moon and they specialise in poor horror films that, when they work, are absolutely watchable. This has some interesting elements – the queering through the character Mo is very interesting, for instance. It has an ethical dilemma at its heart by using a member of the Tonton Macoute as a primary force for good, having his pathway to vengeance be through dark arts and, of course, it is vigilante and has forced zombification as the punishment. Elfman’s brother Danny created the main theme – which is a pure Elfman score – and Richard Band did the rest of the soundtrack, which worked well. Of course, the sfx were not as good as they might be and the dialogue was challenging at times but it is generally delivered with gusto. But compelling, as I say. 3.5 out of 10 (despite Matt being right, it is Tripe).

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

Friday, July 12, 2019

Krasue: Inhuman Kiss – review

Director: Sitisiri Mongkolsiri

Release date: 2019

Contains spoilers

The krasue is not a stranger to these pages. The Thai vampiric creature, described as a floating head with entrails and heart dangling beneath, makes an entry in Bane’s Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology under the entry phii krasue but whilst the (generally depicted as) female entity may have made it there the male krahang did not. This film features this other entity too and Wikipedia describes it as a type of ghost said to haunt the same areas as the krasue. This film strengthens their connection (though uses antagonism).

The film is luscious to look at and thus it is little surprising that it has made its way onto Western streaming services. If you are going to give this a look, however, you’ll need to note that whilst there is some gore, in the main it is a romance – indeed a tragedy at its heart.

the kids
The film is set some time in the 1940s in rural Thailand, with a background of war being waged in Bangkok. However, it starts some years before with a group of children; Sai (played young by Phakwan Chaowalit and older by Phantira Pipityakorn), Ting (played young by Punnarat Lasutthi and older by Darina Boonchu), Jerd (played young by Ittipat Lekuthaiwan and older by Sapol Assawamunkong) and Noi (played young by Pankorn Chantasorn and older by Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang). They walk through a field and into the forest, by which time it is getting dark, stopping when they reach a derelict house.

behind Sai
The rambunctious Jerd tells them that there is a chest in the house that holds Nual’s spirit (Sasithorn Panichnok) and those that come at night can never leave. He then laughs heartily and points out it is just a story. Ting is *it* in a game of hide and seek. Sai and Noi move off together and then she suggests they hide inside the house. He is reluctant but she gives him a protection amulet her father gave her and they go in. She gets him to hide in one place and she goes to another room that has a large crate… it is empty but we see a krasue materialise behind Sai…

Phantira Pipityakorn as Sai
Cutting to the film's primary timeframe, Sai bolts awake from her dream. There is a spot of blood on the bedclothes, which she cleans before heading to the hospital. Jerd spots her and walks with her. Due to the fighting, the school is closed and he asks her to forget the hospital and go to the fields with him but she refuses. She discovers that the doctor and nurse she helps have had to go to the city and her presence proves useful when a woman brings in her son (with glass in his knee). As Sai cleans it the mother says about a krasue attacking a neighbour’s chickens and suggests she keeps her windows and doors locked and not to leave laundry out (krasue wipe their mouths on laundry apparently).

Sapol Assawamunkong as Jerd
We discover that Sai misses Noi (the film telling us later that his family moved to Bangkok) and Ting is now a married mother to a baby. Jerd is clearly attracted to Sai. That night Sai dreams of the house again, awakens and finds the bed is very bloodied. She also finds that she has a strange injury or inflammation to her chest and wears clothing to hide it. That day she asks Jerd to go to the house with her. They see movement in the forest, they hide and a figure appears. Sai recognises him as Noi. After they greet each other they discover he is with a group of armed men.

Tad with krasue head
The men are krasue hunters (they do not know about the latest reported sightings, Noi has told them about the old legend from the village so that he could get home with them as his parents have been killed in Bangkok in the fighting). Of course, there is a krasue and we get a story of them eating through livestock, and a mother krasue being able to spit in liquid and, should a female drink it, turn the drinker into a krasue – unless the imbiber is male and then he will be painfully poisoned. The men carry desiccated heads that their leader, Tad (Surasak Wongthai), claims to be krasue they have killed.

Noi and krasue Sai
So, it won’t come as a shock to discover that Sai is the krasue. Why it has only started to manifest isn’t clear. My first reaction is that it is a puberty thing (hence the blood on the sheet at the beginning) but that also corresponded with the off-screen chicken attacks and she then manages to stain the sheets with large amounts of blood that would seem to be residue of feeding. We see later that Nual’s spirit or essence seemed to enter her when she was a child. Noi eventually finds the truth and tries to help her, Jerd is jealous of their closeness and has also joined the hunters.

a krahang
Other lore we get is that the way to destroy a krasue is to crush their heart (the body being made inhabitable through injury also seems to be a way). However, the head section is also susceptible to injury and we see guns used extensively. There is an indication that becoming a krasue is a karmic punishment for the souls of those who were once black magicians in other lives. The interesting bit was the idea of the krahang being a male creature (in full form sort of a manbat, with fangs and bird like feet) whose ancestor was once married to the first krasue. When she fell in love with a human and ran away, he hunted her down and now krahang are compelled to seek and kill krasue. Other lore I picked up on was the spittle from a kiss does not permanently poison a man but he becomes pained as she detaches from her body, the entrails are controllable and can be used as appendages and there is a herb that will prevent transformation (and grows as a luminescent plant).

head detaching
The film itself looked beautiful – the effects worked and there was some genuinely pleasing cinematography. The pace, however, was not so good. The film could do with a good 30 minutes shaving off it and did drag in places – whilst the filmmakers used the extra length to build empathy, I think, the three young leads did enough to do that with their acting skills anyway and the extra length was unneeded. I personally would have liked more concentration on the creature/horror side… the tragic love story less so. However this was worthwhile and a nice addition to the small cannon of krasue films. 6.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Short Film: The Session

The Session is a short that was directed by Nicholas Grant, release in 2018 and comes in at around the 15-minute mark.

It starts off with a jiggly foot. Kathy (Mindy Gilkerson) has attended a therapy session with Valencia Ravenwood (Angela Ray Clark). Things just have been a little odd, perhaps even odd for her.

She starts off with an event from two weeks ago, as she returned home from a party. She pulled her car up and staggered out (least said about drink driving, probably for the best here) and starts supping straight from a liquor bottle until she pukes. We see this but then hear her say to her therapist about not realising what waited out there for her. We hear bat sounds and she runs, falls and… well as we don’t get the bat on screen we discover through expression and dialogue that she is bitten by a bat.

losing control
Cut forward a week and she is looking in a mirror when her eyes flash red. Her friend Jessica (Frances Bon) calls for her – they are meant to be watching a movie. Jessica starts complaining about how long she has wanted to see the movie – as an aside, why that is an issue is beyond me, after all Kathy’s presence in the room or otherwise does not prevent Jessica from watching a movie. Such musings are irrelevant to Kathy, as is the moaning, for all she can hear is Jessica’s heartbeat and the blood moving through her friend’s veins. Realising something is wrong, Jessica offers to get medicine but Kathy follows her to the kitchen and can’t resist any further…

What will the therapist make of it all? The short is embedded below so you can find out.

The imdb page is here.