Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero – review

Author: Susannah Clements

First published: 2011

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Vampires first entered the pop culture arena with Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula. Today, vampires are everywhere. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Twilight Saga to HBO's True Blood series, pop culture can't get enough of the vampire phenomenon.

Bringing her literary expertise to this timely subject, Susannah Clements reveals the roots of the vampire myth and shows how it was originally immersed in Christian values and symbolism. Over time, however, vampires have been "defanged" as their spiritual significance has waned, and what was once the embodiment of evil has turned into a teen idol and the ultimate romantic hero. Clements offers a close reading of selected vampire texts, explaining how this transformation occurred and helping readers discern between the variety of vampire stories presented in movies, TV shows, and novels. Her probing engagement of the vampire metaphor enables readers to make Christian sense of this popular obsession.

The review: I came across this through a Facebook Group and an article by Anthony Hogg. Now I am not a Christian (by a long shot) but the concept of the book seemed intriguing to me and I am always open to hearing a different viewpoint. Of course the joy of the vampire genre is that it is open to multiple interpretations and, as an archetype, the vampire is a malleable beast.

Clements covers the four vampire shows/novels mentioned above and the works of Anne Rice and attempts to show that the vampire has gone from the embodiment of evil to a romantic hero – as the subtitle relates – and of course this is true, except where the vampire is the embodiment of evil still, such as in such up to date series like 30 Days of Night. But she is not wrong that there is a definitive romantic movement in the genre. Interestingly she plots a secular course, where the tamer the vampire becomes the more secular the tale.

This was an interesting suggestion, though I’d suggest that the secularisation of the vampire is more to do with the general secularisation of society than it is the move to the romantic vampire, for instance in (and citing again) 30 Days of Night we have a rather secular take on the myth without the romance and with plenty of evil brutality.

Clements does, in my opinion, miss some directions she might have taken. She correctly argues that Dracula is a Christian novel. However her concentration is on the hunters and the apotropaic icons used in the novel. I think there was as much argument to be found in the fact that Stoker thought Dracula meant Devil, that he gave the Count the pseudonym Count De Ville and suggested he was schooled by the Devil in the Scholomance - indeed over time Hammer make the character, quite literally, the Antichrist.

Clements argues that Twilight is the most secular of the main series she looks at and her arguments are sound. Whilst Edward worries for Bella’s soul it is almost a throwaway comment and barely explored. However I think that the attitudes shown in the novel might reflect on the author’s social outlook and, being from quite an active religion, that may also reflect on her faith but this is not explored in here.

I think it would have been interesting to have explored I Am Legend as the movie took a totally secular novel, ignored or twisted the point of the climax of the book and created a very pro-Christian narrative. However that is just a wish list moment.

The book was well written and well argued, it was interesting to look at these things from another direction. It contains indexing and a bibliography - always a plus point. A worthy volume. 8 out of 10.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Vamp or Not? Under the Skin

A 2013 film by Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin tweaked my “Vamp of Not?” senses from the moment I heard about it. This was primarily because I read that it was about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) that sucked the flesh from young men she picked up. It rang an internal bell and so I watched a film that is very much a science fiction art film.

I have seen positive and negative comments about the film – indeed it seems to polarise viewers. I have also heard various directors’ work it is compared to. What I haven’t particularly seen is a likening to The Man Who Fell to Earth but it is very much in the same ball park as an alien is used to explore someone who seems outside society and through that character we start to question the essence of what is humanity. However the question we need to ask is, “Is it vamp?”

Scarlett Johansson is the girl
It starts with lights and, eventually, an eye. We can hear a voice, at first only making repetitive sounds, which is clearly the learning of language. A motorbike rides through the Scottish countryside. Eventually the rider (Jeremy McWilliams) stops and walks down an embankment, when he returns he is carrying a girl’s body. He puts it in the back of a white van. In a white room a naked girl (Johansson) walks to the body and strips it – putting on her clothes. A tear leaks from the girl being stripped – so she isn’t quiet dead. The implication is that the girl has been irreparably damaged somehow and Johansson’s character is replacing her.

Add caption
The majority of the film has her driving around Scotland trying to pick up men in her van. She is careful to question them as she wants to ascertain that they won’t be missed. Some of the dialogue can seem a little stilted but these are not actors – Glazer had a hidden camera running and explained to these men afterwards that it was for a movie. As such a couple of these guys ended up being rather brave as their characters are brought back to her’s. The room they enter is a formless black and they follow her as she strips and they strip too. Notably the main couple of guys we see have erections. As she walks the floor becomes liquid below them and they walk on, submerging themselves. At this point they seem mesmerised, unable to help themselves, unable to turn away.

only skin remains
Over the submerging of a couple of men we see what happens to them. One man ends up submerged, he can make nor hear any sound. He sees another victim and they manage to touch fingers. The man who was already there looks odd, as though the liquid is slowly digesting him, then – suddenly – his innards are evacuated leaving just his skin floating. We see a conveyor of viscera going somewhere. The film is purposefully ambiguous as to what is going on but, in the novel it is based on, human is a delicacy on the alien’s home planet.

on the beach
She is divorced from emotion, watching with a distant air as a man tries to rescue another man in the sea who has tried to rescue his wife, who in turn has tried to rescue her dog. On the beach the couple’s baby cries. I have seen complaints about this, that no one would leave their baby to try and rescue a dog but, living at the shore as I do I am aware of several death when people have tried to rescue a dog in the sea and been swept out themselves. She bashes the exhausted would-be rescuer with a rock and drags him to the van. Both she – and the biker who comes later to remove the tent and gear belonging to the man they have taken – ignore the crying baby leaving it to the elements. It is a rather harrowing scene. Talking of harrowing, some of the chosen ambient music is disturbing, almost a communication of anxiety.

what is under the skin?
The film follows her as she starts to develop humanity and it is through another outsider, a facial neurofibromatosis sufferer (Adam Pearson), that she consciously starts to recognise something within herself. Incidentally Adam Pearson genuinely has neurofibromatosis. So we have a few tropes familiar in the vampire genre. We have the theme of the outsider (though from the outsider’s point of view), we have sexuality used as a predatory lure. It does seem that the victims are literally sucked out of themselves, leaving only the skin, whilst their innards are presumably used for consumption. When we see an alien – in its true form – burning it seems a very quick incineration, which felt familiar. Whilst the room in which the men are submerged appear to be formless black, the house that serves as base of operations has a decayed, derelict look.

However, despite some familiar tropes I don’t think that this is Vamp. If anything the aliens are predators but that doesn’t make them vampires per se. Indeed I was kind of reminded of the film Prey, at least with regard the alien predatory aspect. Not Vamp.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Penny Dreadful – season 1 – review

Director: Various

First aired: 2014

Contains spoilers

When I reviewed season 1 (and only) of Dracula I had seen episode 1 of this series but was moved to say, in comparison to the older series, “the dark, griminess of Penny Dreadful’s London was a million time more effective”. I stick by that, indeed the series had a huge amount going for it – though it might have been better in some ways.

Chandler, Murray and Ives
In many respect this Monster Mash series was reminiscent of the league of Extraordinary Gentlemen though the steampunkiness of the Alan Moore series was gone. We did, however, get representation from vampires and Dr Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, The Disappeared). We got characters from the Dracula novel, though they were moved and changed around, and we got Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). We also got an American gunslinger, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, 30 Days of Night), a consumptive whore, Brona Croft (Billie Piper, Secret Diary of a Call Girl), and a fortune teller who was sensitive to possession, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, Dark Shadows).

Master Vampire
Now I mentioned Dracula characters and we start off with a new character tied into that mythos in the form of explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). He is the father of Mina Harker nee Murray (Olivia Llewellyn) and she has been taken by vampires. We never actually meet her husband but the first episode sees Vanessa Ives hiring Ethan Chandler on Sir Malcolm’s behalf as they need a man good with guns. It sees them go beneath an opium den as they believe there to be a vampire nest there. We meet three types of vampire. There are the first they meet, servants of the master, who are male and look mostly human (and I never noticed them displaying fangs). There are what I might term as brides, females with their hair shockingly white and with fangs and then there is the main vampire, a bestial, clawed creature with red eyes and rows of sharpened teeth. They overcome these first vampires but Mina is not there and they realise that there is another master.

They take the killed master vampire to the resurrectionists – looking for a surgeon who can autopsy it - and meet Victor Frankenstein. He tells them that the skin is more like an exoskeleton. When he peels it back there appears to be tattooing on the exposed body, which depicts scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, this leads to an Egyptian Mythology sub-plot that is left dangling at the end of the series. Later they clean off the exoskeleton with flesh eating beetles, but as it is flesh below that is tattoo’d this didn’t make too much sense to me as one would have expected the beetles to eat down to the bone. Actually as things roll on we realise that the so called masters are themselves more an elite level of minion – there is a master vampire whom we do not see in the season (but whom I assume would be Dracula himself).

David Warner as Van Helsing
The other Dracula character we meet is Van Helsing (David Warner, The Hunger: Nunc Dimittis, From Beyond the Grave, Waxwork, Nightwing, Cast a Deadly Spell, Spider-Man & I Was a Teenage Vampire). In this Van Helsing is a haematologist consulting with Frankenstein and is well aware of vampires (his wife was taken by one). He introduces Frankenstein to the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, suggesting the Rymer accidentally got much of the detail right. I'm not too sure about that statement as Varney was the first complex vampire character but the little we see of these vampires indicates brutal and animalistic killers. Talking of Varney and placing the penny dreadful in a series of the same name, the series does throw in little conceits like that - for instance Frankenstein mentions the poetry of Shelley.

Harry Treadaway as Frankenstein
Frankenstein, of course, has issues with his own creation – Caliban (Rory Kinnear). Dorian Gray’s presence was slightly incongruous and I felt the character could have been used a little better (he is somewhat of an iconoclast but underused and we never get to see the damned portrait). Murray’s servant Sembene (Danny Sapani) was too mysterious and demanded further scrutiny and background. The series had moments of genius – an episode dedicated to the background of Vanessa Ives was disturbingly excellent in places – but other parts seemed a little too convenient, especially the coincidental interactions and acquaintances of these people from different social strata. In trying to build mysteries, perhaps some things were under-explored or (in one case) almost forgotten until the very end of the series and just touched upon. Perhaps they simply had thrown too much into the pot?

a vampire bride
A sense of time sometimes got lost. One episode concerning a possession failed to offer any idea of how much time had passed but then we discover that Gray had time to do a trip over to continental Europe while things were going on. The acting was generally very good – though Billie Piper’s Irish accent did slip occasionally – but the main star, to me, was the City of London (or Dublin, as that was where this was filmed!) because the palpable oppressive atmosphere was a constant through the show. I did enjoy Penny Dreadful, it just felt a little unpolished in places (around what they were doing with certain threads) and might have been even better than it was. However it deserves a strong 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lost Girl: Season 4 – review

Director: Various

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

When I watched Season 3 of Lost Girl I felt it was a little bit disjointed and perhaps a tad meandering, with no real big bad point. It did, however, reposition the main characters. This would either work or otherwise in the next season’s favour.

As we enter season 4 Tamsin (Rachel Skarsten), the Valkyrie, is dead and 18 months have passed. Bo (Anna Silk) is literally a Lost Girl as she was taken by the mysterious Wanderer (Kyle Schmid, Blood Ties & Being Human (US)), unfortunately none of those left behind remember her. Somehow Vex (Paul Amos) has taken control of the Dark Fae and Kenzie (Ksenia Solo) is masquerading as a fae and in a clandestine relationship with Dyson (Kris Holden-Ried, Underworld: Awakening & The Death of Alice Blue).

Oh My
They all begin to realise that their memories have been altered and their lives are false (in terms of the fact that they interact in ways they would never would have done if their memories had been unaltered). So the opening concentrates on getting their memories back (and has a welcome cameo by the fabulous George Takaii). When they manage to break the spell that has them all missing the memories of Bo then Bo awakens, on a train (which is an other-dimension construct), remembering her friends. Their rescue attempt and her escape narrowly miss each other.

Kyle Schmid as the Wanderer
With Bo back we face the Una Mens – a group of mind linked Fae, tasked with keeping order and Fae law with extreme prejudice. It seems that they are after Bo until they tell her that they were searching for the unaligned succubus – she has become aligned… with the Dark Fae and here we have the nub of the season. Yes there is an overarch, with the wanderer and (as, despite hints otherwise, the Wanderer isn’t) Bo’s father what we get is a really nice character exploration where Bo has been placed in a faction (by her own hand, not that she can remember doing it) and it isn’t the one she would naturally sit in. However we saw her go somewhat dark before and it makes for some nice character dynamics.

Bo's escape
Whilst we do get the return of Tamsin – Valkyrie rebirth and rapidly grow from childhood to their adult state – in the main the season is about loss and it works fabulously. The storyline is probably the strongest they’ve had and they really use the characters well. There was a particularly good episode around Krampus (and it’s rare that I’ll enjoy a Groundhog Day style episode) and we get revenants that are – in effect – simple zombies.

All in all the season wasn’t just back on form, I’d say it was the best so far. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

London After Midnight – review

Author: Marie Coolidge-Rask

First Published: 1928

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: "It was the old man… with the long cloak and the fiendish grin!"

The most successful of all the collaborations of director Tod Browning and legendary Lon Chaney, ~ "The Man of a Thousand Faces" ~ was London After Midnight, their long-lost silent "Mystery-Thriller."

But now the novelization based on Browning's original screenplay is back for the first time since its original publication, in its entirety!

Once more mystery haunts the old Balfour House …and Lon Chaney’s gonna get you if you don’t watch out!

Complete with the original photo-illustrations plus additional features exclusive to this edition, including "Transylvania to Prague via London ~ After Midnight" and introduced by your Thriller Theatre host Margali Morwentari.

The review: London after Midnight is for many (including me) one of the most lamented of the lost films, probably more so because we have the remake, Mark of the Vampire, and the bravely constituted reconstruction to hint at what we are missing. That hint is greater still with the re-release of the original novelisation. The story is based on an early draft of Browning’s script and so contains aspects not in the final film, primarily heroine Lucy’s brother Harry Balfour – murdered early on and actually filmed by Browning but cut out of the final edit that made Lucy an only child.

I assume, as you read this, that you are aware of the storyline of London After Midnight (or have seen the reconstruction). At the very least I assume that you have seen Mark of the Vampire and thus it is not a spoiler too far to tell you that the vampires in this story are not actually real. Indeed the logic of having them there at all, whilst wonderful for the atmosphere of the film, demanded a twisted logic that was quite torturous. But, you know what, it doesn’t matter.

The vampires are connected with bats and can turn into mist. As well as being cited as vampires, they are referred to in text by the genus names Vukodlak and Murony (according to Bane’s Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology a Murony is both a variation of the Romanian Muroni and is a vampiric spirit or a Walachian/Moldavian variant of living vampire).

The writing is very melodramatic and certainly of an age – you couldn’t mistake this for a more modern written volume. But hey, you know what… it’s London After Midnight and that should be all the encouragement you need. 8 out of 10 for its historical value in the genre. The re-release of this volume was notified to me by a blog reader, Fenris, and so my thanks for the heads up.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Honourable Mention: The Muppets Take Manhattan

This was a Frank Oz directed muppet movie from 1984 and on viewing, I have to say, it was somewhat of a drag. Now don’t get me wrong, I grew up with the muppets but this did not seem a highpoint of the franchise’s output.

Starting with a core group of muppets, led by Kermit (Jim Henson), who are graduating from college and celebrating with a musical show that their fellow students love. A shout from the audience gives them the idea to take the show to Broadway.

They arrive in New York and, of course, selling their show is not as easy as they thought it would be. The gang eventually split up, leaving Kermit to try and get the show greenlit, at which point he’ll summon them all back.

where's Count von Count?
So, vampire? At the end the show goes ahead and culminates in a wedding for Kermit and Piggy (Frank Oz) – into which she adds a real officiator – playing a muppet version of Where’s Waldo will allow you to spot, oh so briefly, Count von Count (Jerry Nelson), amongst the wedding guests and singing along with the chorus. It’s a brief appearance, a fleeting visitation, but it is there.

The imdb page is here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Space Precinct: Predator and Prey – review

Director: Sidney Hayers

First aired: 1995

Contains spoilers

When my friend Leila asked whether I had reviewed the Space Precinct vampire episode I inwardly groaned. Admittedly I didn’t know there was a vampire episode but I do remember the show.

In my head this late Gerry Anderson production was a bit of a childish mess. Having re-watched it (or this episode at least) I can appreciate that there was quite a serious, straight sci-fi underneath the garish prosthetics and clichéd characters. In short, whilst it had plenty wrong with it, there was something to recommend about the series.

Simone Bendix as Castle
The basic premise was that, in 2040, human cop Lieutenant Patrick Brogan (Ted Shackelford) transferred to a new precinct in Demeter City, on the planet Altor in the Epsilon Eridani system. He and his partner Officer Jack Haldane (Rob Youngblood), plus Officer Jane Castle (Simone Bendix, Young Indiana Jones: Masks of Evil), are the resident human cops in their precinct – the others being from various alien races.

behind you
This episode starts outside a nightclub called the Taunt. Once inside we see a woman dancing, she is actually undercover cop Officer Chloe Vincent (Natalie Roles). She is watched by someone who is tall, dark and gruesome – we later discover that he is called Enil Kmada (Richard James). When she goes backstage, he follows and enters her dressing room but she pulls a gun and calls her partner, Lieutenant Verro Walker (Rolf Saxon). Kmada vanishes and, in a twist on the mirror trope, uses them to confuse her as she shoots mirrors rather than him. By the time Walker gets there she is dying on the floor.

I won’t go through the full story – which centres on looking for Kmada and Walker being an ass, as well as a sidebar comedy story about an orang-utan like creature and two comedy cops. However let us look more closely at Kmada. To some degree he reminded me, in appearance, of a cross between the vampire in Buck Rogers and Count Orlock. However he is not a blood drinker. Rather he appears to be only semi-solid and spends a deal of his time living within a host, only emerging to replenish lifeforce. This is taken by entering the body of his victim.

Sally's dream
The machi – if I got his race’s name right – were believed destroyed some 100 years before. In a throwaway comment, which seemed pretty bold for the back story, it is suggested that their hosts (who were likely innocent victims) were rounded up, put on a spacecraft and fired into a sun – somehow Kmada escaped. We discover that they show on film when out of their host and they can be physically injured – Kmada is shot at one point. Brogan’s wife Sally (Nancy Paul, Lifeforce) does dream of the serial killer (as he is described) and the dream version is quite accurately constructed by her subconscious.

I’m stunned by the fact that I am going to give this a good score but it was entertaining, with a neat central premise regarding the vampire and a dark heart despite the dated look and inherent clichés. 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.