Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Vampire Secrets – review (set of documentaries)

Release date (as a set): 2010

Contains spoilers

The History Channel releases a set of documentaries entitled Vampire Secrets – named after the lead documentary and containing 6 documentaries. Vampire Secrets is 90 minutes long and the others 45 and the review will look at each documentary in turn

Vampire Secrets

The Diana Zaslaw directed lead documentary was… well the best way I can describe it was sensationalist in nature. It began with a tale of James Spalding (Dan Higgins) and a failed execution. It touches on Kyonsi and even Jesus. It then returns to Spalding, when he joined the ranks of the Undead by not dying (I will remind folks that Stoker invented that word and so it wasn’t really appropriate for a story said to be from 1632). Onto Dracula and at least they state that Stoker took “the name, but not the actual history” but then insist on looking at Vlad anyway.

Christa Bella as Báthory
The tale of Erzsébet Báthory (Christa Bella) and span pretty much the same old Báthory story. Now, what I can say with certainty is that whilst I like the myth of Báthory, there is actually no totally compelling evidence that she actually did that which she was accused of. The 2008 film Bathory creates a just as compelling counter-argument of a woman framed to take her land and power. This, however, is a documentary and should have at least given the possibility that there was another side to the story. The further idea that this was the source of the noble as vampire that Stoker picked up. No… Firstly I have no evidence before me that Stoker researched Báthory (I stand to be corrected), more than this, however, the source of the vampire as nobleman is likely to have been Byron, upon whom Polidori based Ruthven. Also, remember, many of the vampire plays/operas through the 19th century (that Stoker will have been aware of) were loosely based on Polidori’s the Vampyre.

We then move on to a re-hash of the ‘porphyria explains vampires’ rubbish and the documentary actually suggests that, in the age of enlightenment, it was used as an explanation. As has been well documented the entire bunkum was created by Dr David Dolphin in 1985 (on very poor research) and the assertion in this by Michelle Belanger (who is actually a spokesperson for vampyre lifestyling and self proclaimed psychic vampire, thus not necessarily an expert on medical matters) that porphyria sufferers sometimes crave blood was another giant boob – porphyria sufferers do not crave blood and it would not, ingested, help their symptoms. Mark Benecke did offer another side when he went through the forensics of decomposition – though it was nothing new as anyone who has read Vampires, Burial and Death will know.

Was the Gaspard Robilette story invention?
Then we get the assertion that to mention the word vampire in the 1400s would have inspired fear – the word first appears, in English, in around 1734; so whilst the myths (or variants thereof) were around in the 1400s, the word probably wasn’t. There were other irksome bits before the documentary span into the sensationalism of the Rod Ferrell (Jack Sale) case, via the disappearance of Susan Walsh (Lyndsey Nelson) to take a large amount of time to look at Vampyre lifestylers – surely a separate documentary. The one irksome bit I’d like to mention was the story from 1613 of Gaspard Robilette (Adrian Balbontin) as I’d not heard of the (barely even vampiric) story before and, to be honest, google the name and you only get things regarding the documentary – surely it wasn’t made up?

Less a documentary and more a dip into tabloid journalism, all sensationalism, sleaze and little substance; as a result this wasn’t very good. 2.5 out of 10. The imdb page is here.

Monsterquest: Vampires in America

details on a gravestone
This was a lot better (despite the introduction relegating Kali from Goddess to a four armed woman). Whilst still quite tabloid – trying to search for evidence of vampires – it was primarily a very interesting look at the New England vampire epidemic. The conclusion, it would seem, is that consumption (TB) was the killer but what was fascinating was the cases they looked at. Mercy Brown is a famous case. Less well known, however, is the case of “JB” whose unmarked grave was found with the bones rearranged into a skull and crossbones motif – possibly done 5 years after initial burial and the Johnsons in Wilmington, where a letter to a newspaper complains of the foreign quack doctor who had Johnson exhume his children to provide a cure. It was also interesting to see the grave of a consumption victim that suggested he had succumbed to the vampire’s grasp.

coming to get you
Less convincing was the look towards Europe – albeit briefly – where again Báthory was mentioned (though this time we have the admission that there was no evidence of blood drinking) and a claim the Vlad Tepes was the inspiration for Dracula. Interestingly, however, there was the claim that Stoker had a newspaper clipping about the Mercy Brown affair (which occurred during the writing process of Dracula) amongst his notes. I’ve not heard that before. EDIT: since reviewing this Stoker's notes have been published and the article he had is now established fact

computer graphics
Sadly, we ended up with a brief look at the Ferrell case as well as the Matthew Hardman case. Porphyria was again traipsed out as a possible reason for vampirism. This was during the test on a sanguine vampyre, Joy Poulos, to see if her blood carried unusual traits (leading to her belief that she needs to drink blood). Her blood was perfectly normal. Michelle Belanger appeared again, this time to have her psychic vampirism tested. There was a minor result but nothing conclusive and it would have been nice to have that result analysed by an actual scientist.

However, all in all this was a much more interesting documentary. 5 out of 10. The imdb page is here.

Biography: Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker
This third disc doesn’t actually inspire much comment. It is a biography of Stoker but does make some mistakes. The fact that he had a wife and child isn’t really explored until the end of the biography and thus it almost sounds like he moved to London on his own. Despite some heavyweight commentators, Elizabeth Miller and David Skal for instance, we also get someone suggesting – in respect of the vampire rules Stoker invented – that Dracula can’t be out during the day and the documentary lets this titbit of inaccuracy pass. You are better off watching Dracula’s Bram Stoker. Lightweight generally, 4 out of 10. The imdb page is here.

Ancient Mysteries: Origin of the Vampire

naturally mummified
This was a much older documentary, dating back to 1994 and directed by J Charles Sterin and, for the most part, it was a fascinating look into the folklore and myth mainly from the European vampire epidemic of the 1700s but also looking at some of the New England cases.

Then, in the 5th Act things went awry as we get the idea that Dracula was based on Vlad Tepes, that the contents of the novel was based entirely on authentic Transylvanian myth (when Stoker, as well as researching myths, invented much himself) and that Báthory was the model for the female vampire and not only drank blood but indulged in cannibalism. Much of this was espoused in documentary by Raymond McNally and I guess 1994 was earlier than the development of the arguements against his theorems. A further error occurred when the narrator suggests that Dracula meant devil or dragon rather than son thereof. Still, ignoring Act 5, this was the best of the documentaries in the set thus far. 6 out of 10. The imdb page is here.

Cities of the Underworld: Dracula’s Underground

bust of Vlad
This 2007 documentary might have been fascinating if it was not for three things. Firstly it was the connecting of Vlad Tepes with vampirism and Dracula… again. The first location visited is a bat cave, not because of its own intrinsic geological and biological value but because of vampirism (despite that the connection between vampires and bats, whilst occasioned earlier, was cemented and pretty much created by Stoker). Secondly because of the sensationalism that it indulged in. You cannot mention Tepes without looking at torture and impalement, of course, but you can balance a documentary by mentioning that most of the evidence of atrocity came from enemies, that the sheer numbers listed were probably impossible (the act of impalement will have taken a while and a lot of effort per impalement) and that – let us be fair about this – torture and grievously sadistic capital punishments were about par for the course with just about every ruler in mankind’s less than salubrious past (and our present as well). This documentary doesn’t even mention that Vlad is seen as a National hero even to this day.

The third reason I disliked this was due to host Don Wildman, who came across as a grinning annoying buffoon. Sorry if you happen to be a Wildman fan. Perhaps it’s just me, perhaps I wanted him to stop going gee whizz in full on tourist mode and actually act like the archaeologist he clearly isn’t. If you turn the sound off, this shows some fascinating archaeological and geological sites. With the sound up, 3 out of 10. The imdb page is here.

The Final Documentary – In Search of History: The Real Dracula – was actually the documentary that also came in the Box of Blood Set and I have previously reviewed it here.


You may be thinking 'ouch' at this point; however there is a damn fine reason for having this set. For your collection. It is a nice big box (though only released as single discs in the US, I’m afraid) and it cost me just £7.49 on pre-order. Just don’t expect world shattering documentaries.


Christine said...

Stoker´s Dracula burning in sunlight and blood-drinking porphyria victims? I´m indeed thinking "ouch!". But despite all the nonsense, these sound like they could actually be amusing for pure entertainment value.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Christine, these do indeed contain some factual errors... that said a couple of the documentaries are worthwhile - and, as you say, there is the entertainment value

Ash said...

I quite agree about the porphyria nonsense; that Dolphin guy more or less invented the idea that they "might" have drank blood, and anyway, as has been pointed out ad nauseum, the "vampire" characteristics porphyria supposedly gives its victims (fear of light, sharp teeth, etc) come from FICTION and not from actual vampire belief.

I thought they had actually discovered physical evidence of Bathory's crimes? While I don't believe she was a vampire, and while the idea of her drinking blood might have been an embellishment, as far as I know they found pretty convincing evidence that she had committed scores of murders. Considering how inbred the nobility of the time were, insanity was rampant, and anyway one can find similar tales of cruelty all over (consider the barbaric tortures of the Inquisition) so I don't find the charges against her far fetched at all. I've always found claims that she was the innocent victim of some conspiracy to smack of historical revisionism.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Ash, thanks for stopping by. If you have details of the evidence I'd be delighted to see it. I must admit that the historical Bathory is a periphery area for me so I haven't looked into her story as deeply as I might of.

That said, personally I think that the liklihood is that she did indulge in some form of sadistic pastimes that involved torture and murder. Whether this was, in some way, down to preserving beauty I'd not like to guess, but such brutal behaviour would not be unusual amongst the landed classes - and any such brutality was likely legal so long as it was her own serfs/peasants.

But I also like the idea that there was some framing involved, however. She was very rich and powerful and those lands/monies would have been tempting. To lift torture and murder to a form of witchcraft (which essentially the tales of blood restoring youth ammount to) may have helped to gain her lands.

Whilst there is no evidence for the framing theory (that I am aware of), and I take the point that a suggestion of innocence smacks of revisionism, I do think there is a middle ground twixt the idea that she was framed and the liklihood she tortured young women.

In the context of the review, I do think a documentary should at least cover the other possibilities, in passing at least.

billierosie said...

Thank you so much for this! Since watching the first disk, I have been trying to find out the basis for the Gaspard robillte tale. I came to the same conclusion as you. That the story was probably invented by the history channel! Some real research would have been nice. As you say, google the name, and you just get referred back to the history channel disks!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Aye, it was a bit of bad documentary making billierosie and, as you say, some real research would have been nice - or if it was a really obscure story, referencing the research might have been a good idea. The latter said, I think they made it up.

Many thanks for stopping by.