Thursday, January 29, 2015

Constantine: The Saint of Last Resorts – review

Director: T.J. Scott

First aired: 2014

Contains spoilers

Constantine (Matt Ryan) is a DC character and we have come across him before as a guest character in DC’s New 52: I, Vampire and he is, in that, part of Justice League Dark.

This series – which, at the time of writing this review, is up to this episode and taking a mid-season break – has Constantine working mostly alone with help in the form of quick healing Chas (Charles Halford, The First Vampire: Don't Fall for the Devil's Illusions) and the mysterious Zed (Angélica Celaya, Gabriel & Cowboys and Vampires).

baby snatching
The episode starts in a convent where Martina Lopez (Ivette Li-Sanchez) has just given birth. Her husband, cop Hugo Lopez (Jose Pablo Cantillo), leaves to get her some water and she falls asleep. Unfortunately she awakens just as a hooded something with bird like talons for hands reaches for the baby. The creature rips her throat out and takes the baby, locking it in a cage in an underground lair. In the US psychic Zed is drawing picture after picture of a creature, an invunche, which Constantine suggests were wiped out during the Great Flood. He puts this down to a tactile interaction the episode before. A woman, Anne-Marie (Claire van der Boom), appears through bilocation – she is an old friend of Constantine (and thus dislikes him intensely) but needs his help in Mexico. The event has caused the cross she wears to burn her skin, indicating the baby was taken by supernatural means.

Matt Ryan as Constantine
Constantine orders Zed to stay in America – and in the supernaturally guarded mill – and he and Chas go to Mexico, where he is darkly amused to discover that Anne-Marie is now a nun. They try a runic ritual (whilst the convent is empty) to discover the nature of the abductor but the tracks have been covered causing it to go wrong. Instead they go to the Lopez home intent on uncovering the placenta (buried for good luck) but Constantine realises that the tree it is buried beneath is bearing human skinned fruit containing blood. He speaks to Hugo and suggests the child is alive (hence the fruit growing) and the abductor is one of Eve’s sisters but he doesn’t know which one (it is suggested there were a series of women created, beginning with Lilith, who chose to exist as Queens in Hell rather than be subservient to Adam).

They rush back to the convent when they hear that another baby has been taken. It is revealed that the father of the baby was Hugo’s teenage son (Hugo was unaware of the pregnancy) and so it is Hugo’s family being targeted. I don’t want to spoil too much but Constantine does reveal that the abductor is the Sister of Eve Lamashtu. He describes her as “a bit of a vampire” and in mythology she was a Mesopotamian Goddess who threatened women during childbirth and abducted children while they nursed. In the original mythology Pazuzu would be invoked to ward her (you may know the name as the demon from the film the Exorcist) and Constantine uses a medallion of Pazuzu to fight her.

Lamashtu face on
Lamashtu would normally, according to Constantine, devour the child and so there is another mystery to uncover in why she is taking them alive. However this is where the episode would have difficulty as a standalone. The episode is tied deeply into the wider series arc, it has action around Zed, unrelated to the main story, that feeds into her sub-story and – due to the fact that this is also the mid-season break point – it ends on cliff-hangers for both Constantine and Zed.

That said, the series is brilliant so far, nicely dark and pretty true to the Constantine comic character. This episode is by far the worst to dip into and that has affected the score (which is based on it being viewed as a standalone vampire episode) but it is not a bad episode by any stretch of the imagination and I heartily recommend the series so far. I should mention the earlier episode Danse Vaudou, which features ghosts but one of them is draining life energy. I won’t look at the episode separately (as it would be a fleeting visitation at best) but worth noting and has added the label of vampiric ghost and energy vampire to this post generally.

For The Saint of Last Resorts, 6 out of 10 and my thanks to Ian for letting me know about the episode and quality of the series. The episode’s imdb page is here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Ape: Dracula of the Apes Book 2 – review

Author: G Wells Taylor

First published: 2014

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Dracula of the Apes picks up where Bram Stoker’s Dracula left off and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes began. Genres collide in this thrilling horror/adventure fiction hybrid.

A grieving she-ape whose son was murdered by an ambitious alpha male, mistakes Dracula’s regenerating body for a newborn of her species, so she names the foundling “Gazda” and takes him to her tribe to raise as her own. With only a “child’s mind” and no memory of his true identity, the unusual orphan uses his budding abilities to survive in the jungle and grow from social outcast to trusted member of the tribe. As Gazda matures into a peerless hunter, he wins friends and enemies among the bull apes who compete for dominance; and while his differences raise questions about his origins, the call of the wild overpowers their doubts.

The Review: When I looked at the first book of this series, the Urn, I suggested it was of novella length. This second volume is longer, long enough I’d say to be classed as a novel, and of a very different prose style.

Whilst the first book followed the gypsy Horvat, through his diaries, this is very much a third person journey with Gazda. Before meeting his untimely end, Horvat discovered that the shipwreck had not destroyed the metamorphic goo that was his regenerating master. By the times the intelligent apes (Taylor draws a group of apes, physically akin to gorillas but more intelligent, with language skills and social laws) find the regenerating vampire it was developed enough for a mourning she-ape, Eeda, to adopt him to fill the gap left by her dead offspring.

As he grows his differences are marked, especially as he is a vampire and finds himself feeling sleepy and physically much weaker during the day and active at night. He feeds, at first, by suckling and taking blood from his ape mother, later through night hunts – where he drains his prey and then gives the meat to the tribe. To the other apes he is deemed a night ape. I found the way that Wells Taylor introduced abilities to Gazda, and through him to us, to be really well done. Some occur once and by accident – when Garzda momentarily morphs into a bat – others, his healing for instance, he keeps hidden.

I mentioned in the previous review that I have not read Tarzan. After reading this volume I researched the first Tarzan volume and, from what I can gather, there are enough plot convergences here to make the volume’s roots clear but enough differences to make this its own beast. And what a beast, thoroughly enjoyable and much more vampiric than the first volume I am left anticipating what will occur in volume 3. 7.5 out of 10.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Vamp or Not? Circle of Fear: the Phantom of Herald Square

Ghost Story was a one season long anthology show based on horror themes (rather than simply ghost stories). It changed names halfway through, becoming Circle of Fear. We have already looked at the episode Elegy for a Vampire from the Ghost Story period and this episode aired under Circle of Fear.

This episode was directed by James H. Brown and first aired in 1973. This was actually nearly a review but I felt it probably better fell under "Vamp or Not?" due to a turnaround in the lore.

David Soul as James
It starts with a young woman (Judie Stein) being attacked by an old man (Victor Jory). Cutting to daytime a businessman, Matthews (Murray Matheson), looks at the world through a telescope. He turns his attention to the young man in his office, one James Barlow (David Soul, Starsky and Hutch: the vampire & Salem's Lot). James asks for an extension but is refused and warned not to have any more complications, this is said whilst showing him a newspaper indicating that the girl at the start was murdered. James says that he's lost control of the old man, and Matthew says that this sometimes happens but isn't his problem. When James leaves, Matthews picks up the phone and tells someone that James is considered to be on a first warning.

seeing Holly
James is walking in the park when an old lady approaches him. She says she is called Peggy (Meg Wyllie). James avoids her. At a lake he spots a young woman drawing; drawn to her he introduces himself. She is called Holly (Sheila Larken) and at first she is resistant to him. However he manages to charm the art student to a degree but she has to go to class. That evening, coming home, she is accosted by the old man who warns her not to see the young man again. She runs from him and drops her sketchpad.

turning young at day break
Cutting the story short, they fall for each other but of course he actually is the old man as well. Essentially, as an 88-year-old he didn't want to die and so sold his soul for eternal youth. He is younger during the day and reverts to being old at night (the changing effect being produced by superimposing the two actors over each other). His old self now wishes to die but his young self does not. Every so often he has to charm a girl into making a commitment to him. How often is not answered, but Peggy couldn't have been too long ago. When the girl makes a commitment he is able to maintain his youth. So far so very youth stealing energy vampire. However I did say there is a turnaround in the lore.

Murray Matheson as Matthews
Normally this would be cut and dried for me, but for the dialogue suggesting that rather than him draining the youth from his victims, they instead take on his age. This does intrigue me and makes him more of a giver than a taker. You might be wondering what Matthews gains from the bargain? Clearly those he represents are aware that eventually life will become stale for the one granted immortality and, at that point, they will ask for death and then (I assume Hell) gets the soul. Although age is given rather than youth stolen I still think this is a take on the energy vampire and therefore I'm going Vamp.The episode itself was interesting and its always fun to see David Soul, however it had a repeated romantic music refrain that was more misplaced than the song Strange Love in Lust for a Vampire and this nearly drove me to distraction.

The episode's imdb page is here.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Honourable Mention: the Saragossa Manuscript

Directed by Wojciech Has and released in 1965, the Saragossa Manuscript is a cinematic version of Jan Potocki’s opus the Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

You will recall that this book received an Honourable Mention as the novel, which was released piecemeal between 1805 and 1815, did mention vampires but they were, more than anything, a fleeting visitation within the novel.

In the case of the movie the vampires, the Zoto Brothers, are present (as they are a main opening plot device) but never mentioned as vampires. You might recall that the novel mentions the difference between the vampires of Hungary and Poland to the vampires of Spain (the previous mention relays the full quote). That quote is partly given in film but the English subtitles say zombie rather than vampire – it is also not clear that the dialogue refers to the Zoto Brothers.

the manuscript
So the film itself has a book found (the manuscript is not created in exactly the same way) and then we go back in time to see the adventures of Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) a new Captain of the Walloon Guard. The adventures he has, and the stories he hears, are selectively but accurately lifted from the novel text. However the conspiracy wrapped around him is much more explicit, sometimes even farcical, and the complexity of stories within stories curtailed.

with the cousins
He does, however, encounter his Muslim cousins Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka) and Emina (Iga Cembrzynska) and, following this, awakens under the gallows of the Zoto brothers, faced with the prospect of being haunted by them and wondering whether his cousins are real or actually the undead brothers haunting him in another shape. The brothers are seen in action when we hear the story of Pancheco (Franciszek Pieczka) the demoniac.

the Zoto brothers with the eye
The actions of the Zoto’s are more akin to a haunting than vampirism – though, of course, poltergeist-like activity was an aspect of some vampire folklore – and physically dangerous as they pluck out the amorous young Pancheco’s eye. Their victims are bedevilled by the pair – who sometimes take the form of seductive women and at other times appear as the rotting corpses of the hanged pair – until, if Pancheco’s tale is consistent with all victims, they go mad (or are possessed, as the hermit (Kazimierz Opalinski) would have it).

under the gallows
An excellent three hour movie, split into two parts, that is perhaps even more humorous than the novel. If I felt the novel was more Baron Munchausen than Arabian Nights, then certainly this film is. It draws caricature characters in places, which adds to the absurdist feel (especially in the case of Alfonse’s father (Slawomir Lindner) ). Well worth your time and of genre interest – even if the ‘vampires’ do nothing recognisably vampiric and are not mentioned as such in subtitles.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Urn: Dracula of the Apes – Book 1 – review

Author: G. Wells Taylor

First Published: 2014

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Dracula of the Apes picks up where Bram Stoker’s Dracula left off and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes began. Genres collide in this thrilling horror/adventure fiction hybrid.

Dracula’s Gypsy servant Horvat has the special duty of preserving his master’s body if the worst should ever happen—and the worst has happened!

Van Helsing’s team of vampire hunters has decapitated the count and reduced him to dust and ashes.

Horvat’s instructions are simple. Dracula’s remains must be stored in a special urn and bathed in blood while en route to South Africa where a mysterious ally will see to his resurrection.

But fate steps in off the African coast and a shipwreck casts Horvat and his precious burden into the jungle setting of another literary classic.

The Review: G Wells Taylor has done something audacious and conflated the literary figures of Tarzan and Dracula and, you know what, its blooming good fun. A few things to note at the head of the review, however. I have not read any of the Tarzan books and thus am familiar only through movies. Also this book is comparatively short, probably best described as a novella as it comes in at around 163 pages. As I review it I am reading book 2 and considered waiting to review all three books together. I decided against this as the style of Book 2 is different and Wells Taylor has rightly split the story into volumes.

The style of this is epistolary, like Dracula, but all from the diary of the gypsy Horvat. He had instructions from the Count of what to do should disaster strike and has gathered the vampire’s ashes into a special urn and is transporting them to South Africa – all the time keeping the primal sludge, which the ashes have become, damp with blood (human or animal is fine) – where another vampire will restore Dracula to his former undead glory.

Whilst heading towards Varna, Horvat is protected by wolves that track his progress but hunted by ghoul like creatures. We never get to fully learn what these are. The book changes – following Horvat being shipwrecked and believing the flooding of the urn with saltwater to have destroyed his master totally – to something more akin to Robinson Crusoe. Of course there would be no series if the vampire had been utterly destroyed but I’ll let you read the book to see how that plays out.

I was unsure whether this was going to work. The vampirism is light in this volume as it is mostly focused on Horvat but Wells Taylor gave him a strong voice and the book kept my attention and definitely entertained. 7 out of 10.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Viy (2014) – review

Director: Oleg Stepchenko

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

I am a fan of the story Viy. The original short by Gogol has been filmed several times. Black Sunday is allegedly based on the story but the connection is very loose indeed. That said the film is definitely a vampire movie. The 1967 adaptation, Viy, eschews much of the vampiric aspect from the story but does include hagriding – a traditional form of psychic vampirism. It also has the central witch animate after death reminiscent of the Strigoï vii and mort. It would be remise not to mention Sveto Mesto, a fine adaptation in its own right.

fairytale feel
This version was actually slated for release in 2009 (along with another adaptation that seems to have been lost at the moment) to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Gogol’s birth. It unfortunately seemed to vanish itself but I kept a weather eye out for it. Recently I discovered it had been released on Russian DVD – but without other language subtitles. Then I discovered it had also been released in Thailand. The Thai DVD has either English or Thai audio and subs – the English audio being partially dubbed as the film was produced in Russian and English.

caught in bed
Why partly in English? Because the film adds much to Gogol’s basic story and the film starts in England in 1701, where the Lord Dadli (Charles Dance, Underworld Awakening & Dracula Untold) is storming through his house accompanied by a group of servants. He approaches a certain room with stealth, so as to not to alert the occupants – his daughter (Anna Churina) who is in bed with Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Green makes a run for it whilst professing his love. He is a cartographer and will make his fortune, he suggests. He gets to his coach – a steampunk like coach drawn by horses but controlled from inside the cab and complete with road measuring wheel at the back.

sitting vigil
Cutting across Europe, we hear a voiceover tell us about the eyes of Viy, an eternal God. In a beautifully realised fairytale landscape we see maidens put wreaths with lighted candles into a lake, Tradition says if a man picks up a wreath he and the girl are destined to be together. Nastusya (Agnia Ditkovskite) walks from the lake calling for her friend Pannochka (Olga Zaytseva). Pannochka is lying deathlike in the water when she grabs her friend who falls in herself. Nastusya is saved by some half unseen beast like shape with seven horns. Pannochka’s father, Sotnik (Yuriy Tsurilo), comes to his daughter who dies in his arms but first says that a seminary student, Khoma (Aleksey Petrukhin), must read the three nights of prayer above her.

after the third night
Khoma is brought to Sotnik who offers him 1000 gold coins to perform the vigil. We see him taken to the church and become locked in but the next scene is actually the third night of vigil. He is singing prayers when he notices the coffin is empty. Flowers seem to fly and he draws a chalk circle around himself. The flowers seem to be caught in a vortex, flying around the circle and around the great crucifix. A spectral creature lunges towards Khoma. The scene is over in a flash and then we see the village priest, Otets Paisiy (Andrey Smolyakov), given Khoma’s fee to deliver. We see him above Khoma’s body, having dropped the coins, crying that the church is cursed. He has two Cossack brothers board the church up (though they steal the coins first) and one loses an eye after a fall from the roof when he tries to board-up a hole.

the seminary students
At this point I was a tad disappointed. Khoma’s story seemed to have been greatly curtailed – don’t worry though, his encounter with the hag and the first two nights of vigil are relayed later on in flashback. As Jonathan makes his way over Europe, sending letters back to his love, he has no idea she is pregnant. I was unsure about these cut scenes to his lover – they added little to the film. With supplies low, Jonathan picks up two seminary students, Gorobets (Anatoliy Gushchin) and Khalyava (Ivan Mokhovikov). They tell him how they and Khoma stayed at the watermill of the village and Khoma vanished.

This leads us to them being allowed to stay by the old woman who lives in the mill and her sexual overtones towards Khoma. We actually see that her silhouette is that of a young woman… with a tail. She jumps on Khoma’s back and rides him through the night sky – in a reflection he sees that her face is that of Pannochka. This hadridding is the only overtly vampiric aspect to the film, the blood drinking that comes into the original story is lost and the Strigoï vii and mort like aspect is deliberately blurred (in a way that is too spoiler heavy to explain). It is telling that the stories round the hagridding and the first two nights are third hand, as Khoma is dead (or missing, according to his friends) - could they possibly be true?

Viy with eyelids lifted
The film plays with a theme of superstition and science but deliberately blurs the lines. The villagers are treated to a sign consisting of demonic visions but it is apparently the product of magic lantern technology (not too much is done with this, unfortunately). The English scientist is driven to the village when cadaverous wolves with glowing eyes that seem to be able to vanish into smoke chase him down. He uncovers a very earthly conspiracy but is driven to do so after visions where he sees Cossacks becme demons and then meets Viy himself. Viy is well done visually but the death that comes from his eyes (if his heavy, long eyelids are lifted) is reserved for the sinner and he is portrayed almost as a benevolent nature God who is pushing for justice.

groping blindly
The imagery through the film does work well. The first two nights of vigil are particularly well done. One has Pannochka blind, groping for Khoma as demonic roots and vines engulf the church interior. The second has a flying coffin that bleeds when struck with a hatchet. The story, however, is partially stifled by the new additions. I got the feeling of screenplay changes altering direction and leaving little reminders of previous drafts that were superfluous. That’s not to say that the story is bad (after all, the Gogol story is still central) and the changes that were made to the primary characters worked well enough – but it could have done with cleaning up.

The dubbing was somewhat annoying – but unavoidable if I was going to see the film. Hopefully an original dialogue version with English subs will become available at some point. I liked the fact that the seminary students looked as though they had walked out of the 1967 version and I did enjoy the film (not as much as some other versions, but nevertheless). 6.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tom Holland’s Twisted Tales

Director: Tom Holland

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

Anthology films always run the risk of being hit and miss. However when the entire thing was written and directed by Tom Holland the man behind Child’s Play and Fright Night (1985) one expects a little more.

This is a long effort, just under 2.5 hours, and some of the pieces are better than others. Unfortunately stories such as Mongo's Magik Mirror worked less for the actual segment and more for the fact of Ray Wise (Reaper), who stars in that segment, generally being a magnificent actor. Each piece was introduced by Tom Holland but when it came to the vampire segment, Vampire’s Dance, things went seriously wrong.

smoking hand
More a ten minute afterthought (which I’m guessing went along the lines of, “I’m famous for Fright Night, I’d best do something with vampires”) this was initially let down by having a non-linear structure (which, if done well, I would enjoy) minus the necessary storyline. So we get Lisa (Lisa McLowry) waking up on the floor and nearly burning her hand in sunlight. She goes through to a bar where Tom Holland is the janitor sweeping up and asks him where they all are?

vampire imagery
We also see, intercut, her quest the night before to find her missing roommate. She asks a bouncer if she can look in the bar and meets Shaun (Shaun Benson) who takes her through to a room where couples dance (in ways that can only be described as expressionist). For some reason Tom Holland appears and addresses the audience from a small mirror through the piece, whilst Lisa somehow gets wind of the danger and reveals a large mirror (she somehow knew was covered up behind the DJ) to warn the humans that there are vampires there – to no avail; cue feeding frenzy.

Fright Night t-shirt
She, of course, is turned for reasons unexplained. And that’s it. Bunkum, but there are some nice vampiric images appear during the feeding frenzy and I really did like the fact that the bouncer was wearing an Evil Ed Fright Night t-shirt. But the piece itself was so throwaway and had pretensions, due to its non-linearity, that it couldn’t support. The “idiot’s guide” commentary from Tom-Holland-in-the-mirror was odd, obtrusive and out with the other tales in the anthology.

For the vampire segment only – 2 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.