Saturday, February 25, 2017

Stake Land II – review

Director: Dan Berk & Robert Olsen

Release date: 2016

Contains spoilers

Though I know many who dislike the film, I really do rate the original Stake land, indeed I predicted in its review that it was “Definitely a film I will return to again and again.” That prediction has proven true and I am never disappointed by the film.

The fact that it has spawned a sequel actually came as a bit of a shock, I missed it until it was already out and available in various markets. Written by star Nick Damici, I suppose this was always going to struggle against its predecessor… and it does. However there is a worthwhile film here. Like the first film it features a special vampire – one that shows cognitive functioning – but the majority of the vampires in the film are feeding machines and could, properly, gain the name zompire.

Connor Paolo as Martin
The last film saw older vampire hunter Mister (Nick Damici) slip away into the night, leaving young prodigy Martin (Connor Paolo) with Peggy (Bonnie Dennison). They headed North, over the Canadian border to New Eden – a human outpost far enough North that the vampires wouldn’t bother them – due to the cold presumably. This film starts with martin telling the story to his and Peggy’s daughter (Taylor Zelionka). There is an alarm and New Eden is under attack by the religious fanatics the Brotherhood, fighting alongside berserker vampires led by a female vampire, the Mother (Kristina Hughes).

Kristina Hughes as Mother
Peggy and the daughter are captured, New Eden falls and Martin watches the Mother stab his wife and child – before the attacking forces retreat South again. Later we see that Martin fired an arrow at the Mother, who plucked it out of the air, in flight, and it was his arrow that was used to stab his wife and child. Martin is also astounded that the brotherhood and feral vampires were able to fight as a cohesive unit and rightly surmises that the Mother has some method of control of the vampires. He heads South to find Mister and to kill the creature that killed his family.

desperate for blood
As he travels South we see him attacked by a couple of slow vampires, so desperate for blood that they attack in daylight; burning slowly as they attack, their physical condition poor. With the second one he comes into contact with a ma (Kathryn Bracht) and pa (Blaine Hart) and just survives being drugged so that they can use him for meat. In this new post-apocalyptic world the humans are just as dangerous as the vampires and perhaps it was due to his brief peaceful sojourn in New Eden, but this older Martin seems more naïve than his younger self.

Mother's palanquin
Eventually he finds Mister (being held as a gladiator in a sub-Mad Max set up), who subsequently gets captured by the Brotherhood and has to be rescued again before Martin and he make a last stand with some friendly survivors in (apparently) the last lockdown, against the Mother and her worshippers. For the Brotherhood (who were an apocalyptic Christian-derived group, or so it appeared in the first film) now worship her as their dark messiah – carrying her in a heavily draped palanquin adorned with a bovine head.

left for the vampires
The religious symbolism is, of course, rife – Mister, for instance, is crucified and left for the vampires. The Brotherhood are far from pious. Not only do they murder in the name of the Mother but they aren’t above a spot of rape and are willing to become suicide bombers. Perhaps the religious commentary is delivered with a lack of subtlety but then the first film wasn’t particularly subtle either.

Mister's compadres
Acting and character wise, Damici is as good as expected as the taciturn Mister and we get some more background to him. As a character his background is expanded on when we meet two of his old compadres, who are more forthcoming about the past than he is. There is a feel that he is getting too old and long in the tooth for his private crusade against the vampires and wants to prevent Martin from losing himself to revenge like he did. Martin is perhaps less rounded as a character, despite us knowing more about him, he is portrayed less taciturn and more shell-shocked.

desperate for blood 2
As for the Mother – beyond controlling vampires we discover that she has a trait not before seen in the films (though I won’t spoil it) but as an antagonist is less visible in the film than Jebediah was in the previous film and thus rather shallow as an enemy. Larry Fessenden cameos in a short speaking role – though whether he is the same character that he played in the first film is unclear. So, compared to the first film this felt lacking and perhaps a tad restricted on a budgetary level – however it was nice to see the characters return. 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Essential Literature: Powers of Darkness

Authors: Bram Stoker (original Novel) & Valdimar Ásmundsson (adaptation)

Translator: Hans Corneel de Roos

First Published: 1900 (serialised), 1901 (novel), 2017 (English translation)

Makt Myrkranna – or Powers of Darkness – was the name of the Icelandic adaptation of Dracula. I say adaptation as it is significantly different to Dracula – as we shall see, in turns fascinatingly and frustratingly. It was adapted and serialised by Valdimar Ásmundsson and, for some time, the English speaking world only knew the content of the preface – seemingly written by Stoker and, if dated correctly, provided some time before the adaptation was published (August 1898). The original translation of that preface revealed a tantalising Ripper connection – however de Roos argues that there were translation errors and makes a good case that Stoker (if indeed it was he who wrote the preface) directed us to the Thames Torso Murders of 1887–1889 and, indeed, the text of the story seems to underpin this.

It is, however, the radically different text that makes this so interesting and I think that for me it is for different reasons to the reason conveyed by the translator. I have classed this as essential literature because, whichever way you fall in the debate as to the origin of the changes, it is still a necessity for the student of Dracula and the media vampire. I must however note the cover states this to be “the Lost Version of Dracula”. It is not – for it was never lost to the people of Iceland, to start off with, it was republished in 1950 and 2011. The suggestion it is a lost version is based, however, on the idea that Ásmundsson had access to an early (radically different) draft of Dracula. Though I do not dismiss the notion entirely, I am far from convinced.

The writing style and tempo does not feel like Stoker at all, though whether this is due to Ásmundsson’s rendering or de Roos translation I do not know, and the “similarities” between story elements and unused aspects of Stoker’s notes do not seem definitive to me (indeed many points can and have been critically discussed by other articles and I do not wish to labour them here, as my interest in this is slightly different). But what we have – one way or another – is the first example of Dracula being altered radically in adaptation. This is a tradition that likely did not flow from this volume (given that it was generally unknown outside Iceland) but continued through Nosferatu (1922), the Hamilton Deane play (1924), Ali Riza Seyfi's novel adaptation Kaziki Voyvoda (1928 – and something I’d love to see translated into English), and then through countless movies and books.

So what is different within the book? The first part is Thomas (rather than Jonathan) Harker’s trip to Transylvania – as well as changing Harker's name we should also note that Ásmundsson changes Mina to Wilma. This section is epistolary, like the original, made up from Thomas’ diary and goes from approximately 22,700 words in the original novel to around 37,200 words in this. The changes are manifold. There are servants in the castle – including a deaf/mute old housekeeper. The Count is said to have had three wives; possibly referencing the vampire women from the original novel, they are unseen in this. Perhaps… There is one vampire woman in the castle whom the Count claims to be his cousin. However she bears an uncanny resemblance to a painting of a Countess in the portrait gallery, and apparently believes she is the woman in the picture.

The Count tells the story of the Countess from the painting; a sorry tail of love and betrayal. Did she betray this Count and suffer his punishment of having her trapped with her lover until that lover went mad and killed himself? We do not know for sure whether the contemporary woman is the original Countess or not (I suspect so, of course). Her interactions with Harker are numerous and she casts a fascination over him that seems like a charm or a hypnotic control. As I read the first part of the book the presence of the solitary vampire woman, who says to Thomas “—tell him nothing, but come! And beware, beware, beware”, drew my mind to Hammer and specifically the Horror of Dracula and Scars of Dracula where, years later, solitary vampire women would try to seduce the hero and have their role expanded compared to the original story.

There are secret passages, and ledges on the outside of the castle on which people can pass. It is a lackey of the Count who takes Harker’s clothes (and papers) rather than the Count himself. Beneath the castle is a Satanic temple, where ape-like men (possibly a racial slur, though the Count is also described as half-man and half-animal later in the book) attend rites and human vampiric sacrifices conducted by the Count himself. Taking this pseudo-religious aspect, along with (under drawn) aspects in Part Two, I again thought of Hammer and their cult of vampirism – in fact an annotation suggests the “Count’s vision might be understood as a satanic counterpoint to the Christian expectation of a Last Judgement”. Perhaps we can go one step further and liken this Count to the antichrist, just as Hammer did with their Count especially in Satanic Rites of Dracula. At the very least, this Count seems intent on introducing a New World Order and political commentary, flavoured by Ásmundsson’s political interests, are found within the text

During Part One we get a wonderful scene where the body of a peasant girl (a probable sacrificial victim) is spotted outside the castle by Harker. He cannot find a way out to the body but then sees peasants come to the body and stake it before removing it. I should note that, in an annotation, it is suggested that “the intentions of both the Count and his cousin remain obscure—for nowhere are they caught with their fangs in someone’s neck”, with a preceding passage that also points out that Lucia (Lucy) has no fangmarks on her neck. This may be true but the vampire woman certainly kisses Harker’s neck (a kiss being a euphemism in the original Dracula for a bite) the ape-like men bite their sacrificial victims and suck their blood and, indeed, it appears one of them bites Harker’s neck for he finds a bite mark on his neck just after being attacked in a secret passage by one (and assumes the rosary he wears has protected him). It is true that the term vampire is only used once in book and in reference to London fog.

If Part One is fascinating and a rip-roaring tale then Part Two is frustrating (at the very least) and in fact I found it to be a bitter disappointment. The serialisation of the novel had been going on for over a year at this point and it feels as though Ásmundsson just wanted to wrap things up. The story drops from 137,860 words in the original to only 9100 in this and the epistolary style is abandoned for a narrator. The story is changed again and one of the most notable changes is that Van Helsing does not seem to recognise the vampirism, or even suspect it, until he reads Harker’s journal – indeed, Arthur reports seeing Lucia rising from her coffin (prior to internment) and in response the Professor sits vigil in case she has been mistakenly declared dead and awakens.

One thing I found interesting was the explanation given for the soil the Count ships to England. Stoker’s lore can be confusing but is centred around the fact that the Count must rest in hallowed earth as “in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest.” In this it is specifically, “the hallowed earth in which it had once been buried”. This makes it specifically the vampire’s grave dirt (and the boxes of earth were also used to carry riches to England, it is suggested).

So, all in all, this is absolutely necessary as the first example of Dracula being reproduced in an altered form. Whether this was with either the blessing or the aid of Stoker is unclear to me – I have doubts that he actually had his hand in the process, but do not entirely dismiss the possibility. Whilst I might not be convinced, I am certainly very grateful to Hans de Roos for making this available to us and the time and effort he has taken to do so. The first part is a fantastic read in its own right, though the style and tempo do not feel like the novel so many of us love and the details are certainly very different. The second part is totally disappointing – possibly more so as the story is again changed significantly but the prose feels less a novel and more an extended synopsis and so does not exploit those changes in a satisfying way.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Fledgling – review

Author: Octavia E. Butler

First published: 2005

Contains spoilers

The blurb: Shori is a mystery. Found alone in the woods, she appears to be a little black girl with traumatic amnesia and near fatal wounds. But Shori is a fifty-three-year-old vampire with a ravenous hunger for blood, the lost child of an ancient species of near-immortals who live in dark symbiosis with humanity. Genetically modified to be able to walk in daylight, Shori now becomes the target of a vast plot to destroy her and her kind. And in the final apocalyptic battle, her survival will depend on whether all humans are bigots—or all bigots are human…

The review: Blurbs, you’ve got to love them. Whilst there is undoubtedly a race aspect to this novel, indeed the book is an exploration of racial bigotry at heart, for the plot the last line, “whether all humans are bigots—or all bigots are human” is totally misleading.

The book centres on Shori who, at the beginning awakens broken, scarred and without memory. An unlucky animal (later revealed to be a human) finds her and is, over time, eaten – allowing her to heal. Eventually she stumbles through the woods, onto the highway and into the life of Wright Hamlin. He wants to take the little girl (he reckons her to be around 10 years old) to the police or hospital until she bites his hand. Suddenly taking her anywhere bar home seems wrong. This opening allows Butler to make us uncomfortable and push us off kilter as a reader. Wright realises that his feelings are wrong, even when he and Shori sleep together and we are uncomfortable with the suggestion. The fact that it is revealed that she is a fifty-three-year-old and such relationships with human lovers are quite normal in her society (she isn’t sexually mature in respect of mating with her own kind but is described as sexually mature in respects of sex for pleasure).

As the novel develops we discover that she is an Ina – a parallel species with humanity. They are the source of the vampire myth, their saliva can allow them to control humans and a single Ina will live in a symbiotic relationship with (no less than) seven symbionts as their humans are called. Shori, as a juvenile, lived with her mother in a female settlement as Ina live separately by gender, coming together to breed (the female saliva bonds the male Ina to them permanently as sexual partners). She discovers this when she finds her father but his encampment is also attacked. The attackers are human but they are controlled by Ina.

All of this orbits around the fact that Shori is the result of a genetic breeding programme by her family. They have introduced human DNA so that she has melanin (all the other Ina are blanche white, burn in sunlight and are comatose during the day – Shori can function during the day, is still very sensitive to sunlight but can stand some exposure and is black).

The book could be said to look at speciesism rather than racism (although the very jealous Wright displays racial discomfort when Shori chooses a black man, Joel, as a further symbiont) but in doing so Butler has allowed herself the ability to discuss racism. When I mentioned the blurb it was because the bigotry is within the Ina primarily, though they claim to be above such petty human intolerances. It explores the myth of racial purity and shows that Shori’s hybrid nature, her diversity if you like, is an evolutional advantage. All in all an interesting book that challenges bigotry – and underpins the fact that the vampire is a versatile figure when used allegorically. 7.5 out of 10.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sangue del mio Sangue – review

Director: Marco Bellocchio

Release date: 2015

Contains spoilers

Many thanks to blog reader Alberto who has emailed me with a couple of suggestions of films for the blog – in both cases films I hadn’t come across. This one Sangue del mio Sangue, or Blood of My Blood, is a film that perhaps falls into the more arthouse end of the vampire genre.

It is available on DVD and Blu-ray but, as far as I can find, only in Italian currently. However there are fansubs out there in English.

Federico (modern) with Ivan
The film is strange in its structure. Essentially split into two stories both centred on a building in Bobbio – in the first story it is a convent and it is disused in the second story but referred to as a prison. The two stories have some of the same actors and one of the primary characters within both tales is called Federico Mai (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio), in the first tale he is the brother of a priest (whom he looks uncannily like) who committed suicide and in the second he is a tax inspector who looks to sell the Bobbio prison to a Russian oligarch (Ivan Franek).

trial by ordeal
The first film sees the interrogation and trials of Benedetta (Lidiya Liberman) as the priest Cacciapuoti (Fausto Russo Alesi) looks to prove that she bewitched and seduced Federico and thus allow him to be buried in hallowed grounds (and open the way for him to eventually enter heaven). However she seems capable of passing the trials and Federico has fallen for her just as his brother did. One thing that struck me was the use of tracks by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a haunting version of Nothing Else Matters and their sublime piece Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, itself used in We are the Night.

Patrizia Bettini as the Count's wife
The vampire aspect is in the second story however. Although the prison is reported empty it is actually the residence of the Count Basta (Roberto Herlitzka). We meet his estranged wife (Patrizia Bettini), who describes the Count – missing, as far as she is concerned, for years – as a vampire but that is allegorical surely? The Count has a toothache and goes to his dentist (Toni Bertorelli) and it becomes clear that they class themselves as vampires – they are not immortal, as the Count says, and the blood no longer does anything for him.

not in photo
He also, that evening, spots a waitress, Elena (Elena Bellocchio), who stirs within the old vampire feelings (of a romantic nature) that he has not felt for some time. She happens to be the sister of Federico. If we were in doubt of the Count’s nature it is dismissed, perhaps, when a photograph is taken of him with Elena and her friends that fails to capture him – there is, instead, a glow where he should be… that said his wife does have an older picture of him on her phone.

Roberto Herlitzka as Count Basta
The film is perhaps more mood than substance within the story, leading us and leaving us to search for the meaning ourselves. However it is beautifully shot, well acted and, as mentioned, has some sublime moments on the soundtrack. For those seeking a defined plot this is not for you, however there is a gothic tone lying with the sense of mystery. I liked it. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Friday, February 17, 2017

After the Blood Rush – review

Director: Pete Trudgeon

Release date: 2009

Contains spoilers

On a double disc with the Vampire bitches – which was reviewed here as Marty Jenkins and the Vampire Bitches - this is definitely the weaker of the two products. The cut price nature of the DVD (at time of review) and the fact that the companion film has merit may lead you to get this.

It is a shame, as well, as the filmmakers clearly had some ideas but didn’t have the budget, the actors or the technical know-how to pull them off.

a Blood Junky
The film is set in Hamtramck, Michigan and intertitles tell us of a virus being released that has decimated the vampire population, turning most of the survivors into blood junkies and (we discover later) stripping the powers of many of those not so impacted. We also see a conversation between two gentlemen where it is confessed that the virus was man made and a cure does exist.

George Pogacich as jack
Two federally backed vampire hunters, Wally Wood (John Anton) and Jack Cole (George Pogacich), question their blood junky snitch Dwayne (Johnny Gel). He gives them the location of a nest of blood junkies that they raid. Wally uses a sword, whereas Jack uses an assault rifle that is unusually quiet and splatters targets with unfortunately cgi bullet wounds – budget filmmakers take note, it is rare that things like cgi blood or bullet wounds actually work effectively. A cop is the blood junkies’ meal – Wally kills him, presumably because he’d turn otherwise.

Cut in to the scenes of the raid are scenes of two drunk guys wandering down an alleyway. They see three girls who have “missed the bus” … the girls end up doing ring-a-ring-of-roses round them before attacking them – these are vampires as opposed to blood junkies. We also get scenes of a man called Andrew Milligan (Gary Freeman) who blindfolds himself and is met by the three girls. They hand the man a disc and put a phone to his ear to allow a woman called Zandora to speak to him. Milligan is a disgraced journalist.

Michael Clark as Prince Mumawalde 
So, the two hunters are introduced by the mayor (Karen Majewski) to a wealthy businessman, Wilkenson (Billy Whitehouse), whose daughter, Elizabeth (Taylor Ariel), is a blood junky. She has been taken by Zandora and is being held. She wants the hunters and Wilkenson is willing to pay them to get her back (and Milligan wants a scoop). The story is convoluted and not well drawn out. Zandora has a fully powered vampire working with her, Prince Mumawalde (Michael Clark) – a homage, of course, to Blacula. His presence in the film became pointless, unfortunately.

poor framing
So the dialogue was poor, the acting didn’t help and the sound was poor so dialogue became lost (possibly a fault of the DVD, rather than the sound editing). The effects were poor, especially when cgi was used, lighting was too. But the worst thing was the cinematography and direction. There was no proper framing and the film reeked amateur. Now, all that might be forgiven but, whilst earnest, the story was convoluted but buried beneath the dialogue. It was all a shame because of that word – earnest. One really did think the film was the product of an earnest attempt to do something good. It just failed. 2.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Lempire’s Lament – review

Author and artist: David Williams

First Published: 2010

The Blurb: “It’s tough being immortal when you’re born suicidal…”

Such is the plight of the long-suffering lempire. Part lemming, part vampire, this rare and exotic creature is consigned to a fate worse than death – failure! And he’s right cheesed off about it…

As everyone knows, the humble lemming has a profound personality disorder: from the moment he’s born he’s hellbent on oblivion. In stark contrast, our good friend the vampire has… let’s just say… time on his hands! One is on a crash course with destiny… and the bottom of a steep cliff. The other’s got a lunch date with eternity.

Follow the death-struck lempire on his never-ending quest for the great hereafter in this hilarious, gloriously illustrated and suitably surreal comic-horror adventure.

It’s time to take the leap…

The review: Is hosted at Vamped.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

El Misterio de Cynthia Baird – review

Director: José María Zabalza

Release date: 1985

Contains spoilers

Apparently filmed in the 70s and then languished on a shelf until 1985, the Mystery of Cynthia Baird is also known as El Retorno de los Vampiros (indeed that is what the title was on the poor video print of the film that I watched for this review). It is certainly an odd duck of a film with two principle players and suffers, I think, from not knowing what it wants to be.

There is an almost euro-psychedelia to the vampirism displayed but the film does not do enough to hold that for us as we shall see.

the lovers
It begins with a couple on the beach, Bill Moore (Simón Andreu) and Cynthia Baird (Susan Taff, the Curse of the Vampire), they chase around, fall and kiss and are clearly lovers. We cut to them in bed and they bicker over the covers, snoring and counting sheep. Eventually she gets up to run a bath and he gets a letter out. She wants to know what woman has written to him and it’s his wife (María Salerno). This ends up with her dictating a letter to write back to the spouse.

before Saturn Devouring His Son
The whole set up worked well but then went on too long as the film strayed towards almost a dialogue driven romantic comedy. Anyway, things take a funny turn when Cynthia notices the print of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. Bill explains the picture to Cynthia but she seems to go into a trance and hears someone say, “I order you in the name of all evil spirits to appear in your ghoul form.” Of course this isn’t the first time ghoul and vampire have been conflated and she sprouts fangs and tries to bite Bill.

first bite
Bill fights her off and then picks up a floor lamp and brains her with it (or brains a stand-in dummy at least). She falls dead to the floor, in a puddle of blood. He quickly dresses, gets a bag, somehow stuffs her in it and then carries her down steep stairs to the gardens below his townhouse and buries her body. He then goes back up and cleans up the blood before seeing Cynthia in bed. He gets a book out and reads that to kill a vampire one must impale or rip the heart out. He goes to the garden and digs up the bag – now empty.

going for the throat
During his sojourn to the garden we see a flashback to the pair meeting in a ruined castle – though they formally call each other by surname. He declares his love for her but she cannot reciprocate, she says, because she wont condemn him to the Hell she lives in and states that she is marked by a stigma. When he won’t take no for an answer she bears fangs and bites him – the scene hidden by a big graphic blood splat! As the film returns to him in the garden we don’t know if this is something that has happened or not.

Guillermo Méndez as Harry
Anyway, Bill gets back to his living room and gives his employee Harry (Guillermo Méndez) a ring. He asks Harry to investigate Cynthia. Cynthia comes in to the room, notices something wrong with Bill and suggests breakfast. Bill doesn’t eat (bar an egg, which he claims traditionally breaks spells) and then Cynthia – in another dialogue heavy moment – suggests that Bill’s wife is probably cheating on him. Bill gets a call back from Harry – Cynthia Baird died on April 17th 1852 and was connected to his namesake Bill Moore.

Bill's fangs
So far you might think that she is a vampire and Bill the descendent of her lover/victim. However he is looking at the Goya and goes into a trance himself where it is suggested he revert back to his true nature. He sprouts fangs and attacks her, biting her until she repeatedly brains him. She goes off to get dressed but, on her way out of the place, he grabs her ankle – his memory disturbed (he can’t remember the town house and is convinced he lived on the street where she now lives and the original Cynthia died). The two try to puzzle out what is happening – convincing themselves that they are both vampires (he even decides his wife’s illness and anaemia was his fault). But can it be that simple?

bite marks
The film drags just a little but speeds up when they reach the point I described above. I really don’t want to spoil the story by revealing what apparently is going on but, although the film’s pace improved its storytelling took a dive off the high board of disbelief leaving us scratching our heads, wondering how the filmmakers ever thought that the story would pass muster. It’s a shame because they could have done some interesting things but they needed to cut down on the banter and pitch in with more vampiric lore. 3 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.