Saturday, November 24, 2007

Vampires in Havana – review


Director: Juan Padrón

Release date: 1985

Contains spoilers

This cartoon, produced in Cuba, is a bit of an enigma. There are aspects I find amusing, story points that are unique, aspects that I find a little distasteful and it uses a sledgehammer to put across its political message.

The cartoon itself begins with a little history lesson regarding vampire society. Vampires have been around for a rather long time – Egyptian vampireswe get representations of a caveman vampire, an Egyptian vampire and vampires in classical Greece. It was not until 1870 when vampire society became organised and split, essentially, into two camps. The American vampires, based in Chicago, were known as the Capa Nostra Society and run by Johnny Terrori.

Professor Werner AmadeusIn Europe the Vampire Group was formed and the first leader was Count Dracula. Dracula had a son called Werner Amadeus who was working on a formula to allow vampires to go out into the sun. In 1905 he thought he had cracked it and Dracula tried it – it failed and he was dusted by the sun. Werner travelled over to Cuba with his nephew, Joseph, to continue his work – rum and pineapple being essential ingredients in his formula.

In 1921 he did crack the formula and tried it on Joseph. The boy grew up acting as a normal human, unaware of his heritage. The formula not only allowed him to go into the sun but also gave him a reflection and curtailed any taste he might have for blood. By 1933 Werner is ready to share his discovery with the world.

PepeJoseph, however, is now known as Pepe. He is a trumpet player and has joined an underground cell opposing the corrupt General Machado who runs Cuba. When we meet him he is in a police Captain’s wife’s bedroom. He has charmed her with his playing and is using her to help him and his cell get to the Captain’s papers to use in the fight against Machado. It does not work on this night, the Captain almost catching him. The Captain is not only corrupt but is portrayed as a misogynist wife beater.

The cell believe that Pepe should try again the next day, much to the disgust of his girlfriend, Lola, who may believe in the cause but not that her man should sleep around to help the cause. The other problem is that his uncle is expecting company.

European vampiresThe European vampires have met with a representative of the American mob vampires. The American’s expect that they will sell their headquarters at Düsseldorf. The mob has become powerful creating speakeasy type places with fake beaches in them for vampires. I did like the look of these speakeasies; we see human booze hounds on a balcony with taps to their veins as they drink and the blood being sold under the name of whichever tipple it might be.

mob vampiresThe Europeans dust the representative – they have been told of the formula and are going to sell it as ‘Vampisol’. It was amusing to see the pile of dust grow an ear as it tried to spy after death. The problem they have is the Werner wants to give the formula away for free, believing that all vampires should have access to it. The mob want it destroyed as it will stop the need for their speakeasies. Both groups head to Havana.

Pepe learns the truthPoor old Pepe. All he really wants is to further the revolution and then open his own jazz bar but he has to cope with the knowledge that he is really a vampire, win back the jealous Lola, and escape both the police and the two vampire groups.

As you will have been able to tell, there is a pro-revolution message in this that is hammered home hard. The state is corrupt and only the people can change that. The Europeans and American mob interfere for their own gains. The message was, very much, heavy handed however, perhaps even ham-fisted and ultimately confusing. I say confusing because, in reality, General Machado was removed from power in 1933 – by military-coup – which led to Batista becoming president and it was he who was ultimately removed from power by the revolution. To suggest the removal of Machado was by the people seems either revisionist, mistaken or pro-Batista (which I doubt).

The animation of the cartoon is very basic; it is reminiscent of the animation style of say the Pink Panther series. One might call it stylised, however, if you were being kind. unfortunate tendency to stereotype offensivelyThat said I was uncomfortable with some of the racial stereotyping in the cartoon’s style. As you watch the film, however, you see that the dialogue is accusing the capitalist world of being the racists – specifically the English vampire – thus there appears to be an anti-racist message at the film’s heart, albeit in a very small sub-plot. It seemed odd that Padrón would point such a finger at the West and yet use such offensively stereotyped images of black characters.

The cartoon is fast and free with sexual imagery. Pepe’s horn playing has the ability to make a woman’s breasts vibrate and make her underwear miraculously vanish. It is not hardcore, however, and is more seaside postcard in its portrayal. That said, not only is the Captain a misogynist butCaptain's wife his wife is a slattern. She might have fallen for Pepe (and that might have been due to his vampiric charms) but we also see her having an encounter with another man later. Obviously she is like that as she is part of the corrupt system, the film seems to say, whereas Lola is worried about how it would look to go into a hotel with Pepe when they are on the run, virtue being more important than danger. The political message just seems to keep getting hammered home and to be fair the base vampire story was fun and didn’t need those aspects.

The vampires die in the sun (sometimes as some of the dust seems to survive as I mentioned) and have no reflections. We get vampires traveling as balls of light and transforming into dogs. What is this film?At one point we go inside a cinema and this proves to have one of the most interesting parts of the film. Outside we see that Dracula is playing and inside we see a live action film on the screen. I don’t know if this was filmed especially or was from an existent film – I don’t recognise the footage. If you know please comment and let me know the name of the film.

Lola 'Cushings' a crossWe also discover that silver bullets (or stakes) can be used to kill vampires – except Pepe who can be injured just like any human. When angered bat wings sprout out of their backs. In an entertaining moment Lola ‘Cushings’ a cross together with candlesticks, much to the vampires’ amusement – one then holds up a cross and, then, puts a cigarette out on it. Holy objects obviously mean nothing to them.

The voice acting is poor to average and the subtitles can be a little literal – you’d probably get more out of the dialogue if you are fluent in Spanish. However, where this shines is in the music, which takes the form of a wonderful jazz soundtrack which features Arturo Sandoval.

Score wise it is difficult, assuming that, whilst uncomfortable, the stereotyped aspects were not meant to be offensive and if you can handle the ham fisted political aspects than I would say the unusual aspects of the film and its general madcap nature put this around 5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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