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Posts Tagged ‘vampires’

Just for the sake of completeness, and because I’d never got around to actually watching it before, let’s conclude our look at Ultraviolet with the unaired (and unsold) pilot episode for the American version of the show, which was made in 2000. There’s a sense in which a circle is being closed here, as one of the producers on the US version was Howard Gordon, who’d previously worked extensively on The X Files (and as we have previously discussed, it’s very unlikely the British version would have been made had The X Files not inaugurated the great mid-to-late 90s horror-fantasy boom). Gordon’s verdict on the American pilot was ‘we screwed it up and it just didn’t come out that well,’ which certainly inclines one to fear the worst with regard to it. The pilot was directed by Mark Piznarski and written by Chip Johannessen.

As the story opens we find ourselves at the stag party of former undercover cop Viggo (Spence Decker), who after a slightly chequered past is finally marrying the lovely, if slightly idiosyncratically named, Nealy (Madchen Amick). Keeping an eye on him is his former handler, NYPD lieutenant John Cahill (Eric Thal). (The IMDb listing for this show gets many of the character names wrong, usually defaulting to the UK equivalent – in this case, Jack, Kirsty and Mike, respectively.)

Anyway, the party seems to go reasonably well, but Viggo refuses Cahill’s offer of a lift home. Instead, on the way to his apartment he is approached by a mysterious stranger whom he clearly knows. As will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following along, Viggo does not make his wedding the next day, while evidence relating to an investigation into a prominent money-launderer he was involved in has been stolen. It does not look good for him, but Cahill refuses to believe his friend is as corrupt as he appears.

Viggo, meanwhile, is travelling through the city with the stranger, in a car with blacked-out windows. They get caught up in traffic and involved in a contretemps with a biker (slightly discombobulatingly, this is clearly derived from the opening sequence of episode two of the British show, almost on a shot-for-shot level). The car is attacked, sunlight pours through a crack in the window, the stranger partially combusts before pulling away in the vehicle.

Before Cahill becomes aware of this, though, he must contend with a new player: a mysterious federal agency has become involved, represented by taciturn hard-man Vaughan Shepherd (Idris Elba, basically reprising his performance as Vaughan Rice from the UK show) and CDC haematologist Lise Matthews (Joanna Going). Shepherd wears a rather prominent crucifix and Matthews is forever waving UV lamps about. Cahill’s investigation into what’s really going on is going nowhere – Viggo reappears and makes various vague claims of being in danger – until the biker, who was paralysed when the car hit him while departing, is now walking again and has checked himself out of hospital.

Cahill goes in pursuit of the man, and finds him indeed back on his feet. He flees into the New York subway system, occasioning a retread of a sequence from the first episode of the UK show: Cahill’s ability to track his quarry is severely hampered by the fact he doesn’t show up in mirrors or on video cameras. Someone who does show up is Shepherd, however, who promptly puts a bullet into the biker, causing him to explode into burning dust…

Apologies for slightly grainy screen-grab from this untransmitted piece of TV ephemera: that really is Idris Elba in the middle, by the way. Most of it is about as interesting as this to look at.

Well, Cahill tracks Shepherd and Matthews to their base, but remains sceptical about what they claim to be hunting even after watching an apparently paralysed man walk around and then explode. Matthews explains that, post-AIDS, the creatures they are pursuing have grown wary and are seeking to secure their food supply, which will require large amounts of cash (hence their involvement with the money-launderer). The question is one of whether Viggo is simply an ally, or has actually completely joined their cause…

As you can see, in a lot of ways this closely resembles the UK show in terms of its narrative. The first big difference is the absence of a character corresponding to Pearse in the US version; maybe he was being held back for subsequent episodes, or possibly the network were wary of including a priest (or ex-priest) in this kind of show. I wonder how much of the impact of Pearse is due to Philip Quast’s performance, though: he would certainly have been a tough act to follow.

The other big alteration is that Viggo is more of a central character than Jack in the British show, and doesn’t actually join the opposition until near to the climax of the episode (he survives to the end as well). He also gets a number of scenes interacting with his new friends – and here there seems to be a concerted effort to develop them and depict them as fully-rounded and even somewhat sympathetic individuals. The contrast with the UK version, where the undead are off-screen the vast majority of the time, and their agenda and motivation remains mysterious, is marked, and the main effect of this is to heighten the ambiguity in the way the hunters are depicted: we see Vaughan Shepherd blowing away an unarmed man, and they seem cold and hard and untroubled by softer feelings, whereas the creatures they are pursuing get big scenes talking about how much they love one another.

The result is that this really feels like less of a show in the mystery-investigation genre and more a kind of morality play, with much more parity between the two sides – it seems to be building up to be about that old question of whom the real monsters truly are. This isn’t a dreadful premise for a show, but it is a very different one from Joe Ahearne’s conception of the series. It’s equally understated, although in this case perhaps that isn’t completely a positive thing – British Ultraviolet did a good job of looking like any number of other TV shows made in the UK, but American Ultraviolet seems unusually grey and dour for an American TV show, especially a fantasy. It’s not the most inviting or engaging visual palette, and the plot is somehow less immediately gripping. Maybe this is just because the American networks never seem to have had the same kind of prejudice against fantasy and horror that UK ones have routinely shown. I can think of half a dozen American shows featuring vampirism that predated this pilot – in the UK, all the immediately springs to mind are various adaptations of Dracula.

I don’t think US Ultraviolet is quite a bad as Howard Gordon suggests it is – it’s not as immediately accomplished as its immediate progenitor, and the look of the thing could certainly do with improvement, while somehow none of the characters pop this time around. On the other other hand, there are signs of potential here – this could possibly, and I stress the adverb, possibly have turned into a very interesting, morally ambiguous show about not knowing who to trust, and the thin line between good and evil. But it would most likely have just been fairly dull and quickly been cancelled: on the basis of what we see here, it’s hard to feel terribly robbed by the fact that Ultraviolet US never went to a full series.

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The third episode of Ultraviolet is entitled Sub Judice, which is essentially a fridge title only serving to maintain the gimmick of Latin episode names: sometimes these sort-of allude to the plot, but this one doesn’t. I mention this at the start as it is one of the few complaints I can make about it.

It opens with a solicitor in her thirties (Emer Gillespie) entering an underground car park and being attacked by a couple of low-lives; not entirely surprisingly, she faints. Entirely surprisingly, though, her two assailants are set upon and brutally murdered – by an immensely strong and swift killer who somehow isn’t picked up by the car park’s CCTV system. Who you gonna call?

The inquisition are soon on the case (although not before Pearse can confide to Angie March that he’s not been feeling 100% recently, a plot point which the show will return to), with their objective being to discover the connection between the solicitor, Marion, and the opposition: why would they want to save her? Is she working on an important case they have an interest in? Nothing seems particularly significant. What about her background?

It seems that Marion’s husband committed suicide some years earlier, apparently unable to accept the fact the couple could not have children. A colleague who showed signs of romantic interest in her eighteen months later was killed in a hit-and-run, and the driver never found. It all seems rather sad, but not in any way sinister – until, at the end of an interview with Pearse (the fact he is implied to be a priest may be significant) she faints again. A search of her home and a medical exam reveals that she is pregnant – but the embryo does not register on the ultrasound scanner.

The ‘pregnancy’, if that’s what it is, is apparently the product of sperm which Marion’s husband had frozen before his death. The team check out the IVF clinic involved – no doubt wondering if the ‘V’ stands for something different on this occasion – and initially find nothing to raise the alarm. Examining the late husband’s frozen semen, however, reveals something very unusual: the sperm show up on video, indicating they are normal, but spontaneously combust when exposed to sunlight. No wonder Marion seems to be having such a difficult pregnancy: it appears that she’s carrying more than she bargained for (the technical term is dhampyr). Thus ensues a cracking scene where Pearse and Angie discuss their options, including the possibility of a termination (the irony of a Catholic priest ordering one is not lost on Angie). ‘It’s not human,’ Pearse says. ‘It’s half human,’ Angie replies. ‘I believe that’s what I said,’ comes the response. Philip Quast is consistently impressive in this series, bringing a kind of understated gravitas to what could have been just a stock part; the fact he gets most of the best lines helps, too.

That said, this episode is really Susannah Harker’s chance to shine, and she really grabs it. (A fun connection: one of her ancestors was a Joseph Harker, a friend of Bram Stoker, and thus presumably the person that Jonathan Harker is named after in that well-known novel by Stoker.) All the ongoing plot threads concerning Mike and his relationships with Kirsty and Frances are got out of the way nice and early on, with Mike himself sort of shoved into the background along with Vaughan: rather subtly, the episode focuses primarily on Angie and her history, and her relationship with Marion.

As noted, this is all done with tremendous, and very creditable subtlety: Harker underplays it very effectively. But the subtext is still there if you look for it: the episode is about motherhood, in all sorts of different ways – the fierce desire for a child which Marion feels, Angie’s own residual guilt for destroying one of her own children after she was turned by the opposition, but above all the conflict between Angie’s empathy for Marion and her duties as a member of the inquisition. This is only exacerbated by the lack of emotional intelligence shown by any of the male leads – Rice and Colefield are basically just crass young blokes and Pearse has his higher calling. Vaughan Rice seems very sure that the opposition are completely devoid of normal emotions and sympathies, and that the experiment in progress is a means to some further end – but the episode actually seems to suggest otherwise, with Marion’s late husband, when he finally appears, showing signs of genuine distress at her situation. I don’t remember the show giving many other hints that the inquisition’s insistence that the opposition is purely and simply malevolent is anything but justified, but they’re certainly present here.

This initially looks like another police procedural episode, but rapidly takes a sharp turn into the realms of obstetric horror: the big question in this genre always being, what’s cooking? There’s almost a touch of Rosemary’s Baby to Marion’s situation, with her clinic, her opposition-sponsored midwife, the inquisition, and a well-meaning abortion clinic volunteer all attempting to manipulate her, and Emer Gillespie does a fine job of making her sympathetic but not too passive – but as a guest character, she inevitably doesn’t have quite the same prominence as Angie. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the episode has a genuine touch of tragedy to it, and Gillespie plays a key part in creating that feel. As obstetric horror stories go, this one is admirably underplayed and lacking in both tackiness and schlock. It doesn’t seem to have a particular axe to grind – it would be weird for it to come down unequivocally on either side of the fence, given the subject matter – except to suggest that women should have the right to choose for themselves. It’s a slightly simplistic message, but put across well and subtly.

I was thinking about all the post-X Files genre TV shows which came along in the mid to late 90s, specifically the British ones (the American and Canadian lists are even more extensive): apart from Ultraviolet, I’ve already mentioned Invasion: Earth and The Last Train (though that’s really the product of a different tradition). I suppose you could also mention the ITV adaptation of Oktober and the serial The Uninvited, plus The Vanishing Man, too. Apart from most of The Last Train, I don’t honestly remember most of the others as being much cop – but this episode of Ultraviolet is a top-class piece of intelligent and effective horror, with a serious subtext to it. Better than I remembered, and I remembered it being really, really good.

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The line between episodic and serialised TV has become very blurred this century, but they used to be two quite distinct forms. It was in the late 90s that ongoing plot elements began to appear on a routine basis even in programmes which ostensibly did stories-of-the-week. Bearing all this in mind, the question of whether Ultraviolet is a serial or not becomes a somewhat moot one. It’s really in a sort of netherworld between the two – it does build towards a climax in the final episode, but on the other hand, the second episode (In Nomine Patris, written and directed like all the others by Joe Ahearne) feels very much like an exercise in establishing the format for an ongoing series.

It opens with a woman named Danni Ashford (Jane Slavin) visiting her mother, who is deeply in the grip of Alzheimers’, while an associate (Christopher Villiers) waits outside in an expensive car. It looks like she has a big decision to make, and her companion – a smooth, handsome type – makes a big deal about not pushing her into it. They drive off, and the heavily-tinted windows of the car give us a big clue as to what may be going on here. Sure enough, the car is involved in a road rage incident after the man nearly runs a couple of bikers off the road: furiously, one of them attacks the vehicle with a wrench, damaging the window and allowing sunlight into the interior. The man begins to combust as the sun’s rays strike him, and he desperately drives away, running over his attacker’s companion as he does so…

Meanwhile, Vaughan Rice has been completing Mike’s induction into the inquisition – Mike is less than amused when the computerised firing range presents an image of Kirsty as a possible target, but Vaughan makes the point that their enemies are ruthless when it comes to exploiting any weak spots or vulnerabilities. Mike is clearly conflicted about the idea of cutting all ties with her (perhaps a bit too obviously conflicted, this plot element is laid on with a trowel), but before they can resolve the issue they are off on a job: news of the driver of a blacked-out car spontaneously combusting is right up their street, after all.

The evidence suggests their quarry is Lester Hammond, playboy son of tycoon Gideon Hammond (Trevor Bowen). The senior Hammond has recently specialised in constructing unusual bits of architecture – bunkers and basements with no windows, ventilation or plumbing – which is also rather suggestive. Pearse’s directive is to follow the money and find out what the opposition is up to, and the trail leads to a clinic researching into various blood disorders (which it’s suggested the opposition view rather in the same way that humans regard things like fowl pest and foot-and-mouth disease: they contaminate the food supply).

As usual, the episode takes great pains to be downbeat and naturalistic – there’s a reasonable twist towards the end, about the real identity of the man they’re hunting, but most of it you could watch with the sound turned down and not suspect this was much more than a routine police procedural show. I really like the way Ultraviolet generally eschews the flashy and the camp, not least because it just gives extra oomph to those moments when they do arrive. The set-piece with Hammond beginning to burn up in the car is very neatly done, and there are a couple of other pleasingly grisly touches: Slavin’s character ends up with a nasty hand-shaped burn on her arm as a result of the same scene, while the crushed vertebrae of a paraplegic turned by the opposition are visible when they send her to take out Mike.

Almost in passing, lots of interesting and flavourful world-building is going on here: Mike’s friend Frances indicates the inquisition is officially operating as part of the anti-terrorism squad (which sort of makes sense, although it may be another cover). Pearse suggests the opposition were responsible for the Great Fire of London, apparently an attempt to stop the spread of the plague. It’s confirmed that the opposition don’t register on cameras or phones, which just leads me to wonder – what about motion sensors? Pressure pads? (Some interesting possibilities here.) One twist on the usual lore is that the opposition can’t regenerate damage or injuries leaving Hammond permanently disfigured and in constant agony. On the other hand, being turned restores a paralysed young woman’s ability to walk, which does suggest some kind of regenerative ability, and Angie has already indicated this is one of their powers (presumably it’s just UV exposure that does irreparable damage to them). It’s indicated again that the dissolution of one of the bad guys is basically like a small bomb going off (so get ready to run after staking one of them).

What one of the opposition looks like after forgetting his sun block.

Beyond all this, though, the episode does have a theme, and one which works well with the conceit of keeping the actual monsters off-screen and in the shadows most of the time. We see them more through their effect on the people around them – Gideon Hammond, though outwardly successful, has lived his whole life in the shadow of the thing which has dominated him, while Lester has clearly done a number of Danni Ashford. With (it’s implied) a family history of dementia, it’s entirely reasonable that she would look for a way to dodge the ageing process and its effects. Nevertheless, it’s made quite clear that there is nothing benevolent about the agenda or methods of the opposition – the question, of course, is whether this justifies the methods the inquisition adopt, or the cost to its members: they intimidate witnesses into silence, cover up mysterious deaths and other activity, and Rice indicates that none of them have any friends outside the unit – the risk to them is just too great. It’s a hard and cold life being a slayer, it would seem.

I think this is a strong episode, but I can see why Ultraviolet ended up as a cult gem rather than a mainstream hit: it’s mostly a detective thriller, but people who’d enjoyed something like Between the Lines would probably have issues with the whole concept of the show. On the other hand, its determination to keep things real and grounded may have meant it seemed rather dull to many members of the fantasy and horror fan tribe. It may be pitching to a small constituency, but it’s still a very effective piece of TV.

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I believe that at some point near the start of this rather unusual, unexpected year, I talked about getting to the point where I’d seen all the classic SF and fantasy TV series of the 20th century (this was on the occasion of finally viewing the whole of Sapphire and Steel). Well, if nothing else, 2020 has given me the opportunity to learn that – for instance – there were in fact many episodes of The Avengers I hadn’t actually watched, and remember that there were quite a few other shows, some of them relatively obscure, around as well (Star Cops obviously leaps to mind).

Star Cops usually gets cited as the last proper BBC science-fiction show of the 20th century (this overlooks Invasion: Earth, from 1998), with ITV’s last effort of the century probably 1999’s The Last Train – but by the mid 80s, there was a fourth channel in town, the sensibly-named Channel 4. For me, Channel 4 will always be the place where I first saw repeats of Danger Man, The Avengers and The Prisoner, but by 1998 it was making its own cult dramas, specifically in the form of Joe Ahearne’s Ultraviolet.

The first episode, Habeas Corpus, opens in central London, with a shabby, nervous man sitting on a bridge watching the sun go down. A car pulls up nearby, sinisterly (at least, as sinisterly as a piece of parking can be). Meanwhile, detective Mike Colefield (Jack Davenport) – a slightly infelicitous choice of name, surely, it always puts me in mind of the Tubular Bells dude – is busy at the stag night for his partner, Jack (Stephen Moyer). He starts getting phone calls from the nervous man, demanding to meet – it seems he is an informant of Jack’s – and eventually agrees, just to get the man to shut up.

The informant has taken cover in an amusement arcade, but just before Mike arrives a man who emerged from the sinister car at sunset shoots and kills him. Mike gives chase, but loses his quarry when he heads into a tube station – our first inkling that this may be more than just a conventional cop thriller comes when Mike is unable to locate the killer using the station’s CCTV system: he simply doesn’t register on the screen, having previously not shown up in a mirror…

The next day, Jack’s wedding is thrown into chaos when the groom fails to appear, and a full investigation into his appearance uncovers evidence that he was actually on the take. Mike initially refuses to believe it, but soon realises that something very odd is going on – the informant was shot and killed at point blank range, but once again the security cameras show nobody near him at the time. The involvement in the case of two detectives supposedly from CIB (the anti-corruption unit), Angela March (Susannah Harker) and Vaughan Rice (Idris Elba), also doesn’t ring true somehow. Mike launches his own personal investigation and discovers that March and Rice are not police – she is a former academic, he is ex-army – and their ruthless methods and secretiveness make him suspicious. Jack himself reappears, insisting they are members of a death squad looking to kill him, asking for Mike’s help in learning more about them.

After witnessing Rice and his men in action, Mike acquires some of their gear – guns with weird sights firing wooden bullets, and gas grenades loaded with a garlic-derivative – and discovers they are based out of a church and led by a priest named Pearse (Philip Quast). But what could a Vatican-led team be doing using wooden projectiles and garlic against killers who avoid the sunlight and don’t show up in mirrors…?

The team check out the ‘prison’ where dormant Code Fives are kept in storage.

It nearly goes without saying that Ultraviolet is a product of its era, part of the boom in ‘quality’ genre entertainment which followed the massive success of The X Files (the same as Invasion: Earth, really). A lot of these programmes really weren’t terribly good, and I was slightly worried about revisiting this one – I remember Ultraviolet as being brilliant, but then at the time my life-long affection for Hammer horror movies had been joined by a fascination with Vampire: The Masquerade and its associated games and I was a sucker (no pun intended) for anything in this particular vein (ditto).

Happily, Ultraviolet is very nearly as classy and enjoyable as I remember it being at the time – it doesn’t look quite as slick and cinematic as I recalled, but the only thing which feels a little dated about this opening episode is the incidental music, which is just a bit too on-the-nose. The great thing about it is that it’s in no hurry whatsoever to get to its genre elements, or overplay them when they appear, and it steers clear of most of the classic trappings of the genre. The v-word itself is carefully never used on-screen – the latter-day inquisition’s targets are referred to by the euphemism ‘Code 5’, or possibly ‘Code V’ for those with a classical education – and the show takes a reasonably sceptical attitude to some of the lore. We don’t get to see the effect that daylight has on them this week, but a length of wood through the heart results in a spectacular dissolution. As far as the efficacy of holy symbols against them goes, Angie March suggests this may be psychosomatic – but on the other hand, Jack (who has been turned by the opposition) suggests that there are some places they can’t easily infiltrate (the implication may be that he’s talking about holy ground), while Mike finds himself incapable of entering a church while suffering from the after-effects of being bitten.

These days, possibly the main point of interest in this show is that it features one of the first lead performances from Idris Elba – much more famous these days, of course, for advertising the seasonal output of satellite TV networks – while Jack Davenport (well-known at the time for This Life) has also gone on to have a pretty decent Hollywood career too. Odd to see them both looking so young here, but that’s the eerie preservative effect of archive TV, I suppose. It’s clear from the start that this is kind of a high-concept show – as the Exposition Man, Philip Quast gets most of the best dialogue – and everyone at this point is still suggesting character in small ways rather than actually getting much to work with. The slowest element of the episode concerns Mike’s relationship with Jack’s fiancee (Colette Brown), whom he clearly has a bit of a thing for: it skirts the borders of soap-opera melodrama, and doesn’t add much to the episode. However, it does set up some of the continuing threads that will run through the series, and isn’t in itself enough to spoil what’s a notably confident and effective introduction to the series.

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Nostalgia’s a funny old thing, and it can get you in different ways and come at you from unexpected directions. I was a couple of years too young to see Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys on its initial release in 1987, but I was certainly aware of it and keen to actually watch it (1987 being the year in which I discovered Hammer and started actually watching proper horror films). Those were the days in which you actually had to wait for films to turn up on TV, and it wasn’t until the very end of 1990 (if memory serves, anyway) that The Lost Boys turned up on terrestrial UK TV. Back in those days the long gap between release and small-screen premiere sometimes meant the later was almost an event in its own right, and I do vaguely recall there being something of a boom in interest in The Lost Boys in early 1991: songs off the soundtrack being re-released, and so on. It was a strange and vivid time, for all sorts of reasons, both personal and historical, and watching The Lost Boys again brings them all back to me: I have no great associations connected with the actual theatrical release of this film, but I can get very nostalgic about its first couple of TV showings. As I say, it’s a funny old thing.

Happily, the film itself bears up well all these years later. After some preliminary scene-setting stuff in the small Californian town of Santa Carla (people being dragged into the sky by unseen monsters, etc), it settles down to being about the travails of the Emerson family, who are just in the process of moving to the town from Arizona: mum Lucy (Dianne West) has got divorced, and is moving in with her eccentric old father (Barnard Hughes), bringing with her her less than impressed sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim).

While Lucy gets a job working at the local video store – oh, it’s so 1980s! – and finds herself courteously wooed by her employer, Max (Ed Herrman), it seems that romance is on the cards for Michael, too, when he meets a mysterious young woman named star (Jami Gertz) – although she seems to be in the orbit of a slightly menacing gang of youths led by a chap named David (Kiefer Sutherland). No chance of any such amatory entanglement for Sam, however, although he does make friends down at the local comic book store (the fact that this movie was made by Warner Brothers, owner of DC Comics, means this the only 1980s comic book store in which there doesn’t seem to be a single issue of X-Men on display). His new chums the Frog brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) keep giving him horror comics, indicating they could somehow prove useful.

And indeed they do, as Michael’s various escapades with David and the gang have unexpected consequences: a sudden lust for human blood, a tendency to show up in mirrors as a translucent phantom, a distaste for sunlight, and so on. Sam is not impressed: ‘My own brother, a goddamn vampire…! You wait till Mom finds out…!’ However, Lucy is happily oblivious to all of this as she is courted by the mild-mannered Max, and it looks like the only help the boys can call upon is that of the less than impressive Frog brothers…

Historically, The Lost Boys is quite an interesting movie – it wasn’t quite the first vampire movie to be made by a major studio in the 1980s, as there was a whole batch of these around this time – the original Fright Night, Near Dark, The Hunger, and so on. Of all of these, The Lost Boys is probably most influenced by Fright Night in the way it manages to blend comedy with horror, but its innovation is to suggest that vampires can be young and cool and ride motorbikes – Fright Night is to some extent spoofing the conventions of the traditional vampire film, but The Lost Boys is doing something new, and its influence on later films and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is obvious.

That said, I would add that I think this is probably a better film than most of those others in the teen vampire-comedy-horror subgenre – Near Dark is, I would suggest, the best actual vampire horror movie made in America in the 1980s, while it’s a long time since I’ve actually seen The Hunger; too long to comment on it with confidence. The Lost Boys is funny when it’s trying to be funny, and – well, it’s not actually that scary, but does a good job of actually looking like it’s trying to be scary in the appropriate places.

Plus it’s much cleverer and more subtle than you would expect from what initially looks like an unusually slick and atmospheric teen comic horror. You expect the gag here to be that the parental figures stay secure in their world of misguided conservatism, leaving the teenagers to save the town from the vampires – but the great twist of the movie is the way that it subverts this. It is a surprisingly good twist, but then I may just be saying that because it took me by surprise the first time I watched the movie: knowing my vampire lore, I noticed the major clue that the writers drop into the script, but didn’t clock it as being significant. It seems to me that it turns the whole movie into a comment on the self-obsessed self-importance of teenagers, with much of the significant plot work being done by much older characters whom they tend to ignore or dismiss; it also sets up one of the funniest last lines of any movie that I can recall.

As I say, it is very 80s, which means gribbly special effects, interesting hairstyles, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, and some good-looking actors in the principle boy and girl roles who never ended up making much of an impression anywhere else. You can sort of see why Kiefer Sutherland was the only young performer to go on to significant stardom, although this is not to say that the more senior actors are anything other than capable in their roles. My memory of this film from initially watching it is mainly of the soundtrack, which stands up unusually well – there are a few songs which I will hear and instantly think of this film, most obviously the cover of ‘People are Strange’ which plays over the titles. Schumacher covers it all with his usual style: I still don’t think his Batman films were any good, but this one definitely was. I don’t think this is a guilty pleasure or even a Good Bad movie, really: it’s just a lot of fun, which manages to be both slick and clever.

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One fine day in the summer of 1995, I finished my university finals. Nearly everyone went off to get wrecked in celebration, but not I: even back then I find that I was dabbling with the abstemiousness which has now become my standard operating procedure, while other habits and tendencies were beginning to manifest themselves: I left my peers in the bar that lunchtime and went off to the cheapest of Hull city centre’s three cinemas, which was a place that gave one the chance to catch up on films that had come out a few months earlier at the now-unbelievable price of only £1.50 a ticket. So, you may be wondering, what did I see? Well, I caught the afternoon showing of Leon. And then, feeling almost dizzy with the heady knowledge I would never have to answer an essay question on epistemology again, I saw the teatime show of Interview with the Vampire. And finally, with the words ‘what the hell!’ distinctly resonating in my brain, I saw the movie version of Stargate in the evening.

My main recollection of that day is an inexorable decline in the quality of the movies, to be honest: Leon remains a film I really like (I still think it’s far and away Luc Besson’s best work), while I’ve never been able to get on with Stargate in any of its incarnations, to be honest (this despite generally being well-disposed towards Roland Emmerich’s SF movies). But what of Interview with the Vampire, first released in 1994 and directed by Neil Jordan. Well, I tend to like Jordan’s stuff, or perhaps it’s better to say I usually find things to enjoy in his films: I liked the visual style of The Company of Wolves and the sheer bonkersness of Greta, for example.

I have to say, though, that I found Interview with the Vampire to be slimmer pickings than most of his work – which was a surprise to me, as I have been a fan of vampire movies since discovering Hammer horror in 1987, at least. Mind you, I also found Anne Rice’s source novel to be pretty heavy going – I think I originally bought the damn thing second-hand in 1998, bounced off it a couple of times, found another copy in a ‘free books’ box outside the neighbours’ house fifteen years later, and finally ploughed through it then. (A review of the book is here.)

Any version of this story you care to mention concerns the life (brief), death (very brief) and thereafter (extremely lengthy) of a vampire named Louis (played by Bradley Pitt), who is telling his tale to a Studs Terkel-esque writer (Christian Slater). Louis, by his own account, is driven to the verge of suicidal madness by the death of his wife and child in 1790s Louisiana, at which point he crosses the path of a hedonistic vampire named Lestat (Tom Cruise). With Louis’ permission, Lestat brings him over to his side of the street, with the promise of immortality and eternal youth…

Yes, I suppose we’ve all wondered what we would do with such a gift. What Louis mostly does with it is brood and complain, although occasionally he takes a break in order to complain and brood. Apparently he doesn’t like drinking human blood, which leads one to wonder why he agreed to being turned into a vampire in the first place. God knows why Lestat puts up with him (this is not a healthy relationship). Lestat decides that having a child will save their partnership (not the first time someone has made this rather suspect decision) and turns a young plague survivor named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst, in her movie debut), and the three of them pass many years brooding, complaining, and thinning out the local population.

There’s a good deal more in this vein (sorry) but it has to be said that this is not a film with a particularly strong narrative line. The only thing that makes it a conventional narrative (as opposed to just a series of episodic vignettes) is the persistent focus on Louis’ relationship with Lestat. Possibly one of the reasons I’ve never been a particular fan of this film is that it takes all the trappings of a traditional vampire movie but uses them to tell what’s basically a story about a dysfunctional relationship – a bit like the Hunger Games movies, which come on like dystopian SF thrillers but turn out to be something more nuanced and introspective.

The thing that makes Interview with the Vampire rather unusual for a big-budget studio movie is that all those Gothic horror trappings are basically there to hide the basic subtext of the story: which is that of a man forming a relationship with another man, and becoming part of a hidden subculture which more traditional folk sometimes find either alluring or revolting. The main character feels terribly guilty about his new lifestyle. Needless to say both Pitt and Cruise look – how best to put this? Androgynous isn’t quite the right word – somewhat ambiguous in this movie, with lovely flowing long hair and clear complexions. In short, this is surely one of the gayest films to come out of a major studio in the 20th century.

I said something similar in the review of the book, and, as you may have seen, someone took issue with this, suggesting that Rice’s vampires transcend conventional notions of romance and sexuality. Hmmm, well, maybe. The thing is, any sane person writing about vampires is going to use them as a metaphor for something – to do anything else would be to perpetrate vacuous fantasy – and it’s worth mentioning that at one point Rice rejigged the story so that Pitt’s character would be a woman, to be played by Cher. Her reasoning? She assumed that Hollywood would be too homophobic for the story as she wrote it. I’ll just put my case down here, shall I?

The BBC showed Interview with the Vampire the other night, and the following evening their late movie was Behind the Candelabra, which is either one of those coincidences or evidence that someone in scheduling has a sense of humour, for if you do accept that the primary subtext of Jordan’s movie concerns a gay relationship, then the throughlines of both it and the Soderbergh film are strikingly similar, with Louis as the young semi-innocent and Lestat as the preening older man (Lestat does play the piano in a couple of key scenes, as well). Of course, what may keep the film from being wholly embraced by the LGBT community is that one of the main drivers of the plot is that Louis spends most of the movie feeling terribly guilty about being a vampire (i.e. gay) and most of the vampires (i.e. …oh, you get the idea) are nasty, bitter, bitchy types.

None of this is really why I’m not a particular fan of this film – there are lots of different ways of doing vampire movies, from Nosferatu to Near Dark to Captain Kronos, for the vampire metaphor is unusually adaptable. I think it’s mainly just the style of the thing, which feels very much like the work of a novelist rather than a screenwriter: a bit too much reliance on voice-over for exposition, and a fondness for characters telling each other things rather than doing things. All mouth and no trousers, really.

All the moments you remember from the film have much to do with the script: they’re visual rather than narrative. Jordan mounts a very impressive movie with a real sense of style about it, and gets a really good performance out of an eleven-year-old Kirsten Dunst. None of the performances are what you’d call actively bad; Antonio Banderas gets one of his better early English-language roles (now I think of it, it would be fascinating to see Almodovar’s take on this material). Tom Cruise is… well, he’s in his ‘give me an Oscar’ mode, which he is wont to slip into in this kind of prestige production (perhaps we should be grateful he mainly does thrillers these days), and his performance is just pitched a bit too high.

I feel obliged to say, though, that it’s still a damn sight better than the sequel. But if we’re going to look in that direction, it is interesting to note that if What We Do In The Shadows (both movie and TV show) is spoofing anything in particular, it’s this movie (the episodes with the vampire council make this particularly clear). Not many things this year have made me laugh as often or as hard as the What We Do… TV show, so I suppose Interview with the Vampire deserves credit for that. Fairly faint praise, I admit, but sometimes you have to take your damnation wherever you can find it.

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It wasn’t very often that Sagacious Dave, ursine chief of Advanced Self-Erudition at my last-but-two place of work, would venture to recommend a movie or TV show to me. Perhaps, given my part in taking him along to not one but two Jason Statham movies, he just felt it was difficult to make a suggestion of equivalent magnitude or quality. I don’t know. Pretty much the only things I remember him giving the thumbs up were a Ken Burns documentary series – possibly the one on the Vietnam War, I can’t be sure – and What We Do in the Shadows, which he said was very funny.

I made polite noises and never bothered to watch it. Looking back I am trying to remember why this was. Partly because it would probably have involved iPlayering the whole thing, which I only do in exceptional circumstances, but also, I suspect, because it was about vampires, which – despite my many-decades love of Hammer Films, the fact that the only fan letter I’ve ever written was to Kim Newman for Anno Dracula, and the huge pile of Vampire: The Masquerade RPG supplements in my storage unit – I am actually a little bit sick of vampires, post-Twilight. Vampires have got a bit dull and anaemic; I would quote Mr Newman’s line about vampires being to horror what Star Trek is to SF, but for the fact that I obviously do still rather like Star Trek.

However, everything has stopped, we are seemingly becalmed in this half-locked-down netherworld, and sooner or later I expect I will end up watching everything I can lay my hands on, if the electricity or my money doesn’t run out first. Thus I found myself giving my attention to What We Do in the Shadows, although it suddenly occurs to me that Sagacious Dave was probably recommending the TV sitcom, not the movie it was originally based on. Oh well!

The movie was made in 2014 and written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Both of these guys have had pretty respectable careers, one way or another, but Waititi’s has suddenly gone thermonuclear since he began his association with Marvel Studios (younger readers, ask your parents: back in the Old World they made many popular films), effortlessly transitioning from this to the acclaimed Jojo Rabbit from… good heavens, was it only the start of this year?

The premise and conceit of the movie is quickly made clear: this is a mockumentary about a group of vampires sharing a house in present-day Wellington, New Zealand. It seems they are there because the former lover of one of them, Viago (Waititi) emigrated to NZ and he decided to follow her there, taking the others with him. Viago is nearly 400 years old and a bit of a prissy fop; living with him are Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who was turned in the 19th century and is a bit of a rebel; Vlad (Clement), who was known in mediaeval times as ‘Vladislav the Poker’ and is an insane pervert; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is 8,000 years old, somewhat atavistic, and tends to keep to himself.

The film follows the vampires through the months leading up to the main event on the social calendar of Wellington’s unexpectedly extensive undead population: the Unholy Masquerade! The status quo is thrown rather out of whack when one of their intended victims, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), ends up being transformed into a new vampire by accident, leading to a fierce rivalry between him and Deacon and tragedy for the household (sort of). Meanwhile Viago pines over his former love (now a nonagenarian in a nursing home) and Vlad broods over his long-standing feud with his nemesis, a vampire known as ‘the Beast’…

It’s kind of implicit in the premise of the film that this is a spoof, not just of vampire movies but of the fly-on-the-wall documentary too, for there is something immensely silly about the whole notion of the film. The opening moments of the movie do nothing to dispel this: an alarm clock goes off, a hand emerges from a coffin to switch it off, and then Waititi very cautiously makes his way to the curtains to ensure the sun has indeed gone down. A mostly ridiculous ‘house meeting’ ensues in which it turns out that the vampire entrusted with doing the washing-up has been a bit remiss in carrying out his chores… for the last five years. It’s a very funny scene, and the performances by the ensemble are uniformly excellent and well-pitched, but I did find myself wondering just how they were going to sustain the film even for a relatively brief 85 minutes or so.

Well, the film continues to send up documentaries and reality TV shows (a scene where two very laid-back and matter-of-fact local cops have a look round the house is one of the highlights), but what makes the film really succeed is the fact that it isn’t just being played for laughs – there is still a real (if slightly odd) sense in which this is a bona fide horror movie. Partly this is due to the fact that it doesn’t skimp on the fake blood, but there are characters who really do get killed, and the pathos of some of the characters’ situations is handled relatively seriously. It has to be said, though, that these are really just grace notes in what is still essentially a send-up, but one of notable scope and intelligence.

Essentially, the good gags keep on coming: the visit from the cops, various encounters with an unusually well-mannered pack of lycanthropes (‘We’re werewolves, not swearwolves’), cheery spoofs of various aspects of vampire lore and other movies in this genre (Clement is basically doing an extended parody of Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula in the 1993 adaptation), and so on. It is all well-played and well put-together, and is another demonstration of how even a low-budget movie can include very polished special effects these days.

I enjoyed it all rather lot: I wasn’t exactly rolling off the bed laughing throughout, but it’s clever and engaging and does have that unexpected edge of darkness that makes it just a little bit more interesting than would otherwise have been the case. Possibly this may go down in history as an early stepping stone in the irresistible rise of Taika Waititi, but it’s a fun and enjoyable film in its own right.

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Werner Herzog is such a distinctive and idiosyncratic figure that it’s easy to sometimes lose track of everything that he’s done. Certainly, his is a CV of dizzying variety as an actor and director – documentary about cave art? Check! Role as villain in a Tom Cruise thriller? Check! Drama about a man dragging a steamboat over a mountain? Check! Studio Ghibli US dub voice role? Check! It almost comes as a shock to recall he ever did anything as straightforward as a serious adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

Then again, to describe the genesis of Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre as ‘straightforward’ is probably somewhat disingenuous. Nosferatu isn’t just an adaptation of Dracula, but a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Here things begin to get a little more tangled, as the Stoker estate refused Murnau permission to adapt Dracula for the big screen. Murnau went ahead and made his movie anyway, changing some of the character names in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what he was up to – Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Harker became Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this fooled no-one and Florence Stoker attempted to have Symphonie des Grauens destroyed (luckily, this did not happen, as it is a superb movie).

By 1979, Dracula was out of copyright and so Herzog was able to use the ‘proper’ names for the characters, but still retained Murnau’s version of the plot and the title Nosferatu (an etymologically problematic word which has effectively become a synonym for vampire; Nosferatu the Vampyre is rather tautologous). The movie is openly another take on the much-told story of Dracula; however, it is just as distinctive and idiosyncratic as its director.

As noted, Herzog sticks with Murnau and dispenses with the English-set portion of the story; instead, the tale opens in Wismar, in north-eastern Germany, where estate-agent’s wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) is troubled by disturbing, bat-filled dreams. Maybe she is right to be concerned, for her husband Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) is given the unexpected assignment of going to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious and reclusive Count Dracula.

It soon turns out that the only people wanting Harker to go are his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) and possibly Dracula himself; Lucy doesn’t want him to go, the Transylvanian gypsies he encounters don’t want him going anywhere near Castle Dracula, and neither do the local peasants. Harker ends up having to walk most of the last stretch of his journey, mist-wrapped mountains rising around him and the half-ruined castle creeping into view. (The journey from the ‘normal world’ to the place of horror is obviously something of a staple in movies of this genre, but Nosferatu handles it unusually well.) Soon enough he arrives at the castle and meets his host.

Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is delighted to meet him. Actually, delighted may not be the right word, as Dracula seems to exist in a permanent state of existential anguish, bordering on actual despair. Chalk-skinned, with rat teeth and ears like a bat, one wonders just how badly Harker needs his commission if he’s willing to contemplate staying at this guy’s castle. This is before Dracula starts musing on the horrors of eternal existence and how there are far worse things than death.

Well, eventually Harker puts zwei and zwei together and figures out that there’s something not quite right about his host. The sight of Dracula loading coffins onto a wagon preparatory to taking up residence in his new property may have something to do with this, to say nothing of Dracula’s nocturnal visits to Harker’s room, when the estate agent discovers that the price of staying at Castle Dracula really can be a pain in the neck.

Dracula eventually departs for Wismar, leaving Harker a prisoner in the castle. He escapes, weak and feverish, desperate to get home and warn everyone of the terror soon to be in their midst – but is it already too late…?

This wasn’t the only Dracula of 1979, of course: the same year saw John Badham’s version, with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. Both are recognisably adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a few character names and the basics of the plot. Badham’s Dracula is set entirely in England, dispensing with the Transylvanian section of the plot (the two films almost mirror each other in this way), and Langella’s Count is a suave, romantic anti-hero. The American film is a vivid one about passion and desire. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, opens with a series of shots depicting mummified human corpses, establishing from the start that this is to be a much bleaker and more morbid film about the boundaries between life and death.

Romantic is the last word you would choose to describe Kinski’s Dracula: quite apart from the fact he is physically hideous, he seems to exist in a state of existential torment. He is cursed as much as he is a curse, much given to doleful complaints about the terrible loneliness of immortality; Lucy Harker may dream about bats and the film may mention the vampire’s affinity with wolves, but for most of the movie Dracula is associated most closely with rats, which swarm around his various resting places and provide a visual symbol for the Black Death which he propagates wherever he goes. (Animal-lovers may wish to steer clear of behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of this movie, as the rats were apparently very poorly treated indeed.)

Kinski actually manages to find the pathos in this conception of Dracula as a miserable, rodent-like parasite, and he is never entirely unsympathetic at any point in the film – then again, most of the characters manage to retain a degree of sympathy, not least because they are all trapped in such an obviously bleak and horrible world. My researches have not revealed whether Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration on this occasion resulted in one of the director’s various attempts to murder his troublesome star, but it is an eerily powerful performance and easily one of the most striking screen Draculas. Herzog and Murnau’s amendments to the story also produce some interesting effects – Harker is never normally a plum role in Dracula, but Bruno Ganz ends up with some interesting things to do as the film goes on, not least during the twist at the end of the story. Likewise, Lucy is not just a passive, ornamental victim of the vampire’s lust, but a character with real agency and strength; Isabelle Adjani’s performance is as eye-catching as her ethereal beauty. Most of this comes, however, at the expense of Van Helsing, who normally gets all the best lines in any version of Dracula. Here, Van Helsing is a closed-minded, sceptical materialist, played by Walter Ladengast – his contributions to the story are minimal. The same can probably be said for Renfield – Roland Topor isn’t afraid to go way out there with his performance as a giggling madman, but one wonders what the character really adds to this version of the story.

You can tell this isn’t a movie which has been made on the biggest of budgets, and some of the scenes do lack the kind of atmosphere you get in the better Hammer horrors. It must also be said that this is not a film in which the plot moves along like a bat out of hell (or from anywhere else, for that matter). However, the pervasive atmosphere which Herzog generates has considerable power, especially as the film goes on and the scenes of a plague-stricken Wismar acquire a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality. At one point the soundtrack seems to include an excerpt from a Kate Bush album that would not be made until six years after the film’s release, and this does not feel entirely surprising (Herzog and Bush both decided to employ a snatch of the same Georgian folk song, apparently).

As I mentioned, this is not the most lavish Dracula, and it may lack some of the set-piece moments some may be expecting. But the strength and consistency of the film’s vision of the story is considerable, and matched by its execution. It is a bleak and morbid version of the story, entirely bereft of most of the comforting moments and touches found in other retellings of the novel. Nevertheless, Nosferatu the Vampyre is hugely impressive for its atmosphere and for Kinski’s performance; this is definitely one of the best versions of Dracula on film, and a worthy updating of Murnau.

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It comes as a bit of a shock to me to realise that I’ve been a fan of Hammer horror for just about thirty years, my personal satanic baptism following the BBC documentary The Studio That Dripped Blood and the accompanying season of films. What seems almost incredible, though, is the realisation that some of these films were less than twenty years old at the time. It’s impossible to be objective about these things, of course, but it feels like a great cultural chasm separated the early 1970s from the late 1980s in a way that isn’t quite the case when it comes to the late 1990s and nowadays. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Britain had a viable national film industry in 1970 in a way it doesn’t have now.

One thing I am sure of is that I was technically a bit too young to watch most of these films at the time – although I note that when older Hammer films get revived on the big screen these days, they often get recertified much more leniently (as a 12A rather than an 18, for instance). Well, whatever, I’m sure a steady diet of gore, nudity, and the occult never did me any harm (he says, looking around his tiny rented garret, conveniently forgetting his becalmed career and string of failed relationships). That’s not the same thing as saying all of these movies were actually any good, of course, but sometimes a really iffy Hammer film has fleeting pleasures of its own.

I first saw Jimmy Sangster’s 1971 film Lust for a Vampire at the back end of 1989, and even at the time I remember being rather unimpressed with it. This is another Fine-Style production, the sequel to The Vampire Lovers, and while a few of the supporting cast return, none of the featured players do (and everyone’s playing different characters anyway).

We find ourselves once again in early 19th century Austria – this is one of the comparatively rare Hammer films which is quite specific about its setting – where, to no-one’s particular surprise, the undead are stirring. A cheery, buxom village maid is kidnapped by the evil Count Karnstein (Mike Raven) and used in a dark, gory ritual to resurrect the comely female vampire Carmilla (Yutte Stensgaard, on this occasion), although she spends most of the movie calling herself Mircalla. It’s obviously not made entirely clear, but it seems that Count Karnstein is supposed to be the Man in Black from the previous movie, up to his old tricks again (most of the impact of the character comes from the fact that Raven is being dubbed by Valentine Dyall, which is slightly ironic given Dyall himself famously played the Man in Black on the radio). The resurrection scene is interesting in the way it recalls similar moments from both Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula, but the striking thing is how much more explicit the satanic overtones become over the years – another example of standards changing (this trend really culminates with Dracula AD 1972, where Christopher Lee is restored at the climax of a full-fledged Black Mass).

Well, anyway. Next we meet novelistic aristo Richard LeStrange (Michael Johnson), a bit of a charming rogue who’s in the area to research his new novel. The local landlord obligingly delivers a mighty slab of exposition concerning the Karnstein family and their vampiric activities, but this doesn’t stop LeStrange from heading up to Castle Karnstein to have a poke about. What follows is a genuinely atmospheric and slightly eerie sequence as he finds himself stalked by a trio of silent, robed young women, which actually recalls an episode from early in the novel of Dracula itself. This may be the single most effective bit of the movie.

The punchline, of course, is that the girls are actually pupils from the local finishing school, visiting the castle of the vampires on a school trip with their tutor (Ralph Bates). LeStrange swings by the school with them, finds himself engaged by the cornucopia of feminine pulchritude on display, and then absolutely smitten by the arrival of Mircalla as a new pupil. LeStrange promptly wangles himself a job as the school’s new English teacher in order to give Mircalla some real attention. Of course, when the school standards board get wind of this sort of behaviour, he’s bound to get it in the neck – but perhaps he has more pressing concerns to worry about…

Lust for a Vampire isn’t really very much more distinguished than its title suggests, though of course it does give good T&A (well, T, mainly). That said, there are moments which suggest a genuinely interesting film might have been made from Tudor Gates’ script, and it is worth noting that Hammer originally envisaged a movie where Ingrid Pitt reprised her role as Mircalla, Peter Cushing played the creepy school teacher, and Terence Fisher directed. As it turned out, Pitt declined to return (she made Countess Dracula instead), Cushing dropped out very late on due to his wife’s declining health, and Fisher ended up being replaced by Jimmy Sangster. For what it’s worth, Sangster and Bates do the best they can with some slightly rum material, but Stensgaard is definitely not in Ingrid Pitt’s league as an actress. The sense of a bit of a bodged job is just compounded by the producers’ decision (without the knowledge of even the director) to soundtrack the movie’s key love scene with the rather execrable pop song Strange Love.

The film falls down as badly as it does simply due to bad characterisation, poor scripting, and some uninspired performances. The fact that the protagonist is apparently an unprincipled rake who cons his way into a school in order to seduce one of the girls studying there is, well, not the sort of plot development you can imagine featuring in a modern film. It also robs the film of any overriding sense of morality – there’s no Van Helsing figure here, just a lot of people wandering about with extremely poor impulse control (they wheel on a Catholic cardinal, who just happens to be passing, for the climax). That said, it’s a fairly odd school, with much more casual nudity and implied lesbianism than one might expect to find on the curriculum. A stronger script might have made this a bit more excusable, but as it is, the film just comes across as leery.

This time around Mircalla seems a lot more interested in boys than on her initial outing, with the lesbian vampire aspects of the story toned down a bit (apparently at the behest of the BBFC). An awful lot of horror films contain not-very-thinly-veiled metaphors for and about sex, but on this occasion it looks rather like a cigar is just a cigar: you can give a rather sour interpretation to The Vampire Lovers, where lesbianism/vampirism is a scourge which must be stamped out, but in this case? Beyond the revelation that many men like blondes with large breasts, the film doesn’t have much to say for itself – it is purely exploitative in this regard.

Viewed from a modern perspective, there is a lot about Lust for a Vampire which is either creatively or morally suspect. It’s a slightly less iconoclastic vampire movie than its forebear, to be true, but most of the innovation is replaced by either half-baked melodrama or simple prurient exploitation. It entertains as a Hammer horror only really at the most basic level. Ralph Bates later regretted having anything to do with it, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I wouldn’t suggest this film to anyone but a Hammer completist.

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Early in 1995, I think, my local art house cinema ran an extremely short season of vampire movies – if you can call two movies a season, anyway. One of these was Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, which is a very untraditional example of the subgenre – I went to see it and rather liked it, unlike a friend of mine, who admitted she was only interested in vampire movies that were sexy. The other one was – a bit of a curve ball – Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, then about to enjoy its diamond anniversary. I can barely bring myself to admit it, but I passed up this opportunity to enjoy a Hammer horror revival on the big screen – it wouldn’t happen these days, obviously. I’ve no idea if my friend went along to see The Vampire Lovers, but if she did I imagine she would have been well satisfied, for this is definitely intended to be one of the sexy vampire movies.

The story, such as it is, opens in properly Gothic style with a portentous narration from Douglas Wilmer, playing a magnificently bewigged vampire hunter. The vampires in this movie are a weird, almost spiritual menace, though they still sleep in coffins some of the time and are strangely attached to their shrouds. Wilmer has an axe to grind, as his family has already suffered from the attentions of the undead. A predictably comely young bloodsucker shows up (played by Kirsten Lindholm, an extremely attractive young woman in a movie not short on them) only to get her head chopped off almost straight away. So it goes sometimes.

Inasmuch as any of what follows makes rational sense, we may surmise that the rest of the film is set some years later. The first section of the film basically constitutes another prologue, greatly extended this time, telling of how General von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing) comes to take into his home a mysterious and alluring young woman named Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt). Marcilla becomes very close to the General’s niece Laura (Pippa Steel), which may or may not have something to do with Laura’s sudden and rapid decline and death under mysterious circumstances, accompanied by some rather suggestive nightmares, not to mention vampire bites about the chest region.

It’s perhaps more rewarding to consider The Vampire Lovers as a succession of impressionistic set pieces than as a conventional narrative. It certainly goes some way to excusing repetitiveness of some of the plotting, as all the above essentially starts to happen again, only in the home of an Englishman named Morton (George Cole) – quite what Morton is doing in Austria in the early 19th century is never really established, nor is what language everyone is speaking, but I digress. Morton likewise finds himself taking Marcilla into his home, except now she is going by the name Carmilla. She seems just as keen on the company of Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeline Smith) as she was on Laura, too, despite the misgivings of her governess (Kate O’Mara). Is history about to repeat itself? Will handsome local lad Carl (Jon Finch) realise what’s going on, and will Peter Cushing come back for the climax of the movie?

As you can perhaps tell, narrative rigour is not The Vampire Lovers’ strongest suit, for not only is it rather repetitive, it doesn’t really bother to keep the audience in the picture when it comes to some fairly basic plot elements, such as what’s actually going on. It seems to be the case that Wilmer’s vampire hunting at the start of the film was not that thorough, and at least one (and possibly more) of the beasties has returned, many years later, to ravage the daughters of the local aristocracy. But who is the mother of Marcilla (or Carmilla)? Is she a vampire too? Who, for that matter, is the Man in Black who occasionally pops up to survey Carmilla’s (or Marcilla’s) doings with such evident satisfaction? Both of them disappear out of the film without explanation.

An uncharitable viewer might conclude that the film is less concerned with trivial things like coherent plotting than it is with Ingrid Pitt getting her kit off and sinking her fake fangs into the necks and bosoms of various other cast members (many stories of said fangs falling out and having to be retrieved from the cleavage of Kate O’Mara by enthusiastic prop hands are in circulation). The film is very much a product of its time, an exploitation movie in the truest sense – calculated to fully exploit the more liberal censorship regime which came into force in 1970, by including more explicit nudity and gore than had been possible in previous Hammer horror movies. This is certainly a much more lurid film than anything from the company’s 1960s output.

How much of this new direction was forced upon Hammer by the general decline of the British industry and how much by the film’s producers, Harry Fine and Michael Style, is a bit unclear – another oddity of the film is that it is, uniquely, a co-production between Hammer and American International Pictures (noted makers of some of Vincent Price’s best horror films) – you would have to be a bit imaginative to see this film as a true synthesis of the two company’s styles, though.

Apart from the decision to go in a more brazenly exploitative direction, The Vampire Lovers’ greatest innovation is the casting of Ingrid Pitt in its main role. Pitt is a world away from the typical decorative, fragile Hammer starlet – she has a powerful, mature presence, and is a better actress than you might assume. Of course, she’s quite obviously considerably older than the character she’s meant to be playing, not to mention the young girls upon whom she preys (Pitt was over 30 when she made the movie), but this is excusable in the circumstances: it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

The various scenes of Ingrid Pitt wafting about graveyards in something diaphanous with a plunging neckline have acquired a certain iconic quality of their own, and it’s easy to see why she’s just as much a Hammer icon as Cushing or Christopher Lee, despite only appearing in a couple of films for the company. That said, it’s equally easy to discern a little discomfort on the part of film-makers when it comes to making a film about such a powerful, sexually aggressive woman – in the end, of course, it’s a gaggle of middle-aged men who end her reign of slightly kinky terror, but even before this, it’s strongly implied that Carmilla (etc) is really the pawn of the Man in Black and not nearly as independent a woman as she might seem.

It would be slightly ridiculous to try and claim The Vampire Lovers as some kind of feminist movie, anyway, given it was largely designed to incorporate as much soft-core lesbianism and nudity as Hammer could possibly get away with. These days it seems mostly rather tame, and as a result the shortcomings of the plot are laid as bare as the younger female members of the cast. But there is the reliable pleasure of a Peter Cushing performance to consider, and the perhaps unexpected one of Ingrid Pitt’s performance, too. In the end this is a landmark movie in the history of Hammer horror, regardless of how good or not you think the film actually is.

 

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