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Posts Tagged ‘vampires’

There are easy targets, and then there are easy targets, and then there are people who call their movie Dracula Untold. Untold? Really? After dozens of various adaptations and sequels, with Dracula himself portrayed by actors ranging from Frank Langella to Adam Sandler, what exactly is there left to tell? Plus, given this is another one of those CGI-heavy mid-budget genre movies that never really get well-reviewed, the potential for people to be snippily punful is almost irresistible. Dracula Untold? I’ll see that and give you Dracula Uninspired, Dracula Unnecessary, and Dracula Unwatchable, just for starters.

Cheap shots like this are only available if Gary Shore’s new movie isn’t any good, of course. It might very well be good: you’ve got to keep an open mind, after all. But you must admit that the omens are not promising. The Lord of the Undead is played by Luke Evans, one of those actors hugely dependent on the quality of the script he’s given (and, by the way, the fact it’s all too easy to accidentally describe Untold as ‘the new Dracula movie with Lee Evans’ is another mark against it), while the rest of the film promises a lot of heftless CGI and lazy pop-culture steals.

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Anyway, proceedings get underway with an expository flashback of dubious historicity, describing the life of the young man known in his lifetime as Vlad Tepes, prince of Transylvania, but more noted nowadays as the Vlad the Impaler. As this is only a 15-rated movie, of course, Vlad’s impaling days are behind him and he is more concerned with being a good leader of his people and a good husband and father. (At this point we pause to deal with incipient nausea.) To be honest, it’s a bit unclear who our hero was impaling in his younger days – the historical Dracula’s victims, if indeed he’s not just the victim of propaganda, were Turks, but as the film opens he is effectively a client king of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (represented here by Dominic Cooper’s one-dimensionally sadistic Mehmed II).

Relations between Transylvania and Turkey take a turn for the worse when Mehmed decrees a thousand Transylvanian children will be conscripted into the Turkish Janissary corps, along with Vlad’s own son. Needless to say, our hero can’t bring himself to comply with this order, triggering a war with his much more powerful neighbour. Things look bleak for the Transylvanians, but Vlad embarks on a desperate search for help from an unlikely source: at the top of the movie he discovered an ancient and powerful supernatural evil was in residence in one of the remote mountains of his land, and so off he pops to see if it will help out.

Needless to say, this turns out to be an elder vampire (left nameless on screen, but according to some publicity it’s supposed to be the emperor Caligula), played by Charles Dance (who’s really quite good in the part). The vampire grants Vlad immense speed, strength, and some other useful tricks, but also an insatiable thirst for human blood. If he can resist the temptation to guzzle down some of the red for three days, he will return to his normal state – but if he fails, not only may the kingdom be lost, but he will be damned to eternity as a bloodsucking monster…

Or so it says here, anyway. I’ll be honest and say that while Dracula Untold isn’t utterly worthless, it does have serious problems, and – for me – one of them is the choice of story structure. This is ‘the tragedy of a man whose utter dedication to doing the right thing results in the destruction of everything he holds dear’, and the thing about this is that for it to be a tragedy, the protagonist has to retain his conscience and remain broadly sympathetic throughout: he has to realise just what a big mistake he has made.

The result is that we never really get Dracula as a relentless, terrifying predator, never as a genuine force of evil – he’s just a nice guy with a bit of a past who makes some mistakes, for the best of reasons. Luke Evans is by no means the least impressive Dracula in cinema history, but even he can’t really make much of an impression with material like this. The producers might well argue that this is an attempt at a revisionist Dracula, to put more of a human face on the fiend, but why would you bother? Who looks at a proper Dracula movie and thinks ‘Hmm, okay, but it would be better if he was a bit nicer’? This guy was born to be bad. Needless to say, it looks likely that any future outings with Evans as Dracula will see him as a brooding, romantic anti-hero rather than an unstoppable monster.

This is all the more ironic given that Dracula Untold has apparently been retrofitted to launch a potential franchise based on Universal’s stable of famous supernatural heavies, in which they will all cross over with each other, at least as long as the box office stays healthy. Yes, everyone wants a slice of Avengers-style pie, don’t they? Personally I hope the rest of the monsters are a bit more, um, monstrous.

But this isn’t even really a proper horror movie, just a fantasy action film with a debt to things like 300 and Lord of the Rings. The 300-ish stylings are particularly pertinent given just how much of the historical subtext this movie actively ducks – the historical Dracula was, if anything, a Christian hero, famous for helping to keep the Muslim Turks out of Europe. Exploring the ramifications of this in any kind of systematic way would be far too provocative (and possibly demand too much thoughtfulness from the audience), and so we get simple good guys and bad guys and barely any mention of religion.

The best you can say about Dracula Untold, really, is that it chooses a fairly solid story and tells it competently. It’s just not a good Dracula story or even a particularly good vampire tale. Moments with potential – Dracula taking on an entire army single-handed, for instance – are just fumbled, possibly due to the director’s lack of experience, while too many others lack even that – too often Dracula is reduced to a banal, pedestrian figure. Sex, death, blood, and style are the essentials of vampire cinema, and Dracula Untold comes up short in every department. It’s sort of vaguely enjoyable while you’re watching it, but in a week’s time you’ll have forgotten most of the details. I’ve just thought of another one: Dracula Underwhelming.

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Horror movies are a slightly culty genre as a whole, and within that genre the movies made by Hammer have a very healthy cult following of their own. Even so, some of these films have a particularly dedicated following far out of proportion to their profile or financial success – which makes them cult movies made by a cult studio within a cult genre. Cultiness cubed! Is this even possible? Well, anyway: one such film is Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (this is one of those films where no-one seems able to agree on how to punctuate the title), made in 1972 but only released a couple of years later (a fate which befell a few late-period Hammers). The only way to describe Captain Kronos is as ‘different’ (well, Sir Christopher Lee has gone on record as saying it was ‘the worst film Hammer ever made’, which surely only suggests he hasn’t seen Prehistoric Women, to name but one). I’ve always really liked it; it’s one of the very few Hammers that I recorded off the TV and kept, back when commercial VHS releases were beyond my pocket. (Happily the copyright holders have made it freely available to view over a popular video-sharing website.)

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Our story opens in the tiny village of Durward, somewhere in central Europe in the 18th century (according to the trailer, anyway: the film is typically vague about this, but we’re definitely in the heart of Hammerland). Durward is a tiny little place, as you’d expect from a very low-budget film, and its young people are living in fear: a dark figure has begun preying on the rosy-cheeked young maidens of the village, reducing them to raddled old hags who peg out from old age almost on the spot.

Luckily, local doctor Marcus (John Carson) knows someone who may be able to help, calling in his old army buddy Captain Kronos (Horst Janson, but dubbed – bizarrely retaining a German accent – by Julian Holloway) and his sidekick, hunchbacked professor Hieronymous Grost (John Cater). Kronos and Grost are professional vampire hunters and are quickly on the case, assisted by a young gypsy girl they’ve picked up on their travels (Caroline Munro, in probably her best role for Hammer). But, given the wide variety of vampires apparently on the loose in Hammerland, the question is not just one of finding the beast, but working out exactly how to kill it, too…

As I say, for a long time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter was a very obscure film, but its profile does seem to be rising: a novelisation was released a few years ago (the 39-year gap between film and book may constitute something of a record) and when Midsomer Murders did their Hammer-pastiche episode a while ago, it was two of the stars of this film that they recruited.

I think one of the reasons for its obscurity was that in many ways it inverts the traditional horror formula. It occurs to me that, structurally, the traditional monster or vampire movie has a lot in common with the classic superhero film, in that you’re waiting for the set-piece sequences where the central character appears and starts doing their thing, whatever that may be: these moments are pretty widely spread in the early part of the film, but slowly get more substantial until the climax rolls around. The main difference is that superhero films are invariably focused on and named after the protagonist, while horror movies tend to much more about the antagonist. When you get what’s purporting to be a horror, or horror-themed movie, but which is named after the hero, it’s usually a sign that you’re really in for much more of an action-adventure caper.

This is a rule-of-thumb I’ve just made up, but it holds true of Van Helsing, Solomon Kane, and Captain Kronos too. The film’s emphasis on action and colour over suspense and atmosphere probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the film is a product of the same creative team responsible for The Avengers and The New Avengers (it has been widely commented that Captain Kronos, which is relatively light on gore and nudity for a late-period Hammer, often looks more like a feature-length TV pilot than a proper movie). Certainly the film has some of the freewheeling style and offbeat humour of The Avengers, with an equally quirky hero – there’s a touch of the Man With No Names about Kronos, who smokes cheroots made of ‘Chinese herbs’ (yeah, right) and carries a samurai sword as well as a cavalry sabre.

Clemens directs with a huge amount of invention and energy, if not much subtlety: flowers wither with the passing of the vampire and the shadow of a crucifix warps as one attacks a young girl in a church. To be honest, he’s making a huge amount of the ‘vampire lore’ in this movie up out of whole cloth – different kinds of vampires attack and can only be destroyed in different ways, vampires have a resuscitating effect on the corpses of toads, and so on – but this is done with enough conviction and imagination to be convincing.

It’s almost enough to stop you noticing the clearly tiny budget on which the film was made – the village of Durward only appears to contain one family, who are progressively wiped out by the vampire as the film goes on (the script doesn’t play this for black comedy, which almost comes as a surprise). If the film is short on peasants, it sometimes seems a little short on plot too: the need for incident results in a large number of set-piece vampire attacks, which get a little repetitive, and a rather preposterous western-pastiche sequence in which a mysterious stranger hires Ian Hendry (who looks vaguely embarrassed to be participating) to pick a fight with Kronos down the local pub. Hendry’s dying-acting is extremely funny, but you have to be paying really close attention to note that the mysterious stranger is actually the villain’s butler (the viewer is bombarded with red herrings as to the vampire’s identity, but there’s never much doubt that the trail is going to lead to the door of the local aristos), rather than just some random bloke.

In the end, everything is resolved with a cameo from Wanda Ventham, a near-enough continuity reference to the Karnstein family from other early 70s Hammer vampire films, and a rather spiffy sword-fight between Kronos and the villain. The villain is played by William Hobbs, for many years the doyen of cinema fight choreographers (other works include the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, Excalibur, and Musical Chairs Game of Thrones) and so this duel is significantly better than you might expect from a low-budget genre movie. Kronos rides off into the sunset, heading for new adventures which never actually materialised.

How much the box-office failure of Captain Kronos was a result of poor distribution, and how much down to the quality of the film itself is a little difficult to say for certain. Perhaps a film as distinctive and strange as this one, with its peculiar juxtaposition of swashbuckling action, vampire horror, and deadpan black humour, was always going to struggle to find a mass audience. At least it seems to be more appreciated now. I could not honestly describe Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter as a classic Hammer horror, but it is still a hugely entertaining film.

 

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Time was when it was easy to generalise grandly and with a veneer of authority about what genres are actually about – ‘the classic horror story,’ one might say, slipping one hand to a lapel in a breezily academic way, ‘is all about sex. Specifically the enforcement of normative socio-sexual codes.’ This is all very well, when you’re talking about the normal socio-sexual behaviour of people who don’t spend all their time in a horror story. How are you supposed to talk about the socio-sexual behaviour of people living in a horror story which is, well, a bit different? Especially when the whole thing is so loaded down with metaphor that it’s blatantly obvious this particular horror story is actually talking about real-world lifestyles?

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Well, look, let’s stop beating about the bush, no pun intended – I finally managed to get through Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, the first time I’ve managed to stagger to the end of one of her books. As you may or may not know, it details the biography of Louis, a member of a secretive minority who exist at something of a remove from conventional society. He was drawn into this world by an older man, Lestat, who is extremely shallow and possessive of his younger friend. Wanting to perpetuate their relationship, but obviously unable to have children in the usual way, Lestat contrives that they adopt a young girl, Claudia, although the circumstances of her upbringing leave Claudia seriously messed up. Louis broods a lot; Lestat bitches, eventually they break up and Louis gets together with another even older guy called Armand who he genuinely loves, although Armand still seems a bit jealous of Lestat, and so on. (There’s a bit more to the plot of this book, by the way, but these are the key beats.)

Now, obviously I’m being selective in describing what happens in Interview with the Vampire, but even so – there’s not a lot here which distinctly screams ‘supernatural horror’. Saying this book has a gay subtext suggests a level of subtlety which quite frankly isn’t there – it’s right there in the text, in some ways the stereotypical gay lifestyle is what this book is about. Hence my queasiness about describing the sexuality involved, specifically in terms of contrast to the usual sort, as the danger of sounding inadvertantly homophobic is severe. I wouldn’t personally choose to describe homosexuals as deviants, aberrant, or abnormal – but in terms of the book, ‘alternative’ is gilding the lily a bit when talking about a lifestyle founded on murder on a massive scale.

It’s funny, really, if I sat down tomorrow and wrote a story where I used zombies as a metaphor to talk about, say, immigration, and through some horrible disaster/extraordinary miracle it got published, I’d probably get slated for being racist or xenophobic. And yet here’s Anne Rice writing a book about gay men which depicts them as soulless, vicious, monstrous killers, and it’s become some sort of classic and the foundation of her career. Then again, I suppose you could argue that the book isn’t explicitly intended to be read as a metaphor for being gay. The problem is that if it isn’t, it’s very hard to see what it actually is about – the ‘gay lifestyle’ stuff is so prominent, as I said, that it’s almost impossible to miss.

This may explain the curious deadness at the heart of the narrative (for me, at least) – this is supposedly a story about a being mired in sin and evil, whose very existence is predicated on it, and yet I got very little sense of genuine angst or moral pain when reading it. Louis goes on, a lot, about his wretched situation as a child of Satan, in terribly florid language, but I never really cared about it, mainly because I think I figured out quite soon that this guy was going to be a whinger, all mouth and no trousers, and he was going to carry on in this vein (boom boom!) for the entire book.

This book is brooding. This book is introspective. Not a great deal happens beyond various vampires bickering with each other about the nature of their undead existence at considerable length, and (some might say) overcooked descriptions of places and events. The prose is certainly sensuous and evocative, perhaps a bit too fulsome, but coupled to the vague sense of moral vacuum at the heart of proceedings the end result is a bit like getting stuck in Italy for a month. Actually, I’m not surprised this book did as well as it did – the overwrought pseudo-sexual stuff and obsessive detailing of emotions and so on probably makes it a killer potboiler for a certain type of person who just enjoys wallowing in melodrama, while the one-two punch of ‘safe’ transgressiveness (the occult and homosexuality) gives it a faint air of edginess it really doesn’t warrant.

Well, I made it through to the end, although I didn’t find it a particularly nourishing experience – most of the time I was just trying to remember the movie and spot the bits which were different. My favourite bit of the book, oddly enough, is in the middle where it genuinely (and rather briefly) goes all Hammer horror: needless to say, none of this is in the movie.

And I suppose one shouldn’t overlook how massively influential this book has been – the sympathetic vampire is now practically a stock figure and barely worthy of comment, which I suspect was very much not the case in 1976. If vampires in fiction have acquired some depth and intelligence in the intervening time then obviously Anne Rice and Interview with the Vampire deserve much of the credit for this. However, every bland and melodramatic ‘dark fantasy’ romance with a bunch of Goths mooning over each other is arguably their fault too. Didn’t do a lot for me on any level, but culturally and historically interesting.

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Words like ‘legendary’ and ‘iconic’ get thrown around rather easily these days, but when one is talking about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appearing together in Hammer’s first Dracula movie, they are surely justified. This is Terence Fisher’s Dracula (known in the US as Horror of Dracula), released in 1958, and – for me – where the idea of Hammer horror as a brand really got started. Perhaps I’m being unfair to The Curse of Frankenstein, a movie I haven’t seen in many years, but it seems to me that Dracula is a more polished and confident piece of work from a company that’s quickly learning how to do this sort of thing.

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One of the notable quirks about Dracula is that it seems well aware of how familiar this story will be to most of the audience – this isn’t to say that it plays games or tries to confound expectations, but it does include a few plot surprises, and – tellingly – seems to assume the audience is already quite familiar with who and what Dracula is. It doesn’t try very hard to stick to the plot of Stoker’s novel, presumably for budgetary reasons – some characters are dropped, along with the English setting of much of the story, while others really only appear in name only.

We open with Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen), in this version a noted scholar, who has just secured the position of the new librarian at Castle Dracula. He receives the traditional warm welcome from the master of the establishment (Lee) and does not appear overly bemused by the odd hours the count keeps or the strange behaviour of his live-in girlfriend.

The reason for this some becomes clear – in the first of the film’s twists (one which rather speeds up the plot, if we’re honest) it’s revealed that Harker is really a vampire hunter who is here to put an end to the scourge of Dracula. As we are only about ten minutes into the movie it is quite clear his success in this venture will be extremely limited.

However, soon on the scene is Harker’s associate and fellow persecutor of the undead, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). After dealing with Harker, Dracula has vanished, and all Van Helsing can do is break the sad news of Harker’s fate to his family. Unfortunately Harker’s fiancee is too ill to be told – she appears to have developed a bad case of anaemia, which may or may not be connected to her new habit of sleeping with her bedroom window open…

I’ve seen this movie quite a number of times, but not for a long while, and watching it again now I’m struck by how much it isn’t the film you might be expecting – and yet, at the same time, it really does create the mould for so many of the studio’s subsequent films It’s a Cushing-Lee vehicle, for one thing, but what’s striking and perhaps surprising is how little Christopher Lee is actually in it – he’s fourth-billed, with an ‘and’, and while he gets a dozen or so lines in the opening section of the film, after this he barely appears until the climax, and has no dialogue when he is on screen – a lot gets made of the largely non-speaking performances Lee gives in movies like Dracula – Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula, but they’re just following the precedent established here. On balance, the real oddity is the articulate, rational Dracula we glimpse at the start of this film, someone capable of carrying on a conversation and (it would appear) interested in having his library catalogued – quite at odds with the hissing, slavering, atavistic fiend that seems to be, if not Lee’s, then certainly Hammer’s default take on the character.

Needless to say Peter Cushing gives it everything he’s got as Van Helsing – no matter how dubious or contrived a movie’s script (and this one has some peachy moments of duff plotting and ill-considered comic relief) you can lose yourself in the limitless conviction, grace, and charm of a Peter Cushing performance. One thing you don’t necessarily notice the first time you watch this film is that Lee and Cushing have no screen time together before the climax, and when they do it’s just a lot of running around and fighting. A real shame, because a verbal clash between Van Helsing and the rational Dracula from the opening of the movie would be a mouth-watering prospect given the performers involved.

That said, we do get a terrific and surely genuinely iconic climax, surely the finest of the many physical confrontations between Lee and Cushing that these two great friends would play out over the course of many years. That they are both in their prime here helps, as does a memorably frantic music cue from James Bernard – Bernard’s score here is less strong on lush delicacy than many of his others, much more interested in booming stridency, but you can see why it was recycled in so many other Hammer movies.

You can see the Hammer formula coming together in this film – you don’t turn up to a Hammer movie just for the horror, but the production values, the atmosphere, the performances, the sensuality of it, and all of these are here. That said, this feels like a better-behaved Hammer movie than most – all the men wear ties and are very civil to each other, the Kensington Gore is barely in evidence, and the eroticism, though still quite obvious, is much more implicit. I saw the 2012 restoration of this film, featuring more explicit material recovered from a print found in Tokyo (of all places), and I barely noticed the changes from the expurgated version I’d always previously seen. This still isn’t a film you’d really want to show a small child, but no sensible person would describe it as worse than tasteless.

Does Dracula still work as a horror film? 55 years on, I have to say it probably doesn’t, being rather too quaint and dated  and restrained. But that doesn’t make it a bad film and it doesn’t lessen the quality of its performances, direction, or production design. And, if nothing else, its status as one of the fountainheads of Hammer horror, one of the most influential series of films in the history of the genre, gives it a massive significance. One to cherish, savour, and come back to repeatedly.

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So, I got in the other night and was greeted, as usual, by my landlady:

‘Hello! Been to the movies?’ (She knows I practically live there and get 25% off on Tuesdays.)

‘…yes.’

‘What did you see?’

‘(sigh)… Breaking Dawn – Part 2.’

‘Oh. What was it like?’

‘…Jesus.’ Much shaking of the head and despairing followed, the details of which I will spare you.

‘Oh. You know, I’ve got the first one on DVD up in my studio if you want to watch it. I’ve never been able to get past the first twenty minutes.’

What, watch another one? The first one? The fountainhead of this terrible scourge upon global culture? What kind of masochist did she take me for?

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Ahem. The first Twilight came out in 2008, directed by Catherine Hardwicke and watching it, effectively, as a prequel to the end of the series is a slightly odd experience. One can definitely make out the warning signs that will ultimately lead to complete disaster, but at the same time this is – as I was assured by the person who bought my Breaking Dawn ticket – not nearly as bad a movie.

We open, cheerfully, with a young woman contemplating the circumstances of her own death, the exact circumstances of which do not become clear for quite a bit. She turns out to be Bella Swan (possibly so-named because she is a white bird with a long neck), played by Kristen Stewart. Stewart is perhaps a bit too pretty to convincingly play a somewhat-insecure teenage girl, but she is effectively gawky at least. Bella is moving from sunny Arizona to gloomy Washington state to be with her father.

Almost straight away she meets native American dude Jacob, played by Taylor Lautner. At this point, if Jacob is a werewolf, he’s not telling anyone, and he also has long hair and dresses quite differently. More startlingly, Lautner is not nearly as wooden as he will later become. Possibly discovering your werewolf heritage destroys your ability to act (or it may just be the haircut).

Anyway, we get a lot of new-girl-at-school stuff, which is fair enough, as Bella settles in to her new life. But there is a mystery at school! One which entrances and preoccupies Bella! And it concerns the aloof and enigmatic Cullen family, a family of pale students who keep to themselves and never show up while the sun is out. The mystery is, of course, why the Cullens are turning up to high school in the first place, given they are all obviously in their 20s.

Oh well. Amongst the Cullen clan is Edward, played by Robert Pattinson. Edward is very thin and pale, appears to be wearing lipstick, and there’s something weird going on on top of his head. All he needs is some green hairdye and he could play the lead in I Was A Teenage Joker. Edward is initially very off with Bella – but then his mood abruptly changes when he saves her life in mysterious circumstances. Further strange events lead Bella to make a startling discovery as to what Edward Cullen really is – yes, he’s a slightly effeminate non-threatening romantic fantasy figure for teenage girls to safely get fixated on!

And he’s a vampire too. This is basically the plot of the first half of Twilight, which I thought was by far the most interesting part of the film and arguably the strongest too (although I couldn’t figure out why the so-called vampires were so keen to keeping going to school, over and over again, especially since they made no effort to fit in there). One of my issues with Breaking Dawn – Part 2 was that it largely took place in a rootless, unidentifiable fantasy world where practically every character was a so-called vampire or werewolf. To start with, at least, Twilight is set in something resembling the real world, with recognisable human characters and situations, and this helps the story.

One wonders how much of this emphasis is down to director Catherine Hardwicke, who clearly has some kind of vision for the film – she seems to be going for something distinctively naturalistic, with slightly washed-out colours. Even here, though, I sensed a certain tension between this approach and the smoothed-over romance and superbland fantasy which is what the film is really about. Hardwicke was not retained for the next film, supposedly because she couldn’t undertake to deliver it within the required timeframe, but I wonder whether creative differences weren’t also partly involved – there’s a reality and a visual style to this film utterly lacking from the final instalment, and the former at least are at odds with the general tenor of the story.

Anyway, the second half of the film is much more concerned with the budding romance between Edward and Bella and the various doings of the Cullen so-called vampire clan. The Cullens themselves are colourless and creepy even on their debut appearance – not creepy because they’re dangerous undead predators, but creepy because they’re blandly attractive and weirdly wholesome one-dimensional cut-outs, more like a religious cult than actual vampires. The central romance simply doesn’t ignite, but it’s hard to tell whether this is the fault of script or actors. It is certainly written in a breathlessly earnest way – a teenager’s ideal of what first love should be like rather than the real thing.

Even here, though, you can sort of see why this series has picked up some criticism for supposedly glamorising an abusive relationship – not only is Bella an almost entirely passive figure, but at one point she gets a voiceover going (I paraphrase, but not much) ‘Edward is a bloodthirsty monster. Part of him wants to kill me. Ooohhh, I’m so totally in love with him!’ I guess girls love a bad boy – even when he’s prettier than they are and have weird stuff going on with their hair.

I did complain about the so-called vampires in Breaking Dawn – Part 2 being tedious superheroes stripped of any symbolic or metaphorical meaning, but in Twilight I can sort of discern what Stephenie Meyer was thinking of – the vampire has frequently been used as a symbol for immoral or deviant sexual practices – all those exchanges of bodily fluids, same-sex couplings, extra-marital goings-on, incestuous relationships and so on. In this film, at least, the vampire (as represented by Edward) just represents any kind of active sexuality, which is shown as dangerous and best avoided in favour of introspective romance. Bella and Edward’s relationship at this point is entirely non-penetrative: he refuses to bite her, even when she asks him to. I’m not sure how convincing this is as a moral message for the kids to take away, but it’s certainly a non-threatening one parents will approve of.

There’s some running around and shouting at the end of Twilight which is quite well-handled, but the more the central romance took centre stage the less engaging I found the entire film. The whole thing wraps up with the tacit promise of a sequel, which is fair enough: there isn’t a great deal of closure in the plot anyway. It’s well directed, especially in its earlier sections, and some of the acting is not too bad – but the creeping blandness of so many of the characters and relationships as the film progresses not only makes watching Twilight a distinctly so-so experience, but clearly indicates just what grim viewing future episodes are going to make.

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And so it came to pass:

‘Come to the cinema with me, you owe me a movie. I came to see Samsara with you, didn’t I?’ she said.

‘Yeah, but as I recall you really liked it -‘

‘And then you went and wrote about us going to see it on your blog and really misrepresented me. That conversation we supposedly had was completely fake. Please don’t do that again.’

‘As if,’ I said. ‘Anyway, it was sort of based on fact, you’ve got to funny it up so people keep reading… hang on, as I recall you didn’t have to pay to see Samsara.’

‘All right, so I’ll pay for you if you come to the pictures with me. It’s only fair you keep your side of the deal…’

‘I didn’t even know we had a deal.’

‘You keep saying you’ll go and watch anything, so prove it.’

‘Oh, all right. What is it you want to see so badly?’

This is how years of guilt-free avoidance of The Twilight Saga end, not with blissful ignorance but with a pester. Yes, I went along to see Breaking Dawn – Part 2, directed by Bill Condon – what can I say, it seemed like the honourable thing to do at the time. I was under orders to ‘keep an open mind’ as the film rolled, and for my own part had done my best to avoid doing any research into what had happened in the previous four movies. This promised to be an interesting experiment (the diaries of Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Oppenheimer probably contain similar sentiments). I would normally warn you that what follows may contain spoilers, but the word ‘spoil’ is sort of misleading in this context.

Anyway, the credits rolled, depicting rolling vistas of forests and mountains and the first thing to cross my open mind was ‘this is all a bit Lord of the Rings-y’. I was quickly introduced to Bella (Kristen Stewart, thin and pretty), a young woman who had apparently just been turned into a vampire by her husband Edward (Robert Pattinson, thinner and prettier) – funny, most men complain when their wives become life-draining parasites. I figured all this out eventually despite the fact that there is a long scene where the two of them are blatantly reflected in a mirror and they spend most of the film walking around in the sunshine. Hmmph.

Following a heftless CGI sequence which concludes with Bella chowing down on a defenceless cougar, I learned that her offspring was being looked after by a bunch of other so-called vampires, whose smug and bland wholesomeness put me in mind of a religious cult. They all live in very nice houses in the woods. Hanging around was a character called Jacob (Taylor Lautner, who comes across as a distinctively bad actor – no mean feat in this film) who turned out to be a werewolf. It seemed that Jacob had fallen in love with Bella and Edward’s baby, which was an eye-opening plot development to say the least.

Anyway, the creepy good-guy vampires gave Bella and Edward their own house, complete with bedroom, which was the cue for a brief bout of whoa-ho-ho for the new parents and quick game of Whose Leg Is That? for the audience. (Not bad for a series which I understand began as abstinence porn.) We were quite a way into the film by this point and the only properly scary thing in this vampire-and-werewolf movie had been Bella and Edward’s CGI baby, and even this was probably not intentional.

However, things perked up – briefly and mildly – as we had a bit featuring Michael Sheen and Maggie Grace, both of whom I normally like (for somewhat different reasons, admittedly). Sheen plays an evil Italian vampire – finally! Evil vampires! – whom Grace, apparently playing a conflicted vampire of some kind, tips off to the existence of Bella’s kid. The evil vampires think she is a vampire kid, which is apparently against the vampire rules. (She isn’t, being technically what’s known as a dhampir, but as the film seems to only have a nodding acquaintance even with the concept of a vampire, she’s never referred to as such.) And so Sheen musters his force of evil vampires (‘this is all a bit Harry Potter-esque’, I thought) with a view to creating all sorts of mischief for the two leads.

The good guy so-called vampires rally round Bella and Edward, along with some faintly duff CGI werewolves (Count von Count from Sesame Street doesn’t show up, but two people with the same accent do). All the vampires have different special super-powers (‘this is all a bit X-Men-ish,’ I thought), such as being a bit sparky, seeing the future, causing massive earthquakes or being able to emit deadly toxic vapours (I have a similar ability after five pints of cider).

Eventually (finally!) the two sides face off in the snowy wastes. There is a great deal of chit-chat at this point. Will there be a big fight? Will the bad guys listen to reason? Ooh, ooh, they’re going to fight – oh, no they’re not. Hang on, it looks like they’re – oh, they’ve calmed down again. This goes on for quite a long time and is especially tedious as you know there’s inevitably going to be a big ruck. And so it proves. Much heftless CGI japery ensues, with many (I presume) much-loved and iconic characters meeting with spectacular ends. Crikey. But then – it turns out the whole fight never actually happened, and everyone is alive again, even the villains! (Well, someone who I quite like stayed dead, which annoyed me a bit.) And they all decide to settle their differences amicably and go home, which was a gobsmacking way of concluding an epic fantasy series.

(Stephenie Meyer, I am going to start a charity called Toffee For People Who Can Write. Here’s how it will work: it will find people who are writers and make sure that they receive toffee. If you can write, you will get toffee. But, Stephenie Meyer, no toffee for you! No toffee for Stephenie Meyer! Ahem.)

The End.

I was a bit worried about how I was going to discuss this film with my companion (who has seen the rest of the series)  without offending her. But luck was on my side.

‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry! That was terrible. I was afraid you were going to walk out.’

Hmm, well, to be honest that was never really on the cards – how often do you get a major studio release quite as astoundingly bad as this one? Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is very obviously aimed at the existing fanbase, for there are no concessions made to newcomers like myself, but this doesn’t excuse…

Well, the utter banality of most of the script, to be honest. This film makes being an immortal superhuman killing machine actually seem really boring. I find it difficult to put into words just how vapid most of these characters are. Meyer’s vampires are missing their fangs, but the absence of another pair of bodily items is more keenly felt.

The sole exception to this is Michael Sheen as the main villain. Now, I like Michael Sheen very much and have enjoyed his performances in many other films. Here, Sheen is given very little to work with, script-wise, and as a result clearly just thinks ‘Ah, sod it, may as well just have some fun.’ As a result his performance is so staggeringly camp and over-the-top it is probably best viewed via the Hubble space telescope. He is absolutely the best thing in this movie, but then again this is saying very little.

The fierce innocuousness of this movie means that, despite featuring more beheadings than Highlander and scenes of small children being hurled onto bonfires, it is still only a 12 certificate. Anyone much under 12 shouldn’t watch it, while I doubt anyone much over the age of 12 would really want to.

It’s just soul-crushingly pointless, utterly bereft of any kind of mythic or metaphorical power or texture. If you look at the vampire and werewolf movies of the 60s, as I was doing just the other night, the vampire is something alien and hostile: the menace, the threat to the established order. Apparently pretty much bereft of their need to drink human blood, and able to wander about cheerfully in the sunlight, what exactly are the Twilight vampires supposed to represent? Before seeing the film I was musing on how the vampire has gone from being a monstrous threat to a representation of the outsider, hence the rise of Goth culture and associated things. But the Cullens in this movie aren’t even that: they have nice hair, look like a bunch of models, drive Volvos and live in lovely countryside houses. All they represent is a kind of bland, affluent conformity for the young people watching this film to aspire to. For a fan of proper vampire, horror, and fantasy films, that’s possibly the most offensive thing about this dreadful, dreary film. But it’s up against some pretty stiff opposition.

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Oh, my friends, I feel a terrible sense of encroaching doom and rising dread. A dismal shadow is on the horizon, for I have inadvertantly made what feels like a deal with the Devil. The full details of this will become ineluctibly apparent in the fullness of time. For now, let me bolster myself and reaffirm my dedication to the right sort of genre movie, with a proper look at Freddie Francis’ 1968 Hammer offering, the arguably badly-titled Dracula Has Risen From The Grave.

Groovy psychadelic titles out of the way, we find ourselves in a familiar mittel-European setting, some time round about 1905. In a decent sequence, included mainly to establish the tone, a young altar boy discovers a buxom maiden stuffed into the local church bell – if there are bats in the belfrey, they are clearly of the vampiric persuasion. (This presumably happened off-screen at some point during Dracula, Prince of Darkness – not that inter-film continuity was ever Hammer’s strong point.)

One year later, the local Monsignor (Rupert Davies) visits the village to find the local priest (Ewan Hooper) is a boozer and church attendance has fallen virtually to nil: everyone is still living in fear of the King of the Undead, despite him having fallen into the lethal waters of the moat of Castle Dracula at the end of the previous film. Instantly winning himself a place on the all-time Counter-productive Stupid Ideas List, the Monsignor drags the priest off to the castle in order to exorcise it and plonk a crucifix in the doorway to stop Dracula’s spirit ever emerging.

Of course, what he is failing to take into account is that Dracula isn’t in the castle anyway: he’s frozen into the moat. The exorcism provokes a terrible thunderstorm (this is another quite well put-together sequence), during which the priest gets separated from his boss, falls onto the ice, and cuts his head: the blood conveniently trickling through the ice into Dracula’s mouth. (At this point Christopher Lee is dragged kicking and screaming onto the set to reprise his signature role.) Dracula is very annoyed to find himself effectively locked out of his own castle and, as usual, declares a terrible revenge on his enemies.

Completely unaware of what a total balls-up he’s made of his pastoral visit, the Monsignor heads home to the charming town of Kleinenberg: notable citizens thereof include his beautiful niece Maria (Veronica Carlson), her boyfriend Paul (Barry Andrews) and nice-but-trampy barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing). But Dracula is coming to town as well, and where he’s concerned beautiful nieces are always on the menu…

Well, as you can probably tell, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave is not an especially accurate title, though it does score points for being evocative. Dracula Has Been Defrosted From A Moat would not look nearly so good on the poster. For a long time I was inclined to dismiss this film, coming as it does between the quintessential Hammer horror Dracula, Prince of Darkness and the fascinatingly different Taste the Blood of Dracula – and, to be fair, it’s not close to being as good as either of those.

The opening and closing sections around Castle Dracula itself are quite nicely done, even if the climax telegraphs its resolution in a painfully obvious way (my 13-year-old sister came across me watching this film, many years ago, and was able to accurately predict the denouement despite being a complete Hammer ingenue). However, all the stuff in town is bit ho-hum. This is not to say the film looks bad: the production values are strong and there is always James Bernard’s score to savour. And the script negotiates the stock characters and set-pieces of a Hammer Dracula with reasonable dexterity, helped by decent performances from nearly everyone in the cast. It just doesn’t have a single strong idea or really great piece of acting to make itself distinctive.

At least, not in what you’d call a good way. Barbara Ewing does sterling work making the Bad Girl something other than a total cipher, and the central young lovers are a bit less insipid than usual – but, by a cruel quirk of fate, Barry Andrews – both physically and in his performance – is astoundingly like Hugh Grant around the time of his rise to stardom. Hugh Grant Vs Dracula is a memorable idea for a movie, but not a memorably good one. And yet this is what Dracula Has Risen From The Grave turns into, for modern audiences at least.

Oh well – set against this we have a film which is doing interesting things with the concept of faith. The Church itself does not exactly emerge covered in glory – of the two ecclesiastical characters, one is an alcoholic thrall to the villain, while the other one is inadvertantly responsible for all the trouble in the movie – but, on the other hand, Hugh Grant Paul is an atheist and thus incapable of dealing with Dracula unassisted. The film’s most contentious scene has Paul staking Dracula, who is able to shrug it off and pull out the stake due to Paul’s lack of belief. An interesting idea – some people suggest that the climax shows Paul regaining his belief in God as Dracula is vanquished; personally I don’t think it’s that explicit. In any case it reminded me again of the irony that the only film genre which routinely accepts the existence of God is Horror – which, of course, is the genre actual believers are least likely to watch. Some moving in mysterious ways going on here, perhaps.

Anyway, this is not the greatest Hammer horror, nor even a particularly good Dracula film – but at least Christopher Lee has some dialogue. What the film doesn’t have is any new ideas about Dracula or new things for him to get up to. Later films would fix this, to considerable effect. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave is really just marking time, but it does it in an atmospheric and very enjoyable fashion.

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