Monday, October 30, 2006

VAMPIRE BLOG-A-THON: Six Short Bites

I'm not a vampire novelist, but I play one in real life. In case you're wondering what the author of THROAT SPROCKETS and THE BOOK OF RENFIELD looks for in a vampire movie, this is my response to Nathaniel at Film Experience, who asked fellow bloggers to participate today in a "Vampire Blog-A-Thon": a list of a half-dozen titles I particularly prize in this overworked sub-genre. When it comes to vampires, I'm a progressive, not an Anne Rice/Buffy/Lost Boys sort of person; I loathe the romantic vampires that say "Love Never Dies," and the New Romantic vampire even moreso. I want vampires as metaphor, vampires that bring me into contact with serious real life emotions -- not a gang of morphing, lion-faced Goths with Heavy Metal hair wearing leather dusters. And I want to see them in material that crosses a line, that disturbs me, that makes me think. Here are some vampire movies that do all that, and more:

NOSFERATU (1922)
Surely most lists of this sort would begin the same way, but the obviousness of this silent film's quality and style, and its lasting propensity for chills, are hard to deny. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the few unquestionable geniuses to have worked in this subgenre, and while he's not quite yet the wholly accomplished artist capable of SUNRISE, he had the benefit of making this film at a time when only Stoker's novel, older folk tales, and his own imagination existed to inspire the direction in which he took his material. Melodramatic and overwrought at times, but if you see this with the right score (the James Bernard-scored version is actually a very good selection), your gooseflesh will confirm that these are some of the visions that reside in the heart of darkness. The moment when the vampire's shadow creeps across the heroine's chest to still her beating heart may be the earliest instance of dark eroticism in the horror film.

BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Mario Bava's stylish triptych of terror tales concludes, in its now-hard-to-find English version, with "The Wurdalak," based on Alexei Tolstoy's story "Family of the Wurdalak." The episode is remarkable for any number of reasons, the foremost being Boris Karloff's frightening portrayal of Gorka, the patriarch who returns... changed... from his mission to bring an end to the life of an undead monster feeding on his neighbors. "I am hungry," he says, and we don't doubt him for a moment as fear and uncertainty turn his family members against one another in the wake of his homecoming. This was Karloff's only vampire performance, and it's one of his best; the makeup he wears as Gorka is remarkably like the description of Dracula given in Stoker's novel, and I wonder if this is how Karloff had planned to look in a stillborn remake of DRACULA (in color and widescreen) in which he had hopes of starring in the late 1950s. Even scarier is his undead grandchild, who returns from his burial to pound on the door and cry, "Mommy, I'm cold!" The Italian-dubbed version (the only DVD release to date) relocates "The Wurdalak" to the middle position of the three stories and naturally dubs Karloff's performance, robbing it of one of its most important dimensions. Still powerfully effective, though. Unfortunately, the Image disc is currently out-of-print and fetches a steep price, but perhaps you can find it as a rental.

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)
Of the various screen vampires to whom I would gladly surrender my neck, Delphine Seyrig's Countess Elizabeth Bathory reigns over the rest. It's not her marcelled hair or her silver lamé dress, but her voice -- the voice that said "It can't be" in that intoxicating loop in Joseph Losey's ACCIDENT -- and her verbal powers of persuasion; I can well understand the way she works John Karlen to a lather with her descriptions of her "ancestor's" tortures. Flanked by Andrea Rau and Danielle Ouimet, Seyrig makes this the sexiest of all vampire movies, and director Harry Kumel dresses it with a high style worthy of Josef von Sternberg. THE TRANSYLVANIA GESTURE, why not? An exciting, new upgraded transfer with fresh extras from Blue Underground streets tomorrow.

COUNT DRACULA (1977)
Don't get me wrong; I love Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee too, but I'm assuming that you know all about them. Briefly released as an import DVD that was almost immediately withdrawn, this BBC adaptation of Stoker's novel is the most faithful of all Dracula movies, and the surprise casting of Louis Jourdan in the title role is a complete success. Many of the supporting players -- particularly Judi Bowker as Mina and Susan Penhaligon as Lucy -- embody the characters they play better than anyone who's played them before or since. The two-hour-plus program is somewhat compromised by its combining of film and videotape, but those who have read the novel will never find a better DRACULA.

MARTIN (1977)
Still one of George A. Romero's best films, this study of a troubled Pittsburgh teenager (John Amplas) from a Romanian family approaches vampirish from a then fairly unique angle: not as a supernatural thing, but as an infantile oral compulsion/blood fetish. (The earlier BLOOD SUCKERS, based on Simon Raven's novel DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET, covered some of this same ground, as did Theodore Sturgeon's novel SOME OF YOUR BLOOD.) Martin suffers from a compulsion to drink warm, gushing fluid from the veins of women he fantasizes to be willing and loving; he's sick, but so is his Old World uncle, a self-styled Van Helsing who dogs his every movement and instills him with self-loathing by calling him a "nosferatu." Still a very dark and extreme vampire picture, MARTIN works not only as an unflinchingly transgressive horror film, but as one of the most memorable East Coast examples of independent American filmmaking.

THE HUNGER (1980)
Tony Scott's directorial debut, this film didn't win many fans upon its first release, and it still tends to be remembered more as "the movie where Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve get it on" than as a quality vampire film. But from its opening performance of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus to its closing image of the unexpected victor in this tangle of predatory relationships, I find it very compelling, one of the genre's rare examples of "composed filmmaking" -- that is, a film that makes more musical (in this case, operatic) than narrative sense. Everyone in the cast is at their best, with David Bowie contributing a memorable bit as Deneuve's expiration-dated lover, and no vampire film better captures the loneliness and heartbreak of eternal life or the surprise and joy of finding an unexpected new love.

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