The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Top Twenty Scariest Movies---Part 1

Given the number of ostensibly scary movies out there, it's kinda remarkable that so few of them are scary. Genuinely frightening moments are very rare in films---and some of the movies on this list made it because of just one scene. The list is entirely about scary, by the way...that is to say, flicks that have scared me. They might not be your idea of scary at all. And while there are some well-known horror classics on the list, there a lot of classic horror movies, really great films, that simply aren't scary...James Whale's Frankenstein movies come to mind.

Okay then, that said...on to the list.

I've already discussed F.W. Murnau's Dracula adaptation over on my vampire list... don't have too much to add here. Suffice it to say that it richly deserves to be on this list too, primarily because of the visuals...Max Shreck is really, really bad to look at, and he's used in very startling ways. This is not one of those non-scary classics.

Man, 1932 was an amazing year for frightening movies. You had The Island of Lost Souls, Freaks, and The Mummy, the first two so balls-out that they were both pulled from theaters after a few days. Of the three, Freaks is perhaps the most scary and unsettling. Among other things, it really is in terrible taste, because it uses all these actual sideshow specimens...right from the gitgo, it makes you feel like your skin's on way too tight. But it only builds from there, and takes you well beyond mere queasiness. Story involves a circus ballerina named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) who marries a sweet little midget named Hans (Harry Earles) cahoots with her boyfriend Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor), she plans to murder the tiny guy for his inheritance. But she makes the other freaks mucho suspicious at a grotesque feast in which they welcome her into their community with a chant that goes "Gooble gobble, we accept her"; it's not her cup of tea at all, and she, well, freaks, and reveals that she's got that thing going on with Hercules. Hans's buds, who include genuine hermaphrodites, pinheads and other strange sorts, figure out that the midget's in danger, and one rainy night, they all pay a visit to the nasty normals. Particularly amazing is a shot of the armless-legless guy (Prince Pandian) squirming through the mud with a knife between his teeth. The malefactors get their comeuppance...Hercules is singing falsetto at the end, and the last shot is of the once-beautiful Cleopatra, turned somehow into a wretched feathered chicken-woman.

MGM cut a lot out, and there was even a version with a tacked-on ending showing Hans all happy and rich, but it didn't rescue the movie at the box office. It was directed by Tod Browning, the Dracula guy, and it pretty much destroyed his career, even in the early thirties, when they truly liked their horror movies. It's that great. One scene in the movie reportedly made F. Scott Fitzgerald puke. When you coax the man behind The Great Gatsby to chuck one up, you've really made your contribution to human history. No Joke.

3.Island of Lost Souls--1932
This one was roundly denounced too---it was based on a story by H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and even he flew into a high dudgeon and condemned it. It was directed by Erle C. Kenton, who did other horror movies (House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, and Ghost of Frankenstein), but none of those delivers anything like the kick that Lost Souls does. It's seriously creepy and atmospheric, and the climax is genuinely terrifying.

Richard Arlen plays a poor bloke named Edward Taylor...his boat sinks,and he's picked up by a supply ship that's headed for Dr. Moreau's domain, where he gets stranded. The island's extremely dark and dank, and populated by some natives who aren't clearly seen, but plainly very very weird...Moreau (Charles Laughton) has enslaved  them, and keeps 'em in line with a bizarre preacher-slave, the Speaker of the Law (Bela Lugosi), plentiful doses of the lash, and trips to the unspeakable House of Pain. He's also got this hot black-haired jungle babe, Lota (Kathleen Burke), who he'd really like Parker to bone, for reasons that aren't immediately clear. Interested to say the least but very suspicious, Parker discovers that Moreau's slaves are actually animals, who've been converted into quasi-humans through ghastly, excrutiating surgery; Lota is Moreau's crowning achievement, although she---and all the other slaves--- are constantly sliding back into their previous forms...the doctor wants to see if he could mate her with a human.

This flirting with bestiality is probably what got Wells and everybody else so riled, and it's nasty enough, but then you have the big finish, when the "manimals'---I believe it was Forry Ackerman's term--- realize that Moreau breaks his own laws, "What is the law? Not to shed blood"---and they rise up and go after him, dragging him off to the House of Pain for a little surgery of their own. Very nightmarish stuff, particularly when we see all these black claws smash into the glass case where Moreau keeps his surgical implements, and come back out with scalpels and saws. While Moreau's being rearranged, Parker escapes the island in a rowboat, along with a ship captain and a chick who's more acceptable than poor Lota...with the island flaming in the background, Moreau's sadder-but-wiser assistant Dr Montgomery says, "Don't look back..." one of the best last lines ever. Movie was banned in Great Britain until 1958. What more can you ask?

4.The Mummy---1932
The hits just kept on coming in '32, with the last of the big three showing up right at the end, in December, Karl Freund's The Mummy. Freund was a great photographer who started out at UFA in Germany; he lensed Metropolis among other things...not bad. But by the early thirties he'd gotten the hell out of Deutschland (smart boy) and came to the US and did stuff for Universal. He got the Director of Photography credit for Dracula, for example, and apparently co-directed it, alongside Todd Browning; he also went on to direct a great Peter Lorre flick called Mad Love, and film stuff for John Huston.

The Mummy was sorta his very own version of Dracula; it's a semi-remake, in my opinion, even has a Van Helsing character played by Dracula's Edward Van Sloan. There weren't any vampires, of course, but you did have an extremely old living dead guy from an exotic place...the sub-plot about an reincarnated lost love wasn't in Dracula, but it would be borrowed in a lot of Dracula movies later on. The scariest scene comes very early, and it's a classic sequence...benighted Brit archeologists have gone and dug up Imhotep (yes, just like in those recent stupid mummy flicks), and one of the scientists makes the very big mistake of reading the Scroll of Thoth in the mummy's presence, thus bringing him back to life and getting scared literally out of his mind by him. There isn't too much shown, although we do get a good look at the fantastic Jack Pierce makeup on Karloff in his the scroll is read out, the camera drifts down to Karloff's chest, and we see one of his hands stirring, just a little bit. After that, it's all back to the idiot who's done the damage...a dessicated hand reaches to pick the scroll up...we observe the scientists's horrified reaction, then, then see a couple of bandage-ends dragging out the through the door. Some other guys come in and find their colleague laughing hysterically, saying "He went out for a little stroll."

Rest of the movie isn't as frightening, and it's not very much like what most people think of when they think of mummy movies...Karloff looks really dry, but he isn't going around in bandages and doesn't drag one foot; he tracks down the modern incarnation of his lost love Ankhesenamun and tries to get her to become a living mummy with him. Whenever someone really gets in Karloff's way, he simply kills them by fixing them with his terrifying gaze. The special effect with his glowing eyes is truly something---I guess it's actually a painting or a retouched photograph---and he convinces you that he could murder you just with his stare. The Nazgul in Lord of the Rings should've been based on this stuff, although I would've cribbed Lee Van Cleef's features.

Anyway, Imhotep goes too far at the end...he's about to mummify the girl, but the statue of an offended god comes to life and blasts him...we get a fairly explicit decomposition scene, rare for the period (there's an even better one in a Lugosi film called Return of the Vampire) and the girl's reunited with her modern boyfriend.

Bottom line; just like the other two flicks from 1932, The Mummy is both a horror classic and has one genuinely scary bit, comparable to Laughten's demise in Island of Lost Souls, and the climax of Freaks.

5.The Uninvited---1944
Here's a story for you.

My father in law, Charles Shedd II, was in the Navy in 1944 when The Uninvited came was movie night, and he was with a bunch of sailors who came out with a lot of catcalls and comments and laughs. But then, about a third of the way through, they all started settling down, and got real the end of the movie, they were completely subdued and intimidated.

The Uninvited was very effectively directed by Lewis Allen; it was his second outing as a helmer, and I don't think he ever did anything else even remotely as good. It's an excellent exercise in slow-burn terror, and very much a classic haunted-house thing, depending on mood rather than shocks, although it does have some extremely creepy visuals supplied by ace Paramount FX men Gordon Jennings and the great Farciot Edouart (wonderful Hollywood name).

Story's set in England...WWII doesn't seem to be going and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) discover a house right at the edge of a cliff, and decide they just have to have it...they buy it from Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) who's eager to unload it, over the objections of his lovely daughter Stella, played by Gal Russell, whom Roderick starts to fall for. Turns out Stella is deeply attached to the house, because it reminds her of her dead mother, the saintly Mary Meredith. But that's not surprising, since mom is apparently still hanging around the place. All sorts of things start worrying the Rodericks, the scent of mimosa,wilting flowers, ghostly weeping, and a frigid rotten atmosphere in an art studio where Stella's dad was carrying on affair with his hot Spanish model Carmela, who's dead too, and also lingering. Things just get creepier and creepier...there are some cool plot least one character dies of a cardiac. Won't give away the ending, but it's extremely satisfying. As nearly as I can tell, the movie is the first Hollywood entry in the tradition of ghost movies like The Haunting or The Changeling, and it's very, very good stuff. Those sailors were quite right to shut their mouths and sit still. I'm proud of 'em.

6.The Body Snatcher---1945
I've already run my mouth quite a bit about this one, in my villains' list. Boris Karloff, as John Grey, absolutely owns this movie, delivering his coolest performance, one of the best characterizations in any Hollywood flick. But that isn't why Body Snatcher is on this list. Basically, it's yet another movie that builds and builds to one terrifying climactic sequence. It was directed by Robert Wise, who was a member of Orson Welles's original mafia, and wound up doing stuff for the Val Lewton unit at RKO...Wise became a great generalist director, operating in all sorts of genres, ranging from material like Sound of Music to The Sand Pebbles to the first Star Trek movie. In 1963 he turned out one of the scariest movies of all time, The Haunting, which figures later on this list, but he was already a master of horror back in 1945; I revisited The Body Snatcher in a Best Western in Flagstaff a while back, and it really knocked me out. Shortly afterwards, me and Steve Hickman had a long conversation about it, which totally cemented my reaction.

Film's based on the Robert Louis Steven story, of course...the story was good, but the film is much better, very nicely fleshed out. Henry Daniell plays Toddy Macfarlane, a cold-fish doctor who buys snatched bodies for dissection from Karloff's Grey in post Burke-and-Hare Edinburgh. Karloff is a pretty damn terrible fellow, but he's also rather more sympathetic than Toddy...since the body snatcher has a lot on the doctor, the doctor decides to off him, and this all leads to a sequence in which Toddy, rocking along on a rainswept night in a coach beside a dead woman, starts hearing Grey's voice saying, "Toddy...Never get rid of me, never get rid of me," and things just deteriorate from there...

For my money, this movie is the best of the Val Lewton horror outings, which is really saying something...some people prefer Cat People, I know, and I'm not knocking that, but I prefer Body Snatcher. Besides, my favorite Jacques Tourneur movie is Curse of the Demon, which is coming right up.

7.Curse of the Demon--1958
Jacques Tourneur is another great master of the horror form...if you saw Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, you were watching a great big homage to Tourneur's masterpiece, although the approach was pretty different in most ways. Curse of the Demon is the American title of Night of the Demon...if you hunt it down, make sure to get the longer version, which makes much more sense, and is altogether more satisfactory. The movie is based on Casting the Runes, a story by the fantastic M.R. James, and it's a very well written adaptation. The slant is archetypal horror-story anti-rationalism .I'm not that hostile to rationality myself, but a contempt for logic and reason can result in some cool horror goings-on.

Scientific-materialist psychologist shithead Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in England to attend a conference on paranormal phenomena, which Holden has spent his life debunking...he's rather surprised to meet a couple of colleages who let him know in no uncertain terms that his worldview's all wet. An Indian guy in a Nehru hat and jacket makes a particular impression on him, when he proclaims his absolute belief in demons. Later, Holden runs into Dr. Karswell (Niall Macginnis) who has been a particular object of Holden's scorn. Karswell asks him rather nicely to stop busting his chops; Holden won't give in; Karswell responds by passing Holden a parchment with a runic inscription on it...when Holden finds it, it tries to fly into a fireplace, but gets caught on the grate and doesn't burn up. Holden starts having a lot of very discomfitting experiences, hollow drumbeats in hotel corridors, sounds like a creaky bicicyle, floating balls of luminous mist that follow him through a black forest...eventually he learns that that the paper Karswell slipped him will draw a fire demon right to him. His only hope is to pass the paper back to Karswell, but Karswell's on his guard...

Film is very much in the Val Lewton more-sizzle-than-steak mode, although we do see the fire-demon up close, and pretty early too...a lot of people hate those scenes, and the special effects could be better, but I think the demon itself is pretty well designed. The niftiest shot is one where we see the Moloch towering up over a train and raking this little guy to bits with his big hooked claws...the demon's a guy in a costume and the victim's a little puppet, but it still works fairly well in my opinion. Sue me. In between these few concessions to the audience's vulgarity, you get a lot of excellent dialogue, sharp characterization, clammy chilling black and white photography, and loads of expert atmospherics.

Besides, the silliest effect in the film is a stuffed inanimate cat which attacks Holden in a study (he pretends it's munching on him)...but I've never heard anyone complain about it.

As I said, get the longer version...among other things, it has a key scene with Karswell and his rather sweet mother, and a bit where Holden visits a farmhouse full of Karswell's devil-worshipping followers. Whoever cut those scenes was a complete idiot...even with them restored, the movie's quite brisk.

8.Black Sunday, 1960
This is the third time this movie has come up on this blog---it was already on the vampire list, and I devoted a whole entry to it and Black Sabbath a while ago. Actually, I do think I'll let you go back and take a look at those earlier entries, if you're really interested. But if you have to have the basics right here and now, the movie is directed by Mario Bava, one of the all-time great smoking pistols of horror cinema, and it was a real groundbreaker in terms of photography, atmosphere, heavy-duty gore, and real scares. It has spiked masks being pounded onto your face with mallets, baby scorpions coming up out of empty vampire eyesockets, and swinging lamps that lead you on and on into catacombs and then turn out to have no one holding them. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but...

9.The Pit And the Pendulum, 1961
Hey, two Barbara Steele movies in a row!

The Barbster, with her huge expressive eyes, was one of the standout things about Black Sunday, where she had a dual role as the witch/vampire Asa and her innocent descendant...Black Sunday was released in the US by American International, and Samuel Z. Arkoff et. al thought they'd put her to use in Pit And The Pendulum. Back in 1960, they'd had an unexpected smash hit with the Vincent Price/Roger Corman House of Usher,, and they greenlit another Poe adaptation with the same team. The result was the most frightening entry in their Poe series, although Masque of the Red Death is arguably the best. Richard Matheson's screenplay doesn't resemble Poe's story too much, although there is a pit and a pendulum at the couldn't get a whole movie out of Poe's original, so Matheson had to pad it out. Generally, that's a bad idea (have you seen any of those fucking Dr. Seuss things like Cat in the Hat?) but in this case, the extra material's the best stuff in the movie, especially Price's trip down into the catacombs...

I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Film is set in a version of sixteenth-century Spain in which the Inquisition, strangely, seems to have had nothing to with the Catholic Church. Englishman Francis Barnard, played by the godawful John Kerr, arrives at the Medina Castle to find out what's become of his sister Elizabeth, who married Don Nicholas Medina, played by Vincent Price ...I bet there weren't too many English-Spanish marriages about this period, but what do I know? Anyway, this union was as shortlived as it was improbable...Elizabeth is dead, either from a blood disease, or because she locked herself in an iron maiden (!). Barnard doesn't believe any of Don Medina's increasingly wacky stories, and decides to stick around and ferret out the truth, aided by the Don's dishy sister, Catherine (Luana Anders).

There are all kinds of apparently supernatural manifestations, and the Don, who's getting nuttier by the minute, thinks that Elizabeth is haunting the joint. We learn that he's come by his craziness quite honestly...his dad tortured poor Nicholas's mother and uncle to death right in front of him when Nicholas was a little tyke. Ultimately Nicholas decides to descend into the family crypt and see if Elizabeth is still in her coffin, and she is,'s little comfort to him, because she opens her blazing Barbara-Steele creepy peepers and climbs out and chases him back up several stories of rotting steps...

This sequence is tremendous, and it's why Pit makes it onto this list. The movie stays pretty good, although there's a major plot twist that I shouldn't reveal, and I won't. The climax isn't as cool as the scene with Barbara rising from the dead, but it's hard to go too wrong with a giant swinging blade that's just about to slice John Kerr in half....although I guess you might up with two really lousy performances rather than just one.

The sets were designed by the brilliant Daniel Haller, by the way. He could take a zilch American-International budget and stretch it out to infinity, and he and Corman made a great team. Just recently they had a whole bunch of Corman movies on the pay-per-view, and I watched 'em all. The best ones put Hammer's movies to shame, and even the cheesiest and cheapest, such as Bucket of Blood, delivered some stuff. I'm proud to say I grew up watching Corman's product; it made me many of the things I am today!

10.Black Sabbath, 1963
Okay, I haven't devoted as much time to this this Bava classic as I did to Black Sunday, so even though I wrote about it before, I'll do a proper write-up here. Just recently, Sabbath came up when I was writing the vampire list, because the third and scariest story, The Wurdalak, is just plain seminal bloodsucker stuff...didn't make the list because the rest of the movie, an anthology flick, wasn't all about vampires. It's Bava's second-best film, but that's still high praise...for one thing, it's in color, and Bava did a remarkable job on that, at a time when color was generally mis-used in horror movies. It was generally employed to add more punch to the gross-outs or other details, red vampire lips, Chris Lee's Dracula contact lenses, the lining of his cape, etc...sometimes it was tossed into single scenes in otherwise black and white movies, like the bit with the arm rising out of a bathtub full of blood in The Tingler, or the gore gouting out of a staked vampiress in Return of Dracula. The Hammer films were in 1950's style technicolor (I guess it was Technicolor), but everything was fully-lit and looked rather...nice. The problem with a lot of color photography is the lightning...everybody assumes that a color movie has to be in COLOR, with all the hues very distinct...but the only way you can achieve this is by lightning everything brightly, with a load of fill, which means that everything looks flat, like a postcard.

Now, it's really not too great to have a horror movie that looks like a postcard...and Bava obviously devoted a lot of serious thought to getting around the problem. Something similar seems to have been going on over at American International, in the Roger Corman Poe movies...the colors were all pretty distinct, but in rather bad taste, peculiarly combined, and it put you on edge. With Black Sabbath, Bava wanted to retain the sort of strong directional lightning he had on Black Sunday, and he succeeded in combining color and value in a way that you didn't see much of back then: it contributed mightily to the film's overall impact. It looks gory even when there's nothing gory going on.

As I said, movie's an anthology...there are three parts...the first is pretty scary, the second's a dud, and the third is very frightening indeed. Part one involves a woman who's hired to prepare the body of a rich old lady who's died with a ghastly expression on her face...apparently acquainted with the fact that dead people generally don't look real (ever been to a viewing?), Bava employs a hideous dummy-puppet thing as the old gal, and while she isn't convincing, it just really doesn't matter. The woman who's been brought in doesn't want to get near her, but the corpse has a ring she'd like to steal...she pinches it, and when she returns to her apartment, she's tormented by dripping sounds, and then a visit from the's sorta like the best Night Gallery episode ever.

Part two involves a woman getting phone calls from an evil's a bore and a half. But Three is thirty minutes of the best horror cinema ever. If it went on for ninety minutes and stayed that good, it would be the all-time best vampire movie, and maybe the all-time scariest film, period. As it is, we just have to make do with Boris Karloff (still towards the top of his form, even though he was frail and crippled and about a billion years old) as the patriarch of a most unfortunate Russian family...he's gone out to kills this vampire bandit guy, there's a time limit, and he comes back after his use-by date with a great big hole in his chest. No one quite has the heart to do the needful with him...and so he just goes about killing everybody in the family, starting with a little kid, who comes back too, and goes after his it proceeds. Ah well. They've never been too happy in Russia, and I guess they had their reasons...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Vampire Movie Top Ten Part 2

Hey, you're probably going to notice that Lost Boys has reappeared in the second half here, at number seven...that's because I have a little sheet with the various titles on it, and they were out of order, and I found that I needed to list the Herzog Nosferatu in the first five...sorry about that. You can always go back and see what I had to say...if you really want to, that is.

Now that I've got that off my chest, on to Number Six...

6.Mr. Vampire, 1985
Things are different in China. Stiffened by rigor mortis, the vampires have to hop to get around. These hopping vampires are called jiang shi, and they locate you by smelling your breath, which you'd better hold when one's bouncing around nearby. The more fortunate and benign jiang shi have Taoist priests to watch out for them; keeping them out of trouble by gluing litle spell-sheets to their heads, the holy men lead the corpses through the countryside in long hoppity processions. But the more monstrous and uncontrollable specimens go boinging all over the place, suckng blood and making new hopping vampires, and the priests have to hunt them down, the vampires battling back with a lot of stiff Kung Fu.

Now if this all sound pretty funny to you, it is, and the guys who made the Hong Kong hopping vampire movies were well aware of the fact. Back during the Eighties, the kings of the genre, at least behind the camera, were director Ricky Lau and his producer, Sammo Hung, who you probably know, since he's pretty famous over here for his onscreen fisticuffs...he even had his own American TV show, as I recall. Anyway, his production company was called Bo Ho, and it turned out a whole string of jiang shi flicks starring Lam Ching Ying as Kau, the unflappable One-Eyebrow Priest, Hong kong's answer to Van Helsing. Almost all of these movies are pretty watchable, but the best of the bunch was the first one, an expert horror-comedy called Mr. Vampire.

Story has Kau being hired to rebury rich dead guy Lam because the original rites were spoiled by bad feng shui; when the coffin is opened, the corpse is suspiciously uncorrupted, and Kau realizes he's got a real problem on his hands. In no time, in spite of his best efforts, the body (played by the great Yuen Wah, one of Jacky Chan's best onscreen opponents) turns bloodsucker and is up and bouncing about...Kau's assistant Man Choi (Ricky Hui) gets bitten and starts to turn vampire himself, and as if that's not enough, Kau's other assistant, Tsan Tsang (Chin Siu Ho), in a subplot very similar to Chinese Ghost Story,,  has attracted the attentions of a comely female spook (Pauline Wong) who just wants to love him and suck his yang essence until he's dead. Ultimately both disciples are purged of evil, and the lady ghost backs off, but that still leaves vampire Lam, who's just been getting better fed and might be expected, the movie culminates in a beautifully arranged comic fight that I guess must've been staged by Sammo Hung, although I wasn't able to verify that.

Fans of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein should really take a look at's a very similar commodity, frightening and funny all at once. Moreover, it opens up crazy new vistas for us foreign devils, a Chinese buffet of superstition that most westerners have never heard of, let alone pigged out on. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, and as it just so happens, some of them hop...

7.The Lost Boys, 1987
Joel Schumacher's Lost Boys and Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark came out at about the same time, within a few months of each other in 1987, and both were very good although extremely similar. Of the two, I think I like The Lost Boys better, although also it pisses me off more... until it brings in the Frog Brothers, a couple of sawed-off comedy-relief vampire hunters, it's going along just about perfectly. Even after they appear, it manages to get its chops back...the climax has a bunch of good violence, and the movie has one of the best last-lines ever. But I wish they'd stuck to the totally serious tone.

Story has Jason Patrick and Corey Haim as brothers who go to stay with their mother, Dianne Wiest, who lives in a dank boardwalk-resort town on the northern California coast. I'm familiar with the kind of cold wet atmosphere you get up there---got some Northern-California bronchitis on my last western trip---and believe me, Joel Schumacher does it up straight. As a matter of fact, this is hands down his best directing job...I really don't understand what happened to the guy later on. But back to the vampires.

Turns out the town is infested with them. Teenagers are disappearing from the boardwalk, although no one much cares, because they're street kids and runaways, etc. Aimless summertime youth that he is, Jason Patrick spots extremely hot Jamie Gertz down by the sea, and she introduces him to the rest of her circle, who, we discover, are a bunch of vampires, including Keifer Sutherland in one of his earliest roles, and Alex Winter in his pre-Bill and Ted days. Our love-besotted protagonist is offered the chance to become a vampire himself, and, dazzled by Ms. Gertz and the promise of eternal coolness, he goes along, much to the horror of his younger brother, who enlists his friends the Frog Brothers for a final vampire killfest.

The movie does an excellent job in depicting the slide into vampire awfulness; there's a real sense that our Romeo's making the worst choice imaginable, although we also get a very clear idea of what's luring him in. Even though there's funny stuff, much of it involving clueless Dianne Wiest, it doesn't conflict with the rest of the movie; for much of its length, the film is remarkably, refreshingly serious. If only it stayed like that, as I said. Even so, I rate it pretty damn highly. A lot of other vampires flicks don't stay good for nearly so long, although some---like Near Dark, The Lost Boys's near twin--- manage to keep their mojo straight through.

And speaking of Near Dark...

8.Near Dark, 1987
I was very happy when Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar...I've been enjoying her films for quite some time, and it was nifty to see her step out from James Cameron's shadow...Hell, if push comes to shove, I think she makes better movies than he does, and Near Dark was a very authoritative early performance...I think it was her second movie, after Blue Steel. The flick doesn't seem to be very sure came and went in the theaters...I got to see it on the big screen, but not many other people did. Didn't make its money back, and given how inexpensive it was, that's really sad. I hope a lot of folks have caught up to it on video and cable. I know I watch it whenever I channel-surf onto it.

Setting is Oklahoma...sad to say, that's not as cool as the California coast, and the atmosphere isn't as good as what you've got in Lost Boys. However, the two films are real similar plotwise and thematically---teenage boy gets hooked by cute female vampire, gets drawn into a vampire family, struggles to get out, actual family members struggle to save him. Our hero, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), is a farm boy who meets Mae (Jenny Wright) at an ice cream shoppe. They hit it off, he gives her a ride in his truck...and she bites him, then books. The truck won't start after that...walking home, he gets mucho sick when the sun comes up, and gets rescued by Mae's vampire clan, who drive an RV with most of the windows covered. The vampires are a pretty colorful bunch....when Caleb asks the gruesomely charismatic leader, Jesse (Lance Henriksen), how old he is, Jesse replies, "let me put it this way...I fought for the south." Then there's Severin (Bill Paxton, fresh off his role in Aliens), an extremely crazed redneck, and Diamondback (Jeanette Goldstein, also from Aliens) a lethal butch bitch. In a wonderful scene,the gang, Caleb in tow, descends on a roadhouse and starts doing a lot of horrible vampire things...a guy puts a bullet into Jesse's chest, and Jesse coughs it out and hands it back to the guy...Severin grabs a big Oklahoman, bites him in the neck, and says, "I hate it when they ain't been shaved." All the customers get slaughtered.

Needless to say, as much as Caleb likes Mae, all this ain't for him, and he won't join in. He's willing to suck on Mae (understandably), but the other vampires aren't going to let him get away with this indefinitely. He buys some time for himself when he saves them from cops during a motel shootout, then runs into his father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and sister Sara (Marcie Leeds), who've been searching for him. He and Mae skeedaddle with them, but the vampires aren't about to let them leave the family...

There's some stuff about curing vampirism with with transfusions after that...Caleb receives blood from his dad, becomes human again, and gives some blood to Mae...ultimately the vampires are wiped out in a fiery sunlight-conflagration. The vamps getting well done is very...well done; as of 1987, it was about the best scene of that sort I'd ever seen. Great motion-control on the superimposed flames. We sure had come some distance from that feeble lap-dissolve of Max Shreck evaporating. There is such a thing as progress!

Bottom line: Near Dark is very well directed and written (Eric Red and Bigelow did the screenplay), features a bunch of good character actors, has some classic bits, moves right along, and fires on all cylinders and maintains its tone right ro the end. What else do you want? The Frog Brothers?

9.The Addiction, 1995
Abel Ferrara directed a string of good to excellent little flicks back in the nineties, and I haven't seen anything by him for a while...maybe he's still working, I don't know. He never really broke out into the mainstream, and maybe he didn't care, but he sure got some talented people to work with him on his low-budget, extremely intense oddball movies...Harvey Keitel, for example, turned in maybe his best performance in the original Bad Lieutenant (which bore no resemblence at all to Herzog's remake, which I also liked). All the Ferrara films I saw were quite memorably literate and smart, and The Addiction is no exception. It's certainly the most intelligent vampire movie ever, and maybe the smartest horror movie, period.

Lili Taylor plays Kathy Conklin, a philosophy student in NYC, and even though though she's been imbibing all sorts of loathesome intellectual shit, she's pretty contented with it. One night she's accosted by a gorgeous vampire played by by Annabella Sciorra, who gives her a chance to escape if she'll simply say, with utter conviction, that she doesn't want to be bitten...Lili can't manage it, and gets infected. She's very disturbed when she turns into a predator, but everything in her philosophical training conspires to inure her to her horrible new appetites. She infects other folks, and meets Peina (Christopher Walken, in a nifty cameo), who says he doesn't drink blood anymore...supposedly he's gone for four years without, and he advises her to do the same.

Then he sucks her blood.

She doesn't get any nicer after this.

Finally, she finishes her doctoral dissertation, and invites all her professors and the dean to help her celebrate. But before the party starts, she encounters a street preacher who truly isn't interested in getting bit...this throws her into a tizzy. Her guests are arriving, though, and she snaps out of it and gives a speech thanking the academics; finishing with, "and now I'd like to show you what I've learned," or words to that effect, she hurls herself upon the dean, and her vampire buddies rip into everyone else...

It's pretty damn climactic, but it's not the end. Mr. Ferrara isn't silly enough to leave things on such a note...some addicts do recover, and why not Kathy? Turns out she binged way too much, and she stumbles about the city covered in blood and puking it up...she's hit bottom. And the fact that that preacher guy was immune to her seems to have made an impression too. She asks a priest for absolution and gets it. The very end is unclear, since she lays a rose on her own grave...has she died and moved on to the afterlife? Or is she still in this world, her humanity restored? I dunno.

There aren't any missteps until that point, if indeed it was a misstep. I'm just not sure. But I was pretty knocked out by everything that came before. I loved the black and white photography and the performances, and the fact that the script relies almost entirely on ideas, and what appears to be a fairly close observation (or experience of?) addiction. The satire of academia is particularly sharp (I was a grad student once, and my wife is a philosophy professor), and that party scene is powerful, hilarious, and terrifying, a fantastic payoff. Some might label the film pretentious, or get bored by the philosophizing; there's a noticeable lack of fangs and other vampire visual cliches. I don't think the word vampire is even used, although I'm not certain about that. But even though I like pointy teeth and cleavage and stakes and hammers, I was completely engaged by the film, and recommend it very highly. If The Dead was cup of tea, you should give this a shot.

10.Let The Right One In, 2008
Didn't see that Hollywood remake of this, but I can't imagine it was anywhere near as good. Simply put, Let the Right One in is the best vampire movie since the Murnau Nosferatu. I'm not joking. It's almost as though they fleshed out the little-kid stuff in the Wurdalak and the window scene in that TV version of Salem's Lot, and got a whole movie. There's only one thing I took issue with, and that's the stupid CG kitty biz, but it didn't take me out of the movie for long.

If this one movie's any indication, the guy who directed it---Tomas Alfredson---is a damn genius. If he does a couple more this good, he'll be right up there with horror aces like Nakata and Bava and Whale. Screenplay was written by John Ajvide Lundquist from his own novel, and if I'd done that American remake, I'd have stuck very close to his script. Of course, you couldn't have the extremely Swedish Swedish stuff; the movie gets a lot out of mileage out of that, making Sweden look downright nightmarish; it's apparently always winter there, and is populated almost entirely by leering teenage bullies, grownup alcoholics, wannabe adolescent mass-murderers, and vampires, all of them interacting unfortunately in grim, grim, grim concrete housing blocks with crappy exhortational statues out front, jutting up from the ever-deepening snow. As someone who probably would've been sterilized under Sweden's geld-the-problem-students program, I really dug the movie's take on the socialist paradise, although I expect a little bit of the snow melts every once in a while.

Story's largely from the POV of little Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), an angelic-looking blond kid. Completely friendless, he's always getting kicked around by thugs at school, but he soothes himself with fantasies of revenge while studying clippings about murders and fondling his knife. One night he meets Eli, a weird little girl who smells kinda funny and goes about barefoot in the snow. The audience learns pretty shortly that she's a vampire; she's got an old guy named Hakan (Per Ragnar) who strings people up and drains them for her---his arrangements for doing this are rather well-thought out---and if he fails to bring home the juice, little Eli gets cranky at him and goes hunting herself. When it begins to dawn on Oskar that she's even weirder then he thought, well, he's somewhat uncomfortable with the idea, but she is his only friend. Also, she doesn't take any crap from anyone, and there are some amazing perks to getting tight with her, as we see when she wipes out Oskar's tormentors. End of the movie is extremely chilling, although some misguided viewers have decided it's romantic and happy---we've seen what happened to poor Hakan, who died most awfully in Eli's service, and we realize that Oskar is going to wind up just like him, putting his murderous tendencies to work on behalf of a twelve-year old girl who's never going to age, even though he will, and pretty wretchedly, at that...

Every hardcore vampire fan should see this flick. It's a total fix, and it's way better than any horror movie Hollywood has done in a while. But Hollywood should skip the damn remakes and start re-learning how to do good original work. I don't mean turning out tripe about starry-eyed glittering hunks conferring hickeys on swooning ninnies. There was a time when American vampires complained about unshaven rednecks but chomped down on 'em anyway, and vampire philosophers gave whole roomfuls of shithead academics just exactly what they deserved for perverting young minds...where the hell is Abel Ferrara when you need him?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Vampire Movie Top Ten Part 1

Been giving some thought to this one for a while. Basically, I'm confining myself to theatrical films, which is sort of a pity, because that excludes the single best adaptation of Dracula, the BBC version with Louis Jourdan. I'm also leaving out segments of films which are otherwise non-vampire movies...Black Sabbath comes to mind, in spite of the fact that the third segment, the Wurdalak, is utterly classic stuff. I did a Mario Bava post earlier in the year, and you can read what I say about Black Sabbath there. I also feel sorta tempted to include a movie which no longer exists, London After Midnight, because stills of Lon Chaney clearly indicate that he came up with the scariest-looking vampire (and movie monster) ever, something even nastier than the original Nosferatu. But as I said, the movie was lost, and all we have are those butt-kicking photos.

And now that that's all out of the way, on to the list.

1. Nosferatu, 1922.
Starting with a bang here....the great F.W. Murnau gives us his unauthorized take on the Dracula story, and comes up with something that's not only superior to every other vampire flick ever made, but also its source material....simply put it's a genuinely great movie by a real master, not just a genre classic. Even Werner Herzog's remake, which makes the list later on, doesn't match it, and Herzog is no slouch. Yeah, the 1922 version is pretty crude technically---it looks like it was made ten years earlier, and the nocturnal scenes feature some of the brightest daylight this side of Plan Nine from Outer Space. But it really makes no difference at fact, this is one of those instances where the shitty film quality just renders the film more nightmarish and otherworldly. Yep, reality doesn't look like that. But Max Shreck's hypodermic teeth and vulture claws seem quite of a piece with overexposure, overcranking, and nights where the sun's blazing like something out of Krazy Kat. Much of the film's power derives from Shreck's performance and makeup, but so what...Schreck is the worst thing you can see in any surviving horror movie, pace once again to Lon Chaney's bloodsucker. But the visuals in Nosferatu are very scary across the board...the technology might be primitive and the budget insufficient, but Murnau sure as hell came up with some extremely choice imagery. I presume the makeup was his idea (if I'm mistaken, let me know), the use of really stark shadows is brilliant, the thing where Max comes up out of the coffin like a switchblade is maybe the single most iconic bit of business in the whole of horror cinema, and the low-angle work with Shreck teetering the deck of the ship is right up there too. I also love the stuff with the processions of coffins and the rats, which seem like something right out of really get this tremendous sense of the vampire's vile lethality, how he's about the equivalent of a medieval plague. The only place where the film really falls down is the climax, even though it depicts, for the first time, the notion that vampires are actually destroyed by sunlight...having the girl allowing him to drain her and thus keeping her at her bedside just seems languid and undramatic. But Nosferatu would've topped this list on the basis of the first twenty minutes alone.

Interesting side-note...the movie almost wound up as non-existent as London After Midnight. Murnau hadn't secured the rights from the Stoker estate; he made a feeble attempt to obscure the fact---shifting the locations, changing Dracula's name to Graf Orlock and so on. But Stoker's widow wasn't fooled, and she went after the movie hammer and tongs, getting a court order to destroy all the prints, most of which were indeed, duly done away with. Holy shit. But some copies survived, thank God, and the world's a better place. I understand that about ninety percent of all the movies ever made have been lost, holy shit again...

2. Dracula, 1931
Hate to follow a Dracula adaptation with another Dracula adaptation, but there's really no help for it; after Nosferatu the twenties just weren't very rich in vampire movies. Even London After Midnight turned out to be about fake vampires, I believe; certainly, when its director, Tod Browning, remade it in the thirties as Mark of the Vampire, that had a preposterous Scooby-Doo ending which negated a lot of the remarkable vampire doings earlier on. Among other things, there was a bit where someone sees Carroll Borland's Luna flapping around outside a window on giant white mothlike wings...even though it took Browning and Co. two weeks to film this rather short sequence, because the effects kept breaking down, in the film her lepidopteran escapade flight turns out to have been an elaborate ploy to fool the bad guys. Just goes to show that Aristotle was right when he said you're better off with outright impossibilities than unlikely possibilities.

Luckily though, Browning gave us a thoroughly supernatural vampire classic in 1931; Dracula was an adaptation of a stage version that had already made Bela Lugosi famous, and Browning quite wisely brought Bela out to Universal to repeat his role on celluloid. The Hungarian was a very weird commodity, but that worked very much to his advantage; his Dracula couldn't be more different from Max Shreck's---where Graf Orlock is a purely ghoulish figure, Bela's Drac is a bizarre Euro smoothie. Of course, neither conception is very much like like Stoker's Count, who was a backwoods Turk-butchering barbarian with hair on his palms, pretty savage.

At any rate, rather like the novel, and most other adaptations of Dracula, Browning's version is at its best in the opening scenes, which feature wonderful matte-paintings and cavernous extremely atmospheric sets. Dwight Frye is quite appropriately twitchy and wide-eyed as English real-estate agent Renfield, who's been conflated with Jonathan Harker. There's a swift succession of fabulous bits, including Dracula going through a giant spider-web on the stairs and not disturbing it, and the scene where he declares he doesn't drink...blood. We get some fine glimpses of spider-infested vaults beneath the castle, and Bela, with his hovering pale masklike face, is really pretty stone creepy. It's all quite cinematic, and about on a par with the work of Browning's contemporary and competitor James Whale; but when the story shifts to England, everything gets very stiff and stagebound. Moreover, characters start telling us about things that we'd rather see, and the climax, an offstage grunt as Bela gets staked, is even feebler than the finish of Nosferatu. It didn't have to be like that, neither...this was pre-code, dammit, and Browning would demonstrate that he could put some really psycho shit on screen with his masterpiece Freaks, although he did get in some trouble for it. Fact is, there's a semi-remake of Dracula that has some genuine onscreen gruesomeness and it got away with it, namely Karl Freund's The Mummy, which is probably, along with Island of Lost Souls, the scariest of the thirties horror flicks. But beyond a doubt, Browning chickened out at the end of Dracula.

Still, the screen time Lugosi gets in the latter parts is still choice, even if he isn't trotted out sufficiently; Edward Van Sloane is fine as Van Helsing, and Dwight Frye as a now-vampirized spider-connoisseur is simply a hoot. But it simply has to be said: the movie owes it classic status primarily to Lugosi's performance and the first twenty minutes. And if you want to see Browning's best work, it's Freaks.

3.Black Sunday, 1960
Long gap after Dracula, I'm afraid. There's some good thirties and forties bloodsucking that I've rewatched recently, but I didn't fall in love with any of it...maybe it's my fault. Dracula's Daughter is superior to much of Dracula, and the lesbian hijinks are pretty startling, but the movie doesn't ever rise to the heights. Son of Dracula is solid but very much a b-movie; oddly enough, a lot of the most memorable vampire carryings-on in the Universal canon are in the vastly underrated Abbott and Costello meets Frankenstein, which is genuinely funny, frequently quite scary, but not entirely a vampire film. As for the Hammer films, I think, for the most part, that they're simply not that great. The vaunted production values are not very impressive (check out any of the Roger Corman Poe movies to see some real bang for your buck), and the Hammer Dracula films are characterized by a distinct lack of Dracula. The violence was hot stuff back in the fifties, but it's pretty tame now, and primarily you're left with good British character actors making do in a bunch of really tiny sets. To see something that blows Hammer's product absolutely away, check out Black Sunday if you haven't already.

True, it's fifty years old, but it's still pretty rabid. It runs out of gas at about the two-thirds mark, but until then it's been very very scary indeed---I'd go so far as to say it's the scariest movie made up until that point. The violence hasn't mellowed...the movie would get an r-rating today, just for the opening sequence where the Mask of the Demon is pounded onto Barbara Steele's face with a big middle-ages Moldavian mallet. The photography is extremely'd have to go back to Bride of Frankenstein to find a horror movie that looked this good. I suppose someone could argue that it's not really a vampire movie, that it's actually a satanist incestuous witch movie...but the Satanist incestuous witches are living-dead throat-opening bloodsuckers who fear the cross and wind up impaled on stakes. The guys at Hammer were just screwing around, and I really do like all the cleavage they put on the screen, but Mario Bava's masterpiece is the real deal.

4.Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979
Yet another version of Dracula, dammit...sorry about this. Maybe I should just do a Dracula top ten and have done with it. There sure are a lot of versions out there, and that way I could include the Louis Jourdan adaptation. I could have both Nosferatus, and the Tod Browning version, and the Spanish-language version of the Tod Browning version, and Horror of Dracula, and the Spanish Christopher Lee flick, and the Jack Palance TV movie, and...I'll give it some thought.

No matter what, I really couldn't out leave the Herzog remake of Nosferatu. It's not as good as Murnau's movie, but it has a lot of excellences of its own. Klaus Kinski was a great actor, and he brings a whole lot to the role of Graf Orlock...among other things, he communicates terrible sadness and pain...he really looks like he's suffering, although he's extremely terrifying too, in an intensely vermin-like ratty way. He's clearly spent a very long time in deep damp darkness. The makeup is basically a riff on the original, but the ghastly color is a plus, and the teeth, which seem really specialized for drawing blood, are actually an improvement.

The titles tell you right off that you're in for something remarkable. They're superimposed over a tableau of real-life mummies, from that wacky museum down in Gaunajuato, Mexico. They're profoundly distorted and pathetic, each in a very different get this horrible revelation that you're looking at your own future, although you also realize that you're also going to shrivel up in your idiosyncratic way. Most horror movies wouldn't go anywhere near this, and whenever I had to concoct distinguishing characteristics for my zombies in The Dead, I always thought about the title sequence from this movie.

The film might not appeal to an audience brought up on Hollywood close-ups and promiscuous editing, but I like long takes and long shots, and this movie has a lot of them...or rather, doesn't. Herzog's early style was simple in the extreme...he'd settle on a shot that he considered optimal, and stick with a master. Some might think this boring, but I've had enough of Michael Bay and his ilk, and the last time I went on a Herzog kick,I found his confidence an incredible relief. Nosferatu's pace is indeed slow, but just about every scene packs a cumulative punch. The scary rotting locations are very well chosen; decrepit old
Europe has never looked danker or shittier. There's some stuff with shadows that's as cool as anything in the original; when I first saw the movie, one particular vampiric entrance had the audience applauding. The Breughelish rat-plague scenes are even more impressive than in Murnau's film...the addition of a bunch of burghers having one last banquet amid all the thickening horror, with rodents crawling around under the long tables, is particularly memorable. I could've done without the downer ending, although it's an amusing twist to depict Van Helsing as a rationalist know-nothing who accidentally unleashes the pestilence on the rest of Europe after Count Orlock is destroyed. All in all, it's a remake that does indeed hold a candle to its inspiration, and then some.

5.Lifeforce, 1985
Boy, I bet there are going to be some howls about this choice, but what the Hell, this is my own personal top ten list. And I really like the imperially stacked Mathilda May, who's onscreen and starkers far longer than any Hammer babe in any Hammer flick.

But the movie's got some other things going for it as well. It's based on Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires, which actually did a fairly creditable job on trying to update the whole vampire mythos with science fiction; I prefer the classic approach, (screw the whole Twilight thing, yucch), but I managed to get into Wilson's take on the material. For one thing, it brought a whole bunch of scope to the subject matter, and that aspect of the book is preserved nicely in Lifeforce. The film has a comet entering the solar system...there seems to be a spaceship embedded in its core, and the European Space Agency sends a team out to investigate. The astronauts get into the alien craft, which turns out to be full of dried up batlike apparently dead aliens...there are also several human bodies, which the astronauts appropriate. On the way home, however, shades of the ill-fated voyage of the Demeter, the crew starts getting knocked off, and when the ship lands, there's only one guy alive, and he doesn't know what's happened...

The movie gets pretty balls-out crazy after that, the world's nuttiest Quatermass film, sort of like Prince of Darkness with a much bigger budget and better special effects. And Mathilda May...turns out she's is a space vampire who's been to earth countless times, and now she's back, walking around completely naked and leaving dried-out husks who wake up, raise hell for a while, and explode up if they don't get constant infusions of human life-force, which gets sucked out of them by giant glowing collection-balls and brought back to the tomb where Mathilda sets up shop. The movie is frequently incoherent, but it moves right along with huge does of nudity and very wierd gross-outs. Frank Finlay, who played Van Helsing in the BBC Dracula, is on hand as a space-age VH who gets vampirized...just after the protagonist shoots him, Frank grins sweatily, says "Here I go!" and bursts into flame as all the life-force he's collected gets sucked out of him. Ultimately, London is completely overrun with lifeforce-zombies, and it's the closest thing to The Dead that's ever been put on screen...the scenes of mass hysteria, destruction, brain-blowing out, and giant lightning collection balls rolling through the subways is actually pretty impressive, exactly the sort of apocalypse that was required at the end of Quatermass and the Pit, which is, admittedly,a much better movie. But Lifeforce is a fast, sexy, spectacular gas, and I really love it. Sue me.