The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

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 nastier...as 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 this...it'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 famous...it 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?

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