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 all...in 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 Breughel...you 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 impressive...you'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 way...you 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 it....like 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.
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.