Saturday, May 19, 2018

Vamp or Not? Burnt Offerings

I was contacted by Adrien who wanted to mention the 1976 Dan Curtis film Burnt Offerings to me. Based on a novel by Robert Marasco it was a film that Adrien felt should be on TMtV.

I’m always happy to get suggestions and this is one that deserved, at the very least, to have the ‘Vamp or Not?’ treatment and also contained tropes within it that would emerge perhaps more famously in other (horror) films in years to come. It also boasted a small but astounding core cast. So, why the ‘Vamp or Not?’ – well, if we have a vampire here it is a vampiric house.

David and Ben
The film starts with a car and in it are Ben (Oliver Reed), his wife Marian (Karen Black, Children of the Night (1991) & Night Angel) and their son David (Lee Montgomery, Dead of Night & Mutant). They are going to see a country house that is up for rent (at a reasonable price). When they arrive it is a mansion rather than a house and Ben assumes there must be a cottage/gatehouse for rent. They knock at the door and it is eventually answered by the handyman, Walker (Dub Taylor).

Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth
He confirms it is the main house that is for rent and goes to get the lady of the house, Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart). Whilst they are waiting David goes to play outside and Marian discovers the conservatory, but all the flowers are dead. Roz makes her appearance. They are renting the house out through summer and it is reasonable, she confirms, but wants to check their suitability first. She asks a few questions and we discover that Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) will be coming with them. They are soon joined by Roz’s wheelchair using brother, Arnold (Burgess Meredith).

Karen Black as Marian
The rent is just $900 dollars for the summer but there are catches – they must see to the house upkeep through the summer (Walker, it becomes apparent, will not be there). Also, their mother will remain in the house, she is elderly and they will need to bring her a tray of food three times a day. Ben is suspicious and asks for time to think about it. Back home, in bed (as sirens wail outside) it is clear that Marian has set her heart on spending summer there and Ben confirms they’ll take the house. When they arrive to take tenancy, however, the siblings have gone, leaving them a note and keys. Marian tries to check on Mrs Allardyce but she does not open her bedroom door and, indeed, doesn’t touch the trays left for her for at least the first week.

The film slow burns, with a layer of uncanny enough to keep the viewer on edge but without doing too much. The personalities of Ben and Marian change. His a little, a game of rough-housing with David, in the pool, turns violent and he later admits that he wanted to hurt his son – though that seems to shock him back to normal but he becomes suspicious of the house and Marian’s behaviour. He also starts dreaming of his mother’s funeral, from when he was a child, and hallucinating the hearse and driver – who has become the personification of death in his eyes. Marian becomes obsessed with the house and Mrs Allardyce’s rooms. In the room are photographic portraits and the siblings mentioned her collection (and suggested they numbered into thousands).

the flowers in bloom
The most marked change is with Aunt Elizabeth who turns from an elderly but still sprightly woman to a weakened old lady who becomes more and more confused. This culminates with her becoming frail and, suddenly, whilst in bed we hear a crack. This is her arm snapping, her bones have become so frail, and as they wait for a doctor both her and Ben see the hearse driver come into the room and she dies. After her death the flowers in the conservatory are suddenly in full bloom and Marian does not attend her funeral (refusing, off screen, to leave the house and Mrs Allardyce).

terror in the face of death
The idea of someone becoming obsessed with the building would be explored after this by Stephen King in the Shining (and later still by Kubrick in the classic film of King’s book). However this does seem very much to be the house devouring the energy of the occupants (we’ll come back to Marian) rather than assimilating (Jack, in the shining) someone into its ghostly menagerie. This is underlined later when, during a storm, Ben hears a cacophony, which is shingles being knocked off a low roof as wood slats peel from the house revealing new slats beneath – the house devours the occupants and renews itself.

obsession leads to possession 
This scene leads to Ben trying to escape with David, through the storm. However a tree falls on the driveway, blocking their escape. Ben tries to move it but tendrils of vegetation wrap themselves around his leg, pulling him over – this concept would be taken to a further extreme later in the Evil Dead. As for Marian, we see her start wearing clothes she has found in the house, eating Mrs Allardyce’s meal tray and slowly becoming the house’s matriarch. As we never see Mrs Allardyce we might assume that she was never there – perhaps she is a personification of the house itself, which could then be indicative of a vampiric possession of Marian.

So… the house devours life energy. It takes this slowly, it would appear, or quickly (through accidental death, as nearly happens with David when he is almost suffocated as gas leaks into his room). It can alter the perceptions of the residents (causing hallucinations and altering moods). This life energy allows it to renew itself (becoming younger, as it were). It is apparent it has killed a large number of residents (as the portraits are said to go into the thousands). All in all, I think Adrien was right and this is Vamp.

The imdb page is here.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos – review

Author: Gerry Duggan

Illustrator: Salvador Espin

First published: 2016 (TPB)

Contains spoilers

The blurb: She is Shiklah-undisputed Queen of the Monster Metropolis below Manhattan! In the world that was, she married Deadpool, the Merc with the Mouth. But nothing on Battleworld is quite as it was. Now, she commands the Howling Commandos: Werewolf by Night! Frankenstein's Monster! The Living Mummy! Man-Thing! And Marcus the Centaur! What would her late husband think of that???

The review: Part of Marvel’s 2015 Secret War Event, this starts with a fight between Dracula and Deadpool, the former winning as he (against his promise) used his vampire powers and then took Deadpool’s body, put it in an acid filed chest – to prevent regeneration – and disposed of it. Deadpool does appear in this, therefore, but as a ghost and narrator.

Shiklah is a demonic entity and – in Marvel canon – married Deadpool but eventually divorced him and got together with Dracula. She devours lifeforce through a kiss. In this alternate version she is forced, after being widowed, to become Dracula’s fiancée. However, she intends to betray him and persuades him to let her take her brother’s ashes to rest, though her real quest is to find the pieces of the Sceptre of the Manticore. Dracula sends the Howling Commandos with her, but they intend to betray him too.

We also get a fleeting visitation of Blade (or an alternative version, thereof), who is a member of the Thor Corps.

The graphic is competently drawn but I wasn’t wowed by the art and is very short (in fact the trade paper back is padded with an old issue of Werewolf by Night and it still feels too short). It is a passable read but nothing special – 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Empire of the Dead Act 3 – review

Author: George A Romero

Illustrator: Alex Maleev

First published: 2015

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: It's zombies versus vampires — with desperate citizens caught in the crossfire — as the legendary George Romero unleashes the final chapter in his undead epic! Who is kidnapping the children of New York City, where are they taking them, and why? Meanwhile, Dr. Penny Jones has a nasty surprise coming her way when she conducts a zombie autopsy on Xavier. As Election Day looms, will Chandrake retain his rule, or will Chilly Dobbs have his day? And will the election even matter as the warring factions of rebels break through into the city? As Jo tries to make a break from the remote vampire compound, Detective Perez makes a terrifying discovery. It's the moment everyone's been waiting for: all-out zombie versus vampire warfare! Who will rule the Empire of the Dead?

Review: After a fantastic Act 1 and perhaps a tad weaker Act 2 I have to admit the series conclusion was more whimper than bang and that is sad given the early strength.

The best was I can describe it is threadbare. We get an assault on New York that is lacklustre and the conclusion of the mayoral race was thin.

All isn’t bad however, we get a genuine zompire moment when we discover that swat officer turned zombie Xavier – who has been taken into surgery following a headshot (not an autopsy as suggested in thee blurb) is regenerating – indeed she is spontaneously healing. They realise that she had been bitten by a vampire before being turned into a zombie and she is a hybrid of the two types of dead. This does beg the question of why vampires who died previously didn’t become zompires, rather they turned.

Of course, there is an underlying social commentary to the story as a whole – it wouldn’t be Romero otherwise – but it feels a little shovelled on rather than subtly underlying. If I sound too negative, I apologise. It just was disappointing after the excellent start and, despite being not as good, it still is a quality volume (just not as quality). 6 out of 10.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Monster Squad – review

Writer: Frank Barbiere*

Illustrator: Brent Schoonover*

First Published: 2016 (TPB)

Contains spoilers

*Barbiere And Schooinover were primary writer and illustrator but the collection contains one issue of S.H.I.E.L.D. written by Al Ewing and illustrated by Stefano Casell.

The Blurb: Hidden deep beneath Area 13 lies the clandestine headquarters of S.T.A.K.E. - a top secret division of S.H.I.E.L.D. that houses aliens, mythical beasts and all manner of extra-normals. Now, under the command of legendary soldier - and newly resurrected Life Model Decoy - Dum Dum Dugan, these monsters step out of the shadows and defend the world against threats too dangerous for normal men as the All-New, All-Different, all-too-literal Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

The review: The Howling Commandos are the supernatural side of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and in this graphic are made up of Dum Dum Duggan, Warwolf, zombie Jasper Sitwell, Vampire by Night, Man-Thing, Manphibian, Orrgo, Teen Abomination, and Hit-Monkey. Later in the run Glyph also joins the squad.

Clearly, from a TMtV point of view Vampire by Night is our main draw but also, we discover, that unbeknown to S.T.A.K.E., Dracula is being held below Area 13 and is being experimented on – the Dracula story does not come into this volume and we see his incarceration in passing only.

Vampire by Night is the niece of Jack Russell – aka Werewolf by Night. In Marvel comic cannon she has the option of becoming a vampire or werewolf between dusk and dawn – though she is human/powerless during the day and can walk in daylight. We do see her take on wolf form but it is as a wolf and not as a bipedal werewolf.

Actually, the joy of this edition is Dum Dum, the original Duggan died but his consciousness was digitized and is beamed into a supply of robotic bodies, being sent to the next when one is destroyed or very damaged. Stillwell’s zombie form is less articulate than some versions of him.

The story mainly sees the Commandos trying to gel as a team and take on Sphinx – an Egyptian myth orientated villain. It is rip roaring fun and worth a read. 6 out of 10

Friday, May 11, 2018

Family Blood – review

Director: Sonny Mallhi

Release date: 2018

Contains spoilers

This kind of came out of left field. I’d seen no pre-release build up, it was released straight to Netflix and Netflix didn’t even flag it to me, it was a random stumble across, which of course makes a release worrying.

This follows the well-worn trope of the vampire representing the addicted and sets itself within an addict’s world. Whether it does that well or not we shall soon see. However, first we get…

James Ransone as Christopher
Darkness, and heavy breathing. Kristen (Carson Meyer) is hiding in a closet and the camera focuses closely to her face, the tear that falls silently. Until she steps out and into the devastated house. She calls for her mom and her brother. Eventually getting to her mom’s room. She reaches to the closet door and a voice says “Don’t”. It is Christopher (James Ransone), presumably in a relationship with her mother, she ignores him and pulls the door open.

In the closet are the dead bodies of mother and brother. He tries to explain that he really did love them, as he loves Kristen. He’d have loved to have made them like him but he couldn’t help himself and it’s too late, they’re dead. Kristen is holding a cross up to him – it doesn’t work, he confides, he wished it did. He tells her to go and she runs but at every entrance she goes to he is there, clearly moving with super human speed. Just before he kills her he takes out his dentures revealing a set of fetid fangs – I’ll come back to those later.

Vinessa Shaw as Ellie
A 12-step meeting, and whilst Eddie (Ciaran Brown) speaks the camera focuses on Ellie (Vinessa Shaw, Hocus Pocus) until it is her turn to speak. She is a recovering addict, at first she liked to drink and then moved to prescription pills (though she brings herself short as she is not meant to reveal her substance of choice). She has just moved to the area with her kids, who she lost and then regained custody of. For Ellie this is a new start but that seems daunting.

Kyle and Meegan
As things progress we see that 13-year old Amy (Eloise Lushina) wants things to work out with her mom but older brother Kyle (Colin Ford) is sceptical and that is making him act out (in the first week of school he gets in two fights, is wrongly accused of tagging a poster and sets off the fire alarm getting suspended). He falls for also rebelling, true tagger of the poster and artist Meegan (Ajiona Alexus) and the film fails by not showing us their burgeoning romance in anywhere near enough detail to give a climax moment the necessary impact. Meanwhile, at the next 12-step meeting Christopher is there and talks about his addiction causing him to rip through people (of course he means literally).

Eloise Lushina as Ellie
Eddie wasn’t at the meeting and Ellie goes to the park in which he stays. She is on a swing when he appears and offers her pills… she falls, takes the pills and gets on the swing stoned. Eddie looks to go to her (clearly up to no good) when a hand grabs him and cracks his head. Christopher goes to Ellie and, biting his wrist, feeds her his blood. He then grabs Eddie’s body, drags it off, and leaps really high with it. Ellie comes round and staggers off the swing; Christopher breaks her neck. She comes round, staggers to her car, falls – cutting her head – and drives home.

myoglobin moment
So, in the morning her head (injured at the car) is healed but she soon discovers she can’t keep food down and she yearns for something. We get all the standard bits and bobs – her buying a steak and tasting the myoglobin, attacking a cat (what is it about fledgling vampires and cats) and trying to come to terms with the changes. Christopher tries to insinuate himself into her life and is rebuffed and then quickly allowed access. The kids try to cope (or mostly Kyle, to be honest, Amy is fairly kept out of it until the finale).

a new high
However much was a bit silly or too shorthand. Having killed a person in the dark basement and the body being seen, at a distance, by Kyle, he didn’t ask what’s wrong with her, he asks why Ellie killed her. The V word is rarely used and Christopher shows confusion at what he is and then disavows that assertion when noticing Kyle researching ways to kill a vampire and disagreeing with most of the suggestions. Christopher, in a rather cool line, suggests “What first appears as a monster is only there to keep you safe”, whilst acting opposite, hitching Kyle up the wall by the throat, tossing him the length of the landing and over the banister to drop down to the ground floor. Such a fall should have 1) killed 2) paralysed 3) broken bones or 4) knocked out – or a combination thereof. Kyle miraculously survives without much damage to show for it.

fetid fangs
And the fangs. The idea that the fangs are permanent and covered with dentures… ok. But the fact they are fetid and broken… these vampires heal remarkably fast, so why not their teeth. It was a stylistic choice, probably symbolic of their addiction, but not a logical one. So how do they die – pretty much, stake through the heart – but a subsequent decapitation and cremation might not go amiss. It looks as though the invitation rule holds, until Christopher reveals he was just being polite. Garlic doesn’t work but reflections do vanish eventually.

a family at stake
If the film failed it was in developing themes to make us believe the relationships. Christopher’s insinuation into Ellie’s life is remarkably fast (though that might have been a comment on addiction). The relationship between Kyle and Meegan is so shorthand that, as mentioned, it wreaks the impact of a finale event. That event was fairly shocking anyway, in one sense, so making the effort earlier in the film would have made it powerful. All in all there are other, much better, films using vampires and looking at addiction and there are better films on the impact of a vampire on a family unit. There was a vein of nihilism in this that should have been mined for all it was worth. In the absence of that, 5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Classic Literature: Dracula: The Ultimate, Illustrated Edition of the World-Famous Vampire Play

Authors: Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston

Editor: David J Skal

First Published: 1924 (Deane), 1927 (Balderston), 1993 (this edition)

You may recall I looked at the Stoker stage treatment of Dracula as classic literature. Part of the reason for that was the closeness to the original text and partly because I don’t want to get into reviewing theatre scripts.

The latter reason still stands but these two distinct scripts are classic in their own rights. Although they stray from Stoker, in some respects, the earlier script by Hamilton Deane was the first official treatment as agreed by Florence Stoker. When it was taken to the States it was substantially rewritten by John L Balderston for the American market. The subsequent play featured Bela Lugosi in the title role and was part of the basis for the eventual Universal Dracula (1931) screenplay (for the full, convoluted, story of the development of the screenplay I recommend the volume Tod Browning's Dracula). The 1931 film (and star) perhaps shaping the popular understanding/view of the story/character more than the actual novel did.

This volume contains both treatments and, being edited and annotated by Skal, is a treasure trove of sidebars and illustrations. Deane made the story much more of a sitting room drama and also did some interesting things such as make Morris a female character (the gender swap simply designed to open an additional female role, but is interesting just the same).

Another thing that is of great interest is the fact that, in the 1920s, werewolves and vampires were still conflated. We know that much of the Count’s appearance in the original novel owed a debt to Sabine Baring-Gould’s the Book of Were-wolves. In a later volume, the lady of the Shroud, Stoker definitively conflates the two types by saying: “The Wehr-Wolf is but a variant of the Vampire.” In Dean’s play we get the line from Van Helsing: “the present illness of madam Mina, is the work of a ‘Were-Wolf’ or vampire.” If one imagines the wily old Dutchman is just edging his bets, one needs to remember that all his apotropaic devices are geared towards vampires.

Balderstone is perhaps more explicit. In Balderstone Mina and Lucy’s names are swapped and so when they read of the turned Mina preying on children on Hampstead Heath the question is asked, “You think the Werewolf has done this too?” This underlines how the werewolf and vampire were interchangeable. In fact, whilst Deane uses garlic as an apotropaic, Balderstone uses wolfsbane.

This interesting point aside, this is an essential volume for fans of Stoker’s novel, the Lugosi film, the stage play (if lucky enough to have seen a revival of it) and the genre generally.

Monday, May 07, 2018

It Came from Below – review

Director: Detdrich McClure

Release date: 2017

Contains spoilers

There is a general fear humanity seems to carry of the other – whether this is an instinctive fear, or something that is instilled as those in power distract from their own substantial failings by pointing at the other and scapegoating them for all of societies’ ills, I can't say. One of the more common (but not only) real world portrayals of this 'fearsome' other is the immigrant, the foreigner. The popular press work the propaganda to dehumanise these human beings and then scapegoat them.

The vampire, of course, is often used to portray the other – and has been used, famously in Dracula, to represent that foreign element that comes to take from us… be that take blood, monies, sexual partners… Clearly the filmmakers of It Came from Below had this in mind – mixing a story of illegal immigration and vampirism into one and we’ll discuss how successful it was later.

giving blessings
However, the film begins with a shaman (or alternative priest/mage of some sort) blessing a group of people. Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed was how very washed out and over-exposed the photography is in the film. Now whether this was deliberate (trying to give a dreamlike quality, perhaps) or just a failure in the filming process (or post-production, even), I don’t really know, but it looks poor and is distracting. Anyway we see the folk (who are all Mexicans looking to make the crossing into the USA) set out and then we see them dead – slaughtered. One woman is still alive and she makes a run for it.

under the overpass
The border patrol drives up, in the vehicle are an unnamed border agent (Dean England) and John Gallagher (Caesar James). They get a call about the bodies and then hear something, they split up. John is our focus, he walks with a pronounced limp, which seemed odd for an active officer (the gait is never explored). He follows a trail through to the underside of an overpass. He sees the woman and she puts a finger to her mouth. Something hits him but he is able to get off a couple of shots before being knocked out.

entering America
After he comes around we see him and the other guard look at the bodies, commenting on the punctures in the bodies and suggesting that it isn’t a cartel hit. Meanwhile a Mexican (Basili) looks to sleep by the river, he was separated from those he was with and is looking to cross the border when night falls. A young man, Diego (Walter Sanchez), approaches. When asked where he comes from he only replies the South, he seems confused by the idea of dreams… John, on the other hand, is dreaming of the attack. We next see Diego lent over the Mexican's body, he takes his hat as he heads Northwards.

So, essentially, John can’t get the attacks out of his head and hears about something similar in LA (these are not by Diego, as the timelines really would not allow that) and takes a leave of absence to go and investigate things. He has sketched (from the brief glimpse of the attack) Diego’s portrait as well as drawing fangs. Diego on the other hand goes to LA, and quickly is befriended by Marcus (Sam Duarte), an illegal like he is. With him he gets ID (after robbing a store for money – I’ll come back to both the robbery and purchase of the ID due to the lore connected with the scenes) but he is soon alone. He sees John hunting him and things draw to the inevitable confrontation.

photo issues
When he robs the store, it is without violence. He touches the storekeeper’s hand and freezes him as he takes what he wants and leaves. When he gets the ID they can’t take his picture as it distorts. There is no real freak-out about this and it is quickly manipulated to make the ID (nothing about the scene rang true). He meets another vampire and she communicates with him by telepathy, something that he is unfamiliar with and this begs a question; how did he become a vampire? The film doesn’t tell us. We know he is from an isolated village who knew nothing of the outside world – so I doubt he always was a vampire as the logistics don’t stack. A white man came and took Diego with him, teaching him English. If he was a vampire and turned Diego then why doesn’t Diego know about telepathy? The film gives us no origin to work with.

Anna Maganini as Rita
So, how does it work with regards him being an other. If the film was doing anything it was probably trying to suggest that the other is not the thing to fear. Whilst we know he has killed, he robs to help his friend, we see him act as an angel of mercy to Rita (Anna Maganini), a cancer victim, and he is able to enter a church as much as John is (indeed they separately sit at the same spot – which indicates they should be classed as the same). Diego is attacked by a small minded racist, which further draws our sympathy. All this builds to us being sympathetic of Diego, but, John is not portrayed negatively either. Though he is driven to hunt Diego (he finds him at one point but can’t catch him as his limp prevents a speedy pursuit) it is a righteous hunt (Diego killed fellow immigrants).

oversized clothes
Yet the film also wants to dehumanise him. Look at the title – reducing him to an *it*. Rita suggests he is about her husband’s size but the clothes (which she comments on the fit of) are clearly too large and make him look clownish and someone trying to assimilate but failing. There is a coda scene at the end, which I won’t spoil except to say that it continues to suggest that those coming from foreign lands are a danger. I suspect the film wanted to undermine the idea of the monstrous other, but by sticking to certain tropes they really do continue to follow the standard allegory.

cgi fangs
That’s not to say it wasn’t an interesting idea, it was. However, it wasn’t well executed. The CGI flash of fang looked false, the over-exposed filming was distracting. The acting wasn’t the best – though Diego was portrayed in such a way that he seemed distant and overworldly, maybe more by accident than design, however. The story needed more exposition, we needed to understand more about motivations and reactions needed to be realistic. I wavered at giving this a score of 4 but the problems demanded it get pushed down to 3.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here and can be purchased or rented from Vimeo.