Sunday, December 10, 2017

Honourable Mentions: The Adventures of Young Van Helsing: The Quest for the Lost Scepter

Well, this was err… special… and not in a good way. A 2004 offering from director Kevin Summerfield it kind of took the characters created by Bram Stoker and turned them into a low rent Relic Hunter.

We start in 1905 with Abraham Van Helsing (Ken Mitzkovitz) who looks remarkably Indiana Jones-lite, has a kid with him in the graveyard and is fighting a vampire… ish, Simon Magus (Joe Zaso, Rage of the Werewolf, Addicted to Murder 3: Bloodlust Vampire Killer & Nikos the Impaler) isn’t a vampire, but for now he has fangs and red eyes and Van Helsing is… American. Yes the Dutch philosopher and metaphysician has been culturally appropriated and turned into an inferior Dr Jones. Anyhoo, as Magus grabs his throat his flesh begins to smoke but Short Round… oops, sorry… wrong film, essentially the same character… manages to lob him a fancy implement (the Sceptre of God) and he stakes Magus with it whilst reciting an incantation. Magus begins to corrupt and falls dead.

it absorbed me
Jump forward to the present day and there is an archaeological dig headed by Professor Arad (Ned Narang). His assistant Estabon (Rabiah Elaawar) sees something on a scan and goes get Arad. They have found it, they say, and Estabon suggests securing the area first – of course, in due time, is the Professor’s confusing response. Meanwhile all the kids working on the dig are huddled round the screen, which shows a skeleton. Arad makes a declaration that it is dormant not dead. The dig continues and the unsuspecting student working near the buried body gets got… How can I explain it, their hands seem to merge and he screams and screams. By the time Arad and Estabon get there all the students are smouldering, charred skeletons and magus (for it was him) is gone.

Keith Jordan as Michael
Arad is to go over to America to find Michael Harris (Keith Jordan). He is the descendent of Van Helsing but, when his parents died, he was sent to live with his Aunt (Lisa Willis) and the family surname had been abandoned as it was too dangerous. He knows nothing of his heritage and is just a high school kid, a bit of a wise guy, in a band and disliked by the Jocks. We later discover that his friend Danny (Tomm Bauer), when a little kid, stole a package from the post office that contained the Sceptre, buried it and forgot where – hence the film title. Magus is after the sceptre, it feels, more than Michael (who could just end up as collateral damage).

Kimberly Cash as Morgan LeFay
So the film stumbles through awful bits with the actors miming to a song (by the Speaks) where they forget that backing vocalists need a mic to be heard, really some of the worst dialogue I’ve heard in a while and worse delivery (though Michael himself seemed fun) and a flash back to Van helsing getting Excalibur’s Scabbard from an undead Morgan LeFay (Kimberly Cash) and some zombie knights (for no good reason… it was just a bizarre piece). This all culminates in a showdown with Magus, conveniently about five yards from where Danny buried the Sceptre – and followed by them miming to two blooming songs at the school dance.

Magus shot with an arrow
The question can be asked, of course, what is Magus? Well, apparently he was an angel who was Lucifer’s second-in-command in the rebellion against heaven. He made the sceptre when still an angel, for reasons unknown, and can use it to rule the Earth (and bring Hell on Earth). He is described as a skinwalker – he can absorb the flesh off a human and make himself look less demon-like. When he isn’t doing that he can absorb a person’s memory – when he does this to a girl she ends up in a coma, when he does it to Danny there is no side-effect. He is immortal and regenerates lopped off body parts. Given that he was dormant post the VH-fight, no one explains how Van Helsing misplaced his body after defeating him (despite there being a room of crates with artefacts and creatures packed up).

Michael and Arad
So, no vampire but as it features Van Helsing (and vampires are mentioned a couple of times) it gets a mention as it is Dracula related. Sometimes on this blog I am tempted to say, “I watched it, so you don’t have to.” This is one of those times.

The imdb page is here.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Hospitality, Rape and Consent in Vampire Popular Culture – review

Editors: David Baker,‎ Stephanie Green &‎ Agnieszka Stasiewicz-Bieńkowska

First Published: 2017

The Blurb: This unique study explores the vampire as host and guest, captor and hostage: a perfect lover and force of seductive predation. From Dracula and Carmilla, to True Blood and The Originals, the figure of the vampire embodies taboos and desires about hospitality, rape and consent.

The first section welcomes the reader into ominous spaces of home, examining the vampire through concepts of hospitality and power, the metaphor of threshold, and the blurred boundaries between visitation, invasion and confinement.

Section two reflects upon the historical development of vampire narratives and the monster as oppressed, alienated Other.

Section three discusses cultural anxieties of youth, (im)maturity, childhood agency, abuse and the age of consent.

The final section addresses vampire as intimate partner, mapping boundaries between invitation, passion and coercion. With its fresh insight into vampire genre, this book will appeal to academics, students and general public alike.

The Review: Another academic tome with a steep price tag, this proves itself a worthy edition to vampire studies by looking at hospitality (and, of course, invitations), rape and consent and how the vampire film/story examines and explores those concepts.

All the chapters were worthwhile but I must give a quick mention that Chapter 5, Breaking and Entering: Psychic Violation, metempsychosis and the Uninvited Female Vampire was written by Facebook friend Simon Bacon. His chapter was, as ever, inciteful and, as ever, he pushed the bounds of what one might deem a vampire film by including The Host. He likened this to War of the Worlds, which he correctly identifies as vampiric in nature. However my understanding was that the film, based on a Stephenie Meyer novel, was not a vampire film. Worry not, however, I will look at it as a ‘Vamp or Not?’ in the future. If I could offer a suggested further direction to this chapter, however, it is that whilst the Le fanu story the Mysterious Lodger does not contain a female vampire, as Carmilla did (and the chapter was about female vampires), it is an ideal story to look at invitation and consequence thereof.

It was especially nice to see an academic light being turned onto Marryat’s the Blood of the vampire as, whilst it is relatively unknown, it deserves more attention.

There was attention drawn to the Originals, especially around family, and yet none of the contributors considered the classic Tolstoy story the Family of the Vourdalak, which examined familial ties and the undead early in the genre’s development.

A couple of the chapters featured thoughts on Let the Right One In and I really thought they missed a trick. We know that Lindqvist deemed the story between Oskar and Ellie as a love story, hence writing Let the Old Dreams Die as a re-balance after the two films took the idea of the vampire grooming the child as a caretaker. As this was more pronounced in Let me In, I thought this would be a better film to examine.

In her essay, Samantha Lindpop argues that Carmilla was the “first narrative to locate the vampire as somewhat sympathetic and emotionally affected.” However, I would argue that the 1824 novel the Virgin Vampire pre-dates that by just shy of half a century. I also disagree that Katherine in Son of Dracula was gullible as her machinations underpin the film. However, beyond these points I really enjoyed the chapter.

As with any academic tome, there will be differences of opinion between reader and author(s) but the food for thought that all these essays offered was excellent (whether one agreed or disagreed) and the points were well explored. 9 out of 10 (price notwithstanding).

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Night Seekers – review

Director: Menetie T. Ejeye

Release date: 2014

Contains spoilers

So, I spotted this one on Amazon Prime and, if I’m honest, it was the name that attracted my attention. The trailer looked fairly poor and it looked more like a zombie or mutant/diseased type film. But I did some digging and found a review on Black Horror Movies. Having read the review I inwardly groaned as I read these words: “what the “night seekers” are (basically, lazy vampires)”.

So, ‘Vamp or Not?’ it was to be, until I just decided that yes, they are vampires. No, I don’t need to go into a specific examination of the film to discuss that… God it’s awful and I’m going to have to review it and… if you are a vampire genre completist, as I am, you’re going to have to watch it too.

Justin and Tamara
So, we start off with a horrible night shot of running through the woods and the worst day for night type filter I have borne witness to. Then we cut to Justin (William F. Bryant) and Tamara (Kristin Lorenz) and we don’t notice anything other than there is a horrible bleached out filter applied to the picture. Honestly, it’s horrible and is applied through the film. They are getting together with their group of friends decide where they are going on holiday this year. Other than one dissenting voice from Jose (David Santana) for Mexico, they agree on Astro Island – a place that Justin has maps for.

Menetie T. Ejeye as manny
As for the friends, there are four couples, we have Justin and Tamara, – Jose and Cynthia (Bella Favela), Manny (Menetie T. Ejeye) and Tanya (Shah Granville), and Jonathan (Nathan Truong) and Lin (Jeannie Fedorak Cocit). As an aside, notice the poster/cover has the character names not the actor names on it! Justin has arranged all this in two weeks and has booked for them to stay on the outskirts of the city in a house owned by Mimi (Jill K. Allen). When they get there, they are vocal about the smell, Mimi appears to have one room for the eight of them and her sinister man-servant (for want of a better word), Sam Man (John Delaney), takes a mute (it appears) shine to Tamara – causing Justin to declare that she is his.

Shah Granville as tanya
That night the women sleep in the one bed and the guys on the floor – it doesn’t matter because they’re only staying one night – and Justin wakes to find Tamara missing. He goes into a loud search and finds her on a couch – she claims she doesn’t know how she got there (and thus hints at somnambulism). Manny has made a joke about Sam Man taking her, but Manny is one of the singularly most annoying characters in a film... ever. Anyhoo, Mimi warns them about going in a certain direction – it is forbidden and no human or living thing goes there. They meet their tour guide Roberta (Adriana Sheri) who immediately takes them there.

graffiti 101
OK, long story short time. Tanya freaks about going to the forbidden zone, Roberta says there is nothing wrong with the place (and the two bitch at each other ad nauseum through the film) as Cynthia gets jealous of Roberta (cause… Jose) and Jonathan sleeps – he has narcolepsy and falls asleep each scene. (A lost) Roberta pulls up at a cabin (read nicely furnished house) and suggests they break in for the night! The cabin – in the forbidden zone where no human goes – has electricity and food in the cupboards and fridge. They do a lot of driving off and ending up back at the cabin (and running low on gas), unable to get anything but static on their mobiles, whilst Tamara declares everyone doomed and starts drawing a monster picture on the wall in her sleep. Eventually the creatures attack.

Jonathan eviserated
So, they are described as human creatures; part human, part creature… did I mention how bad the dialogue is... No? It’s really poor. I mean, really blooming poor. They break in the house and go for the fridge (I kid you not) until they see someone and then we realise they can speak (in a monosyllabic way). Jonathan is the first to be got and they go for his stomach, ala a typical zombie attack, but with later victims they do bite the neck; however the inference is that they eat all the flesh. The gang hide until dawn… because they are in a film called Night Seekers, I guess. In the AM they go to the woods to find sharp things as weapons, yet we never see them with weapons (or fighting back)!

sleeping upside down
So it is a traipse through the countryside to try and get back to the not forbidden bit, and a desperate attempt not to get suburban America in shot. Honestly, concrete underpasses that are described as caves. A school bus they find, in a car park, with buildings in shot… in the untamed wilderness of the forbidden zone! We discover that they sleep during the day, upside down, like bats – and Tamara starts doing the same. But actually, the Night Seekers are just guys (all black guys, for no explained reason) in boiler suits or hoodies with gunk on their faces to make them “creatures”.

portrait of a night seeker
I mentioned the review I found called them lazy vampires… to be honest I don’t know why lazy, they did traipse a long way after their prey (it was 30 miles from Mimi’s to the edge of the forbidden zone). However I find myself agreeing with the most of that review. This is an awful film. The filters on the camerawork are rank, the stagecraft meant to suggest they are out in the wilderness was laughable, the dialogue was (at every point) ridiculously bad and the delivery thereof shocking. There was little tension, little to no characterisation, no communication of narrative background. It was just poor in all ways. 1 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Love Lies Bleeding – review

Author: Aspasia S Bissas

First published: 2017 (2nd Edition)

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: What happens when a predator loves its prey?

Centuries-old Mara is dying a slow death when she meets Lee, a young man whose life has never belonged to him. Thrown together, they're forced to fight those who would destroy them and survive a slew of enemies they never expected, even as Mara falls into a downward spiral of delusion and obsession. Will she make a devil's deal to save both their souls? With pasts like theirs, can they ever have a future?

The review: I am a strong reader, some might suggest voracious. However it is the rare gem that makes me utterly devour a tome disregarding all over stimuli. Love Lies Bleeding is such a gem. Set by its blurb as a supernatural romance it certainly does have a love element to it but that element is dysfunctional, to say the least, and what we have is the coming together of two broken people (one human – and a bloodletter – and the other vampire) and the joy is that they remain broken, that they both carry insecurities and issues with them.

Mara is the vampire of the piece. The vampire world seems fairly split between the Enlightenment, a group that holds a balance of power and eschew hunting for at hand meals from bloodletters, and Primalists, a loose confederacy of those who believe the vampire’s purpose is to hunt, an alpha predator without the need for human comforts. Along with a few others, Mara is an independent, but one who was turned by a particularly vicious Primalist named Dominic and is also being wooed by the leader of the Enlightenment, Nigel.

She hopes her association with Nigel will help keep the obsessive Dominic at bay but finds him a bore and is shocked to discover that Nigel has decided to take her as a consort. Mara is also dying, her emotions fading and turning to apathy but all that changes when Mara is given Lee (short for Liam), a bloodletter who refuses to conform and whose normal hatred for the vampires fails him in the presence of Maya.

The vampirism is interesting in this. Mara suggests it is a virus, though her theory might be flawed, she also suggests that vampires can (in very rare occasions) become ill with more mortal ailments. They can only subsist on human blood (food tastes awful, animal blood fails to satisfy). Direct sunlight hurts them but they can be abroad in daylight and garlic works against them.

What struck me in this was the writing, which was crisp, and strong. Even the more idiosyncratic dialogue seemed natural for the characters as they were drawn. Indeed, whilst the story was ok, strong enough and refreshingly small scale, it was the characters that really made this. Their flaws were beautifully drawn for the reader, their actions logical given the damage and their inherent dysfunctions. Altogether stimulating in a genre where too many authors concentrate on wish fulfilment. 9 out of 10.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Legend of Chupacabras – review

Director: Alberto Rodriguez

Release date: 2016

Contains spoilers

On a plus side the Chupacabras in this animated film are definitely vampiric in nature, so no need for a ‘Vamp or Not?’ The down side, well this is apparently a very popular franchise in Mexico but I found the franchise aspects a tad confusing (as I’ll explain). Nor do I think an explanation for the characters are missing because they are in an earlier film.

Set in Mexico sometime during the War of Independence (so the early part of the 19th century) and follows a character called Leo San Juan but it is not these aspects that confuse – let me explain.

Leo's nightmare
Leo is in a cart when he is woken by the driver who says he has been waiting for Leo and that Leo is dreaming. He turns into something demonic and Leo then actually wakes. He is in a cart with a group of men, who turn out to be survivors of an insurgent battalion. There is a checkpoint ahead so one of the men slips away and Leo is asked to cooperate with the insurgents. He agrees.

When a guard asks where they are going Leo answers honestly – he is going to Puebla to visit his grandmother – the insurgents claim to be Mariachi also travelling to the town and the cart is passed through. However one of the guard spots the figure of their companion in the distance and they draw weapons, become surrounded, Leo is taken hostage and they surrender to the royal army. At the army camp they are sat tied, with a Spaniard placed with them. The thought is Leo will be released as he is a child but the General decides he will be executed too. They are to be held in an abandoned monastery to await the morning and the firing squad.

Alebrije and Evaristo
It is here things become strange and confused. We suddenly move to two dragons, Alebrije and Evaristo. Evaristo is having his back painted by two animated sugar skulls in order that he might summon his power and set Alebrije up on a date with his cousin – who turns out to be a human girl – and talks about being able to drive. If this wasn’t confusing enough we later see a ghost girl called Teodora who has a cell phone and uses facebook. The incongruities of this are never explained, the character backgrounds and relationship with Leo are not explained for a new viewer. I personally wondered if there was a VR aspect and these were avatars but searching online reveals Teodora is a ghost. Later we see that Leo knows them, works with them but others cannot necessarily see them.

So, in the monastery Leo spots Nando, his older brother, wearing a royal army uniform. Nando goes to him just as all Hell breaks loose as a chupacabra starts decimating guards and attacking the prisoners. The guards who are attacked are found desiccated – their blood and life drained entirely. The chupacabras themselves are bat creatures with red eyes and the primary one we see is fairly indestructible, it seems. The Spaniard claims they previously attacked and destroyed his village. We discover that they can return stolen life. Meanwhile, whilst trying to get information on the chupacabras, Teodora and the dragons end up in occult peril elsewhere.

Leo and Teodora
The actual animation for this is good, the dubbed voice acting worked well enough and the core story was interesting with layers being added to the chupacabras that made them victims as well as hunters. It was the side aspects that confused, however shut them out and go with it and the film can be enjoyable. I, unfortunately, stewed over the incongruities. I discovered, online afterwards, that Teodora has two backstories one being a girl killed in the 18th century and a ghost and, in the spin off series, being a girl hit by a truck and given spirit form. That’s great as far as it goes but if the former then why the cell phone, if the latter why has she gone back in time? It is also not brilliant storytelling in film, as the magical creatures’ connection with Leo is never touched on.

Balancing out the confusion within the fast cut to seemingly unrelated characters and their incongruities with the fact that this, at heart, is a fun animated adventure I’m going for a middle ground of 5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Semya Vurdalakov – review

Directors: Gennadiy Klimov & Igor Shavlak

Release date: 1990

Contains spoilers

The Necrorealism art movement was a Russian movement that is little known outside that country. I have featured a film from that school previously in the form of Daddy, Santa Claus is Dead. I’m not sure whether art critics class Semya Vurdalakov (or the Vampire Family) as part of that movement but I got a sense of the same underlying symbolism and despair – though this was nowhere near as absurdist.

That said this was, like the later released film, based on Tolstoy’s the Family of the Vourdalak. The story has been filmed by the Italian horror school, of course, wonderfully by Mario Bava as one of the tales in Black Sabbath and as a feature the Night of the Devils, but it seems fitting that it also inspired films in Russia. This film, whilst adjusting the premise slightly, followed the story quite faithfully – to a point.

the old man
We begin in the country and the soundtrack of the slow piano is hauntingly effective. The soundtrack seemed to carry a lot of static and the print was of VHS quality but the film is a rarity and the visual print actually suited the film. We see a figure walking through the fields, and then are shown icons and religious paintings. A coffin is prised open by a bearded man, a ruby ring adorns the corpse’s hand. As he reaches for it the corpse grabs his hand. In the city a young man awakens as though the events we have just seen are his dream.

the photo-journalist
The man is a photojournalist – and also seems to be an affable office clown despite the fact that his reportage concentrates upon death. Indeed when he goes to see his editor he is asked how he is able to take pictures of corpses with no fear – he claims he is not afraid of anything. He is given a new assignment, there has been some kind of scandal with an art restorer who believes in the supernatural, and he is to make it look more frightful. The reporter is getting married in three days but the Chief believes he can be finished in two.

the restorer
He goes to the restorer. There is a painting of a patriarch who, the restorer says, is famous in the area and was said to have sold his soul for immortality. He refuses to show the reporter the piece he is working on. Then the film takes a sideways slide into surreality as the reporter is on a boat being rowed out to an island, said to be haunted by vampires, and taken to a farmhouse. The family living there consisted of an old man (the one from the head of the film) now deceased, two brothers and a sister plus the wife of one of the brothers and their child.

It has been nine days since the old man died (almost) and the tradition is that his name should not be spoken or he will return from the grave and drink the family's blood. This is actually one form of vampiric lore that we have seen before in the short film the Cursed Days (though ten days were used and it was a general warning not to speak their names whilst away at war) and I did liken that short film to Tolstoy’s story. At the dinner table the child asks for his grandfather by name and it is just before the end of the ninth day. The old man does return, almost immediately.

the grandson
As with Tolstoy’s story the grandfather first looks to his grandson, whilst the hero falls for the daughter. There is a city and country clash that seems almost as though they are in different eras. It is fitting, therefore, that time seemed to pass by at a different pace in the country compared to the city. This version of the tale had more of a dreamlike quality than perhaps some versions but the ending, whilst fitting with the qualities described, could have done with being tightened up and, unfortunately, is a tad disappointing. The dreamlike quality will put some off and it is certainly not the best narrative version of Tolstoy’s tale though I found it visually striking despite (or maybe because of) the print. 5 out of 10.

The episode's imdb page is here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Honourable Mention: The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula

Getting an Honourable Mention as I am not straying into reviewing radio plays but by crikey this deserves a mention. The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula started life as a Anthony Hind’s script for Hammer than was unfortunately never filmed. Mark Gatiss has taken that script and directed a radio play of it for BBC Radio 4.

Set in India in the 1930s the play has a narrator in the form of Michael Sheen (Underworld, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the Twilight Saga: New Moon, the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 & the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2) and follows Penny (Anna Madeley) as she travels across India in search of her missing sister. Also travelling in the train with her are the kindly Babu (Kulvinder Ghir) and the brother and sister performers Prem (Nikesh Patel) and Lakshmi (Ayesha Dharker).

The siblings are travelling to perform for a Maharajah (Raj Ghatak) but when they arrive at his palace they discover that their services have been bought to entertain the house guest Count Dracula (Lewis Macleod). I have to say that Macleod sounded just like Christopher Lee and brought a wonderous gravitas to the role, bravo. The Maharajah’s wife (Meera Syal) is the high priestess of a proscribed blood cult (clearly a Kali cult, though the Goddess is not mentioned).

There are some wonderful scenes, such as Dracula so replete from drinking blood that he lies glassy eyed, the blood cult ritual that pre-dated Indiana Jones, or the pit of vampire women that made the basement of the house in Satanic Rites of Dracula seem empty by comparison, all drawn – of course – through storytelling. One thing that seemed a strange change (though it suited the story) was removing Dracula’s ability to shapeshift into a bat – without spoiling things too much Dracula becomes trapped atop a tower and one would have expected him to fly away. This fits with Dracula’s first Hammer outing in Horror of Dracula, as it is explicitly stated that he cannot transform into a bat but Hammer ditched that concept thereafter.

I understand that Gatiss wishes to film the script at some point but, until (and if) that happens we now have the radio adaptation, which I hope the BBC will make commercially available at some point.