Tag Archives: vampires

30 Days of Madness, Day 28 — Prince of Darkness (1987)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

princedarkness3

“Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows.”

Written & directed by John Carpenter.

Starring Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper for about a minute, and a bunch of white people with bad hair.

In my last review of Christine, I lamented how unfairly forgotten and underrated it was compared to Carpenter’s other work. With Prince of Darkness, I get it.

The slow build toward apocalypse is good and tense (at least when Mustache McGee and Lady Hockey Hair aren’t making out and having inscrutable conversations), helped along by Carpenter’s soundtrack and the acting talents of Pleasence as a priest from a secretive Catholic sect and Victor Wong as an eccentric quantum physicist. But then about halfway through it kind of stalls and just plateaus. The freaky things that start happening are undercut by underreaction from characters almost across the board. It starts to crescendo again, but then there are weird scenes that go nowhere, leading to a pretty trifling “apocalyptic” climax. It doesn’t help that the screenplay’s grasp of theology is tenuous at best, so it all feels rather silly.

As with any Carpenter flick, a lot of the special effects are really well done, but the philosophy behind the homeless zombie horde was a bit insulting. Every homeless person in the vicinity of this parish immediately becomes part of a hive mind, but not the scientists or students, because, what, they have better brains and aren’t susceptible? Not until they get physically infected, anyway. There’s even a conversation about it when the physicist is comparing their behavior to that of the ants, which do have a hive mind, and the other bugs and creepy crawlers that start showing up. It just draws an uncomfortable parallel, as if the homeless are on the same plane as the other vermin. It’s not Carpenter’s most nuanced writing.

And that’s too bad, because the idea of crossing the usual Judeo-Christian religious traditions with quantum physics in an apocalyptic plot is unique, and would be fascinating, if the religious part of it was treated with as much respect as the physics part. If only the entire script was as good as that excellent line from Victor Wong’s character that I used at the beginning of this review.

I also said in my Christine review that this would fill the remaining gap in what I consider the “classic Carpenter” era–1976 through the 80s. That is, the era beginning with Assault on Precinct 13, which put him on the map and allowed him to make Halloween, which catapulted him to being one of the premiere directors in Hollywood working in the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres. Through the 80s, he made film after film that cemented him as a cult classic director.

I didn’t start watching R-rated horror and sci-fi until the late 90s. I was in high school, and Escape from L.A. was my introduction to Carpenter, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I wasn’t even fully aware that it was a sequel. But I developed a kind of affection for that film and for Snake Plissken as a character. I had already been a fan of Kurt Russell. In college, I saw Vampires, and by the time I saw Ghosts of Mars I knew Carpenter’s reputation and had already begun familiarizing myself with The FogThe ThingStarman (which I’d seen part of as a child and was freaked out by it), Big Trouble in Little China (a personal favorite and a film that is more important than it gets credit for), They LiveHalloween, and the original Escape from New York. Unfortunately, Ghosts of Mars was a terrible movie, but I’d become a late-blooming Carpenter fan who figured it was just a case of a master filmmaker losing his edge.

Prince of Darkness isn’t the only film of his from his “classic” era that I’m not sold on. I’m pretty indifferent toward The Fog and found Assault on Precinct 13 too disturbingly violent to be enjoyable. (I just don’t need to see little kids getting gunned down in the street in what is essentially a basic action movie, though an important one. Even with something like City of God, I’d rather not watch that kind of thing.)

Nevertheless, I think Carpenter, even post-Ghosts, remains one the most fascinating and respectable filmmakers in history. Now I need to fill in the pre-Assault and early-90s gaps. And I’m especially interested now to see In the Mouth of Madness. I did not realize until today that it is the third in what Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” after The Thing and Prince of Darkness. That is a fascinating trilogy of apocalyptic themes–one extra-terrestrial in nature, one mixing Judeo-Christian religious tradition with quantum physics, and the third an exercise in Lovecraftian horror.

Final grade for Prince of Darkness: C

My Flickchart ranking: #1629 (out of 3273, a relative 50/100)

30 Days of Madness, Day 4 — Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

onlylovers

 

Wow! What a fantastic film!

This is going to be a short, rough review. I did not take notes. I barely thought of what kind of response I would formulate to Only Lovers Left Alive. But that is the sign of a truly great film–I am so engaged in it, I am barely thinking of my critique. I have seen little of writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s filmography, but with every one I check off the list, I grow more impressed with him. I don’t know exactly how to explain what it I love about the way he shot this movie. The way the camera moves, the way everything is composed, the color. It all just works. And the fabric of music throughout, and the incredible dialogue, and the sense if humor and humanity. These two vampires, perfectly portrayed by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, are two of the most fascinating characters I’ve seen in a film. They love everything beautiful and artistic in the world, they’ve loved each other for hundreds of years, and they need blood to survive; and finding good blood is becoming increasingly difficult in a world of disease and law. They really do feel like characters with hundreds of years of history behind them, yet they still have the same yearnings that the rest of us have. The great supporting cast includes Mia Wasikowska, Jeffrey Wright, Anton Yelchin (already my second film this month featuring the late actor), and John Hurt (playing Christopher Marlowe!). I imagine it’s not for everyone, but I have to think lovers of film, music, literature, and vampiric lore would appreciate this film, if not outright love it as I did. (This is also the first film I’ve covered this month that Buried Cinema has covered on our podcast, though it was during my year-long hiatus.)

Final grade: A

My Flickchart ranking: #150/3250 (a relative 95/100)

 

Korean Cinema — Thirst

By Nathanael Griffis

Interesting fact: this poster was censored. The Korean versions are a little more scandalous.

I couldn’t keep myself away, so I watched another Korean film. Once again it has Kang-ho Song, and I liked it. I know you get it by now. I want to watch any film he’s ever been in, but nonetheless I’m still inclined to convince you that you must watch Thirst. Now, for those of you young kids who don’t remember and have been infected by Twilight, vampires are scary, bloodthirsty monsters. In recent years I’ve been frustrated to see vampire movies go one of two ways: either the teen-infused soap opera fable where some monsters are good and the original legend is desecrated, or poorly made horror films where vampires are thoughtless monsters (see Daybreakers, or don’t). Thirst stands so far above both these genres that it ranks up there with Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, Shadow of the Vampire, and Nosferatu.

What makes a good vampire movie is an examination of the basest of human desires amplified into some evil formative monster. What’s so fascinating about Thirst is the small twist of a religious priest becoming a vampire. Through an unfortunate blood transfusion, Priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) becomes cursed/blessed as he turns into a vampire. His carnal lusts increase, but they start out small and slowly become out of control. At first he’s content with sucking the blood from a comatose man, but that doesn’t compare with freshly bitten blood. At first it’s enough only to gaze at his friend’s wife Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), but eventually he must have her. At first it was enough to live his life alone, but his hermitage isn’t as gratifying as having Tae-ju as his vampire bride.

This Vampire bite brought to you by Toshiba and Ethan Allen.

Thirst is another excellent film from writer/director Chan-wook Park. The camera is used wonderfully, and it has a strong sense of reality that adds to the horror. This idea of a realistic monster is hard to achieve and is so frequently missed, especially in vampire films. Twilight, True Blood, and the later Vampire Chronicles movies like Queen of the Damned all butcher this idea. It might look cool to make a vampire run real fast and seem to be a blur, but it takes away from the frightening aspect. It renders the monster too fantastic and therefore more distant. The vampires in Thirst start as humans, and struggle with their humanity throughout, and grow into monsters with only slightly altered powers (light also kills them, which is key, but it shouldn’t have to be). They can jump farther and heal quicker, but none of these things seem unrealistic, because Chan-wook Park doesn’t use CGI but wire effects, and it flows much better. It allows him a cleaner shot as well.

The shots are beautiful as always. Especially the stark contrast of the vampire’s white-washed lair that becomes blood-stained. Lit with halogen lights, it places vampires in the most unlikely of settings, a blisteringly bright room, and turns it into a horrific scene. The scenes in these white-lit rooms and houses signify the greater themes of the film. There’s a real sense of combating moralities and instincts–opposites collide and seemingly coalesce but are always in constant struggle. Park shows us that there is a darker side inside of us that can be unlocked, in this case by the monstrous vampire’s blood, that we’ll always have to contend with, but he never suggests we don’t have choice. Hope in this film is found when the priest decides to take control and finish the vampire problem.

This film is an amazing example of horror and how to make a monster movie. The performances are nuanced across the board. The images are disturbing, the gore is horrific, and sexuality serves the film rather than being abused by it; overall it’s an amazing look at monsters and the terrifying repressed nature of humanity. It’s scary to think that one could desire to become a vampire, but Thirst returns substance to the argument by making vampires truly frightening and morally complex. I highly recommend this movie, but with this caveat: it is full of gore and sex (to be expected in horror and vampire films), so it’s not for the faint of heart. So what do you guys think. What makes a good vampire film? What are good vampire films?

Okay, how do I explain this scene? They're sleeping, and the guy in the middle has a rock. Look, you had to be there.

30 Days of Madness, Day 11: Fright Night

Fright Night (1985) Written & directed by Tom Holland. Starring Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys.

Fright Night is about a teenage boy who suspects his new next-door neighbor of being a vampire responsible for a recent series of murders in the town. Of course, nobody believes him–not his mother, not his girlfriend, not his irritating little buddy from school, not the police, and not Peter Vincent, the host of a late-night vampire show who carries the persona of a vampire hunter well enough that an otherwise intelligent high-schooler thinks he’s for real.

Roddy McDowall & William Ragsdale. But this movie actually is in color.

A few notes about the folks who made the film: Fright Night was written and directed by Tom Holland and stars Chris Sarandon as the vampire. Two years after Fright Night came out, these two would re-team for a much better horror flick called Child’s Play, which has a ridiculous premise but is, in fact, quite a terrifying movie. William Ragsdale plays the archetypical hero-no-one-listens-to, Charley Brewster; Ragsdale would go on to appear in one of my favorite current television series, Justified, which is based on a series of Elmore Leonard short stories, and of which I never pass up an opportunity to sing the praises.  Brewster’s girlfriend Amy is played by Amanda Bearse, who went on to play Marcy D’Arcy in some 240 episodes of Married with Children. Fake vampire hunter Peter Vincent is played by Roddy “Cornelius” McDowall, perhaps best known for starring in the original Planet of the Apes as well as three sequels and a spin-off television series. And Brewster’s obnoxious friend “Evil” Ed is played by Stephen Geoffreys, who, in the 1990s and 2000s, under the pseudonym Sam Ritter, had quite a prolific career in the hardcore homosexual pornography industry. Kudos all around.

Here are some of the notes I took while watching Fright Night until about halfway through, when, having filled two sides of a note page, I just got sick of writing statements of incredulity and questions of confusion:

–The movie opens on a dark neighborhood. A wolf howls. A man’s off-camera voice says, “What was that?” presumably because he’s from the big city and doesn’t know what a wolf sounds like. A woman’s voice says what any sensible woman would say in response to such a question: “Just a child of the night, John.”

–A few seconds later, after more awful dialogue, the same man’s voice says, “Your lips are so red!” The woman’s voice says, “Would you like to kiss them?” This is followed by the most ridiculous kissing noises you will hear outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

–As the camera pans in through an upstairs window, it reveals that this dialogue is coming from a TV. A teenage boy and his girlfriend are making out. On the floor between his bed and the wall. More bad kissing sound effects.

–Here’s a random excerpt of dialogue from the actual movie: “Call me anything you want. Only you’re the one failing trig, not me.” This is a horror movie. I almost failed trig too!

–Okay, this kid can’t possibly be the only person in the neighborhood who heard that scream. That was like a Universal Pictures scream-queen scream of epic proportions. People on three blocks over heard that scream. [As we'll soon find out, nobody else heard the scream.]

–I’ve watched a lot of movies and a lot of television, and I’ve learned something: A little bit of explaining oneself goes a long way toward resolving and avoiding unnecessary conflict.

–Here’s a tip for all you voyeurs and neighborhood watch-persons: If you’re going to spy on your next-door neighbor, it’s best not to sit with enormous binoculars in full view of the window in a well-lit room with the TV on.

–Oh! He dropped his binoculars! Now those things will never focus properly again.

–I have to say that, especially for one whom I’m assuming has done this many times before, this vampire neighbor is not very discreet with his killing and disposing of bodies. Then again, only one kid with a built-in obsession with vampire movies noticed anything, so maybe I should be saying that the people in this neighborhood are rock-stupid.

Chris Sarandon waking up early in the morning, before having his makeup applied.

–The detective brings the witness to confront the suspect of multiple murders?

–The kid finds a painting of the likeness of his girlfriend in the vampire’s house and it barely phases him?

–The comic relief sidekick must have been the producer’s nephew or something–and when did this kid get established as an authority on killing vampires?

–”A vampire cannot enter your house without being invited by the rightful owner.” (Here I have a wistful memory of watching Let Me In.) Guess what the next scene is? Mom calls our hero Charley downstairs to meet the new neighbor, the vampire she’s just invited into the living room. The neighbor her son already warned her was a murderer. Mom confirms suspicions of rock-stupidness of neighborhood people.

–Neighbor’s being all super-creepy in front of mom and she’s still clueless.

–Note to aspiring vampires: Breaking the door jamb is not going to make it more difficult for someone to escape the room. And furthermore, why would he trap the mother in the room while she’s sleeping in the middle of the night if his plan is to attack her son? Is Mom such a threat? Why not just kill mom? (Wow, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.)

–Again, the vampire is afraid of being found in the house by the kid’s mom, after he’s tried to murder the kid by… pushing him out the second-story window? And he’s thwarted by a pencil through the hand? Not a very good vampire.

–Mom wakes up. Finally breaks out of her room. Rushes into son’s room. Son’s room is a wreck. She asks him if anything’s wrong. He says no, it was just a nightmare. She says she had a nightmare too once, then goes back to bed. Mom’s stupidity goes beyond rock-stupid.

–This kid is presumably about, let’s say, 17 years old. So he goes to the TV horror show host for help? (And this is 1985, before reality TV and social networking destroyed teenagers’ perceptions of reality.)

–”A Vampire tried to kill me last night and trashed my car when he didn’t succeed.” We never actually see this trashed car, but we already know it happened because the vampire called him on the telephone, after failing at killing him, to tell him about trashing his car, and that he’d be back to kill him again the next night, while his minion wraps his pencil wound. One of the weirdest phone call scenes in movie history.

"And spread sunshine all over the place / Just put on a haaappyyy faaace!"

–”He’s a reborn Christian. He thinks crosses would be sacrilegious.” I would like to know what religion courses Tom Holland took to come up with a line like that.

–The kid dresses up in his best suit jacket to go confront the vampire? He looks like he’s getting ready for a date!

–Vampires can teleport?

–Girlfriend sees the vampire slowly approaching for like five minutes across the crowded club while her boyfriend is on the phone, and she says and does, exactly, nothing, but watch.

–Nothing happens in this movie in a way that makes sense.

And then I got tired of taking notes. This was about the halfway mark, about 50 minutes in. But then something amazing happened. There was a good scene. And then something even more amazing happened. The last half–hour or so of this movie was, I have to admit, pretty good. There are some truly fantastic makeup and visual effects. Gosh, I miss the days before CGI when fantasy directors had to use real ingenuity to achieve believable visual effects. There is a scene in which a human transforms into a wolf. The transformation back into human form is absolutely astounding. From there, Fright Night has a solid climactic face-off with the vampire inside his house with more excellent special effects.

If you want to watch Fright Night, I would say, watch it with friends so you can make fun of it. Get through the cloying and senseless first two thirds of the movie, and you’ll be rewarded with some quality horror cinema. I should also say, be on the lookout for the remake next year. From TV-series Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Marti Noxon and Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie, it might actually be good.

My Netflix rating: 3 stars (out of 5) because the last third of the movie really saved it in a big way.

–Tom Kapr

30 Days of Madness, Day 10: Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath (1963) Directed by Mario Bava. Starring Boris Karloff.

My first film by Mario Bava, the famed Italian horror auteur. The English title Black Sabbath actually has nothing to do with the subject matter, which is an anthology of three short films originally entitled I tre volti della paura, or, literally translated from the Italian, The three faces of fear. “Black Sabbath” probably was chosen just because it sounded scary, though why those who chose it thought “The Three Faces of Fear” wasn’t foreboding enough is unknown to me. Boris Karloff hosts the film between the three segments and also stars in the third. Here are my notes on each:

I'll admit that this dead old woman is freaky.

Segment 1: “The Drop of Water”

–Nothing is sadder than lounge music playing on a record player that is turning just a little too slowly

–The Italian directors of the 60s and 70s loved shooting without sound and dubbing everything in later

–The horror in this tale is leaky plumbing?

–The whole thing is kinda goofy

–This is one of the least effective kinds of horror for me. A character I already don’t like brings a curse upon herself by doing the very thing she was warned not to do lest a curse befall her. Not only that, but the thing she does, curse or not, is a morally wrong thing to do. It’s difficult in such a case to empathize with such a character, let alone be afraid that the same horror could befall me.

Segment 2: “The Telephone”

–The horror in this segment is crank calls?

–Why don’t people in horror movies ever call the police when they are first threatened?

–This is pretty lightweight horror, and very 1960s

–Half the horror genre would disappear if the characters showed a modicum of intelligence

-Why would a character make the decision to further isolate herself? It’s one thing if there is no help to be found, but to feel trapped, then have someone ask if they can help you and deny their help? What motivation could there be not accept? None is ever given.

–I might take this movie more seriously if it weren’t for the garish 1960s spy thriller music: ba-BA-da-ba-ba-DAAAAAA

–”You’re dead! Don’t you understand? You’re dead!” Yeah, I don’t think he cares.

–This segment is LAME!

Segment 3: “The Wurdelak”

–Started out so promisingly, but then got very confusing

–Karloff delivers this unfortunate line: “What’s the matteer, woman? Can’t I fondle my own grandson?” My, how language changes. (It doesn’t help that he later steals his grandson from his bed in the dead of night.)

Grandpa Boris is watching you sleep.

–I don’t get this. They all knew what would happen if their father returned from the mountains any later than five days  from the time he set out (though why they knew this was never made clear, or why “five days” matters), yet none of them did a thing when he returned late, even though–come on, now–they all know he’s a vampire.

–Nobody does anything that makes sense in this movie!

–These two love each other? They met, like, ten minutes ago and barely interacted!

–Gotta love the random red lights glowing in the middle of the ruins in the middle of nowhere

–I had such hope for this segment to be good. Now I don’t care how it ends, as long as it ends.

–And to top everything off, here is a musical medley of badness to go with the end credits.

I have to say that between this and my recent viewing of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, I am not much impressed by the great Italian horror auteurs. There seems to be a lack of things making sense in such a way that I can understand characters’ motivations for making the decisions they make. As it is, characters just seem to do things or to know things without cluing the audience in to how or why. At best, it creates a randomly connected series of horror images rather than a cogent horror story. At worst, it’s just alternately boring and confusing.

My Netflix rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

–Tom Kapr