Tag Archives: Vampire

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE CLAY (2017)

Chi o sû nendo

DIRECTED BY: Sôichi Umezawa

FEATURING: , Shinoda Ryo, Tsuda Kanji

PLOT: Students in a rural Japanese clay workshop accidentally awaken a possessed being crafted by a failed sculptor who died under mysterious circumstances.

Still from Vampire Clay (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sôichi Umezawa gets a tip of the 366 Weird Hat for his creative directorial debut, but its Cronenberg-in-clay trappings are firmly in the realm of a (somewhat) standard scary movie.

COMMENTS: “Understated” and “body-horror” rarely sit side-by-side as descriptors, but Sôichi Umezawa pulls off this fairly impressive parlor trick with aplomb in his directorial debut. Primarily known for his make-up effects (and best known to us for his work on The ABCs of Death 2), Umezawa spins us a yarn set in an unlikely place (a rural clay-sculpting academy) about an unlikely antagonist (a creepy-cute blood golem thing). The action, such as it is, fits into that Horror Genre Standard Time of under ninety minutes. The result? A fairly memorable outing that won’t burn your entire evening.

Sensei Yuri Aina (Kurosawa Asuka) runs a very small school for aspiring sculptors somewhere in not-Tokyo, Japan. When she is forced to set up shop in an abandoned painter’s studio after finding her own workshop damaged by an earthquake, she unearths a bag of dried powder while digging in the studio’s garden. Thinking nothing of it, she places it in her school. Young up-and-comer Kaori (Shinoda Ryo), fresh from a stint at art school in totally-Tokyo, Japan, is one of Aina’s pupils. Kaori’s bucket of clay is used by another student, which prompts Kaori to re-hydrate the powdery remnants that Aina had put aside. Life returns to the cursed clay at the first spritz of water, and soon the students fall prey to a malevolent, inhuman force.

All told, there are just eight characters in this melodrama about rejection, competition, and the evils of industrial waste. The back-story of the evil clay beast is sufficiently over-the-top without slipping into giggle territory; I actually found myself rather moved by the tale of the failed sculptor who literally put his lifeblood into “Kakame”, the smiling vampire golem. The attacks on the students (who comprise five of the film’s eight characters) are all clever—think Cronenberg in high school art class. I imagine creativity and patience were Umezawa’s watchwords, as the budget for this movie must have been on the very low side. In one particularly unsettling bit, Kaori’s chief rival gets enveloped by the clay monster and tries to communicate to the other students the next day from within a sculpture. (I was reminded of the creepy short, Alma.) Other bits of violence—both gruesome and creative—are found throughout. The end veers heavily into the “Apocalypse-as-Revenge” genre, in perhaps a personal attack by the director on those who may have doubted his talents in the past.

Now that Sôichi Umezawa has proven he can maintain a feature-length narrative as well as scare his audience, I’m hopeful he’ll move on to some more challenging material. Vampire Clay takes you on a quick journey into one of the few remaining unexplored corners of the Gotta-Have-Blood monster genre while laying the ground-work for what will hopefully be a fuller career in weirdo-creepy motion pictures.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The notion of Vampire Clay is a fun thought experiment, and Umezawa seems to intend it that way, too, embracing both the utter ridiculousness of sentient hunks of plasticine and its endless creative applications…  the film has a better chance taking root in the imagination than in theaters, because the idea of vampire clay is so much more potent than actually watching it in action. Nothing this absurd should be this boring.”–Scott Tobias, Variety

DRACULA IN PAKISTAN (1967)

Dracula in Pakistan (AKA The Living Corpse, 1967, directed by Khwaja Sarfraz ) is about… Dracula, in Pakistan. Well, primarily. It’s a slightly weird retelling; not quite weird enough, and not quite good enough, but it’s a worthwhile curio.

It begins with Doc Tabini (Rehan; the actors are all credited under one name only) as a kind of Dr. Jekyll, deep in experimentation, trying to unlock the secret of death. Unfortunately, the poor fellow dies during his own experiment, wakes up as a vampire, and bites his buxom babe assistant. She becomes the bride of… Dracula (although he’s only called Dracula in the title).

Then, Dracula in Pakistan veers into a practical remake of ‘s Dracula mixed with Horror of Dracula (Sarfraz virtually lifts ‘s red-blooded entrances). It occasional veers from the source materials: Dracula gets into a fist fight; and, rather than turning into a bat, he takes off in a sport car. Oh, and there’s several (too many) bizarrely placed extended dance sequences and a crappy Pakistani jazz score, along with a beach scene of Pakistani teens (?), before it ventures back into the narrative and the finale—an effectively filmed ripoff of Fisher’s Horror.

Still from Dracula in Pakistan (1967)The Van Helsing character is bland, but Rehan is a spirited bloodsucker—which is odd, because according to the cast interviews on the DVD extras, he had never seen a horror film before shooting. Indeed, it’s the extras from the Mondo Macabro  release that really elevate the film. They almost convinced me Pakistan was better than the film I just saw. According to Pete Tombs and Omar Khan, the film was originally rated X in Pakistan, due to the cleavage and neck-biting, which was tame even then. There’s also a documentary on South Asia horror films, and the restoration, although hardly perfect, is impressive. Mondo treats it like it’s a long lost treasure; and who are we to argue with such a hip distributor?

CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kaho, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Megumi Kagurazaka

PLOT: A clan of vampires forced to live in hiding attempt to tip the scales of power by capturing a group of humans in their hotel fortress and turning them into a generational supply of food; however, their perennial aboveground enemies have conspired to birth an avenger during a cosmic convergence, and now that she has come of age, the final battle between the two warring forces is at hand.

Still from Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being a TV miniseries, and therefore technically beyond our purview, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” has a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. Although it is built upon a foundation of gore and slapstick and features elaborate and sometimes confusing worldbuilding, the story works best at a character level, focusing on the motivations of its complicated leads. At its best, the weirdness tends to be more window dressing than of a true mission of the series.

COMMENTS: Following my lengthy discourse on the cinematic genre of vampires, as well as my brief sojourn into the vault of the Nikkatsu film studio, watching this 9-part bloodsucker miniseries felt a bit like old home week. Fortunately, that’s not to say it was boring to watch Sion Sono’s take on the legend. Far from it; as much as he may be cherry-picking his favorite parts of the mythos, what he has created is anything but a retread.

If anything, Tokyo Vampire Hotel has way too much going on. The very first episode opens with a deeply uncomfortable mass shooting, which serves as a springboard for the kind of violence-chase set pieces that would be completely at home in an 80s Hollywood action movie. But this quickly fractures into a character study of our two heroines: Manami, an orphan raised under trying circumstances to become the vanquisher of an entire race of vampires, and K, the underground defender whose unrequited love is consistently co-opted for the violent means of others. When not delving into their backstories, Sono is creating the candy-colored, blood-drenched world of the titular hotel, populated by eccentric characters that include a vampire queen who keeps shrinking into nothingness, a wildly attired, dreadlocked hepcat whose own father sold him to vampires as a baby in exchange for becoming Japan’s prime minister, and a maternal figure who may be housing the entire hotel within her nether regions. Add into that a ballroom full of lovelorn humans who have been lured into the hotel (and for whom seemingly every one is provided a rich backstory), a cult of hippie-like Romanians who are connected to Tokyo by tunnel, and a late-series jump forward in time that almost completely restarts the story, and the effect is downright dizzying. It’s legitimately weird, but after a while, it becomes a “Mad Lib” kind of weird: oddness courtesy of dissonance.

Which only makes it all the more astonishing that Sono then carved Continue reading CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

CAPSULE: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)

Must See

Låt den rätte komma in

DIRECTED BY: Tomas Alfredson

FEATURING: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar

PLOT: A lonely, isolated boy finds a kindred spirit in a new neighbor, who turns out to be a vampire responsible for a series of strange deaths in the small suburban community.

Still from Let the Right One In (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Let the Right One In is a savvy addition to the vampire canon, placing much that is familiar in a bracingly new context. Unexpected as it may be, this reinvention isn’t so much weird as it is refreshing.

COMMENTS: When we celebrate the centennial of Nosferatu in a few years, it will be a great opportunity to reflect on how the vampire film has become a genre unto itself. In the course of its century, we have seen a multitude of variations on just what a vampire can be: sparkling teen crush, hoodlum slacker, inappropriately tan, habla hispana, African prince, space vixen, thin white duke, legitimately crazy, or even the star of the century-old classic Nosferatu itself, to name but a few. The enemies of vampires have similarly become diverse and varied: everything from cheerleaders to great emancipators to lords and saviors. The fact that I’ve left out so many in this extremely short listing indicates how pervasive the vampire has become and how vast the possibilities are for exploring its legend, and explains why filmmakers as idiosyncratic as Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and Guy Maddin have filtered the vampire through their own distinctive worldviews. The vampire is more than a mere monster. It is a full-fledged entity unto itself, through which we can refract our understanding of society and history.

When that vampire retrospective does come around, there should be a sizeable chunk of time devoted to Let the Right One In, a thrilling synthesis of the familiar tropes of the vampire mythos into something wholly new and surprising. Everything you expect from a vampire movie is here, but delivered in a deceptively measured tone that gives new shadings to familiar clichés, while also lulling the audience into a quiet reverie that gives the film’s inevitable shocks even greater punch.

Screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) smartly centers the story on Oskar, the lonely boy who comes to fixate on the strange girl who has moved into his neighborhood. (I’ll be using female pronouns for Eli in acknowledgement of the talented young actress in the role, although the film suggests Eli’s gender should be very much in doubt.) Oskar has so many unfulfilled needs: an attentive family, an engaged educator, a protector from schoolyard abuse. But he is not cowed in the face of these obstacles. When threatened, he stiffens his spine and waits for the moment to pass. So when he meets Eli, confident enough to march around in the snow in short sleeves but unfamiliar with a Rubik’s Cube, it is hardly surprising that he bets his entire soul on her.

Oskar’s sweetness is essential, because Eli is essentially an amoral creature, a fact he seems to recognize but is grateful to overlook. Although she gives off a childlike innocence in Oskar’s presence, she is both a feral animal, as seen in her vicious and intense attacks on random townspeople, and a wily schemer, as demonstrated by her manipulation of Håkan, the simple man who appears to be her caretaker. We know something is up when we see the elaborate-yet-ramshackle method in which he kills and drains victims in order to feed his charge, and when we see his meekness in the face of conflict and the abuse she heaps upon him when he fails, we learn much about her true nature.

Given both its locale and its tone, it’s tempting to view Let the Right One In as the vampire movie Ingmar Bergman never made. But when Alfredson is ready to pour on the horror, he does so with gusto, invigorating the most common elements of vampire tales with new power. Vampires must be invited into a home? We see the disturbing consequences when they aren’t. You’ve heard that sunlight is bad for vampires? You may not be prepared for the suddenness and violence of the sun’s wrath. And the film’s final set piece at a swimming pool is a justifiable favorite, a masterful demonstration of the value of showing just enough action to let the mind fill in the rest.

Let the Right One In boasts one of the most disturbing happy endings you’re likely to come across. Oskar and Eli escape, and the affection he feels for her is evident even with her in hiding. They will look after each other, you can be sure. But then you recall who else took care of Eli, and what that relationship became. It’s fair to wonder how many years will pass before he, too, will be packing up his kit to go rustle up food for the sweet child who befriended him so long ago.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some movies, while never quite attaining masterpiece status, nonetheless have a monumental WTF-factor. This is one such… thoroughly macabre, maintaining a downbeat, realist lugubrious air, like a cop procedural…very satisfyingly bizarre scenes.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Miss_Murder. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: MARTIN

Continued from 1978 exploitation triple feature, part one.

The Mountain of the Cannibal God (directed by prolific trash guru Sergio Martino), is possibly the most well-known film of the Italian cannibal genre, primarily because it has name stars in Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress. Being Martino, it naturally revels in its nastiness, which runs the gamut from castration to decapitations, shots of human entrails, and actual footage of a monkey being devoured by a python. A nude Andress certainly helped its box office. It was yet another video nasty staple in the heyday of mom and pop video stores.

Still from Starcrash (1978)Starcrash (directed by Luigi Cozzi) stars cult fave Caroline Munro in a blatant Star Wars ripoff. There’s other people in it as well, like David Hasselhoff (in his film debut) and , but it’s Munro that audiences went to see, and it’s a hoot to boot.

Starhops is a sort of Star Wars parody, but it’s essentially juvenile sexploitation, surprisingly directed by a woman: Barbara Peeters. It’s obscure, for obvious reasons.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (directed by Leo Penn) is a Gothic horror TV mini-series starring grand dame , still riding high post-Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1960). Adapted from the Thomas Tryon novel, it’s winningly offbeat with a high camp performance from Davis as the town matriarch. For unknown reasons, it’s home video distribution has been spotty, only briefly becoming available on VHS in a badly mutilated version.

goes zombie with Grapes of Death. Being Rollin, it naturally is going to have a twist—amusingly, zombifying wine. Opulently bloodied, the film has a reputation as being weaker Rollin. Actually, his virtues here outweigh his usual flaws.

They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (directed by Bobby A. Suarez) stars Marrie Lee as an Asian 007 kickin’ ass of a buncha baddie henchman disguised as nuns. Naturally, it was an epic influence on . Low-budget explosions, scantily clad femme fatales, kung fu galore, and wretched dubbing. Sorry, but you can’t call yourself cool ’til you’ve seen it.

Now, when we think we’ve grown immune to a decade full of the unexpected, we encounter Charles Burnett’s “” feature Killer of Sheep, which is one of the most unsettling films of the decade and entirety of cinema. The title refers to Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) who works in a slaughterhouse and lives in the ghetto where there are principles, despair, poetry and, ultimately, a lack of liberty. Like Stan, the film does not progress, and it really should be required viewing for every Neanderthal who can’t seem to grasp the fact that an entire race oppressed for half a millennium here is not going to “bounce back” by itself in a mere fifty years. This was Burnett’s Masters thesis, shot on a mere $10,000 budget. It remained Continue reading 1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: MARTIN

243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

“Vampire’s Kiss, in which Cage plays a literary agent labouring under the delusion he is a vampire, is a weird film that is kind of great in its weirdness and in which Cage exposes himself fearlessly to ridicule, not least for appearing in a horror movie in the first place.”–from a 2013 Guardian profile on Nicolas Cage

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

FEATURING: , Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons

PLOT: Peter Loew is a well-to-do young literary agent with a hedonistic lifestyle, who is also in therapy. One night, he is interrupted while romping with his latest sexual conquest when a bat flies into the bedroom; later, he takes home a one night stand who (maybe) bites him on the neck in the throes of passion. He begins to believe he is becoming a vampire, while at the office he grows increasingly annoyed with and abusive to a junior secretary, Alva, to whom he assigns the task of combing through the agency’s archives looking for a missing contract.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was screenwriter Joseph Minion’s second produced script—the first was After Hours (1985).
  • Cage had originally committed to the part before the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987) ignited his career. He tried to back out of Vampire’s Kiss, and Judd Nelson was tapped to play Peter Loew; thankfully, Cage changed his mind and decided to honor his commitment.
  • According to the commentary, a late scene—where Peter is walks down a Manhattan street talking to himself with blood on his shirt and none of the passersby take any notice of him–was filmed with real New Yorkers who had no idea they were on a movie shoot.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to select the vision of Cage’s manic face as he mocks poor Alva (an image Dread Central’s Anthony Arrigo brilliantly summarized as “the infamous shot of Cage’s eyebrows attempting to flee the insanity that is his face“), a sight so powerful that it birthed an Internet meme. The notoriety of that shot aside, there are probably a dozen Cage expressions or poses that could vie for the honor of most unforgettable image in Vampire’s Kiss. We ultimately went with the view of Cage’s defeated face as he lies under his couch-cum-coffin, with Jennifer Beals’s hallucinated legs perched above him—an image also used for the film’s original theatrical poster.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Alphabet-mastering Cage, cockroach-eating Cage, plastic-fang Cage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cage, entirely Cage. This is Nicolas Cage’s strangest performance. Let me repeat that. Cage has starred as an Elvis-obsessed lowlife in movie, as the twin alter-egos of in a movie, as a woman-punching detective in the ridiculous Wicker Man remake, as a heroin-addicted New Orleans cop in a movie, and it’s this performance as a literary agent who thinks he’s turning into a bloodsucker that’s his strangest. Without Cage jumping onto desks, eating cockroaches, and posing like Mick Jagger after demonstrating his mastery of the alphabet, this would merely be an oddball tale; with him in the role, it’s a totally bizarre one.


Original trailer for Vampire’s Kiss

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just Continue reading 243. VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

GUY MADDIN’S DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (2002)

“Dracula” is a very old story. The first (and probably best) cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale was ‘s Nosferatu (1922) with Max Schreck. Under ‘s direction, Hungarian actor personified Hollywood’s vision of the character in Dracula (1931). George Melford made what has become known as the “Spanish” Dracula (1931), which was more fluid than Browning’s version, but saddled with an absurdly inept vampire in Carlos Villarías. , as Alucard (spell it backward), a Count who needs to watch his carbs, seemed to have effectively staked the character for good in Son Of Dracula (1943). However, John Carradine made Dracula as a supporting character in the mediocre monster mash, House of Frankenstein (1944) and the even worse House of Dracula (1945).

By the mid-1940s, Bram Stoker’s vampire seemed as hokey, outdated, and timid as his penny dreadful precursor “Varney the Vampire.” The genuine horrors of the Second World War, Fascism, and death camps rendered a nightly bloodsucker toothless. Dracula (Lugosi for the second and last time) was resurrected, for laughs, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which by then seemed apt. Since then, celluloid incarnations of Dracula resurface with occasional, albeit brief vitality.

‘s animalistic performance highlighted ‘s spirited takes on the character for the Dracula franchise (1958-1974). However, under other directors, Lee was the only redeeming quality in increasingly unimaginative films. By the time the series petered out, Lee wasn’t even that. and  succeeded with a remake of Nosferatu (1979) that can stand with the Murnau original. In 1992, and delivered a uniquely opulent interpretation, which, despite flaws, inspired an entire school of makeup and costume design. However, these were rare exceptions, and the bulk of films produced on the subject of Dracula (and vampires in general) only confirmed how dull, silly, and repetitive the mythology had become.

Just when it would seem that nothing new could be done with the character, along came ‘s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002). For those familiar with Maddin’s work, it should come as no surprise that his approach is completely revolutionary or that his postmodern originality springs from antiquated classicist art forms: silent film and the ballet.

Browning actually made an eccentric choice to use excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” as incidental music in his Dracula. Forgoing actual ballet music, Maddin utilizes Mark Godden’s choreography (performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), which instead utilizes excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s First and Second Symphonies. Not surprisingly, Mahler’s Freudian baggage is an asset. Set to the often violent and macabre dancing, Mahler’s music here seems more related to Bela Bartok’s perverse ballet  “Miraculous Mandarin” than to his own “Resurrection” Symphony.

Still from Dracula Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)Maddin is aware that silent cinema at its best is a stylishly erotic, poetic art form, awash in an otherworldly Art Noveau milieu. The theatrical makeup, lack of dialogue, and overwrought choreography transports us to a plane separate from reality. Maddin, dialed into rudimentary cinema, often invites television-fed audiences to question the validity of his art as a “real movie. Dracula is as much fugue as it is moving picture, akin to a theater of the absurd homage to silent film.

Maddin concentrates on the vampire’s seduction, with the first half devoted primarily to Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle). Dracula (dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang) is Asian, lusty, vulnerable, and agile. In the first part, Mina and Jonathan Harker are relegated to minor characters (we don’t miss them). Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) is, as usual, apt to spoil the fun. It has been said that all literature is about sex, death, and God. Maddin’s Dracula likens blood to semen, which of course inspires much melodramatic Christian apprehension in the chaste, xenophobic doctor. There’s plenty of symbolism, too, about lust for money, the hypocrisy of Christian capitalism, celibacy, and martyrdom.

Despite its familiar source, Maddin’s Dracula, crepuscular and icy, is as startling as the productions of Murnau and Herzog, and perhaps even more so. It is paradoxically the coldest and most fiery interpretation of Bram Stoker to date. Knowing our familiarity with the narrative, Maddin wisely does not set out to spin yet another retelling; rather, it’s all about the aesthetics, baby. Primarily black and white (mixed with blood red and various tints) and filmed on super 8mm, and 16mm, Dracula is a director’s film, employing every fetishistic gimmick from the Expressionist bag. The choppiness is intentional and frantic, much in the same vein as Maddin’s justifiably famous Heart of the World (2000—probably his best film). The dull naysayers and vampire fans are actually right about one thing: Dracula is not a moving picture as much as it an overtly erotic icon.