Tag Archives: Vampire

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 appear to 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.

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE HUNTER D (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Toyoo Ashida

FEATURING: Voices of Kaneto Shiozawa, Michie Tomizawa, Seizô Katô

PLOT: Millennia in the future, vampires rule over much of the land; one woman fights back, enlisting the aid of a mysterious stranger in her quest to kill Count Lee, a vampire of great power.

VampireHunterD1985

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Vampire Hunter D is undeniably a groundbreaking classic of Gothic anime that conveys a wonderfully realized retro-future. However, aside from some unlikely Bakshi-an monsters and a couple of bursts of eyebrow-raising gore, Toyoo Ashida’s film rests firmly in the realm of the traditionally fantastic.

COMMENTS: It seems only right that I admit to the reader from the start that this movie stands as the only anime film I have ever seen. Through all my years of pursuing leads on offbeat movies, I have somehow missed what is perhaps one of the largest figurative boats ever launched. That said, my experience with Vampire Hunter D has done much to open my eyes. With a limited budget and an unlimited tap of imagination and artistic talent, Toyoo Ashida and Ashi Productions created a stellar vision of a far-flung future world tormented by Dark Ages evil.

Beginning with the title card, “This story takes place in the distant future—when mutants and demons slither through a world of darkness”, the action quickly takes off as a young Hunter—armed with a cross, electric whip, and bayonnetted laser gun—pursues an obviously infernal beastie. The encounter quickly goes south when her horse is slaughtered and, from nowhere, a humanoid creature appears and bites her on the neck. Now she must find a way to destroy this powerful being before becoming a vamp herself. Fate provides her with the assistance of a mysterious stranger, whom she comes to learn is also a Hunter of considerable strength.

From that introduction, the movie proceeds apace with run ins with eldritch creatures, the haughty vampire “nobles,” as well as human scum in the form of a mayor’s son and his cronies. To ward off the nasties that lurk outside, city-dwellers have made barriers combing both the Old and New World Techs, using crosses and energy fields to repel the undead. As with all townsfolk living in the shadow of great evil, they are wary both of strangers and those possibly afflicted. This leaves the heroine, Doris, and the eponymous “D” with scant safe havens. Unsurprisingly (but still very satisfactorily), they seem to need none.

There are splashes of weird to be found throughout the movie. That “D” has two personalities (and, one learns, two faces) adds a compelling layer to his character. On the one hand he strives to maintain an honorable existence while fighting the scourge of vampires around him; on the other (in this case, left) hand, he harbors a secret about his true nature. His scuffles with a flippant space-warping mutant, a Golem that really likes the word “Golem,” a three-headed sex medusa, and ultimately the sinister Count Lee provide brushes with the strange. Particularly worth noting is the Count’s castle: a forbidding heap of ancient ruin atop a massive industrial wasteland.

With its little nods to Stoker’s original work (e.g. a property known as “old man Harker’s” and a strangely Victorian-looking portrait of an unspecified “ancestor”), neat twists in the vampire genre (the local sheriff sports a six-pointed badge with an overlaid cross), and its temporal mélange, Vampire Hunter D provides a unique take on the legend. Be warned, though: do your best to stop the movie after it fades to black on the final scene. Somehow, this chilling adventure is capped by what stands as one of the worst end-credits songs I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The middle of the film features a wonderfully hallucinatory journey across wasted landscapes into the chief vampire’s labyrinthine castle… the rest, especially the showdown with the chief vampire, is anticlimactic in comparison.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

CAPSULE: DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee

FEATURING: Stephen Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Elvis Nolasco, Thomas Jefferson Byrd

PLOT: A well-to-do doctor of anthropology gets stabbed with an ancient Ashanti dagger and becomes immortal but addicted to blood.

Still from Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie’s vampire-origin premise is an uncommon one, but the movie is weighed down by a cold—bordering on somnolent—lead performance, a scattershot tone, and the fact that the most compelling scenes are largely uninvolved with the main action.

COMMENTS: The opening credits of Spike Lee’s latest movie are fully alive. Across the acting and production shout-outs, Lee shows off a very skilled street dancer (Charles “Lil Buck” Riley) performing a number of smooth, impressive moves in various Brooklyn street spots. The momentum continues with the opening scene proper, a lively gospel shout ceremony at “Lil’ Piece of Heaven” church. During the full-blooded, upbeat sermonizing, we see Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Williams) sitting alone in the back, noticeably separate from the rapt congregants. After this introduction, however, it seems that all the blood drains from the movie.

What follows is a sometimes dreamy, sometimes intellectual, and consistently tedious affair involving the realities of a modern, bookish vampire. Dr. Greene hosts big parties for intelligentsia at his large estate in Martha’s Vineyard (with grounds spanning 40 acres, no less). He chats amiably, but briefly, with the various educated bourgeoisie, before having to hightail it to his basement for some blood packs from the refrigerator. He emerges with a wine glass of blood; when an insistent guest tries it and spits it out, he glibly explains, “It’s organic.” And so comes and goes one of the few breaks from the largely unremitting monotony of the film.

Between his unfortunate conversion to vampirism and a personal spiritual revelation, he murders and drinks blood of various poor women of color. His traces of hyper-shy charm are smudged over by his callous and guileless manner. For reasons not entirely clear, he immediately falls in love with Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), who was once married to his erstwhile assistant. She seems to hate everything and everyone, and has adopted the unfortunate habit of being 100% honest 100% of the time. She has a backstory to explain her current hostility to the world, but I found myself utterly incapable of seeing how that justifies her sheer unpleasantness. Throughout the movie, Spike Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay) dribbles in bits and pieces of mumblecore exchanges; where he should have focused on creating an atmosphere of angst and ambiguity, instead he makes each character no more than a projection of a type. Even the hammy characters from Blacula have more nuance and relatability.

There are some scenes of vitality and beauty. Whenever the action shuffles over to the church (all too infrequently), the movie  immediately gets a shot in the arm. And while I am not one to generally marvel at the visual splendor of a scene, the marriage on the private beach that takes place in the second half was a sheer joy just to look at. Unfortunately, I can only come to the conclusion that while the movie toyed with greatness, it came short in a number of ways. It may have been a worthy recommendation if it had been: more atmospheric, more puzzling, livelier, wittier, and so on. Had it thoroughly pursued any one of those directions, it may have been on to something. Instead, Spike Lee seems to want it all, and it ends up falling flat.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…with no one breathing down [Lee’s] neck, it’s free to zoom all over the place — from seriousness to high comedy to weird comedy to quietly anxious set pieces…  For better and sometimes worse, ‘Jesus’ is undiluted Lee — a half-committed attempt at a twisted genre film that freely gets lost down unexplored alleyways.”–Matt Prigge, Metro (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BLACULA (1972)

DIRECTED BY: William Crain

FEATURING: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Gordon Pinsent, Denise Nicholas

PLOT: After being cursed and imprisoned by Count Dracula, African prince Mamuwalde is revived after two centuries when his coffin is brought to Los Angeles by a pair of interior decorators who purchased the Count’s estate. There, he meets what he believes to be the reincarnation of his murdered wife while stalking the backstreets of 1970s LA.

Still from Blacula (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blacula’s weirdness  mostly stems from the manner in which it has aged. While the concept of a black vampire remains something of a novelty (and in fact, Blacula is the first movie to have an African vampire), the story is a fairly pedestrian string of horror-movie situations. Perhaps the weirdest thing about it is that it presents Los Angeles as a town inhabited exclusively by black citizens, white policemen, and homosexuals of both racial groups.

COMMENTS: As an early example of 1970s blacksploitation movies (and as the first horror-themed blacksploitation movie), Blacula is a fairly straightforward affair that nonetheless could be discussed at length on any number of levels. Having volunteered to watch it and write this review, I’m kicking myself for not having taken advantage of the “African-Americans in Horror” cinema class that was offered my senior year in college. That said, I’ll take comfort in the fact that the lens through which I watched this movie was a “weird” one, and at least in that regard, I can speak with some degree of license.

The movie opens in an unexpected way: in 1780, Prince Mamuwalde and his bride are dining at the palace of Count Dracula. They have come as emissaries to Europe in order to discuss ending the slave trade. The Count makes an offhand remark that comes across as a bid to purchase Mamuwalde’s wife, the two Africans try and leave, and bam: the wife is murdered, and the Count passes along his curse to the unfortunate African prince. Throughout this vignette, the husband and wife come across as educated and humane. As to what Dracula’s business with the slave trade was, I leave that to history. Fast-forward two hundred years and a couple of gay antiquarians snap up the late Count’s castle and belongings for a song, with the ambition of selling the Gothic kitsch for a bundle back in their hometown of L.A.

Looking back on that description, the plot does sound more than a little strange. However, Blacula is primarily a period horror piece (that period being, in this case, then-contemporary 1970s). There’s an open-minded black LAPD pathologist, Dr. Gordon Thomas, sporting an Afro, turtle-neck shirts, and a belief that the untimely demise of the two antique dealers was not caused by rats. Appropriately, his best buddy is a rumpled Irish cop, Lt. Det. Jack Peters, who acts as the down-to-earth foil of the occult-inclined Dr. Thomas. Conveniently, the doctor’s main squeeze, Michelle, is the sister of Tina, the young woman whom Mamuwalde is convinced is his wife reincarnated.

So, all the main characters are tied together, to varying degrees of coincidence. They are all at first charmed by the undead prince, with Tina falling (rather quickly) in love with him. She can’t be blamed, really. William Marshall makes Blacula profoundly charming, and it is he who carries the movie with a performance as weighty as that of Othello (unsurprisingly, as he played that role on stage in no fewer than six productions over his acting career).

Shuffled into this mix of B-grade horror, A-grade oratory, and ’70s-grade costume and vernacular are a couple of chase scenes set to a funky score, an eyebrow-raising series of remarks on homosexuals, and a strangely elaborate opening-credit animation title sequence that has a black bat hunting a glob of blood that morphs into a woman. Blacula is a passable horror movie, and Marshall makes the titular villain unforgettable — but this movie isn’t quite on the same plane as ‘s shelved sequel, Funkferatu.

2015 saw Shout Factory’s horror subsidiary, Scream Factory, release Blacula and its sequel Scream Blacula Scream on on double-feature Blu-ray, with commentary by film historian David F. Walker.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘That,’ observes a casual companion, ‘is one strange dude!’ We can only agree… Anybody who goes to a vampire movie expecting sense is in serious trouble, and ‘Blacula’ offers less sense than most.”–Roger Greenspun, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: (as Franco Manera)

FEATURING: , Ewa Strömberg, Dennis Price, , Andrea Montchal, Heidrun Kussin, Jess Franco

PLOT: Linda, a young woman representing a legal firm, travels to a remote island to settle the estate of a wealthy Countess. When Linda meets the countess she realizes it is the same woman who has appeared to her in a recurring erotic dream. The lovely Linda is quickly seduced by the sexy Countess, who not only thirsts for her body and blood but for her soul.

Strill from Vampyros Lesbos (1971)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I suppose a legitimate argument could be made for the “weirdness” of Vampyros Lesbos, or just about any Jess Franco offering. Franco definitely walked to the beat of his own drum. The director borrows from classic literature and vampire mythos in general, and breaks all sorts of rules along the way. Breaking rules, however, does not equal weird. Even with its psychedelic visuals fully intact, there still does not exist a single image that I would qualify as “weird.” There were several lesbian-themed vampire films made during the period; despite Franco’s film being one of the first to get a theatrical release, I don’t think it was terribly shocking for the time. While Vampyros Lesbos is a beautiful and unique entry into the genre, it is not a film I would deem “weird”.

COMMENTS: I have viewed some forty plus films from director Jess Franco, and Vampyros Lesbos remains one of the most visually stunning in his oeuvre. The set pieces, particularly those found in the estate of the Countess, are eye candy of the highest order. The locations likewise add to the film’s visual appeal. The soundtrack is the film’s crowning glory and is without a doubt one of my favorites of all time. Vampyros Lesbos has a dreamlike and trippy vibe, and if you get lost in it the film it can transport you to another world. The beautiful, sexually-charged world of the Countess Carody is as enticing as it is hauntingly sad.

Symbolism is used throughout, specifically the image of a scorpion, a butterfly and a kite. It is too easy, in my opinion, to suggest that the scorpion represents the Countess and the butterfly trapped in the net is Linda. In my mind, both the scorpion and the butterfly represent the Countess. The Countess, delicate in feature and frame, is equal parts powerful, ancient, hungry, desperate, bewitching and manipulative. I see Linda as the kite: free, intelligent, strong, intrigued, tempted but not caught.

Who exactly is enticing whom in this tale is arguable. The strong-willed businesswoman versus the powerful, sexual Countess! Both lead actresses give a solid and memorable performance. The gorgeous Soledad Miranda had a powerful presence in everything she made an appearance in, but never more so than in Vampyros Lesbos. Though her dialogue is spare, Miranda speaks volumes with her expression. An immortal woman who has spent undetermined years Continue reading CAPSULE: VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971)

LIST CANDIDATE: VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

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

PLOT: An abusive literary agent believes he is turning into a vampire.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This may be 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 this may be his strangest performance.

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just maybe—that explains Nicolas Cage’s scenery-chewing, furniture-smashing, cockroach-eating performance in Vampire’s Kiss.  It doesn’t explain Peter Loew’s behavior, however. The emotionally battered Alva (a sympathetically depressed Maria Conchita Alonso) gets more to the point: “this guy is very weird.” Loew is a weird guy indeed. It all starts with his from-nowhere accent, which is not European, New England Brahmin, or even “Mid-Atlantic English,” the made-up dialect spouted by Golden Age Hollywood actors like Katherine Hepburn (though that one comes closest). The accent is insane, but it does reveal Loew’s character: this is the kind of guy who would affect an aristocratic dialect in order to give himself airs, but get it wrong—and stick with it, not caring a bit whether it was accurate or not. When such an arrogant and flamboyant character goes crazy, you can bet that the results will be fiery. Cage holds nothing back. He shouts, slurs his words, breaks stuff, eats bugs, screams obscenities, vomits, puts his hand on his hip and prances like a mad Mick Jagger, rants, and makes insane faces with his huge, unblinking eyes. His furious recitation of the alphabet, which plays like a Sesame Street sketch delivered by a drunk guest star with anger management issues, is itself worth the price of admission.

If you’re wondering why this movie seems weird, even without Cage, reflect that it was written by Joseph Minion, who also brought us 1985’s crazyfest After Hours. With a serious psychology manifesting itself through campy fireworks, the picture’s style is halfway between an art film and a B-movie; it exists in a tonal limbo. There are a number of odd features, even putting aside the performance art mimes who hang out outside of Loew’s apartment. Note that Loew is surrounded by women; girlfriends, pick-ups, office secretaries, his female therapist. His only significant relationships are with women, a surprising number of whom wear black garter belts. Might Peter have issues with the opposite sex? (You think?) How did Loew become such a casual sadist, and why does he obsess about vampires in particular? Why does simple act of “misfiling” irritate him so profoundly? (Seems like a metaphor, doesn’t it?) It’s no surprise that so many key sequences take place in the psychiatrist’s office. With all its unexplained, clashing symbols and preoccupations, the movie itself begs for psychoanalysis.

Cage was not a neophyte actor trying to make an impression at the very beginning of his career here. He was coming off a role as the romantic lead in the mainstream hit Moonstruck. Vampire’s Kiss, along with his equally mannered performance as a hick burglar with Shakespearean diction in the Raising Arizona, gained him the reputation as the greatest ham of his generation.

Although fondly remembered by fans, Vampire’s Kiss has always had a hard time finding a home on DVD. It has never been released in it own, but in 2007 MGM paired it with the insultingly bad early Jim Carrey comedy Once Bitten on the “Totally Awesome 80s” double feature DVD.  In 2015 Scream Factory released Kiss on Blu-ray together with the comedy High Spirits. Both editions include a commentary track from Cage and director Robert Bierman.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… requires a style as darkly comic and deft as its bizarre premise. Instead, the film is dominated and destroyed by Mr. Cage’s chaotic, self-indulgent performance. He gives Peter the kind of sporadic, exaggerated mannerisms that should never live outside of acting-class exercises.”–Caryn James, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

197. VAMPYR (1932)

Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey; Castle of Doom (alternate English version)

“I just wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted, if you will, to break new ground for the cinema. That is all. And do you think this intention has succeeded? Yes, I have broken new ground.”–Carl Theodore Dreyer on Vampyr

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julian West, Jan Hieronimko, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz

PLOT: Allen Gray, a student of the occult, wanders to the small hamlet of Courtempierre. There, he witnesses ghostly visions and meets an old man who is soon killed by an assassin’s bullet. The man’s sickly daughter lies in bed, her blood drained by a vampire, and Gray takes it upon himself to find the source of the contagion.

Still from Vampyr (1932)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story was inspired by tales from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic short story collection “In a Glass Darkly,” the most important of which is “Carmilla” (a vampire tale with lesbian undertones).
  • Vampyr was produced in three versions: one with the cast speaking English, one in French, and one in German. Complete prints of the English and French versions no longer exist, although parts were used in restoring the German version. Some say the English version was never completed. Filming the same script in multiple languages was a trend at the time—see also the Spanish-language version of Dracula—although this practice was soon abandoned as too costly.
  • Star “Julian West” is actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who funded the production in exchange for the leading role. Gunzburg used a pseudonym to avoid the embarrassment that would result from having an actor in his Russian expatriate noble family.
  • Vampyr was shot through a layer of gauze positioned in front of the camera to create the soft, dreamlike visuals.
  • The film was booed at its premiere in Berlin, and in Vienna crowds rioted, demanding their money back. Vampyr lost money and at the time was seen as an embarrassment in its distinguished director’s career, although now it is regarded with near universal acclaim.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The translucent astral body of our protagonist, peering down at his doppelganger as it lies in a coffin.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nearly irrational, mood-based horror gem with imagery that verges on the surreal, Vampyr is a grim and restless death parable made in the brief age when the melodramatic structures of silent films were slowly being fleshed out with the new colors and textures afforded by sound. This experiment in terror by a master filmmaker, made in a unique period that cannot be recreated, is an artifact of its time that paradoxically seems all the more universal because of the age-bound specificity of its style.


Clip from Vampyr (1932)

COMMENTS: “It was an eerie moonlit night. Lights and shadows, Continue reading 197. VAMPYR (1932)

BEAUTIFUL FILMS: WERNER HERZOG’S NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979)

‘s Nosferatu (1922) rightly ranks on nearly every historian’s list of the greatest films to emerge from the silent era (as does his Sunrise). Murnau’s concept of the vampire manages to embrace its absurdities and simultaneously repel us. Probably as much “Varney The Vampire” as Dracula, Murnau’s demonic, Victorian count is more a diseased, toothsome, carnivorous rat than a crepuscular Valentino. Murnau, who served as his own cameraman, artistic director, designer, and editor, and did his own lighting, filtered this greatest of all vampire films through his perfectionist sensibilities (only ‘s 1932 Vampyr has a comparable, but contrasting beauty.

Of course, the vampire genre became increasingly ludicrous. Worse, Dracula and his cohorts became dull, repetitive, and insignificant. The Lord of the Undead became so tame that producers tapped Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian-tinged “Carmilla” (repeatedly) in an attempt to reinstate an edge, which suited the 1970s sexual revolution. Despite mixed results, it worked to a degree (We have yet to see buxom lesbo vampires selling breakfast cereal, but give it time).

Just when we thought the masculine bloodsuckers had given up the ghost to their more interesting female counterparts, , of all directors, gave new vitality to a very old story by doing something out of the ordinary with his 1979 homage to Murnau, Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979).

Herzog’s Nosferatu boasts a startling aesthetic with stained hues and bizarre, cool pacing. Petrified interiors strikingly contrast stony exteriors seething with grey life. Cinephiles wax endlessly about Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive use of sterile whites to parallel opaque reds. Herzog utilizes greys, browns, and whites much differently. Lack of color conveys something seething with life, but not life as typically defined. ’s whitened, fleshy count pierces the bluest skies and greenest forests.

One of Herzog’s motives in making the film was a chance for a second collaboration with Kinski (they first teamed up for 1972’s Agguire: The Wrath of God, while Woyzeck immediately followed Nosferatu in the very same year). Due to copyright restraints, Murnau was unable to use the names of Bram Stoker’s cast of characters. Fifty years later, Herzog did not have to contend with the author’s estate, and although he utilized the familiar names, Herzog took liberties with the story.

Still from Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)Kinski’s is a surprisingly sympathetic performance that still manages to convey grotesque mania. Kinski’s Dracula is as inimitable as Max Schreck’s in the 1922 original. Although both actors took the count-as-a-rodent approach, Kinski’s arouses a pronounced degree of empathy. Playing opposite Kinski’s bleached bat is the gossamer  as Lucy. Mina is jettisoned completely. Apparently, Herzog felt Lucy was a more compelling character (Sadie Frost, as a concupiscent Lucy, validated that point in Coppola’s 1992 Dracula, wholly dismissing ’s waxen Mina). Adjani is in every way Kinski’s equal. You can’t take your eyes off of this enlivened, spectral figure. Unlike Murnau’s Greta Schroder, Adjani is no dormant sacrificial lamb. It is she, not Harker (Bruno Ganz) or Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), who is the film’s protagonist.

Herzog reinstates the novel’s contrast of the sacramental with the Satanic (Schreck’s count is an anti-Semitic caricature preying on Schroder’s German virgin). Lucy actively tracks down Dracula’s heterodox sanctuary, eradicating it with the Eucharist. 

Paradoxes abound: White rats (thousands, millions of them) gift the vivacious breath of disease. The Transylvanian aboriginals (echoing the populace of Aguirre) contrast with urbane Londoners. Humor pierces a milieu of soulful solemnity when Dracula, in chalky voice, says: “I thought he’d never leave,” after his sole encounter with the raving Renfield (). The redemptive goal is offset, in the film’s climax, with cynicism.

As expected, Herzog is too authentic an artist to produce a mere fan film. Nosferatu The Vamypre is stamped with the artist’s personal aesthetics, giving at least some credence to the occasional claim that this homage actually surpasses Murnau’s original.

CAPSULE: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ana Lily Amirpour

FEATURING: Arash Marandi, Sheila Vand, Marshall Manesh

PLOT: A young man romances a mysterious woman in the sparsely-inhabited town known as “Bad City.”

Still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With no real plot to speak of, Girl is a bit of a tease, although the film’s exotic originality is seductive.

COMMENTS: The town of “Bad City” is so sparsely inhabited it only has one little boy, one junkie, one prostitute, one sexy socialite, one vice lord… and one vampire. The setting is the story in this plot-thin exercise, and it’s to Girl‘s credit that its atmosphere intoxicates even though the film does not have much to say. Leaning against a fence smoking, looking like a Persian James Dean in his shades and wife beater, protagonist Arash (Arash Marandi) begins the movie by rescuing a cat, then walking past a hooker in a headscarf and what looks to be a gully full of corpses. Arash’s dad, we soon learn, single-handedly keeps the local skag dealer in business. At night, the nearly deserted town is haunted by a silent female vampire in a striped shirt and a hijab who rides a skateboard (!) One night, dressed as Dracula and lost in a post-costume party stupor, Arash not only encounters the mysterious woman, but survives; not only survives, but is enthralled by her. The vampiress, who radiates loneliness and may be growing tired of her self-appointed role as Bad City’s judge and executioner, may be tempted by Arash as well.

There are some victims along the way, but that is pretty much the plot. What is fascinating about the movie is its evocation of a nowheresville hellscape: the nearly deserted suburban streets lensed in stark black and white, the long silences broken by ethereal music (everything from faux-Morricone to 80s angst-pop). The fact that the actors speak Persian and the women cover their hair implies that Bad City is located in Iran, but the movie was actually shot in and around Bakersfield, California, and the film’s sensibility is an odd mix of east and west, austerity and decadence. It’s like a second-generation Iranian-American distorted dream of a homeland never seen. The movie’s capacity to blend the bleak and the sensual sets it apart from run of the mill arthouse indies.

Writer/director Amirpour professes admiration for and Sergio Leone, but seems like the heaviest influence here, and not just because Girl would make a perfect languid-fang double feature with Only Lovers Left Alive.  The minimalism (there are some very drawn out sequences in Girl), gift for framing urban decay, and eclectic use of pop music all suggest early Jarmusch. I would usually use “style-over-substance” as a compliment rather than an insult, but in this case I do believe that Girl would benefit from a little more meat on its aesthetic bones, a little more blood in its beautiful veins. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is an exciting movie, one that suggests that its director might have a masterpiece in her somewhere down the line.

The film might not have ever been made without the support of , who signed on as a producer after falling in love with the script.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all… along comes something completely new, or at least something so intriguingly bizarre as to seem completely new.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)