Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Life and Loves of Alfred Hitchock

When I was a kid racing home from school to watch Dark Shadows and staying up late on Saturday night to watch Shock it to Me and Scream In, our local sci-fi/horror double feature in glorious black and white, I was as much a fan of Alfred Hitchcock as I was of Lugosi and Karloff, and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Television showings of Psycho and The Birds were not as common as Hammer Horror and Universal Monsters films. We had afternoon reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but at a young age I had not yet developed a taste for psychological thrillers and usually grew bored with the stories between Hitch’s on-screen appearances.

I can’t think of any other film director in my lifetime that became such a public icon the way Hitchcock did. Everyone loved his movies, from the romantic thrillers to the horror shows. Everyone recognized his face. Many loved to imitate his voice.

It’s “the voice” that actors Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock and Toby Jones in The Girl pull off with panache, and pull us – somewhat – into the mind of the Master of the Macabre. I watched the two films over two consecutive days, and am glad I did. Chronologically, The Girl is a continuation of Hitchcock and ultimately takes us further into the mind of a genius but deeply disturbed artist.

I had previously read Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius, as well as Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. The Rebello book, chock full of trivia about the making of one of the finest American horror films ever made, is the source material for the film, Hitchcock. From the search for the perfect vehicle for his next film to the notorious moment when Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Revel, tells Hitch he can’t release Psycho as is….because Janet Leigh blinks while laying murdered on the shower floor, Hitchcock manages to touch all bases within a mere 98 minute running time.

Despite my personal annoyance with several shots where the prosthetic chin is painfully obvious, I was sucked in by Hopkins’ performance and frequently forgot I wasn’t watching a documentary of the director appearing as himself. It was also great fun to see the cast who portray the familiar participants in Psycho – Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, James D’Arcy as Tony Perkins, a fabulously beautiful Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Ralph Macchio in a cameo as screenwriter Joseph Stefano, and a terrific supporting performance by Toni Collette as Hitch’s assistant, Peggy Robertson. Hopkins, of course, has the juiciest lines in the movie, tossing off one macabre one-liner after another which had the audience at my viewing tittering with laughter throughout. Hitchcock gives us a fiendishly entertaining portrait of the brilliant director as the loveable imp we remember from television talk shows and his appearances as host of his own TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Despite its source material and marketing campaign, Hitchcock is ultimately a story about Hitch’s relationship with wife Alma. In a way, so is The Girl, although in the second film, Alma takes a back seat to the director’s obsession with creating the perfect blond movie star from scratch.

HBO’s offering, The Girl, dares to go beneath the public persona and give us a portrait of a genius with bizarre fetishes and dangerous sexual obsessions. Based on another Spoto book, Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, as well as the personal memories of star ‘Tippi’ Hedrin, The Girl focuses less on the actual making of The Birds and Marnie, instead placing the emphasis on Hitchcock’s self-destructive obsessions. There are a few “behind the scenes” type sequences including one highly amusing scene showing gull wranglers chasing down stunt birds along the coast of  Bodega Bay, providing levity to what is an otherwise grim and often shocking film. Perhaps the most telling moment of just how far Hitch would go with his malignant obsession and corruption of directorial authority is the planned one-day shoot using mechanical birds (the scene at the end of The Birds when Melanie Daniels goes to the attic room of the Brenner farmhouse). Hitchcock actually filmed the scene with live birds attacking the actress over and over…for a period of five days. Understandably, Hedrin collapsed from exhaustion and was hospitalized.

The Girl is riveting, and despite the Mad Men-era period detail, not a pretty film to watch. Toby Jones and Anthony Hopkins are two very different actors but as with Hopkins’ performance, I surrendered completely to Jones’ interpretation.

So, which is the better film? That’s a question I can’t answer. As a lifelong fan and Hitchcock trivia nut, I’ll be buying both on DVD. I will probably shelve them separately, however. Hitchcock will enjoy a place of honor next to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. The Girl will be slid into place next to that other classic of sexual fetishism, Blue Velvet

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Séance (2001)

As much as I enjoy J Horror I don’t want to stray too far from the subject of The Midnight Room. With Séance, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 television film based on the Mark McShane novel, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I think an exception can be made. The original 1964 British film starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough may already be known to fans of classic Gothic thrillers.

Briefly, the original story concerns a medium who strives for validation by coercing her husband into kidnapping a little girl whom she will then “find” through her psychic powers. While the original is certainly fodder for the psychological exploration of the two main characters, Kurosawa reinterprets the character of the wife and medium, Junco Santo, as a woman frustrated by living in the shadow of her more successful husband. Kurosawa adds an interesting new subplot: a child molester is the one who attempts to kidnap a charming little girl in a vibrant green dress. The child manages to escape and hides inside an empty equipment trunk belonging to Junco’s husband, a sound recording engineer who, not knowing the girl is inside, locks the trunk and takes it back to his home in the city.

Junco has been working with a young university student hoping to prove his theory that psychics are of value in police work. The police seek her assistance in discovering the whereabouts of the missing girl. It’s a fairly contrived plot development that the missing girl just happens to be in a trunk on the floor in the garage...and unfortunately not the film’s only plot hole. Though still alive, the couple conspires to take the girl to an abandoned location and ultimately Junco will “find” her using her psychic powers.

Well, you guessed it. Plots of this sort always go horribly wrong and next thing you know the child dies and her ghost torments her accidental murderers in true Japanese style, complete with long black hair covering her face.

Next to Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water), Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of Japan’s leading horror film-makers, but like Western directors such as Alfred Hitchcock whose name is synonymous with horror on the strength of only two films in his oeuvre, Kurosawa’s films transcend the confines of the horror film by nature of their psychological elements. Séance, Charisma, Pulse, Doppelganger, and my personal favorite, Cure, are all outstanding examples of Kurosawa’s style. His framing is formal, but what is left outside the frame is often more important than what the camera sees. The same holds true for his scripts. The screen stories have an unnerving sense of ambiguity, which brings to mind Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation on Don’t Look Now. Though the visual aspect of Kurosawa’s films are devoid of luscious Gothic eye candy, they manage to be bleak and moody, and at their core are disturbing psychological thrillers involving any number of paranormal element and thus deserve a special place upstairs in The Midnight Room.  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

When It Rains It Pours: Dark Water (2005)

From the opening shot of the 2005 ghost story, Dark Water, we know we are in for a wet ride - so wet that I wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just go ahead and set it in Seattle. But the Roosevelt Island setting is, in fact, one of the standout elements of this often reviled American remake of a Japanese horror film.

Both films are adapted from the same source material, a short story by Koji Suzuki who wrote the original novel The Ring. Japanese horror flicks became wildly popular among horror fans in the 2000s after the successful American remakes of The Ring and The Grudge… so much so that they coined the nickname of J Horror. Displaying an overwhelming sense of unoriginality over the past twenty years or so, Hollywood has a way of plundering anything and everything it can get its hands on, so that by the time Dark Water arrived in 2005, fans of original foreign films were ready to ipso facto hate anything that had an English language remake. Take a look at customer reviews of Fincher’s version of TheGirl with the Dragon Tattoo on Amazon if you don’t believe me.

Prejudice in favor of foreign originals aside, I think part of the reason Dark Water has a bad rep is that it isn’t horror movie – not in the contemporary sense of the word. It is a ghost story first and foremost, with all the traditional elements in tact… and beneath the surface story lies a superb example of the Psychological Gothic. For my money, ghost stories work best when these two elements walk hand in hand. The Haunting (of Hill House), The Woman in Black, The Changeling – each a brilliant ghost story with a strong psychological undercurrent. In these stories, the lonely and bereaved are highly susceptible to supernatural manifestations.

In Dark Water we have a young mother, Dahlia (played with utter conviction by Jennifer Connelly) trying to raise a seven-year-old girl on her own while suffering through a nasty custody battle and a borderline addiction to sedatives. Connelly’s performance shows us a woman with a battered soul, already hanging by a thin, psychological thread, so that during the first half of the movie we wonder how much is in Dahlia’s head and how much is “reality.”

While Dark Water does not feature the old Gothic house which plays a starring role in the films mentioned above, the setting of the low income, industrial housing complex on Roosevelt Island is as dreary and depressing as any crumbling manor house. It is this visual element of urban decay which gives Dark Water much of its strength – an urban dwelling has not been this menacing since Rosemary’s Baby.

Dark Water hits my buttons on many levels. It’s the sort of movie that makes me say, “I wish I wrote that.” Hopefully, with the passage of time, Dark Water will be considered less an offense to J Horror enthusiasts and given the respect it deserves as a beautifully wrought Gothic ghost story. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

All in the Family: Night of Dark Shadows

After the slaughter of the Collins family as we know it at the hands of the cousin from England, Collinwood is inherited by Quentin Collins – no, not the Quentin Collins who suffered the curse of the werewolf, but a moody painter from New York City. Elizabeth probably left the house to Roger or Carolyn in her will, and after a lengthy inheritance battle it probably should have gone to David who, if memory serves correct, was the lone Collins survivor at the end of House of Dark Shadows.

So much for continuity, and continuity, or the lack thereof, is what Night of Dark Shadows is all about. If you sat through the recent Warner’s DVD release of the 1971 follow up to House of Dark Shadows, you might have scratched your head a few times wondering why plot elements fit together like a puzzle without all the pieces.

Dark Shadows loyalists know this story well – the original cut of Night of Dark Shadows ran just over two hours. Director Dan Curtis was forced to trim the movie to a brisk 90 minutes just prior to release – allegedly with only 24 hours in which to do it.

Which is a shame because Night of Dark Shadows has a lot going for it. With gauzy dream sequences, rain drenched funerals, candelabras, cobwebs, and billowing curtains, Night of Dark Shadows plays out a peculiarly violent variation on the familiar gothic reincarnation drama.

No sooner has Quentin Collins arrived at Collinwood than he begins to experience nightmares and visions from the past. Creepy housekeeper Carlotta (played to the hilt by Grayson Hall) Drake informs Quentin that not only is he the reincarnation of scar-faced Charles Collins, but also that she is the reincarnation of Sarah Castle, a little girl who lived at Collinwood two hundred years before. It is through Carlotta that the spirits of the past are kept alive at Collinwood.

I’m still not sure how Gerard, the stuttering groundskeeper, fits into the picture. Is he the reincarnation of Charles Collins’ brother, Gabriel? Gabriel was married to Angelique who was having an affair with Charles, who was married to Laura (I think). I’m also not sure if Tracy, Quentin’s wife, is supposed to be the reincarnation of Laura or not, but when Quentin is possessed by Charles he is alternately smitten with her and on the verge of killing her. Implied marital rape and drowning by swimming pool ensue.

Then there are the neighbors, a husband and wife writing team who specialize in Gothic Romance novels who happen to pick up a painting of Charles Collins in New York and in the blink of an eye have pieced the whole thing together. It’s still pretty confusing, but I’ll blame the various plot holes on the cutting room floor.

Is Night of Dark Shadows an incomprehensible mess? Yes, indeed. Is it as bad as Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows? Heck, no. Nothing is that bad. Night of Dark Shadows as it exists may be a bloody mess of a plot. Night of Dark Shadows as it was meant to be might have been a more visceral nightmare for mature audiences. But only the restoration of 30 minutes of lostfootage can provide the answer. After years of restorative work, Warner Brothers in their infinite wisdom has only released the original theatrical cut to DVD so the public at large may never know the answer.

After House of Dark Shadows’ cinematic retread of the show, it’s refreshing to see Dan Curtis attempt an original storyline, something the 1990 revival series, an unaired 2004 pilot for a reboot for the WB, and the Burton/Depp fiasco failed to do. For Dark Shadows to carry on successfully past the original TV series’ five years’ worth of crackerjack Gothic soap opera storylines, I think future producers should consider creating new material “inspired” by the original series. With its forays back, forward, and sideways through time, the world of Collinwood had no boundaries. If the Collins family is to be revived for future generations, let’s start thinking outside the box.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Vampire Season: House of Dark Shadows

You know you really love a movie when you can watch it a thousand times and still find something new to appreciate. The VHS copy of House of Dark Shadows sits on the shelf next to about one year's worth of episodes of the TV show (whatever storyline I happen to be watching this year). Compared to the MPI volumes, the top of the cardboard box of HODS is covered in dust. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched it.

One of the most distinctive features of the movie I noticed when I watched the newly released Warner’s DVD this past week was how sleek and compact the screenplay is. Primary episode scribes Sam Hall and Gordon Russell distilled months of daily storyline into 95 minutes that combines characters and reduces story arcs to their lowest common denominator, something the Tim Burton adaptation failed to do.

Those not familiar with the television show may not fully grasp the familial relationships – Elizabeth owns Collinwood manor, Roger is her brother, David is Roger’s son, and Carolyn Elizabeth’s daughter – but it isn’t necessary to follow the storyline. We don’t even need twenty minutes of prologue telling us how Barnabas came to be cursed, who Josette is and why he plans to give governess Maggie Evans her music box.

Filmed in 1970 when old school vampires were at their cinematic peak (think Count Yorga and Christopher Lee’s Dracula popping up in A.D. 1972), Jonathan Frid’s suave, European cousin Barnabas is re-imagined with a visceral taste for blood not possible on afternoon television. The television Barnabas was a bit of a whiney-butt. After all, he is the grandfather of Anne Rice’s reluctant Louis and, whether we like it or not, great-grandfather to Stephanie Meyer’s glittery Edward., two reasons why I applaud House of Dark Shadows. This is a bosom-heaving, blood thirsty vampire movie to rival the best of Hammer Films, complete with savagely bitten throats and fonts of blood when the stakes are hammered home. It’s no wonder when I saw House of Dark Shadows at the theater in 1970 at age 11, the lobby was filled with whimpering grade-schoolers. Barnabas Collins is pee-your-pants scary. If you don’t believe me, watch what happens when Dr. Hoffman takes her revenge and Barnabas shows his true age.

Hyperactive storyline aside, free from the restraints of daytime studio video work, House of Dark Shadows features frenetic cinematography. The camera zooms, tracks, swirls, and sometimes makes the viewer sick with handheld moments. The transfer from film to DVD, while not perfect, at least presents the films murky, dark colors with more clarity, the reds more precise, than was ever possible with VHS. The cast, especially Frid, deliver fever-pitched performances, making this a classic vampire film to be reckoned with.

If you’re new to Dark Shadows (and if you follow this blog, I doubt that you are) and ready to dip your foot into the bloodbath, leave the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp debacle on the video shelf, and spend the night with this lusty demise of the Collins family as we know it.

And as always, fang me later. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Son of the Beast: Rosemary's Baby

Since the beginning of cinema as a universally shared human interest some one hundred years ago, readers who also love movies and movie fans who must read the book on which a movie is based have argued the age-old debate: the book was better than the movie or the movie was better than the book.

Rosemary’s Baby is one of those rare instances where the novel and film exist on equal footing. Ira Levin’s streamlined suspense thriller was a huge bestseller in the mid-sixties. In hiring shlockmeister William Castle as producer, Paramount Pictures probably wasn’t counting on much more than a standard Gothic potboiler. For reasons known only to him, director Roman Polanski chose to pursue a very literal adaptation of the novel in his self-penned screenplay.

Picture if you will, those of you who are as familiar with the scenes in Rosemary’s Baby as you are with other favorite classics – Casablanca or The Godfather – the scenes from Levin’s novel, however seemingly unimportant, reproduced in Polanski’s film:

A workman at a sculptured green door marked 7B looked at them and turned back to fitting a peepscope into its cut-out hole.

Mrs. Castavet was wrapped in light blue, with snow-white daubs of gloves, purse, shoes, and hat… He was dazzling, in an every-color seersucker jacket, red slacks, a pink bow tie, and a gray fedora with a pink band.

Rosemary looked outside the door. She could see only the end of the living room that was bridge tables and file cabinets; Guy and Mr. Castavet were at the other end. A plane of blue cigarette smoke lay motionless in the air.

This last one is one of my favorite shots in the movie. Only after seeing the movie or knowing the story do we realize in retrospect that this is the scene wherein Guy Woodhouse seals the fate of his unborn child. This shot also establishes an ongoing motif in the film, that of feral eyes watching the proceedings. Notice how many times two lamps, or two lighted windows in another wing of the apartment building appear as eyes. While the book and movie follow the exact same story line to the point where the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the novel, through this and other cinematic techniques Polanski is able to create a palpable sense of paranoia which isn’t present in the novel. The book reads as a tongue-in-cheek parody of a Gothic Romance with Guy and Rosemary moving into the haunted house despite the warnings of the superstitious villager, appearing here in the character of Rosemary’s friend, Hutch.

Are you aware that the Bramford had a rather unpleasant reputation around the turn of the century? It's where the Trench sisters conducted their little dietary experiments. And Keith Kennedy held his parties. Adrian Marcato lived there too. The Trench sisters were two proper Victorian ladies - they cooked and ate several young children including a niece. Adrian Marcato practiced witchcraft. He made quite a splash in the 90s by announcing that he'd conjured up the living devil. Apparently, people believed him so they attacked and nearly killed him in the lobby of the Bramford. Later, the Keith Kennedy business began and by the 20s, the house was half empty...World War II filled the house up again. They called it Black Bramford. This house has a high incidence of unpleasant happenings. In '59, a dead infant was found wrapped in newspaper in the basement

This speech from the screenplay sets the tone for this house of horrors into which Rosemary and Guy have moved. And for anyone who has lived under a rock for the past forty-five years or is simply too young to have caught wind of this classic, Rosemary winds up pregnant after dreaming of being raped by the Devil, and rapidly dissolves into paranoia believing the clan of geriatric neighbors in her apartment building are actually a coven of witches intent on sacrificing her unborn child to the Dark One.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Ira Levin wrote a handful of suspense novels which have gone into the public consciousness both from written versions and film adaptations. We all know what it means to be a Stepford wife, we all know what the boys from Brazil are, and we certainly know the fate of Rosemary’s baby.

And we certainly know what happened to the horror film in its wake. Rosemary’s Baby grew up to be the son of Satan in The Omen and a thirteen-year-old girl possessed by the African demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist.

In a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Levin expressed his dissatisfaction with the tide of popular Satanism his work appeared to unleash.

“I feel guilty that ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ led to ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘The Omen.’ A whole generation has been exposed, has more belief in Satan. I don’t believe in Satan. And I feel that the strong fundamentalism we have would not be as strong if there hadn’t been so many of these books. Of course, I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.”

If you have never read Rosemary’s Baby or haven’t read it in awhile, what better time of year to pull it off your shelf, check it out at the library, or buy it via One Click for your Kindle (currently 2.99 USD). Pop in the movie and follow along. If you’re like me and a couple of my more colorful friends, you’ll enjoy saying the dialogue along with the film.

Tannis, anyone?

You’re in Debrovnik. I don’t hear you.

And my favorite:

Shh, I think I hear the Trench Sisters chewing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Gothic Halloween Triple Feature: Free

This week only, download all three of my Gothic novellas in eBook form for free. These titles are available in Kindle format only, but are easy to read using the free Kindle For PC Reader or the free Kindle App for iPhones and others.

No Tinkerbells

Twisted Sister

Pandora's Box

And be sure to check out my full length novels 


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Vampire Season - Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

1963 found both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing unavailable for filming, so Hammer forged ahead on the next Dracula project. Sans the Count and Van Helsing, the script went through several rewrites, incorporating elements previously considered for Brides of Dracula. The result, Kiss of the Vampire, is once again a unique story line that may not have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the studio’s rebellious stars. 

The proceedings kick off in high gear with the usual funeral procession into a desolate cemetery. Before the parson can shovel dirt onto the casket, a grim faced fellow comes along and drives a shovel straight through the coffin lid and the screen bursts with a font of Technicolor blood.

The story then follows the trail of a pair of newlyweds, Marianne and Gerald Harcourt, who run out of petrol while honeymooning by motorcar in Europe. After seeking shelter from a sudden summer storm at a village inn, they are invited for dinner to the home of Dr. Ravna whose castle overlooks the village below. Our newlyweds are just as naïve as Marianne in Brides of Dracula, flies unwittingly drawn into the spider’s web.

Ravna has a lush daughter, Sabane, and son, Charles who knows how to hypnotize the ladies with his seductive piano playing. Along the way we learn that Ravna and his offspring are, of course, vampires who lured the innkeeper’s daughter into their cult, and would have the young girl buried in the opening scene as well if not that her father, Professor Zimmer had driven his shovel through her heart to keep her from rising from the grave.

Zimmer is a worthy stand-on for Van Helsing, a man tormented by drink and the loss of his daughter, but well versed in folklore and the ways of the occult. Wait till you get a load of the inside of his cottage.

Invited to a lavish masquerade ball at Castle Ravna, Marianne is soon waylaid to be inducted into the cult of the undead while poor Gerald wakes up with a hangover and a vast conspiracy to make him believe that his bride never existed. The ball is a stunning set piece, one of the most remarkable scenes of any Hammer horror film whose casts are notoriously sparse. Like its predecessor, Brides of Dracula, Kiss of the Vampire bursts from the screen in dazzling colors, turning the Hammer version of Transylvania into a kind of vampire storybook setting.

But the true piece de resistance of the film is the destruction of the vampire cult when Professor Zimmer unleashes a horde of bats, evil against evil. Some of the effects are cheesy, but the animation is outstanding and the scene will remind many viewers of the attacks in Hitchcock’s The Birds, released the same year.

Kiss of the Vampire comes with The Midnight Room Vampire Season Seal of Approval. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Vampire Season - The Brides of Dracula (1960)

After an unrelentingly hot US summer that took its toll on this fair skinned red-head physically and psychologically (I am more acclimated to cold, dark places after all), Autumn kicked in full bore this past weekend with a cold snap that has me sleeping under mounds of blankets with the windows open… cause that’s how I roll. With the change in weather come the fragrant aroma of fallen leaves and the acrid smell of wood fires. Days are gloomy, nights are chilly, the dogs howl at sunset, and the bats are about – metaphorically, if not literally.

I’ve never actually put together a top ten list of favorite Hammer Films or favorite vampire movies for that matter, but Hammer’s 1960 The Brides of Dracula would rank high on either list. It’s probably sacrilege to say I don’t care for most of the Christopher Lee Dracula entries (the Peter Cushing Frankenstein series is consistently more creative and, if not frightening, at least disturbing), so what better way to kick off vampire season than with a repeat viewing of Brides of Dracula?

The story goes that Lee turned down the script, originally titled Disciples of Dracula, and that it was hastily rewritten in order to go before the cameras as scheduled. The final product shows some signs of dropped plot threads – but then, story continuity is not one of Hammer’s strong points.

What it lacks in story cohesiveness it more than makes up for with originality and some of the best set design, lighting, and cinematography of any of the Hammer entries thanks in part to the brilliant work of Director of Photography, Jack Asher.

A voiceover narration introducing the film informs the audience that Dracula is dead, but as the nineteenth century draws to a close, the cult of the undead is alive and well in Transylvania. Where else?

Our beautiful heroine, Marianne Danielle (played by “France’s newest sex kitten” Yvonne Monlaur) is traveling through the misty mountains by carriage when she is waylaid at a country village and meets the Baroness Meinster, a stiff shouldered aristocrat played to the teeth by Martita Hunt (Miss Haversham in the David Lean film version of Great Expectations). The Baroness convinces Marianne that she can’t possibly spend the night in the uncivilized country inn and whisks her away to her chateau in the mountains. Saucy French sex kitten, sinister Baroness, isolated castle – the stage is set for some vampire hanky panky.

The first act takes a surprising turn here with a brief detour into family psychodrama. It seems the mutton-sleeved Baroness has a son she keeps chained by the ankle in his tower room. To spice up the plot a bit, there’s an old family retainer on hand, Freda Jackson in a role as equally juicy as that of the Baroness. Scenes between these two women are some of the most dynamic performances in the movie, and Jackson as the young Baron’s nurse delivers a monologue that tells the back story of how the boy became a vampire.

Don’t blame me, mistress. It was none of my doing. Nay. I’ve always kept faith with you. Twenty years since I first saw you come to the castle here with the old Baron and your little son. A fine, handsome little imp he was, too. But you spoiled him. Oh, yes. He was always self-willed and cruel, and you encouraged him. Aye, and the bad company you kept, too. You used to sit and drink with them, didn’t you? Yes, and you laughed at their wicked games. Till in the end one of them took him and made him what he was. You’ve done what you could for him since then, God help you… keeping him here a prisoner, bringing those young girls to him keeping him alive with their blood.

There’s more than meets the eye in this three minute speech than is worthy of any Hammer horror flick. Just what were these wicked games, and why was the Baroness drinking with a bunch of vampires? To me, the implication is a deeper one, inferring that vampirism is a disease that is spread…well, the way diseases are spread… through, ahem…unprotected contact.

This theme of vampirism as disease was explored again in the 1963 follow-up, Kiss of the Vampire, and is what sets these two films apart from the Hammer Dracula series where Dracula is simply a vampire with no social commentary attached. If we look back at Stoker’s original novel, the fear of venereal disease was a palpable undercurrent… and it took more than 100 years for a film version (the 2006 Masterpiece Theatre version) to bring the theme literally to the forefront of the story.

There are some inventive moments in Brides of Dracula, particularly when old Greta lies atop a grave, coaxing the vampire bride to claw her way up through the fresh pile of dirt, and a shocking sequence where Van Helsing, after being bitten by the vampire, burns his throat with a fiery brand before dowsing himself with Holy Water.

The production values and unique story themes are strong enough to make up for the film’s weaker moments – an early, sinister character who follows Marianne to the village only to disappear from the movie altogether, and an embarrassing giant brown bat on a string. Whenever I watch this scene I am reminded of Nicholas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss: “Shoo, shoo.”

If you haven’t seen this entry, or haven’t seen it in a while, you’re in for a treat. If you’re into recreational psychedelics, the colors in this film just might cause you to burst a blood vessel in your eye, and that alone is worth the price of rental. It’s still easy to come by on DVD and is available from online streaming services. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Spooky Time: The Haunting at Blackwood Hall

Need an old fashioned Gothic thriller to generate some Halloween spirit?  The Haunting at Blackwood Hall is now in paperback, 9.95 USD available at Amazon and Amazon UK. E-Book also available from Amazon. Victorian family psychodrama disguised as a ghost story.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dumber of the Beast: The Mephisto Waltz by Fred Mustard Stewart

Here’s another “classic” piece of late 60s quasi-Satanic hooey, Fred Mustard Stewart’s debut novel, The Mephisto Waltz. Just look at the reviews on the cover of the 1970 Signet paperback:

A gripping ride into a world of Satanism and Black Magic… impossible to put down. – Saturday Review

Mr. Stewart weaves his eerie plot with diabolical skill. The Mephisto Waltz is a must for every addict of the Satanic and the supernatural. – New York Times Book Review

A Bizarre, unique, and diabolical tale involving sorcery, Satanism, and transmigration of the soul… a devilishly powerful spellbinder. – Houston Chronicle

The delightful horror and the Satanic elements of Rosemary’s Baby, with the suspense carried on a more sinuously fluid prose. - Library Journal

Sinuously fluid prose? I don’t think so. And please, don’t imply it’s better than Rosemary’s Baby. Ira Levin writes with sinuously fluid prose. Fred Mustard Stewart does not. And any suspense is killed at the end of the first act when the author flat out tells the reader the whole business is about the aforementioned transmigration of the soul right down to the Satanic “ritual”. The rest of the book follows the heroine trying to catch up. Stewart also has little skill in the character department. Miles and Paula Clarkson are about as bland as they come, presenting nothing with which the reader can relate. Oh yeah, my husband is involved with a group of Satanists – I can relate to that.

In case you haven’t seen the clunky movie with Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Parkins, and Curt Jergens as the menacing Duncan Ely, the story goes something like this:

Journalist Miles scores an interview with the aging concert pianist, Duncan Ely who immediately takes a fatherly interest in Miles’ own failed career on the concert circus. Next thing you know, Duncan and his lover…ahem, I mean daughter… whip out a bottle of Satanic oil and start mumbo jumboing in Latin and, voila, Paula has a feeling her husband ain’t her husband any more. Stewart throws in the usual business: murdered ex-wives, dead babies, a black dog, the Old Religion reinvented as Satanism, and a mysterious Man in a Bowler Hat.

Stewart scores a few points in the research department. He at least knows his stuff when it comes to the piano and piano music, describing the “sound” of the titular waltz. Late in the book, Paula browses Ely’s library of Satanic tomes and Stewart lists a catalog of essential titles in the Black Magic oeuvre, everything from Malleus Maleficarum to Discourse of the Subtill Practices of Devilles.

If you’re into this sort of Satanic silliness, The Mephisto Waltz can be a fun, two-night read, although it left this reviewer wanting much more. If you only ninety minutes or so to spare, check out the movie. It’s just as bad. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dracula Deconstructed: Dracula (Masterpiece Theatre 2006)

Every few years, our favorite literary and cinematic icons pop up in new film incarnations, be it Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, or my personal favorite, Count Dracula. (Well, I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, especially when he arrives at Baskerville Hall, but that’s a story for another day.)

In 2006, the BBC took blond pretty boy, Marc Warren, put him in a wig that made him look like Jack White on a bad hair day, and tweaked the story we know and love into something… different.

I have my reservations about the casting of Marc Warren (although I love a pretty boy as much as the next guy). Seeing Warren’s Dracula mope around like an over-the-hill Emo boy  on the cliffs overlooking Whitby Harbor makes me giggle every time. But his appearance has the desired effect on Lucy Holmwood. She gets all hot and bothered and invites him back to dinner, much to the chagrin of her new hubby, Arthur.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Arthur, you see, is the anti-hero in this one. Dracula himself takes a backseat to the rivalry between Lord Arthur Holmwood and Lucy’s other suitor, Dr. John Seward. Ten minutes into the movie (and this is no plot spoiler) we learn that Arthur’s father is a syphilitic madman kept chained in his Gothic manor house and that our bridegroom-to-be has contracted the fatal disease as well.

Here’s where my friend, Michelle, threw up her hands in despair and cried, “BS!” You might, too, if you’re a purist and would rather not subject yourself to literary reinvention.

But if you are able to set aside the Dracula tropes, the bats and the wolves, the graveyards and coffins, the capes and the fangs, the vampirism of the story can be read as a parable about Victorian fears of sexually transmitted disease. It spreads from victim to victim and brings about a rapid deterioration in both physical and moral health. The metaphor is clear.

In an attempt to cure himself of the Frenchman’s Disease, Arthur falls in with a group of devil worshippers who offer to cleanse him of the disease. Here’s where Dracula, and a lot of blood, black robes, inverted crosses, and Tarot cards, comes in – big points for quasi-satanic hooey.

Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays Arthur as a desperate man driven by his obsession to rid himself of the disease and consummate the marriage. Tom Burke as his friend-turned-rival, John Seward, is equally strong in his role as the jilted lover who champions Lucy to the grave and beyond. If there is a true Byron hero in Dracula, this is it. Take a look at that face; handsome, sad, bitter, and scarred for life.

It is this subplot and these actors’ performance which brings me back to Dracula for repeated viewings. But some things in the movie work for me while others don’t. I miss Renfield. I can’t quite embrace David Suchet’s Van Helsing which may have more to do with the way the character is written than the way the actor plays the part. Sophia Myles’ Lucy is a modern, assertive woman which is a refreshing change, but Stephanie Leonidas’ Mina is the weakest character in the script, and by weak I mean ineffectual. And for the character of Mina, this is wrong.

Overall, Dracula lives up to the BBC’s and Masterpiece Theatre’s perennially high standard, and since the movie is readily available in most streaming formats for home viewing, worth a look. You might find another classic Dracula to add to your collection.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Psychological Gothic: Blood Secrets

They just don’t write them like this anymore: horror with nothing supernatural in it; lean, mean literary prose that is never pretentious and never bogs down in “style”; a taut narrative that deceptively leads the reader down one terrifying path only to completely pull the rug out from under him in the final act and deliver something far more terrifying than at first would have been thought possible.

Rereading Craig Jones’ remarkable 1978 novel, Blood Secrets after more than thirty years was one of the highlights of my summer. Initially, I didn’t think it qualified for inclusion in The Midnight Room, but the story has stuck with me like a bad sunburned that itches for months afterwards. This is the sort of book that many current authors working in the field of psychological suspense would benefit from studying.

You never think this kind of thing really happens to people who’ve been to college. So begins the first person narrative of Irene Rutledge, an intelligent woman from an intelligent family working on her PhD. From the first page we know she has committed a crime. What follows is a compulsively readable tale as mesmerizing as a slow moving train wreck.

Irene is a beautiful red head, the sort of young woman who could have any man on her college campus. But much to the chagrin of her best friend, and the reader’s, she chooses a lanky, awkward weirdo named Frank Rutledge. Frank is at first resistant, and all along we keep telling Irene to leave him alone. He’s keeping you at bay for a reason. Nothing good will come of this. But Irene ignores our better judgment, marries the man, and the crazies start to come out of the woodwork. First, there is Frank’s sister, Vivian, who sets Irene’s mind reeling with implications of family relationships gone wrong. Then there is Frank and Irene’s daughter, Regina, who couldn’t be more pathologically sub human if she tried. Things only get worse from there.

No biographical information on Mr. Jones is forthcoming other than his name being the by-line for a movie tie-in of the film, Fatal Attraction. My paperback edition of Blood Secrets is a reprint of a Harper and Row hardback which suggests two things. The first is that Jones might be a pseudonym for an author who wanted his (or her) identity kept far removed from this sordid little shocker. The second is that the hardback may be readily available in the stacks at libraries across the country. If you’re lucky to find it in your town, grab it and read it. If not, keep an eye out for it at used book stores (I found mine for a dollar) and on eBay (there are plenty of copies to go around at affordable prices.”

At 229 pages, this is definitely one that you will stay up late reading. Blood Secrets has my highest recommendation.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Swamp Gothic: The Alligator People (1959)

What do you get when you cross a Gothic Romance with Creature From the Black Lagoon? Twentieth Century Fox’s 1959 B Movie classic, The Alligator People, though it tries hard to be an A List picture. It’s got some great black and white photography shot in extra-wide Cinemascope, and Roy Del Ruth’s direction keeps it afloat… plus there’s Beverly Garland on hand to lend the picture respectability. It’s all good gothic horror movie fun until the last fifteen minutes when it descends into Man In a Rubber Suit Sci Fi nonsense. Let’s take a look.

Things start off pretty well with a framing device in which Jane Marvin (Garland) submits to a sodium pentothol induced trace and begins to regale her psychiatrist with a fantastic yarn about her alter ego, newlywed Joyce Webster. Methinks the studio needed to pad the running time of the movie which, even with the unnecessary prologue and epilogue clocks in at a paltry 74 minutes.

Joyce and her husband, Paul, are traveling by train to their honeymoon destination when Paul receives an urgent telegram. Paul deboards the train to make a mysterious phone call, only to vanish, leaving Joyce to prowl the train compartments looking for her husband like a cat in heat. Okay, I made that last part up. But she does go on a months-long search to find the missing husband. Of course for the sake of plot convenience, she married Paul without knowing a thing about him. But an old letter from Paul’s college days gives Joyce a ray of hope with a swampside address, The Cypresses.

Joyce arrives in Bayou Landing, suitcase in tow and hangs out at the deserted train station relying on the kindness of strangers to give her a ride to her ultimate destination. Who should that stranger be but none other than half-drunk gun-happy hook-handed Cajun Mannon, played to the hilt by Lon Chaney Jr. Mannon is a gator-hater at heart, and to prove it he tries to run over one of our web footed friends on the way to drop Joyce off at The Cypresses.

Joyce has some nerve, just showing up at a creepy old plantation house without an invitation. Here’s where the plot starts to get iffy, and the dialogue even worse. Mistress of the house, Lavinia Hawthorne, is openly hostile towards a stranger barging onto her property looking for a missing husband (and rightfully so) but she foregoes better judgment and extends Joyce some good old Southern hospitality in the form of an invitation to spend the night… and then locks her in her room.

Deny it though she will, the audience knows full well that old lady Hawthorne is in fact Paul Webster’s mother, and here comes our buddy Paul in a trench coat with some nifty alligator skin makeup sneaking in and out of the house under cover of the night. He needs the trench coat because it rains all the time in Bayou Landing.

Somehow I seemed drawn to the music. A theme that I had heard before. Somewhere. Who else lived in this strange household? Who could be playing in the dead of night? I couldn’t rid myself of the premonition that each step took me closer to the secret contained in this shadowy house.

Next thing you know, Joyce hears mysterious piano playing in the night and is slowly drawn in a dreamlike trance to the music room. She opens the door to the music room and sees the piano player in full light but somehow she doesn’t recognize her husband’s shape and features. I always scratch my head over that one, but the next sequence more than makes up for it. The Alligator People frequently forgoes any sort of logic in favor of action and suspense.  

Joyce begins to get suspicious that the mysterious night visitor is none other than her missing husband (ya think?) After another late night serenade at the piano, Paul goes running into the dark and stormy night, Joyce following in hot pursuit. Switch Beverly Garland to the ripped, rain-drenched costume, the one that shows plenty of thigh and cleavage; cue the rain machine, unleash the trained alligators, and …Action Lon Chaney!

Things get really wild at this point with Mannon rescuing Joyce from imminent alligator attack one minute, dragging her into his swamp side shack were he proceeds to slap her hard enough to render her unconscious so he can have his way with her the next. Good old Paul arrives just in time to keep Mrs. Webster’s virtue in tact.

Paul delivers Joyce safely back to The Cypresses, but not before she finally gets a load of those scales growing all over his face. It turns out that Paul has become the victim of medical experimentation gone horribly awry (reptile limb regeneration anyone?). Local mad scientist Dr. Sinclair is convinced he can revert the process, but no one was counting on Mannon to run screaming into the laboratory, "I'll kill you alligator man! Just like I'd kill any four-legged gator! Ya hear me? I'll kill ya!"

It’s all down hill from there. Mannon botched the experiment and the make-up department ushers in the piece de resistance, a bad rubber alligator head… and I mean, really bad. Seeing is believing folks, but I’ve indulged enough spoilers today so you’ll just have to rent this masterpiece of monster mish mash yourself.

In all fairness, it’s not nearly as bad as I make it out to be. Okay, maybe it is. But as is often the case with movies like this, irresistible camp trash is in the eye of the beholder. This is one of those treasures I like to trot out on lazy Sunday afternoons. After all, what else am I going to do? Watch football?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Classic Gothic Romance Cover Artists: George Ziel

It’s been awhile since The Midnight Room took a trip to the used paperback bookstore. This week I’d like to introduce readers to the terrifying Gothic imagery of George Ziel (1914-1982). Whereas artists like Harry Bennett and Lou Marchetti emphasized the romantic elements in their Gothic Romance paintings, George Ziel emphasized the Gothic. His heroines wear expressions of palpable fear, eyes often wide with terror. If that isn’t enough, he frequently incorporates other Gothic and occult elements including black cats, skulls, candles, and swarms of black bats that skitter across the painting.

Original painting for Paperback Library for the cover of Shorecliff by Marilyn Ross

Ziel’s images of death and fear are so striking that he employed virtually the same style for his series of thirty-one cover paintings for Jove’s paperback reprints of New Zealand mystery novelist Ngaio Marsh, as well as covers for the George Simenon reprints for Pocket Books.

Gothic Romance collectors, however, are more familiar with his work for Paperback Library where he produced outstanding covers for titles by such prolific writers as Christine Randell, Dorothy Daniels, and Marilyn Ross, often delivering three to four paintings a month. In an era when writers could not produce original Gothic Romance novels fast enough, publishers such as Paperback Library often reprinted older mysteries and some classic works, sometimes with new titles, always with an eye toward attracting the readers who sought these books ravenously, month after month, for nearly two decades.

Archivist Lynn Munroe presents an extensive portrait of Ziel’s life and work at Lynn Munroe Books wherein he states: “Ziel appeared to have tapped into our darkest fears and nightmares, and presented them on vivid paperback covers. Some of them were romances, some were mysteries; all of them were haunting. The average reader, with no knowledge of Ziel’s past, could only wonder. To those who knew his story, the signposts were all clearly marked. Like all great artists, George Ziel drew on his own experiences and memories, his own visions and nightmares, to infuse the horrifying world of his best cover art. Although he rarely signed his name or received a printed artist credit, he nonetheless became a true modern master of horror.”

The story of Ziel’s past is as horrifying as any of his covers. He was born Jerzy Zielezinsky in Poland in 1914 where, as a youth he was relegated to the Warsaw Ghetto before ultimately being shipped off to Dachau.

As “an artist; he felt a powerful need to create art that the restrictions at Dachau could not destroy. Paper and pencils were forbidden, so Jerzy used to sketch on pieces of scrap paper using bits of charcoal. He made sketches of his fellow prisoners and of life in the camps.  When Dachau was liberated, Jerzy was taken to a hospital. During his convalescence there, he turned his rough sketches into drawings and created new images from the memories burned into his mind.”

Is it any wonder then that Ziel’s covers for Gothic Romance paperbacks are infused with more dark imagery than the majority of his contemporaries?

For more book cover goodness, visit the George Ziel checklist at Munroe’s website. I’d also like to personally thank Munroe for allowing me to use material from his exhaustive overview of Ziel’s life and work.