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 na├»ve 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.