30 October 2013

Witchy and Demonic Favorites!

Witchy and Demonic Viewings!
By Kristin Battestella

From witches and other onscreen demonic ladies to stylish satanic cults and the bizarrely supernatural, here’s a list of fiery gals, helping magic, hurting spirits, and the strange…

Burn Witch Burn – A creepy, blank screen opening narration sends this 1962 British thriller a-simmering beneath the campus innocence, great cars, ivy covered cottages, and seemingly fine period drama – but that’s before the  sudden spider souvenirs hidden in the bedroom drawer! Not so nice and magical wife Janet Blair (My Sister Eileen) has all sorts of Craft curios amid the great set dressings, cigarettes, period style, and black cats. It’s a lighter take then most witchy pictures, but the secret practices are no less creepy thanks to sinister suspense music and scary discoveries. The well framed, black and white prospective photography, mirror uses, and shadow schemes parallel the fractured, marital debates, too. Peter Wyngarde (Jason King) is a disbeliever relying on logic, education, and intelligence versus the implausibility of positive charms and evil hexes. Screenwriters George Baxt (Circus of Horrors), Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone) add scandalous student/teacher allegations to this breaking Cleaver surface and send the fears and desperation boiling over as spells go awry. The car chases and titular fires mount, but the original Night of the Eagle name matches perfectly as well. Thunder, wind, eerie tape recordings, even the old-fashioned abrupt ringing of a telephone puts one on edge here, and the pace come to a pinnacle to finish this excellent, deadly thriller.

Curse of the Demon – Early Stonehenge footage and creepy, well done demonically orchestrated deaths and special effects start off this 1957 black and white British cult fest originally titled Night of the Demon in eerie and disturbing fashion. Director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) uses interesting camera tricks, distorted perspectives, smoke, lighting, shadows, ominous dark hallways, and visual depth to create suspenseful settings and on screen movement. The what you don’t see implications, however, freaky predictions, runes, messages with a mind of their own, dangerous winds, perfectly timed thunder, and creepy clown makeup also add dimension and fear. Dana Andrews (Best Years of Our Lives, Laura) may look a little worse for the wear, but he brings handsome, old school class and an everyman feeling for the audience thanks to his skepticism. Though she’s kind of too cute to be taken seriously if she’s making threats, Peggy Cummings (Gun Crazy) is certainly likeable and the viewer fears for her safety.  Cool cars and convertibles, mid century style and mannerisms add to that old time sophistication, and I don’t even mind this early horror appearance of a library research montage – what else were they supposed to do? The investigation, action, and questioning of one’s beliefs progresses perfectly, and the built in ticking clock sends the picture out on a high note.  

Deadly Blessing – Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street) directs a wonderful ensemble – including Maren Jensen (Battlestar Galactica), Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), Susan Buckner (Grease), Lisa Hartman (Knots Landing), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), and Ernest Borgnine (McHale’s Navy) – in this 1981 rural cult thriller. Granted, the voices are soft, the country slow will be too slow for today’s fast-paced audiences, and the decidedly not Amish Hittite sect is too stereotypical. With point of view Peeping Tom angles, peering camera depths, blinding lights, red photography, and dark, scary shadows, however, the viewer trusts something sinister is afoot. Fears happen thanks to the extreme religious implications, farm country isolation, creepy barns, and the backwoods lack of technology; the music accents the scares and suspense amid some lovely, innocent character moments, too. Some dramatic and supernatural elements, however, remain unexplored and ultimately unfulfilled due to a flat script – parts of each theme are very well done, but not all the pieces fit together perfectly. Borgnine is stern and scary but his spooky looming and Stone’s very effective wiggins feel uneven amid the attempted mix of scream queens and girl power. Likewise, the weird ending is both slasher and mystical scary and out of place or potentially polarizing. Fortunately, the mystery and creepy atmosphere keep this enjoyable for fans of the cast and Craven, although this is not for arachnophobes or anyone who has issues with snakes – that bath tub scene really freaked me out!

Virgin Witch – This once X-rated and censored 1972 British saucy has a fiery, feisty opening complete with swanky music and boobs right there in the credits! The lack of subtitles makes some dialogue tough, but thanks to the ridiculously short skirts – or less – on sisters Ann (Death Wheelers) and Vicki Michelle (‘Allo, ‘Allo!), I don’t think it matters. More retro styles, sweet cars, London locales, and creepy country manors add to the pretty along with red lighting, neat camera tricks, iris openings, and shutter clicks during the onscreen photography sessions. If art was imitating life, however, it’s no surprise the stars don’t recall this film favorably. Everybody’s trying to get into these girls’ panties – who knew the cutthroat modeling world was really so demonic and nasty? Rapacious virgin sacrifices and artistic license orgies aside, it’s nice to see the clarifications on white witchcraft and no devil worship. The lesbian shade, by contrast, is too stereotypical and even offensive – Patricia Haines (Blood Beast from Outer Space) is up to no good, using business and religion to recruit young girls for her own unnatural desires! Fortunately, these intentions are just sexy, sensuous, and dangerous enough to keep up the fun, as there is more suggestion of kinky action than actual witch-ness anyway. Some scenes even feel like a porno with the obligatory sex cut out: models hitchhiking, the job interview, photography in the woods while someone else watches, the silent gardener doth approach… This steamy is all well and good if that’s what you want, but the sauce is at the expense of the shady. What does this coven really want and why? Though not a very original or ambitious picture – several opportunities are left untaken – the juicy scares and nudity do what they are supposed to do for an entertaining, sexy, and bemusing 90 minutes. 

And a WTF?

Incubus – This pre-Star Trek 1966 hidden William Shatner/Esperanto, um, gem written and directed by Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits) actually looks wonderfully well restored. The well shot, black and white, almost exclusively outdoor silhouettes and lighting accent the dangerous fountain of youth and deadly succubus plots. The pace and intensity gain steam once Milos Milos (The Russians Are Coming) arrives with the titular vengeance, and the demonic myths are fairly accurate as well. Although Allyson Ames (Simon King of the Witches) and Eloise Hardt (Games) are indeed enchanting and creepy with saucy implications to match, the ridiculously wooden acting and stiff, trying too hard to be avante garde delivery makes this extremely difficult to watch. The hazy, bad dream atmosphere and existential eclipse on top of the Esperanto faux foreign picture vibe all combine for a seriously stoned viewing. What’s with the monk sucking an egg and carrying a reptile? It’s too weird to hear mixed English, Spanish, Italian, or French and Latin sounding dialogue – there are words you know, words you don’t know, words you recognize that mean something else, and then a whole lot of gibberish and a bad, lost in translation script. Only the eponymous cult happenings should have been in the created language, and after all the behind the scenes trouble, deaths, and hexes surrounding this picture, why not just film in English and then offer an Esperanto dub option? Is this movie the reason why Shatner…talks…the way…he…does? I don’t want to recommend this because this is in many ways a very flawed film, yet it has to be seen to be believed.  

24 October 2013

The Very Scary Almanac

The Very Scary Almanac is Spooky Good Fun
By Kristin Battestella

I picked up the 1993 Random House paperback The Very Scary Almanac by Eric Elfman for a quarter at the thrift shop and quickly jumped in to the 80 pages of quirky, encyclopedia-esque, swift styled entries and anecdotes categorized by monster, fright, and bizarrity. Though The Very Scary Almanac is too light for an adult’s spooky starter kit thanks to the easy, breezy manner and layman basics, this speedy read is perfect for tweens with short attention spans. A few big words and the heavy, juicy, scary, and morbid information provided keep the tone upscale for the budding creepy youth, yet the chuckle at the end of each paragraph makes for a fun classroom reading or discussion. Aside blocks with extra wit and tidbits further accent the macabre or the wink along with the bemusing black and white sketch illustrations by Will Suckow.

Despite cute sub headings and itemizing such as “Creepy Culture,” “Freaky Phenomena,” and “Horrible Humans,” some of the information included in The Very Scary Almanac feels random or out of place. We begin with vampires, ghosts, and werewolves but somehow end with UFOs and crop circles. It’s as if Elfman and co. are trying to toss in every iota possible to extend the year round, reading anytime, or long lasting check list appeal of The Very Scary Almanac when the manuscript could have honed in a lot deeper on the scarier, less well known, or more frightful topics.  Twenty years later, several subjects also feel too stereotypical or even erroneous. The “Friend or Foe” segment on witches presents all the historical clichés – and though this back story is important to the super young who may have somehow never heard about witch trials and alleged broomsticks and black cats, only a few rebuttal sentences clarify the current real world religious aspects and paganism definitions. Quoted sources and other referenced materials in The Very Scary Almanac do help the reader seek out further information, but extensive ‘See Also’ sections to end each chapter might have helped broaden the facts and ensured that go to beginner reference longevity. Thankfully, the literature, film, and calendar lists included are charming as well as informative – as are the final sections on deadly animals, spiders, snakes, fears, and phobias.  

The Very Scary Almanac does end somewhat abruptly, however. After a fun introduction, the book feels cut short with only a one page index in conclusion and no bibliography. This is a little rough around the edges and certainly simplistic to the wise, literate paranormal person of any age, for sure. Fortunately, the material here is not dismissive but safe for potentially weird youths or scary loving but protective parents and teachers. Read and discuss it around the proverbial Halloween bonfire or highlight your favorite quips and have an amusing, informative, spooky good time with The Very Scary Almanac.

21 October 2013

More Recent, Decent Horrors

More Recent, Decent Horror
By Kristin Battestella

‘Tis the season for another helping of mostly quality horror made this millennium! 

The Awakening – I’m glad this 2011 ghost tale remains period and utilizes plenty of post-war traumas along with fun spiritualism and early ghost hunting gadgets, and a great, spooky English house turned boarding school keeps the paranormal pace going, too.  Although some of the said supernatural equipment and unnecessary character clichés are a touch too modern, the fractured Dominic West (The Wire), perfectly nuanced Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter), needs no one Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and innocent Isaac Hampstead Wright (Game of Thrones) keep the audience interested even when the back story gets confusing towards the finale. Are these ghosts, personal demons and memories, or something more? There may not be enough scares here for a hardcore horror fan – and wise viewers may see through the bump in the night clichés and saucy innuendo thanks to similar ghost films. However, this mood and atmosphere does what it sets out to do and fits the pain, loneliness, and isolation perfectly. Those period designs, cars, clothing, creepy dollhouses, even the way they hold their cigarettes keep the dramatic before scary scenes classy. Despite some brief nudity and a few twists, there are no contemporary cheap thrills here, and the mystery is intriguing enough to keep the viewer invested for the full 100 minutes. 

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – Writer Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and new director Troy Nixey provide a perfectly freaky old house with lots of spooky trappings – and an ominous basement, of course – for Guy Pearce (Memento) and Katie Holmes (Batman Begins) in this atmospheric 2011 remake. Bailee Madison (Bridge to Terabithia) starts off annoying as a depressing little kid, and although the cast is likeable, the adults grow somewhat obnoxious for not believing her fears. Wise horror viewers will cringe at several what they should have done, shout at the TV moments, obviously ignored evidence, and actions not taken, granted. Typical horror clichés – the older person who was there, a library research montage, a party ruined by the creepy crawlies – are tiresome, too. Once the mysterious, malevolent tooth fairies are completely shown, a goofy stupidity detracts from the finely done suspense, darkness, and fears. This might have been more glorious as a monsters unseen period piece, as the Victorian opening scene is wonderfully creepy. The scares are there, but I’m not sure why this is Rated R thanks to a pleasant lack of gore, sexuality, or mature themes – today we have much harder PG-13 pictures it seems. After such a brooding, tense built up and somber pace, the ending comes too quickly with few explanations. Fortunately, there are some smart uses of darkness, light, flashlights, and good old fashioned but implausible Polaroids – not to mention very eerie little voices as well. The child in peril scenes are disturbing, and with the updated changes on the 1973 original, I honestly couldn’t predict how it would end. Though flawed in some spots, fans of the cast and Del Toro should take a look. 

Slither – Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year Old Virgin), Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead), Jenna Fischer (The Office), and more recognizable faces anchor this 2006 sci-fi body horror funfest directed by James Gunn (Super). Rather than the unnecessarily gruesome or excessive laugh out loud slapstick often found in comedy horror attempts, this has the perfect amount of sardonic circumstances and redneck backwoods humor. The sarcasm immediately builds character and likeability – these townsfolk flip out, sure, but their behaviors are reasonable and understandable. The plot doesn’t merely go from one shocker to the next with characters doing dumb things in between and the nature of the beasties makes all the scares. Witty, ironic uses of Air Supply and country music establish the quirky atmosphere before the quality gore, worms, and creepy orifice scares make you cringe. Though this is most definitely not for animal lovers, the growth of the creepy crawlies, scale of the monstrosity, and pace of the investigation are well done. No contemporary technology or hipness gets in the way, yet the look is appropriately modern amid the rural isolation. There’s no excessive nudity or sex, either, and the SF action remains refreshing. Yes, other wormy titles like Shivers immediately come to mind, and the alien controlled zombies are redundant. There’s a post credits scene, too – but it isn’t as predictable or as expected as today’s cop out horror, and no lengthy opening credits waste time here. The winking awareness that this is a preposterous horror movie keeps the tone fun and light but no less freaky for the entire 95-minute ride.

And Splitsville

House at the End of the Street – Too much of this 2012 thriller is spent on teens bands, icky music, hip lingo, cell phone tricks and other technology, lame party scenes, assy juvenile clichés, and a whiff of product placement to boot. It’s obvious that the eponymous creepy neighbor is too ala Psycho for comfort, plot holes become very apparent, explanations get tacked on, and people are too damn nosey, don’t listen, and do stupid things because they don’t know they are in a horror movie. The second half of the picture goes on too long and becomes a typically paced, shout at the TV abduction thriller, but despite herky jerky angles and shocks attempts, this isn’t really a horror tale. Weird modern blue tinting undoes other positive made to look old feelings and scary moments, too. Fortunately, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) is likeable enough as the new teen in town and together with mom Elizabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) anchors the suspense. Shue’s role is slightly similar to her part in Chasing Mavericks, but she has more effective teen daughter angst and issues here – and she’s mature and classy even when things aren’t always pretty. Thanks to rated and unrated versions adding to the plot confusion, perhaps this one should be seen at least twice. The fine cast does keep the watch entertaining, but mis-marketing and a trying too hard appeasement on too many genres divides the approach here. Either be a straight mother/daughter drama or a backwoods killer thriller already, whew.

20 October 2013

Stars Do 70s Horror!

Stars Do 70s Horror!
By Kristin Battestella

Often at the cusp of their fame – or sometimes at the end of it – film and television stars could frequently be found in the bowels of seventies saucy, scary, and exploitative horror movie making. Here’s a quick list of before they were famous actors and classic elder statesmen dabbling with the creepy and demonic.

Daughters of Satan – A pre-Magnum P.I. Tom Selleck stars in this 1972 art meets torment tale full off kinky nudity and rituals, sunshiny classic cars, early seventies fashions, creepy antiques, and of course, mustaches. Although the dated, stereotypical action chases and twangy music are a little over the top, the Manila locations are jungle exotic enough for the danger but also fun and unique. Sickly, mousy housewife Barra Grant (Love Hurts) is somewhat annoying to start, but likewise she gets creepier as the plot grows stranger – from dogs coming out of freaky paintings and knife wielding housekeepers to witchy apparitions and ornery widows. The fire and red symbolism matches the crosses, inquisition, whips, evil numbers, and other religious imagery as the disbelieving coven talk and ancestral connections mount. It is tough, however, to see some of the Christian desecration portrayed, and most of the plot points are quite goofy if you think too much. The poor night photography and occasionally off film speed may be amusing as well, but fortunately, there is enough suspense, boobs, sauce, occult  twists, and ironic Magnum similarities to be entertained here.

Dead of Night – This 1977 TV movie anthology from Dark Shadows director Dan Curtis makes for a very atmospheric and eerie trio. Longtime fans will hear pieces of Robert Cobert’s Dark Shadows music motifs, and the opening narration introduces the spooky in over the top but solid fashion. I actually kind of like that there is no frame story attempting to tie these offbeat tales together – even if it means a shorter 75 minute run time.  Despite his touch too heavy-handed inner monologue, Ed Begley Jr. (St. Elsewhere) anchors the first story “Second Chances” along with cool classic cars and bizarre time twists. “No Such Thing as a Vampire” adds some bloody fun thanks to Patrick Macnee (The Avengers), Elisha Cook Jr. (House on Haunted Hill), demented Victorian brooding, and all around period charm. The final tale “Bobby” is a wonderfully warped and scary mix of occult, death, and thunderstorms – with Joan Hackett (Will Penny) and Lee Montgomery (Burnt Offerings) playing out the violence, creepy, and secrets in a sweet looking mod house.  I know I’ve been fairly short but it helps to go into anthologies like this relatively cold. All scripting here is by the late Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone), too, so fans of similar, chilling tales like Trilogy of Terror will have a good time.

How Awful About Allan – Joan Hackett strikes again alongside Anthony Perkins and the late Julie Harris (The Haunting) in this Aaron Spelling produced  and Curtis Harrington directed (What’s the Matter with Helen?) 1970 television film from writer Henry Farrell (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). The suspense gets right to it with a fire, screaming, survivor guilt, resentment, and hysterical blindness. The intriguing, disorienting, blurry film focus and dark camera photography match Perkins’ sightless actions and mannerisms as his eponymous victim becomes obsessed with trying to prove his new, unseen roommate wants to do him harm. Yes, the Victorian house and post-institution, possibly crazy reclusiveness will seem too obviously Psycho to some viewers, but the increasingly angry tape recordings, crazy carness, heavy music, and scary whispers provide plenty of fearful spin. Retro décor and old, wintry styles accent the seemingly sunshiny household, but the nighttime paranoia and scary inability to see intensifies the strange noises and point of view eerie. Why aren’t there more visually impaired horror protagonists? This tiny 73 minutes makes you love your glasses a little more! Though not billed as a horror movie per se and the end loses a touch, this taut thriller has all the suspense, lightning, creepy family implications, and desperation needed. 

Lady Frankenstein – I’m not normally a fan of classic film star Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane), but his blend of grave robbing, unethical desperation, and father/daughter compassion is perfect for this 1971 Italian twist on the Shelley theme. “Man’s will be done,” Cotton says, but it is Rosalba Neri (99 Women) doing the titular monstrous mayhem, evil deeds, and uniquely saucy spins instead of just being the cliché horror victim or resurrected bride. Ethical debates about money, man, and God accentuate dialogue of radical Victorian science and a woman’s place in the medical profession. The gothic mood, snow, and firelight work wonderfully with the cool mad scientist laboratory – complete with clockworks, bubbling Rube Goldbergs, and perfectly timed thunder and lightning of course. Ugly blood, surgeries, and reanimated monsters smartly contrast the feminine wiles; the progression of the experiments and escalation of the monstrosities are well paced, too. Though the sound is poor and I would have liked more of Mickey Hargitay (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) as the deducing inspector on the crimes, this is a good looking, well done film. Unfortunately, there are various editions in need of a proper restoration – including an edited 85 minute print in the public domain and a longer 90 minute plus Shout Factory release splicing together several foreign versions. Perhaps this isn’t as depraved as we might expect nowadays and a little too quick toward the finale, but this macabre period delight is worth the pursuit.  

And for Some Lighthearted Fun!

Young Frankenstein – “It’s Fronkensteen!” This all in good, spooky fun 1974 Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) romp has all the subtle quips, dialogue jokes, Glenn Miller winks, accent twists, bad puns, funny asides, and physical comedy gags for which one could ask in homage to the Universal greats. So what if it isn’t all that scary? Dynamite co-stars Madeline Kahn (Clue), Terri Garr (Tootsie), Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond), Marty Feldman (Yellowbeard), and Gene Hackman (The French Connection) deliver the wit to match the black and white mood, angry village mob, and stormy atmosphere. Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show) is the most fun I think, “Ovaltine?” The colorless photography, updated mad scientist labs, vintage equipment, gothic castle designs, and period costumes all invoke this ode to thirties horror perfectly – not bad for a $2 million budget! – and early filmmaking techniques and acting mannerisms are played for both humor and authenticity. I’m not really a Brooks fan beyond Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and I wonder if the fine story, well paced scenes, smooth plot progression, and fun finale here isn’t due to his not being onscreen and Wilder’s co-writing. Why aren’t more films made this way, and what would have happened if this had been a straight, full on scary tale? Some comedy audiences may be disappointed by the lack of laugh out loud, riotous moments here, but hysteria isn’t really the point either. Although being familiar with the classic Frankenstein features helps in getting all the jokes, the entire family can get behind this cute, charming, star-studded terror tribute.


17 October 2013

Dracula 2000

Dracula 2000 A Guilty Pleasure Fun Fest 
By Kristin Battestella

 The 19th century had Bram Stoker’s original Dracula, the 20th Century had the likes of Nosferatu, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman, and more scary, sensual, or comedic vampire spins. The turn of the millennium, however, had Dracula 2000 – producer Wes Craven’s authorized revision of now dated camp, clichés, twists, and so bad its good delights.

Alerted by the amount of impressive security around her boss Matthew Van Helsing’s (Christopher Plummer) antique shop, Solina (Jennifer Esposito), her boyfriend Marcus (Omar Epps), and his team of thieves (Sean Patrick Thomas and Danny Masterson) break into Van Helsing’s vault, steal a dazzling silver coffin, and inadvertently unleash the imprisoned Count Dracula (Gerard Butler) on their getaway plane. Once the plane crashes outside New Orleans, Dracula quickly makes vampire brides (Jeri Ryan and Colleen Fitzpatrick) as he searches for Mary (Justine Waddell) – a young woman who shares his visions thru a unique blood connection. Van Helsing and his assistant Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) pursue Dracula and the undead in his wake – but can they stop him before Dracula takes Mary as his next vampire bride?

Although it is probably common knowledge today, I don’t want to spoil everything about the solid Van Helsing family plots, vampire blood connections, smart use of leeches, and Biblical concepts anchoring Dracula 2000. The first time you see it; these unique topics from director Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine 3D) and co-writer Joel Soisson (Highlander: Endgame) stand out in very pleasing, memorable twists. However, the more one watches Dracula 2000, the more flaws and campy over substance mistakes appear. Despite the tremendous potential of these unique vampire spins, this is unfortunately not a Dracula adaptation for the new millennium, but rather a very of the moment, cliché vamp tale. From its then-hip cast, action styles, and dated fashions to turn of this century tunes and ridiculously obvious product placements, most of the excessive flash and over the top, uh, excess of Dracula 2000 has not stood the test of time. Longtime Dracula fans will spot book references like Dr. Seward, Carfax Abbey, and other Stoker connections, but there should have been more of these nuggets included even if you are updating the tale. It’s a pity, as this picture could have been a lot more than just a cheesy, pop excuse for some great bad, very bad to the point of quotable lines. I still use, “I don’t drink….coffee.” Dracula 2000 is certainly watchable and even down right entertaining if you indulge in the formulaic fun, but you have to forget the glorious potential and what could have been in order to enjoy.

Naturally, part of the joy in watching Dracula 2000 is Gerard Butler, and I actually don’t really like him without a beard. That aside, there’s still enough hotness here from the 300 star, oh yes – he’s wet, open-shirted, black trench coat wearing, kicking butt, and biting necks. Thanks to his more recent action or sour romantic comedy films, one probably wouldn’t think of Butler for a horror movie, much less as a vampire these days. Here, however, he’s the perfect mix of pale, svelte, mysterious, bewitching, and deadly. Granted, some of the vamp flying leaps and theatrics that were so popular fifteen years ago are over the top, but Butler also keeps the eponymous Count just cheeky enough alongside his angry, century long battle with Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, Beginners) as Van Helsing. He’s always classy and simply perfection, yet Plummer’s Van Helsing is also wonderfully shady at the same time. He’s the good guy gent who has royally messed up, yet we trust his wise ways and vampire hunting skills to out do Dracula. Plummer adds a much needed elder statesmen panache to Dracula 2000 – his potential father, son, and daughter emotions belies a hope that the film will stay a serious undead with consequences picture. Much as Dracula 2000 is remembered for Gerard Butler’s youthful glory and his 2,000-year-old twist, it’s a pity Van Helsing ends up as a secondary character. Though Direct to Video retconned sequels Dracula II: Ascension and Dracula III: Legacy do follow, today’s model would have been to keep stars like Butler and Plummer for some Hammer-esque, big ticket franchising. I would have liked to see that!  

 I liked Justine Waddell’s period piece turns in Great Expectations and The Woman in White – her later work perhaps proves she has the best acting skills of all the ladies here – but her Mary in Dracula 2000 nearly sinks the entire picture. Even for the Y2K era, Mary is woefully dated, too innocent, simple, and small. She’s erroneously set up as Dracula’s main foil, but the telepathic connections and when and how she uses her ties to the vampire are conveniently utilized as needed for a plot deus ex machina or cool, dreamy effects. It’s not fresh, since Dracula and Mary so uncomfortably lack chemistry, and it’s simply unbelievable that she is the object of his affection and main foe in this battle of undead wits. Their dynamic just doesn’t register – this is the one? Really? I know it is a stupid thing to notice, but Mary also wears little flip-flop sandals for the duration of Dracula 2000’s vamp mayhem. This is just such impractical footwear when battling the nosferatu! I’d much rather have seen the blood ties between Van Helsing and Dracula explored. Two men at odds sharing such a personal, suggestive connection – now that would have been interesting! Thankfully, Jonny Lee Miller (Hackers) works as the then-cool hipster turned sudden vampire hunter in training. Yes, he has some greatly stupid but fun lines amid the preposterous slow motion action. His Simon, however, looks good with the crossbow and vampire hunting gadgetry, and Miller’s scenes with Plummer are delightful. The Van Helsing legacy comes thru far better in their early scenes than in the inexplicable Mary metaphysical moments. Besides, “Never, ever fuck with an antiques dealer!” is far more memorable.

Fortunately, Dracula 2000 is also littered with fun to spot appearances by everyone and their grandmother from back in the day. Some performances are better than others, some live longer than they should, and most of them have ridiculously bad lines, yet this, “Hey, it’s that guy!” humor adds to the audience’s good time. From Omar Epps (House) and Jennifer Esposito’s (Blue Bloods) seriously campy and innuendo-laden dialogue to brief appearances by Danny Masterson (That 70’s Show), Sean Patrick Thomas (Save the Last Dance), Lochlyn Munro (Scary Movie), and Shane West (ER), there’s a pun for everyone. And did I mention Nathan Fillion (Firefly) as Mary’s resident Priest?  Colleen Fitzpatrick, better known as then-hot singer Vitamin C, gets to stand beside her own CD for posterity, and Star Trek’s own Seven of Nine Borg hottie Jeri Ryan asks a victim if he’s ever thought about making it with a TV star. I also love how Dracula’s brides all magically get curly hair after being bitten – nyuk nyuk nyuk!  
While some of the special effects and paranormal designs in Dracula 2000 still look pleasing, other makeup and visuals look very poor compared to today’s high definition and CGI. Again, the of the moment need to look cool trumps any possibilities for lavish or timeless style, and what suave scenes are present are purely there for the style over substance. What is that red hallway with all the breezy red sheers supposed to be? Some of the aforementioned slow motion also contrasts with the too fast and flashy editing at times. It all looks nice and fancy when it wants to be, but the pace can be undecided if you think about it too much. Of course, all the Virgin Records symbolism, logos, Megastore fronts, and products also immediately date Dracula 2000 – our heroine works in a record store that no longer exists stateside! But it’s cool, this record store had, like, escalators, dude. The loud, unnecessary music is so in your face, and honestly, I don’t think any of it is very good. Great New Orleans locations are somehow not as cool as they could be either thanks to the cliché, unsexy Mardi Gras scenes. Clues hidden in the quick, blink and you miss it montages, dreams, and visions also don’t make sense on an initial viewing – Dracula 2000 should be viewed once for the tale, twice for the twists, and everything else thereafter is a giddy pleasure.  

Younger, contemporary audiences may not pick up on all the dated charm in Dracula 2000, but today’s generation can enjoy the indulgence of it all along with vampire viewers and fans of the cast. Keep Dracula 2000 for a goofy, brainless late night alone or for a mature Halloween party drinking game. It’s campy, cheesy, and of its time, but a blood sucking good occasion nonetheless. 

14 October 2013

Just A Vampire List

Just Vamps!
By Kristin Battestella

With ample undead times and places, ghoulish girls, bloodsuckers of all varieties, gothic glitz, and horror humor – what’s not to love about classic vampire films of decades yore?

Daughters of Darkness – This 1971 Elizabeth Bathory suave and swanky Euro bend starring John Karlen (Willie from Dark Shadows getting it on!) and Delphine Seyrig (The Day of the Jackal) gets right to the saucy, up close, wet, near soft core action and full frontal nudity. Aristocratic family secrets, deceptions, kinky newlyweds, and suggested lesbian jealousies add to the traditional vampire staples – from unexplained perpetual youth, lookalike ancestors, and a reflection-less countess with a beautiful, mysteriously bound ward to straight razor cuts on the neck, fear of running water, and no trace of blood at the scene of the crime. Toss in meddling, aged bellhops, astute old cops, the local morbid curiosity, and a bevy of babes – namely Danielle Oulette and Andrea Rau – and the murders, violence, and homoerotic twists are complete. The cars are seriously cool, too, as are the symbolic fashions, flashy frocks, and colorful velvet décor. The perfect Ostend Hotel and other European locales more than make up for the tacky but sassy and fitting music, and the nice mix of accents on the English dialogue adds more foreign flair to kinky descriptions of medieval torture – nipple pinchers, hot tongs, and all that. Red lighting and blue tinted photography add to the creepy jump scares and frights, but this isn’t horror per se, rather something more voluptuous in mood. It’s a little dark and tough to see at the end and confuses some of its own vampire lore but stick with the uncut 100-minute DVD version with the added features and commentaries if you’re in the mood for then-updated, now period gothic vamps with a feminine twist. Remember, the key to beauty is “A very strict diet and lots of sleep.”

Fright Night – Writer and Director Tom Holland (Child’s Play) crafts a fun, self-referential midnight movie in this 1985 mix of traditional vampire lore and suburban charm. Film within a film winks and other horror homages both apparent and wonderfully subtle anchor the still bemusing eighties music and fashion styles along with assorted vampire effects, transformations, beasties, and bloodies. Although there is a little too much slow, must stop, and awe at our effects camera shots dragging some of the action pace, the combination of shoulder pad sassy and creature feature bloodsuckers works thanks to suave Chris Sarandon (Dog Day Afternoon), Cushing-esque Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes), and cute next door couple William Ragsdale (Herman’s Head) and Amanda Bearse (Married…with Children). A great, creepy house completes the old meets eighties setting, and there are some boobs and sexy innuendos to match. While some may dislike the humorous, dated designs – it’s amazing how becoming a vampire lengthens your hair and increases your bust! – this near perfect blend of modern wit and vampire suspense is tough to beat. A Must see.  

The Norliss TapesDark Shadows show runner Dan Curtis directed this moody and atmospheric 1973 TV movie, and the now old cassette tapes, typewriters, telephones, and dated technology add further fears and retro style to the sweet trolley cars and isolated California estates. Perhaps Roy Thinnes’ (The Invaders, Falcon Crest) brooding speculations and narrations would be unnecessary today – we’d just stick in a “one week earlier” title card – but the titular amateur detective is likeable and adds personality. Likewise, looking good Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo, Police Woman) provides an honest and fearful portrayal amid the weird sculptures, dreary rain, and barking dogs. Eerie, fast, and furious action overcomes the slow, mysterious start thanks to resurrected husbands, Egyptian relics, and sudden disappearances – even if undead vampire make up is some freaky gray muck and dark car photography is somewhat tough to see. The flashback investigation and framing tape device take some liberties as well, with the point of view moving from victim to cops and place to place. Though the audience is quickly invested once the creepy corpses and blood drained bodies confound the police, this format adds an interesting level of unreliability. Did these things actually happen as the viewer is being told or is there a fiction spin to the tale? Indeed, I would have liked to see this continue, perhaps as several telefilms investigating various real world paranormal and not as a full series as intended. It’s only 82 minutes, has no subtitles, and there’s precious little information available online, but this is an intense, well acted, scary little show.

The Velvet Vampire – This 1971 western-esque tale produced by Roger Corman (The Pit and the Pendulum) and directed by Stephanie Rothman (The Student Nurses) gets right to the pretty gals in colorful, boobalicious frocks being attacked by vampires – or so the audience is led to believe. There’s humor amid the cast as well, from the jerky Michael Blodgett ( Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and his airheaded wife Sherry Miles (Making It) to cranky desert folk and the mysteriously pale and bloodstone-wearing Celeste Yarnall (Beast of Blood) who befriends our insipid couple. Although the desolate locales are perfect in creepy and isolated, the strung out tone or vapid, stoned acting hampers the sexual tension triumvirate already afoot. I could do without the naked slow motion running, however, and while this is blessedly not an unnecessarily gory bloodbath; some viewers will dislike the artsy before bloody approach. Fortunately, the undead spins and equal opportunity skin, sex, snakes, boobs, bubble baths, and dune buggies keep the obvious dialogue decidedly tongue in cheek. After all, a mere hat in the desert does wonders for our titular gal! The sensuality, mirrors, and vampire voyeurism are also well done – even if it takes both too long for the intrepid couple to put the macabre clues together and too little for the relationship dynamics to switch around so fast in this short 80 minutes. The mix of classical music, blues, and almost whimsical driving montages set off the fine desert filmmaking, red symbolism, scary abandoned mines, and wispy dreamscapes, but the picture seems a little flat and dark even amid the arid daylight scenery. Of course, that might just be the Cheesy Flicks DVD release, and my Netflix rental, skipped, too. Sure, this one is a little rough around the edges, but this is also a sophisticated, modern, and unique twist on the sexy seventies vampire vibe.