Thursday, October 31, 2013

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Title: Horror of Dracula (1958)

Director: Terrence Fisher

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh      
Horror of Dracula is one of the most important of all the Dracula movies mainly because it’s the first time that Christopher Lee donned the fangs and cape for the role; in my opinion one of the most ferocious and savage of the Dracula’s. Christopher Lee doesn’t say much in this film (actually he only has about fourteen lines!) but his look, snarl and hiss painted a very feral picture of Count Dracula. Lee would go onto play this character many times over for Hammer films and even other directors outside of Hammer films, but it was his portrayal of the character on Horror of Dracula that will forever remain his best. But it wasn’t just Christopher Lee who made this film such a memorable experience, many important elements came together to make this version of Dracula one of the best out there. For one, we get Peter Cushing playing one of his most memorable roles, that of Vampire Hunter Dr. Van Helsing, a vampire expert! We also have Terrence Fisher, now Terrence Fisher wasn't just any old director; he was one of the best that Hammer ever had. He directed many of the most memorable Hammer films, amongst them The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) The Mummy (1959) and The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and these are just a few of the best ones, he did many other films for Hammer; so we have a true master of horror behind the director’s chair. 

Horror of Dracula starts out with Jonathan Harker arriving at Dracula’s castle to work as Dracula’s librarian. That’s right, on this one; Harker isn’t in Dracula’s castle to sell him a piece of land in London. Nope, on this one he is here to work for hire as Dracula’s book keeper. Dracula welcomes Harker to his castle, feeds him, and then proceeds to make him his prisoner! Now, if you know anything about Count Dracula, then you know this is standard operating procedure for the count. He bids you welcome and then when you are all nice and comfortable, he goes for the jugular! But, what Dracula doesn’t know is that this Jonathan Harker already knows that Dracula is a vampire, and he’s come here disguised as a “librarian” to kill him! We also have a professor in the "black arts" and a very knowledgeable guy in the field of the supernatural, Dr. Van Helsing to go up against Dracula! Will Dr. Van Helsing have what it takes to eliminate Dracula forever?   

So what works for me with this movie is how persistent it is with its horror movie ambiance. Some of the best movies always keep that horror atmosphere going all the way through, the mist, the spooky woods, the castle on top of the hill, and this one most certainly keeps it going, which I love. The film is filled with many spooky images, many memorable horror film moments. There’s this one scene in which a vamped out Lucy is walking through the woods, holding a child by her hand and we all know her intentions are to eventually feed on the child. Wow, there’s some spooky moments right there, the woods just seem so haunted, the vampire vixen, so beautiful, yet so evil! And the scenes where Van Helsing and crew go into a mausoleum to stab Lucy the vampire through her heart? Wow, awesome stuff, actually, kind of gruesome for a film coming out of 1958, I’m sure back in those days, seeing a bit of blood splashing on Van Helsing’s face must have been truly shocking for audiences of the 1950’s! Those scenes with Dracula appearing on the girls bedroom window as he is bathed in falling leaves and the night sky, so memorable! Actually, the whole film is filled with these classic images; while watching it you’ll feel like you are in the presence of a classic film. True, this film does take some liberties with the book, but then again, what adaptation of Dracula doesnt right? What matters in the end is if the resulting film is effective and I can assure you, this one is.

This was the first time that Lee and Cushing would embody these characters and since they are doing it for the first time, they perform with a certain intensity that was never to be repeated in the rest of the sequels. That scene where they confront each other in the last moments of the film are some of the most classic moments on any Hammer film, ever! Actually, if you’ve never seen a Hammer horror film, then this is the best one to start with, in my book it remains the best one of the Hammer Dracula’s. It was followed up by a film called Brides of Dracula (1960), which by the way was also directed by the awesome Terrence Fisher, that was a truly excellent sequel to Horror of Dracula. Even taking in consideration that Christopher Lee didn’t’ return in the role of Dracula, Brides of Dracula still remains a great Hammer production, truly atmospheric, very much a classic vampire movie. So if you want a double dose of spooky, old fashioned awesomeness, I recommend a double feature with those two films! Hammer would later repeat the formula presented in Horror of Dracula through a series of sequels, which to be honest, with few exceptions, were always good horror film fun for me because they were always bathed in that old school gothic atmosphere. Hammer did a good thing by embracing that gothic setting for their Dracula films, it's what people loved about these movies. The atmosphere and the spookiness in these films is the stuff that Halloween movies are made off. This is the reason why Horror of Dracula is my Halloween movie recommendation for Halloween 2013. If you guys want to see a movie that captures all those things you love about Halloween encapsulated in one spooktacular film, but with a touch of class, than look no further than Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula, a true horror classic and one of the best Dracula films ever made!

Rating: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fright Night Part 2 (1988)

Title: Fright Night Part 2 (1988)

Director: Tommy Lee Wallace

Cast: Roddy McDowall, William Ragsdale, Traci Lind, Julie Carmen, Jon Gries, Brian Thompson

The very last minutes of Fright Night (1985) consist of the close up of a dark, lightless window. Now the window is dark because Charlie and Peter Vincent killed the vampire that used to live there, so the house is now empty; or is it? Suddenly we hear Evil Ed’s signature laughter echoing through the darkness and two red eyes light up the dark room and boom, the credits roll, the movie is over and you’re left wanting more! Ending the film this way was a smart move from Tom Holland, the director behind the ultra successful 80’s vampire flick. In this way, Holland left the window open (so to speak!) for future films. Unfortunately, Tom Holland never returned because he went on to direct Child’s Play (1988) and since he took Chris Sarandon to star on that one, well, that’s why Jerry Dandridge never returned for a Fright Night sequel either. But fans of Fright Night clamored for a sequel! I wanted to see more of Evil Ed! I wanted to see Charlie and Peter killing more vampires! So what happened? Well, Fright Night Part 2 ended up getting made eventually, but there was no Evil Ed anywhere in sight! The character that left us wanting more was not on the sequel! Why not? The answer to that question is that actor Stephen Geoffrey’s declined to star on Fright Night Part 2 because he decided to be a part of 976-EVIL (1988) instead; can’t say I blame him. Making 976-EVIL offered him the opportunity to work alongside legendary horror icon Robert Englund, a.k.a Freddy Krueger himself!  

So anyhow, for whatever the reason, this second film wasn’t produced by Columbia Pictures; instead Live Entertainment stepped in as the producers of this flick. Now this was a company that was run by Jose Menendez, a man who was famously shot gunned to death by his own two sons! So that answers the question as to why there’s was no Fright Night part 3! And believe it or not, there was going to be a Fright Night part 3, unfortunately, the murders happened and so Fright Night Part 2 ended up being the last film that Menendez and Live Entertainment ever produced! So this sequel has a tragic tale behind it, it was the last nail on Live Entertainments coffin. But putting aside this tragic tale, did Fright Night Part 2 end up being a worthy sequel to the original? What I mean is, the first film is such a nearly perfect spooky movie, with so many awesome moments. Such memorable characters, such a cool villain, such great atmosphere, could this sequel equal or surpass the originals awesomeness? Well, I’d say that no, it didn’t surpass, but it isn’t a bad sequel either.  It is a lesser film in some ways, but at least it didn’t disappoint. So what went wrong and what went right with this one?

Well, for me one of the things that went absolutely right for me with this one is the fact that it picks up right where the first one left off. We pick up with Charlie trying to cope with the events of the first film by going to the shrink; who by the way manages to convince Charlie that everything that happened in the first film was the product of mass hallucination. Basically, according to his shrink Peter and Charlie  battling the forces of evil was all a figment of Charlie’s over active imagination. He’d seen too many horror movies! So anyhow, Charlie is basically burying everything that happened to him somewhere in his subconscious, he wants to pretend that none of it ever happened. Unfortunately, reality has other plans for Charlie. Jerry Dandridge was a 1,000 year old vampire and he had a sister! And she’s here to exact her revenge! And Charlie and Peter are on her list! But her revenge is systematic, she has a plan. Can Charlie and Peter conquer their fears and face the forces of evil ones again?

So yeah, that’s the premise for the sequel in a nutshell. The big problem for me with this sequel is that it basically repeats the first movie step by step. Sure it has a couple of new elements here and there, like for example Charlie is now a college student and he has a new girlfriend, but I think that’s about as far as the new elements go. Now here’s were this movie turns into a Xerox copy of the first: Charlie is still trying to make out with his girlfriend, and for some reason, same as in the first film, the girl doesn’t want to go “all the way”. I’m like, what’s going on with Charlie? Why don’t girls want to make out with him on both films? Then, we have the same situation of Charlie trying to convince Peter Vincent that vampires are roaming the neighborhood once again. A vampire even repeats  “welcome to Fright Night”; one of the most recognized lines from the first film! But fear not my dear reader! Thankfully, along with these familiar elements we also get groovy new stuff like Julie Carmen playing Regine; the vampire with a vengeance. She’s beautiful, she’s sexy and she’s Jerry Dandridge’s sister! Awesome casting choice right there, whenever she’s on screen she eats it up. Ditto for the rest of the vampire crew that tags along with her, I especially enjoyed Jon Gries performance as a werewolf/vampire/biker dude. This is the second time that Gries has played a werewolf, he also played one in The Monster Squad (1987). By the way, the make-up effects work is excellent on this one, the vampires look especially vicious and their demises are pretty creative which is always a highlight on any vampire movie.

In conclusion, I’d say that Fright Night Part 2 can be repetitive at times, but quite inventive at others. If you love the first Fright Night as much as I do, you will definitely feel like you’re visiting old friends, Peter and Charlie continue having that father son/good friends type of relationship which is the core of these movies. Now, if you still thirst for more Evil Ed, than you should do what I did: go on the internet and buy the Fright Night comic book series that was printed way back in the 90’s by a comic book company called Now Comics. Yeah, that’s right, Fright Night had its own comic book series and it lasted for something like thirty issues.  The first few issues are actually really good. The first two issues are an adaptation of the first film, and from the third issue on its Charlie and Peter’s adventures battling the forces of evil “wherever they may be!” You’ll be treated to Charlie and Peter battling everything from vampires and aliens to whatever the heck writers and artists could come up with for each issue. The series felt at times like a homage to the old EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt, with a different horror story in every issue. But one of the story arcs was all about “The Return of Evil Ed” and focused on how Evil Ed had survived the events of the first film and opened up a night club and ended up being a DJ! Eventually, Evil Ed finds a way to stumble into Charlie and Peter! It was a pretty cool series, I own it and cherish it, if any of you guys out there love Fright Night as much as I do, then do yourselves a favor and get this entire series. They even went and did a comic book adaptation of Fright Night Part 2! It was a cool way to see these characters live on long after the credits for Fright Night Part 2 rolled.

Rating: 3 out of 5   

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

Title: The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

Director: Alan Gibson

Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Coles, Joanna Lumley

Dracula A.D. 1972 is universally considered to be the worst of the Hammer Dracula films, it took Dracula out of the gothic setting and put him right smack in the middle of 70’s London hipster scene. I guess it was a way for Hammer Films to attempt to connect with a younger crowd, after all, it was mostly the kids who went to see these movies and they couldn’t risk losing a connection with that market! As a result, we have these long scenes of young dudes and dudettes partying and grooving to the tunes of some hippy rock band as Dracula is being resurrected by a young dude interested in the black arts. For me it didn’t work because honestly, what I enjoyed about those old Hammer Dracula’s was the gothic setting, I liked the castles, the full moons, the cemeteries; it’s what made those films special for me. Taking Christopher Lee’s Dracula out of that and bringing him to swinging 70’s London felt like suddenly Dracula was in a fish out of water story? And that’s not what Dracula’s about! So anyways, I hated that film, it was directed by a guy called Alan Gibson, a director whose career was mostly centered on directing television. So here’s a guy who made one of the worst of the Hammer Dracula’s and what does Hammer do? They let him direct the next Dracula film as well! It’s not surprising that the end result was a less than stellar film.

On The Satanic Rites of Dracula the Count has become the head honcho of a major corporation, he runs things from this shadowy office at the top floor of his office building.  Apparently Dracula has grown tired of eternity and is looking for a way to end it all, in other words, on this film Dracula wants to hang his cape and die! But he doesn’t just want to die, he wants to take all of humanity with him, so he enlists the help of some of his followers (who also happen to be Satanists) in order to create a deadly plague that will eradicate all of humanity by way of a deadly flesh eating virus! It’s up to Van Helsing and a couple of detectives to stop Dracula’s plans!  

The thing about this Dracula movie is that it is kind of uneven in tone. For example, at times it feels like a James Bond movie, at times it feels like a satanic film and at times it goes into sci-fi territory and then at some point it attempts to turn into one of the old Hammer Dracula films, so it’s kind of like a mish-mash of genres that never quite works in my book. I will elaborate. On this movie, Dracula’s followers are a group of Satanists who kidnap people in order to sacrifice them to Satan, so part of the film focuses on their little operation, you kind of get the idea that they are here to resurrect Dracula, but it’s not even about that. Anyways, their operation hasn’t passed unnoticed to local authorities who have sent secret agents in order to infiltrate the satanic cult and find a way to stop their evil schemes. Now here’s where the James Bond type of thing comes into play! The secret agents use micro films and gadgets in order to record the secret meetings that these cultists perform! Then the film takes a turn towards sc-fi/post apocalyptic territory with the deadly plague plot line, and the idea that this plague could possibly destroy all of humanity. Of course, we never actually see the plague take over the world or anything, but the idea is there, the virus is set and ready to go on the petri dish! Where the film completely fails in my book is that it doesn’t even feel like a Dracula film at all! It might as well have been a film about the satanic cult and that’s it. Dracula feels like he was shoehorned into the plot, which is sad because what we want to see is a Dracula film, not a James Bond wanna be.

And here’s the most disappointing thing about this movie, we hardly ever see Dracula on this one! Now this doesn’t surprise me at all because Lee always did a lot of these Dracula movies without any real interest in doing them. Actually, he was quoted as saying that he thought this particular Dracula film was unnecessary. “I am doing it under protest!” he said, Lee also used words like pointless, fatuous and absurd to describe this particular film and I have to say I agree. This is probably the reason why we don’t see much of Lee during the film. Actually, the film is close to hitting the 50 minute mark and still no Dracula! Can you imagine seeing an Indiana Jones film with no Indiana Jones after 50 minutes into the movie? Exactly. Instead we are treated to Satanists performing rituals involving naked girls and killing roosters. The film also centers a lot of its time on the Satanists escaping snooping cops.  The one moment where you feel you’re finally in one of those old Hammer Dracula movies is when the cops stumble upon a dungeon filled with a couple of Dracula’s vampire brides, but if it wasn’t for that, you’d think you were in some other movie. I also liked some of the visuals they pulled off during Dracula’s demise that I really liked, they did this thing where Dracula gets entangled in thorns which was pretty cool, Lee’s face on those scenes has all the evil and all the rage that should have been present on more of the film, not just the last 15 minutes!

Thank god we do get some Van Helsing! And this movie got me to thinking about what an important element Peter Cushing was in these movies, he was in them a heck of a lot more than Lee himself. Cushing was one of the most vital components of the Hammer Dracula formula. Gotta say, even though this isn’t the best of the Hammer Dracula’s, Peter Cushing gave it his all. By the way, this was the last time that Lee and Cushing worked together on a Hammer Dracula film, so it’s notable for that alone. This is the last time you get to see Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing vs. Christopher Lee’s Dracula, after this one, Cushing would go up against Dracula again one more time in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), a film that brought together the worlds of Shaw Bros. Kung Fu movies with Hammer Films Dracula universe, it’s one of the more offbeat Hammer films, but also, one of the most fun, highly recommend checking that one out! So anyhow, The Satanic Rites of Dracula doesn’t hold anything special to it, save for it being the last Cushing/Lee collaboration in the Hammer Dracula films.

Rating: 2 out of 5 


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dracula (1979)

Title: Dracula (1979)

Director: John Badham

Cast: Frank Langella, Donald Pleasence, Laurence Olivier, Kate Nelligan, Trevor Eve

Director John Badham’s take on Dracula is a very different take on the character; on this version he is not the fang bearing, blood spitting villain we came to know so well through Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the character in all of those Hammer films from the 60’s and 70’s, nope, this Dracula was to be a romanticized version of the character, a tortured soul trapped in eternity, searching for love. I understand what they were trying to do here, but I think Dracula sans blood and fangs is actually just a bit too much, I mean, we’re talking about a vampire here, blood and fangs are part of the equation most of the time. But whatever, I guess this was the kind of Dracula they wanted to portray, a sexy dude who exudes testosterone , the kind of man that makes the ladies melt as soon as he walks into the room. And this is exactly what happens in one moment of the film, Dracula walks in, he’s all suave, he kisses the ladies hands, dances with them, he even “heals” one of them, the ladies are obviously impressed while the men immediately see him as a threat! What can you do, the mother of all alpha males has just walked into the room!

The way Frank Langella came to play Dracula on this film was by way of his performance as Dracula on a Broadway show that ran for more than 900 performances from 1977 to 1980, in this way, Langella was echoing Bela Lugosi who also ended up playing Dracula in Universal Studios classic because he portrayed the character on a stage play. In Langella’s case it was producer Walter Mirisch who saw him perform and liked the play and Langella’s performance so much he decided right there and then that he wanted to make a film out of it. John Badham (the director behind this film) liked the show so much he saw it four times! The script for the film itself is based on the play, so this is probably why the resulting film is so theatrical, but then again, so are most adaptations of Dracula; I guess, Dracula and the theatrical go hand in hand. Langella was offered the part and he accepted but only on the condition that he wouldn’t have to wear fangs, drip blood from his lips or promote the film dressed as Dracula. So as you can see, from the very get go Langella had strong feelings as to how the character would be portrayed. Ultimately, this romantic Dracula is what sets this adaptation apart from all others. I have to give it to Langella, he is a smooth operator on this one! Take notes dudes, on this film; Dracula shows you how to sweep a lady off her feet. First things first, buy yourself a castle and invite her to dinner! Also, get a cape and a perm!

But this is Dracula we’re talking about here and not everything can be lovey dubbey in a horror movie. We couldn’t have a Dracula film and loose the horror element; that just can’t happen. And so, Universal fought for this film to be scarier, requesting to Badham and Mirsch that the film couldn’t lose its horror edge, they didn’t want this film to only focus on the love story. I am happy to say that director John Badham balanced very well both aspects of the story, the horror and the romance. First off, the film is drenched in atmosphere. This is one of those films that NEVER loses its ambiance and I cannot emphasize how important this is to me in this kind of old fashioned horror movie. I like for the atmosphere to be a continuous thing, I want to be in this horror world for the duration of the whole film, and this film does just that! Even the daylight scenes look dreary and void of color and life. Badham originally wanted to film in Black and White in order to pay homage to the old Universal horror films, but Universal wouldn’t allow it because they see black and white as something detrimental, something that might make the film lose business. So instead Badham went with a very colorless palette, the film isn’t black and white, but it might as well have been!

So it has that dreary look to it, add to that the full moons, a castle at the edge of the hill, cemeteries, nights bathed in fog, wolves howling in the night, cobweb filled castles and yes, vampires, and you got yourselves one hell of a spooky movie! Even though Dracula himself doesn’t have fangs on this film, his acolytes do, and so we do get scenes with fanged vampires reaching for their victims throats! In fact, there are some really spooky moments on this one, so fear not my friends, you’ll get your romance, but you’ll also get your horror, Badham did well in not forgetting this was a horror movie. Another film that pulled this balancing act well was Francis Ford Copolla’s Dracula (1992). Another element that really takes this production to another level are the sets. Wow! The exterior and interior of Dracula’s castle look so awesome, so spooky! The same can be said of the insane asylum. And then there’s the awesome cast, aside from Langella who is the stand out on this one, we also get an awesome Van Helsing in the form of legendary actor Laurence Olivier, who I might add was very sick while making this movie. Still,  he pulled it off like off like a champ. We also get Donald Pleasence, who was originally set to star as Van Helsing, but decided to play another character because he thought that playing Van Helsing would be too similar to his role of Dr. Loomis in the Halloween movies. So, instead he plays Dr. Seward. All in all, we get a really solid bunch of actors bringing this story to life.

Like any other Dracula adaptation, there are some changes and the film does play around with vampire lore. For example, the film completely ignores the opening of the book in which Jonathan Harker goes visit Dracula to his castle, instead, the story starts off when Dracula is already arriving to London. So those scenes from the book in which Harker comes in contact with Dracula’s vampire brides  were completely eliminated. Another thing they did which I found really odd was how they switched Lucy for Mina. In the book it is Mina who falls for Dracula, and not Lucy. But for some reason, they switched them around and on the movie it’s Lucy who ends up being the central female character. I see no purpose for this switch, so go figure, I don’t know why they did it, all it does is confuse Dracula fans.  But even with these changes here and there, in the end, John Badham’s Dracula is an excellent take on Dracula. Sadly, even though it wasn’t a complete flop, the film didn’t make as much as the studio expected so it wasn’t considered a winner either. Some attribute this to the fact that so many Dracula/vampire films were released in the same year amongst them Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979), Nocturna (1979), Thirst (1979) and Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979). Also, the Dracula farce Love at First Bite (1979) was released with success, and so the idea of Dracula might not have seemed so scary to audiences anymore.  I personally hold Badham’s Dracula amongst my top five favorite Dracula films, in fact, I think I would place it in the top three, right next to Coppola’s Dracula and Terrence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958), yeah, I place Lugosi’s film on a fourth place, I’m one of those guys who likes Lugosi’s Dracula (1931), but doesn’t love it. So yeah, if you haven’t seen this underrated masterpiece, I say give it a chance, you’ll kick yourself in the ass for not having seen it earlier.

Rating:  5 out of 5

Monday, October 21, 2013

Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

Title: Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

Director: Jesus Franco

Cast: Soledad Miranda, Ewa Stromberg, Dennis Price, Heidrun Kussin, Jose Martinez Blanco, Jesus Franco

You could say I started off on the wrong foot as I explored Jesus Franco’s body of work. My first impression of his films was the dreadfully boring Oasis of the Zombies (1983), a tough watch if there ever was any, I just couldn’t find anything good about it. Personally, Oasis of the Zombies felt like a cheap rip off! And not in the sense that it was ripping off other movies, but in the sense that it ripped me off! I followed that with Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), which while not a terrible film, was a dull take on Bram Stoker’s legendary book. But I kept hearing good things about Vampyros Lesbos, so I decided to give it a chance, and I’m glad I did! Now this was a Jesus Franco film I thoroughly enjoyed! It’s surreal, dreamlike and sexy, elements that I find alluring on any film. In a way, it was appropriate that I saw Franco’s Count Dracula first because it became obvious to me while watching it that Franco was completely inspired by Bram Stoker’s book while making Vampyros Lesbos. It is in many ways  a modern retelling of the Dracula legend. For every character in Vampyros Lesbos, you can find a counter part in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We get a Lucy, we get a Reinfeld, we even get a Van Helsing, but all siphoned through Franco’s twisted, yet artistic point of view, now aint that an interesting premise!

On Vampyros Lesbos we meet Lucy Westinghouse, a lawyer who has to travel to a mysterious island to meet a woman named Nadine Oskudar so she can finish signing some legal papers, you see, this Nadine Oskudar has just inherited a piece of real estate from someone named Count Dracula, wonder who that coulde be? Anyway, Lucy ends up skinny dipping in the beach with Nadine. Nadine tells her “you don’t have to be shy with me!” as she runs naked towards the water. Lucy, a sexually frustrated woman, likes what she sees and feels so she agrees and jumps in the water with Nadine; then they bathe naked in the sun. One thing leads to another until Nadine finally seduces Lucy! After this, Lucy ends up forgetting all about what happened to her! She can’t even remember who she is, or how she ended up in an insane asylum. Will she ever meet Nadine again? What really happened on that mysterious island?

So out of all the lesbian vampire flicks I have seen, my favorite one so far has been Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), to me that one was a classy vampire flick, so beautiful to look at, so sultry. The other one I enjoyed was Hammer Films The Vampire Lovers (1970), starring the ultra sexy Ingrid Pitt. But out of all those, it’s Vampyros Lesbos that in my opinion engulfs the whole Lesbian theme to the max. Not only is it the most sexual of the three, containing the most amount of nudity and sexual situations, but this being a Jesus Franco film, he isn’t afraid to embrace the lurid themes the film touches upon; it displays them in an unabashed manner. It’s as if with his visuals he was saying “this is a film about lesbian vampires in love, and don’t you forget it!” As an added bonus it is the most surreal and dreamlike of these films. Franco decided to infuse his story with these dream sequences that act as a strange, subconscious call, as if Lucy’s repressed sexual desires where calling her out. Loved that about the film. These dream sequences have a theatricality to them, they brought to mind the sexy vampire dances seen in films like Vamp (1986) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1994), I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the film that inspired those.

The film isn’t perfect technically, sometimes it shows its low budget nature, which is the way Franco almost always worked, but to his credit I will say the film does look a hell of a lot better than it has a right to, this is something only a true artist can achieve. This is why I compare Franco a bit with Rollin, they both did a lot with very little. They both took advantage of existing locales to make their low budget films look beautiful; ultimately, this is something that benefits us as an audience, as voyeurs of the worlds they’ve created. The way Franco constructed some of the scenes in the film is just alluring, you feel like you are being hypnotized. A lot of that has to do with the score for the film which by the way is pretty memorable, I believe it’s actually one of the things that stands out the most about the film. Once you hear this soundtrack, you’ll probably want to own it, I know I did.

Another stand out element of the film is Soledad Miranda’s performance as the Countess Nadine Oskudar. She plays it silent for the most part, but there’s this scene in which she confronts the Van Helsing of this film that is just awesome, she has this commanding voice! She is definitely a domineering presence on this film and I might add in the relationship that develops between her and Lucy. Thematically speaking, the film shows a lesbian seducing a “straight” woman who harbors homosexual desires. She has a man in her life, but she’s not satisfied, so she looks elsewhere. It just so happens that that elsewhere is a woman, and a vampire! Sexuality has always been an important element in the vampire formula; the Dracula legend has always served as an allegory for men seducing women, the tricks of the trade so to speak. You ask Dracula and he’ll tell ya, hypnotic looks and the right words can get you far with a woman! What Vampyros Lesbos does is deal with that same subject manner but from a lesbians point of view. All in all a very sexy film filled with haunting, dream like imagery and lots and lots of sensuality. So far, the best Jesus Franco film I have seen and one of the best Lesbian Vampire movies I’ve seen. I’ve yet to see Vampyres (1974), so we’ll see how that one fares, but so far, Vampyros Lesbos gets high marks from me. It's not a perfect film, especially when it comes to its slow pace and its sometimes amateurish "script" which I have a feeling didn't go past a few pages, but even through its imperfection, a strange sort of beauty shines through, well worth a watch.

Rating:  3 out of 5   

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jesus Franco's Count Dracula (1970)

Title: Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (1970)

Director: Jesus Franco

Cast: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda

When you read about Christopher Lee’s work on the Hammer Dracula films, you get the idea that he didn’t really like working on them, from his comments and reactions, you get the impression that he was never really happy with the final product. Lee’s main concern was that none of the films he made with Hammer were faithful adaptations of Bram Stokers book. He’s also gone down as saying that the dialog written for him was so atrocious that he refused to say the lines. Still, he went on to play the character on countless occasions for Hammer films. But for all his bitchin’ and moaning about these films, I think he is the best Dracula ever and I also think most of those Hammer films were excellent horror films; save for Dracula 1972 A.D. (1972) which I think was a failed attempt to bring Dracula to the modern age; but all other Hammer Dracula films? Pretty much exquisite for me, I love the old school atmosphere in them.

Out of all those Hammer Dracula films, the only one to attempt an adaptation of Stoker’s book was the first one they ever made: Horror of Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing. For all its twists and turns with Stokers story, Horror of Dracula ended up being a decent adaptation of the book, it hits all the important moments and the resulting film was a truly effective horror film, with some really memorable images.  All other Hammer Dracula films played within the universe that Stoker created, but never tried to be an adaptation of the book, they were kind of like sequels that played with the idea of Dracula coming back from the dead, in every single film! But  what Christopher Lee always wanted was to be a part of a truly faithful adaptation of Dracula, so when Spaniard filmmaker Jesus Franco proposed the idea of making a Dracula film that was faithful to the book, Lee accepted. How did it turn out? Was it as faithful as Franco promised?

In my opinion, this Jesus Franco version of Dracula deviates just as much as any other version of Dracula, but with one added ingredient: boredom. I don’t know what it is about Jesus Franco’s style of filmmaking, but I just find his films to be incredibly dull. This was my main problem with this film, and by the way, many other Jesus Franco films suffer from this ailment; check out Oasis of the Zombies (1983) if you don’t believe me. I mean, here are films with premises that beg for something interesting to be made yet end up being boring anyways, and I chalk it all up to Jesus Franco’s style of storytelling. Here’s an example. The good guys open up a coffin to kill Dracula’s vampire brides, the brides see the good guys holding a stake and a hammer up in the air and what do they do? Do they fight their way out of the coffin? Do they fight for their lives? I mean, can’t they see that someone is about to put a wooden stake through their hearts? Apparently not, because all they do is lay there in the most peaceful manner, waiting to be hammered to death. I mean, Franco just didn’t bother doing something exciting or interesting. Now, I can take a slow paced movie, for example, I enjoy Jean Rollin’s vampire films because even though they are slow paced, they compensate with the beautiful imagery, the composition of the shots, the visual poetry or the shocking proceedings. But not so with a Jesus Franco film, well, at least this particular one which crawled at a snail’s pace.

I compare Jesus Franco to Jean Rollin because they both have a similar ways of making films: they both shoot in real locations, they very rarely use sets, they’ve both dabbled in porn and they are used to working with modest budgets. Actually, they even worked together on some films, but where Rollin surpasses Franco is in the sheer artistry he infuses his films with, he can make a low budget film look better simply because of the way he composes a shot. Franco is just dull, dull, dull. I’ve yet to see more Jesus Franco films, but so far, he hasn’t impressed me much. This is not to say that this Dracula film is a total waste of your time. I did like the fact that they shot a lot of the film in real castles, the cast is actually pretty impressive. What kept me watching this one till the end was my interest in seeing what twists and turns Franco would bring to his version of Dracula because this is the one delight of watching the same tale told by a different director, each gives their film their own flavor. Sadly, one of the things that distinguishes this version is how cheap it looks. For example, there is this one set they built in which Reinfeld is held captive, that is supposed to look like a padded cell in a looney bin, but I swear to god it looks like they made it with cardboard paper; completely unconvincing. You can have Klaus Kinski giving it his all as a silent version of Reinfeld, but the fake padded cell takes you out of the movie! Sorry!

On the dvd features Jesus Franco says he doesn’t like the Hammer Draculas because “they didn’t take the subject matter seriously” but how can he say that when his film is filled with paper cut outs of bats hanging from strings to give us the “illusion” of flying vampire bats? I truly hate this about old vampire films, when they use the fake bat hanging from the strings trick, it just looks too freaking  fake! Even for a low budget movie, this is inexcusable for me! Arrrgh! And Franco uses that cheap trick so much on this film. It’s so lazy, so unconvincing, this was yet another element that completely took me out of the movie. Sure Christopher Lee can deliver a good performance as Count Dracula, he plays it really serious for the most part, but then that seriousness fades away when he transforms into a fake bat hanging from strings. It’s kind of insulting to have these actors delivering their lines with such candor, and then having cheap sets or cheap props. Here’s another example: there’s this scene where the good guys throw this giant bolder at Dracula’s coffin, when it hits the ground you can just tell the rock is made of paper mache or something! It’s actually kind of hilarious, unfortunately, it breaks the illusion.

On to the cast which is good. Too bad they couldn’t be in a better production! Christopher Lee has got his Dracula performance down flat, by the time he did this one; he’d already played Dracula around three times for Hammer! The one thing that is different about this Dracula is that he speaks a whole lot more than on any Hammer film. I’m guessing he agreed to say the lines because they are taken mostly directly from the book, a luxury he never had with the Hammer films. Klaus Kinski plays Reinfeld, which is kind of appropriate considering Kinski was apparently, according to Franco and also according to German director Werner Herzog, truly insane. So it was fitting he played the bloodthirsty, and demented Reinfeld. The strange thing about this version of Reinfeld is that he played it completely silent! So on this film we get a talkative Christopher Lee but a silent Reinfeld! How ‘bout that! Finally, the other stand out performance was Herbert Lom as Professor Van Helsing, he delivers, what is in my opinion the most solid performance in the whole movie. Too bad they are all in such a dull movie, there’s no tension on this thing! And save for a few minutes in the opening where Dracula picks up Jonathan Harker at Burgo Pass, there’s not much atmosphere on this one! It’s a Dracula movie sans atmosphere! Sans horror! Sans all the things that matter in a Dracula movie; so I guess now I know why this film is not as popular as all the other Dracula adaptations. It’s just not very engaging. It hits all the important beats required of a Dracula adaptation, only in a really dull manner, so if you want to venture into this particular version of Dracula, just be ready for a slow paced film.

Rating: 3 out of 5      

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Machete Kills (2013)

Title: Machete Kills (2013)

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Cast: Danny Trejo, Mel Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Amber Heard, Sofia Vergara, Charlie Sheen, William Sadler, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Jessica Alba, William Sadler, Tom Savini    
I’ve always been a huge supporter of Robert Rodriguez’s particular brand of cinema because it’s obvious the guy loves B-Movies. He gets the joys of watching a fun, silly b-movie that you can’t bring yourself to calling “high art” but you can’t deny having fun with. B-movies can be entertaining, sleazy, shocking, fast paced, but above all fun. They are a quick thrill, a jolt of electricity down your spine, films you watch for “shits and giggles” as Austin Powers would say. Right from the beginning of his career Rodriguez has made b-movies and through the years, he’s become a specialist in them. A quick look through his filmology and all you’ll see are b-movies: From Dusk Till Dawn (1994), Planet Terror (2007), Machete (2010) to mention but a few. Rarely has he deviated from the b-movie highway, save for making family films that make tons of moolah so he can keep making more b-movies. Keeping that in mind, I really wasn’t expecting Machete Kills, the sequel to Machete, to be a ground breaking film in any way or form, in fact, I was expecting the complete opposite. With Machete Kills I was expecting a film that would play with familiar b-movie troupes, but taken to the extreme by Rodriguez, the current king of b-movie cinema. Machete Kills is a b-movie on steroids!

This time around, Machete is working on a top secret mission for the President of the United States to kill a madman called ‘Voz’ (played by a toungue firmly in cheek Mel Gibson), a maniac who wants to destroy the earth and take off on a spaceship to create a new, perfect society up on his space station. You know, kind of like that James Bond flick called Moonraker (1979) in which the villain wanted to do the same exact thing. Anyways, it’s up to Machete to stop him. Problem is that there’s a group of vengeful hookers who want to kill Machete, a personality switching psychopathic killer who wants to off Machete for a hefty ransom and on top of all that, a rebellious leader named She wants Machete to be the leader of her revolution! Can Machete achieve all these things in one movie? Of course he can, we’re in b-movie heaven here! Anything can and does happen!

Charlie Sheen as The President of the United States of America

The minute this movie started, I had a grin on my face. That 70’s “coming attraction” thing that pops up in so many Tarantino/Rodriguez films appeared on the screen and I immediately I strapped myself on tight because I knew one of those divinely fun fake trailers was about to appear. And sure enough, the film starts with a trailer for Machete Kills Again…In Space! The idea for that possible sequel looks all kinds of fun, Machete ends up in a space station shooting laser guns and wielding a glowing machete that resembles a lightsaber from Star Wars…only it’s a machete! It looks a bit like Barbarella (1968) mixed with an ultra cheap version of Star Wars (1977), actually, if I were to compare it to anything, I’d say it looks something closer to Luigi Cozzi’s Star Crash (1978), an Italian science fiction film that’s incredibly hilarious, highly recommend you guys check it out if you’re in the mood for a cheap Italian version of Star Wars, in other words, Machete Kills Again…In Space! looks like pure unadulterated b-movie goodness, if it ever happens! So how does Machete go from fighting ‘federales’ and the F.B.I., to fighting on a space station with lasers wheezing by? I’ll tell you how, through the magic that Robert Rodriguez concocts behind the camera, that’s how! I mean, here’s a director who understands that in movie land, any crazy thing you can dream up can happen and that’s alright because this is a movie! It’s not real! And I love that approach he takes with some of his movies and I loved that about Machete Kills.

Of course, I have to be honest, the majority of the population is going to think this movie is shit and I’ll tell ya why, this movie was made specifically for that core group of people who love b-movies, for those fan boys who get why Mel Gibson is driving a hovercraft from Star Wars, or that the whole Machete in Space thing is a spoof of all those movies that end up sending their heroes “to space” because they can’t think of anything better to do with their film. So guys like me and that other guy in the theater I was in that was obviously enjoying the movie, laughed like maniacs, the other half was asking “why are those guys laughing?” But who cares, for those few who get it, this movie will be an absolute blast, in fact if you can get past your pompous ass self and just give into the madness, you just might have a good time yourself. The movie goes at a lightning fast pace, crazy things are happening every five seconds, you’ll never be bored. There’s always some joke, or some gory, shocking thing happening on screen. Don’t look for things making sense, just go with the flow because there’s never a dull moment on this movie; there’s one thing this movie is and that’s entertaining.

At the end of the day I can’t bring myself to hate this movie because it delivers exactly what I was expecting from it. I wasn’t expecting anything I would take seriously, I was expecting something I would laugh with and be amused by and that’s exactly what I got. I’m pretty damn sure that Robert Rodriguez isn’t expecting anyone to give this movie a “good review”, he was making a b-movie and he knew it. True, ever sense Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), some of Rodriguez's films have a shot in a hurry feel to them, and the result are sometimes sloppy but I can't deny the high fun factor of these "sloppy movies" he's been making. Sure I look forward to the day when he truly focuses all his strengths and makes something as awesome as Sin City (2005) or From Dusk Till Dawn (1994), but till then, I'm having a blast with these b-movies he keeps making. While making Machete Kills, he knew that most people wouldnt get seeing Machete hurling some dudes intestines at the propellers of a helicopter, he knew they wouldn’t get Sofia Vergara shooting bullets out of her tits, but Rodriguez also knew that a group of us out there will absolutely love this movie and get it and want to watch it over and over again, and those are the ones he made this movie for. I mean where else are you going to get a mix of Star Crash (1978), Moonraker (1979) and Mad Max (1979) all in one movie? Nowhere else that’s where! Robert Rodriguez went all out ‘nutso’ with this movie, I mean, did you ever expect laser guns and people teleporting in and out of existence on a Machete movie? Nope! But you’ll get that as well! And if that doesn't grab you, then the never ending avalanche of cameos should keep you entertained! I am looking forward to seeing Machete Kills Again…In Space! Which is why I am hoping Machete Kills makes its modest 20 million dollar budget back, I mean seeing Machete and She flying around in Jet Packs, kicking some villains ass in a cheap version of the death star is the kind of stuff I live for! Gotta love those groovy b-movies!

Rating: 3 out of 5

Rodriguez directs Gibson on the set of Machete Kills

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blacula (1972)

Title: Blacula (1972)

Director:  William Crain

Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala

Blaxploitation films started as a genre with one of two films, depending on whom you ask, the first blaxploitation film was either Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song (1971) or Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971). Some don’t consider Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song an exploitation film, so they give the title of first blaxploitation film to Shaft. Point is that after the release of these two films many more blaxploitation films followed, most of them focused on drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes or tough cops, but not one of them was a horror film; until Blacula (1972) came along that is! After the success of Blacula, more blaxploitation horror films followed. For example we got Abby (1974), Ganja and Hess (1973), Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black and Mr. White (1976). So Blacula is an extremely important film in the sense that it’s the first African American Blaxploitation horror film; and the first time we ever saw an African American vampire! 

In Blacula we meet Mamuwalde, an African prince who has come all the way from Africa to visit Count Dracula in his castle; apparently Mamuwalde doesn’t know that Dracula is the king of all bloodsucking vampires! But anyways, Mamuwalde being an African prince has a political agenda in mind. He’s come to get Dracula to sign a treaty that would end slavery, an arrangement that does not sit well with Dracula at all! Instead Dracula decides to curse Mamuwalde by turning him into a vampire and christening him ‘Blacula’! Then Dracula has Mamuwalde locked up up in a coffin, leaving him there indeterminately. Mamuwalde becomes a tortured soul for many years because he has not only become a vampire, but since he is locked inside of a coffin, he can’t satiate his vampire blood lust! He can’t feed! So anyway, fast forward 200 years and an unsuspecting gay couple opens Mamuwalde’s coffin out of curiosity  and out comes Blacula into the modern world! With a hunger he hasn’t been able to satiate in 200 years! So of course, he first feeds on the two gay dudes! After that, Blacula decides to walk the streets of the modern world and it is during this walk that he stumbles upon a woman who resembles his late wife, so then it becomes his mission in life to make this woman fall in love with him. Will Mamuwalde ever find love again?

"You shall be known as Blacula!"

In many ways, Blacula plays out like your basic Dracula adaptation, going step by step through the same basic structure of a Dracula film, only difference is that Blacula is set in modern times and Dracula is black this time around. On Blacula, Mamuwalde finds the re-incarnation of his long lost love, which comes in the form of a young woman named Tina, a young lady that Blacula begins to court; so like many vampire films, Blacula is essentially a love story about a vampire looking for someone to accompany him through eternity. But where Blacula takes a left turn is when they set him in the modern world, which means placing Blacula in Los Angeles, circa the early 1970’s, which is really the funniest aspect of the film for me. Actually, when we really get down to it, this film plays out a bit like Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows (2010), because it is the same basic idea of having a vampire locked up inside a coffin many years and then releasing him into the modern world. But in my opinion, Blacula didn’t really exploit this whole idea of thrusting a character from ancient times into modern times; it really didn’t play with that ‘fish out of water’ angle that Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows played with so well. On this one, Blacula stumbles upon the modern world and fits right in; he doesn’t seemed amazed at all by the ‘modern world’ of the 70’s. I mean, to him cars should be magic! But no, on this film Blacula walks into a nightclub and asks for a ‘Bloody Mary’ as if he’d done it ten thousand times before.

In that sense, the film has a couple of plot holes in it. Not to mention that Blacula walks around the city streets wearing a freaking cape! What I thought was hilarious about this movie was how so much of it revolves around Blacula visiting this nightclub to meet up with Tina and have a couple of drinks. That’s right my friends, on this film you’ll see Mamuwalde visiting a nightclub, talking to babes, having a couple of drinks, socializing and listening to soul bands playing funky music all night long. This is something that happens a lot in blaxploitation films, I remember a similar scene in Super Fly (1972), where a funky band plays in the background and takes a few minutes of screen time to show what they are made of. This is all cool in my book if you ask me, very funky, very 70’s, very black and it’s what blaxploitation cinema is all about. I don’t know if they realized they were making a funny movie or not, I think Blacula is unintentionally funny and simply a product of crazy ass 70’s blaxploitation scene, but I gotta tell ya, I love it just like it is. There’s something really funny about Dracula being in a nightclub listening to a funky soul band, which by the way was a real life soul band known as ‘The Hues Corporation’. Some might find that it takes away from the horror element of the film, but I say it’s what makes Blacula unique amongst other Dracula films.

There’s an underlying social message within the film because Mamuwalde is turned into a vampire by a racist, cold blooded, unforgiving Dracula, a white man who wants to hear nothing about abolishing slavery. On this film Mamuwalde is cursed by the white man! Anyone, be they black or white can enjoy these films, but they were primarily made with black audiences in mind. American International Pictures promoted it by pushing the slavery angle, so this is probably the reason why in some scenes white characters are portrayed as dumb and incompetent, or play second banana to the black characters. In fact, one of the main characters is a black doctor called Gordon Smith who is in charge of the investigation; he is portrayed as smarter than any cop in the film, with the white cop always two steps behind. So what we have with Blacula is a film that has strong black leads, which was something rarely seen in those days in cinema, with the exception of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), strong black leads where unheard of. The interesting thing is that sometimes Blacula doesnt feel like a blaxsploitation film at all. For example, director William Crane didn’t use an all black cast, his cast was actually multiracial, and had the black man working alongside the white man in unison, which I think is a very positive thing about the film, it doesn’t do the stereotypical thing of always portraying the white man as “evil”.  

Blacula stands as a bonafide cult classic, mainly because it was the first film in which we see a black vampire and because it was the first blaxploitation horror film ; something that up to that point hadn’t been done before. Eddie Murphy attempted a similar thing when he played ‘Maximillian’ in Wes Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an underrated vampire flick if you ask me and a film that holds many similarities with Blacula. I’m sure that Eddie Murphy and Wes Craven had Blacula in mind when they made their film, they probably wanted to ‘up the ante’ with their film. Blacula does suffer a little bit from a low budget aesthetic, I mean, the sound is terrible in certain moments and so is the lighting, but I still found myself enjoying the film. I felt a certain type of empathy for Mamuwalde. True Mamuwalde is a vampire, a killer, but same as many vampire films, you feel a certain kind of empathy for the character. He seems to be truly in love with Tina, and Tina with him, yet there’s always that conflict of “but he is a cold blooded killer!” You’ll find yourself rooting for Blacula anyways which is something kind of interesting about the film. So my friends, Blacula is a blaxploitation classic, it got the ball rolling in terms of horror blaxploitation films and has an important African American director behind it in William Crain, one of the first black directors who worked on television, and the guy who made the first blaxploitation horror film with Blacula, which by the way made a lot of cash for American International Pictures. In fact, Blacula was so successful that it spawned a sequel entitled Scream Blacula Scream (1973), a film I will be reviewing soon. Make it a point to check out this excellent, historically important slice of 70’s horror blaxploitation, you’re sure to have some fun with it.

Rating: 3 out of 5

In some parts of the world, the film was marketed as "Black Dracula"


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