sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-09-04 05:46 am
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It's just psychological

I feel slightly as though I have been hammered into the ground: I watched just over twelve hours of vampire film, walked out into the grey morning and slept a couple of hours into the early afternoon. It has rained on and off all day, obfuscating the question of whether the sunlight would do anything exciting to my skin. I'd be surprised—I just ate some free gingersnaps around three in the morning, not any of my fellow audience members—but a movie marathon that programs itself to end with an apocalyptic sunrise wants you to wonder anyway. Let me see what I can say before I pass out again.

Considering its place in genre history as the first vampire movie to treat its subject with sympathy as well as horror, it is probably not inappropriate that I feel really conflicted about Dracula's Daughter (1936). It was conceived as an immediate sequel to Universal's Dracula (1931) incorporating elements of Stoker's "Dracula's Guest" (1914) and Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872). Its premise is full of innovations that would rapidly become tropes: the bisexual vampire, the vampire who wants to be human, the vampire turning to science for aid; its narrative descendants are as obvious and diverse as Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood (1961), CBS' Forever Knight (1992–96), and Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows (2014), not to mention the full gamut of angst from Anne Rice to Stephenie Meyer. Gloria Holden as the Countess Marya Zaleska is somber and luminous, her long classical face a haunting and haunted mask. The script even knows there's something witty as well as Freudian in the idea of a vampire visiting a psychoanalyst in order to be cured of her compulsions, for which the language of drug addiction and sexual perversity is equally apropos. And all of this promising material just sort of exists in a not very taut 71-minute plot with a couple of murders and a lot of running back and forth between England and Transylvania and the especially frustrating kind of obligatory het couple where the only moment I believe their relationship is when she prank-calls him in a heavy fake German accent ("Please come right away . . . One of our elephants is seeing pink men!") and even then I dock it points because he's the ladykilling doctor who can't keep from mixing business with pleasure and she's his jealous secretary. It is impossible not to wonder what a director like James Whale could have brought to the material, instead of Lambert Hillyer whose career was mostly B-Westerns and the 1943 serial Batman. The queer content is not confined to the scene excerpted in The Celluloid Closet (1995), where the dark, gliding Countess, having previously solicited a handsome young man off the street, enthralls a beautiful young female model and the camera smashes upward on the girl's screams; on top of the psychoanalytic angle, which includes the Countess' conviction that the lingering spirit of her father compels her perverse lifestyle (following his staking by Van Helsing, she ritually exorcises Dracula's body with salt and fire and exults, "I can lead a normal life now—think normal things, play normal music!" but that night finds her cruising the foggy alleys of London again), it is notable that her final bid for the psychiatrist's attention involves kidnapping his beloved secretary and nearly turning her in a slow, spellbinding lean-in, interrupted right at the moment of the fatal kiss. But either Hillyer didn't know what he had or didn't know how to get it between the lines of the Code as effectively as other directors of transgressive horror, because the results are no Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The film has its own attractions, though, and I am not sorry to have had them looking out of the screen at me with the unblinking gaze of the woman who is a predator: "She was beautiful when she died—a hundred years ago."

I have written about Terence Fisher's Dracula (U.S. Horror of Dracula, 1958) before, in context of The Brides of Dracula (1960), and while I stand by my assertion that it's neither as weird nor as powerful as its sequel or possibly in some conventional senses very good, I don't care, I love it. I love its blithe disregard for its source material beyond a vampire named Dracula, a doctor named Van Helsing, and some people named Holmwood and Harker and Seward. I love what physical actors both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are, with their very different styles of movement and presence which dovetail so beautifully in their sole, justly climactic shared scene. I will never cease to be impressed by Lee's ability to project sexual charisma forty feet off the screen with blood in his teeth. Cushing has a wonderful voice, but I could look at him all day. Some of Lee's Dracula's most charged moments are stillness, but his vampire-hunting nemesis is constantly in motion, showing us more of his restlessness, his nerves and his determination, the cost of his work and its bittersweet payoff through small or sudden movements—the resolute resettling of his hands on a stake, a tired rub of the eyes that the next second flings the professor to his feet as a realization snaps into place—than really exists in the dialogue, from which we learn mostly what Van Helsing knows about vampires. Even the one direct personal statement he makes is by way of correcting another character's misapprehension: "The study of these creatures has been my life's work. I've carried out research with some of the greatest authorities in Europe and yet we've only just scratched the surface." Perhaps we know he's their adversary simply because he's so alive in his skin, even when he's only double-checking and correcting his own dictated notes. And yet he's their mirror, too, as mysterious for all his warmth as the nearly silent Count. We never even learn his first name. We don't need it. He can bring centuries of sunlight crashing into a long-haunted hall and tell a little girl, frightened of the dark and of vampires, that with his fur-trimmed coat snugged round her she looks like a teddy bear. I don't care if that's anachronistic, either.

Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983) shouldn't work. It has dreamy and violent erotic scenes of various sexualities, a science-edged and nearly subliminal take on vampirism, a plot which often appears to operate on correspondences rather than cause and effect, and a visual style which carries lushness to the point of nonlinearity, including symbolic doves and blowing curtains galore—there is an honest-to-God art department credit strictly for "Drapes." It scores its opening incidence of vampirism to a Goth club performance of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" and employs the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' Lakmé as prelude to two women making love. Its glamorous, eerily depersonalized New York City was mostly played by London. The film should have been, at best, a glossily enjoyable piece of softcore '80's cheese. Instead it's not just a perfectly cromulent revision of the vampire mythos for the age of MTV and nascent AIDS, it actually uses its head-swimming style for substance. The way that time in this film is confusing, for example: either it passes in a vague lacuna that could be hours or weeks or the narrative is intensely aware of the seconds ticking by and in either case it reflects the experience of the nonhuman characters, either the original who hasn't aged an elegant day since she tore out a man's throat in ancient Egypt or her consort whose two hundred years of youthful companionship—the latest in a long, long Tithonos-line—are running out fast. Everything the audience is offered to look at, from the faces of the principal cast to an arc of blood splatter, is meticulously, self-consciously beautiful, which only points out the skull beneath the skin all the more keenly when it starts to show; it is a stroke of cruel brilliance to use David Bowie, rather than any of the film's female actors, as the memento mori specter of beauty overtaken by age and decay. I did not disbelieve Susan Sarandon when she said in The Celluloid Closet that under no circumstances would her character have needed to be drunk to go to bed with Catherine Deneuve (and she got her way in the finished film: most of that glass of sherry goes to a conveniently shirt-removing spill), but I appreciate how ambiguous she herself looks here, distractedly raking one hand through her short red hair exactly as Bowie did. Her boyfriend might as well have been captioned "Emergency Lunch," but I felt for Dan Hedaya's two-scene police lieutenant, who's just in the wrong genre for his street smarts to make a difference. Looking over Scott's filmography, I can't see that he ever directed anything else in which I was even interested, but I'm glad he managed this movie: I could have done with at least a third less blowing curtains and it took me a scene to get used to the strobe-cut flashforwards, but I can see why it's lasted beyond the aesthetic of its time. I am aware it derives from a 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber, but frankly the only way I can imagine it working on the page is if it was written by Tanith Lee. I'm not sure it didn't get into her Scarabae novels as it is. I like that no one in this story, not even Deneuve, has fangs.

I might have stopped Near Dark (1987) a spontaneous combustion or two sooner than Kathryn Bigelow does, but otherwise I had wanted to see this movie for years on the recommendations of [personal profile] lesser_celery and [personal profile] handful_ofdust and it delivered. It can be legitimately described as a vampire Western, right down to the perfect inversion of a high noon showdown; other applicable adjectives might include cowpunk, rockabilly, crime pulp, and whatever peculiarly American genre encompasses outlaw found family, into which our semi-hero unintentionally invites himself when he takes a waifish stranger out for a nighttime spin. Adrian Pasdar's Caleb is not entirely innocent prey, of course: if he hadn't pulled over to cajole a kiss out of Jenny Wright's Mae before dawn, she'd have made it home before her hunger sharpened enough to bite him. But he's soon surrounded by greater and far more casual predators, played by half the cast of Aliens (1986) as feral archetypes that strip the Gothic aristocracy off American vampirism and replace it with the strip malls and roadhouses and trailer parks and oil derricks and bus stations and motels of Reagan's heartland, where it might be a bitter joke that their almost post-apocalyptic levels of hardscrabble rootlessness do not actually attract attention until Lance Henriksen's blade-faced Jesse starts talking wryly about the Civil War ("I fought for the South . . . We lost") or Bill Paxton's Severen, all black leather swagger and chiming boot-spurs, kicks a bartender's throat in. Jenette Goldstein's Diamondback with her two-toned hair and her dance hall girl's bustier unfolds a straight razor for her mate to fill her a beer glass of blood with. Joshua John Miller's Homer is perhaps the oldest and eeriest of them all, perpetually and hatingly twelve years old. They're an extreme realization of the American dream, accountable to no one but their guns and their hunger; they have been abandoned by it and they exact their due in blood. Its violence alternates between the lyrical and the grotesque, nowhere better fused than in the roadhouse sequence where the Cramps' spare, snaky cover of "Fever" shivers off the jukebox while the bodies hit the floor. The danger of a shootout in a motel flips as soon as the audience realizes that the police bullets drilling the daytime walls are temporary inconveniences, but the shafts of light spearing in from their passage are causing the family to smoke. The film is noir, too, in politics as well as time of day—if it wouldn't have sounded like a remake, it could just as accurately have been titled They Live by Night. I wish the ending were better; it would be a stone classic if so. Maybe it still is, flawed as any other nightmare of this country. "Normal folks, they don't spit out bullets when you shoot them, no sir."

I had no idea what to expect from Michael Almereyda's Nadja (1995). I knew it was considered a partial remake of Dracula's Daughter; I had loved Almereyda's Experimenter (2015), but was uncertain how much I could reasonably generalize from a flamboyantly metafictional, self-interrogating biopic of Stanley Milgram. I don't know if I can make this film sound as good, and as haunting, and as fun as it was. Romanian-born Elina Löwensohn stars as Nadja, a stylish, imperious wanderer of the streets and bars of nighttime New York whose "family money" comes from stranger sources than the trust funds of the beautiful, jaded socialites she resembles; an impulsive decision in the wake of her father's death entangles her in the lives of Lucy and Jim (Galaxy Craze and Martin Donovan), the first of whom becomes her lover and inadvertent thrall, the second of whom turns out to have a direct connection to the man who staked Dracula. The family complications thicken with the introduction of Nadja's long-estranged twin Edgar (Jared Harris) and his live-in nurse Cassandra (Suzy Amis), herself another unforeseen relative; the Gothic aspects heighten with the kidnapping of a human character and a flight to the ancestral castle "by the Black Sea, under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains" where both Nadja and Edgar were born two hundred years ago to the only woman Count Dracula ever loved. So far, so Universal. Now please imagine that everything I have described is filmed in high-contrast, lo-fi black-and-white that abstracts itself into Pixelvision at the most traditionally vampiric moments and played with such serious deadpan by the entire cast that absurdities become poignant and everything else is randomly hilarious. When we meet Van Helsing, he is played by Peter Fonda and he is the kind of tweedy, long-haired, embarrassing burnout uncle who has to be bailed out of jail for confessing to impossible murders and forgets that you can't order vodka in a coffee shop. About half of what he says, about anything, although most of the time he just talks about vampires, is dead on and the other half is totally disconnected: Lucy relaying the news of his arrest to her husband admits that "it didn't make sense, but it didn't sound too surprising, either. You know how he gets." This is the kind of movie that can close with real philosophical questions but also include phrases like "psychic fax" and two incredibly awkward reunions in the same family. Dracula at the end of his life is compared to late-stage Elvis. There's dying and then there's dying for a cigarette. It's not parody; it's irony done right. What with the trends of the last decade, I hadn't realized that I missed irony at all. It works because it's not all a hall of mirrors, even when executive producer David Lynch cameos as a tousle-haired morgue guard nonplussed by the appearance of a black-cloaked Nadja and her solemn, baby-faced Renfield. Music is by Simon Fisher Turner, Portishead, My Bloody Valentine, and Spacehog, which explains why I have just played "In the Meantime" eighteen times in a row. A pixellated lesbian/bi vampire love scene can be extremely hot.

I may have to come back to Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001), because I suspect I would have enjoyed it much more if I had had any idea what it was doing. [personal profile] rushthatspeaks (who joined me in time for the second feature) suggests that it may have been examining the different gender expressions of the vampire mythos, but if so I'm not sure why it took the form it did. There is a plot, although at first it looks like driftingly intercut scenes of gruesome murder and banal honeymooning; eventually it emerges that the narrative is tracking two parallel couples, three-quarters of whom were involved some number of years ago in neuroscientific research that went horribly wrong. Brilliant Léo Semenau (Alex Descas) now works as a GP in Paris, his former colleagues aware that he quit higher-profile work to take care of his sick wife; they do not seem to know that the beautiful, wolfish Coré (Béatrice Dalle) has a habit of escaping their house, seducing roadside strangers, and then eating as much of them as she can before her husband wearily tracks her down again, brings her home on his motorcycle, cleans her up, and puts her to bed, although does not ever take her there, however much she croons and reaches for him. Like a maenad or an especially grisly change on Cat People (1942), she cannot be safely aroused. Pharmaceutical rep Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) has flown to Paris with his new wife June (Tricia Vessey), ostensibly for the usual romantic reasons, really to try to reconnect with Léo, whose basement researches—a contemporary mad science homebrew of potted seedlings, pills and test tubes, and refrigerated slices of brain—might hold a feverish hope of quieting whatever Lustmord keeps Shane dreaming of his bride's pixie-like body naked in a bed of blood, eyeing the fragile back of her neck as though at any second he might sink his teeth through it. He watches the chambermaid with an appetite that she mistakes for the familiar roving eye of men away from home; with a soft-eared, new-bought puppy in his arms, he grinds up against an older woman on the Métro while other passengers stare at him in open disgust. "I would never hurt you," he reassures June, then wrenches himself away from her mid-coitus to finish all over the sink while she cries at the door. Maybe this is vampirism (if it is vampirism: by the time you're tearing flesh off with your teeth, I think the metaphor is slightly different) as emotional consumption, the exhaustion and danger of intimacy. Again, then I've seen that dilemma worked out with less cold and graphic nastiness. Coré and Shane are obviously foils, but I don't know what it means—mythologically, philosophically—that her cannibalistic encounters are opportunistic and, once triggered, apparently beyond her control while eventually we watch him knowingly seek out a substitute rape/food object so that he can return to his hotel room, step out of the shower down whose curtains a woman's diluted blood is still rolling, and for the first time embrace his wife without fear. I do not think of myself as having a low tolerance for sexual violence, incidentally, but I would call the rape scene in this film objectively rough, not least because it is so callously initiated. I have to assume it is part of the exercise for the audience to get a good look in both cases so as to determine whether they judge the characters differently, because there's no chance that anyone who has been paying attention to this plot will find Shane's turn to cannibalism shocking. To be honest, I expected the film to end with mutual devouring, but that might actually have closed the circle in a way I could understand. I hate not being able to read a film properly. Maybe I'll just go rewatch Antonia Bird's Ravenous (1999).

There were no short films this year, but trailers screened throughout the night included Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), the glorious double feature of Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Lifeforce (1985), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), and Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride (The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973). I had been going to write that I would in all honesty watch all of these except Lifeforce, but then I saw that Lifeforce was a Golan and Globus production, so really, I'd watch all of them.

Park Chan-wook's Thirst (박쥐, 2009) is the most adorable faithless priest vampire romantic comedy I have ever seen. I did not know it was any of those things when it started and definitely not that it was a loose version of Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867), although after the fact I can see it: the illicit lovers, the sickly husband, the overbearing and then incapacitated mother-in-law, the drowning murder, the guilt, the inevitable tragic resolution. Only it turns out that when you add Catholicism, vampirism, and one of the funniest, most awful ghosts I have encountered on film to the love affair of Song Kang-ho's Sang-hyun and Kim Ok-bin's Tae-ju, the whole thing goes pleasantly, operatically sideways, passing through film noir, domestic comedy, several flavors of body horror, and non-anvillicious moral quandaries before concluding on a sea-cliff as the rising sun turns the ocean suitably to blood. I don't remember any of that in Zola and I think it's an improvement. Song is a remarkably beautiful man with his round priest's glasses or without them, reacting so often to the catch-22s of his new life with a kind of silent clown's stoicism that it shocks the story every time he flares with appetite or anger instead. As the stifled young wife, Kim has a slippery, live-wire intensity that twists right around any archetype she might embody, so that she never reduces to a statement about female victims or monsters. Park's version of vampirism is splattery and visceral without losing the capacity for beauty or humor, not infrequently at the same time; the film itself went on at least three twists longer than I was expecting, but see previous about not knowing to expect Thérèse Raquin. If it is at all representative of Park's work, I should see a lot more of him than just The Handmaiden (2016). If it's not representative, it was still the perfect choice to close this marathon.

And then Rush-That-Speaks gave me a ride home and neither of us burst into flame and I had the day previously described, plus work and cats and eating a real meal for the first time since Friday night. Now the dawn is coming around again and I should get back to bed. I like living in a city where the movies run dusk till dawn. This night life brought to you by my immortal backers at Patreon.
handful_ofdust: (Default)

[personal profile] handful_ofdust 2017-09-04 05:35 pm (UTC)(link)
Okay, so: re Trouble Every Day, I don't think it should ever have been programmed as a "vampire" film per se--it's a werewolf film at best, or maybe a zombie variant, a maenad/cannibal film primarily. The linking of the systems of arousal and hunger is key, but you're right, it brings some weird gender essentialist shit to the fore. I also admit to the lure of its "film maudit" status, its utter inaccessibility. At one point, I could only find it as a decayed videotape through the Suspect Video mothership store; I finally had to order it on expensive DVD from Japan. At the time it came out, if was also heralded as something you couldn't unsee, something you shouldn't see, or want to see. That's my jam, as we all know, so I was predisposed to cut it a lot of slack.

That said, what we're talking about is absolutely Claire Denis, Famous French Filmmaker, saying "But you know, of course this is not a horror film, so no closure for you!" Which is not an attitude that suits any narrative well, IMHO. Part of the problem is that she begins her narrative at a point where all the really important decisions have already been made--Leo knows his research isn't doing shit and isn't likely to do shit for Core, so what he's really doing is waiting to become guilty enough that he either lets Core out and lets her eat him, or he mercy-kills them both. Shane, ever the American, wants to think that Core's degeneration isn't a foretelling of his own future--he's used to making decisions for other people, and to some degree to thinking of other people as disposable, aside from those he considers "his."

Shane never seems to be afraid for himself, afraid he's going to lose his own soul/personality. The idea of celibacy never occurs. He wants to move forward with all his hungers intact, which is why he comes off as a bigger monster than Core, but Core is well past her moral event horizon. She's already decided that self-restraint is something she can literally trust to Leo, making him her enabler, her doctor, her partner by default, her hospice care-worker. It's like she's daring him to figure out when her terminal disease should stop having a body-count.

Anyhow. It's been a while since I've seen it--I know Core's imprisonment ends in fire, like Jane Eyre, but I can't remember much else about it. I was interested by the honeymoon to Europe as an organizing pattern, the way it hearkens back to every other Universal monster movie (especially The Black Cat, two young idiots blithely intruding on the end of another long, gothic story). But it was definitely made to be unsatisfying, so I'm not surprised that you found it so.;)
Edited 2017-09-04 17:36 (UTC)
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[personal profile] handful_ofdust 2017-09-04 05:41 pm (UTC)(link)
I covered Nadja, btw! My God, Elina Lowenssohn is gorgeous. And I'm really, really glad you liked both Near Dark and The Hunger so much. At the time, The Hunger was the most visually exciting film I'd ever seen, especially in its initial sequence--the idea of so much intercutting, all these vaguely sifted narratives commenting on each other, resonating with each other, providing imagistic assonance, made me dizzy and happy. The ending wasn't satisfying for me at the time, because it seemed just as unlikely and illogical as the ending of Near Dark, without the emotional closure. But I'm okay with it now, because I kind of have to be.
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[personal profile] handful_ofdust 2017-09-05 03:06 am (UTC)(link)
The novel ends with Miriam on top, as ever. I don't remember all that much of it, aside from a truly grotesque and memorable flashback where Miriam and her two younger sisters are touring Russia(?); the sisters act young and stupid, kill too many people to obviously, and end up getting caught, roasted and eaten by the peasants they're preying on. Miriam doesn't help out, because it'd get her killed, and Miriam is Satan-practical throughout--yeah, she purports to feel bad about things, but that never stops her from doing them. John is the least of it.
Edited 2017-09-05 06:22 (UTC)
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[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-09-04 07:28 pm (UTC)(link)
As an aside, I'd argue that the young couple in The Black Cat are neither stupid, nor intruders by choice. They both notice pretty quickly that the household they've been forced to stop at has more red flags than the Kremlin, but everything (well, mostly Poerzig and his servants) conspires to get in the way of them leaving.
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[personal profile] handful_ofdust 2017-09-05 03:07 am (UTC)(link)
Yes, I know I'm being reductionist to call them idiots. Though I do seem to recall that at least one of them can't figure out how to escape a hidden room whose controls are inside the room.
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[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-09-04 08:04 pm (UTC)(link)
This is really interesting! Thanks for the added thoughts and insights.
handful_ofdust: (Default)

[personal profile] handful_ofdust 2017-09-05 03:11 am (UTC)(link)
Shane's pursuit of the chambermaid is particularly horrifying because at least half of it is him allowing her to flirt with and pursue him, ie acting like he's a "normal" bored young husband doing "normal" Paris City Of Lights (And Extra-Marital Affaires, Hon Hon Hon) stuff. He makes her complicit in her own death, mainly because there's no possible way she could ever suspect he's going to up the oral sex stakes by biting off her damn clitoris.