Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Happy Halloween everyone!

It's time for me to make a confession. At the time this movie was released, I was still very much in LUV with Keanu Reeves. Of course, there was no way my parents were going to let me go see a movie with blood and boobs in it, so I couldn't see it. Do you remember how in the 90s a television pay station was scrambled so that you couldn't watch it? Lots of curious young boys would spend their time squinting at the scrambled Playboy channel, trying to get a glimpse at a naked lady. Well, ladies and gentleman, I did this for the sake of looking at my precious Keanu. There was a good solid month where this movie was playing on pay per view, and I would frequently turn the channel on, listen to the movie since most of the time the sound would come through, and occasionally I might get to see him, slightly squiggly and tinted an improper color, but there. I am fully able to laugh at myself now for this, so by all means, join me.

For the longest time, given the title of the film, I assumed this was a faithful adaptation. Surely they wouldn't put the author's title in the film unless they meant it to be accurate, right? Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for instance, actually follows the events of the novel rather than the classic movie we're all familiar with. So is this movie the same? Yes and no. It is the most faithful adaptation I've seen to date, but it also changes some things. The trading narration does a good stand in for the journals, and Mina even uses a typewriter while Seward uses his phonograph. Many of the lines of dialogue are taken directly from the book. It's similar enough that I'm going to focus on what's NOT in the book rather than what is.

The movie starts by telling us all about Vlad the Impaler and how he also was known as Dracula. There are moments in the book where Dracula talks to Jonathan about his "ancestors" and how they kept invading forces at bay, so this is semi-accurate. Vlad was the inspiration for Dracula, so including this moment is not entirely far fetched. The story about his wife throwing herself in to the river is more legend than fact, and is definitely not referenced in the book at all. However it's handled well. Because she committed suicide, she cannot go to heaven. Despite Dracula once working for the church, he now turns his back on it and swears he will not make to to heaven either. This is the start of the movie's biggest discrepancy - the idea that Mina is Dracula's lost love reincarnated.

The movie then gets to Renfield in the asylum, telling his master that all the preparations have been made. In this movie, Jonathan is his replacement in the law firm. Renfield is played by Tom Waits, and he plays it wonderfully. He's a little more understated than most of the previous Renfields, but he brings a good amount of madness to it. It seems to be the kind of character than most of these actors have a lot of fun with.

One book item that we get to see for the first time in the movies is the blue flame Jonathan describes seeing on his way to Dracula's castle. Technology has finally caught up to us that we can see it accurately.

After Jonathan arrives in Transylvania, we once again see the scene that originated with Nosferatu, of Dracula seeing Mina's picture. With the opening scene, we know why he's so fixated on her. When Dracula and Jonathan go over the paperwork, he mentions that Dracula is purchasing ten properties, not just Carfax Abbey. In the book Jonathan doesn't figure out that Dracula has purchased multiple properties until much later. Dracula was wise enough in the books to go about getting different lawyers, shipping services, etc. so that no one would be wise to his plot to set up locations all over London. Seeing as how we never hear mention of these other properties again in the movie, I'm not really sure why they bother.

With my eyes no longer tinted under the rosy colors of infatuation, I'm willing to admit that Keanu's performance is downright wooden here, and his attempt at an English accent is pretty atrocious. He's trying so hard, but he just isn't a strong enough actor to do it.

Fast forward to 2:22 in this clip to see the worst of it. I can't help but laugh at him there. The vest really just makes you associate him with Ted even more, doesn't it?

Also, since I'm showing that clip, Dracula doesn't actually shave Jonathan in the book.

The next discrepancy occurs as Jonathan runs into Dracula's brides in the castle. It starts off very accurate, how they appear originally as mist before materializing, but beyond the fact that they're topless just so we can see some boobies, they also do manage to feed on Jonathan, whereas in the book Dracula stops them before the first bride can so much as come in contact with his neck. The line one of the brides cries to Dracula, "You yourself never loved" is taken directly from the book, though there he has no response for her, and here we get another mention of his love for his lost wife. The baby that he gives to the brides is very accurate. Pretty shocking for something written in the 1800s.

The movie feels the need to stress the class divide between Mina and Lucy. In the book Mina never makes any mention of this. Mina is an orphan and does appear to be a school teacher, though once she marries Jonathan she mostly helps him with his work and does none of her own. Lucy on the other hand does seem be more well off, as she attracts the attention of someone as high in regard as Arthur who eventually becomes a lord in the book once his father passes away. While one might think that a lady who received three marriage proposals would have to be a bit of a flirt to get that way, I think it's also possible to assume that men would want to marry her simply for her higher standing. The movie decides it must be the former, however, and she becomes as much of a slut as was allowed for the time period, speaking in incredibly raunchy language and suggesting that she's playing all three of her suitors for fools. It's really quite sad, as the Lucy of the books comes off as far more innocent, and feels terrible for having to tell Quincey and John no when they propose.

In the movie, Dracula seems to almost always transform into either a werewolf or bat-like creature whenever he feeds. This happens on the ship on the way to London, and again when he begins to feed off Lucy. Technically we only hear about these events once they're finished happening in the novel, so I guess it isn't a full out lie as those who have been bitten never talk about it directly. It also ties him more to the creatures at his command, and seems to be the way to explain how he looks so much younger after he feeds.

We see Seward taking a dose of morphine at one point in order to help him deal with the pain of being rejected by Lucy. It's really quite pointless.

In the book, Mina wakes up to see Lucy sleepwalking out the door and follows her outside where she eventually get a glimpse of an old man, who we of course realize is Dracula. In the movie, she finds Lucy having sex with a werewolf version of Dracula who is also feeding on her. He hypnotizes Mina so that she cannot see him and thinks Lucy is alone and explains away Lucy's description of what just happened to her as a nightmare. It's an interesting concept that we'll see revisited later when Mina throws some pages out of her journal - the idea that this movie is the story of what really happened, and that the book isn't accurate because Mina is not a 100% reliable narrator.

So the movie wanders off from the novel again as Mina and a young looking Dracula meet in town and fall in love. She takes absinthe and through the help of "the green fairy" is able to remember some of her past life. Her best friend is slowly dying and the men are trying to save her, but Mina's too busy being unfaithful to her fiancee to pay any attention. It's only when she receives notice from the convent of Jonathan's condition that she realizes she must be faithful to him and she throws out those pages of the diary. She marries Jonathan but of course she doesn't truly forget her "sweet prince."

As Van Helsing discovers exactly what's going on with Lucy and Dracula, he acts as if he's been hunting and trying to discover and defeat Dracula his whole life. There's no evidence of such a thing in the books, and the only thing I can think of is that since Anthony Hopkins also played a priest/bishop in the opening sequence of the film, we're supposed to believe he's descended from that person and his family plays a part in this as well. Most fiction I've seen seems to suggest that the Van Helsing family's grudge with Dracula and vampires starts here rather being a pre-existing condition, but I guess it works alright.

The moment when they kill Lucy in the crypt is mostly accurate, beyond the fact that Lucy spits blood all over Van Helsing. It's more a modern horror flair than an accurate detail. I really love the emotion Cary Elwes brings to the scene as he stakes Lucy through the heart though. It makes it a very powerful moment.

They are now determined to defeat Dracula, and when Mina expresses pity for him here in the movie, we tie it to the fact that she loves him. In the book she also expresses pity for him, but it's related to that fact that just as Lucy was once pure of heart, she assumes Dracula must have been at one time. Van Helsing first mentions here that it must be Quincey's bowie knife that kills Dracula, though no one attempts to explain why. It does look to be made of silver though, and maybe since we've seen Dracula appear as a werewolf that makes some sense.

While the boys go to sanctify Carfax Abbey, Dracula visits Mina. The romance and dramaticism is really cranked up to 11 here as Mina begs to be with him, both before knowing he's a vampire and even insisting upon it once she finds out. It may surprise you to learn that I actually enjoy the hell out of this, even though it's inaccurate. I blame Winona Ryder, who also activates my often dormant romantic side in Reality Bites.

The boys walk in toward the end of this scene, somewhat similar to what happens in the book even though Mina was not a willing participant there. They eventually race Dracula back to his castle, and the only real difference here is that it doesn't take them as long as it does in the book, and that Jonathan and Arthur went by steamship while Seward and Quincey went on horseback. They still catch up to the gypsies as the sun is setting and poor Quincey gets stabbed before dealing the blow to Dracula with his bowie knife. While in the book Jonathan beheads him, here he says that the job is now Mina's to finish. She drags him into the temple from the opening sequence and the romanticism and blood are laid on thick one final time as she releases him from his eternal life.

The movie's biggest sin is that for the longest time I thought this whole storyline was exactly how it was in the novel and I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Had they left "Bram Stoker" off the title they really could have avoided all that. It's also hyper-sexualized, which at places works and at others just feels a little exploitative, but of course your mileage may vary. I love the large amounts of blood all over the movie without there being gore, and the way colors are used, like when Mina's dress of green makes her stand out from all the others dressed in grays on the London streets. As I said, I really, really enjoy the addition of the romance, though I could understand where a purist may not care for it as much. It's also possible that, given the number of times I watched(well, listened) to this movie I may have more nostalgic and sentimental attachment to it than most. Regardless, it's my favorite adaptation of Dracula.

Saying that, I may as well put the ones I've reviewed in order from best to worst:
1. Bram Stoker's Dracula
2. Nosferatu
3. Dracula (1931, English)
4. Horror of Dracula
5. Dracula (1931, Spanish)
6. Nosferatu the Vampyre
7. Count Dracula

If you're a fan of vampires, I recommend at least checking out the top 5 if you haven't seen any of them yet. Also realize that the novel is no longer under copyright. You should be able to download it for free to any e-reader, you can get it delivered via email from Daily Lit, or you should be able to even find a few web pages that will allow you to read it online. Of course it's also available as a good old fashioned book if you don't mind spending a couple bucks.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nosferatu (1922) and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Now I get to jump back and talk about one of the very first ever adaptations of Dracula on film, Nosferatu. Since the novel was still copyrighted at the time of the film's creation, a lot of the names and some of the events in the movie were purposefully changed to try to differentiate it from Dracula. Florence Stoker, Bram's wife, still found the result to be too close to her husband's novel and sued them successfully. Many copies of the movie were destroyed and distribution banned. Fortunately, some people held on to their copies and the movie still exists today.

Because there is no longer any copyright on the film today either, the version of Nosferatu that you view is going to differ dramatically depending on where you get it from. Also, as a silent film, the soundtrack can vary greatly. In more recent decades, there have been many efforts to put the movie to a modern soundtrack. Nosferatu the First Vampire (available via the link on a disc with Night of the Living Dead and House on Haunted Hill) sets the film to the music of the group Type O Negative, there is a "gothic industrial remix" you can view through Netflix streaming, and also a Del Ray and the Sun Kings electronica version for rental. The one I viewed last night had music by the Silent Orchestra, which seemed to be largely midi orchestral music. All the versions I've seen are also color coded, with blue/purple shading for night scenes and a golden yellow for the day, along with some scenes tinted in red. I'm fairly certain this was not on the original...

All of the names in the film are changed. Here's a guide for you:
Dracula - Count Orlok
Jonathan Harker - Thomas Hutter
Mina - Ellen
Renfield - Knock
Arthur - Harding
Lucy - Annie
Van Helsing - Professor Bulwer

There's also a doctor who leads the asylum and could be considered to be John Seward, but his role is fairly minimal.

The story starts off with an already slightly crazy looking Knock sending Hutter off to Count Orlok's estate. It's amazing to me how nearly every adaptation, even an unauthorized one like this, always does their best to get these opening scenes as accurate as possible. I guess everyone really loves the idea of this poor guy being sent off to accomplish a task and ending up in great danger in the hands of a demon. In this movie we even get a shot of the breakfast being all laid out and ready for Jonathan/Hutter when he wakes up. For a guy with no servants who can't eat normal food, Dracula/Orlok really goes out of his way to feed his guests. I guess the blood of a starving man doesn't taste as good.

One of the interesting things about this movie is that when Hutter cuts himself, Orlok actually reaches out and sucks the blood off his finger. Dracula is warded away by the rosary Jonathan is wearing in the book. Can you imagine actually arriving somewhere, and when you cut your hand your host reaches out and starts sucking on your thumb? Sounds like the time to leave to me! Hutter however is only slightly freaked by this. Another addition to this scene is that Orlok spies a picture of Ellen in a locket Hutter is carrying. This is where this idea of Dracula having a particular interest in Mina all started, as it simply isn't in the book at all. In the book, Dracula chooses her specifically because he knows the men trying to destroy him are attached to her, and because his turning her also provides him a connection with which to spy on them. It's not the romantic love affair that so many of the movies make it out to be.

There are no brides for Count Orlok, poor lonely guy. Instead he feeds on Hutter for a couple days until all the paperwork is ready and he can head to Winsburg, Germany. When Hutter sees that the count is heading to his home town, he fears for Ellen's safety and knows he must leave. He's been locked inside so he rips apart his bed sheets to make a rope and climb down. Jonathan just scaled the walls parkour style in the novel, so Hutter seems like a bit of chicken by comparison.

We see Orlok travel via raft and then boat in a coffin along with about 8 other coffins worth of dirt and rats. Orlok himself is very rat like in appearance, another attempt to distance him from Count Dracula. The sailors on the ship begin to die off one by one, and the captain and first mate blame the plague at first. Over time though they sense that someone else is on the ship, and the first mate goes below to try to do something about it. On the ship is where we see two of the freakiest parts of the whole movie: Orlok rises ramrod straight from his coffin, and in another point we see him appear standing momentarily in a transparent form around the coffins. This latter one is enough to freak the first mate out so that he commits suicide by jumping off the ship. The captain steels his courage and ties himself to the ship's wheel, determined to go down with his ship and bring it and its goods to harbor. The ship does make it to shore, but sadly the captain is dead. This whole sequence is accurate to the novel.

Once the ship has made it to Winsburg, the townspeople decide that the captain has died of the plague and a pandemic spreads through out the town, with many dying and a lot of people afraid to leave their homes. The movie doesn't really spell out whether it is Orlok preying on all these people or if the rats he brought with him really did carry the plague. However, we are told later that the plague stops after he's defeated, so I think it's fairly safe to assume that he's the one doing it.

The villagers however decide that it must be crazy old Knock's fault, who by this time has been institutionalized and is eating flies and spiders. He escapes and the people chase him about the town throwing rocks at him. They eventually chase him out into a field, but instead of attacking him they destroy a scarecrow. I really don't know what that's all about.

Ellen seems to have psychic powers and had been having horrible dreams about things she just knew were happening to her husband. She's also a sleep walker, like Lucy was in the books. She knows there's something horribly wrong with Count Orlok, who has moved into the large abandoned house across from her own home.

Hutter made his way to a convent where he was taken care of by the nuns there, but quickly returns home to try to keep his wife safe. He's been carrying around a handy little book on vampires that he had previously laughed off. Ellen reads the book and finds out that a woman pure of heart can defeat a vampire by distracting him and forcing him to forget about the sunrise while he's feeding off her blood. With Hutter still too ill to stop her, Ellen sets her trap for Orlok and is successful. He disintegrates as he faces the sun (another first and game changer, as in the novel Dracula was perfectly capable of walking around in the daytime, he just couldn't use his powers). Ellen is weak and Hutter goes to Professor Bulwer for help, but it's too late and she pays for saving them with her life.

This movie has a few really interesting scenes that are barely related to the film but are really neat to see. They mention that a werewolf is prowling Transylvania, and then we get to see some really awesome shots of a hyena or jackal type canine roaming the countryside and bothering horses. Professor Bulger also shows his class a venus fly trap catching a fly and a rather mean looking spider preying on insects.

If you've never seen this movie, drop all reservations you have about a silent film being boring and watch it. This is the scariest version of Dracula ever, and probably always will be. To see him rise from the coffin, his shadow against the wall, the long spindly fingers that come to a point, the fangs of his front teeth, the shadow of his hand reaching up Ellen's body and grabbing her heart, the dark penetrating stare.. it's absolutely chilling and beautifully shot. Watch it in the dark to get the full effect.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

In 1979, a remake of the original Nosferatu was made by Werner Herzog. It is intentionally meant to be more like the film than an adaptation of Dracula, though thanks to the rights no longer being restricted, the characters now have their original names. Perhaps the strangest part of that is that Ellen becomes Lucy and Harding's wife becomes Mina.

It is a fairly faithful remake, and there are even many shots that are almost exact duplicates of the original. Obviously there is now dialogue and the film is in full color. I would definitely consider this movie to be an art film. The opening sequence shows the mummies of Guanajuato who are absolutely horrifying to look at. It's explained as being a part of Lucy's dream. There are also long sweeping shots of countryside, and at one point there is a gypsy boy just hanging out in Dracula's castle playing a violin. At one point Lucy ventures about the town viewing all the coffins of people who have died of the plague, and others who are still suffering are having dinner out in a courtyard and invite her to join them. It's one of those kind of movies where no one tells you what's a dream sequence and what's real.

There are some moments that make it a little more like the novel. A lady gives Jonathan a rosary to wear around his neck for protection. The "children of the night" line is paraphrased while Jonathan eats his dinner in front of Dracula. Jonathan writes a journal, rather than a letter, when he is at the castle. Dracula is shown to have no reflection in the mirror, though this time the scene happens with Lucy rather than Jonathan. The host is used to sanctify his coffins.

The host is also used to keep Jonathan in place by forming a circle around him. On one hand this is like the novel as Van Helsing does the same to keep Mina within and the brides of Dracula out at one point. On the other, yeah.. Jonathan is a vampire in this movie. Van Helsing also starts out as a complete skeptic who follows science and isn't interested in what Lucy has to tell him about what's going on. It's only after Dracula has fed on her (and killed her) that he realizes the problem. The sun also makes Dracula pass out in this version, and Van Helsing stakes him. The police arrest Van Helsing, in a sort of tribute to Dracula's Daughter, I guess. Jonathan then asks a maid to sweep up the host crumbs all around his chair, and then rides off toward the horizon on a horse. End of film.

Really, I don't understand the point of this. I'm totally for movies with dark endings if they're done correctly, but when you start off making such a faithful remake and then you go and change this so dramatically... why?

Your own personal tolerance for art films is going to be what makes you decide if you can watch this and enjoy it or not. I enjoyed pretty much everything but the ending.

Shadow of the Vampire

This won't be a full blown review as I haven't had a chance to sit down and watch the film in years, but I can't talk about Nosferatu without mentioning it. The concept of the movie is that the director hired a real life vampire to play Count Orlok, and he keeps feeding upon the actors and crew as they attempt to shoot the film. It is a dark, dry comedy and in my opinion, absolutely hilarious. I also think it's a brilliant idea - Max Shreck is so wonderfully creepy and brings the role to life so well, you almost do have to wonder. The movie features Willam Defoe as Shreck and John Malkovich as director Murnau, and even includes Eddie Izzard and Cary Elwes in smaller roles. Go watch it!

Tomorrow, I will talk about 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Blog Anniversary

Today my blog is officially one year old. I've come a long way since then. There were large gaps in the beginning where I didn't post at all, and now I do my best to post at least once a week, if not more. My readership was hardly anything, and now I seem to be averaging 20-30 views per post. If you've never read my original entry (and I can pretty much guarantee most of you haven't) you might want to, as it explains both why I use Syrin and why I called the blog what I did.

The point of this post is to say thank you. Whether I know you personally, you followed me here from Livejournal, or you're a completely new reader who doesn't know me at all, it means a lot to me that you take some time out of your day to read my entries. I really hope you enjoy them. I love getting comments, but if you want to just be a lurker I'm fine with that too. I'm just happy you're here.

I also want to send an extra special thank you to those of you who have linked to me, retweeted my posts, etc. It means a lot to me that you think I'm awesome enough to share, and I wouldn't have the readership I do without you.

I currently have two more marathon sessions planned for the future beyond the current Dracula one. With both Dracula and Bill & Ted, I've found that these marathons take a lot of time and effort on my part, but the end result is something I'm really proud of. If you have any suggestions of others you'd like me to do, please let me know. I'm always looking for reasons to expose myself to new material and I wouldn't mind a chance to revisit some of the others I love as well.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Horror of Dracula (1958) and Count Dracula (1970)

These days, we all know Christopher Lee as Count Dooku or Saruman, depending on whether you prefer your epics to occur in space or fantasy realms. But once upon a time, his name was known mostly among horror fans for his portrayal of Dracula.

Horror of Dracula

Technically titled just Dracula, the title was modified in the U.S. to prevent confusion between this and the 1931 film. These days of course, we just remake things and don't bother to rename them. Given that this stars a completely different cast, has a different storyline, and is in color I'm not sure how anyone could confuse this with the other, but I guess Universal wanted to protect their property.

The story of this one differs wildly from the book. It starts with narration of Jonathan's journal entry, even on the proper date as it began in the book, May 3rd. Jonathan has arrived at Castle Dracula offering to be a librarian and catalogue the Count's books. He's fully aware of exactly what Dracula is and is actually there to try to kill him. There is only one bride in the castle and she at first presents herself as someone in need of help, but of course she really just wants to drain him. Dracula does stop her from doing so.

Jonathan's fiancee this time around is Lucy. As he's locked in his room (which happens many times in the novel) he writes in his journal. He uses an old pen that requires him to dip in the ink to write. The narration pauses every time he does this. It started to drive me crazy and I was so thankful they only used it for two scenes.

Jonathan kills the bride, who turns old and ugly as he does so. This is something you see a lot in the movies, but was never shown in the books. The decay that should have occurred to the body does seem to catch up to them all at once, which is why we see so many vampires turn to dust, but I don't think that means they would automatically age. About the only way that could happen is if Dracula had turned his bride when she was an old woman, and it was only that feeding upon blood made her look youthful.

Dracula isn't too happy about the death of his bride so he decides to take matters into his own hands. He turns Jonathan into a vampire, then sets about finding Lucy to make her his new bride. Van Helsing, who was Jonathan's friend and apparently in on the whole "let's kill Dracula" plot, comes to the castle looking for him. He stakes Jonathan and then comes back to tell the bad news to Lucy and her brother Arthur (played by Michael Gough, better known these days as Batman's butler Alfred) and sister in law Mina.

I don't really understand why so many of these adaptations fowl up the relationships. I realize that there are similarities between what happens to Lucy and Mina, but wouldn't it make more sense to combine them into one character, rather than having one absorb all the duties and have the other just be a side line character? And why must the other characters be relatives? Is it that hard to just have friends around? The changes all fit within the frame of the story, but why are they necessary? The only thing I can think of is that this is an attempt by the adapters to get around that "everyone loves each other within five minutes of meeting them" oddity that happens in the books.

Van Helsing is played by Peter Cushing here and is just absolutely great. He's definitely the best character in the film. Lucy is ill and it doesn't take Van Helsing long to figure out from the signs why. While pondering over it all we see him record his thoughts into a phonograph, which is what John Seward often does in the novel. He compares being preyed upon by a vampire to drug addiction. Something you know is horrible for you, but you can't resist.

All of Van Helsing's efforts to save Lucy are ruined by a stupid maid, and she dies. In the book, Lucy's mother is alive but has a weak heart. Because they're all so scared of frightening her and giving her a heart attack, they leave her in the dark to what's happening. So one night Lucy's mother hears Lucy complaining about the stink of the garlic all around her and takes it all away and opens up the windows to let in some fresh air. For whatever reason, Lucy's mother has yet to appear in any adaptation I've ever seen, and so instead we usually get these ignorant maids/nurses instead.

Lucy, of course, does become a vampire and starts preying on small children. This is true to the novel, where there are news reports of children going out to play with "the bloofer lady" at night and returning weak with the bite marks on their neck. I wish I knew what "bloofer" meant, but it sounds pretty funny regardless. Van Helsing and Arthur manage to save a child and follow Lucy. Van Helsing wants to use her to follow Dracula, but Arthur refuses so they just stake her instead.

Arthur's refusal indirectly leads to Mina becoming Dracula's next victim. I wonder if this is an attempt to be like in the books, where they leave Mina out and she ends up getting bitten? We see Dracula and Mina together, and the effect is a much more sensual Dracula than the 1930s allowed us to see. Christopher Lee lacks Bela Lugosi's charm, but we see him kiss and caress Mina before biting her which adds much more sexual tension to the scene. Arthur attempts to save Mina by giving her a blood transfusion, mirroring the efforts to save Lucy in the books. Van Helsing tries to give her a cross necklace for her protection, but the cross burns a scar into her hand. This is inspired by the scene in the book where Van Helsing places a host to Mina's forehead and it leaves a scar. All their efforts to save Mina are in vain and she ends up captured by Dracula to bring back to his castle.

By the way, the entire movie seems to be set in Germany. So any ship scenes are completely taken out here. They do film at a real castle though, and the sets for the homes are also really gorgeous and Victorian looking.

Van Helsing and Arthur go talk to an undertaker to try to find out about Dracula's whereabouts. The guy has a very small part but it's absolutely hilarious. Meanwhile, Dracula reaches the castle and starts to bury Mina alive. He literally dumps her in a hole in the ground and starts putting dirt over her. Can she not become a vampire unless she's buried? We don't know because he gets interrupted by Van Helsing and Arthur's arrival. As far as the defeat of Dracula, I think my note describes it best: Van Helsing with the candlestick in the library. Dracula slowly turns to dust in an effect that is creepy if not a bit dated. The scar on Mina's hand disappears, just as the one on her forehead disappeared in the book.

As a movie, I would say this is a good one and the actors make it worth watching. As an adaptation, it's a bit too much of a jumble of facts, most of which I just find unnecessary.

Count Dracula

This film was made in 1970, and while it stars Christopher Lee it is not a Hammer film. It was an attempt to be a more accurate adaptation of the novel. Does it succeed?

The beginning is extremely faithful. There are only tiny details changed, such as no one in the villages hands Jonathan a cross, though they are all afraid for him. There's a mirror in Jonathan's room at the castle, though in the book he says there are no mirrors anywhere and he's forced to use his travel mirror which Dracula ends up breaking. They use many lines of dialogue from the book, and Dracula is an old man here with a mustache and will de-age as the movie goes on and he drinks more blood. The scenes with Jonathan and Dracula at the castle pass almost exactly as they do in the book, just shortened for time.

When Jonathan escapes however, he ends up in Van Helsing's asylum near Carfax Abbey, where Seward is only an assistant. Beyond that detail being all wrong, I also don't understand how a mad man leaves Transylvania and ends up in London almost overnight. Lucy and Mina come to visit Jonathan in the asylum, and Lucy is already sick when they arrive. Dracula calls to Lucy in the middle of the night, and he keeps repeating her name over and over again in a whisper. Like ten times before she even gets out of bed, and ten more as she slowly walks across the room to the window. It is so annoying. Lucy is engaged to Quincey rather than Arthur for some reason.

At the point that Van Helsing started explaining the whole vampire thing to everyone, I kind of started losing interest. The director, Jess Franco, apparently was in love with extreme close ups, because every character gets zoomed in on at a big emotional moment and it's bad. It was also just very dry overall. I ended up looking around on Facebook, which I don't even like doing, and when I reminded myself I was watching a movie, I found Lucy had been decapitated.

Renfield here is a much more understated madman. His origin story is explained that he used to have a daughter and one day she was found completely drained of blood and he had gone mad. He eats flies and spiders and does have a connection to Dracula. Mina asks to see him and at one point he tries to choke her for no good reason. Later, they find him dead. He's just sitting in his corner staring dead ahead, whereas in the novel he's severely beaten and bloodied by Dracula after he stands up to him in an attempt to save Mina's life.

Jonathan and Quincey go to Carfax Abbey alone to try to defeat Dracula. There are taxidermied animals all about the place. I couldn't figure if I was supposed to treat these like live animals that were attempting to attack them via a bad effect, or if it was just supposed to look creepy. Dracula preys on Mina and returns back to his castle, being taken there by gypsies. Jonathan and Quincey managed to intercept them and pry open the lid of Dracula's coffin, but they set him on fire rather than the dual decapitation stabbing. The death effect is similar to Horror of Dracula, where we see a time lapse as he decays more and more before crumbling to dust.

While Christopher Lee does a really great performance in this movie, even better than in Horror of Dracula, I just can't recommend the film. I'm perplexed by its strict adherence to some of the novel and complete deviation at other points. Either you're going to be faithful or not. Beyond that, it's just a very slow moving, very dry film that is poorly shot.

Tomorrow I'll be talking about Nosferatu and Werner Herzog's remake.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dracula (1931), the Spanish version, and Dracula's Daughter

There's a pretty good chance that when someone says the word "Dracula" you get an image in your head of Bela Lugosi, whether you've seen the original film or not. There's good reason for that. His performance in the film is simply amazing. If you're not used to watching older films, the lack of a soundtrack and the slow pacing may be frustrating for you, but if you can put that aside it's a great film and a classic for a reason. If you've never watched it, you really need to do so.

Bela is everything Dracula should be: warm, inviting, and charming. You want to follow him anywhere, even though he sometimes gives you the willies. Bela's accent and inflection really loan themselves to the character and just feel right. Dwight Frye as Renfield is also a must see. He plays madness excellently and really draws you in and keeps you entertained. He would have made a great Joker. Their performances alone really make the film great. But how does it stack up as an adaptation of the novel?

From the very opening scene, we have a change. It's not Jonathan Harker on his way to see Dracula, it's Renfield. I found it interesting in the novel to discover that there is actually zero explanation within it of how Renfield and Dracula ever met. There are no details at all of who Renfield was before he came to the asylum. It's a detail that Bram Stoker is really remiss in not mentioning and most of the movies which contain Renfield do their best to come up with an explanation. Since he's replacing Jonathan, it's fairly safe to assume he is a lawyer here. Personally I'm ok with this change, as it does a good job of explaining how Renfield became a lunatic. The only issue is that it really doesn't make Jonathan out to be as much of a hero. He becomes just your cookie-cutter hero out to save his lady.

The scenes with Renfield and Dracula are actually pretty accurate beyond the character change. The main difference being that what happens in a few days in the novel gets squeezed into one night. The line Dracula says after hearing the wolves howling, "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make." is actually pulled straight from the novel. Bela's inflection really makes it all the more chilling.

Once we arrive in London, the film takes quite a few more liberties. Relationships have changed as now Mina is Seward's daughter. Arthur and Quincey Morris are no where to be found, and Lucy's role is cut very short. She does die and come back as a vampire, but it's only described quickly by a minor character via a newspaper article and then Van Helsing promises Mina they will save Lucy's soul. What happens to Mina in the movie is actually a bit closer to what happens to Lucy in the book, with all their efforts to attempt to save her from Dracula. We also see wolfsbane used here to ward off vampires, which is never mentioned in the book. Mostly garlic was used instead.

Dracula is shown to have only brought a few boxes to London, when in the book he actually brought fifty. It was actually a really cunning plan that none of the movies ever seem to follow. He brought so many so that he could scatter them all about the large city, preying on as many people as possible and still having a place to return at sun up.

Pretty much all of the changes made here seem to be related to time constraints and what they could or couldn't show you, whether due to censorship or lack of technology. I think they did a great job of getting the main essence of the story while just leaving out some minor details.

Dracula (1931), Spanish version

When they filmed Dracula, they actually filmed two movies at once. The English version was filmed during the day, and a Spanish language version was filmed at night. It featured an all Spanish speaking cast, though interestingly enough an English speaking director who would guide them via a translator. There are a lot of people who are of the opinion that this version is the better one, so I knew I had to watch it to find out.

The biggest problem I had with this version is that I found Carlos Villarías in his portrayal of Dracula to be laughable at times. Whereas Lugosi's stare is full on menacing, Villarías just looks silly. Lupita Tovar, as Eva (Mina), and Pablo Álvarez Rubio as Renfield, however, are excellent. Another great surprise is Manuel Arbó as Martin, a worker at the asylum. The character is there for comic relief purposes, and whereas in the English version he was just ok, I really loved him in this film.

There are a lot of differences that having two separate directors would automatically provide, such as the way scenes are shot. I'm apparently not enough of a film geek for this to really effect me though. I found them to be largely identical in that respect. Citizen Kane was still ten years away from being made, so I found most of the camera angles to be fairly standard. The main difference that most of us would notice is content.

The large differences in content are those that were probably considered too provocative for American audiences at the time. We get to see the teeth marks on Lucy and Eva's necks, and Eva wears a much more low cut dress. We see the brides actually descend onto Renfield and Eva going to and embracing Dracula one evening.

There are two scenes that I find preferable to the English version, and interestingly they both include Dracula and Van Helsing. The first is the scene where Van Helsing discovers Dracula has no reflection. As Dracula knocks the mirror out of Van Helsing's hands, it's much more dramatic and powerfully done. Later, the two of them are alone and Dracula makes an attempt to overpower Van Helsing. Once again, the scene is much more dramatic and powerful here. Overall though I still think the English version is better.

Dracula's Daughter

When I rented the disc containing the Spanish version, Dracula's Daughter was also included. This is an attempt by Universal to make a direct sequel and it picks up directly where Dracula left off. Two police officers find Van Helsing with two dead bodies - Dracula and Renfield. Van Helsing (who is listed as Von Helsing in the credits) has to attempt to explain that killing Dracula was necessary because he was a vampire. He gets his psychiatrist friend to help him.

At the same time, Dracula's daughter comes to claim her father's body. She burns it in a ritual, hoping to clear herself of the vampiric curse that also strikes her. It doesn't work and she ends up turning to the same psychiatrist for help, thinking that it is perhaps a mental addiction she can conquer.

If you try to apply logic to this movie, your brain is going to hurt. She's supposed to be his actual daughter, yet Van Helsing says at the beginning of the film that Dracula died 500 years ago, and then at the end of the film that his daughter died 100 years ago. So he could impregnate a women even though he was dead, and then he eventually killed his daughter and turned her just because? Really, I have no idea.

While this movie isn't as much of a classic as any of the original monster movies, I think it stands well in its own right. It's also interesting for a movie made in 1936 to see a female vampire who preys on more women than men. I think the weakest part of the film is the relationship between the psychiatrist, Jeffrey, and his secretary, Janet. They proceed to hate each other for most of the film, but when Dracula's daughter kidnaps Janet to get Jeffrey to follow her, suddenly they are in love. I've always hated this device in movies and is why I normally keep a wide berth from most romantic comedies.

Next up, I'll be discussing two films that star the other most well known Dracula - Christopher Lee.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dracula: the novel

I wish I could tell you exactly why and when my love of vampires began. I'm sure that I must have seen something on television but I can't remember what it was. I just know that I loved the idea of these creatures so much that I immediately wrote into the crackfic Mary Sue fan fiction in my head that I was a special type of vampire that wasn't actually dead yet. So I could still go out in the sun and go inside church, have all the cool powers that vampires have, and drink blood if I felt like it. Before you go judging me, realize that I was about 6 at the time. Also, Ralph Macchio is the one that turned me, but I have absolutely no idea why I chose him as a vampire either. I'm suddenly realizing that this version of vampires is eerily similar to the Twilight vamps. I guess we all know when Stephanie Myer came up with those stories now...

But no, this post isn't about Twilight or about how vampires aren't as badass as they used to be. This post is about the grand-daddy of all vampires, Dracula. Somehow I had managed to go this long without ever actually reading the novel and this was a horrible crime that needed to be corrected. I'm willing to bet that I'm not the only vampire fan who has also committed this sin. I think the greatest problem with this is that because so many of us know Dracula through his various movie appearances, we don't even know what really happens in the original work, at least not completely. So every day from now until Halloween, I will be touching on various movie adaptations of Dracula and how they stack up to the original novel. For today, I'm just going to talk about the book itself.

There will be spoilers here. You've had over 113 years to have a chance to read it, so don't you dare come crying to me about it.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the novel is that it is written entirely in the first person perspective via journal entries, letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles. Pretty much every character in the book, except Dracula himself, takes a turn telling us the events from their own perspective. It is occasionally redundant, but for the most part when an event is revisited, it is to give us a character's unique perspective on it. Quite amazingly, each character has his or her own unique voice. There were occasional moments toward the end of the book where I wasn't sure if it was John Seward or Jonathan Harker talking and I had to go back and look, but for the most part it's very easy to tell who is speaking. You do in fact feel like you are reading journal entries rather than just a narrative. The one part I didn't think this worked so well in were the newspaper articles. Maybe things were different in the 1800s, but when I see "newspaper article," I expect a straight presentation of facts and not the candid experience of the reporter.

The first few journal entries of Jonathan Harker largely focused on the scenery and the food he was eating, and I internally panicked. I became afraid that this was going to be like The Lord of the Rings geography textbook or The Hunchback of Notre Dame's architecture lessons. Fortunately, this faded quickly. I could be wrong, but I think the idea here was simply that these were the simple kind of things a man would write about in his journal on a trip before he gets clues that something may be horribly wrong.

I sense that Bram Stoker was a fan of dialects as some of the commoners they speak to communicate in rather broken English which can be difficult to follow at times. Van Helsing is also not a native English speaker and he frequently gets his verb tense wrong. I found that moderately annoying, but his long winded rants were actually the worst of it. Whenever Van Helsing stumbles upon a conclusion, he spends a good long paragraph using metaphors and logic puzzles that are supposed to help you understand what he's thinking, but in fact generally just confused me more. This isn't Sherlock Holmes where everything he says leads to a point. It's just a maddening jumble of words.

Another slightly odd thing is that all of these characters love each other very quickly. I'm talking about brotherly/fatherly love as much as romantic love. It doesn't take very long at all for nearly every character to tell another that they think the world of them, love them dearly, and would do anything for them. I'm not kidding when I say this happens to every single character. Not only do Arthur, Quincey, and Seward all propose to Lucy, but Mina loves her like a sister and Van Helsing soon loves her as well. Jonathan doesn't simply because he's stuck in Transylvania at the time. Van Helsing decides that Quincey and Arthur remind him of his deceased son and therefore loves them both, and considers Seward his most trusted colleague. He quickly falls for Mina's charm and pledges his life for her and says that Jonathan is one of the most noble men he has ever met. Apparently the Victorian times were a real love fest. I wonder if people wrote slash fiction even then.

I would say that the pacing of the novel feels slow but I'm not entirely sure that's fair. Given that the story of Dracula, at least in part, is entirely known in our collective subconscious by now, my impatience may have just been that I knew pretty much what was going to happen and wished for them to just get on with it. I think it is still somewhat slow though, perhaps because of the way it is written in daily entries. Lucy's death takes weeks with large breaks between the four male characters each giving their blood to try to save her. Van Helsing only leaks little tiny details at a time rather than flat out telling Seward that he's figured out she's a vampire. They go so far as to go to Lucy's grave and stare at her, then decide that they must bring Arthur and Quincey there too to actually kill her. Then he must explain it all to Arthur, etc. etc. The pacing of the whole book goes like this. If you have the patience though, I do think it's an enjoyable read. The first person perspective creates a wonderfully personal account for you as the reader and never feels whiny like the worst first person perspective can (*coughTWILIGHTcough*).

As a female, I found myself particularly struck by Mina's portrayal in the book. I found myself unable to decide if it was progressive for its time or right in line. I figure the easiest way is to provide you with an example.

"Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man's brain, a brain that a man should have were he much gifted, and a woman's heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination. Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us, after tonight she must not have to do with this so terrible affair. It is not good that she run a risk so great. We men are determined, nay, are we not pledged, to destroy this monster? But it is no part for a woman. Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors and hereafter she may suffer, both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams. And, besides, she is young woman and not so long married, there may be other things to think of some time, if not now. You tell me she has wrote all, then she must consult with us, but tomorrow she say goodbye to this work, and we go alone." - Van Helsing

She's so smart, she must have a MAN'S brain! And we don't want to upset those women folk, what with their weak constitutions!

"They all agreed that it was best that I should not be drawn further into this awful work, and I acquiesced. But to think that he keeps anything from me! And now I am crying like a silly fool, when I know it comes from my husband's great love and from the good, good wishes of those other strong men." - Mina Harker

If the men say so, I guess it must be right!

On the other hand there's also a lot of talk about how Jonathan and Mina are always very open and honest with each other, to the point that you see that he truly regards her as an equal. Also, the simple fact that they choose to leave her out of everything at this point in the book is how she ends up getting attacked by Dracula. I would hope this is Bram Stoker trying to teach a bit of a moral lesson, but who knows. Regardless, I would say that Mina is, in fact, the strongest character in the book, and I can see easily why Alan Moore chose her to be a leader for The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

There's a lot of things in the book that you never see in the movies, or that often happen in the movies but are simply not here. However, I'm going to save talking about those differences until I get to the movies themselves. I will, however, share with you how Dracula dies, because personally I spent the whole book waiting anxiously to see how it would happen and I figure some of you would also want to know.

On the path leading to Dracula's castle, the main characters surround a band of gypsies returning Dracula in a sealed box. They overtake the gypsies and then Jonathan and Quincey get the lid off the box.

"As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.

But, on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan's great knife. I shrieked as I saw it shear through the throat. Whilst at the same moment Mr. Morris's bowie knife plunged into the heart.

It was like a miracle, but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight."
- Mina

Pretty interesting that they don't actually use a stake, right?

The epilogue gives everyone a loving happy ending, except for Quincey, who gets to be the one to die. Jonathan and Mina have a child that they name after him though, so that makes it alright. Arthur and Seward end up happily married (to each other?) and Van Helsing is apparently in good enough health seven years later to bounce their little boy on his knee.

In the next entry I will be looking at both 1931 versions of the film Dracula. I have every intention of also covering Nosferatu, but I'm saving it to be paired with another movie later in the chronological order.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Steampunk Awesomeness from Myke Amend

Somehow in my various travels across the internet I stumbled upon the Super Punch blog. I don't really know how to explain it beyond that he posts lots of fun and awesome artistic things to share with his readers. One day he shared a link that mentioned you could get a grab bag of steampunk related goodies for only $15.

The artist in question is Myke Amend. I had literally no exposure to his work before I saw the link, but enjoying some of what he had on display there was enough to get me to buy it. It arrived yesterday and now I thought I'd share them with you.

Here's the bag they all came in, which was wrapped inside some cardboard packaging to keep the prints from getting bent. Obviously not handmade, but still very pretty.

This was the first thing I noticed when removing the items from the bag. Hopefully I'm right in assuming it's a hankerchief.. I'm fairly certain it's not supposed to be a cloth napkin anyway. I'd be afraid to use it for anything other than display though, as I wouldn't want to ruin that painted on image.

The rest of the items are all postcard sized. I apologize that the pictures are not very good, I took them with my phone.

Red Queen
There were actually two prints of this one. I really like it though, so I'm not complaining.

Preacher Man

I think this one is my favorite. So of course the picture came out the worst. :P

Overall, I'd say it was $15 well spent.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds

While looking for classes to fill up my electives in college, I had stumbled upon a "Film as Literature" class. It was technically considered an English class, but it involved watching lots of movies so I was all for it. The idea of the class was looking at the way a film is shot and how that is used to tell the story. We also read Heart of Darkness and then watched Apocalypse Now, but that felt like something that was forced in as an attempt to tie it to literature. Another one of the movies we watched in this class was Rear Window.

Rear Window was my first real introduction to Hitchcock and I loved it immensely. On my own time since I've seen Psycho (loved it!), North by Northwest (also loved it), and Vertigo (reviewed here). I realized it was about time I caught up with one of the two things I always knew Hitchcock for in my childhood: The Birds. The other is Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is currently sitting in my Netflix streaming queue waiting for me to finish up some other series first.

The biggest problem for modern audiences to face when watching this film is how outdated the special effects are. They used a mix of real birds, puppets/fake birds, and a green screen effect where the birds are flying wildly and it is overlaid on top of the actors' performances. Obviously the real birds don't do any attacking. The puppets can be incredibly unrealistic at times, and it's left up to the actors to make you believe it. With the stars this works pretty well, but when you see them attacking the kids, for example, it's a little too obvious and silly. I really thought the green screen effect was put to good use, particularly when the birds are inside the house. The performances of most of the actors are strong enough that you really believe they're in danger.

Another problem by modern terms is how long it takes for the movie to get going. There's a very slow moving story with this woman and her attempts to surprise this man's younger sister with a pair of lovebirds. There's no real indication that anything is about to go wrong, so you're forced to just sort of wait around until stuff happens about 30 minutes in. In contrast to something like Psycho or Rear Window, which take a bit to build but keep up the suspense the whole time, I was a bit disappointed. Apparently, I've been too far influenced by Hitchcock's other films, because I expected Melanie Daniels to be killed the moment the first bird struck her.

The strongest scene of the whole film for me comes when Lydia goes to the Fawcett farm. The complete silence, the slow movement down the hallway, the slow reveal in the room... it's all just completely brilliant and classic Hitchcock. I also love the way she chokes on her words rather than screaming like so many other horror movies would have her do. I've had so many dreams where I tried to scream but the words wouldn't come out, it seemed so perfect to me. Overall it had that same realistic approach to this situation. People who haven't seen the birds attack are believably skeptical, and those who have are too caught up in a state of panic to spout witty dialogue. In fact, a lot of the best scenes in this movie contain no dialogue at all, and the actors reactions sell the horror and suspense completely.

What was up with that song the children were singing at school? What could you possibly learn from that? It worked to make things creepy, but man, it just kept going and going.. The only time I remember doing stuff like that at school was when it was the last day before a holiday and the teachers wanted to keep us busy but not actually teach us anything new. I guess Annie is a lazy teacher.

While watching the movie I kept guessing as to what could be causing the birds to act in such a way. I think there are clues here and there, though some of them are probably red herrings. I enjoyed the fact that it was never explained and that the ending in itself is very vague.

This is related to absolutely nothing but Rod Taylor looks like he could be related to Robin Williams to me. I kept thinking it over and over again as he appeared on screen.

Another thing I couldn't help thinking of on and off was the Animaniacs short, "The Boids" in which the Goodfeathers are stand in stunt birds for the film. I kind of expected to see Melanie Daniels whack at the birds with her purse to mirror one of the scenes of the cartoon. The cartoon actually is fairly accurate though, as it shows both the playground scene and the phone booth moment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Superman: Red Son

If you know me then you probably know I love superheroes. There's an entire room of my house that is essentially dedicated to them full of posters, action figures and comics. I tend to watch all my movies at home, but if there's anything that will get me to go to a theater, it's a superhero movie. What may surprise you is that I hate the granddaddy of all superheroes: Superman.

He's boring. His powers are over the top and too perfect and his morals are always perfectly in line. His secret identity is weak and honestly why does he need one anyway? He can apparently see and hear everything happening miles away from him so he can always save his family members in time. The first Superman movie was boring me to tears until it got to that part where he goes backwards around the earth to go back in time and then it royally pissed me off. Seriously, that doesn't work by any stretch of the imagination. I loved the X-men and Batman animated series in the 90s, and because of the X-men I watched the Spider-man, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man cartoons, but I couldn't bring myself to watch the Superman cartoon past the Batman crossover. He's just so dry. The Adventures of Lois and Clark, Smallville, Superman Returns... no matter how they attempt to reinvent him, I just can't get into it. All the superheroes I love have something to them that helps you to relate to them. A tragedy in their past, a difficulty they have to overcome, etc. Superman lost his home world when he was too young to even know it existed and his weakness is a made up substance that is generally used in the most expected of ways. His love interest is a snotty overbearing workaholic woman stereotype. I could go on, but bashing Superman is not actually the point of this post.

I'll admit that my experience with Superman in the comics is pretty thin. My brother purchased the Death of Superman comic like everyone else did, and I read it then and its possession has now passed into my hands. I kept up with the storyline that followed mostly through articles in Wizard magazine, but once again it wasn't particularly interesting. Given his extremely long history, I'm sure there are story lines out there that managed to take a more honest and human look at the character but I just haven't found them yet. I'm always willing to give something a try, even a couple tries, before I flat out give up on them. I would have sworn that Iron Man was dreadfully uninteresting until the movies came around and presented him in a new way, so I imagine the same could be done for Superman.

A friend let me borrow a copy of Superman: Red Son. The premise of this story is an alternate universe storyline in which Superman's rocket landed in the Soviet Union rather than America. It's certainly an interesting take from the get go. Unfortunately I had some problem with its choices very early on. As the book begins we see Superman standing beside Joseph Stalin. In recent years I've gained a bit of a fascination with Stalin. While everyone loves to regard Hitler as the great evil of the 20th century, in my personal opinion Stalin eclipses him by a long shot. I find it so fascinating because of the way his deeds are often disregarded these days. We saw Stalin sitting next to FDR and Churchill during WWII, so surely he had to be a nicer guy than Hitler, right? And of course in Russia itself Stalin erected his own cult of personality, an image so strong that there are apparently those in Russia these days who would willingly vote for him in an election and regard him as a great leader. The fact is he was just as paranoid and bloodthirsty as Hitler, if not more so, and is responsible for genocide and killing more people than Hitler ever dreamed of. So as the book begins and I see Mr. Goody Two Shoes standing beside Stalin, my suspension of disbelief has been blown. While I can accept that the general public would be largely ignorant of his activities, surely someone working as his right hand man would see the bloodthirsty way in which he ruled? It's not an absolute deal breaker for me, but it was distracting.

Despite this, I found Superman's rise to power to be completely logical and believable. I also highly enjoyed everything to do with Lex Luthor in this book including the fact that neither he or Superman were being shown as the true hero or villain. They were simply both men determined to do what they thought was right and doing it in a bad way. I was not particularly crazy about Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen in this book, Jimmy's role in particular didn't make much sense to me but I'll admit this may have more to do with not really knowing much about the character in the main universe either. I LOVED the re-imagining of Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern Corps. I enjoyed Brainiac a lot as a character and it really made me want to see more of him, as my only previous experience is the version in the Legion of Superheroes cartoon.

Once again, it's the altered real world history where I have hiccups. Would Superman's reign really have caused Nixon to be elected rather than JFK? Would Nixon have been assassinated in 1963, and would the people have elected JFK afterward? From what I have read it seems like the story is attempting to completely role reverse the US and the USSR without stopping to think about whether it would all logically happen. The one thing I will say I agree with is the idea of the states seceding from the union again in an effort to save themselves. I'm just not convinced that the US would have collapsed so badly to begin with just because the USSR fared better. The book essentially suggests that Superman is the great difference here, rather than the differences between a capitalist democratic republic vs. a communist totalitarian structure.

I will give it this though: It certainly got me thinking. I read it Sunday and I've been debating in my head on various matters presented in the book ever since. The further I get away from it the more its issues don't really matter so much as the concept as a whole. Watchmen, as great a story as it is, fails in its own altered history at times and that doesn't take away from how good it is. While Red Son isn't as earth shattering as Watchmen, it's a great take on the "absolute power corrupts absolutely" theme. The characters are three dimensional and you really feel for them. I even kind of felt bad for Superman at times, believe it or not.

While cold war history buffs may have a hard time with it, I'd still recommend it as a good strong story, particularly if you're a fan of George Orwell or enjoy seeing iconic superheroes presented in a different light.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bela Lugosi and Edgar Allen Poe

After seeing Bela Lugosi as Dracula and as the gypsy werewolf who bites The Wolf Man, I was ready to see more. This disc provided me with three films which have the bonus tidbits of being based on Edgar Allen Poe works and two of them also feature Boris Karloff.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

I had a hard time seeing Bela as anything other than Dracula for this one. His character, Dr. Mirakle, was very similar in tone and mood to me, even if it's a very different role. He's a scientist who is obsessed with proving that man is descended from apes and plans to mix the blood of a gorilla and a human to prove it. He also has the ability to speak with an ape in its native tongue. Erik the Ape-man is played alternately by a chimpanzee and a man in a gorilla suit. They refer to him as a gorilla and the suit is much bulkier than the chimpanzee, so the effect is rather distracting. I also couldn't help but worry that maybe they were mistreating the chimp to get him to look so upset so often. Perhaps the most interesting part is to see a movie where an ape falls in love with a woman and ends with him carrying her over rooftops a year before King Kong was released.

From a storytelling stand point the biggest issue I had with the movie is that Dr. Mirakle flat out reveals to the characters and a whole crowd his intentions to mix the blood but it takes forever for Dupin to figure out he's the one behind the murders.

The most amusing scene comes when a German, an Italian, and a Danish are all questioned by police and swear that the language they heard the murderer speak is one of the others' languages. They eventually dissolve into shouting at each other in their native tongue and it's quite humorous.

While the story of the movie does not match the original story exactly, I think they did a good job of keeping some of the key points while toning down the violence and adding both supernatural and romantic elements typical of the time period in which the film was made.

The Black Cat

Watching Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff play off each other makes this a must see. It's also really nice to see Bela getting to play the protagonist for once, even if he has a slightly dark side to him. For a character that is reminded of his dead wife by a young woman, you might think this would be him playing Dracula all over again, but it's really not. It's quite good. I really sympathized with his character and it felt like a much different role for him. You also get to hear him speak Hungarian at certain points which I thought was kind of neat.

The plot of the movie is nothing like the Poe story, and the black cat in the movie doesn't even really effect the plot. It's there because Lugosi's character is afraid of them, but there's really no reason why he is. The movie is all about two characters who have a past and one's desire to get revenge on the other for how they've done them wrong. The suspense builds slowly throughout the film and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

The Raven

Your first instinct is probably to think, how could they base a movie off the poem? It's actually pretty well inspired by it, even if it's not the exact story. Bela plays a brain surgeon who is obsessed with Poe and also falls in love with a young woman. When he can't have her, he comes up with a plot to torture and kill her, her father and fiancee. He takes inspiration from Poe's stories to do so, with almost Saw like traps. Karloff gets thrown into it as an ugly man who begs Bela to make him look better, but instead Bela makes him look even worse. The makeup is really quite impressive for the time, even down to the fake eye. Karloff even gives off a Frankenstein's monster grunt at one point in the movie. I really enjoyed this one because it reminded me a lot of modern horror, with a man trapping a group of people in his house and trying to kill them. It was still chilling without showing any extreme violence. Bela's performance is a bit over the top in this, but seeing as how he's portraying a mad man it fits in perfectly.

While this collection put the highlight on Bela Lugosi, I can't deny that I'm becoming a huge fan of Boris Karloff the more I see him in. So far I've seen Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Mummy as well as those above and I just love his performance every time. His voice has that perfect creepy quality to it while also being sympathetic. I can understand why they billed him simply as "Karloff" in these movies.. there could be no one else to replace him.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bill & Ted Marathon: Conclusion

Well, we've come to the end... for now. There's really not a whole lot else to say.

About the only other Bill & Ted item I haven't touched on is "Bill & Ted's Excellent Halloween Adventure" which has been happening at Universal Studios in Orlando and Hollywood since 1992 as part of their Halloween Horror Nights. The description from Wikipedia says: "The main plot involves Bill and Ted being threatened by an evil villain from a popular film of that year, with appearances by a host of villains, heroes, and celebrities. The show usually includes elaborate dance numbers, stunts, and multiple double-entendres." I've never seen the show first hand so I can't really comment on it, but I'm sure you can find videos of differing quality from past years on Youtube.

There were also apparently action figures and trading cards made for the first movie that keep staring at me on ebay and begging me to buy them.

Why are you staring at me like that?

You want me to talk about Bill & Ted 3, don't you? OK.

Shortly after I started this marathon, the internet exploded with MTV's story of Keanu Reeves talking about Bill & Ted 3. Then they contacted Alex Winter and he "confirmed" it. The thing is if you understand anything about how movies are made, someone telling you they have a story idea doesn't mean anything. The possibility of an Indiana Jones 4 was rumored not long after Last Crusade came out and you see how many years that took to actually be finalized and become a reality. Indy has the advantage of having George Lucas and Steven Spielberg behind him, who have enough money and power between them to make any movie they want. Bill & Ted has an actor who's been behind the scenes on smaller budget works for decades now, another who is mostly known recently for having his sad looking picture be part of a meme, and two writers whose other works include Super Mario Bros and A Goofy Movie. One would hope that the fan base is large enough for any studio to want to give it a chance, but you can't count on anything.

As far as what the movie could be about, I'm happy with Alex's comments regarding not recasting Rufus and not setting up the franchise for new sequels with younger players. They could have easily done this with Little Bill & Little Ted, so it's nice to know they won't. I can't remember where anymore, but some site seemed to take the position that the movie would have to involve Bill & Ted looking back on their lives and thinking about "what went wrong" and why they weren't the greats they were meant to be. I don't understand why they came to this conclusion. It seems to be based on the idea that Bill & Ted's future = OUR future. If that was the case, where's my phone booth time machine and why didn't I see their Battle of the Bands broadcast the night it aired? It was only on every television station in the world.

It would be exceedingly easy to keep it so that they did in fact achieve the success that was shown during the credits of Bogus Journey. There are plenty of movie plots that start off with the people on top of the world and in danger of losing their success. Honestly, if the movie doesn't start off that way, I'm going to be disappointed. I'm pretty confident regardless that the guys can do a good job with whatever they come up with. You can tell they've stayed in touch and are still friends after all these years and I think they'll be able to slip back into these roles fairly easily. On the other hand, Wikipedia claims that their original plans for this sequel turned into Biodome. That fact scares me so much I want to believe it's one of those things that Wikipedia has gotten wrong.

I don't really have any particular ideas of what they could do because I thought Bogus Journey did a really good job of wrapping the whole thing up. Do you have any ideas for their next adventure/journey/expedition?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bill & Ted's Excellent Comic Book 1-12

This post is going to be long and picture heavy. I'm the type that thinks that's awesome, but I have learned that some people on the internet think that length is a bad thing. I suppose some poor souls may still be using dial up as well, so please consider this your warning.

This comic book series ran for 12 issues, one issue a month, and picks up directly where the Bogus Journey comic book adaptation left off. As such all the differences I pointed out in that adaptation apply here. It's a very silly book and in my opinion very fitting for the Bill & Ted mythos. I have no idea how much Chris & Ed were involved in this series, but seeing as how all writing credit goes to Evan Dorkin, I'm guessing not very much. However, I still think it does a good job of staying true to the characters and is over all a very enjoyable read.

These were at least partially collected into trade paperbacks by Slave Labor Graphics recently, but it looks like the quantities of these are extremely limited and may not contain the whole series. So jump below the cut and I will take you through the series.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Not in the face!

In my Horror Wimp/Horror Lover post, I mentioned that while I was no longer as scared as I used to be, my stomach still had its limits. This weekend, I stretched to find out just how far those limits go. A friend invited me to go see Hatchet II and I couldn't resist. It's a slasher film, and after watching the original Friday the 13th about a week ago, I was hungry for more. The fact that this film is unrated due to gore only occurred to me until after I said yes, and when the little wimpy voice in my head told me I must be out of my mind for agreeing, I told it to be quiet and man up. I was going to see my first horror movie in a theater since the day when I walked out of the House on Haunted Hill remake like a chicken. I was an adult now, I could do this!

Since I mentioned not seeing the first one, Dayna was happy to invite me over and let me see it first. I loved it. It's set in New Orleans and actually filmed here, so that's always a win for me. On top of that, it's really funny AND a great throwback to classic slasher films of the 70s and 80s. Absolutely no CGI in this one (or the sequel, for that matter) just makeup and buckets of fake blood. What I'm learning though is it isn't really my stomach that's the problem. It's my face.

I don't have a problem with watching people be decapitated, gutted, having any of their limbs removed, cut in half, having their insides spill out or their brain matter exposed. But you attack someone's face, eyes, or mouth and I will squirm, recoil in horror, put my hands in front of my face, and probably make some kind of cry of pain. In the first Hatchet the most talked about kill scene comes about halfway through the movie and it involves someone's face. My reaction caused Dayna to look over at me and ask if I was OK. I managed to laugh at myself and enjoyed the rest of the movie.

I found out reading an interview today that the filmmaker, Adam Green, didn't like the fact that what people regarded as the best part of the movie came in the middle, so he set out to top that kill as many times as possible in the sequel. No doubt that is a large part of the reason that Hatchet II is unrated and, of course, a large majority of the kills are all about the face. I guess it makes sense for a killer who was cursed to be deformed and died because someone put a hatchet in his head to want to destroy everyone else's, but oh man were my limits tested. There's a scene at the beginning of American History X that makes me squirm every time I see it and you don't even see what actually happens. In Hatchet II, they recreated it and showed everything. At least I'm pretty sure they did, my hands were in front of my face so I didn't actually see it.

I don't want to spoil too much else about the kills because I know for people who enjoy these movies, the big draw is all about seeing these things happen. If you enjoy gore, this is a movie you need to see. The sequel is a bit more serious than the original. The first movie was a group of tourists and the second is a group of hunters who are purposely out to get him so it makes sense for the tone to shift a bit. It does however still have some great funny moments and I really enjoyed the additional background on the character.

I was always very resistant to films that are gore just for the sake of it, but now I'm learning that it's a very thin line between gory stories with value and flat out blood and guts exploitation. The first Saw movie has a lot of really horrible deaths, but the whole point is that it's a guy who is dying of cancer and wants others to appreciate life more. Unfortunately the success of that movie led to sequels which mostly just involved them trying to think of more horrible traps for people to end up in more than any kind of story. Slasher films tend to be fairly thin on plot but personally I think as long as your killer has an interesting origin/identity and your heroine grows and changes you've got a pretty good story on your hands. Many of the classics also liked to make sure that those dying were usually immoral in some way or really annoying so that you felt they were getting what they deserved. The Hatchet films went out of their way to turn this last trope on its head, a necessary twist for fans who have seen these movies so many times. So does that destroy the value of the story, if it's no longer about "evil" being punished by evil? In my personal opinion the answer is no, but I could see how someone could easily debate that. It's not much different than an attempt to define art or pornography. The standards are nearly impossible to define because they are different based on each person's opinions and experiences.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bill & Ted's Excellent (live action ) Adventures and Cereal

I remember, even at the age of 11, being highly conflicted about the existence of this show. On one hand, it was a chance to see more Bill & Ted. On the other, this was not Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves, or George Carlin, so what was the point? I didn't know it at the time but it wasn't the original writers either.

The first image you see when you start the show is Rufus appearing before the three great ones and I'll give them kudos for doing a good job in recreating their outfits. The set even looks pretty good. The theme song is very reminiscent in sound to "I Can't Break Away," the opening song to the film. Rick Overton does a decent enough job playing Rufus. You can tell the two stars, Chris Kennedy as Bill and Evan Richards as Ted, are trying really hard to mimic Alex & Keanu's movements and way of speech. The images of the circuits of time are directly pulled from the movie. Their outfits are similar, and I can't complain about them not being exact because one would hope the guys would change clothes from time to time. Unfortunately, there's plenty of other things to complain about.

Ted has a dangly, shiny earring. It sticks out past his hair, and reflects the light pretty much every time his head moves. While I know earrings for guys were big in the 90s, I can't imagine that thing looking cool even then.

The guys work at Nail World, a hardware store. Their boss is the stereotypical high strung nerdy balding guy who can't stand them. The entire first episode is built around him, rather than putting the focus on B&T and seeing as how he's not even remotely funny, it's terrible. On top of that they go back in time and see King Arthur.. a mythical figure, not a true historical one. The only good thing about this was that Deidrich Bader played King Arthur, so it was funny to see him in something shortly before he became known for playing Jethro in the Beverly Hillbillies movie. For some strange reason in this first episode, Rufus is trying to convince someone to buy something at the hardware store, and he pulls his sunglasses down and his eyes flash yellow. The person is hypnotized and agrees to buy it. Do we all get superpowers in the future or something? Of course if the next stage of human evolution is mind control, that may explain why an entire civilization could follow the philosophy of a heavy metal band.

I'm assuming that the show is set in 1992, since it says Rufus is in 2692. Of course the events of Bogus Journey happen in 1991 so that's just plain wrong. Even if you assume that the princesses are NOT the same age as Bill & Ted, for them to still be in high school in 1992 would mean that they were freshman in 1988. That's definitely wrong because Ted even says to Bill about Missy "Remember when she was a senior and we were freshmen?" in the movie. Of course there is absolutely no mention of the princesses at all in this series, so maybe we're just supposed to take this as an alternate universe. It's also an alternate universe where Ted still has a mom and their fathers look nothing like their movie counterparts.

In the second episode they do what the second season of the cartoon series did, and jump into a TV show. Rather than a new phone book, they accomplish this by hooking the antennae of the booth up to the TV cable wire. The only excuse I can see for doing this stuff is that it's cheaper to create modern sets rather than period pieces. While I made it all the way through the first episode, halfway through the second my tolerance dwindled. I started basically watching the first clip and then stopping, just to get an idea of the basic premise of each episode. The plots are pedestrian typical bad sitcom fare and the jokes are incredibly corny. The only thing I found funny was at one moment when they go to play air guitar and realize they're out of tune. They stand there and tweak their imaginary head stocks, strum once to check the sound, then proceed again to air guitar triumphantly. Of course the real Bill & Ted can't even tell when they're out of tune, so it's still a bit of a failure.

There were a total of 7 episodes made and they're all up on youtube if you're really curious, but I strongly suggest not seeing these for any other reason. But you don't have to take my word for it...

While promoting Bogus Journey on the Arsenio Hall show, Alex Winter flat out admits that the TV show sucks, and why. Apparently he was not aware of the second season of the animated series at this point since he gives that an endorsement.

Here's part two, where he claims he actually enjoys the cereal.

The coolest thing about the cereal was that some of the boxes came with a cassette tape holder that sort of looked like the phone booth and had the animated Bill & Ted on it. The most heinous thing about the cereal was that it was made by Purina. I never tried it as a kid, though I do remember running into it at the store that is now called Big Lots. All the boxes had been cut with the box cutter used to open the box they were shipped in, and my dad wouldn't buy any for fear that the bag inside was cut too. This was probably for the best.

Just for fun, here's the cereal's commercial.

I have just about exhausted my Bill & Ted theme for you guys. The only thing left is the 12 issue Bill & Ted's Excellent Comic Book series.
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