Sunday, August 30, 2009
So who was Jack the Ripper? What can we logically infer, from the perspective of modern law enforcement techniques?
The brutal truth is -- people disagree. And I am not a criminologist. So take every single word that follows with a grain or two of salt. Maybe a pillar.
Generally, serial killers are divided into "organized" and "disorganized" categories. Given the fact that Jack escaped detection while murdering five women inside one of the most densely-populated parts of London, I would opt for the "organized" label. In essence this means he put some kind of forethought into his crimes.
As mentioned earlier, I believe what forensic evidence we can discern at this late date would indicate he strangled all or most of his victims before starting to cut them up. Patricia Cornwell made the argument that his weapon was almost certainly not a straight edge razor (as has sometimes been suggested) and I agree with her. On that. Some kind of very sharp dagger or long knife would make the most sense. Her candidate for the Ripper, however, makes little sense. Walter Sickert was a rather well-known artist of the day. He was also a weirdo. Cornwell maintains that several of his paintings echo the Ripper Murders -- which is true, and hardly surprising since Sickert was openly fascinated by the case. Experts, rightly in my opinion, dismiss her contention. One reason that makes me do so is the lack of any further victims, since the man lived until World War II! Imagine how many more people John Wayne Gacy would have slaughtered had he not been caught...!
Some notes written by a Scotland Yard official years after the case have all too often been seized as some kind of "proof". In fact, those notes list a mysterious foreigner no one can identify (but fits neatly into Victorian prejudices of the time) and one Montague Druitt. He was a favorite Ripper candidate for years -- a failed barrister with rooms near Whitechapel, with doctors in his family and an insane mother. He killed himself about the time of the fifth murder as well. Problem -- we now know he was at a cricket match at a time that would make it almost certainly impossible to have committed one of the killings.
It does seem to me that while the Ripper murders were sexual in nature -- the attacks on wombs and ovaries and things are pretty strong indications of such -- the police at the time found no evidence of sexual intercourse or activity. They certainly knew what to look for. So one is tempted to assume Jack was in some sense impotent. That might help explain the rage shown in this crimes. Or -- it might indicate Jack was something considered rare in serial killers, a woman. "Jill The Ripper" was Conan Doyle's theory, and more than one person has pointed out that a local midwife would be expected to have blood on her clothes.
One pattern that does show up is that the crimes seemingly got more savage as time went by. Then, they stopped. Assuming (as I do) that the "canonical five" do represent the work of the same killer, one is left with a question of why the murders stopped? The modus operandi of Jack the Ripper vanished. Did the killer start to successfully hide his victims? While that is a tempting theory, it seems very different from the Ripper pattern. He did not lure victims to a secret place but used what was handy, and frankly was more than a little lucky. Rather it seems more likely Jack either left London or was prevented from continuing for some reason. He died, or was crippled or imprisoned. Probably.
Then again, maybe he had satiated himself for the time being.
Francis Tumblety was an American-born doctor (or sorts) and conman who has been suggested lately, but frankly this presents problems. For one thing, he lived until 1903. Where were his other victims? While he was in London during 1888, he traveled elsewhere and no such hideous crimes seem to have followed him. More, while he was willing to marry a woman (a prostitute as it turns out), he was pretty clearly homosexual. Unless he was what we today would call "bisexual" and his desires vis-a-vis women took this violent and bizarre shape. Still, one has to wonder why the murders stopped?
My conclusion? Jack the Ripper was a sexual murderer, either female or impotent, who was clever enough to plan things on the spur of the moment. He (or she) acted with forethought and an ever-more-expressed savagry. Then, after the murder of Mary Kelly, Jack (or Jill) suffered some kind of life change that precluded further such crimes. If this person later resumed a murderous career, they did so with a different modus operandi (possible, but somewhat unlikely).
Which is hardly more than we started with, now is it? And certainly not as exciting as gaseous alien predators or shadowy conspiracies.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Me, I like it when life is silly sometimes. Gives me an extra reason to laugh. Case in point: The recent best-selling novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which takes Jane Austen's perennial favorite as an opportunity to tell the tale of good Regency boys and girls having to wrest with the vexing problem of brain-devouring undead.
Some call this "metafiction" or simply "alternate history." While not disputing either of these fine categories, I prefer the rather more mundane and in mine own humble opinion slightly more accurate designation of "silly."
And huzzah for that! One thinks that perhaps a tad more silliness is precisely the called-for ingredient in days of Great Recession, spurious deceits amid the body politic (i.e. Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, etc.) and general worry about an influenza associated with the common boar.
Hence I am hardly one to complain that a further work of quasi-adaptation vis-a-vis the justly well-regarded Jane Austen is en route to book store shelves even as I pen this missive. The title of which I speak is none other than Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and the good author of this work -- or, somewhat more precisely, the late Miss Austen's post mortem colloborator -- has stated explicitly what seed of imagination brought forth his endeavor. He has proceeded from the conceit that in her life an interesting partnership might have arisen as a writing venture between Austen and the American writer of somewhat similar sensibilities (i.e. those of the Georgian Era), Mr. Howard Philips Lovecraft.
Very silly indeed. One half-expects a member of the Monty Python troupe to appear in regimental uniform decrying the effort and demanding a cease to such writings at once.
Dear Reader, it is my hope that you will forgive my own desire to see such a trend continue rather than surcease. Indeed, should any budding author be so inclined, herein I present one possibility that seems to me brimming with potential merit.
The Werewolf of Northanger Abbey would, in this humble poster's view, make a worthy addition to the tomes now contemplated. One can easily imagine the lovely Catherine Tilney (nee Morland) happily wed to the Vicar whom she loves, dwelling in their home not far from her father-in-law's estate, the aforementioned Northanger Abbey. When still unwed, you may recall, Catherine had let her imagination run wild upon visiting that estate and falsely concluded that her host's refusal to allow her to visit one wing of the Abbey evidence he had murdered his wife. Upon learning, in circumstances likely to leave a lasting impression, of her error she has continued to enjoy gothic novels yet tempers such with a realization that their subject matter remains fiction. With her feet metaphorically firmly attached to the ground, let us suppose her reaction to genuine supernatural events occurring within her life. Suppose, for the sake of good story-telling, that her un-named Viscount brother-in-law (to whom Eleanor Tilney is now wed) was somehow swept up into strange and mysterious goings-on. Could it be that a curse lies upon the Tilney name? Might such a curse find manifestation in some horrid metamorphosis over which the Tilney offspring -- Frederick, Eleanor and Catherine's beloved Henry -- can exert no control?
How might Catherine respond to such events? How else but by the most intense belief that nothing that might be termed occult or supernatural could possibly be taking place! Is not her innocence and naivetee a thing of the past? All this talk of lycanthropy and men that become beasts are surely nothing more than the confluence of random but rational coincidence. A wild dog of unusual size. Witnesses suffering from their own fears coupled with an overabundance of spiritous liquors. Gossip among the very young. Methinks the still-youthful Mrs. Catherine Tilney might venture to show her unwillingness to believe such nonsensical chatter by confronting the so-called Beast in its lair.
One hopes her ravishment is avoided, or that it proves swift in its end.
Although one might speak on behalf of what some call the "twist" conclusion, in which Catherine survives her own defilement and perhaps joins her much-loved Henry upon the moors, chasing the helpless travellers in that desolate area and feeding upon their warm, wet, red flesh to her delicate heart's content.
Hey, if you want it, take it. I officially give anyone who want to the rights to make of this outline whatever-ya-want. Heh heh. Just send me a copy?
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Years and years ago (in 1980, long before many of you were born) I watched a show on PBS. Some anthology series, the details of which escape me. This episode showed an adaptation of a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of which I had never heard: Rappaccini's Daughter. Kathleen Beller (she of Dynasty and The Betsy fame) played the title character, and I found myself entranced. Part of that might well have been Miss Beller's considerable beauty, I confess. But even though this was not a really fine production of the tale, the story grabbed me. Grabbed me and would not let go. It still hasn't.
Partially, there was the haunting nature of this doomed love story between a naive young man Giovanni and the sheltered girl Beatrice. But more, there was the complex symbolism and the strange nature of the story which (refreshingly) gives no moral answers to the questions it poses. The garden of Rappaccini is a place of innocence, beauty, and of death. But how much of each does Rappaccini possess? Or anyone else? What could have simply been a tale of a mad scientist whose experiments yield tragic results (akin to Frankenstein, which had been published for many years when Hawthorne penned this tale) becomes something more. Much more. For one thing, Beatrice herself somehow remains a vivid if waifish figure, a courageous one who ultimately sees things perhaps more clearly than any other. One senses that each character -- Giovanni, Rappaccini, his old rival Professor Baglioni -- has their own agenda, one they themselves may not understand fully. Beatrice, on the other hand, for all of her seclusion and mystery (like a placid lake), comes across as straightforward and honest.
Little wonder then more than one artist ended up trying to retell this story in a new medium. Vincent Price starred in a version, part of the anthology movie Twice Told Tales that barely captured the atmosphere and subtle tensions of the original. Some research led to an opera or two plus at least one stage play of the work. Not a lot, though. It isn't a story that lends itself to easy interpretation. Defining the "good guy" and "bad guy" is just about as frustrating as it is in real life. There is no clear-cut moral to be derived, and at its heart the whole thing is a tragedy. Yet the focus of the tale remains so clearly on the title character herself, it seems pointless to spend much time blaming her father for his strange experiment or for the way he tried to soothe her loneliness.
She remains the center of my fascination. So kind and wise-beyond-her-years. Innocent and good, yet deadly through no fault of her own. Lacking choice, she seizes the power of choice firmly. Loving, she sees her loves for all their flaws, still loves them, and acts from that love. One cannot help but feel humbled. Giovanni, one thinks, was not worthy. He did not love her enough, or as purely as could she, a being of pure poison. Hence the paradox -- to be contemplated, but not solved. Not easily, anyway. Nor quickly.
The best version of this story might be the song Running Through The Garden by Fleetwood Mac, sung by the semi-divine Stevie Nicks:
Until she herself
Became the deadliest poison
As she grew older
Ooh, until she herself
Became just as fatal As was her garden
And so you run toward
What you know is wrong
There are too many flowers
To cut down
With all the love I have for your life
For the love I have for your life
Never did I mean to (never did I mean to)
Imprison you (imprison you)
Here in my garden (here in my garden)
Like I am imprisoned (like I am imprisoned)
All the love I have for your life
All the love I have for your life
Turn around (turn around)
Until she herself
Understood her garden
Leaving her heart broken,
No future at all
Until she herself
Became the toxic garden
No future at all
Never did I mean to (never did I mean to)
Imprison you (imprison you)
Here in my garden (here in my garden)
Like I am imprisoned (like I am imprisoned)
All the love I have for your life
All the love I have for your life
Turn around (turn around)
Running through the garden,
I'm running in brilliant colors
I'm running straight toward, straight toward
What you know is really wrong
Too many flowers here to cut down
For the love I have for your life
Friday, August 21, 2009
The murderer commonly known as Jack the Ripper killed several women in London during the autumn of the year 1888. How many? That is a matter of dispute. Five so-called "canonical" victims are recognized:
- Mary Anne Nicols (August 31, 1888)
- Anne Chapman (September 8, 1888)
- Elizabeth Stride (September 30, 1888)
- Catherine Eddowes (September 30, 1888)
- Mary Jane Kelly (November 9, 1888)
On the other hand, maybe Stride wasn't a Ripper victim but simply a random killing. Odds are we'll never know.
Unlike the others, Kelly was murdered indoors -- and the cuts to her throat were in the opposite direction. But given the layout of the room, this was absolutely necessary for the killer, whoever it might have been. She was the most horribly mutilated of the five. Much of her face had been peeled away. Her heart was missing. Veteran police officers reacted to the crime scene with shock. Mary Jane Kelly wasn't just killed and mutilated, but almost turned inside out like a stuffed doll.
Others are sometimes suggested as possible Ripper victims. In my opinion, a case can be made for those earlier than Nichols, even if they lack the details of his modus operandi or MO. Serial killers learn, like everyone else. But the Ripper murders show a specific ritual, something whoever-it-was had found something that worked.
After Kelly, the murders apparently stopped. Why is a matter of total speculation. Maybe the killer died, or was imprisoned for something else. Perhaps he was crippled. Or moved away from London.
We will probably never know.
Over one hundred letters were sent to the police or to various press agencies purporting to be from the murderer. The letter signed "Jack the Ripper" grabbed everyone's imagination. That one began with the salutation "Dear Boss." Another, generally known as the "From Hell" letter, included a piece of kidney that might have come from Eddowes.
Most scholars agree those two might have come from the killer. Emphasis on "might."
At the time fingerprints were not something any police department in the world dreamt of using, much less looking for. It would be seventy years before DNA was discovered, and another forty or fifty before such could be used in a court of law. Hand-writing or blood spatter analysis were unknown. The doctors who studied the victims' corpses (no one examined them all) were not trained forensic pathologists because at the time there weren't any such things. They gave slightly contradictory testimony at the inquests. One said the killer clearly had no real knowledge of how to cut into tissue. Another said the Ripper must have had an excellent knowledge of human anatomy (having easily found the ovaries, which are in fact not all easy to locate).
Not surprisingly, the public and police (then headed by a former Army officer with no law enforcement experience at all) immediately started looking for drooling madmen (having no hint of understanding as to what real serial killers are like), or foreigners. Rumors of Czarist agents, dissolute gentlemen (like the perennial favorite suspect Montague Druitt) or other exotic choices (usually artists or doctors) followed. Alan Moore, in his wonderful essay following the graphic novel From Hell pointed out that essential to all these theories was an interesting -- and telling -- assumption. The victims must have done something to attract the killer's attention. Tried to blackmail the royal family. Or given someone syphilis. Or made fun of a man's impotence. Or tempted him with their wanton ways. Or...something.
But of course what we know now -- after actually studying the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, etc. -- is serial killers don't think like that. They go after victims of opportunity, sometimes basing it on sexual attraction.
Nor, interestingly, is Jack the Ripper all that horrible as serial killers go. He killed most probably five. I myself hold that he strangled his victims, then started to rip. That would explain the total lack of arterial spurt in any crime scene. No evidence of sexual assault anywhere. How different from Peter Kurten the s-called Butcher of Dusseldorf! Or Andrey Chickatillo! Or Edmund Kemper. His number of victims is nowhere near that of Jeffrey Dahmer. He didn't kill children as did Albert Fish and the Moors Murderers did, nor did his cruelty approach that of Charles Ng. Nor were his mutilations to compare with those of the Black Dahlia Murderer nor the Cleveland Torso Killer.
So why was Jack so horrific? Why does he haunt our imaginations still, even after such huge bloodbaths as the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge?
I suspect it has to do with the same reason we remember the Titanic even after so many other ships have gone down, taking ultimately far more lives. Because this event got our attention. It forced us to think of the world as a different place than we had at first supposed. The gleaming center of Victorian civilization turned out to be the home of a baffling murderer who seemed to slay at will, to desecrate the dead with abandon, to slaughter women who were supposed to be the most protected of society's members -- and he got away with it. The Empire's finest efforts failed to catch him. He was Chaos, thumbing his nose at the splendor of Christian Civilization. No matter he was probably some grubby nonentity driven to commit acts that gave fleeting release but no happiness. Precisely because we never found out who he was, never put a face to match the name, that was what gave him such power. Or that is why we saw him as powerful.
Why we still do.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
In fact, we don't even know for certain that he signed himself "Jack The Ripper." Yeah, there was a letter (famously postmarked "From Hell") but there's no real proof the killer actually wrote it. Over a hundred such letters got written and delivered in 1888 London, purporting to be from the killer that terrorized the city's imagination. At most maybe two might have been genuine. Maybe. Writing those letters was the Victorian equivalent of sending out a computer virus.
The more things change...etc.
What fascinates perhaps most of all is how little is really known about Jack (he was initially known as "Leather Apron") versus what people think they know. And not simply in the popular imagination! People who've actually studied the murders and those involved come away extremely sure of some conclusion -- one usually tentative at best, downright silly at worst. Did you know Lewis Carrol is a suspect? Yep, the author of Alice in Wonderland. Someone claimed that if you rearranged the letters of some of Carrol's poems you get the equivalent of "I am Jack The Ripper, Honestly I am." Almost incidentally, this simply is not true. Really. Dr. Neill Cream is another suspect, rather more popular than Carrol--despite having been in a Chicago prison at the time of the murders. You'd think that would have ended it, wouldn't you. Surprisingly (or not), no it didn't. Just as the total lack of any evidence to support it has never seriously impeded the spread of the so-called "Masonic Royalist Conspiracy Theory." This one has been even been filmed twice!
Here it is in a nutshell. The Duke of Clarence (Queen Victoria's grandson) married an Irish Catholic maid to get her into bed, and they had a daughter. A group of Masons, essentially the Powers-That-Be in 1888 England, whisk away the maid to an insane asylum where she's victimized in some way to make her mad. Then they set an elderly physician recovering from a stroke named William Gull to find and kill the five witnesses to the marriage -- all of whom are now prostitutes in Whitechapel. He does this in a ritual fashion according to the rules of the Masonic Order, even leaving graffiti in chalk on the wall near one of the murders, implicating the Masons (all in the interest of keeping a secret mind you). Gull had lost the use of one hand as a result of the stroke. Just thought I'd mention that. Oh, and funny how there aren't any other Masonic victims to be found murdered in a way Jack killed those five prostitutes -- whose mutilations varied quite a bit from victim to victim, anyway.
Nonsense. Every single word. But not so surprising, when we still live in a world where Paul is dead, George Bush is an evil genius who coordinated 9/11, where Barack Obama's 18-year-oold mother for some reason went to Kenya to give birth to her first child but managed to cover up this (if true, at the time) totally innocuous fact by subverting Hawaii's health department, where the Holocaust and Apollo moon landings were both special effects tricks created by Hollywood, and the Jackalope roams free in certain parts of rural Texas.
I don't believe any of this. Just for the record. But people do. Lots of them. Well, the Jackalope would be cool -- I can sympathize with that belief, anyway. But as for the rest...
Does it strike you that some people really cannot handle complex information and try to reduce it to manageable, if paranoid, chunks? Or who cannot handle not having the answers to certain questions -- like Who was Jack the Ripper?
I don't know. No one does. It seems very unlikely we'll ever find out. And that isn't very comfortable, is it?
Monday, August 17, 2009
For those of you who don't know, The Strain is a new novel by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo de Toro, director of such fantasy films as Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, as well as Mimic. Intended as the first of a trilogy, part of the intent behind it is to counter the "romantic" vampires a la Anne Rice and Twilight.
On that level, the novel certainly succeeds. You do know a review of a book is going to abound with spoilers, right? If you don't, well this one does. Warnings have now been uttered. Proceed at your own risk. As the title suggests, vampires in The Strain are an infection, one that more-or-less turns a human being into a kind of insect, with initially just about that much intellect. As the mutation proceeds, higher brain functions fade away along with all trace of sexuality (including genitalia). Feeding takes place via a stinger -- a meter-long 'tongue' that pulsates and changes color while drawing blood (that visual alone gives me the creeps) -- and the victim becomes a colony for worms that re-write DNA, shaping what was once a human being into a walking contagion, voracious and extremely difficult to kill. Some of the most horrific parts of the book are from the POV of those infected as they feel themselves change. One, a quietly heroic type, actually chains himself in a shed to protect his wife and children. Another is a rock star whom at first everyone thinks is just still wearing his makeup and contact lenses.
But they aren't the worst horror. Nor is the Ancient whose arrival in New York may herald the end of humankind's dominion. The worst are those who see a disaster looming and refuse to act, those with a duty to protect who seek instead to calm. When a 777 jumbo jet lands, then goes immediately silent, everyone involved realizes Something Is Up. When it turns out the plane is full of dead people (shades of Stoker's 'Demeter') and contains an unauthorized coffin, at first people are spooked but try to do their jobs. But as events spiral into a weird pattern that clearly threatens pretty much everyone, some blindly refuse to see the danger. They mustn't cause a panic. This cannot be happening, so of course it isn't. Let us grab a stupid theory that explains nothing but does allow us to place the blame on someone. (Echoes of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, if you've a theatrical bent.)
Now, there is one worse group. Not merely the cowards and incompetents -- the traitors. The Ancient Vampire has allies among humans. Imagine the mindset of someone who would quietly endanger or kill thousands, tens of thousands, millions of fellow human beings just for...what? A paycheck? A feeling of power? To become immortal, at the price of no longer being oneself?
The vampires at least are obeying their nature, and have precious little choice.
Mutiple POVs in novels often end up problematical, imho. Retaining the individuality of characters can become too much. Frankly, this is one of my complaints about Stephen King's novel The Stand. But The Strain very nearly avoids this. To be perfectly honest, while the main characters are for the most part vivid and alive, they aren't equally engaging. But then, perhaps that is the point? Eph, Gus, Setrakian, etc. each resonate with different kinds of people. Myself, I find the Van Helsing-esque Abraham Setrakian in many ways the most compelling protagonist, a man who as a boy confronted an age-old Horror and declared war upon it. But Nora, the girlfriend of the obvious 'hero' never comes alive for me. I'm hoping that will change with the next two entries in what is being billed as a trilogy.
For the record, the book reads fast with an excellent rhythm and ever-growing pace (much like the danger which spreads like a fever through New York). Took me approximately two-and-a-half days to finish, one of those days spent mostly at my job. Keep in mind the novel has over 800 pages! If you're interested in such things, the plot clearly contains elements of Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as Stephen King's Salem's Lot. The vampires remind me of the Reapers in Blade II (directed by Del Toro) as well as Brian Lumley's Wamphyri (minus any sexuality). One is reminded of Richard Matheson's seminal novel I Am Legend.
Hosts of mysteries remain unsolved at novel's end, including the exact nature of the mysterious factions among the seven Ancient Vampires, as well as perhaps some hint as to the origins of the monsters. We are left with one character in a precarious (and weird) situation, a vampire plague running rampant in New York, a very personal danger having risen from the grave and aimed at some of our leads, while the person with at least some of the answers hovers a little too close to death's door for anyone's comfort.
Am eagerly awaiting the next book.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
But I was thinking about how some tropes go under-used, especially in genres that I enjoy. For example, it has become a staple going back to Dark Shadows that a male vampire has a female human love interest. Nick Knight had Natalie. Edward has Bella. Angel and Spike both have Buffy, while the former also had Cordelia. And so on. But what about a female vampire and her male human lover? Not quite as rare as one might think since it was prominent in both Dracula's Daughter and Hammer's Lust for a Vampire, but has been fairly rare ever since. Until recently. True Blood has actually introduced two compelling stories about a female vampire and her male, human lover. The more prominent involves Jessica, a teenager "made" only a few weeks ago, and having already fallen for a nice young man named Hoyt. Plus there is Isabelle, the Texas elder heartbroken over events involving "her" Hugh, whom she clearly loves very much indeed.
Now, if we could just see a female vampire detective on a show, involved in some way with a human man! A sort of Nicole Knight, or Angela the Vampire-With-A-Soul. Some part of me really would enjoy seeing the unearthly loveliness of Edwina Cullen falling for a shy nerd named Ben. Or what if the upcoming CW series Vampire Diaries were about a sad young man who becomes the focus of good and evil vampire sisters?
While in general I'm not in favor of doing anything creative by rote, using a formula, I do think creating something new by breaking the formula--at least as a starting point. The image of the wise witch Gandalfina comes to mind, or the lost Hammer classic The Grooms of Dracula.
Something to think about.
Friday, August 14, 2009
"The Green Fairy. " The first time I ever heard or read this term was in the film Bram Stoker's Dracula. Honestly, the word "absinthe" itself I'd come across, but knew little or nothing about the substance. Yeah, it was some kind of alcoholic drink, one illegal and with some kind of special allure.
Within the last two years, however, I attended a party by someone who was actually serving absinthe. Honestly, that was something of a surprise but not a big one. After all, we've all been present when pot was smoked right? But actually, turns out the laws changed and absinthe is currently legal within the United States.
Michael Savage, incidentally, regards this as somehow un-American. Go figure.
Anyway, my first taste of absinthe was very nice. Very nice indeed. Yeah, this stuff is strong and has quite a kick. But absinthe is supposed to be 'cut' with water and sugar, so I simply added more. If you're interested, it tastes rather like black licorice, or anise. The effect was very interesting as well. Mind you, no one would call me a heavy drinker. But the "buzz" of absinthe is quite pleasant, neither drowsy nor short-circuit-the-brain but rather a kind of hyper-awareness. In later parties, I tasted a variety of different types, and the quality I find myself looking for most in absinthe is frankly "smoothness."
I also made the mistake of buying some from the Czech Republic. Ick. Not smooth. No, not at all.
Many, it seems, have their image of absinthe and its preparation from the motion picture From Hell. One of these days I'll post something on this blog about Jack the Ripper, including the so-called "Royal Masonic Theory" which is at the heart of this film. For the record, let me say the acting overall is very good, and the production design impressive indeed. I enjoyed watching this flick.
But the absinthe prep was all wrong.
In the movie, Johnny Depp's Inspector Abberline is something of a psychic. He takes absinthe to spark/enhance his visions. Okay. Yet note what he does: Filling a glass with water, he places a cube of sugar on what is called an "absinthe spoon" then proceeds to pour the absinthe over the sugar cube into the glass. While unconventional, this isn't really that odd. What he does next is borderline nuts. He lights the sugar cube with a match.
Now, think about this for a second. How clever is it to place an open flame near something that is 75 proof or more? And when you do this, the alcohol is burning away, yes? Now consider for a moment what this does to the taste of the sugar!
What should you do? The classic method, illustrated here, involves some specialized equipment, not totally needed IMHO. You need a fairly ordinary glass into which you pour about one inch (or two fingers) of absinthe--which is usually (but not always) green in color (hence the nickname). Place the slotted spoon atop said glass (honestly, a carefully balanced fork will work as well) with the number of sugar cubes to taste. At least one. Having something of a sweet tooth, I take a minimum of two. If the stuff is really, really strong I'll put three or even four.
There exists a marvelous device called an Absinthe Fountain to regulate the constant drip of ice water onto the sugar and into the glass. Such fountains cost plenty of money, so the good news is that almost any container of water will work--a carafe, for example, or a simple bottle. But the water should be ice cold. This will take time. Be patient.
Or, you can do what I saw done by the bartender at Bar Sinister (a gothic bar in Hollywood). She put ice and some sugar cubes in a glass with some absinthe, added water then shook it like a martini. For the record, they have very good absinthe at Bar Sinister. If you go, order the "Red Fairy." Absinthe mixed with red vodka and a splash of cranberry juice. Delicious!
Also for the record, the "Lucid" brand in the illustration above? I've tasted it and the flavor was a tad harsh for my palate. Not recommended.
Absinthe.com (warning: site contains nudity)
Absinthe Buyer's Guide
Absinthe in New Orleans
Jade Absinthes (from France)
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Clearly you need a script, and often-times those are best derived from excellent source material. Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla, Stoker's Dracula, Rice's Interview With The Vampire, Myers Twilight (not great, but plenty of fun and not-to-sneezed-at), Del Toro's The Strain. And since this is a personal fantasy, let us assume that the fantastically talented Sarah Waters has written a vampire novel which will now be adapted into a film. For those of you who don't know, Ms. Waters composed three (dare I say it) mini-masterpieces--Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith (this last is a personal favorite). Recently, Ms. Waters shifted the locale of her fiction from Victorian times to the Post-War period, and that is all very fine. But let us imagine she's written a vampire tale set in Victorian England, shall we? Yes, lets!
Next up, let us assign a director/screenwriter of considerable skill. Truth to tell, there are plenty of these to go around, but my choice would be Steven Shainberg, the gentleman who adapted and directed one of my favorite films--2002's Secretary.
As far as cast goes, we're somewhat limited here by not having actual plot or cast of characters. So let us instead just select a half-dozen high-quality thespians who have not in fact appeared in any Vampire film up until now. More, since our author is English, let us limit them (pretty much) to Brits:
Rachel Hurd Wood, for one, who was Wendy in Peter Pan as well as the female lead in Perfume: Story of a Murderer and will be in the upcoming Dorian Gray. She's been stuck more-or-less in ingenue roles for quite some time, but methinks she'd jump at the chance to play a vampire. Although she can also be a victim, or some other part.
Peter O'Toole for another--one of the greatest actors of his generation and of the next couple that followed! Still going strong despite his age, or because of it. He has made some of the silliest stuff imaginable (like Caligula) better by simply being there, and lent considerable gravitas and quality to already-high-end productions. I had the enormous good fortune of seeing him play Henry Higgins in Pygmalion on Broadway. He's fantastic in pretty much every single thing he's ever done.
Emma Watson is of course most famous for the Harry Potter movies but has done other things. In the latest film especially she's shown some real acting chops, and expressed willingness to take some real chances for the right director, the right role and the right script. The temptation is to make her this uber-bright tomboy or bookworm, but that would be a shame. While her intelligence does seem to shine through (hiding that sort of thing takes a specific knack, imho), there's no reason to type-cast her as Hermione Granger for the rest of her career. So, vampire? Or victim? Or someone else?
Viggo Mortensen was "discovered" when appearing in Lord of the Rings, but has been around for quite some time. He's an awesome actor and could play a variety of different roles with skill and style. Vampire, victim, innocent bystander, vampire-hunter, etc. It hardly matters. Of course it would all depend upon the actual script, but one can hardly doubt he'd be an asset. Give him a role and he's bound to do a lot with it. Remember, he'd never held a sword or even read Tolkien before being cast as Aragorn.
Another actress I admire very much is Tara Fitzgerald, who may be best known for her role in Sirens but frankly has done so very much more. A courageous performer who specializes in what she calls "strong women" I think she'd be a fantastic addition to any quality period piece, much less one about vampires. Again, she could play one of the undead herself or a victim or any one of a dozen other types. Since we're assuming Sarah Waters to be the author, I feel secure to suggesting whatever role she might play would be complex and a bit mind-expanding.
As for other qualities I'm looking for in this ideal vampire movie, let us add a few set pieces that tend to add a certain something. One is the creepy old house. Isolated in some way or other, probably by geography and certainly in terms of the psychology of its inhabitants. A place of unsettling history and dark secrets in the shadows -- everything poor Catherine thought Northanger Abbey to be but wasn't (or was, but not in the way she imagined). Certainly with its own name (Convent House? Thornkirk? John's Tower?) and probably more than one forgotten corner and/or secret passage.
Call me a purist if you like, but I also find coffins a pleasing set piece. While folklore never once suggests that vampires burn up when exposed to sunlight (that was movie-making and theatre, initially German and English respectively) most European legend does insist a vampire has some kind of special relationship with their grave. Carmilla had to sleep their each night. Dracula carried boxes of earth from his own tomb. Besides, there remains something aesthetically right about a vampire who sleeps in one of those specially designed pieces of furniture -- furniture for the dead. Yeah, it is gothic and a bit hokey but it also works. So I want the vampire (or vampires) to sleep in a coffin.
More I want the vampire in question to have fangs. One of the things I simply dislike very much about Twilight (and call me silly if you like) is the lack of fangs. Entirely personal, but there you are. While meter-long, insectoid stingers are plenty scary, they simply don't have the allure of what I look most in vampire movies (with apologies to Guillermo Del Toro).
Finally, what I really desire in vampire movies is a sense of eroticism tinged with horror. The best vampire movies to me show the vampire as seducer as well as predator. A nosferatu's victim should be addicted to the painful joy of the Kiss, attracted to the danger of an undead lover as well as fearful of where this must ultimately lead. Not in the sense of becoming a zombie, but that to experience the love/lust/hunger of a vampire personally is be changed--for better and for worse. "Dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight" pretty much covers it. And that is what I most enjoy.
Anyway, that is what I'd really love to see.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
I like vampire films very much, and dare to call myself something of an expert. Certainly the number of such flicks I can honestly say I've seen is quite large. Hundreds, probably. But my tastes are not indiscriminate. Herein are the top ten of what seem like the best vampire films (to date) to moi...
Let The Right One In came out last year in limited release. Essentially it tells the story of a lonely, smart boy named Oskar who meets a girl his own age with whom he--quite possibly for the first time in his twelve years--connects. But all is not as it seems. She is a vampire. Yet they do come to love each other. Not in a saccharine, sweet or untroubled way. Not at all. Disturbing and brilliant, this is based on a Swedish novel. Now it is being adapted for an English-language version. Cannot recommend this highly enough.
Bram Stoker's Dracula showed us how Francis Ford Coppola saw the classic vampire tale. For all its flaws, this lush and passionate version of Stoker's novel deserves loads of credit. Most of the cast is superb, and those who aren't are still very good. Tossed aside were virtually all the cliches --the cape, the quaintness of Van Helsing, even the shape of Dracula's boxes of earth! An excellent adaptation.
Interview With The Vampire, based on Anne Rice's bestseller, again shows what a top-notch creative team can do with this subject matter. When the casting was first announced, Rice hit the roof, insisting Tom Cruise was not and could never be Lestat. Which just goes to show that writers are not necessarily good judges of actors. After seeing the film, she paid for full page ads all over the country taking every word back. I agree. Cruise, by the way, comes across as a total ass as a human being. At one point, I feared this film had been ruined because I'd be unable to separate Cruise from his role. But--I could. The man is a ass, but an ass who can act extremely well.
Shadow of the Vampire exists around a lovely conceit. What if the actor playing "Count Orlock" in the famously unauthorized first adaptation of the novel Dracula was in fact a real vampire? Include with it a genuinely superior cast, and this is the movie one ends up with. A remarkable and compelling story about art and darkness.
Blood and Roses (French title: Et mourir de plaisir) was Roger Vadim's modern retelling of Sheridan LeFanu's novella Carmilla. Honestly, I'm a little reluctant to put this film here--not because it isn't good as well as genuinely interesting, but because it is a well-done version of what many adaptations do of this work. For example, a suitably male love interest is introduced, while the narrator of the novella becomes this virtual non-entity. Still, a fine film.
Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is silly. That is the point. It is a comedy about a struggle between "good" vampires and "bad" ones, who've taken up residence in ghost town. Vampire comedies have been tried many times. Most, like this year's Vampire Lesbian Killers, are just terrible. This one is hilarious, and has an outstanding cast--David Carradine, Bruce Campbell, Deborah Foreman, etc.
Nosferatu (the original silent version) deserves it status as a classic, not least because it is the first vampire film that actually has a vampire in it! Prior to this movie, vampires were always revealed to be a trick or some such. Although relatively few vampires in later films copied the horrific image of Count Orlock, many have borrowed images from this movie simply because what it did was often so iconic.
Nadja included David Lynch in a minor role, which could hardly be more appropriate. The whole thing came across as the way Lynch might have remade Dracula's Daughter, including taboos like menstrual blood and incest. Peter Fonda of all people as Van Helsing was an inspiration, as was using stock footage of Bela Lugosi from White Zombie as an image of Dracula himself.
Paris Je T'aime is the only non-full-length film on this list, but is still brilliant. The whole movie is an anthology, but the section "Quartier de la Madeleine" concerns this list. Less than six minutes long, it is a weird love story between a tourist (Elijah Wood) and a female vampire (Olga Kurylenko--Camille in Quantum of Solace).
The Vampire Lovers is, in my opinion, the best vampire movie every made by Hammer Studios. Another adaptation of Carmilla, it at least tries to adhere to the original story (although with the inclusion of yet another male love interest for the lead--whose name gets changed to Emma for some reason). Although reluctant male vampires are somewhat the rage, as per Bill Compton and Edward Cullen and Nick Knight and Angel and Barnabas Collins, etc., here is a realistic portrayal of a female vampire in the same straights--having fallen in love with her victim. Madeleine Smith frankly deserves kudos as well for making a waifish ingenue role something other than a pretty doormat.
Do I have anything to say? Well, yes. Truthfully, mine is a head full of opinions and a mouth only too willing to give them voice. But to begin, how about explaining the name?
Night-Tinted Glasses. Some of my earliest memories are of watching Dark Shadows on television. Hammer Horror movies (starting with The Brides of Dracula, which even then seemed odd given Dracula clearly never made an appearance) for afternoon theater. Halloween as a beloved holiday. My first pet was feline, naturally. Or super-naturally. Was it any wonder that by age sixteen I could read tarot cards and by thirty I'd started a vampire film collection on videotape? Years and years later, watching the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera certain lyrics made perfect sense to my soul...
Turn your thoughts away from cold, unfeeling light..."
Although I don't sleep that much, which means I wake up fairly early each morn, I remain someone more comfortable with shadows that spotlights. Were it up to me, that overhead light in my apartment would almost never get turned on. Autumn and winter, not summer, for yours truly.
Years ago, I and my late, lamented, and utterly wonderous fiancee took a cruise to Mexico. Amid the great food, the hot tubs, the shows and the rest, she and I later agreed what was the best part of the trip. Lying together in bed at night, feeling the ocean sway us to sleep.
That's where I'm coming from...