Sunday, March 28, 2010

Carmillas: "Blood and Roses" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Herein is the last in my series of reviews of filmed adaptations of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's vampire classic Carmilla. Next up, Roger Vadim's 1960 motion picture Blood and Roses. Such was its English-language title. In French the movie was more usually known as Et mourir de plaisir ("To Die of Pleasure").

My feelings about this flick began and remain mixed. What cannot be denied is that it captures something interesting and emotionally real amid an air of fantasy blending with reality. Other critics have noted its mood, which manages to convey eroticism with virtually no sexuality. No small feat. And the tale is a compelling one--despite the fact I don't really like any of the characters (an overrated "requirement" in my opinion).

But it isn't really an adaptation of Carmilla at all. The t.v. shows House and Monk have more to do with Sherlock Holmes than this film to do with LeFanu's tale.

Relocating the story to modern-day Italy, Vadim begins with the family Karnstein. In this case, they are a still-extant noble house with branches in Italy and Austria (those who know European history should find this very easy to accept). Legend tells of peasants attacking the Karnsteins in the 1700s out of fear they were vampires (again, historically this make some sense) with only one survivor--the beautiful Millarca, saved by her lover and cousin Ludwig. But Ludwig proved unfaithful. He nearly married three times, but each of his fiancees died soon before the wedding.

So the tale is told by Carmilla, last remaining Austrian Karnstein who lives with her cousin Leopoldo in an Italian estate. All agree Carmilla resembles long-dead Millarca while Leopoldo looks like Ludwig. We can see where this is going, but in general the script eshews the flavor of cliches. A dream-like atmosphere descends as a costume party begins to celebrate Leopoldo's engagement to Georgia. The nearby ruins--including the tomb of long-dead Millarca--become the setting of an elaborate fireworks display. Fire and mist abound while revellers in capes and masks dance and gossip in the night. A drunken Carmilla--only too obviously in love with her cousin--appears in a costume identical to that in Millarca's portrait (amusingly, this frightens away a couple of school girls reciting a poem for the event). Later, she stares into her reflection in a pool while a voice from the ruins summons her. Millarca extends her power, brings her latter day doppelganger to the tomb, which opens at her touch. We don't see what happens next but the result seems clear. Millarca walks again, taking possession of Carmilla's body.

All this makes for a good movie, and in the hands of a fine director like Vadim, the results do more than entertain. They move. They even compell.


This is not LeFanu's story. Instead of a strange and mysterious love affair between two girls, we have an immortal stalker of a handsome man at the apex of a romantic triangle. Instead of love or at least obsession between vampire and victim, we see a vampire pursuing her prey with little more feelings than a snake has for a bird. The slow pace of 19th century rural Styria gives way to modern Italy, amid coroner inquests and official inquiries and a stream of visitors to the Karnstein home. Elements of the original remain, but more as set pieces (effectively used).

Two other versions of Carmilla I know were filmed. One was a 1960s BBC production starring Jane Merrow, almost certainly lost. The other was for French television in the 1980s that I'm trying to get my hands on. Wish me luck! Another--rather lurid--version, complete with sword fights and copious female nudity, is supposed to be filming in Europe right now. When and if it is finished and released, expect a review from me. And if you know of any versions I've not mentioned, you'll earn much gratitude on my part for sharing!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Guest Blogger: Author Kiki Howell (Contest!)

Please welcome my first guest blogger. Among other things she is the author of the erotic novel Bloodlust & Redemption, and she has a contest to announce...

My name is Kiki Howell, and I have an addiction to things vampire whether TV show, movie, documentary, fiction or even non-fiction. While I am a mom and haven’t gotten to it all, I am trying – just not trying to find a cure for my fixation! Before you can wonder, some of my favorites are True Blood where I am much more of an Eric than an Bill fan. In books, I have read Teresa Medeiros Cabot series (After Midnight and The Vampire Who Loved Me) more times than I care to mention. Looking for a little non-fiction, may I recommend, Konstantinos’ Vampires: The Occult Truth. It presents an interesting account of vampires in real life if you dare to go there. I am one that is pretty open when it comes to reading books. I saw this one, and there was that whole curiosity thing.

As a writer of paranormal, erotic romances, when I got to the point of wanting to write my own vampire tale, I was driven to go to some of the earliest works to depict a vampire. So, I studied The Giaour, a poem by Lord Byron first published in 1813 and The Vampyre, published in 1819 by John Polidori, which was inspired by an unfinished story by Byron. What draws me to the Byronic Hero? Well, to me he is the quintessential bad boy—the arrogant, intelligent, dark, cunning, seductive male who is a tortured soul living outside the social norms. Sorry, I will force myself to stop with the adjectives! While enjoyed the Twilight books, and I watch The Vampire Diaries, I long more for the darker type of cursed hero. My vampire will never see the sun, will suffer always with blood lust no matter how he sustains his life. His existence will be truly tragic in that touching a life with his own will have dire circumstances. When I began the story, I did want to set before my hero a situation where his decisions would both redeem and damn him at the same time. To top this all off, I set my story in Regency England among a world of titles and glamour, and then allowed myself the freedom to write a more gothic, angst-filled tale, ending and all. What I ended up with is my novella, Bloodlust & Redemption.

Conflicted by his ideas of fate and morality, David Ardington IV, who had been a rake in life, sees his eternal life as a vampire as a penance for shirking his noblesse oblige to his family. When he meets Margaret, a sturdy maiden who after losing her parents in a tragic accident stifled her own needs to care for her sick brother, their attraction is immediate and undeniable. And yet, David fights his feelings for Margaret seeing her as the worst reminder of what he is and what he can never be again. In the midst of the cruel realities of his vampire existence, David fears for her safety unsure if he can keep separate his physical longings from his bloodlust. Furthermore, when Margaret asks him to turn her brother to give him a second chance at life, he does not feel he can condemn anyone to the horrors of his dark existence either. For David, could redemption lie in doing the unthinkable Margaret asks of him, or will it forever be elusive?

All readers who would like a free PDF eBook copy of Bloodlust & Redemption emailed to them, please comment below with your favorite vampire book or show, etc. Remember to include your email address. Book will come as an attachment from One lucky commenter will be chosen to receive a free, autographed print copy of the story with a hand-knitted dripping blood book thong made by me. When I email you I will ask for an address to send it to.

Good Luck,


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dream Casting: "The Mummy"

Kindly indulge my fight of fancy for a few moments, will you?

One of my favorite "classic" horror films is 1932's The Mummy with Boris Karloff. It is also a pivotal film in some surprising ways, not least because it began the whole "lost love reincarnated" trope which has become almost ubiquitous in horror films ever since (probably done best in Bram Stoker's Dracula, but present many times elsewhere, usually involving vampires).

About a decade ago, after many years in development, Stephen Sommers directed his own version of The Mummy amid massive special effects--the result being a grotesque mess of a motion picture. Among other things, it is a perfect example of an "idiot plot." Quite simply, the story only makes sense once you realize every single character in it--including all of the ones off-screen--are idiots. The cast is good, but they are doing their best to rise above utterly wretched material designed for maximum cheap humor coupled with spectacular fight scenes.

No, I didn't like it. Not one little bit. And yet, it is Sommers' best movie. Don't get me started on the mess that is Van Helsing.

I do not mind special effects, not at all. Expanding the story makes plenty of sense to moi. But I simply don't buy that either one necessitates a terrible screenplay. The original has the essence of something great, something that so struck a cord it has been replayed again and again. Barnabas and Josette in Dark Shadows is an obvious example--the search by a supernatural being for his lost love, now reincarnated (or so he believes).

Let us start with the characters. At the heart of this story is Imhotep, the Egyptian priest buried alive and brought back to life by the careless recitation of words from a magical scroll by an archeologist who goes mad at the sight. I suggest Alexander Siddig in the title role, an actor best known in this country for his work on the t.v. show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But he's always shown considerable more ability than that particular show allowed, even if it was my favorite Star Trek. Besides, with him as Imhotep (later masquerading as the egyptologist Ardath Bey) one can see the heroine actually tempted to join in living death. It helps methinks if at least some of the audience ends up on the Mummy's side!

Helen Grosvenor is the love interest, reincarnation of the Princess for whom Imhotep was sentenced to a horrifying death. My choice is an actress I've admired ever since she appeared in "Five Little Pigs" for Poirot. Her name is Sophie Winkleman and she's been increasingly busy. She even played a princess in the now-defunct series The Palace. One thing lost in the remake was the notion that Helen is half-Egyptian herself, but methinks that offers a marvelous source of drama. Racism rarely came under attack in 1930s films, it too-often being regarded as the status quo. But seems to me that the knee-jerk reaction of many Europeans (and natives) to a "half breed" would create greater tension. Were Helen a strong young woman living with a certain amount of loneliness, as a semi-pariah she is both more vulnerable yet also more likely to make surprising decisions. In other words, we might more easily believe she would choose Imhotep over her contemporary love interest.

That contemporary love interest is Frank Whemple, son of the man who discovered Imhotep and who now (with Ardeth Bay's help) uncovers the lost tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Honestly, in my version it would be Whemple's father who went mad after seeing the Mummy come to life. Imagine if you will a young Englishman with something to prove, someone only too willing to buck social trends by falling for Helen. Methinks a good choice for this role is frankly Robert Pattinson. Methinks he is a very good, very intense actor and it would be a nice stretch for him to play an English gentleman struggling with defying social conventions, a rational view of the world now challenged by the supernatural, and haunted by the tragedy of his father's madness. Besides this triangle now makes plenty of sense in terms of chemistry!

Dr. Mueller is the "Van Helsing" character of the piece, the one who figures out what is going on. In the original, he was even played by Edward van Sloan (who was indeed Bela Lugosi's nemesis in the first Dracula). I'd cast Toby Stephens in the part. A fine actor who looks almost excessively Anglo-Saxon (all the more to highlight Helen's race), he has a sense of the sinister which is more believable in someone who sees an inexplicable events and considers "the living dead" as a possible solution! Recall this story is contemporary with Aleister Crowley and the rise of nationalist occultism in Germany.

Honestly, I also feel the story needs another female character, so I'd give Frank a sister--let us call her Anne. She can be a confidante of her brother, a voice of reason (dead people coming to life?) and of propriety (falling for a half-Arab girl?) and maybe even something of a not-quite-friend to Helen. An actress I very much admire is Kelly Reilly, best known in this country probably as Mary Morstan in the new film Sherlock Holmes. One can also imagine her taking some kind of terrible chance amidst the supernatural events, blithely not seeing the full scope of the danger.

Methinks expanding the "action" of the story makes perfect sense, but one needn't include armies of zombies to the mix. Let us keep, for example, the plot device that Imhotep learns that resurrecting his beloved won't work because she has been reborn. He then seeks out strange occult means of learning her identity, and in the process stirs Helen's memories of past lives. Thus her interest in him grows, part of her recognizing this strange man as someone important to her... But the choice of precisely what to do remains her own. (Parenthetically, I hated that this character in the remake ended up nothing more than a tool for Imhotep to use in bringing back his love--jeopardy replacing drama, an obstacle course of physical dangers replacing human conflict). Methinks the spectacle of such a story can be reflected in all sorts of things, not least the weather and reactions of official authorities as strange events mount (the theft of ancient treasures, for example--needed by Imhotep for his work). Ritual magic requires all kinds of specifics, including the exact positions of stars so that can provide the "ticking time bomb" aspect of the story. A sumptuous use of flashback imagery from Ancient Egypt could help the film even more visually exciting. But at its heart we need to care about the characters, and the story needs to be about that.

Okay, rant over. My delving into wish-fullfillment is done. Thanks for your patience.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Winston Churchill (review)

Booksneeze is a neat little set-up wherein you (or in this case--I) get free books in return for agreeing to review them. This is my first.

Winston Churchill by John Perry is one of a series of biographies from a specific perspective called "Christian Encounters." As per usual, the biographer in question approaches his subject from a direction--in this case, examining Churchill in terms of his faith.

Unfortunately, that proves tricky. Winston Churchill was a mass of contradictions and his piety was almost the least of these. He certainly believed that religion had its place, not least as a source of comfort and inspiration. But he almost never went to church. He memorized whole passages of the Bible, yet quite clearly declared he didn't believe in its truth. Given the way he himself played fast and loose with the facts in his own written histories, this adds another layer to the irony.

One problem with the book is, frankly, its size. Winston Churchill led an extremely full and complex life. This biography of him has less than 175 pages, including a bibliography. Hardly enough to do the subject anything like justice! Still, the author tries. What follows is a quick precis of a long life, with lots of perfectly fascinating (if incomplete and somewhat slanted) details about background and childhood. Yet at the same time, much of Churchill's life simply does not lend itself to such simplicity. The length of the book simply precludes discussion of complexity. Churchill's depression gets a few paragraphs, roughly a third assigned that to Churchill's marriage and about the same as to the lives of his children (their deaths--including one suicide--are mentioned in passing).

Quite a lot gets left out. How could it not? One thing sacrificed is nuance. Another, frankly, is anything like a real understanding of what was going on involving the momentous events through which Churchill lived. Two immediate problems present themselves.

First is that Churchill's faith (at least in the sense of religion) was but one minor facet of a vastly complex personality and life. The author notes some influences upon Churchill as a child and young man, but also cherry picks quotes extensively to give an impression of more-or-less intense if unstated religious belief. It never seems to occur to the author that Churchill's oratory in public (emphasis mine) might represent anything but his own totally candid views. Invoking vastly popular sentiments is the bread and butter of politicians, yet nowhere is this awareness shown--just a taking at face value of any quote than can be interpreted as referred to a theistic idea. Given the (literally) voluminous quantity of Churchill's writing and speaking, one feels a clearer expression of the words Mr. Perry tries to put in his subject's mouth would have been available.

Second, given the focus of this biography, it is remarkably how little serious discussion is given religion, faith or Christianity--much less other religions and their adherents who form part of the narrative of Churchill's life. Other than a vague question of life-after-death and a belief in destiny (the latter pretty clearly an expression of a brilliant man's ego) the ideas of Christianity are left essentially unmentioned. The conflict between Protestants and Catholicsin Ireland is touched upon, but nothing more.

The Muslims Churchill condemned in his early writing as a journalist get more wordage, but (as per usual) their role as an "enemy" and "savage" is never questioned, just as General "Chinese" Gordon's virtue is presumed because he had been a missionary. His death is battle is openly called a murder while the desecration of a Muslim leader's grave is dubbed bad form. If the author meant to simply convey the ideas prevalent at the time, he failed. Too little of that era is brought to life, merely dry if well-composed explanations of a certain surface details. Gandhi and India virtually go unmentioned. Ditto the Holocaust!

Granted, trying to tell a life like that of Winston Churchill in under 175 pages is balking task. Also, I understand the author was using a specific approach to the subject matter. But at the end of the book, I'm left with no more insight--however small--than I had before. Not about faith, about Christianity, nor about Churchill himself.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Last night I went to see Tim Burton's vision of Alice in Wonderland. Methinks it a little odd that such is the title, since transparently this film is not a telling of that story. Rather it is a sequel of sorts. Alice, a young woman who does not recall her earlier adventures, finds herself in as awkward a position as one might suppose--expected to agree to a marriage proposal from her family's oldest friend's son, a young nobleman named Hamish. Worse, she's the only one who didn't know that was the reason for this party. Worse still, the entire party is on hand, watching expectantly for her to say yes (there is even an artist nearby to capture the event on canvas). Worst of all is Hamish, her would-be fiancee. He has a chin, but barely. His teeth aren't quite those of a horse, but close. His nose isn't a bad shape but the way he carries it--up in the air, sniffing his way amidst the lower orders--makes an unremarkable profile into something memorable and unpleasant.

That is when she spots a rabbit in a waistcoat, tapping a watch...and follows him. So she enters again the world of madness and fancy, where animals talk and caterpillars smoke from hookas.

Many are the versions of Alice I've seen and enjoyed. My favorite honestly has been Alice at the Palace, a stage production starring Meryl Streep, Debbie Allen, Michael Jeter, Betty Aberlin and others. How does Burton's measure up?

Well, to start with, it is a good movie. Entertaining, a visual feast, with a good story and interesting characters brought to life by an excellent cast. Much has been made in discussions I've read about Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen (essentially based on the Queen of Hearts) and Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter. Both deserve great praise, not least because they make such bizarre characters real. Carter's Queen is a borderline sociopath, a lonely brat with violent tendencies for whom maturity has meant greater sophistication but no greater wisdom. Depp's Hatter on the other hand seems like an already unstable victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, one with an intense sense of whimsy now coupled with a fierce belief in right and wrong (and very, very cunning).

But who most impressed me were Mia Wasakowski as Alice and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. They stole the whole thing, at least in my eyes.

Wasakowski, as the lead, did a fine job of balancing the two impulses vying within her Alice at almost every turn. On the one hand, she likes being a child--one without responsibilities save to obey a few rules and be protected. Yet she also longs for adulthood--to make her own rules, to do what she thinks right. Coupled with all this is her bubbling imagination (a burden in some ways) and a genuinely good heart. Her solution to retrieving the Vorpal Sword, for example, reveals a lot about her character.

But Hathaway's White Queen frankly steals every frame of footage in which she appears. It would have been easy to make such a character little more than a style. She does not walk so much as she floats gently. Her words are intoned almost sung, her hands posed in genteel friendship, her every gesture soothing and graceful. Yet she is so much more. All throughout the film she seems on the edge of something. When she assures Alice that she can indeed imagine what goes on in the Red Queen's castle, one gets a sense that she and her sister have a lot more in common than one would like to imagine. But her "oath" binds her not to harm any living thing, even to the point where she feels (or feigns) nausea at the sight of physical violence.

Wonderland, after all, is a place of madness. The political struggle in this story seems to be a choice between forms of insanity--Don Qixote or Hannibal Lecter.

I've three critiques of the movie, which involve what keeps the film from being "excellent" and relegates it to "very good."

First, it doesn't really capture the weirdness of Lewis Carroll's vision. His Wonderland (no less than his Through the Looking Glass) is the stuff of dreams, and such gives them their power. Dreams (said someone, probably Joseph Campbell) are the myths of the individual, just as myths are the dreams of the society. Well, this film fails to create a myth. It tries, but ultimately what we are seeing a land of whimsy not a realm of the inner mind.

Second, a lack of backstory. Perhaps this isn't strictly needed. I don't need to know all the details. How did the Red Queen come to control the Jabberwocky, the Gib-Gib Bird as well as the frumious Bandersnatch? What happened to Alice's father? What is Underland, really? (Parenthetically, the borrowing from The Wizard of Oz was cute but a tad self-conscious). Perhaps I'd've preferred more hints of the history behind events. Entirely personal, this reaction. Maybe.

Third and finally, something about the arc of Alice herself doesn't quite ring true. She makes an emotional commitment rather quickly and honestly I didn't see it happen. Not in terms of exact moment, but some part of the process ended up off screen and its absence was felt.

Please note these are nuances. Nuances can, often do make the difference between Good and Great. Yet I would not hesitate to recommend this film to others (provided they enjoy this sort of thing--the Disney version this is not, nor indeed is it really an adaptation of the original at all).

Monday, March 8, 2010

Growing Up

This marks my entry in the March 2010 Blog Chain.

"Growing Up" derives (or so it seems) from a straightforward fact--namely, that as we get older most of us get taller. But if so, then doesn't such hint at a limitation to the whole idea? Humans generally reach their full height by sometime in their teens, or soon after. In other words, when it comes to "growing up" we...well, stop. Literally, anyway.

Hence my preference for a different phrase. Coming of age.

It feels better, more complete and deeper. To grow up sounds perfunctory, with a focus upon but one aspect of maturity, surely one of the least important. What is height compared to self-control? To understanding?

Countless stories use this process as the heart of the plot. Never mind about efforts to thwart the Dark Lord or win the love of the your life or achieve that event coming up at the end of the tale or solving the crime somewhere near the beginning. Those are surface details. Very often what a plot really consists of is what Robert Heinlein called "The Boy Who Learned Better." One of the frustrating things about nearly every adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick for instance (even sincere ones like the 1950s version penned by Ray Bradbury) is how the films ignore the story of the narrator (who says to call him Ishmael, a different thing from saying such is his name interestingly enough) and how he changes. In the book, he is seeking he-knows-not-what and goes to sea because he knows from experience the soothing impact this has. But once aboard the Pequod, his heart catches fire from the rest of the crew--he hungers to take part in the hunt for whales. Yet later, from the crow's nest, he views a whale calf's birth. He feels the blood lust leave him. Later, alone of all those on board, Ishmael the man who does NOT long to hunt whales, is the sole survivor. Coincidence? Or the whole point in some ways of the story?

Another interesting detail about Moby Dick is that the novel itself is an example of this process. Go and read what Melville wrote before, then read his masterpiece as well as what followed. Seems amazing the same man created both. More, Melville evidently planned his whale novel to be quite different. It changed as his pen put words on paper. Writers know what that is like. Not writing a story so much as transcribing it, describing what we find rather than composing what should go into the work.

My own writing--or coming of age as a writer--echoes this. Not so much the following of my heart, but the learning how to listen then carefully put upon paper what I hear. Craft, yes--but that is almost like learning a software (I would have said driving a car or riding a bicycle, but not knowing how to do either...). Practice until you are proficient, then simply use the skill acquired. Much harder, a far more mature ability (at least in my case) is to swim the river of imagination, barely knowing what lies ahead.

But that is just me. Your experience will be different, at least to some extent. That pesky (glorious) individuality thing, dontcha know...

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

I Won a Book!

Over at Catherine Karp's blog Suburban Vampire there was a contest to win a copy of Lana Griffin's new novel Dusk, which after reading the blurb seemed to me a kind of R-Rated Dark Shadows.

And I won! Woo hoo!

So expect a review before the month is up! Heh heh heh.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Distaff Dracula Cast

Just a bit of wild speculation for the sake of fun...

There was an excerpt of a play I saw on YouTube some months ago, a production of Dracula wherein all the characters' genders were switched. Certainly an intriguing idea, and with more than a touch of promise. So it got me thinking (always a bit of a dangerous thing).

Suppose a young female solicitor (Joanna Harker) traveled to the wilds of Transylvania to meet a wealthy Countess, one who wishes to discretely purchase properties in London. But said Countess is a vampire, with harem of undead Grooms that haunt the crumbling castle. She means to travel to fresh hunting grounds, and along the way will feast upon the blood of this young solicitor's fiancee (William Murray) as well as his best friend (Louis Westenra). The latter is a bit of a womanizer, and three of his conquests--Dr. Jacqueline Seward, Lady Aurelia Holmwood and the American Cathy Morris--unite to try and save him. Even with the help of occult scholar Beatrice Van Helsing they fail and Louis rises from the grave as a vampire, at first a hunter of girl children until they put him to rest. Then they all must find the source of the contagion, the strangely melancholy Countess Dracula herself.

Has possibilities, don't you think?

In fact, doesn't this scenario shake up a lot of what we expect from the whole dynamic? If Louis Westenra starts feeding on little girls, the specter of pedophilia rears its ugly head--one wonders why it doesn't feel that way if Lucy goes around biting boy children? Likewise, in writing the plot description above it seemed natural to call Louis a womanizer, as befits a man with up to three fiancees! Who then cheats on them!

This isn't a long post, just a bit of fun speculation to let readers know I've not abandoned my blog. If you've anything to add, feel free to do so. For example, who would you cast as Countess Dracula? One of the first names that come to my own mind is Neve McIntosh, whom I admire very much after seeing her perform opposite Jonathan Rhys Myers in Gormenghast. But I saw Kelly Reilly as Joanna Harker. Likewise I almost immediately imagined Pauline Moran (Miss Lemon on Agatha Christie's Poirot) as Dr. Seward and Sophie Winkleman as Lady Aurelia Holmwood. Methinks Rupert Penry-Jones would be a fine Louis Westenra (the cad!). What about William Murray? How about Rupert Evans?