Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Fall (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan have written/are writing a vampire trilogy that some have dubbed "The Anti-Twilight."  Titled The Fall it picks up pretty much where the previous (first) novel left off.  New York City has been infected by a kind of vampiric disease, a mutating virus spread by worms that rewrites the victims' DNA into a kind of gigantic insect.  They still look more-or-less human.  Kinda/sorta.  Unless you get a good look at the red eyes, the hairless and earless head.  Or their hands.  If they open their mouths, the illusion is gone.  A four-foot fleshy stinger awaits its chance to burrow into a victim and draw out blood like a mosquito.


The Fall marks a deliberate attempt to tell a tale of horror.  For the record, the writers succeed.  The unnamed (at first) Master Vampire behind this plague threatening to destroy New York has much more in common with The Master from Buffy than the same-named villain from Doctor Who.  He is a demon, a towering giant of viciousness with the patience of long years and centuries to plan.  He is one of seven original Vampires, but the one gone most rogue.  Interestingly, he is also the one most capable of seeing humanity's potential, of using what (to him) are just wonderful human ideas.

Like concentration camps.

Much of the novel consists of racing against time by our lead characters, unraveling a few of the mysteries about vampires and what The Master seems to be aiming for.  As other cities begin to suffer the fate of New York, one looms most large--what is The Master's ultimate plan?  He clearly doesn't want to turn all  humanity into vampires.  That would be stupid, and suicidal.  So what is his goal?  The Van Helsing-like Abraham Setrakian believes he knows a way to find out.  More, to learn a key to snatching some kind of victory from the gore-drenched jaws of holocaust.  It all lies in an incredibly rare book based on an obscure Mesopotamian text, a tome said to contain the origins of the Ancients, the seven eldest vampires of all.

Eph Goodweather, former head of the CDC and now a fugitive from forces allied to The Master, struggles not only to find a way to help stop a plague but to protect his beloved son from his vampirized ex-wife.  Making up a third is Vasily Fet, one-time professional exterminator and now very effective vampire-hunter.  How the lives of all these characters tend to intertwine in fascinating ways is part of what makes the novel so much fun.  A few in-jokes are a little much (if you're familiar with Mexican wrestler Santo movies, you'll soon see what I mean--but it works).  The overall impact is a dizzying roller-coaster ride through an intricate chamber of horrors.

Yes, I know that is a mixed metaphor.  I don't care.

One thing that continues to bother me is the treatment of the characer Nora, Eph's co-worker as well as once-and-future lover.  In the first novel The Strain she was something of a cypher.  We get to know her a little bit better in this film, including some hint of a tendency to place herself in orbit around others.  But at heart she's a secondary character, nothing more.  I admit to a prejudice towards stories with stronger female roles.

Elsewhere I've complained a bit about how some authors pull their dramatic punch.  Not in this book!  One expects our heroes to somehow save the day.  They don't.  They survive, most of them.  They come together towards a greater goal.  They do accomplish things, vital things.  Indeed, one can almost see the seeds of ultimate victory against The Master might have been sewn in these pages.  But if this were the story of World War Two, the novel ends with the fall of France and the Nazi blitz of London beginning its reign of death onto London.  As Eph and Nora are joined by Fet and the former gang-member Gus, as they watch the dominoes set up by The Master's plan begin to fall one-by-one, we can only hope this is the darkest hour.

It probably is not.  Hogan and Del toro accomplish what relatively few authors manage to do--surprise me.  They have primed my anticipation and hopes that one year from now I'll be writing another review in equally glowing terms.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Remake of Caligari (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A friend of mine shared this with me and I had to write a review, share it with folks who might appreciate it as I do.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as a milestone of German expressionistic cinema, one that seriously influenced nearly all that came after it.  One can see in it a lens through which a traumatized society began to see the world.  Recall this was immediately following the First World War, a social upheaval whose reverberations included the Nazis, Lord of the Rings, Prohibition, the rise of new and startling artforms as well as the end to most of the ancient monarchies of Europe.  We still feel it today.

In 2005 a sound remake not only recreated the story but by filming on green screen managed to use the actual background of the original, placing new actors against the same eerie nightmare landscape.  Ah the wonders of the personal computer!

A old man tells a spooky story to a young one, Francis (Judson Pearce Morgan) who scoffs at belief in devils or ghosts.  Then, a beautiful young woman passes (Lauren Birkell) without answering their salutation.  Francis, grief-stricken, identifies her as his fiancee.  He says her sanity was destroyed in a terrible series of events...

From there the flashback begins, telling of Francis and his best friend Allan (Neil Hopkins) who both love Jane (the aforementioned beautiful young woman).  Allan drags Francis off to see the local Carnival, where on a whim they go see the exhibit of one Dr. Caligari (Daamen J. Krall) -- a somnambulist named Caesare (Doug Jones of Hellboy fame) who can be made to wake then foresee the future.  Allan asks how long he has to live.  The answer "Until dawn tomorrow!"  Sure enough, within twelve hours he has been stabbed to death in his sleep.  Francis, suspicious of Caligari and perhaps guilt-ridden over loving the same woman as his murdered best friend (and neglecting him in the wake of Allan's mental illness), spurs city officials to investigate.  But in doing so, he becomes the target of Caligari's revenge--aimed squarely at the lovely Jane!  Caesare, under his master's hypnotic commands, goes to kill her.  But then, entranced by her beauty, he stays his hand.  Seeking to kidnap her instead, Caesare is chased down.  Jane, alas, is so traumatized she becomes almost catatonic.  Francis is the one who tracks down Caligari to his lair--an insane asylum where the man turns out to be the director!

As the story concludes, we return to the present.  Francis bemoans his Jane's continued state-of-mind while continuing to insist there are no ghosts, no demons, only the physical world.  Then comes the twist.  We learn all three of them--Francis, the old man, and Jane--are inmates at the very asylum of the flashback.  Caesare is another inmate.  More, the man identified as "Caligari" is indeed the asylum's director.  As Francis attacks him and is put into a straight jacket, the Doctor believes he now understands and may be able to cure him.

Such a simple plot description doesn't capture what makes both films--original and remake--so powerful.  A lot depends upon the strange look of the film and its world.  There's hardly a vertical or horizontal line anywhere.  Instead curves and angles abound.  Like film noir decades later, shadows frame so many shots  and likewise the acting has a stylized quality.  Almost stage-theatrical.  More, the acting itself isn't simply creepy for the sake of effect, but informed by the subtext.  We can see how even in the flashback Allan, Francis and Jane all seem fragile.  Each seems potentially the victim of mental illness.  The easier, cheaper choice would have been to play them as already mad in some way.  "Fragile" works much better, and is also harder to pull off.  This cast did it, though!  Likewise, in this world-within-a-world passions simmer under the surface but bound by social rules.  How appropriate that here, a wedding proposal between two young people who clearly love one another is enacted with neither looking the other in the eye!

But what helps make this such a success is not only the fine performances or stunning look, but the fact the script by David Lee Fisher (who also directed) presses the button of fear and uncertainty we all feel.  How can we be sure?  Might not everything we believe be wrong?

Consider--in 1920 the world was reeling from the most vast and destructive war in history, one that devastated Europe and saw startling new forms of death wielded in ways no one seemed to have given serious thought to before.  More, that war had seemingly accomplished little good.  A dictatorial regime in an aggressive nation was replaced by an unstable democracy, rendering the heart of a vital part of the world uncertain of its future.  At the same time a dictatorial movement had seized power in a resource-rich nation and sought to expand that movement's sway.  That this movement was ill-understood by most only made things worse.  On top of all that, a terrible disease had come out of nowhere and wrecked havoc across the globe (the 1918 Spanish Flu).  All this in the wake of disasters involving what we'd regarded as the crowning achievement of our technological world of wonders (the Titanic).  The wealthy of the world saw their fortunes rise to dizzying heights while the poor in many ways got worse and worse.  Scientific breakthroughs were questioning our foundations of what we believed about reality (this was the heyday of Freud and Einstein) while new forms of communication ushered in social movements and changing gender roles that puzzled/threatened those unable to cope.

Sound familiar?  Is it any wonder that final scene in Caligari still moves us, still confuses and resonates?  Because we still are on Francis' side.  We still want Jane to love him, even though we now know she doesn't even know him.  We distrust the Doctor, even though he has done nothing wrong we know of--quite the opposite.  Francis screams at the end.  Don't we feel a little like screaming as well?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dracula Mash Up!!!

Okay, this is silly but I'm in a silly mood!  Suppose we had all the film versions of Dracula from which to mix and match the best in each role--who would we chose?  Actually, since this is my blog, the question is who would I choose?  Something of a Rorshach test actually...

I'll admit that to my mind Peter Cushing remains my first and most vivid image of Van Helsing, perhaps most oddly in some ways because (unlike most portrayals) he seems to be presented as an Englishman, even though of course the character is Dutch!  On the other hand, he has a German accent in the novel so go figure.  To bb sure there have been other great Van Helsings, including Sir Anthony Hopkins but Cushing is the learned vampire hunter in my mind's eye.  Probably because he was the first, when I saw Hammer's Brides of Dracula way back when during an afternoon movie.  Likewise the best Mina I've ever seen was Lupita Tovar in the Spanish-language version of Dracula made at the same time as Lugosi's version (but at night). Long thought lost, the missing reel of this almost-forgotten classic was found  in the film archives of Cub
a and can now be purchased on DVD.  Okay, that character's name was "Eva" but she was obviously supposed to be Mina--she was best friends with Lucy, engaged to Harker, was the vampire's second victim, etc.  Jonathan Harker is in many ways the least interesting role in the whole book, since he exists as little more than a good-looking leading man who is tempted by the Brides then dutifully does what he's told by others, holding his wife's hand half the time.  Or so it would seem.  When you look at Colin Redgrave's version of him in the 1968 BBC Dracula one sees a bit more potential--and all that stuff is indeed present in the novel.  He clearly feels very strongly about the Count and has some
mixed feelings about Mina, although he does love her, and is one of two sufferers of mental illness in the story.  True, in that version they were giving me the Renfield-role but Redgraves' remains the single most vivid Jonathan Harker to my sensibilities.  The same version gave us Susan George as Lucy Westenra (oddly re-named Western for some reason).  Frankly, one cannot help but wish after seeing her in this take that she hadn't been hired by Hammer to appear in some of their vampire classics.  She blended the innocence and flirtatiousness of Lucy the human girl with the dark glamour and sensual nature of the vampire in a way that grabbed
the attention and kept it.  Just as Francis Ford Coppola's ironically named Bram Stoker's Dracula gave us IMHO very nearly the epitome of both Dr. Jack Seward with Richard E. Grant in the role, and Bill Campbell as the American cowboy Quincey Morris.  Yet the Arthur Holmwood who remains most firmly fixed in my memory is from an interesting but not-quite-there version by the BBC in 2006--in the case the actor Dan Stevens as a syphlitic aristocrat (inherited from his father) horrified by all his hopes and dreams about to be yanked from him by an unspeakable (and unspoken-of) practical joke set up by Fate.  It was so interesting to see this figure portrayed not as an epitome of proper English values but a well-meaning yet weak victim of Victorian hypocrisy.  Likewise Seward, the eldest of the three suitors as an somewhat unscrupulous obsessive, coupled with a Quincey with little sophistication but a heart of gold proved both interesting and pleasing...

The Three Suitors of Lucy

Speaking (or writing) of threes, one can hardly think of that number and the story of Transylvania's most famous nobleman without summoning images of Dracula's Brides--an unholy, lusting trinity who have fueled many a young man's dreams (and more than a few young lady's as well, surely).  Again, I chose from Bram Stoker's Dracula one such, in this case one of the most beauteous creatures on this Earth--actress Monica Bellucci.  From the afore-mentioned Hammer studio production Brides of Dracula (which is technically not about Dracula per se) the image of Andree Melly continues to haunt my own musings about female vampires, and the one detail of quality in an otherwise wretched motion picture called Old Dracula is the almost cameo of Linda Hayden as a new recruit into the Count's harem.
The Brides of Dracula!

We are now left with two major roles yet to be cast from all those who've done them on screen before now.  Clearly the lesser of the two, Renfield remains a plum role.  What actor worth his salt doesn't find the idea of playing a bug-eating madman desperate for yet terrified of redemption at least tempting?  This one was close, because I really loved Tom Waits in the role, but when push comes to shove the performance of Jack Shepherd (no, not the
Lost character!) in BBC's 1977 Count Dracula the most effective and moving.  Of all the Renfields, he most touched my heart.  So naturally he is my choice.

Which brings us to our lead.  Looking back on the rest of the cast, methinks we can see a certain retro feel to the whole thing, yes?  And yet my own sensibilities (reflected herein) are modern.  So my final casting choice rests on a technicality.  He has not in fact played Count Dracula.  But he did play a real vampire recruited to pretend to be Count Dracula
for purposes of a motion picture.  Close enough for jazz, and the purposes of my blog.  So here is Willem Dafoe as an unnamed undead persuaded by F.W.Murnau to play the title character in the silent classic Nosferatu.  This film--Shadow of the Vampire.

Until some movie-making software leaps ahead by a quantum step or two, your imagination is the only place where you can see this movie.  Alas.  But on the other hand, that shouldn't be too hard, should it?  Take a stroll through this dream-version of Bram Stoker's novel why don't you?  Tell me what you think...  Or share your own ideas.

Enter freely of your own will...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Unused Vampire Tropes

Given the popularity of the undead in mainstream media these days (or nights, as the case might be) one hopes a bit more variety might show up in the various movies and t.v. shows of the genre.

Books of course have nearly every trope imaginable, but also (nearly always) have far smaller audiences.  So let us deal with film and television.

Here are some ideas/themes/story elements that I haven't seen yet.  Every single one seems quite viable, enjoyable, full of potential.  And for the record, by no stretch of the imagination are they my own invention.  Each can be found somewhere in undead literature already--but hardly at all elsewhere.  Producers, writers, directors--take note.

  • Detective turned vampire.  Oh wait, you say.  What about Angel or Forever Knight or Blood Ties, etc.?  Haven't we seen enough of these?  Actually, no.  All of the above are vampires-turned-detective.  What about someone who is already a detective, perhaps an FBI agent or a regular cop or some such, who becomes a vampire yet continues in his (or her) job?  This has all kinds of possibilities, not least watching the newborn undead learn the truth of their existence (a fascinating process with Jessica on True Blood incidentally) and at the same time solving crimes.
  • Vampire Origins.  With the possible exception of the Dracula 2000 trilogy  (which was fun, but made little sense since vampires predate the birth of Christ), this is a startling untapped vein (sorry, sorry) of intrigue, mystery and adventure.  Consider how much Spielberg got out of the Holy Grail and the Lost Ark of the Covenant!  Think also how vampires themselves might view the question.  Would they be any less divided on such than mortal men?
  • Undead Secret Masters.  Paranoia is good wellspring of story-telling, if a sad facet of normal human existence.  That is why The X-Files' frankly ridiculous theory about the JFK assassination had "legs"
    and the so-called "Masonic Conspiracy" about Jack the Ripper has made a couple of thrilling movies (even if the theory itself is nonsense).  But what about a story that explored the notion that a cabal of powerful vampires really do control the world, much as the Illuminati or the Gnomes of Zurich or some such are said to?  It could be they aren't particularly vicious or evil, even.  Our heroes might even work for them, tracking down genuine threats to world order and tasting all the angst that might go along with such a job.
  • Bloodlines.  Quite simply, there are different types of vampires--each has their own culture, powers, weaknesses, etc.  Kindred: The Embraced dabbled in this ever so slightly, as did Forever Knight but what about exploring the idea as a genuine story element with real consequences?   How would it be if some vampires burned in sunlight, while others could shapeshift and still others needed to sleep in their original graves, and so on?  Imagine how such bloodlines might interact!
  • Mysticism.  Understandably enough, the vampires portrayed on shows like The Vampire Diaries and movies like Let Me In are grounded in the physical.  But what about a totally different direction?  Legends of the supernatural tell much stranger tales--of beings that can be in two places at once, that are in some sense not even matter as we know it, vampires as more akin to blood-drinking ghosts than paranormal predators of humans.  Remember the owls on Twin Peaks?  Or the spookiness of the Let's Scare Jessica to Death?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

September Blog Chain: Seasons

This month's blog chain is about seasons, which is left up to us in exactly how we approach same.  Such is a tad awkward, because I already wrote on this subject.  Kinda/sorta.  But it isn't as if Autumn is a subject easily exhausted!

I am not at all a summer person.  Even after growing in Florida, amid an atmosphere only slightly less humid than New Orleans, heat is not something I like.  In fact after the past decade of living in a huge artificial oasis on the coast of the American Southwest Desert (i.e. Los Angeles) my emotional attachment to Autumn has grown.   More puzzling is that Autumn includes so many disappointments.

My mother died in November.  So did the woman I loved.  Those are the top ones.  But there were more, including the last time I tried hosting a party.  A Halloween party.  Costumes, naturally.  One person arrived.  We watched 1977's BBC Count Dracula and chatted.  Never tried that again.

All of which makes me sound like a whiner, doesn't it?  Or at least depressed.  Me, I prefer the word melancholy.  Far more pretentious.  More accurate as well.  Perhaps I've learned to accept some degree of sadness in my life.  Didn't want to.  Still seethe in anger at the fact, at times even wanting to scream (maturity means I don't actually do it, though).

There, maybe, lies part of the answer.  Autumn is the time when things begin to die.  Yet, as Cyrano pointed out, each leaf achieves a kind of glory as it falls.  Remember Walsh?  (From the movie Serenity--go watch it if you haven't.)  My perceptions of the world are askew from others.  Whereas others look at people's eyes, my eyes find the mouth.  You know how so many writers write the equivalent of a sonnet then have to somehow cut it down to a haiku?  I'm the opposite.  Hence to me the dying of life seems soothing.

Years ago someone uttered a wise sentence to me.  "Life always keeps one particular promise--in the end you get to rest."  It has helped me, thinking on that.  Death has its attractions.  But no need to rush.  As the autumn leaves fall, they remind me of this.

Such might be part of the answer, anyway.

Here is the list of the September Blog Chain participants:
Ralph_Pines: and direct link to his post
Aheïla: and direct link to her post
DavidZahir: <<<< you are here
NEXT >>>>orion_mk3:
T.N. Tobias:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque

A whole mess of furor surrounds the announcement that a Muslim cultural center was going to open about two city blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan.  It has stirred so much controversy one has to believe a lot more than this one building is really being discussed.

Consider.  There are thousands and thousands of Muslim Americans living in Lower Manhattan.  Many were killed on 9/11, including fire fighters, police officers and nurses.  By no stretch of the imagination is anyone connected to the proposed center associated in any sane way with Al Qaeda or with anyone of that nature.  Claiming anything like that would be like accusing Vice President Joe Biden of being a child molester because he is Roman Catholic.

To be sure, this is a time of great uncertainty.  As with similar times, conspiracy theories and suspicion run rampant.  During the first World War, the British royal family had to change their name because its origins were German!  During the second, the USA literally forced thousands of Americans into camps where they could be watched and kept isolated (decades passed before we officially admitted we were wrong).  Why?  Because they were Japanese.  Incidentally, there are Japanese Buddhist and Shinto shrines very near Pearl Harbor today.  Look it up.

Also, politicians are painting in broad strokes to get attention.  That the party doing so lost (and lost big) in the last two national elections makes them willing to take chances.

But methinks one major reasons exits for all the furor.

Ignorance.  By and large, Americans are poorly educated when it comes to history or really anything to do with foreign cultures.  We soak up our images of other countries from popular culture--hence we imagine the English look and sound like characters on Masterpiece Theater.  Given the sheer amount of stuff we get from the UK, this is at least mitigated by variety.  Not so much France.  Even less Russia (where James Bond films probably helped shape our notions of Moscow's citizens).  But the Arab/Islamic world?  That is a culture we've almost never seen in our films and television--at least not in ways more realistic than The Thief of Bagdad or Sinbad the Sailor.  The only other image we've gotten of the Midlde East has been various kinds of thrillers in need of stock villains.  Whereas once Nazis or Soviets or Mafiosi or Banana Republic dictators served, the current stereotypical foreign antagonist is an Arab Terrorist.  Ever since the terrible Olympics Massacre in Munich, that has been the most telling icon of the Middle East in our collective minds--as real in our imagination as the monocled sadist in a German uniform.  In its own way, that massacre was as big a shock in 1972 as 9/11 was a quarter-century later.  It defined a region of the world, an ethnicity and a religion to those who knew next-to-nothing about any of them yet suddenly ignoring them impossible.  Both these events made Arabs and Muslims real in a way Genies and flying carpets never could.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  In the mind as in elsewhere.  Without genuine knowledge, the few facts immediately available flowed in and were followed by assumptions, rumors and the wild accusations of those who know very little but think themselves experts.  We take what we think we know of Arabs--often with images such as Jafar from Disney's Aladdin--and fill in the blanks.

Methinks this is anything but a conscious process.

When you think about it, such ignorance is more than a danger to peace-loving Muslim Americans.  That I probably have to make the point that such exist is an example of this ignorance.  Are all Irish Catholics supporters of the IRA?  Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War veteran--are all Gulf War veterans murderers of American children?  Ted Bundy was a Mormon.  Andrei Chikatillo was a Communist.  John Wayne Gacy was a Jaycee.  Jeffrey Dahmer was an alcoholic. Are all Mormons, Communists, Jaycees or alcoholics serial killers?  Are they even fans of serial killers?  Supporters of same?  It literally makes zero sense of any kind to assume that all one-billion-plus Muslims are somehow supporters of terrorists.  Especially since plenty of them have been victims of terrorists!  Plenty denounce terrorism (although this last gets little enough coverage--probably because there's only so much space in any news venue and so much happening at any given time).

One of the most important military lessons is "Know Your Enemy," articulated by the great military strategist Sun Tzu.  There can be little doubt that Muslim Extremists are a threat to the United States.  Yet we, the electorate who chose this country's leaders, we by and large do not know our enemy.  Instead of facts we swallow sweeping comments by pundits, comments very often false on their face.  Most of us seem to have no notion that Islam is far more divided and fractured than Christianity.  It simply does not and cannot speak with one voice.  We realize very little about Middle Eastern history, which fuels the rage and despair so common in that area of the world (I would posit that if the Middle East were Christian, we'd be facing pretty much the same problems as today--religion is an excuse, there as elsewhere).  Pundits and editorials make all kinds of claims about Islam, but are nearly always wrong--cherry-picking quotes and misinterpreting complex issues.  Imagine if you will someone doing the same to the Bible and Christian history.  Easy enough to do.

Give yourself this test.  What is the real meaning of the word Jihad?  How much do you actually know or believe you know about the life of Mohammed?  The word sharia gets bounded about alot--but what does it actually mean?  What nations are predominantly Muslim?  What does the Qu'ran actually say about Christians, and about Jesus?  Can you identify the man pictured here?  He's a famous Muslim poet.  Not perhaps the greatest or most famous, but he did write a verse that has haunted me ever since first hearing it.

O let my name be in the Book of Love
If it be there, I care not
About that other Book above.
Strike it out!  Or write it in anew.
But let it be in the name of Love!

Violence and intolerance are indeed part of the history of Islam--simply because both are part of the history of Man.  Yet such is not the whole story.  We--by that I mean the human species--creates beauty as well as ugliness, virtue as well as vice.  No segment of our race is devoid of the entire spectrum.  If we are to win against the worst aspects of ourselves--ourselves as in all human civilization, Christian and Muslim, black and white and brown, etc.--we need to understand what we have in common.