Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Polish TV Carmilla (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Here is the latest in my reviews of all known adaptations of LeFanu's vampire novella Carmilla. Again, for the sake of those who haven't read earlier posts, I'm restricting myself to recognizable versions of the original story. Thus a movie with a lesbian vampire in it named "Carmilla" doesn't count unless it is in some sense trying to tell LeFanu's tale.

In 1982 an adaptation aired on Polish T.V. How I got ahold of a copy is fairly convoluted, involving an estate sale and a third party. Frankly, I'd never even heard of this one and was excited to set eyes on such a thing. Unfortunately, it is entirely in Polish, a language I do not speak and there are no subtitles. Yet I know the story well and this was a remarkably faithful version. Following it proved not difficult.

The title character is played by Izabela Trojanowska, who certainly brings to it an air of otherworldliness and predatory charm. She's evidently mostly known as a pop singer in Poland. I've learned little more about the production, sad to say.

What I can say, having watched it, is this might be the single most faithful version yet made. It begins with the prologue missing from every other filmed Carmilla. Then we view Laura's household as it is when the events of the story proper begin. For once she does indeed have two governesses, the older and no-nonsense Madame Perradon along with the more elegant and imaginative Mademoiselle de la Fontaine. We actually see the dynamic between them and Laura as well as Laura's father. We get a sense, for example, of the class differences between them. More (in fact, vital) a sense of Laura's place here is only too clear. Lonely, saddled with (relatively mild) rules and subtle expectations in lieu of distractions or pleasures. She comes across as a waif, but not really an ingenue. More like a girl on the verge of womanhood with little or no idea what that means, obedient by habit almost to the point of invisibility.

One thing that impressed me about this was how much the story remained from her POV. More than once the fact people were keeping things from her became vivid through the camera work. That their mysterious guest focuses nearly all her attention on Laura of course proves intoxicating. Carmilla's arrival matches that of the book, but handled with what clearly couldn't have been a large budget. No carriage accident on screen, but as staged there was no need. A nice touch were the servants accompanying Carmilla's "mother." Not only silent, each had a kerchief tying their jaws shut, precisely as undertakers treated the dead in the 19th century. Shades of Marley in A Christmas Carol.

Also included was the Mountebank selling charms against the vampire, although he is freaked by Carmilla's presence and later is brought back to do a drunken scene in the local graveyard which substitutes for the whole Baron Vordenburg sequence. For the sake of plot, Laura's father seems to be merged with General Spielsdorf, allowing him to have the scene of "catching" the vampiress about to feed. Good stuff! The peasantry, coming to ask help of the Polish equivalent of country squire worked well, allowing a flashback to the legend of a vampire hunter in the past. Like I said, the elements of the novella remained largely intact.

Mostly, though, what pleased me was the atmosphere--like an odd ghost story--and the relationship between the two female leads. Although predatory, this Carmilla seemed to feel a little guilt as her friend weakened. Laura herself seemed so modest as to willingly hold on to whatever little pleasures she could find, hardly thinking to ask for more. As her only friend is hunted down and destroyed, she seems in shock. Certainly no one seems to think her deserving of much comfort. Protection, yes. Care, certainly. But that she might have had feelings for this woman never seems to enter into anyone's mind.

I'll confess frankly to a wish the relationship between the two had been more sensual, that Carmilla be a bit more tormented a la Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers. But that is personal taste.

Yet all this leads up to a startling little denoument. In the aftermath of the vampire's destruction, Laura's father and Mademoiselle de la Fontaine fall asleep late at night in the main room. Each is in a comfortable chair as the candles flicker and the fireplace glows. The door to Laura's bed room opens. The girl emerges, wearing only her long white nightgown and for the very first time her hair is completely undone, like a pale mane of some animal. She glides into the room, waking no one. Her eyes fix upon the exposed throat of her governess...

Overall I was very impressed by this version. Very impressed indeed. Now if I can only find some English subtitles!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Wolfman (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Just got home from seeing The Wolfman, the first remake of the classic 1941 movie which created much of the now-accepted "lore" about the man who "becomes a wolf when the wolfbane blooms". Evidently the whole flick is a labor of love by and for its star, Benecio del Toro. It makes for a sweeping update of the story, beyond perhaps what was really advisable in the end.

But that sounds more harsh than intended. In truth the film has a few problems but almost entirely matters of nuance. For example, the character of Gwen (Emily Blunt) leaves the Talbot estate early in the film. In and of itself that makes sense, but since she exits and comes back two more times, it would probably feel smoother if she hadn't left that first time. As said, a nuance. Somewhat more problematical (but also more justifiable in terms of plot) is what almost (but not quite) feels like a detour to London.

Again, a nuance.

What is good about the film? A whole lot, honestly. Cast, including Sir Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving, were uniformly excellent. When you think about it, the lead characters in this film are an extraordinary bunch. Laurence Talbot, estranged son of Sir John Talbot (their different ethnicities explained via Laurence's Spanish mother), does something that sounds brave. In real life, my own reaction would be to run if a monster showed up, ripping people around me limb from limb. But I did believe this Laurence would indeed grab his rifle and act. Just as I totally accepted that Gwen would bring a total focus to her situation, acting with the kind of loyalty and courage she does indeed display. As a writer, I do accept that the foundation of nearly any good fiction film is a superior script, but without good actors to bring it to life those words on a page stay there.

In the original, Claude Rains is the uncomfortable father of Lon Chaney Jr. (a full head and half taller). Yet Del Toro and Hopkins could easily be related. More, this Sir John (presumably a baronet) is a more specific character--a big game hunter and world traveler who has turned the beautiful Talbot Hall into his den, an almost fetid lair instead of a home. We get details to explain the nature of the estrangement between father and son--details unpleasant but logical. More, we can see in Laurence a child of this particular parent, but a better and in the end braver man.

I will admit the flick has a lot of red herrings, of which the biggest is the presence of Gypsies. In the original, they were the source of the first werewolf to appear. Not so, this time. The medallion of the mysterious Saint remains a secret (although methinks maybe Laurence's brother might have begun to suspect the truth). Hugo Weaving's character, a Scotland Yard Inspector partially suggested by Frederick Abberline (of Jack the Ripper fame), seems a tad under-used. Frankly some of the criticisms of his part I've read make no sense. He does not, in fact, believe in werewolves until he sees one transform in front of his own eyes. Up until that moment he clearly assumed the killer to be a madman.

Yes, the flick is gory. I've seen worse, much worse. Myself, I don't much care for gore. But it didn't bother me. The pace at the very start was almost disorienting but made increasing visceral sense as the story went on. I was suitably impressed by references/homages to classic werewolf movies of the past, including The Werewolf of London and Curse of the Werewolf. And I found myself vastly intrigued about what might have happened if Gwen and the Wolfman had not been interrupted at the very end.

Methinks the movie has also created at least three options for a sequel:

1. The Inspector was bitten by the werewolf and lived. When next the full moon rises...
2. Gwen must might have been scratched with the werewolf's teeth there at the end. Again, upon the next full moon...
3. It is almost too easy to see some nascent coroner performing an autopsy and removing that silver bullet from Laurence's body...

I"ll admit it, my hope is for a blend of #2 and #3. Werewolves in love. I like it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing About Love

Behold my entry in the AW February 2010 Blog Chain. This month's subject--Love.

Love stories in our culture are everywhere. Orson Scott Card in his excellent book Characters and Viewpoint made the point that when readers see two characters meet (usually of the opposite sex), they instantly render a judgment of whether these two make a likely couple (with advice to the effect of "be aware this is happening"). Likewise, anyone who has delved into the world of fandom should be aware of 'ships (as in "relation"). Fans so very much want certain characters to get together, whether such ever happens in the story or not. Spock and Kirk. Harry and Hermione. Buffy and Faith. Every now and then it even happens (see David Tennant's swan song as Doctor Who).

So writing a love story seems a pretty necessary skill in a fiction-smith. And not that many succeed, at least in my opinion. But then, I suspect my own ideas shape this perception. What many call "love" seems to my mind more akin to "coupling," that is, a pair of folks who form a kind of deep friendship that crosses the line into partnerhood and sex. Not a bad thing. Not at all! Quite delightful, in fact! But such does not meet my standards of what in The Princess Bride is defined as a reason to go on living. Think Cyrano and Roxanne. Aragorn and Arwen. Dekkard and Rachel. Dracula and Elisabeta. Willow and Tara. Susan and Maude. Eli and Oskar. Anne Elliott and her Captain Wentworth.

I'll admit it--when it comes to love I'm a softy in some ways. One of my favorite movies is Love, Actually. Another is A Mighty Wind with the melancholy, sweet tale of Mitch and Mickey at the beating heart of that film. Likewise, I adored the idea of giving the title character a love interest in How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I witnessed the blossoming (albeit rocky) romance between Ron and Hermione with pleasure, and remain fascinated by the pain-born passion between Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Linden Avery the Chosen.

More--and herein I get very personal--I have been in love. Before her untimely passing, my darling Colleen agreed to become my wife and to this day I regard myself as a widower. I literally needed to be medicated in the years immediately following. Only within the last six months have I even begun to think of women "in that way" again (and with profoundly mixed feelings).

Colleen fascinated me. We shared many but not all of the same interests. We made each other laugh. We enjoyed many of the same things. We both felt intense pleasure at the other's joys, and horror at any pain or sadness they experienced. If given a choice between my duty and Colleen, my choice would have been instantly in her favor. She was the missing piece of my heart, my soul. And without her, I feel maimed.

All of which sounds like the most over-the-top hyperbole, but happens to be true. I adored her. I still do. Her eyes and smile haunt me.

Capturing something like that in terms of writing proves daunting. Dozens of little hints can and do exist to help. One I like is the zodiac. Regardless of how you feel about calculations vis-a-vis birthdates and the like, a good book on the zodiac describes personality types with great skill. Frankly, not all the images make sense to me. So I make my own. Instead of Cancer (a crab) I think of someone being a Turtle. Bear feels more appropriate to me than Bull. Virgos become Unicorns, and so on.

But what makes the biggest difference, at least in my own writing, is some leap of the imagination that seals these two people together in some way.

One love story I've got on the back burner at the moment has its origins a few years back. It really has as its primary image a barely pubescent girl spying on a very young man (five years her senior) swimming in a pool at night. He doesn't know she's there. She hasn't met him, but knows who he is. And she instantly falls in love.

Another I'm working on (with a partner) began as a theoretical idea--a female vampire falling for human male--and then followed some images. They meet on a train, rather like NYC's subway. I frankly saw her initially as Felicia Day, with him as Elijah Wood. Initially, like I said. But what really clinched it for me was a simple phrase: A young soul (the vampire) meets an old one (the human).

Which in my mind makes crafting a love story rather like writing a poem--because it takes more than simply have the meter right to make the thing work.

Participants in the Blog Chain
Aimeelaine - www.aimeelaine.com/writing/blog DONE!
Charlotte49ers - http://www.amandaplavich.com DONE!
AuburnAssassin - http://clairegillian.wordpress.com/ DONE!
Breddings - http://breddings.blogspot.com DONE
*RomanceWriter* - http://staceyespino.blogspot.com/ DONE
Claire Crossdale - http://theromanticqueryletter.blogpost.com DONE
Collectonian - http://collectonian.livejournal.com DONE
FreshHell - http://freshhell.wordpress.com DONE
David Zahir - http://zahirblue.blogspot.com/
NEXT >>>>>>> Harri3tspy - http://spynotes.wordpress.com
Sneaky Devil - http://sneaks-myfantasylife.blogspot.com/
Frodo - http://annvevera.blogspot.com/
Upsidedowngrl - http://noellenolansblog.blogspot.com/

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Carmillas: "Crypt of the Vampire" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In 1963 the movie Crypt of the Vampire got made, the first real attempt (as far as I've been able to learn) to capture on film Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's classic novella Carmilla. Yes, I know there was Vampyr which was supposed to be inspired by LeFanu, but while an extremely fine movie one wonders how anyone could call it an adaptation. Not one character from the original makes an appearance, nor particularly any incident. So this joint Italian-Spanish production counts as the first.

How is it? Well, a mixed bag overall. Despite the DVD cover, the entire film in fact is black and white, used to generally good effect. The castle itself turns out to be an odd blend of shadow and stark open spaces. Certainly the dream sequences work without resorting to special effects, just atmosphere and acting. Many shots are quite beautiful.

Christopher Lee portrays Count Ludwig Karnstein, concerned over his daughter Laura (right name for once) who has terrible nightmares and who may resemble a vampire witch from generations past. A curse involving Carmilla's vengeance seems to be working its way through the current Karnstein family, killing young women. Laura herself fears she may be responsible--an interesting notion explored as well as possible given the near-total lack of personality she otherwise demonstrates. Count Ludwig hires an historian (the seemingly obligatory young male love interest) to investigate. A carriage accident results in a sweet young woman named Lubya staying at the castle. Readers of the original will no doubt realize she is in fact Carmilla, but the film actually makes one doubt it. No small feat. Added to this mix is a deeply superstitious housekeeper, an old mountebank (a character usually erased in the adaptation), plus a maid who is also the Count's mistress.

Visually, the whole thing works, even when it is being just a tad ridiculous. The heraldry afficiodo in me recoils at a coat of arms that consists of a stylized letter "K" for example. The women's hair is non-period, but that is hardly surprising. Even period films with many times the budget of this one often get that detail wrong. The lead actress is lusciously beautiful but almost startlingly susceptible to suggestion. Frankly she seems rather a ninny of the first order. Someone suggests she looks like the long-dead Carmilla, and she believes it (in fact they look nothing alike). The hint of guilt is enough to provoke all kinds of nightmares (quite effective to behold). And the mysterious Lubya winds the girl round her little finger with seemingly no effort.

Lee gives his typical good performance. Parenthetically, let me bemoan this man's career rarely allowed him to show the full acting chops of which he was in fact capable. Take a look at him in Lord of the Rings, in the original The Wicker Man and in the biopic Jinnah to see what I mean. He's the only memorable performer in this film, although to be fair everyone else does a workmanlike job.

The reason for the title eventually gets explained, with an idea that actually has some interest to it. Seems while she's wandering around killing girls Carmilla is also asleep in her crypt, vulnerable to destruction. Among other things this allows us the suspense of Lubya threatening Laura up until the last moment.

But at its heart the central character is no longer an expatriate English girl living by herself amid haunted woods. She's a vapid ingenue aristocrat who needs a man to protect her. The story has nothing really of the English or the German about it, feeling Italian more than anything else (understandably enough). This even extends to the look of the castle--a stark, practical exterior baking in the sun, contrasted with lush furnishings amid black-as-midnight shadows within. The heroine's father is not elderly nor does he discount the supernatural.

I've seen worse adaptations (the first version of Moby Dick springs to mind). The movie has some charm. But at heart it is almost totally its own story rather than a genuine attempt to adapt LeFanu's famous tale.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Okay, this is a personal blurb. I wrote an essay for my dear friend Francesca Miller and her website on the subgenre of Steampunk. It turned out so well I'm posting the link here. Besides, you really should take a look the website, which is gorgeous.

And yes, I designed it. What is your point?

Gears of the Future