Fool Us

I can now announce that I was recently in Las Vegas to record a segment for the upcoming season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us on the CW network! Took this photo of my badge (and the crazy carpet at the Rio).

 

Bloodsuckers

nosferatu-1922

My post about favorite haunted house movies inspired me to make another list of films in the horror/supernatural genre: favorite vampire films. The vampire is one of the most enduring figures in literature and film, possibly because it represents very powerful human fears and desires. At its heart, the vampire is a representation of our fear of decay and death — fear of the process that leads to nonexistence — and our desire to transcend death and achieve immortality.

And then there’s sex. The carnality of biting and the sharing of fluids is so apparent in vampire fiction that it’s hardly subtext. But it’s important to remember that sexy vampires are a relatively recent construct. The proto-vampire of folklore was a repulsive figure more akin to the modern image of the zombie than to the central characters of Dark Shadows, Angel, and The Vampire Diaries.

With all that in mind, here is a list of my top-ten favorite vampire films, in ascending order:

  1. Dracula (1931): Even taking into account the flaws of this film — and there are many — there’s no denying that Bela Lugosi’s performance is iconic. It’s worth finding a video that includes the Spanish-language version that was filmed simultaneously on the same sets with a different director and cast, because it’s possible to see what an amazing film might have been made if Lugosi had been in that version instead. Incidentally, David J. Skal’s book Hollywood Gothic provides a fun chronicle of Dracula’s journey from novel to stage to screen.
  1. Vampyr (1932): Carl Dreyer’s atmospheric film is not a conventional vampire tale. Rather than being based on the familiar tokens established in Stoker’s novel, it is woven from the folklore of the supernatural that was part of the fabric of European life in times past. Witchcraft, curses, doppelgangers, restless spirits, and the looming specter of death are the forces that drive this movie. There are images here that are so haunting and dreamlike — and sometimes nightmarish — that they’re likely to invade your thoughts for a long time.
  1. Black Sunday (1960): This is another film that is based less on the usual vampire tropes and more on European supernatural traditions, with a dash of black magic thrown into the mix. But I think it still fits neatly into the vampire genre. I saw this movie on a Saturday-afternoon TV creature feature when I was a kid, and it freaked me out. (Same for Bava’s film Black Sabbath, an anthology that concludes with a nifty little vampire tale.) The prologue, in which a huge mallet is used to affix an iron mask, studded with nails on the inside, onto the face of the main character — well, that’s indelibly stamped into my childhood memories. Yes, the dubbing from the original Italian leaves much to be desired, and yes the acting is frequently cheesy and the plot is a mess, but this film is a wicked garden of gothic imagery and atmosphere. And it features a career-defining performance by scream queen Barbara Steele. The scene in which the evil princess is accidentally revived is one of the best vampire resurrections in cinema.
  1. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974): It’s good to see this hard-to-find Hammer classic finally made widely available on video. Look past the flat performance of Horst Janson in the title role, and the melodramatic style that was often the hallmark of the Hammer films, and you’ll find a movie that has had a lasting influence on the vampire genre. Here we have a hero with a mission, a calling: slaying the undead. He is armed with specialized knowledge and weapons that make him uniquely suited to that task, and he is accompanied by a sidekick who has devoted his life to making sure the job gets done. This film has often been cited as a formative influence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and some of its DNA can also be seen in the Blade movies.
  1. Blade (1998). A modern, technically slick vampire film, but with a strong influence drawn from the pulpy style of 1970s “blaxploitation” films like Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Super Fly. It has a sense of humor about itself. A lot of vampire fiction suffers from being relentlessly self-serious, and this isn’t. Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up is very good, too, but it’s in a totally different style.
  1. Near Dark (1987): Redneck vampires in an RV, prowling Hicksville for victims? Sign me up. This movie has lots of low-budget handmade charm and some truly memorable characters. And it’s just plain fun to see vampires freed from the old-world gothic trappings and let loose in small-town America. I imagine that if Hollywood were to get its hands on this story today, they’d bollix it all up with CG crapola at the expense of everything that made this movie a cult classic.
  1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). A cool little indie vampire flick. It’s the feature debut of writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, who was born to Iranian parents in the UK and grew up in the US. The story is set in an imaginary Iranian city. The pace of the movie is languid and dreamlike. There are long stretches with no dialogue, with music put to very effective use. The fictional Bad City is a brutal post-industrial wasteland, but the black-and-white photography gives it a kind of magical beauty. I especially enjoyed how the writer-director included little nods to the tropes of vampire fiction while still taking her own approach. If you dig art-house cinema and vampire flicks, and you don’t mind reading subtitles, this is one to see.
  1. What We Do in the Shadows (2014). A great indie film from Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. It’s a gleeful subversion of the genre archetypes, like MTV’s The Real World but with vampires. The first half is almost nonstop laughs — so much so, I’m sure I missed bunches of dialogue because the whole audience was cracking up. The laughs slow down a bit when the plot kicks in, but that’s a good thing because it allows the audience to develop real affection for the characters, no matter how ridiculous they are. Kudos to the whole team for finding a fresh and creative approach to territory that has been so heavily mined, including for satire.
  1. Let The Right One In (2008): This is a lovely vampire movie that offers a fresh take on the genre, not by discarding all of the familiar conventions but by using them in interesting ways. It’s a surprisingly sweet story about a boy on the cusp of adolescence who has his first crush on a very odd little girl. The approach is very unHollywood, in that it isn’t about special effects, supermodel actors, and amped-up sexy-violent set pieces. The violence, when it does happen, is quite matter of fact and distinctly unsexy. The two kids in the lead roles are wonderful — not trying too hard or acting cute. The Hollywood remake, Let Me In, is not bad, but it makes changes that I think interfere with the material. It amps up the violence and action, and in doing so it loses the sense of stillness that the original has. That sense of stillness sets up a contrast so that when the violence happens, it’s a shock.
  1. Nosferatu (1922): It all starts here. In my opinion, Max Schreck is still the best cinematic vampire. And considering the fact that a court order stipulated that all prints of the film were to be destroyed — the filmmakers had lifted the plot and characters of the novel Dracula and were sued by Bram Stoker’s widow — we are lucky to be able to see it at all! It is filled with iconic images that have been borrowed and remixed by many filmmakers over the past ninety-plus years. Herzog’s 1979 remake is worth seeing as a curiosity, and it has some lovely imagery, but it doesn’t have half the grip of the original. See also: Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a hilarious homage/send-up that asks the question “What if Max Schreck wasn’t acting?”

 

Haunted

The-Babadook

 

A recent viewing of the film The Uninvited, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, made me think about haunted house movies in general. I’ve been fascinated by spooky movies ever since I was a kid, back when even a rather tame episode of Night Gallery could give me nightmares for a week. In retrospect, I realize that watching those movies provided an education in the effective use of atmosphere, sound, and imagery. The haunted house subgenre has, on both a conscious and an unconscious level, provided plenty of inspiration for my magic.

Haunted house movies concern spooky goings-on within a particular home or building. The Frighteners, Sleepy Hollow, The Ring, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Sixth Sense are all good movies and they’re all about spirits of the dead returning to haunt the living, but I don’t think of them as haunted house movies, because their focus is not on a discrete home or structure. And although The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity are about demonic possession rather than ghosts, with the implication that the supernatural phenomena would follow the possessed or cursed individuals no matter where they lived, these movies are so powerfully associated with place — that staircase, this bedroom, that basement or attic — that they might as well be haunted house movies. I’m sure some movie aficionados would disagree, and that’s all well and good; it’s fuel for discussion over a pint of beer or blood or whatever. (Topic for further discussion: Why do the titles of haunted house movies almost always begin with the word “The”?)

So, with all that in mind, here is a list of some of my favorite haunted house movies:

The Innocents (1961). This adaptation of Henry James’s story “The Turn of the Screw” is my all-time favorite haunted house movie. So much of it is accomplished by implication and atmosphere, subtlety and suggestion. Deborah Kerr plays a woman who accepts a job as governess to a pair of children who live in a manor house that holds more than its share of secrets and tragedy. Kerr’s performance is amazing, as is that of the two kids. The movie is now available in high-definition video, so viewers can fully appreciate the beautiful black-and-white cinematography.

The Haunting (1963). Based on Shirley Jackson’s story “The Haunting of Hill House,” this is perhaps the archetypal haunted house movie. The opening shots and narration establish the house itself as a character. Julie Harris and Claire Bloom are awesome. It’s a solid adaptation of the story, with excellent use of low-tech effects and camerawork. Avoid even glancing in the direction of the worthless 1999 remake; it will rob you of your will to live.

The Others (2001). A movie strongly influenced by The Innocents, with many similar elements — a young brother and sister, a new governess, a manor house, and great performances by the entire cast, including the two kids. This movie is evidence that Spanish filmmakers have mastered the task of conveying a sense of the otherworldly in ways that Hollywood just doesn’t seem to understand. Further evidence is provided by the following film…

The Orphanage (El Orfanato, 2007). An old orphanage, an abandoned lighthouse, a dank cave, a trail of seashells, a kid who wears a creepy sackcloth mask — these are a few of my favorite things, especially when they’re combined in a mystery-thriller with supernatural overtones. This movie has plenty of eerie scenes and some real gut-punch moments, but it’s also a surprisingly touching story. The Orphanage was co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed a film that’s also set in a haunted orphanage…

The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001). Near the end of the Spanish Civil War, a boy is dropped off at an orphanage. Although the boy gets along well with the headmistress and his teacher, there are some unsettling aspects to his new home: a caretaker with a mean streak; a huge unexploded bomb that rests in the center of the school’s courtyard; and the ghost of a boy who lived — and died — at the school. This is one of del Toro’s personal movies, the ones he makes in-between big Hollywood projects. It’s a great little ghost story and, like all of del Toro’s work — although some credit must also go to his friend and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro — it’s beautiful to look at.

The Grudge (2004). In some circles, the following statement is considered to be heresy: I prefer the US remake over of the Japanese original, Ju-On. I can’t argue that one is better than the other; it’s just a personal preference. The Grudge portrays a haunting as a kind of viral curse that infects a house and then poisons the life of everyone who sets foot in it. I was caught off guard by this movie. Something about the sounds and images in it really got under my skin, and I had a couple of nights of creepy, disturbing dreams that woke me up at odd hours. I hadn’t experienced that in a loooooong time. I’m not sure what nerve-center this movie got to in my brain, but it was definitely the part that remembers what it’s like to imagine The Thing Under The Bed.

The Evil Dead (1981). Technically a demonic possession movie, it’s also an exemplary “spooky cabin in the woods” movie. The Evil Dead bent my mind when I first saw it, a few years after I graduated from high school. I’d never seen anything like it — a carnival dark ride, somehow captured on film. And after all these years, its handmade, low-budget charm remains intact. Gory, hilarious, startling, over-the-top, innovative, and wacky are just some of the adjectives I’d use to describe The Evil Dead. (I can’t list this film without also mentioning The Cabin in the Woods, in which masterminds Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take all the conventions of this genre, pack them with illicit fireworks purchased on the edge of town, and gleefully blow them up.)

The Exorcist (1973). Let me tell you about the first time I saw this movie. My parents had wisely prevented me from seeing it when I was a kid, so I finally saw it in the student union of the University of Wisconsin during my first year of college. When the movie reached the dream sequence in which Father Karras sees brief, almost subliminal flashes of Captain Howdy’s demonic visage, the film got stuck, fixed on a frame of that horrible face, and then the projector broke. After an hour, most of the audience gave up and left, but a few die-hard folks stuck around until a different projector was located and we could finish watching the movie. And you know what? I’m glad it happened that way. It was a memorable experience, and the wait was so worth it.

Paranormal Activity (2007). I know, I know — some people despise the Paranormal Activity movies. While I admit that the law of diminishing returns kicked in a while back, I’m a fan of the first few entries in the series. It seems to me that they’re structured very much like magic shows, with each “effect” calculated to tease viewers and draw us in for a goosebumpy reveal or a big “gotcha” moment. And there’s something very appealing — to me, anyway — about the idea of unleashing occult weirdness on the bland suburban McMansion.

The Shining (1980). Love it or hate it — Stephen King, author of the novel on which it was based, hated it — there’s no arguing with the fact that Kubrick’s film adaptation of this story is loaded with iconic imagery, indelible performances, and quotable dialogue. Like Hill House, the Overlook Hotel is a character in the drama. There’s no forgetting the brightly patterned carpet, the blood-drenched elevator, the hedge maze, or the door to room 237. I saw The Shining in the theater when it was first released, and many people seemed to express disappointment that the movie departed significantly from the book. (Everyone I knew had read the book.) I remember thinking that it was the weirdest big-budget mainstream movie I’d ever seen.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, 2003). This Korean film plays as a kind of twisted modern fairy tale, complete with a wicked stepmother. Two young sisters return home from an extended hospital stay, only to find that the household is now ruled by an icy, domineering woman who seems to have their father under a spell. It soon becomes apparent that something very bad happened in this house, and the repercussions of that event have taken ghostly form. Tension hangs over every scene, even an innocent dinner party, and the supernatural can impinge on everyday reality at any moment. The plot is revealed, piece by piece, in a deliberately disorienting way. But it all fits together at the end, when we can step back and see the big picture. Don’t bother with the 2009 Hollywood remake, which borrows the title of a classic haunted house movie, The Uninvited, and includes unnecessary alterations to the plot.

The Uninvited (1944). This movie holds the distinction of being one of the first Hollywood productions to portray ghosts as something other than a gag or a hoax. Unavailable on video until very recently, it gained a reputation as a little-known classic. Criterion has given it the full treatment — digital restoration, remastering, and a release on blu-ray. The movie looks great, lots of atmospheric lighting and deep shadows. There’s a nifty séance scene, and a couple of creepy moments that would have freaked me out if I’d seen this movie when I was a kid. Viewers of a certain age will no doubt enjoy seeing Batman’s butler, Alan Napier, turn up in a supporting role. Also on the disc are two radio drama versions of the story, and a short documentary or “visual essay” about the film. (The info about Gail Russell, the ingenue in the film, is soooo sad.) The accompanying booklet includes an interview with the director, Lewis Allen. While The Innocents is still my favorite haunted house movie, The Uninvited is a noteworthy entry in the genre and is well worth seeing, especially in this lovely hi-def edition.

I have two new additions to this list of favorites:

Housebound (2014). This little indie movie from New Zealand is the debut effort of writer-director Gerard Johnstone — and an impressive debut it is. The tone of the movie is similar to Shaun of the Dead or Peter Jackson’s early work, in that it’s very funny but also has some genuinely creepy and tense moments, along with plenty of handmade charm. Quick spoiler-free plot synopsis. A sullen, contemptuous young woman named Kylie is caught committing a crime and is sentenced to house arrest under the supervision of her mother and stepfather. Mom is convinced that the house is haunted, but Kylie thinks her mom is just being dopey — until some weird, inexplicable stuff happens and hijinks ensue. I suppose this film would be classified as a “horror comedy,” but I’m wary of that categorization because it usually includes dumb, pandery stuff like the Scary Movie franchise. Housebound, like Dead Alive and Shaun of the Dead, demonstrates that a genre mashup works best when it’s done with sincerity.

The Babadook (2014). This Australian flick received a limited theatrical run in the US and is scheduled for release on video in April 2015. It’s a horror film done right: lots of atmosphere, fully developed characters, a simple and clear story — almost a fable — and carefully limited use of special effects. I’d say that the spiritual twin of this movie is The Innocents, and like that film, The Babadook can be seen as a straight-up haunted house movie or it can be interpreted from a non-supernatural angle. Magic, in the sense of sleight of hand and in the fairy-tale sense, plays an important part in the story. George Méliès even makes a brief appearance. A couple of moments in this movie were chilling enough to raise goose bumps on my arms, and that doesn’t happen very often. The two lead actors put in great performances, the art direction is top notch, and bibliophiles of the bizarre type will wish that their bookshelves were occupied by the creepy pop-up book that is the centerpiece of the film.