DraculaFest: Horror of Dracula

It’s fitting that, after the grand excesses of Coppola and crew, we arrive at a stripped-down, bare bones version of the vampire tale. Horror of Dracula (1958)–or just plain Dracula for the home audience in the UK–is the second film in the classic horror era of Hammer Films, a low-budget British production company. Following on the heels of the wildly successful The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer introduced the Prince of Darkness to Technicolor, with a touch of Grand Guignol that shocked audiences used to the black-and-white Universal reels of previous decades.

Let it bleed, now in Technicolor!

Let it bleed, now in Technicolor!

No room for star-crossed romance here–there are veins to open. Christopher Lee‘s Dracula, though vaguely aristocratic at first, has no use for skirt-chasing unless the owner is his blood type. Director Terence Fisher wastes no time getting into the bloodletting. At a scant 82 minutes, this version of the tale is the shortest yet. Shortcuts abound: Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), no longer a real estate agent but a vampire hunter in his own right, already knows the Count’s true nature and has accepted a position as castle librarian (!) in order to stake the bloodsucker himself. On finding Dracula’s resting place, he inexplicably bypasses him in order to stake his undead bride, allowing Dracula to wake up and put the bite on Harker–like a chump. Distraught over his friend’s death, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) delivers the bad news to Harker’s fiance, Mina (Melissa Stribling)–who, for some reason, is now the sister of Lucy’s fiance Arthur (Michael Gough, later Batman’s butler). None of those others really matter, though, as the rest of the film is devoted to a showdown between Cushing and Lee, the twin pillars of Hammer horror.

That’s about it, really. Van Helsing effects a surprisingly agile jump from the table onto the curtains and brings them down, turning his quarry into some type of lumpy Play-Doh creature with disturbing, human eyes. Then Dracula disperses to the wind without comment while credits roll. No muss, no fuss.

Lousy choice of decor, Count.

Lousy choice of decor, Count.

This version takes place in Germany for some reason, despite the Anglo names and accents. It’s supposedly 1885, despite the electric lights and ’50s fashions. I like to imagine the Hammer films taking place in their own reality, an alt-world where Saruman and Alfred Pennyworth and Grand Moff Tarkin tumble through karmic revenge cycles for eternity. Lee and Cushing, both veterans of the previous Frankenstein film and destined to carry the Hammer brand for over a decade, make accomplished rivals. Lee’s Dracula speaks only thirteen lines of dialogue, spending the rest of the film springing from doorways and snarling at potential victims. It’s a classic Count, the perfect delivery vessel for Technicolor blood spatters, and it’s a lot of fun. Cushing finds a rare opportunity to side with the good guys for a change. He’s just as much fun dispatching vampires as in his more scheming roles. Scattered attempts at humor would seem out of place if the whole thing weren’t so British: during the final chase, a border crossing guard repairs the gate arm that Dracula has busted through just in time for… I’m sure you can guess the rest.

Hammer occupied a unique niche in the history of horror, filling the gap between the waning Universal monsters and the resurgent Hollywood horror of the ’70s and ’80s. Hammer produced eight other Dracula films with varying degrees of success. Horror of Dracula is perhaps the purest of them all, the closest the studio came to the classic version of the Count. Some of the later films invite exploration, while some provide a good cure for insomnia. I’ll likely revisit the Hammer world at some point, because it’s a reality all its own and one well worth visiting.

Horror of Dracula earns 1.5 out of 2 fangs out, dripping in Technicolor blood.

Up next: None more black!

DraculaFest: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

A title like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) encourages–even begs–a discussion of faithfulness to the source material. The irony here is that Francis Ford Coppola‘s excursion into vampirism strays further than many other adaptations. The spine of the narrative comes entirely from the imagination of screenwriter James V. Hart, building the story around a romance that is missing from the the titular author’s text. The erotic and romantic additives to the vampire mythos that typify the late twentieth century here culminate in a Count that is equal parts monster and star-crossed lover.

Axl and Slash rolled into one!

Axl and Slash rolled into one!

You can’t say they didn’t warn us. “Love never dies” is the marketing slogan used for this film, and they meant it. This is a love story as much as a horror yarn. Dracula is no mere wolf in seducer’s clothing; turns out he’s a misunderstood and hopeless romantic who has only been sucking blood and stealing babies out of despair for a lost love. In 1462, brutal warlord Vlad Dracula returns from battle to discover his beloved wife, Elisabeta, has pulled an Aegeus and jumped off a tower when she mistakenly assumed he was dead. (So many of these stories are no longer possible in a world with cellphones.) Enraged, Vlad renounces God and swears revenge by becoming an immortal vampire. How isn’t clear, though it involves blood–lots of blood. He then spends the rest of the movie pursuing Mina Harker, nee Murray, because she is a reincarnation, or embodiment, or something of poor Elisabeta. All it takes to get a man to quit raping and pillaging and turning into rats ‘n’ bats is the love of a good woman.

It sounds like I’m taking a piss, and I am to a certain extent. But there’s plenty to enjoy about this film, from the Oscar-winning costumes, make-up and special effects to a few effective performances. Gary Oldman has fun with the role and delivers a Count that is often chilling and sometimes sympathetic. It’s a wholly original take on Dracula as a character, and it works well here. Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his Hannibal Lecter gig, gives us a quirky and manic Van Helsing that may be the best take of all on the Dutch vampire hunter. And whichever mad genius convinced Tom Waits to eat bugs and rave like a lunatic as Renfield deserves their own Oscar. Coppola manages many creepy and effective set pieces, and the use of practical effects over bad 90s CGI ensures the movie looks good to this day. Parts of this film recommend it for classic status.

Just needs a hug.

Just needs a hug.

Then we run into problems. This may very well be the hardest version of Dracula to review, with soaring heights and crushing depths. Almost every ingredient of this flick is either a stroke of genius or pure idiocy. While the aforementioned turn in great performances, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder come close to sinking the ship before it arrives in Whitby. Keanu’s the worst of the pair, his horrific accent making Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood sound authentic. But, this being a romance and all, Winona’s role is central to the film–and she’s just plain out of her depth. Their poor showing ruins the entire film for some, but I’m a bit more forgiving due to the other terrific actors. Whether the central romance works or not is down to personal taste. For me it’s too incongruous with the rest of the grotesque proceedings. He’s a little too stoked about feeding that live, screaming baby to his minions to be a redeemable Bad Boy. When Mina declares her love at the end as she chops Vlad’s head from his spurting corpse, I laughed instead of cried. I find the Count more fun when he’s hanging out with his undead brides. That’s how black my heart is.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula gets 1 out of 2 fangs out. Pretty much a 2 and a 0 averaged together. Hell is paved with good intentions.

Next up: Stop! Hammer time!

DraculaFest: Nosferatu

Long before they began to sparkle, vampires rampaged through folkore as creatures to be feared and despised, not fawned over by high school girls. Neither charming nor handsome, they preyed upon the living and drained their life essence, wreaking havoc long after death. These are the monsters that inspired F.W. Murnau and his cast and crew at the legendary UFA studio in Weimar Germany.

You gonna finish that blutwurst?

You gonna finish that blutwurst?

Nosferatu (1922) holds the dual distinction of first Dracula adaptation and first unauthorized knockoff. Though screenwriter Henrik Galeen pulled the story directly from Stoker’s novel–and acknowledged as much in the credits–Stoker’s estate had never blessed the production. Changes were made in order to avoid litigation: Count Dracula became Count Orlok; Jonathan and Mina Harker became Thomas and Ellen Hutter; the Count’s new home moved from England to Germany. These thin alterations proved not enough, however, to avoid a court order that destroyed all but a few copies. Fortunately, the film lived on in death much like its protagonist.

Count Orlok is no Romeo or Lothario. Wide and flat ears frame his bald head, much like the wings of a bat. His fangs grow from his front teeth, much like the bite of a rodent. His gnarled fingers serve as warped talons. No brandy by the fire or nights at the opera for this Count; he feeds on his neighbors without benefit of romantic foreplay. For proponents of Dracula as invasion literature, Nosferatu serves as Exhibit A. Orlok is a deranged and misshapen foreigner come to prey upon the civilized world. Max Schreck delivers a classic movie monster with mannerisms and physicality that leap off the screen without the aid of dialogue. In fact, his silent predation adds to the creep factor. The remaining actors, well, let’s just say playing to the back row was still a thing in that era and leave it at that. The melodrama adds to the fun. Murnau employs every film resource at his disposal: purple-tinted frames to indicate nightfall, angular sets with looming shadows, cranked-up speeds and reverse exposures to indicate the supernatural. And, at 92 minutes, it never overstays its welcome.

Why sail from Transylvania to Germany, though?

Why sail from Transylvania to Germany, though?

Plenty has been said about this classic silent film. It’s horror, first and foremost, a counterweight to the swashbuckling count of Dracula Untold. Murnau is my favorite of the German Expressionist directors, though his output ended abruptly with a car accident at 42. At least he also gave us The Last Laugh, Phantom, Faust and Sunrise, the latter of which I’ve already spoken. UFA’s influence on horror can’t be overstated. Hitchcock learned his craft there before returning to England. Others like DP Karl Freund brought their techniques to Hollywood and showed Universal how to shoot a horror picture. Now there’s an invasion I can get behind.

Other than knock-off name changes, this film introduces two new elements to the Dracula mythos. It’s the first to demonstrate that vampires can be destroyed by sunlight–Stoker’s count merely loses his supernatural powers during the day. Also of interest, Mina stand-in Ellen Hutter destroys Orlok herself by distracting him until sunrise with her feminine charms. Brave Sir Robin, indeed.

Finally, an unqualified classic! Nosferatu earns 2 out of 2 fangs out. Two long, razor-sharp rat’s teeth.

Up next: Coppola takes a swing.

DraculaFest: Dracula Untold

DraculaFest continues! Since I’m watching these films in no discernible order–other than their accessibility to me–we now jump to 2014 for Dracula Untold, since it was on the tube!

Now that Cinematic Universes are a thing (thanks, Marvel!), Universal has decided to reboot their classic monster series as a middle-of-the-road, family-friendly action/adventure franchise. (Not that this is anything new; you might remember those goofy Mummy movies with Brendan Fraser and the Rock.) Dracula Untold was touted as the first in a series of films designed to reintroduce the classic Universal monsters to modern moviegoers. So how did they fare?

Brood to live, live to brood.

Brood to live, live to brood.

While Dan Curtis stuck to the source material with a vengeance, Dracula Untold burns the book and starts over from scratch. This is not Bram Stoker’s tale, nor does it want to be. The film makes explicit the link between Vlad Tepes and the fictional Count, casting the historical figure in the lead role in order to explain why he became a vampire. It’s not a terrible idea, or might not have been if handled with finesse. I applaud the intent to give us something unlike any of its umpteen predecessors. But Untold commits to neither history nor horror, and the results are muddled at best.

However!

To my surprise, this was not the unwatchable train wreck I’d expected. It’s not all that good, either, but it’s not unwatchable. Luke Evans makes a reasonable Dracula; I get the sense he could have done more with a better script. Sarah Gadon and Charles Dance (aka Tywin Lannister!) provide capable support. But Dominic Cooper in brownface looks and sounds freaking ridiculous as an Ottoman sultan–the main villain, to no one’s surprise. (He should perhaps stick to Preacher, judging from the recent trailer.) We’re talking fodder for another episode of Master of None. It’s really unfortunate they chose this route, as it lends the whole movie a sheen of hilarity. Not what Dracula needs, in this or any other universe.

The plot has more holes than that ominous cave on Broken Tooth Mountain. The battle scenes are silly, often baffling (how did becoming a vampire enable Vlad to mow through hundreds of enemies with a couple of swords?) and far too reliant on low-grade CGI (pillars of bats from the sky? Really?). Still, there’s enough atmosphere here to suggest how this might have worked with more restraint.

Totally trustworthy.

Totally trustworthy.

…And more horror. Look, the idea of a PG-13 Dracula film is dubious at best. The Count’s stock-in-trade is horror. In fact, he’s arguably the preeminent face of horror in Western culture. So tossing the essence of his appeal in favor of a Lord of the Rings Lite origin story just sounds like a bad idea. I understand the need for reinvention. I could almost buy Dracula as a brooding antihero–though that’s even more overdone than vampires these days. But turning Dracula into a noble, self-sacrificing man of the people? Eh. I’ll pass. Film overboard.

I didn’t hate this film. I certainly didn’t love it. And I can’t say I’m a fan of turning classic horror monsters into generic summer blockbuster material. Dracula Untold receives 0.5 out of 2 fangs out–or one broken incisor.

Next up: Time to go classic! Nosferatu (1922), baby!

DraculaFest: Dan Curtis’ Dracula

How did this happen? I’m not at all sure. But I appear to have embarked on a Dracula film kick. It isn’t even Halloween. I’m not even a huge vampire fan, though I do love a good scare. For whatever reason, I’ve taken it upon myself to watch every iteration of the Good Count I can get my hands–or eyeballs–on and report the results here. Welcome to DraculaFest 2016!

Clearly, I’m not working in chronological order. First up is Dan Curtis’ Dracula (1974) because of the low barrier to entry–it appeared in my Hulu queue while browsing. Perhaps that’s what kicked off this whole thing.

Careful of that window, Count.

Careful of that window, Count.

One might ask, who the hell is Dan Curtis, and why does he deserve his own Dracula? The simple answer is that Dan Curtis brought us such legendary horror fare as Trilogy of Terror and the supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows. (Fun fact: my short story Method was inspired by the hilarious blooper reel from the latter show.) Though originating as a made-for-TV movie, Dracula shows what Curtis can do with multiple takes, as opposed to DS’ “live without a net” methodology.

Turns out higher production values allowed Curtis to move from silly to scary. This is about as traditional as renditions come, featuring all the familiar beats from Stoker’s novel along with a few surprises. Very little camp here, unlike the shovelfuls deployed in his previous outings. Jack Palance, of City Slickers and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! fame, delivers a faithful and Stoker-esque take on the Count, lying somewhere between Max Schreck‘s rodent-like freak and the more modern Casanova stylings. He’s quite effective in the role, though I will always remember him attacking Buck Rogers with his glowing hands and his psychic powers.

Come at me, Buck!

Come at me, Buck!

Richard Matheson provided the screenplay, which accounts for a great deal of this adaptation’s overall success. I’ve never been shy in my admiration for Matheson, who gave us classics like Hell House in addition to everything from Westerns to science fiction to romance(!). He never strays far from the source material, and the results are solid if unsuspenseful for the initiated.

Though the story skews closer to the novel than many others, some curious adjustments have been made. Jonathan Harker apparently never makes it out of Castle Dracula, and his role in later events is subsumed by Lucy’s suitor, Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward), who spends much of the film following Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) around in a state of befuddlement. Like many versions it chooses to tack on the unimaginative new-girl-is-Dracula’s-lost-love-reincarnate angle; unlike most of the others, it’s Lucy and not Mina who embodies the Count’s old flame. This makes a bit more sense than with Mina, as Dracula’s indiscretions with Lucy draw Van Helsing’s suspicion and seal his eventual fate.

This is a fun, if predictable, version that outmaneuvers many of the bigger-budget cinema varations on this theme. And it’s widely available, so why not? I give it 1.5 out of 2 fangs out!

Next up: Dracula Untold (2014). Hey, it was on HBO.

The City of the Future

CityoftheFuture_KindleFinalHey, will you look at this. SciFutures, an award-winning science fiction prototyping company–go look at their site, they explain it more easily than I could– have released their first anthology of sci-fi stories, The City of the Future. Even better, It features a tale by none other than yours truly! “L.A. Loves You” is my contribution to this terrific little collection of near-future speculative shorts. Once again, I’ll let SciFutures themselves set the scene:

Change is coming and it’s going to affect humans right where we live. By 2050, city living is going to look very different from what we know today. Across the globe, cities are going green and getting smarter. Artificial intelligence is playing a bigger role in our lives every day and the nomad generation is redefining what ‘home’ is.

This was a fun project and I’m proud to be a part of it. Check it out and let me know what you think. And be sure to check the Unreliable Narrators site within the next few days for an interview with the editor, Trina Marie Phillips, about the anthology and also her role with the company.

It’s out now on just about every device and in every conceivable format, as evinced below:

 

Three tomatoes (ketchup), Part XXXVII

Lots going on in these here parts as of late. I just received word of a story acceptance for an upcoming anthology about cities of the future. The contract is still in progress, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Meanwhile, over in Unreliable Narrators land, we’ve been on a tear with workshop reviews and author interviews with the likes of Walter Jon Williams and Elizabeth Bear. Turns out podcasting is immense fun. What’s more, we’re preparing to hoist the sail on our first joint writing and performing venture, a serial audio drama called E’ville. I’ll have lots more to say on that once the first episode arrives in early March. And I continue work on the new book even as I become distracted by new shinies. Mush!

And hey, congrats to all the newly-minted Nebula Award nominees. A solid list that includes many friends and personal favorites. Not bad, genre bunnies.

Panel Syndicate is alive and kicking

I’ve mentioned my love of Panel Syndicate before, on this blog as well as on the Unreliable Narrators podcast. It bears repeating, as the brainchild of comics legend Marcos Martin continues to produce great stuff.

Admittedly started as a grand experiment, the site began as a delivery system for Martin and Brian K. Vaughan’s limited series, The Private Eye. That series was great, but I remained skeptical that PS could continue to make the pay-what-you-want, DRM-free model work once that series ended. Happily, both Martin and Vaughan are back with Barrier, another great series that began late last year. In the interim, they began releasing Universe!, a book that introduced U.S. audiences to the work of Spanish cartoonist Albert Monteys. We’re still waiting on word of the PS exclusive release of a Walking Dead story from Robert Kirkman, but their deal with Image has only increased their profile.

The Panel Syndicate model is what separates it from other online comics platforms like Comixology and Thrillbent. Creator-owned comics are offered on a “name your price” basis in a wide variety of DRM-free file formats (PDF. CBR, CBZ). Even better, these digital-only comics are fully formatted for horizontal display; no awkward scans of narrow print pages, or clumsy panel-follow animations required!

To be fair, digital comics have seen improvement on the mainstream front. Image now offers DRM-free downloads in its online store, and even Comixology has begun offering file downloads from Image and other publishers. Only Panel Syndicate, however, manages all of the above-mentioned advantages of the print-free revolution. May they continue to grow and to influence other creators in this direction.

We are Unreliable

Hey, it’s been over two months since I checked in! How the hell did that happen? It’s not like nothing has happened since then. Paradise ICON was a success, as always, getting to hang out with writer pals as well as class acts like Joe and Gay Haldeman and Ann Leckie. Then there was NaNoWriMo, during which I knocked out a decent amount of words on my next book but will likely throw out 90% of them. And there’s also been the usual submit-and-query game that goes with writing fiction.

Then there’s the not trivial work of bootstrapping a new podcast and website with several writer friends. We’re up and running as the Unreliable Narrators! The first few episodes are available, and we are only gathering steam. It’s been a lot of fun, and it allows me to combine several favorite pastimes. Just need to make sure it doesn’t pull me too far away from finishing the next manuscript.

Happy holidays!

The Dark Age is here

forsakenI have received my contributor copies of Forsaken, the latest game manual for the Dark Age miniatures combat game from Cool Mini or Not. Woohoo! Oh, wait, did I not mention that I’ve been contributing freelance work to a game company? Yeah, guess I should have said something about that, this being my own blog and all. Okay, count this as the official announcement, for immediate release to all the Google site crawlers and spambots that comprise my readership.

Dark Age is a damned cool game from a damned cool company. They have successfully launched a variety of games like Zombicide and the forthcoming Xenoshyft Onslaught, both powered by wildly popular Kickstarter campaigns. And hey, I get to work with friends who are talented writers in their own right. Not bad!

Forsaken is out now and, as the name implies, details the Forsaken faction in the ongoing war for dominance on the planet Samaria. What’s more, I’m wrapping up work on a second volume that will follow in a few months. And there’s talk of more, but I’ll save that for another time.

So, yeah. Definitely an awesome opportunity. Check out the section on Getting Started if you’re interested in the twisted world of Dark Age (the Core Rules are available for free!) or visit the store if you’re so inclined.