January 25, 2012

Mr Movie Fiend: That '70s Vampire

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

Vampires in the movies are the most human of monsters. They were once people just like you and me. They can pass for human, as long as they stay away from crosses, garlic, and mirrors. They often have feelings for their victims, especially the beautiful, sultry ones with whom they'd like to share eternity. But when they get hungry-- watch out!  They're perhaps the most dangerous monsters, because one moment you think you're talking to a fellow human being, and the next you're feeling the thing's fangs in your neck.

Being so connected to humanity, vampires have been a horror staple for as long as movies have been around. While other movie monsters have had their ups and downs in popularity (seen any giant radioactive or man-made Frankenstein monsters in your local theater lately?), the reliable vampire keeps appearing in film after film, decade after decade. On the production side, these human monsters don't require a huge special effects budget to pull off some decent shocks. And for audiences, vampires are a double bonus: 1.) they provide the basic vicarious thrill of confronting death in a "safe" way on the movie or TV screen; and 2.) they embody the urge to power, glamor and eternal life that we all have to some extent (abundantly evident in today's Twilightish teen vampire heros).

When it comes to vampires, I'm old school (oh alright, I'm just plain old). I think of Bela Lugosi with his paper-white face and classic cape, or Christopher Lee's blood-red eyes fixed on his latest victim. In my book, vampires should be honest to goodness, irredeemable monsters thirsting after blood, uncaring about the death and destruction they cause-- not angst-ridden, pasty-faced teens worrying about their social standing or their next date. And don't get me started on the other current craze, the kick ass martial arts-trained vampires of the Blade and Underworld series…

To be fair, sci-fi/vampire mashups are nothing new. In the '50s and '60s, when Hammer was reviving Dracula in glorious technicolor, other filmmakers were reinventing the vampire as yet another atom/space age threat. John Beal's The Vampire (1957) was the victim of a genetics experiment gone awry. Italy's Atom Age Vampire (Seddok, l'erede di Satana, 1960) was the result of more mischievous science. And the ravenous Queen of Blood (1966) was from another planet altogether. By the early '70s, both Hammer's gothic vampire revival and the atom age vampire were played out, and the bloodsucking genre was ready for yet another reset. (Ironically, a film often cited as the final nail in the coffin -- forgive the pun -- of Hammer Studios is 1974's The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a bizarre pairing of Dracula with the Shaw brothers' frenetic martial artists. While a box office failure, the film was undeniably an early trend setter, considering that martial-artsy vampires are a dime a dozen these days.)

The reset was very simple. Forget the gothic castles and the atomic labs said the low-budget filmmakers-- let's set a supernatural vampire loose on the streets of contemporary Anytown, U.S.A. and see what kind of fun we can have. Perhaps the best-known '70s vampire in this mold is Dan Curtis' TV movie The Night Stalker (1972). This ingenious mashup of classic hard-boiled crime thriller and supernatural vampire tale is set in Las Vegas. A lot of the film's energy and entertainment value derives from watching grizzled reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) trying to convince his journalistic colleagues and the authorities that vampires do exist, here and now. Curtis had a lot of fun with the "what if" scenario, going so far as to include a harrowing and at the same time tongue-in-cheek scene in which the vampire gets caught raiding a blood bank.

Another, even earlier entry in the "vampire next door" sweepstakes was Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Pretty much forgotten today (except for eccentric baby boomers like myself), Count Yorga was something of a micro-budget sensation in its day, like the original Paranormal Activity (2007). Originally conceived as a softcore porn movie under the title The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire, the producers wisely decided to play it as straight horror instead, and a minor legend was born.

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

January 15, 2012

The Dark Visions of an Italian Master

Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre (2000)

To this day, I'm not sure what to make of the career of cinematographer, director, and all-around dark fantasy auteur Mario Bava. When he was good, he was very, very good, and when he was bad, well…..   On the plus side, Bava and director Ricardo Freda (re)introduced horror and fantasy to the Italian film industry with their groundbreaking Lust of the Vampire (aka I Vampiri; 1956 -- while retaining a Gothic sensibility and visual style, it updates the vampire story to include science in the service of evil.)  On the debit side, Bava pioneered the Giallo genre, which in turn inspired the American slasher film, which in turn degenerated into today's torture porn (e.g., Saw and Hostel).

But let's be positive. Around the same time that Hammer Studios was reinventing Gothic horror with copious amounts of blood in living technicolor, Bava, first as a cinematographer, then as a director, was developing a unique, nightmarish visual style that greatly influenced not only Italian cinema, but European cinema as a whole. Bava is in essence a founding father of "eurohorror."

I don't think it takes away from his greatness to say that Bava's earlier pre-Giallo work stands the test of time, and that his later films, often featuring a tiresome succession of gratuitous, gruesomely "stylish" murders, don't enhance his standing very much (at least in my eyes). If he had only done Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio; 1960), he would be worthy of study. Black Sabbath (I Tre Volti della Paura; 1963) confirmed his eccentric genius. And with Planet of the Vampires (Terrore Nello Spazio; 1965), he pulled off the very first Gothic, fog-shrouded, horror-sci-fi space adventure.

Having been a huge Mario Bava fan since first seeing the incredible Black Sabbath back in the '60s (and suffering a sleepless night), it's hard to imagine that the maestro has been, if not exactly forgotten over the years, then certainly not celebrated to the extent that he deserves. For example, the two English language biographies (The Haunted World of Mario Bava, 2003 and Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, 2007) are already collector's items, with copies fetching hundreds of dollars. The literature in general on Bava is relatively sparse considering his unique and stylish contributions to horror and fantasy. (Even if you don't particularly care for his unique visual style, there is still the fact that he practically invented the slasher film, for better or worse.)

Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre attempts to address the injustice by bringing together filmmaker fans such as Tim Burton, Joe Dante and John Carpenter with film writers and scholars to review Bava's rich legacy (and to simply gush over some of the most visually striking work that the horror genre has ever known). Bava, the son of a film effects technician, got an early start in films at the age of 14 as an assistant cameraman. Soon he was working the camera for some high-powered directors: Raoul Walsh, G.W. Pabst, Roberto Rossellini, and Jacques Tourneur. The documentary credits director Ricardo Freda and cinematographer Bava for coming up with the first Italian horror film (at least of the sound era) with the moody, neo-gothic Lust of the Vampire (aka I Vampiri; 1956). Bava finished directing the film for Freda, who reportedly couldn't keep up with the grueling shooting schedule and argued with the producers. In the next several years Bava would finish two more films when the directors walked out: Caltiki, The Undying Monster (1959) and the sword and sandal epic Giant of Marathon (both released in 1959). Thus, a fascinating genre director was fashioned from a very talented cinematographer.

Black Sunday (1960) introduced beautiful and exotic
Barbara Steele to an international audience.
The documentary celebrates a unique filmmaking career and at the same time speculates about what might have been. AIP's legendary Sam Arkoff invited Bava to come to the states, but Mario found the language barrier too daunting. One of those interviewed in the film wonders if he might have attained the status of an Alfred Hitchcock if he'd had the budgets of a "real" Hollywood director. Joe Dante (The Howling, 1981; Gremlins, 1984) also wonders, but ultimately is thankful for a body of work that perhaps could only have come from a leaner, but more richly imaginative, European environment.

More than one commentator remarks on the surreal, dreamlike quality of Bava's work. Tim Burton (Batman, 1989; Sleepy Hollow, 1999; Corpse Bride, 2005) is the most adulatory: "He really captured film as dream." Others point to Bava's influence, some of it unacknowledged, on later, much more expensive projects. Friday the 13th (1980) plays very much like an American remake of Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood, 1971), and Ridley Scott's Alien (1980) lifted the general look and feel, not to mention a whole sequence, from Planet of the Vampires (1965).

Behind all of the dark, macabre dreams was a gentle man with a good sense of humor. Composer Carlo Rustichelli describes Bava as the antithesis of his films, a joyful man. Grandson Fabrizio "Roy" Bava explains his grandfather's choice of subject matter as a penchant for going against the grain: "too many people speak about love, so maybe I [Mario Bava] can put together love and death." Perhaps most touchingly, biographer Tim Lucas relates that the night before filming a scene for Twitch of the Death Nerve involving a beetle pinned to a desk, Bava didn't sleep a wink, because he didn't want to take responsibility for the insect's life.

Despite attempts like this TV documentary, the maestro remains overlooked and undervalued. He was a pioneer and an inventor, and many of his films featured graphic violence that was shocking for the time, but most of all he was a master stylist who knew how to light up the night to reveal surreal, nightmarish landscapes that have the power to haunt even today.

The Mario Bava Essentials (in chronological order):

Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri; 1956). Italy's first sound horror film ignited the Eurohorror industry, and paved the way for the "demented-scientist-preys-on-innocent-females-to-supply-blood-and/or-facial-grafts-to-ailing/disfigured-benefactors/relatives" subgenre. (Bava completed the directing chores for Ricardo Freda.)

Caltiki the Undying Monster (Caltiki il Mostro Immortale; 1959). A much more graphic and intense Euro version of The Blob (1958). (Bava again stepped in for Freda to complete the film.)

Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio; 1960). Bava's first feature length film as a director (not counting the films he completed for others). A masterpiece of shadows and dread. Introduced the beautiful and exotic Barbara Steele to international audiences.

The Evil Eye (La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo; 1963). A proto-Giallo with American John Saxon in the lead role. In the documentary, Saxon claims he played the role tongue-in-cheek. It's hard to believe he didn't mistake Evil Eye for another film, as this one about a tourist in Rome being targeted by a serial killer is as dark as it gets.

Boris Karloff in "The Wurdalak" segment
of Black Sabbath (1963).
Black Sabbath (I Tre Volti della Paura; 1963). A trio of terror tales from "classic" literature. Two of the three segments, "The Drop of Water" and "The Wurdalak," are masterpieces of dark, mounting dread. "The Wurdalak" features Boris Karloff's best performance since the original Frankenstein.

Blood and Black Lace (Sei Donne per L'Assassino; 1964). I hesitate to include this one due to the graphic violence, but it's style and cinematography make it a Giallo masterpiece (if that's your cup of tea).

Planet of the Vampires (Terrore Nello Spazio; 1965). The one that Ridley Scott ripped off for his hit Alien. An intriguing blend of horror and space opera on a fog-shrouded planet.

Kill Baby, Kill (Operazione Paura; 1966). This one, about a series of mysterious deaths in a remote village, is perhaps the best example of Bava's ability to create disturbing, surreal dreamscapes. The night in Bava's films is at the same time colorful and dreadful. (See the clip below.)

Baron Blood (Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga; 1972). Not among Bava's best, but interesting for being sort of a last-gasp effort to create gothic horror at a time of social and artistic upheaval. Joseph Cotton and Elke Sommer also liven up the proceedings.

In Kill Baby, Kill, Bava builds tension and dread with surreal, nightmarish imagery:

January 2, 2012

There's No Beast like a Snow Beast

Terror in the Midnight Sun (aka Invasion of the Animal People,  1959)

The Arctic region, along with its polar opposite, the Antarctic, present some of the most forbidding, surreal and hazardous landscapes humans have ever tread (and tried to survive) upon. The name derives from the Greek word ἄρκτος (arktos), meaning bear. From wherever you are, keep following the constellation Ursa Minor, the "Little Bear" (home of the north star Polaris), and you'll eventually wind up in the Arctic. The conditions are so extreme, and travel so difficult, that it's only been in the last hundred years or so that human beings have set foot on the geographic North Pole (a little over one hundred years if you accept Robert Peary's claim to be the first to get there).

During the Cold War seemingly no place on earth was exempt from U.S. - Soviet competition, and the Arctic was no exception. In addition to the space race of the late 1950s, there was a race to prove who could better secure and control the world's oceans, which culminated in the first submerged transit under the North Pole by America's first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus (SS-168) in 1958. It's not hard to see why the forbidding Arctic piqued the interest of sci-fi moviemakers. Howard Hawks' classic The Thing from Another World (1951) was the first to exploit the lonely Arctic setting for its sci-fi terrors. Then atomic testing in the Arctic released The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Other frigid sci-fi adventures included The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Land Unknown (1957; set in Antarctica), and The Atomic Submarine (1960; a unique underwater look at the Arctic region).

Add to the list 1959's Terror in the Midnight Sun, which, as stated in the end credits, was filmed in Lapland, above the Arctic circle in the north of Sweden. Terror is the very best American-Swedish sci-fi co-production made in the 1950s for under $50,000. Okay, that was snarky. This is not a great film, even for '50s sci-fi. But it does have its moments, especially when the alien monster makes its infrequent appearances. And if you like winter sports and activities, Terror is almost a filmed catalog of all the ways to have fun in desolate, frigid places.

The core story of Terror in the Midnight Sun, about 30 - 40 minutes' worth of the movie's short running time, is fairly straightforward. Something that is first thought to be a meteor has crashed into the remote northern wilds of Lapland. An expedition is hurriedly formed, consisting of an American scientist, Dr. Frederick Wilson (Robert Burton), a Swedish geologist and playboy, Eric Engstrom (Sten Gester), and various local scientific and military types. The mystery is heightened when local witnesses claim that the object traveled horizontally over the country for hundreds of miles before crashing into the base of a mountain. The team observes from the air that the object left long skidmarks in the tundra, very uncharacteristic for a meteor. Other mysterious occurrences may be connected to the meteor: huge animal tracks are seen in the vicinity of avalanches that seem to have no cause, and a herd of reindeer is decimated, possibly by the owner of the improbably large tracks.

Terror's alien spacecraft (right) was apparently inspired by
the eerie geodesic craft in It Came from Outer Space (1953).
Eric's scientific curiosity is piqued by the mystery meteor, and it doesn't hurt that Dr. Wilson's beautiful and shapely daughter Diane (Barbara Wilson) is also staying at the resort that serves as the expedition's base camp (a bystander describes her as "an Olympic star"). Far too much time is spent showing Eric ogling the beautiful Diane as she 1.) figure skates, 2.) does some downhill skiing, and 3.) stows away on the plane that sets out for the meteor crash site. Once out at the site, it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary meteor: "We're standing before some sort of craft from outer space!" Dr. Wilson exclaims, observing the unmistakable hexagonal portholes set in a metal, spherical exterior (the spherical craft and its crash landing seem to have been inspired by the Ray Bradbury classic It Came from Outer Space, 1953). At this point the action picks up, as we see from a bird's-eye POV shot some sort of giant creature advancing toward the expedition's plane and its pilot, who shoots at it with no effect.

The rest of the expedition members return to a wrecked plane and a dead pilot. Diane, the Olympic athlete, and Erik volunteer to ski to the nearest Laplander village for help. Mid-way, they take shelter in a rescue cabin, where the giant creature makes its first appearance. The scene is very well done, with the flickering fireplace in the darkened cabin contributing to the spooky atomosphere (see the clip below). The lumbering creature causes an avalanche that destroys the cabin and knocks Eric out cold. Diane tries to flee on foot, but gets scooped up and carried away by the beast, classic monster style.

The Death figure (left) from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957)
seems to have been the model for Terror's hooded aliens.
Before all is said and done, Diane encounters the hooded humanoid occupants of the spacecraft (looking like the "Death" character from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, 1957), the giant alien "pet" destroys a Laplander village, and then in turn is pursued by an enraged Laplander mob, torches in hand like an arctic version of 1931's Frankenstein. For a relatively short B movie, Terror takes way too long to deliver the goods, preferring to waste precious minutes and test the viewer's patience on "travelogue"-type scenes of the protagonists skiing, skating, dancing in a nightclub, etc. To add insult to injury, the canned travelogue music during these interminable sequences is perfectly awful. On the flip side, the tusked, furry giant creature is well-realized, especially considering the film's low budget. The filmmakers used some economical forced perspective shots and a few miniatures to lens some very effective scenes. Another nice touch is that for all its mystery, the creature at times seems somewhat sympathetic-- it treats Diane with tender care, and only becomes violent when shot at. The humanoid aliens never speak, but seem concerned about the creature, gesturing at Diane and then at the creature's tracks, as if asking her to help them find their "pet." At the end, Diane guesses that all they wanted was to retrieve the animal and go home. To its credit, Terror doesn't take the typical B route of clearly explaining the aliens' motivations.

Screenwriter Arthur C. Pierce, a Navy combat photographer in World War II, contributed to a number of B (and even cheaper) sci-fi movies of the '50s, '60s and '70s, including The Cosmic Man (1959), Edgar G. Ulmer's Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), The Human Duplicators (1965), and The Astral Factor (1976; with Robert Foxworth and Stefanie Powers). (He was the uncredited director of both Duplicators and The Astral Factor.) Robert Burton (Dr. Wilson) did tons of TV in all genres from the '50s right up to his death in 1962. His last film credit was the execrable The Slime People (1963), where he played another standard issue professor.

Z-grade sci-fi impresario Jerry Warren secured the rights to Terror in the Midnight Sun and added some scenes with always-ready-to-work John Carradine, and released his version as Invasion of the Animal People. Although I haven't seen this version, I've read that it takes the modest but watchable original version and makes it all but incomprehensible. Avoid Invasion and stick with the original. Terror is available on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema, as a download from Something Weird Video, and as a stream or download from Amazon.com.

In the dark of a remote wilderness cabin, Diane (Barbara Wilson) and Erik (Sten Gester) encounter a giant occupant from a downed alien spaceship: