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Cinema Macabre Issue 4: Vampires!

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From Murnau's Nosferatu in 1922 to this years upcoming Thirty Days of Night, the vampire has held a fascination for cinema audiences like no other monster. This month Cinema Macabre turns its attention to the bloodsucking fiends, so grab your crosses, your holy water, and a slice of garlic bread and let's begin.

Iloz Zoc: The Return of the Vampire (1944)

Bela Lugosi's career didn't fare well after his initial fame with Dracula. Having failed the makeup screen test for Frankenstein — though he wasn't overly fond of playing the monster anyway — his reserved and aloof demeanor kept him from ingratiating himself with the Hollywood in-crowd. That, and the rapidly rising stardom of Boris Karloff after his noted portrayal of the Frankenstein monster, put Lugosi in a deteriorating career position.

Although he created intensely unique and effective characters such as Dracula, Murder Legendre in White Zombie, and Ygor, beginning with Son of Frankenstein, he spent much of his time acting in lesser roles. After Dracula, he portrayed a "real" vampire onscreen only two more times; as Armand Tesla in The Return of the Vampire, and as the more comedic Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Columbia Pictures' The Return of the Vampire is a B-movie that plays like a fairy tale. You have your evil villain, the occultist turned vampire Armand Tesla, his reluctant servant tragically caught between good and evil — and werewolfism, the wartime backdrop of beleaguered London, and seething revenge creeping along in the night.

As the first World War ends, Tesla is trapped and dispatched by driving a steel spike into his heart. Years later, during the aftermath of a World War II Nazi bombing raid, civil defense workers mistakenly remove the spike from Tesla's heart, freeing him to seek vengeance on the family that stopped his vampiric evil many years before. The removal of the spike is reminiscent of a similar scene in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, where Larry Talbot is freed from his tomb by two would-be grave robbers. Calling his servant to return to his side, and turning him back into a rather huggable werewolf filled with remorse, Tesla assumes a new identity and executes his nefarious plan.

The film moves along well and Lugosi, while older, still plays the vampire with a sufficient touch of malice to make it all worthwhile. The addition of his werewolf servant is an odd touch, especially since he doesn't act like a werewolf, but it does provide a unique aspect to the storyline.

The Return of the Vampire is a good B-movie that came at the end of the gothic horror cycle, before supernatural horror gave way to the mutant horrors of the 1950s. As such, it became lost in the changeover. It still retains a unique gothic atmosphere as it places the last vestige of supernatural horror in the midst of the then present age, immersed in the real horrors of World War II.

Ian Woolstencroft: Martin (1977)

Vampires. The word conjures up images of cloak-enshrouded men with piercing eyes and gleaming fangs and beautiful women in nightdresses with heaving bosoms. Well you won’t find any of that in Martin.

Two things are made clear right from the start: this isn’t your usual vampire movie and Martin is one very disturbed young man. Traveling by train to stay with his elderly cousin Cuda, Martin attacks a woman in her sleeping car, rendering her unconscious before feeding on her blood. It’s obvious from the practised nature with which he goes about the task of subduing her and cleaning up afterwards that this is not the first such incident.

Upon arrival he’s met by Cuda and the old man is in no doubt he’s a vampire. His home is festooned with crosses and garlic but such things have no effect on Martin; to all outward appearances he’s a normal young man.

martinThe is-he-or-isn’t-he question is at the heart of George Romero’s film. In one particular scene, talking with Cuda’s niece in the kitchen, Martin seems almost like a normal guy, telling her he’s glad she doesn’t believe in the “magic.” Then when she asks him how old he is he replies “eighty-four.” It wrong-foots the viewer and reinforces the sense of doubt.

Martin is one of the most complex characters in horror cinema and John Amplas brings him to life brilliantly. Martin doesn’t talk much and Amplas has to convey most of the character's emotions without words. At times we sympathise with the shy, sexually repressed young man, at others we’re horrified by the coldly methodical killer who not only drinks his victims' blood but sexually abuses them as well. That Amplas can elicit such diverse reactions is a credit to his ability.

Martin is Romero’s most interesting film, both visually and intellectually. With Night of the Living Dead he reinvented the zombie movie and here he does something similar with the vampire film. The flashback/fantasy scenes pay homage to the traditional bloodsucker flick while the rest of the film has a more documentary feel, particularly where Martin’s methodical preparations are concerned.

There’s more to George Romero than just zombies, as this film aptly demonstrates. This is one of the strangest vampire films ever made and one of the most intelligent and thought provoking horror movies of the seventies.

Chris Beaumont: Mr. Vampire (1985)

Have you ever heard of hopping vampires? Didn't think so. The idea of hopping vampires seemed like an idea that just could not work. That is until I saw Mr. Vampire, a film from Hong Kong made back in 1985. The Chinese myth of vampires is vastly different than the Bram Stoker version here in the West. In Chinese myth, vampires are reanimated corpses whose souls have not left the body. They come back to feed on the life essence of the living, not the drinking of blood. Their preferred method of moving about is hopping — you see, rigor mortis has made them a little too stiff to walk.

Mr. Vampire tells the story of a rich man who was instructed by a fortune teller to have his deceased father reburied in order to improve the family's fortune. The problem is that the deceased's soul has not yet left, and once removed from the earth reanimates as a vampire, hopping around in pursuit of the living. The man in charge of the reburial is a Taoist priest, Master Ko (Ching Ying Lam), a man who knows the spells that can be used to control the living dead. The problem is that he also has two assistants, and they are a little less than competent.

The movie is a blend of horror, slapstick comedy, and martial arts that works to great effect. It also goes a long way towards introducing concepts that are quite foreign to an uninitiated audience, from hopping vampires, to soul-sucking ghosts, to vampirism transferred like a virus, to the use of sticky rice, Taoist spells, and ink-covered string to combat the vampire. Then there is the fact that you can avoid vampire detection by holding your breath.

The story is pretty easy to follow, as it centers on a vampire on the loose and a group of heroes seeking to stop his rampage. However, it is so much more than that; it is a window into another culture, it serves up some big laughs, and has some surprisingly creepy moments. And let's not forget the man who travels around with a group of the hopping vampires in tow.

Ching Ying Lam stars as Master Ko, and does a great job of centering the film, bringing an aura of deadly seriousness to the silliness around him. He has great presence and plays the teacher role perfectly. His assistants, played by Siu Hou Chin and Ricky Hui are also perfect, they are both adept at martial arts, and their comic timing is spot on. They're directed by Ricky Lau, who went on to direct a number of sequels and other vampire-related films.

Mr. Vampire is definitely not your typical vampire movie. It is quirky, it is funny, and it is a lot of fun. The film is never scary in the traditional sense, but there are tense moments where you are not sure what may happen next, there is the "infection" of one of the bumbling assistants, and the ghost that loses her head. It is a wildly different movie than what you get in the West, as well as a pioneering one in Hong Kong. It kicked off a stretch of vampire themed horror/comedies, including one titled Vampire vs. Vampire, which pits an Eastern vampire against a Western one.

Daniel Woolstencroft: Near Dark (1987) 

There's a supernatural unholy trinity for me: zombies, vampires, and werewolves. In my younger years, vampires were it. As I've grown up, zombies have overtaken them slightly in my affections, but they're still up there — fascinating me like few of cinema's other creatures.

And of all the vampire movies that I love, one stands head and shoulders above the rest — Near Dark. It's a western, it's a horror movie, and it's a love story – and an involving one at that. Central characters Caleb (Adrian Pasdar, prior to learning to fly in Heroes, and living in a cardboard box in Profit) and Mae (Jenny Wright) make an attractive couple, and the chemistry is immediate and compelling.

It's not long after Caleb and Mae meet that the rest of Mae's "family" show up. After she inadvertently turns Caleb into one their own, the family grudgingly (now there's an understatement) take him in, and it's up to Mae to teach him to kill; to feed. The family is one of the key things that makes Near Dark such a work of art.

near darkAliens co-stars Bill Paxton (Severen), Jenette Goldstein (Diamondback), and the mighty Lance Henriksen (Jesse) play three members of the vampire clan. The previously mentioned Wright, and Joshua John Miller – as the child-vampire Homer (mispronounce it and I wouldn't wanna be you) – round out the vampiric cast, and Tim Thomerson – something of an icon himself for me when I first saw Near Dark thanks to his role as Jack Deth in Trancers - plays Caleb's father.

Every actor turns in my favourite performance of their career, but it's Paxton and Henriksen that steal the film. Severen is a million miles away from that sniveling grunt Hudson, and a genuine blood-sucking psychopath. And while I love Bishop, Henriksen is indescribably awesome here. I've always hoped a prequel would fill in Jesse's backstory, but it's never happened.

There are so many great lines in Eric Red's script, too. Even beyond the one liners, there's a poetry and rhythm that you don't find very often. And you'll find no mention of vampires either, which just adds to the charm. I can forgive the mildly crap "cure" that presents itself later in the movie, because everything else works so well.

It's all set to a magnificent Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Maybe it's dated a little, but frankly I don't care; it's perfect. Incidentally, it's one of the first CDs I ever bought, and for a while the only thing I would listen to.

Near Dark is unquestionably director Kathryn Bigelow's finest hour. It's looks stunning throughout and of all the films I've seen has left one of the strongest visual impressions. There are so many amazing shots – Caleb feeding from Mae's wrist; the family, out for the hunt, lined up in the misty moonlight; daylight streaming through bullet holes in motel walls; Caleb smoking as he tries to get home; vampires bursting into flames.

It's iconic, plain and simple. Near Dark is the finest vampire movie of modern times.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

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