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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Kenneth Hite's LiveJournal:

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Monday, February 8th, 2016
1:04 am
DunDraCon Schedule!
Normally, it's the con who's dilatory in figuring out my schedule. But this time it's just me lollygagging around rather than posting my panel schedule for DunDraCon, President's Day weekend in sorta sunny San Ramon, California, convenient to your better Bay Areas.

But here it is now, lollygagging be damned!

Saturday, February 13

What's New at Pelgrane Press
1:00-2:00 PM in Tri-Valley 2
Presenter: Kenneth Hite

Pelgrane Press staff designer Kenneth Hite gives you the lowdown on everything from 13th Age to the Dracula Dossier.

City Building: Building from Scratch
02:00-3:30 PM in Tri-Valley 2
Presenters: Michael Blum, Kenneth Hite, Anders Swenson

The seminar about the nuts and bolts of building and using cities in RPGs. This year we'll illustrate how a city might develop by building one on the whiteboard -- a "start from scratch" description. Input and criticism from the attendees always makes this a unique event!

Alternate Histories
6:00-7:30 PM in Salon C
Presenters: Dana Lombardy, Ken Hite

The very popular War College panel discussion continues! Authors and game designers Dana Lombardy and Ken Hite look at possible alternate histories and what their impact might have been. Audience participation is encouraged.

Sunday, February 14

What's Cool
10:00-11:00 AM in Tri-Valley 2
Presenters: Bruce Harlick, Kenneth Hite, Carl Rigney

Three Icons of the gaming industry from three different viewpoints combine to present to you the best in current game products.
Saturday, October 31st, 2015
7:14 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Horror of Dracula (1958)
Director: Terence Fisher
Dracula: Christopher Lee

Consider this film (just called Dracula in the UK) the anti-Coppola Dracula. Relentlessly modern (it was the first Technicolor vampire film) and breathlessly paced yet luridly Gothic to the core, carving to the heart of Stoker’s novel while discarding its plot almost entirely, it would be a great Dracula movie for those reasons alone. But it has in addition three advantages that no production has had before or since: Christopher Lee as Dracula, Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, and Terence Fisher’s sure, bold direction. Fisher’s sincere Christian vision, of Dracula as a fundamental story of good vs. evil, permeates the film. Lee’s Dracula both tempts and terrifies, fully animal and entirely demonic — all in only 7 minutes of screen time. Cushing brings Stoker’s multi-dimensional Van Helsing more than alive as well: pious scientist and plague-fighting philosopher, faith and reason joined. Cushing also depicts Van Helsing’s human tenderness and innate leadership qualities with economy and confidence, throwing into stark contrast his more-than-surgical strain of violence. To Fisher, the best of men can still be a beast; the worst of demons is all too attractive. But throughout, Van Helsing and Dracula remain almost polar opposites and their war is a war — is the War — for all humanity.

The film is not perfect, of course. The now-primitive day-for-night shots make exteriors chancy, the comic relief at the border hangs an unfortunate lantern on the claustrophobic setting (instead of countries across a continent from each other, civilization and Hell are in neighboring postal codes), and Hammer’s idiosyncratic love-hate relationship with the British class system mars the narrative of middle-class heroes reducing an undead aristocrat to dust. The third-act turn (taken from the cursed Deane-Balderston play), in which Dracula’s hiding place turns out to be the Holmwoods’ cellar, works thematically but not narratively. But across all that, Fisher shoots a realistic nightmare, building shots from parallel rising action, and filling the frames with color and natural motion — the wind effects in this movie alone should be mandatory viewing. Like Cushing’s Van Helsing, Fisher’s lens combines realism and even irony with faith and violence, that latter quality incidentally unleashing Christopher Lee to become a great actor and a generation’s dream of Dracula. Horror of Dracula, I submit to you, is the greatest Dracula movie ever made.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Here to catalogue books (and your comments and responses) and kill vampires, it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order the glorious sunlight that is hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Friday, October 30th, 2015
9:19 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula Untold (2014)
Director: Gary Shore
Dracula: Luke Evans

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a shooting star! It’s a FIST OF BATS! This latest effort by Universal to revitalize their once-glorious monster universe franchise casts a cape-bedecked Vlad the Impaler as half combat-god Batman (“sometimes the world doesn’t need a hero … sometimes it needs a monster”) complete with silly post-Coppola rubber armor in a closet, and half death-from-above Superman complete with a Kryptonite-like weakness for silver. And let’s be honest with each other: the Supervlad parts of this movie are pretty bat-tastic. Considered solely as cut scenes, the forest-hunting bits and battle footage work well, the big impaling scene is Hammer Gothic (but too short), the FIST OF BATS redefines “out there”, and the final fight between Vlad and Mehmed the Conqueror (avert your eyes, history majors and/or people who can use Wikipedia) in a veritable Scrooge McDuck tentful of silver coins manages to be both spectacular and original. As a Dracula: Year One effort it also checks some boxes while performing the vital service of adding a completely screwy new turn to the mythos, in this case Charles Dance as Vlad’s nosferatu sire (intriguingly named “Caligula” in the script) trapped in a Carpathian cave literally lined with crushed human bones.

The actual script, not so much. Leaving aside the “brilliant warlord who never bothered to raise an army or teach anyone to guard a perimeter” problems perhaps necessary for proper superheroics, there’s at least one major scene missing (how do the Turks get into the monastery? how does Mehmed learn Vlad’s weakness?) and a crippling laziness at the story’s Braveheart heart. Turning epochal psychopath Vlad Tepes into Batman is bad enough, but making him William Wallace to boot is a bridge too far (and too well-trodden) even for a comic book movie. These decisions obviously weaken any pretense that Vlad is actually history’s (or legend’s) Vlad the Impaler, but they also weaken Universal’s notion that this pretty-boy superdad ever turns out to be, y’know, Dracula. In fairness to Evans, he’s never asked to play Dracula by the film, which walks back the one truly awful thing he does — raise an army of vampires from his Wallachian followers to gut the Turkish army — almost immediately. This is supposed to be the Faustian story of an evil warlord who finds even worse evil waiting, or failing that, of a good man who becomes a monster. Instead, it’s the story of a good father who gets a FIST OF BATS and somehow it doesn’t cheer him up. Although it makes me pretty happy.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Glutted on a skull-full of nosferatu blood (and on your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order 24-karat hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Thursday, October 29th, 2015
9:03 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Nosferatu (1922)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Orlok: Max Schreck

To sum up: F.W. Murnau illegally adapted Dracula, changing the names (Harker becomes Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina becomes Ellen (Greta Schroeder), Dracula becomes Orlok) and location (1890s London becomes 1838 Wisborg, Germany) while adding an apocalyptic plague element missing entirely from the novel. This fooled nobody, and Florence Stoker sued him into bankruptcy. The court ordered all prints of the film destroyed, which fortunately didn’t happen. The Murnau-Stiftung restored version from Kino Lorber is on Amazon streaming, and is in better shape than many other silent films of the era.

Critically, what else is there to say? It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple. Only its court-enforced obscurity allowed the Lugosi-Browning version to become the default cinematic Dracula, and with its return from legal un-death it has infused not only Werner Herzog’s direct remake (and the 2000 E. Elias Merhige satire Shadow of the Vampire) but Coppola’s free-roaming shadows, Maddin’s Freudian interiors, Argento’s insectile atmosphere, and Tim Burton’s fever-dream Gotham City. Max Schreck’s ratlike, pestilential Orlok serves as a skulking anima to the dominant seducer-Dracula, remaining always in the shadows of the archetype to become the Other to even the vampiric Other. Scriptwriter Henrik Galeen was Jewish and production designer Albin Grau a Crowleyite, but when you create a cinematic Other in the Weimar 1920s, you wind up with a hook-nosed Easterner spreading poison into the pure heart of Germany. Bram Stoker was a lifelong philosemite, and even he sipped from the anti-Semitic well for the novel. Galeen and Murnau also charged Stoker’s subtext of an impotent Harker vs. an omnipotent Dracula by infusing Ellen’s sacrifice with notes of erotic longing and eagerness missing from the novel’s Mina. Weirdly, Grau also Otherizes the occult: the Hawkins-Renfield blend Herr Knock (Alexander Granach) corresponds with Dracula in sigil-bespangled Enochian letters only to go mad, and the “Paracelsian” Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) remains almost entirely useless during the film, unlike his model Van Helsing. The end result is nonetheless, as I said, a masterpiece. As Roger Ebert wrote, Nosferatu “doesn’t scare us, it haunts us.”

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Restored by later cinephiles (such as our commentors and responders), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order carefully storyboarded hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
3:08 am
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula 3000 (2004)
Director: Darrell James Roodt
Dracula: Langley Kirkwood

A Warning to the Curious: This is the worst film I have watched for this project. By far. Compared to this movie, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is Unforgiven. IMDB users have rated it the 37th worst film of all time. It is not “so bad it’s good.” The cheese promised by a film “starring” Casper Van Dien, Erika Eleniak, and Coolio (a holy trinity of terrible cable) is rancid and stale. Nobody cares at all. Even with two robots and a chunky Midwesterner making fun of it in the corner, it would be nearly unwatchable. Filmed on what may well have been a derelict freighter or abandoned factory or both (do spacecraft in the year 3000 have concrete floors? 1960s radio equipment? VCRs?) weirdly bedecked every so often with Soviet imagery, its lighting and sound convey no menace. The script is outright insulting, although it does convey a certain sweaty, herbed-up feel of junior-high D&D games complete with a discussion of the planet “Comptonia,” full of hos and weed.

Don’t worry, the rest of the references aren’t that subtle, or that well handled. For example, ship’s knowitall Arthur Holmwood (Grant Swanby, determined to lose the acting contest to Van Dien) discovers that Captain Van Helsing (Van Dien, determined to remember his next line) is descended from the vampire hunter who killed Dracula a thousand years ago. (Shouldn’t the knowitall be Van Helsing and the captain be Holmwood? Yes, but compared to swapping Lucy and Mina around this is admittedly a minor change.) They agree the chances of such a meeting at random are astronomical, it must be a setup or a plan! But when Van Helsing confronts Dracula (traveling under the name Orlock, perhaps out of embarrassment) with his identity, Dracula doesn’t care any more than the audience does. So you’re saying the script intends to indicate divine action in bringing them together to destroy Dracula? Of course not, because that might be interesting. Despite a very odd insistence that nobody in the film recognizes a cross (“religion was banned 200 years ago” they unsplain to each other) the whole topic is dropped unceremoniously, along with the whole hunt for Dracula, once Van Helsing-Dien is vampirized. Instead, the surviving crewman “Humvee” (Tiny Lister) and the android Aurora (Erika Eleniak) go off to have sex until the ship blows up. Which Dracula somehow prevented Udo Kier (!) from doing 50 years ago, but apparently even he agreed that this movie had to be stopped.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Expanded from this early version (stuffing your comments and responses into its tank top), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order pre-recorded hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Tuesday, October 27th, 2015
11:22 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula (1931)
Director: Tod Browning

Dracula: Bela Lugosi

Is it possible for a film to be simultaneously iconic and bad? Not “iconic for being bad” but plain old iconic — establishing the rules for cinematic Draculas to respond to or rebel against for the next century. In the first act of Dracula, Browning (and cinematographer Karl Freund) and Bela Lugosi combine their talents to present a Dracula inextricably tied to the past, to the Gothic, to aristocracy and queasy seduction, to brutality, to unnatural sex and inverted Christianity. All of these things (except mayyyybe the seduction) come straight out of Stoker, but Lugosi dials down the novel’s animalism and plays up the mesmerism (following the path of the stage play he’d performed the lead in for years) and scriptwriter Garrett Fort introduces the — iconic — line “I never drink … wine.” Even after decades of camp and detournement, Lugosi’s authentically Transylvanian accent still sells that line along with Stoker’s classic “children of the night” and the play’s “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime …” dis of Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). The play provided the evening clothes and opera cape, but it was Lugosi’s decision on stage and in film to code Dracula as a mentalist or magician, and to play him as a “Valentino gone slightly rancid” in Dracula scholar David Skal’s memorable phrase. Even Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman bow to Lugosi’s performance in their own, and Frank Langella purely updated Lugosi’s seducer to the 1970s.

The lesser parts have also felt the Browning chill: Dwight Frye’s unhinged Renfield has almost completely erased the novel’s genteel madman; David Manners’ (or rather the script’s and director’s) bland Harker has likewise nearly expunged the novel’s heroic lover. And here’s where we must take notice of the second half of the question, because Dracula is a bad movie despite its legendarily perfect first act. Browning wrested control from Freund but didn’t care enough to use it: shots become static and stagy, the actors are lost or falling back on instinct, whole plot lines ignored (Lucy isn’t staked in the film) or stepped on (Dracula is staked off screen). Why the movie drops dead 20 minutes in remains an open question: was Browning drunk, a silent director out of his element, pining for his dead muse Lon Chaney Sr. (who would have played Dracula had he not died of cancer in 1930), or sabotaged by a script based on the junky stage play and by Universal’s Depression-era penny pinching? The end result is a film as incompatible with itself as its famous armadillos are with Dracula’s castle, a film trapped between terrifying life and stultifying death.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Surrounded by armadillos (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order mesmerizing hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Monday, October 26th, 2015
11:06 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002)
Director: Guy Maddin
Dracula: Zhang Wei-Qiang

This Guy Maddin film, originally intended for Canadian TV but given a theatrical release thanks to its rapturous critical reception, is simultaneously by far the most audacious and nearly the most textually faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Foregrounding the novel’s subtexts of immigration panic, absentee landlordship, and “the Eastern Question” along with its more often cited wellsprings of female sexuality unleashed, it also takes the opportunity to incorporate little-used novelistic elements such as Mrs. Westenra’s role in her daughter’s death, Quincey Morris, and Dracula “bleeding money” when stabbed. Oh, and it’s a silent, expressionist ballet with a Mahler soundtrack (First and Second symphonies) and lightning-fast neo-Eisensteinian editing (by deco dawson, also credited as “associate director”). But then I said “Guy Maddin film” up front.

If you haven’t seen any Maddin films, this may not be the place to start. (Try Careful or The Saddest Music in the World first.) But there’s something to be said for just diving right in, the way Maddin does with this project. Given Mark Godden’s pre-existing adaptation of Dracula for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Maddin made the decision to make a “silent film that just happens to have dancing” rather than a dance movie, and to re-adapt the source material to suit his own idiosyncratic filming and visual styles. Maddin sends his cameras into the midst of the ballet, blending the dancers’ language of gesture and motion with silent film’s language of blocking and emotion into a roller-coaster of expressionism-squared. Zhang’s Dracula is emotion incarnate, mirroring the newfound lusts of his victims and then overmastering and devouring them. Color tints or washes, stark intertitles (often taken directly from the novel’s text), and sudden changes in lighting and resolution create discrete cinematic moments that nonetheless flash by like images in a zoopraxiscope. Maddin claimed to have only read the first half of the novel, and to not even like ballet, and yet he creates a dreamlike tour de force worthy of consideration alongside Murnau or Herzog while exceeding them textually and perhaps even poetically.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Filled with polluted blood (and with your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order red-tinted hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Sunday, October 25th, 2015
9:21 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)
Director: William Beaudine
Dracula: John Carradine

And now for something completely different. This perfunctory, sleepwalking movie should not be as terrible as it is. Indeed, the premise and even the plot are sound: Dracula is in the Old West, and a recently reformed Billy the Kid, jealous of the interloper, returns to his criminal ways to gun down the Count. Slavoj Zizek says something about the act of paraphrase creating banality, but in this case, the paraphrase creates potential. It’s the execution that’s banal; Carradine at least has the excuse of having been drunk the entire time. Filmed in four days (or three, sources vary) by the legendarily uncaring William “One Shot” Beaudine, any flicker of potential was well and truly quashed.

A few surreal moments aside (such as Dracula, in full sideshow mentalist garb of top hat, floppy red cravat, and cape, announcing himself as “Mr. Underhill” from Boston) it just plods along from bad to worse, and not even “so bad it’s good” bad. I added this movie to the list for two reasons. First, I wanted to look at Dracula in the context of the Western, and I had entirely misremembered this flick from my misspent UHF-monster-movie youth. The movie I thought this was is the considerably more interesting Curse of the Undead (Edward Dein, 1959), which probably counts as the first vampire Western, a subgenre that encompasses the Iranian-American low-fi rebel flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014), John Carpenter’s 1998 Vampires (an homage to Rio Bravo), and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (the best vampire film of the 1980s, a very good decade for vampire films). Watch those instead of this one. The second reason I included this movie is that it is, after all, still John Carradine as Dracula and that has to count for something. Thankfully, this grease trap would not be Carradine’s final outing as the Count. Pretending for the moment that his brief cameos in softcore disco flick Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979) don’t, er, count, Carradine fans can take satisfaction in TV workhorse Glen Larson’s surprisingly decent “McCloud Meets Dracula” episode. Aired in April 1977, it was the last episode in McCloud's run; Carradine kills delightfully as the senile-actor-or-real-vampire villain. And given its cowboy-cop premise, it’s even sort of kind of (not really) a Western, to boot.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. With added footnotes in German (and mayhap your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order a silver mine's worth of hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
6:56 am
Vampires CIFF
The light schedule is probably Dracula's fault -- as you may have noticed in this space, I've been watching a lot of Dracula movies this month while writing The Thrill of Dracula, and there's only so much time in the day and space in the old pineal gland for movies. But we only missed maybe two or three movies that would have been strong compels in other years, and by playing our cards pretty close wound up (mostly) avoiding disappointment. One other good thing about programming a lighter festival schedule this year (14 films, down from 26 last year) is that I avoided the "second week droop" that often hits the last few days. We also went out on a pretty high note, which helped.

Mad props out to his_regard for boon compadreship, and to the Whole Foods across the street from the River East for a) finally opening and for b) having a full bar. Alcohol reglazes your pineal gland, everybody knows that.

Herewith, then, in our familiar Lawsian format, my Chicago International Film Fest review and roundup.

THE BEST

They Look Like People (Perry Blackshear, USA) Think Frailty but about self not family, and set in Brooklyn, and you're in the right neighborhood. Nothing cheats, nothing lies, nothing is certain for way longer than you'd believe possible in this story of a man who knows that most people are demons, and the best friend who invites him into his life. Men of my generation like to reference Grosse Pointe Blank about friendship -- They Look Like People takes it to the next generation and the next level, on two rock-solid performances by MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumouchel as the leads in a humanistic horror key.

Laundryman (Chung Lee, Taiwan) Hit man has cover as dry cleaners driver. Hit man sees ghosts. His boss sends him to "the best medium." Strangeness ensues, of that perfect kind where the film world steadily gets bigger and more dangerous and more fantastic, while still holding tight to its internal reality. Chung Lee has internalized J-horror's stronger tropes along with 21st-century post-Bourne action and keeps a smooth, wry Taiwanese spin on it the whole time.

RECOMMENDED

Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, France/USA) Is it a good sign or a bad sign that right after seeing a documentary about the art of directing you have nothing but cascading ideas of how you would have directed it instead? I think it's a good sign. The directors' commentary to the video audiobook of the titular seminal 1962 tome is pretty great in its own right, although some of the directors say some silly silly things.

Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, USA) The 1920 French print rediscovered last year (the only one known of this film) chopped the 1916 film up to make it into a serial, and I suspect not without cost to the plot. Still very worth seeing, although I missed the last reel to grab a seat for Hitchcock/Truffaut. (Spoiler: Holmes gets the girl.) William Gillette invented not only the meerschaum pipe but the imperious Holmes that every actor from Rathbone to Brett to Cumberbatch has followed in the ensuing century.

Schneider Vs. Bax (Alex Van Warmerdam, Netherlands/Belgium) On the one hand, yet another hitman black comedy: hitman Schneider has to whack the odious Bax in time to make his family birthday party, but he's delayed by Bax's own family crisis. On the other, the characters remain (mostly) true to themselves, the director doesn't cheat, and the payoff not only worked but resonated.

Three Days in September (Darijan Pejovski, Macedonia) Strong B-movies are rarer than they used to be, and well-oiled noir rarer than that. Welcome to the Balkans, where noir grows on trees or in this case in a lakeside village in rural Macedonia. This two-female-leads noir is more Bound than Strangers on a Train, but less contrived than either. That's mostly for the best, even though I do love a good contrivance.

Tag (Sion Sono, Japan) Like a lot of surrealistic horror, Tag is great up until it has to pay off, where it loses some steam, probably inevitably. But the weirdly arbitrary yet personalized nightmares and strong performances by all three actresses portraying the lead character (see?) make the ride a good one while it lasts. On the bubble for mere Good, actually, but a few utterly compelling visuals eke it up to Recommended.

GOOD

Very Semi-Serious (Leah Wolchok, USA) This enjoyable documentary about cartoonists trying to make it into the New Yorker, by contrast, was on the bubble for Recommended but I thought I might be letting my own subject-matter taste (and some really funny cartoons) override the essentially soft and unchallenging nature of the film. A nature it shares with the New Yorker, so I guess there's that.

Milano 2015 (var. dirs., Italy) Of the six short documentaries in this anthology, the two best are by new or amateur filmmakers: Roberto Bolle's on a ballet performance at La Scala, and Walter Veltroni's ode to Milan's "magic track" velodrome. Another never coheres, one is intermittently magical, and two (on the Corriere della Sera and on the changing face of the city) are perfectly okay. Also, boy Milan is pretty.

Bite (Chad Archibald, Canada) A body horror-relationship horror-insect horror Toronto film that wisely doesn't try to homage Cronenberg's Fly, but doesn't try to do much else either. Worth watching for Elma Begovic's intense, damaged performance (by far the best in the film) as the girl bitten by something weird on her bachelorette trip.

OKAY

Red Spider (Marcin Koszalka, Poland/Czech Republic/Slovakia) Interweaves two real 1960s Polish serial killers' stories into a clinical, almost opaque mystery of character. Although it's well shot and very well paced, the main actor (or the director) can't convey the emotion or the decision the movie centers on, and the background of Soviet-era repression never amounts to much. Ironically, the real "Red Spider," Lucian Staniak, may well have been railroaded or framed by the authorities for a dozen of the killings he went to the insane asylum for. Someone should make a movie about that.

Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan/China) Beautifully shot in a weird 4:3 ratio, the film kind of wastes Shu Qi in the course of a murkily plotted tale of an assassin in Tang China who must decide whether to follow her training or her humanity. Geopolitical hugger-mugger and Taoist magic show up but don't pay off, much like the fight scenes. Also the choice of a very minimal score doesn't help keep the audience on board or awake.

NOT RECOMMENDED

Ludo (Q & Nikon, India) The first half or so is a more than fine "four horny teenagers trapped overnight in a Kolkata shopping mall with Parcheesi-obsessed vampires" flick, while the second half is a rockier horror-fantasy-fairy tale that gives us the overlong and needlessly complex Barker-ish backstory for the vampires. The tag ending hints at what the movie could have been with a strong rewrite or at least a drastic re-edit.

NOT GOOD

Abandoned (Eytan Rockaway, USA) Commits the Session 9 felony of wasting an amazing location, in this case an enormous abandoned luxury building: Strike One. Commits the idiot plot felony, in which the main character unleashes horror just to have something to scream at the other character (a long-suffering Jason Patric) about and make worse: Strike Two. Overcommits the hack ending felony. Think of the hackiest ending possible. No, the even hackier one. That's how this movie ends. Strike Three, hit the showers Abandoned, you're done here.
12:22 am
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)
Director: Terence Fisher
Dracula: Christopher Lee

Oh Hammer how you vex us. The studio’s best director, Terence Fisher, takes on another story of good and evil, of God and Satan, of art and budgeting. Unable to afford both Lee and Cushing, Hammer recruited Andrew Keir (the future definitive Professor Quatermass) and Jimmy Sangster wrote him an almost Van-Helsing-level part in Father Sandor, an earthy abbot who fights both superstition and the Un-Dead. Then, just to make sure the movie wouldn’t quite work, Hammer cut Lee’s part down to less than ten minutes, all of it non-speaking! (Lee claimed he wouldn’t speak Sangster’s lines; Sangster claimed he didn’t write any — again, one assumes, to save expensive filming-Lee time.) Lee makes the best of what he gets, with his most savage, animalistic portrayal of Dracula, all hissing and snarling. He even snaps a sword blade in half, nearly quivering with ravenous fury. Critics (both cultural and thespian) are right to single out Barbara Shelley’s performance as the straitlaced Helen turned sexually voracious vampiress — only to be held down by a squad of monks (!) and staked by Father Sandor. Someone had been reading their Gothics, and I suspect it was Jimmy Sangster.

Sangster’s both lurid and knowing screenplay, by the way, is why I believe Hammer’s budget not Lee’s sensibilities dictated a wordless Dracula. The script amazingly manages to sustain momentum in the nearly 45 minutes before Dracula’s wonderfully gruesome resurrection, and the four innocents sojourning in Castle Dracula bicker and posture believably but not (quite) annoyingly. The castle’s attempts to draw in travelers are creepy enough even before we meet the vermicious Klove (Philip Latham). And what a line this is: “He has seen and touched her — he considers her his.” The “final Brits” go back to the Castle a little too readily, but the final chase is another doozy. The finale, featuring Father Sandor and Diana (Suzan Farmer) blazing away with rifles not at Dracula but at the frozen river under his feet, is the best one in the Hammer cycle.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Reconstituted with prig’s blood (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order enigmatically non-speaking hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Friday, October 23rd, 2015
11:20 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula 3D (2012)
Director: Dario Argento
Dracula: Thomas Kretschmann

It may seem like special pleading that I give the universally-panned Argento Dracula a pass while kicking the box-office-smash Coppola Dracula in the fangs. The differences, however, are significant. First and foremost, of course, Argento subverts Coppola by having his Mina’s love for Dracula be the result of a trance he casts upon her: his Dracula is both more pathetic and more dangerous because his hunger is greater than sanity. And while Argento’s film can be accused of being just as cartoony as Coppola’s, in his vision the insanity always springs from Dracula, preserving the novel’s irruptive fear. Sure, the human world is weirdly lit and strangely affected, but unlike Coppola, Argento has been using those techniques for decades now. People who slate this movie because it looks like it was filmed through a succession of jujubes (and scripted on a succession of shrooms) simply out themselves as never having really seen an Argento film — they all do, from Suspiria on down.

Yes, it is disappointing that Argento went to the crummy CGI well when he had perfectly good practical effects that could have done the job in some cases — blood gushing from Italian ladies should not have been untrodden ground for our Dario. (At least he filmed the movie in native 3D instead of post-producing it in.) Rutger Hauer’s Van Helsing is visibly exhausted throughout, as against Kretschmann’s sense of banked power and wolfish violence as Dracula. And yes, Dracula turning into an enormous grasshopper more than squanders in tone and seriousness what it gains in jaw-dropping shock value. (Although one Balkan vampire, the ala, inhabits grasshoppers…) The plot and incidents are indeed a mishmosh of previous Dracula films, including Coppola’s (Marta Gastini’s dress even evokes Winona Ryder’s in the final scene), but that said, Argento seized not only on the plots of the Hammer cycle but their color and lighting schemes as well, deepening the homage considerably. And somehow Argento’s film is the only one in a century to actually interrogate the town’s relationship with its murderous — but economically beneficial — vampire lord. There’s truth, and much of wisdom, in them thar jujubes.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Transformed into an enormous grasshopper (and fed by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order lush, zoomy hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Thursday, October 22nd, 2015
11:41 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula (2006)
Director: Bill Eagles
Dracula: Marc Warren

When you give me a secret history behind the story of Dracula, it makes it very hard for me to hate on your movie’s flaws. This ITV-WGBH production casts Arthur Holmwood (!) as the prime mover of the action. Discovering the death sentence that is his congenital syphilis, Holmwood (Dan Stevens) contacts the psychic Alfred Singleton (!!) of the Brotherhood of the Undead, who meet in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (!!!) for a solution. Their researcher, Van Helsing (David Suchet), has discovered a real vampire, but it will take substantial donations, gifts of property — and the regrettable sacrifice of a few lives — to bring him to London. And our familiar story now begins, with a sexually frustrated Lucy (Sophia Myles) unable to understand her new husband and open to Dracula’s approach.

Marc Warren begins as a creepy old-Oldman Dracula in Transylvania but feeds on Harker (Rafe Spall) and enough sailors that by the time he reaches Whitby he is the Byronically youthful Marc Warren. Warren almost makes you forget his Edward-Cullen-ish petulant smolder when he goes wild in the Holmwood library or cold in the Cheyne Walk sanctum, but the eeriest moments are saved for Van Helsing, locked away in the Brotherhood’s cellar, surrounded by twig-and-twine crosses out of some Blair Vampire Project prop room. As you can tell from the brief synopsis, this movie, with its satanic cults and secret agendas, makes for great Dracula Dossier inspiration from the jump. Any vampire can draw power from Dracula’s psychometric-animalistic hunt for Mina (by sniffing a lock of her hair in Transylvania), his mind-controlled suicide sentence on Singleton, and his teleporting during the final fight where only a badass John Seward (!!!!) saves the day. And a good thing, too, as we have already learned that this Dracula can get even worse as he “will learn of London’s unholy ground, where its suicides are buried, and he will draw a great strength from them.” Taste the Telluric Psychogeography of Dracula! The tag scene is unnecessary except to set up a putative sequel that I will totally watch, because Cheyne Walk, people. Cheyne Walk.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Freed from its Cheyne Walk basement (and strengthened by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order unhallowed yet Byronic hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Wednesday, October 21st, 2015
11:40 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Dracula: Gary Oldman

Whatever happened to Francis Ford Coppola? It beggars the imagination that the director who made five masterpieces in ten years (Patton, The Conversation, Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now) also made this chemical fire of a film. Even the uneven Eighties Coppola was better than this, at least sometimes (The Outsiders, Tucker). Watching it again for this project I realized that what Coppola had made was a live-action cartoon of Dracula: Lucy’s (Sadie Frost) vomited blood spraying in Van Helsing’s face, Dracula’s stalking/meet-cute of Mina (Winona Ryder) in London, the ludicrous muscle-armor, the rare roast beef, perhaps even Keanu Reeves’ “Whoa, I am totally British” accent as Harker — all these things are just bits, like Daffy Duck getting his bill blown off before resuming the story unharmed. They are, however, bits that don’t work at all. And sadly, they outweigh the bits that do. Coppola’s insistence on using only in-camera and practical effects (all developed before 1931) gives the film a dreamlike atmosphere in its best moments, a great gunfight in the final chase features a properly Texan Quincey (Billy Campbell) using his Winchester to deadly effect, Eiko Ishioka’s costumes are ridiculous as clothing but wonderful as expressionist artifacts, Monica Bellucci is the best of Brides. Some bits might have worked or partially worked but wound up overplayed or overused or just crowded into each other: the ceaseless homages to every other Dracula movie, the wolf-o-vision, Tom Waits’ full-throated Renfield, Anthony Hopkins’ authentically bipolar Van Helsing (“King Laugh”), the zoomy independent shadow as Dracula’s id.

And worst of all, the ultimate travesty of a Mina in love with — not mesmerized by (as in the movies by and large), much less raped by (as in the novel), but in pure, redemptive, fulfilling love with — Dracula. For this above all reasons, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is famously no such thing despite giving us the London Zoo wolf, the full Crew of Light, Van Helsing holding off the Brides with a charmed circle, and a daywalking Dracula. Which brings us to Gary Oldman. As I’ve said before, in the final analysis Dracula films stand or fall on their Dracula. Oldman is a superb actor, but his “menacing” Dracula is too campy (Fifth Element) or too psychotic (The Professional) and his proto-hipster, curly-locked “Prince Vlad” is no Cary Elwes. More to the point, when the whole cinematic world is clearly psycho, a psycho Dracula just doesn’t stand out. He doesn’t threaten the green-lit, peacock-spangled, model-train, ruff-bedecked, morphine-shooting, Richard-Burton-porno “Victorian” world of the film any more than Tom threatens Jerry.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Lushly draped in seventy pounds of Gustav-Klimt-inspired robes (and in your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order razor-lickin' good hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Tuesday, October 20th, 2015
8:39 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)
Director: Freddie Francis
Dracula: Christopher Lee

A peculiar blend of apathy and attention makes this perhaps the most frustrating of the Hammer Draculas. Anthony Hinds (writing as “John Elder”) cares so little about the script that he doesn’t even bother to name Ewan Hooper’s weak Renfielded priest, and he allows that same priest to undercut the real inner conflict (between atheism and Christianity) of the hero Paul (Barry Andrews). But Father No-Name is such a weakling that his return to Jesus (to say the needed prayer over a staked Dracula, to make sure it takes this time) plays as pure opportunism, not as redemption. As against that, Freddie Francis brings all his cinematographic energies to the problem of making yet another Dracula movie stand out. We get a cool red-amber-gold gel effect whenever Dracula uses his powers, and the lighting (except for the standard-awful day-for-night shots) is great throughout. Better still, many major scenes — including a Dracula chase! — are shot on and over the rooftops of Kleinenberg, something far more original in 1968 than now.

Lee, of course, is excellent, channeling his surly attitude about Hammer into a sneering, contemptuous performance lashed by emphatic cruelty and predation. Sadly, his main dinner course, Veronica Carlson’s Maria, is as bland and uninteresting as her uncle the Monsignor Ernst Muller (Rupert Davies, just terrific in the part) is layered. Embodying both the smugness and the righteousness of the Faith (as opposed to Father No-Name’s opportunism and impotence), Muller makes a great foil for Dracula. His death is genuinely shocking, as if Van Helsing had succumbed at the third-act turn. Is God truly dead? Can the atheist-but-handsome-and-true Paul defeat Dracula while alone in the universe? If anyone had cared enough to hammer down that last act, this might have been the best one in the series. As it is, we just have its potential to mine for games. Dracula uses Father Renfield tactically throughout: to channelize his prey into an ambush, to cover Dracula’s line of retreat with an ambush of the pursuer, to infiltrate the enemy camp and gather intel. Francis’ optical effect makes for effective Dracula spoor — a sudden “your vision tunnels, glowing gold at the center with blood red shadows at the edges — adrenaline shock, perhaps?” should creep any player out. All this and vamparkour too!

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Completed by a Pater Noster (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order unfrozen hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Monday, October 19th, 2015
10:51 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)
Director: Michael Goguen
Dracula: Peter Stormare

A few truths: Doug Moench’s graphic novel Batman & Dracula: Red Rain is a superior Batman vs. Dracula story. It could not have been made into a children’s animated cartoon. Which (despite a good bit of blood and a shocking – heh – death scene for the Joker) this film very much is. Also in the truth department: yes, we all wish Paul Dini’s Batman: Animated Series shop had done this story instead, and yes, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s Tomb of Dracula series for Marvel is the best four-color Dracula of all time end of story. Enough about things that aren’t this. This is an anime-inflected superhero story that imports elements of the Dracula mythos. It indeed keeps some of the original novel’s detective-hunt feel as Batman (Rino Romano) tries vainly to track down Dracula’s tomb somewhere in Gotham Cemetery (“it must have been moved after I died” speculates the child-brain of Dracula, or of writer Duane Capizzi). It also keeps the original novel’s science-vs.-Satan edge, as the World’s Greatest Detective-Biochemist develops a cure for vampirism after only a few nights of ditching the fetching Vicki Vale (Tara Strong). Tom Kenny’s wiseacre Penguin makes an acceptable Renfield, mostly to keep the Joker (Kevin Michael Richardson, properly manic with a good threatening baritone) around as a somewhat-independent threat until he becomes a lab monkey.

Sadly, Batman and vampire Joker’s mid-movie fight (in a blood bank!) seriously outclasses either of Batman’s fights with Dracula, although the first one does establish Dracula’s menace (Stormare does what he can, too). It’s just that in a world with Killer Croc and Clayface — and Batman! — Dracula has a harder time standing out. (The film hangs a Bat-signal on this problem by briefly having Batman accused of Dracula’s mass abductions: a witness sees a gigantic bat shadow at the scene …) This highlights the difficulty involved in monster-rallies and super-universes alike — and one we saw earlier on Buffy — Dracula needs to be a singular threat, or at least the King of Threats, to properly bring the awe and terror. Dracula as Just Another Villain suffers from his very familiarity; this version doesn’t bring enough originality despite a last-minute turn to Carmilla as the MacGuffin, and the kids’ cartoon format prevents him from bringing enough horror. In a game, at least, you can amp up the second.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Released from its tomb (by the Penguin and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order superheroic hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Sunday, October 18th, 2015
9:49 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Nosferatu (1979)
Director: Werner Herzog
Dracula: Klaus Kinski

“For me, genre means an intensive, almost dreamlike stylization on screen, and I feel the vampire genre is one of the richest and most fertile cinema has to offer. There is fantasy, hallucination, dreams and nightmares, visions, fear, and of course, mythology.”
— Werner Herzog, giving us the epigraph for this whole project

“This is not a remake” insisted Werner Herzog, who seemed to consider it first and foremost an exorcism of the greatest of German films, Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), which we’ll get to anon. (That’s in Herzog’s estimation anyhow; I’d put Lang’s M above it myself.) It was also, I suspect, an exorcism of Klaus Kinski, his “best fiend” collaborator, as much as it was a vehicle for that actor, who may have been the best ever for the part both physically and emotionally. Isabelle Adjani’s Lucy deserves as much appreciation as Kinski’s Dracula; her iconic purity precisely equals his iconic poison. The combination of epochal director and ideal actors gives this film a claim to be the best ever Dracula film, and it may in fact be the best ever film to be made of Dracula, which is not quite the same thing.

First and foremost, Kinski’s Dracula is motivated not by greed and rapacity but by inertia: he is cursed with immortality, and exists to spread death. His presence in Wismar sets off not an orgy of biting — although he does fang “Mina” (the film’s Lucy-equivalent, Martje Grohmann) she doesn’t become a vampire — but the plague, spread by a horde of … ineffectually-dyed white rats. (Herzog’s inability to obtain proper gray rats just cripples the horror, it has to be admitted.) Herzog restores the original names Murnau couldn’t use for fear of lawsuit, but keeps Murnau’s plot mostly intact, with an extra Herzogian note of existential bleakness. As against that, Harker (Bruno Ganz) works much harder to damn himself than in any other version, a Catholic interpolation along with the crucifixes and holy wafers Herzog re-introduces to the story after the irreligious Murnau excised them. The cross is not enough to turn Orlok into Dracula, however — Kinski apparently fought to keep the original Murnau names, but (sadly) lost. Indeed, by getting past fidelity to Stoker’s myth Herzog opens up a world of sound and vision, creating and re-creating a documentary of a nightmare.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Remade and enriched (perhaps by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order 11,000 darling hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Saturday, October 17th, 2015
9:03 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: The House of Frankenstein (1944)
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Dracula: John Carradine

“The world I see is far away. Yet very near. A strange and beautiful world … in which one may be dead … and yet alive.”
— Rita Hussman (Anne Gwynne), unconsciously giving us the epigraph for the entire Universal horror series

John Carradine’s first appearance as Dracula (of at least five) is unprepossessing to say the least. Accidentally reanimated when mad scientist Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) threatens an officious policeman with the stake in his skeletal chest, he re-skeletonizes in the sunlight just 27 minutes into the film. He never gets screen time with Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) or the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.), so the picture isn’t a true monster rally so much as a picaresque freak show. The bulk of the film centers on Niemann’s quest for revenge on the men who jailed him for Frankenstein-inspired experiments, and it’s just fun to see Karloff actually get to ham it up in a proper mustache-twirling speaking role for a change. There’s a great bit at the end where Strange’s Monster cradles the dying Karloff in his arms — who knew that meta was a thing in 1944?

But none of that is, strictu sensu, Dractober-relevant. Carradine has to take Dracula a lot of places in his 10 minutes or so of screen time: he knuckles under to Niemann’s threats to sabotage his coffin, suavely insinuates himself (as “Baron Latos”) into Burgomaster Hussman’s (Sig Ruman) household, seduces Hussman’s grand-daughter-in-law Rita (lovely and spirited Anne Gwynne, playing up as an all-American girl in Backlot Gothic-land) with dreams and mesmeric visions, drains Hussman in silhouette as a bat (expertly shot by Kenton), flees with Rita in a coach, crashes and crawls to his coffin (discarded by Niemann to distract Dracula’s pursuers from himself), and expires piteously scrabbling at the lid. That’s more action than Dracula gets in some full-length features, and Carradine is mostly up to the job. He’s best as the seducer, of course; his menace is either animated (in bat-shadow form) or understated. His Dracula is ruled by his passions: fear, lust, hunger, and fear again. That could have been interesting in a more full-fledged Dracula, especially with the Shakespearean Carradine in the title role.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. In expanded and silhouetted form (drinking deep from your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order dapper, mustached hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
12:40 am
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula's Curse (2002)
Director: Roger Young
Dracula: Patrick Bergin

This production began on Italian TV (shot on video) as Il Bacio di Dracula (The Kiss of Dracula); I watched the Artisan DVD version entitled Dracula’s Curse, which cuts about an hour out of the run time because I just said Artisan. (Some of it shows up in the “deleted scenes,” which is even more maddening.) So I can’t speak to the pacing, which I think depends on how much you enjoy seeing the novel spool out; I didn’t find it a problem, certainly not compared to the always awful effects shots (they’re really, really awful) and the intermittently flat acting, not improved by terrible dubbing and looping. Probably the worst offender is Hardy Krüger Jr’s shouty-mannequin Harker, which is a special shame because this is the first Harker (possibly ever) to actually be written as an interesting character. He’s an American broker expat living in Budapest, desperate to score big so he can live up to his own nouveau-riche class consciousness (he splashes out on a red Porsche with his first bonus) and his fiancée Mina’s (Stefania Rocca) Davos-class expectations. That’s right, I forgot to mention — the movie is set in modern transnational Budapest, not Victorian London. The updated story and modern setting are actually the best things about this version, that and Muriel Baumeister’s party-girl Lucy. Sadly, Patrick Bergin’s lumbering Dracula (who ludicrously calls himself “Vladislav Tepes”) is not.

There’s no reason that a vampire can’t be sort of pouchy looking, but you have to really bring the menace; Bergin instead underplays his smug, mustached younger Dracula. This Dracula can change age without feeding, apparently, and impersonating his own older uncle (“Count Vladislav Tepes”) is part of his elaborate seduction of Harker. As his own older uncle Bergin looks appropriately Satanic and menacing, but overplays to compensate. Since he’s mostly acting against the world’s prettiest piece of wood Hardy Krüger Jr. it comes off as ridiculous, not scary. If I haven’t mentioned Giancarlo Giannini’s Enrico Valenzi (the “Van Helsing” part) it’s because the movie also treats him as an afterthought, and like many good Continental actors, Giannini’s response to a bad role is to quietly wait it out. Director Young made a lot of Bible movies, and may be the source of the Dracula-as-Nietzsche element — this Dracula seduces the striving youngsters with the promise of a life without a conscience, which is another good idea in this frustrating mix. Dracula Dossier Directors can get a lot of mileage from that and other underused good bits here: the Demeter recast as a Danube barge is fresh, Quincy as an Argentinian makes good cosmopolitan sense, and Lucy’s daylight bloofer lady scene plays with current child-abduction panics. See it as an arsenal of modernized Dracula tropes first and a movie second, and you’ll be happier — and from all evidence, closer to the filmmakers’ intent.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Updated to the New Europe (and by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, for the final battle you can pre-order hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Thursday, October 15th, 2015
11:10 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Dracula (1968)
Director: Patrick Dromgoole
Dracula: Denholm Elliott

Man, if every episode of the Thames TV series Mystery and Imagination mounted this kind of creative response to low budgets and primitive facilities, I’m really bummed that three seasons are lost. But I’m glad this fourth-season episode (90 minutes, divided into three Acts) survived on YouTube. Although it shows much of the spoor of the hated Deane-Balderston play, writer Charles Graham seems to have been solving the same problems — limited ability to change scenes, small cast, short running time — with some originality. Shooting Harker’s visit to Castle Dracula in almost silent-movieola flashback must have saved money and it definitely pumps up the atmosphere while recalling Nosferatu (and moreso Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr). He keeps as much of the book as he can: Swales’ discursus on the suicide’s grave (more important in this version) and Dracula’s monologue on Transylvanian history, for example. And in some places, his changes — Dracula tele-operates Renfield to threaten Van Helsing! Lucy bites Mina! — rock you back on your heels with their implications.

But right now, you’re all tugging my sleeve and saying “But, but, but … Marcus Brody as Dracula?” Denholm Elliott is nobody’s Christopher Lee, but his Dracula — in goatee and smoked glasses at first, later in an Inverness cape of all things — has more than a little odious charm to him. It’s not Elliott’s fault that there’s no budget for effects or even a fight scene; his social menace and Orlok-style rat-fangs both work. Corin Redgrave’s Renfield is refreshingly upper-class, so it’s kind of a shame he turns out to be Jonathan Harker. (Whom Seward weirdly doesn’t recognize.) Bernard Archard’s careful, worried Van Helsing and James Maxwell’s angry, skeptical Seward play off each other superbly — if you must mount a stagy, talky Dracula, casting it with British theatricals is for the best, really. But the real standout is Susan George as the giddy, vivacious “Lucy Weston,” drinking in Dracula’s attention while alive and then drinking from Mina in Un-Death.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Saved from kinescopic destruction (perhaps by your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order classy British hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
Wednesday, October 14th, 2015
10:43 pm
31 Nights of Dractober: Buffy vs. Dracula (2000)
Director: David Solomon
Dracula: Rudolf Martin

Television being a writer’s medium, it’s probably best if writer Marti Noxon takes the credit and the blame for this, the premiere episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s fifth season. Following series creator Joss Whedon’s idea to use the actual Dracula instead of “some cool vampire on a horse” (Langella alert!) Noxon had to cram the entire Dracula plot, plus jokes, plus Giles’ (Anthony Stewart Head, alternating Van Helsing and Harker moments) return-to-Watcher arc, plus the debut of Dawn, into 42 minutes. Something had to give, and it’s essentially the story balance; the episode see-saws tonally even more than the normal Buffy run. That said, it winds up pretty economical, if not elegant: Dracula is worked into the Buffyverse mythology and she is worked into his via a celebrity crush that slowly becomes scary mesmerism … and an insight into Buffy’s darkness that would pay off for the rest of the season and series. How the cast all react to Dracula allows moments of personality to emerge and crystallize (spy shows usually do this in the usually tiresome polygraph episode) even if, like Xander (Nicholas Brendon, giggly Renfield butt-monkey), they reject what they find. Consider this revelatory “clarity through stress” story beat when Dracula guest-stars (or suddenly appears for the first time …) in your campaign.

This episode is another strong confirmation that the casting of Dracula makes or breaks the piece, be it movie or TV episode. German actor Rudolf Martin had played a romantic lead (and later enemy) opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar on All My Children, and played Vlad the Impaler in a cable movie, so he would seem to be the perfect choice. Let the record show that I did not find him so, although plenty of Buffy fans, like Anya and Willow, considered him dreamy. He’s too lanky (Dracula should be tall, but not skinny), and his pale makeup looks like something Buffy would normally mock. As goofy as his cape looks in modern Sunnydale, his “waistcoat and shirtsleeves” look is even worse. His final fight scene is more ferally effective than most Buffyboxing, and Gellar acts genuinely tempted by his offer of knowledge — but all ends with quips and dust and in the final analysis, he’s just a “Eurotrashed” monster of the week who “wafts in here with his music video wind.” Buffy’s words, not mine.

The 31 Nights of Dractober is a daily preview of a "first cut" essay on a cinematic Dracula. Molded into mythology (and gazing into your comments and responses), it will appear in my upcoming book Thrill of Dracula, part of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter. Speaking of which, you can pre-order the excellent spookiness that is hard copies of The Dracula Dossier Director's Handbook and Dracula Unredacted from your Friendly Local (Bits & Mortar participating) Game Store or from the Pelgrane store and get the PDFs now!
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