Saturday, February 28, 2015

Vampires in HIstoric New England: A Sick and Bloody Tale

When I say sick, I'm talking tuberculosis, aka consumption. When I say bloody, I'm referring to the blood coughed up by a TB victim, the blood still left in the rotting heart of the exhumed corpse and that same unearthed blood used as an elixir in a desperate attempt to reverse the disease in the sick and dying relatives who feared and dreaded the day when they would join their loved ones underground in the graveyard. I learned all of this from the article The Great American Vampire Scare by Abigail Tucker published on Smithsonian Online and from a lecture I just attended this afternoon given by Nick Bellantoni, retired Connecticut state archeologist. (The link is to a YouTube video of his lecture on the subject at Quinnipiac University). 

I can't imagine living in a world where there's no knowledge of germs or the possible consequences of the lack of personal hygiene. Imagine having someone cough or sneeze in your face and being totally ignorant of anything except the moisture. Might as well be modern hand sanitizer because a citizen of the 19th century or earlier wouldn't know the contents of either or the value of one over the other. I wonder if they even considered it rude or gross.

However, what I can imagine is the horror and sorrow of helplessly watching your loved ones sickening, some over a course of years and even decades; and dying after wretched coughing fits that waste away their bodies over time until finally becoming exhausted and "consumed" by this mysterious and relentless disease. Maybe even more frightening would be the fear of becoming a victim yourself.

In desperation, when nothing else seems to prevent or cure the disease, people resort to superstition and folk stories about the resurrection of corpses that slip into dark houses during the night and feed on the blood of their surviving relatives, then return to their graves before dawn leaving their living relatives sickened, depleted of blood and on the road to their own graves. 

Dr. Bellantoni described how his archeological study of a lost cemetery uncovered in an excavation site in Griswold, Connecticut, led him to the discovery of the vampire folklore of the area, which is the life work of Michael Bell, Phd. The mystery that motivated Bellantoni to learn about the folklore was his discovery of a man's grave where the bones were dismantled, the ribcage broken open in an apparent search for the heart and the corpse decapitated with the leg bones placed in a cross over the chest. He was mystified as to why the body was placed in such a strange arrangement, the like of which he had never encountered before. 

His research led him to Bell and other scholars on the subject who explained that New Englanders in an attempt to prevent catching and/or dying from TB would exhume their loved ones corpses, burn the heart and decapitate the body to prevent them from ever leaving the grave again. The mystery still remains regarding that particular grave, but his research points toward the vampire theory, even though the leg bones weren't disturbed in any of the other cases. 

Even though it's hard for me to imagine living in a world that knows nothing about germs and disease prevention, I wonder how 19th century or earlier people would interpret, in contrast, our obsessive behaviors regarding health and sickness. They would probably be just as appalled at our relentless hand washing, bottles of hand sanitizer in every mother's purse, sneezing into our elbows and what's with that crazy daily showering!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Walking Dead, Season One, Episode 1

Wow! Intense! I feel like I was the only person on the planet who doesn't watch The Walking Dead. Until now. I'm watching it on Netflix and what a good show! My best friend told me to stick with it, it starts out slow but gets really good. I thought it was good right from the start, not a slow scene in it. I think what was most striking was the utter silence only broken by sounds of nature which, for some reason, seem to amplify the silence. The whole range of emotions are are brought out in one short hour of watching. The scenery of the well established, well kept neighborhood, the green park, the attractive architecture and landscaping of the police station all horribly scarred by the death and disease of the zombies. Absolutely chilling. 

How was that top half of a female zombie accomplished? That was cool special effects at work. Were those real flies on the corpses? Were those real people playing the corpses like the dead lady on the floor of the farmhouse?

I know I'm going to like this show!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Lecture on Vampires in New England

Some people actually believed vampires were on the loose in Southern New England and draining the blood of innocent victims until they were dead. First the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials, then vampires of Rhode Island and Connecticut. Who would have thought the descendents of the Puritans could be so superstitious?  Apparently so many that scholars can make a life's work out of finding the vampires' graves, studying the circumstances surrounding their lives and deaths and writing books and lecturing about their findings.

Connecticut State Archeologist Nick Bellantoni is scheduled to give a free lecture on Saturday, February 28, 2015 at the Griswold Middle School about the vampires of Jewett City. The lecture is part of a series celebrating the Griswold Bicentennial. Jewett City is a borough of Griswold. An interesting article was published on Smithsonian Magazine's website  in October 2012 by Abigail Tucker. It's pretty interesting. Here's the link.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dan Curtis' Dracula

I keep finding more Dracula movies to watch. Just when I decide to move on to a different variety of Gothic I became happily drawn into another vampire movie. I guess you just can't see enough Dracula movies! I am a huge fan of the late 60s/early 70s Gothic Horror soap opera Dark Shadows created by Dan Curtis so when I saw Dan Curtis' Dracula (1974) as I was scrolling through my queue on Hulu Plus, I had to check it out. Jack Palance played Dracula, which was based on Bram Stoker's novel of the same name. Aside from the typical 70s TV movie music, it was pretty good. I noticed Robert Cobert, created the music as he also did on Dark Shadows.That music they used in the 70s to create mood or whatever always reminds me of Charlie's Angels which is kind of silly when I'm watching a horror movie.

You'd think you know the Dracula story by now, but this movie was pretty scary! Jack Palance played a really good vampire; an evil monster killing and destroying to fulfill his lust for blood. In addition, Dracula craved Lucy Westerna not only for her beauty but for her uncanny resemblance to his true love of centuries earlier. I couldn't help but be reminded of the star crossed love affair of Barnabus and Josette of Dark Shadows. Dracula was to lose his Lucy forever just as Barnabus lost his Josette. The only difference being Lucy wasn't in love with Dracula as Josette was with Barnabus, but drawn to him only through the evil vampire spell he had on her.

I couldn't help but compare the hearse-like horse and carriage sent by Dracula to pick up Jonathan Harker to the extremely frightening and chilling one sent by the vampire (or was he driving?) in Nosferatu. It didn't send chills up my spine the way the manically speeding cloth draped death carriage in Nosferatu did.

There was lots of suspense like when Jonathan Harker attempted to escape castle Dracula right at sunset, then near the end of the movie when Van Helsing and Jonathan's friend Arthur scoured the castle in search of the vampires' coffins intent on destroying them.

With no high-tech special effects the movie was still scary and suspenseful and the dramatic gory ending was quite striking.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Zombie Hunter Film (2013)

I was mainly interested in seeing Zombie Hunter because it stars Danny Trejo who caught my attention in the movie Spy Kids which, correct me if I'm wrong, may be his only non-brutally violent role. The man's been in so many movies, it would be a pretty big undertaking to watch them all, so maybe he's been in other less violent roles, but as a man known as one of his roles, "Machete," it's unlikely. I liked him as the kids' uncle in Spy Kids, but the Snickers Superbowl 2015 commercial where he plays a famished Marcia Brady made me a wholehearted fan. Hilarious! The fact that the Zombie Hunter's rating on Netflix is NR and only has 1.5 stars made it even more compelling to see the movie for myself. How bad could it be?

For an obviously low budget film, I think it made good use of the resources available. First, it begins with some drugged up kids watching (or present in the room during) a news broadcast explaining how a new synthetic street drug is turning its users into zombies/flesh eaters. While the female newscaster explains the outbreak the male broadcaster begins violently vomiting on the floor next to the news desk. The camera stays on him until he recovers and composes himself as though nothing was wrong. Only then does the channel go off the air with "technical difficulties." Hilarious! 

Jump to a year later and we're watching an angry looking guy driving a sweet primer-black 80s vintage Camaro (yes!) with a huge hood scoop racing down a dirt road in a desert while chugging down tequila or some such hard liquor. The word "Hunter" comes up on the screen in a still shot reminiscent of  The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or something Robert Rodriguez/Sin City-ish. We get a stream of thought monologue from Hunter (played by Martin Copping) when he's not talking to the wizened head with a screwdriver in its eye socket in the passenger seat next to him. Also, Sin City-ish but not nearly as poetic.

Suddenly, there's a zombie in the middle of the road chowing on some roadkill who gets the on screen title "Death Angel." When he sees Hunter revving his Camaro and aiming it at him, he flings the roadkill onto the windshield. Unimpressed, yes he does, Hunter turns on the wipers. Ha! He runs down the zombie which explodes in pink and purple gore all over the windshield and hood of the car. The wipers are put into use again. If that isn't gory enough, the car starts misfiring and the Check Engine light glows. He stops the car and gets out to find pink zombie guts totally blocking his grill. Annoyed, he scoops it out with his bare hands flinging it into the roadway. So nasty it's funny.

 After a couple of scenes exposing Hunter's calm committed approach to zombie killing, he's shot by the moron of a group of humans led by Father Jesus played by Danny Trejo. The shooting causes the inevitable Camaro trashing. Have you ever noticed Camaros are totaled in every movie in which they appear? Lyle, the moron (stereotypically fat and oafish) not to mention plain gross, drags Hunter back to the group where the two women of the group nurse him back to health (stereotypically the one that looks like a bimbo isn't much for nursing, just straddling him and hanging her boobs in his face while he heals). The two women fight over him since none of the men in their group are remotely attractive and they find Hunter to be so. Even when he becomes conscious and they experience his bad manners and perpetual anger, they continue to bicker over him like twelve year olds.

Apparently, Jesus is an excellent zombie killer and protects the group because they all stink at defending themselves or even living as though they could be attacked by zombies at any time, which happens regularly throughout the movie as zombies seem to appear silently out of nowhere with surprise attacks. You'd think they would constantly be on guard with a weapon on hand, but they aren't. Good thing for them Jesus is handy with an axe. 

There's a comical sex scene showing no sex at all after Hunter carries Alison (the girl-next-door-type of the two women) to her room and clumsily tosses her onto the bed. So funny as she pulls off her top as she straddles him, then they switch positions and he does exactly the same. She asks him if this is his first time too! Ha! The camera moves to a shot from the floor to show nothing but Hunter's feet and ankles hanging over the edge still wearing his hunting boots, toes down, feet a few inches apart. How he was succeeding at sex like that with his legs straight and almost together, I don't know!

A huge zombie attack ensues as Fast Lane Debbie, the slutty girl, disappointed at her failure to seduce Hunter reluctantly agrees to have sex with Lyle just as he's eaten alive by a zombie. Everyone except dead Lyle races to the truck that airplane pilot, Jerry, has conveniently just gotten to run. Jesus commands everyone to leave without him as he prepares to battle a large reptilian-looking zombie with "buns of steel" as my daughter pointed out, that is much harder to kill than the more human-looking zombies. The movie doesn't explain where these super zombies come from but they seem to travel with the regulars and have a cool choppy stop-animation quality to them. This particular monster loses an arm to Jesus' axe but rips his head clean off his shoulders.

The group heads to a town with an ominous reputation called Dahmer where Jerry thinks he can find them a plane at the airport with which they can fly to a remote zombie-free island and wait out the zombie plague. Dahmer, as in Jeffery Dahmer, they find is where a sadistic clown with a chain saw kills for fun. He waves the chainsaw over his head like Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and laughs as he sends blood and guts flying. But not before, looking for food, the group enters an abandoned convenience store and find something so gory in a freezer that they can't resist looking at individually and puking on the floor in revulsion. Next scene is the group of them, except Hunter who stands a short distance away, in a semi-circle power puking in the dirt. Recovered from the puke fest they realize their truck has disappeared.

Once Hunter recovers the truck and kills the killer clown they continue to the airport, minus the dead Fast Lane Debbie. Once again zombies appear out of nowhere at the airport and just when Jerry gets the plane started he's torn out of the cockpit and killed by a zombie. Hunter, Alison and her obsessed-with-masturbation brother Ricky are the only survivors as they lock themselves in a closet that conveniently contains a wall display of loaded automatic weapons. Alison and Hunter shoot their way through the zombies as Alison and Ricky reach the truck and flee for safety at Hunter's command. Assuming Hunter is dead after being stabbed by a super zombie's talons and detonating a grenade that destroys the entire airport, Alison's stream of thought narration vows to never forget the zombie hunter who saved their lives. Meanwhile, back at the airport, Hunter, covered in soot, lights a cigarette and laments that he can't be killed by the zombies and appears to slice his own throat.

My daughter and I found the movie very entertaining. There were some good lines like Hunter observing "stone cold silence" in every new location where he knew he'd find a zombie and asking "are you retarded?" after hearing Lyle's excuse for shooting him and Ricky's desire to shoot an automatic weapon. The over-the-top gore was comical as well. I liked the whole 80s atmosphere with the music and the car that reminded me of the slew of low budget horror movies of that decade. The story made sense throughout and was well paced. I was a little disappointed that Danny Trejo wasn't the main character like the cover artwork would lead you to believe but he had a good role, however limited. See it just for fun!

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Dunwich Horror

Rated R? The rating system must have been much more strict in 1970. Reeger (Jack Pierce), one of the townsmen hunting down the evil Wilbur Whately (played by Dean Stockwell) at the Devil's Hopyard, said the word "damn" when he fell and jammed his rifle and they showed Nancy's (Sandra Dee) naked hip as she writhed and moaned as though enjoying sex with a ghost. Those were the raciest scenes that I recall. Maybe the Satanic worship contributed to the R rating, however, the movie was made while Dark Shadows was broadcast in the afternoons. It must have been the sexual moaning and there was a brief dream scene of topless painted people including a small set of bouncing boobs.

I need to read the book of the same name by H. P. Lovecraft to know the real original story. It was a pretty good movie even with the awful 70s movie music and low-tech camera tricks. Nancy's dream sequence was shown with what looked like a piece of gauze taped over the camera lens. As Wilbur's ritual was seeing some success allowing evil to enter our dimension and prey on the innocent, the picture would turn to negative and flash either red, blue or green as the evil attacked and ravaged it's victims and their belongings. Love it. 

On the other hand,  Wilbur's  family homestead was a Gothic staple, a cool old mansion with mysterious rooms, especially the locked room at the top of the house where the evil lurked. The stone altar where Wilbur presented Nancy, the necessary virgin for the evil to impregnate, stood at the edge of the woods in a place called The Devil's Hopyard on a cliff above jagged rocks and crashing waves.

The fight scene in the university library between the guard and Wilbur when Wilbur broke in to steal the Necromonicon was an entertaining scuffle reminiscent of the Star Trek fights and other late 60s, early 70s TV fights. Stuntmen with cheap wigs scuffling and rolling around on the floor as strategic camera angles hid their faces from the camera. Pretty funny!

As Wilbur performed the ritual necessary to open the gate and usher the Old Ones back into our dimension to destroy mankind as described in the Neconomicon, I realized how much of the Evil Dead was based on Lovecraft's inventions. The evil awakened by reading the book aloud was portrayed in the Evil Dead the same was it was portrayed in The Dunwich Horror. The evil was more of a spirit rushing like wind through the woods, blowing through tall grass and shifting the flow of bodies of water as it raced with supernatural speed toward the people it longed to destroy.

I've never seen Dean Stockwell so young! My only knowledge of him was as the crusty middle-aged guy in Quantum Leap. But after one quick Google search I learned that he was a child actor who found success as an adult actor as well. Pretty extraordinary. I think that's the only movie I've seen starring Sandra Dee, as far as I can remember anyway. I may have seen her as Gidget on old TV movie reruns, but I always picture Sally Field in that role. Dee was absolutely adorable as was Stockwell, providing icing on the cake of a really good movie!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Mesmerising Shadow of the Vampire

Big bouncing boobs, indulgence in opiates, bottles of booze being passed around and a kinky cabaret. Who would have connected all these things with the making of the 1921 movie Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror? Well, it was the start of the roaring 20s after all.  It was perverse, creepy and downright nasty in some places. After recently seeing the original I thought it would be a good time to also check out Shadow of the Vampire while Nosferatu was still fresh in my mind. I didn't have great expectations because I thought I had seen it years ago and wasn't that impressed, although I had a hard time really losing myself in movies during the time that I was married to a chatterbox who couldn't keep his mouth shut for 10 minutes if you held a gun to his head. Anyway, even though Shadow of a Vampire was a fictional account of the making of Nosferatu, scenes from the original were beautifully spliced into the more recent film. It was a really cool movie, seeming as though they were filming in the same places and time as the original filming in 1921. Willem Defoe as the vampire portraying Max Shreck as Nosferatu was actually scarier and more shocking, lustful and revolting than Max Schreck's spooky portrayal of the vampire and I thought he was pretty darn creepy. John Malkovich as director F. W. Mernau was just as ravenous to finish the film as the vampire's desire for blood, especially that of the actress Greta Schroder

I think the comparison of the vampire and Mernau were really cool how Mernau’s drive and lust to realize his vision of the film drove him to utter madness while the vampire’s obsession with consuming Greta, and anyone else he could get his teeth into, no stalking involved, drove him to be Mernau’s vampire for the film. The two characters’ obsessions and lustful needs portray how human beings can be reduced to ravenous animals when motivated purely by selfish greed and achieving their personal desires regardless of the cost.

From a feminine point of view Mernau’s blatant sacrifice of Greta Shroder as payment to the vampire for starring in the film reminded me of ancient cultures’ sacrificing virgins to the gods, only Greta was definitely no virgin as she complained of the lack of cabarets near the set and flirted with cameraman Fritz Wagner played by Carey Elwes who had to remind her of their past tryst. Obviously, she was such a playgirl she didn’t even remember having partied with him. Who could forget an affair with a man played by the perpetually adorable Carey Elwes? In one scene her naked boobs are flopping all over the place as she writhes, fully clothed, on her bed in a drug induced sexual fantasy. However, nasty old vampire didn’t care anything about her past, her life, or her mind. He only wanted to sink his teeth into her soft flesh and feast on her blood. 

In the final scene when the vampire and Greta are finally in the same room together preparing for their scene, Defoe so completely captured the vampire’s overpowering lust for her blood it reminded me of men I’ve been unfortunately acquainted with and dated in the past. He had no idea nor cared one bit how creepy he was being because, to him, her feelings and even her existence as a living being were inconsequential. She was just a blood-filled body, a piece of material existing only for his pleasure. He crept around her, ready to attack and consume, while Mernau frantically tried to restrain him in order to fulfill his own unbridled passion of finished the movie. Having his crew restrain and drug Greta who was beginning to resist the whole situation was sick, but it only got sicker as he finally gave the vampire the cue to molest and murder Greta in her drug-induced stupor as she lay helpless while the crew excitedly filmed her murder. They deserved to die. I did appreciate, however, how they re-enacted the scene where the vampire approaches Greta and the shadow of his nasty gnarled hand travels up her body toward her throat. 

I found the movie to be absolutely mesmerizing, oftentimes losing all sense of time and place even though I pretty much knew the story! The ending was shocking and gruesome as Mernau lost his grasp on reality and the vampire went on a killing rampage as he continued to keep the camera rolling and direct his crew of corpses. It was a really good movie with a great cast.