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night ten: nosferatu the vampyre. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“Time is an abyss, profound as a thousand nights. Centuries come and go.
To be unable to grow old is terrible. Death is not the worst…
Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day the same futilities?”

All these years as a film lover, and this is the first Werner Herzog film I’ve ever seen.

Herzog believes, along with many others, that the greatest film to come out of Germany was Nosferatu, which is basically an expressionist rendering of Dracula, but with the names and a few story elements changed in an attempt to avoid issues getting the rights from Bram Stoker’s widow. It didn’t work, because it was obviously Dracula, and they attempted to destroy all copies of Nosferatu at one point. Fortunately, they failed, and once the story came to be public domain, the surviving copies were released on a larger scale. Anyway, Herzog’s love for the film is why he decided to pay homage with an update.

The thing that grabbed me right away about Herzog’s directing is that the man certainly knows how to find places to shoot, then shoots the hell out of them. From the opening credits over the real life mummified remains at El Museo de las Momias to the haunting natural landscapes traversed by Jonathan Harker on his way to visit Dracula, every shot added to the haunting scope of the film. This is a beautiful movie. The places were big and timeless, the city life eerie and lonely, filmed to capture the essence of how small we are in the face of eternity, which is obviously perfect for a vampire film.

Even during a fantastical story of immortal monsters, Herzog’s naturalistic way of shooting characters and dialogue makes it easy to see that this is a filmmaker who is also a celebrated documentarian. At least, it’s naturalistic in early scenes. Eventually the film takes on different visual tone.

There are some slow, awkward moments in the film’s early-going, but they fall away as the film’s hypnotic pace takes hold.

Fun fact: To avoid dubbing for American audiences, they actually shot this film in two languages at the same time. They would shoot the scenes in German and then in English, so two versions of the film exist. I watched the first third in English and then switched to German with subtitles, which I enjoyed much more.

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My biggest takeaway from this one is that Klaus Kinski is my absolute favorite Dracula of all time. Such a sad and lonely monster, but a monster all the same. “I no longer attach any importance to sunshine or the glittering fountains that youth is so fond of. I love the darkness and the shadows.”

Just a supercut of all Kinski’s scenes would be worth the price of admission, but Nosferatu the Vampyre has much more to offer than that. This is a beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing film.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Yes, this one deserves revisiting.

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night nine: trouble every day. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“You were in love with her?”
“It’s not the right word for it.”

This one is disturbing, even by HMF standards.

It’s a slow burn. A very quiet film with long spans shot with no dialogue, and characters who aren’t particularly verbose even when they do speak.

The muted quality makes the scenes of violence that much more jarring. The bloody scenes are themselves still somewhat muted, the camera forces us to watch when we’d rather get a cut or a new angle, anything to give us some distance from the ordinariness of the horror.

Even the film’s quietest scenes are full of menace and danger. The is a movie colored with tones of insanity, desire, isolation, compulsion, power, and violence.

Rape is usually a subtext in vampire stories. However a given mythology works in a particular vampire world, there is almost always the inclusion of the forcible and violent penetration of another against their will. Clare Denis captured that violence to horrifying effect in this film.

These are stories about killing someone for their blood. It’s not that Trouble Every Day is the only film where this inherent violence is dealt with head on, but it definitely got under my skin more than most others.

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When the film came out it received a fair amount of hate. But while Trouble Every Day isn’t perfect, the reaction against it was undeserved. As with a film like Peeping Tom, the negative response might just underscore how intentionally troubling the film is. As years have passed, the film has found its audience and appreciators, making the recent Fandor list of 20 greatest films directed by women, based on responses from 50 critics and cinephiles.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Give me some time to think about that. I’m not sure I can go back into this world again.

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night eight: dracula (a.k.a. the horror of dracula). [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“If you look over there you can see the sun coming up.”

Hammer Films was a London-based film studio that dominated the international horror landscape for decades. They had big hits that weren’t vampire related, but it was their series of gothic, increasingly sexualized vampire movies that had the biggest impact on pop culture. Their films didn’t just influence future vampire movies, but future films in general, especially horror (unsurprisingly).

One large influence was that Hammer continually pushed the envelope in terms of what sorts of things were shown on the big screen. They found ways to show you what was happening, instead of merely implying it through reaction shots to the more violent moments.

For example, my favorite moment in Dracula… **I’m going to say spoiler alert, just in case, but this particular part of Dracula probably shouldn’t be a surprise.**

Still with me? Okay, my favorite moment was Dracula’s death by exposure to sunlight. It was impressively explicit for its time.

Dracula was the first of their vampire seriesretitled The Horror of Dracula in the US because of the fear that Americans are kind of dumb and would confuse the new film with the Bela Lugosi version released 27 years earlier.

This movie certainly has its silly bits, oh so many silly bits. Many of the bad bits were a product of the time the movie was made, but they were nonetheless distracting for me. To name a few: awkward or ham-fisted acting by many of the supporting cast, wooden blocking, and way too many moments where the story was moved forward by having a character sit and write thoughtfully while narrating their own thoughts through voiceover… we get it, the book was epistolary, that doesn’t mean I need to see your actors writing or reading letters or journals for 3 minutes at a time in the film version.

Overall, the winning moments outweigh the considerable weaknesses, especially in terms of legacy. There are so many iconic images and moments that still reverberate through horror films today, especially vampire films. If you’re making a vampire movie in general, or a Dracula movie in particular, you have to decide how you are going to interact with the legacy of these films. They’re that significant.

The most important aspect of that legacy is Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, roles they would go on revisit again and again. When Hammer Films decided to reinvent the franchise by moving it forward to present day, they even had Cushing play a descendent of Van Helsing to keep him around (which should be noted by current moviegoers who act like silly plot devices like that were created in the 80’s just in time to bring about the death of cinema).

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Will I Ever Watch It Again? If there comes a time for a larger vampire movie festival, I would watch a string of Hammer vampire movies, starting with a rewatch of this one.

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night six: martin. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

“Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.”

Another day, another vampire movie.

Even with all of the success that George Romero had with his Living Dead movies, if you ask him, his favorite of all his films is 1977’s Martin, the story of a man who is definitely a sexually motivated serial killer, and may or may not be a vampire. He certainly believes he is an 84 year old undead monster, as does his hyper-religious and superstitious uncle.

Martin is another politically tinged B horror movie from Romero, with the director using this outing to engage themes of sex, sexual violence, mental illness, suburban ennui, and religion. This is a vampire movie for a skeptical, disillusioned generation.

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A small and quiet villain, relying on injecting his victims with sedatives to gain the upper hand, Martin is a disturbing character without ever being imposing. He is lonely, maladjusted, and strange. Whether he is right about being a vampire or not, he is certainly mentally ill. He is also the whiniest vampire I can remember, a bit like the Luke Skywalker of the undead set.

As always, Romero gets a lot out of very little when it comes to budget and resources. Like all of his major works, Martin could come out today and still be relevant and interesting.

Also of note is that this is the first time Romero worked with gore legend Tom Savini, a relationship that would pay immediate dividends the following year with Dawn of the Dead. 

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Probably. Especially if I decide to do a larger vampire movie fest for a whole month, which seems increasingly likely to me.

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night five: a girl walks home alone at night. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

 “You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting.
It passed long ago. And nothing ever changes.”

Before getting started, I already summed my thoughts on this one up pretty well last year, without spoilers, which you can read: here.

After this year’s viewing, I still absolutely love this film.

A few specific things I love… spoilers follow.

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I love the performances. It’s no small thing to get to know the characters so well with such sparse dialogue, but these actors make it work. Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi are especially great. I’m sad I haven’t seen him in anything else.

I love the way writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour subverts roles in the movie, not just culturally and traditionally, but within the confines of the story itself.

The pimp is set up in every way as the predator, covered in tigers on his clothing, his jewelry, his tattoo. There’s an aggression in the SEX tattooed on his throat. He even has a tattoo of PAC-MAN about to eat a ghost (itself an example of the role of predator switching back and forth). He has animals of prey mounted on his walls. Multiple characters are victimized by him in short order. He takes whatever he wants. Yet he was the prey all along.

This is the most obvious example. It represents the Girl’s predilection for preying on men who prey on women, and the shift of power.

Less obvious role switching and subversion of expectations includes the fact that Arash is dressed as a cartoonish Dracula, coming across the Girl in the night while high on ecstasy to tell her he is Dracula, all the while she is an actual vampire. Yet, while being a vampire, it is the Girl who lets Arash pierce her with the earrings he stole.

The one dressed for the part isn’t what he looks like, the one you expect to bleed isn’t the one who bleeds, the one who normally has the power is actually helpless.

They are small things that can stand out in a movie that is this quiet and deliberate, where gestures and facial expressions do so much of the storytelling. Where everything is so intentional and reveals the characters to us so impressively.

I love this scene:

She is immortal, we don’t know for sure how old she is, but we can sense the emptiness and loneliness. She’s not sure why, but somehow Arash gets into her head. She dreams of him at night, walking to her out of the light, down into the darkness where she lives forever.

There’s that moment, when she’s alone in the frame, that big space of emptiness behind her. We know Arash is going to enter, but it takes several beats longer than it normally would in another film. When it seems like he is going to enter, he still doesn’t. It makes us feel the anticipation, the waiting, the loneliness. And then he does enter the frame, and they slowly come together.

He exposes his throat to her, having no idea how vulnerable he is in that moment, how dangerous she is. Yet, that’s how vulnerability works. We’re always giving the other the potential to destroy us.

And I love that scene at the end. Arash knows what the Girl has done. We’re not sure if he can go through with it, still run away with her. He gets back in the car, the cat sitting between them. The cat would be hilarious and adorable regardless of context. However, here, it represents what she’s done. It represents what he knows she’s done. It sits there between them, but then, they look at each other.

I love this movie.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Yes. As I wrote last year, I’d watch this on on repeat.

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night three: the lost boys. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

Now you know what we are. Now you know what you are. You’ll never grow old, Michael, and you’ll never die. But you must feed!

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I’m probably one of the last 80’s kids to see this movie for the first time.

The Lost Boys is awesome and terrible, but it is awesome in ways that are mostly silly, and terrible in ways that are mostly enjoyable.

Interestingly, since they came out the same year, The Lost Boys has pretty much the same story as Near Dark, but with a more playful tone, and some family drama and Goonies thrown in. Also, some-crazy-how, there is significantly more narrative sense in The Lost Boys. For example, no inexplicable blood transfusions in a garage that cure vampirism.

Anyway, this movie is delightfully absurd, and I was never fully sure if that absurdity was intentional or accidental. Kiefer Sutherland is growling away like a crazy person, as he is wont to do. The Coreys added some lovable, terribly acted exuberance and silliness. The vampire deaths mostly don’t make any sense (but its okay, because they explained it away with a line of dialogue). It also did for water guns what Little Monsters would eventually do for flashlights.

This is the vampire movie the 80’s simply needed to produce. It just had to happen.

Also, concerning the 80’s, one question:

As someone who lived through most of the 80’s, I still need to ask, what the hell was happening in the 80’s?!? How did Hollywood produce an R rated kids movie?! The Lost Boys is largely about adjusting to divorce, growing up, potential step-parents, the dangers of peer pressure and drugs, and what it’s like as siblings change at different speeds as they become adults.

Those themes all make sense for a vampire movie for teens. Obviously, vampires are a great way to tell stories of addiction, adjustment, estrangement, and alienation. It’s the R rating that is just so amusingly nonsensical. Somehow, it worked in the 80’s

All in all, The Lost Boys is a worthy addition to the HMF canon

Also, there’s this fucking guy! The 80’s, amirite?!

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night two: ‘cronos’. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

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“I don’t know what’s happening to me, but I think it’s better if we stay together.”

The second night of HMF and I’m revisiting a favorite from nights of Halloween past.

Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature has all of the themes he comes back to again and again. Del Toro himself said:

“To me, Cronos contains the essence of what I want to do … a sincere declaration of how I view the world.”

Both literally and figuratively, this is vintage del Toro.

His best work uses and subverts genre trappings and fantastical horror to showcase the beauty and monstrosity of humanity. The horror of the monsters in the del Toro canon always pale in comparison to what humans are willing to do to one another in a quest for power, money, or youth.

Del Toro said of Cronos, “I do what I’ve done in Devil’s Backbone, what I’ve done in Pan’s Labyrinth, etc. Which is, I take the central monster figure and I make it the saddest figure in the tale.”

This is a story of the inherent tragedy of vampire lore. One of the central themes in many vampire stories is the loss of humanity in the pursuit of immortality. The inability to accept the reality of death results in a half life. Vampires are immortal, they reject death, but only by becoming death. They live forever, but only in darkness, only by consuming life itself. #fucktwilight

These stories are often about the destructive potential of the human quest for immortality. Thus, Guillermo del Toro is the perfect storyteller for the genre, and it in turn is a perfect playground for his first feature.

Cronos is arrestingly grotesque and beautiful, often at the same time. A monster story about what it means to be human. A horror film about love, family, redemption, mortality, and sacrifice. Or to put it more simply, Cronos is Guillermo del Toro at his best.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? Most definitely. As is easily seen above, Cronos is included amongst my very favorite Halloween Movie Fest films from the seven years I’ve done it.

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night one: ‘near dark’. [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

 Boy, you people sure stay up late.”

“We keep odd hours.”

And we’re off! Night one kicks off with Kathryn Bigelow’s cult classic about a guy who tries to convince a young lady to engage in some casual sex, and as these things often go, she turns out to be a vampire. Our young cowboy finds himself thrown in with a gang of asshole vampires who terrorize bar-flys, truck drivers, and hitchhikers along remote portions of Texas and Oklahoma highway.

The film is pretty to look at, and it’s easy to see the DNA of a directing style that would eventually win Bigelow a ton of awards for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. 

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Critics liked Near Dark, and as I already mentioned, it became a cult classic. In some ways, I can see why. The idea itself was an interesting take on both vampire movies and neo-westerns, and at times it delighted in its own violent mayhem. It also featured a synth soundtrack by Tangerine Dream that had some great moments.

However, overall, this one was just too nonsensical in all the wrong ways for me. The writing and story just didn’t hold together at all. It was erratic and silly, but to me it didn’t seem to be so intentionally. Everyone has the sorts of holes and weaknesses that prohibit enjoyment, and Near Dark had too many for me.

If anyone wants to have a specific conversation about what didn’t work for me in Near Dark, I’m game. I just didn’t want to go on and on bitching about it in this post. That’s just not what I want RtM to be. I’m also totally down if someone who loves this movie wants to enlighten me concerning its virtues. I would genuinely enjoy learning to see it through a fan’s eyes.

Will I Ever Watch It Again? No. There’s definitely something I’m missing. It’s got a big following of folks who love it and rewatch it, so I’ll leave them to it.

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primer for vampire movie fest [halloween movie fest, 2016.]

Here we go. Halloween Movie Fest 2016.

First, a primer in part one of this year’s HMF.

As promised, the first half is all vampires. A movie fest within a movie fest. Like the cream in one of those Halloween themed orange and black Oreos, but where the cream filling is actually a monster who will grant you a grotesque immortality if it likes you, or merely exsanguinate you if it doesn’t.

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The mini movie festival within a festival is rooted in last year’s HMF. When I was doing some reading on The Wicker Man after I watched it, I learned that it was a big deal for Christopher Lee to be the understated villain in this (mostly) subdued horror film. Until then he was mostly famous for his role in the Hammer Films Dracula series as the titular vampire.

I’ve never seen any Hammer Films, but they were clearly notable in the history of horror, so I read up on them a bit. The Hammer Films rabbit hole led me to a few other vampire films I’d never heard of, one thing led to another, and I realized that at the very least I was going to need to make half of HMF16 vampire movies.

This is fun for me, because it gives me a style of ‘Another Day, Another Movie’ I haven’t done in quite a while. I love Halloween Movie Fest, but it’s much more varied and diverse than other versions of ‘AD,AM’ I’ve done.

It’s different doing ‘AD,AM’ with a more specific genre, like Westerns or Noir films. It changes the way I watch because I’m focused in on the nuances and boundaries of that genre, whether those boundaries they are heeded or ignored. I start to inhabit the language, style, and palette of that genre. It becomes the story ecosystem I live in for a bit. This pointlessly fun activity gives me this big frame of reference for each film, which is obviously always there, but is easier to see and discern in the context of the geeky rhythm of this sort of endeavor.

The closest I’ve come to this within HMF is zombie films, because the genre is so young and the rules are so clear. Every departure from the tropes is really obvious, every stylistic choice stands out, meaning you need fewer films to really sense what a particular storyteller is trying to do.

Anyway, this year I get to fully add that element back into HMF by watching ten vampire films in ten days.

Next up, night one: Near Dark.

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