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Posts Tagged ‘vampires’

Stake Land (2010)

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

I love my post-apocalyptic horror, or more properly – I like movies in which the world hasn’t ended. Not quite. It’s recognisable, but it’s warped, it’s dangerous, and human relationships are tested in fantastical, but still understandable circumstances. Pockets of civillisation remain, even though all the common markers of control and safety have been obliterated. This is the scenario we come to – and which is handled deftly and thoughtfully – in Stake Land (2010).

We start with teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) about to flee from…something, with his family: mother, father and a baby. Before they can get in the car and drive away though, they’re attacked by something ferocious and lightning-fast. Martin rushes back into the garage where he left them in time to see his parents  in their death throes, and his baby sibling being drained of its blood by a grotesque, verminous vampire which is about as far from the stylish aristocrats of so much horror cinema as it’s possible to get.

Just as it looks like Martin will also die, he’s joined by a man which he, and we, only ever know as ‘Mister’ (Nick Damici). Mister dispatches the creature and offers Martin his only choice – to go with him. It soon transpires that not only is Mister capable of killing the vampires, but he actively seeks to do it. Together, they head North across a heavily-demarcated North America in which the religious nutjobs are as lethal as the bloodsuckers, seeking a place called New Eden – which is, they hope, free of both.

The country they travel through has been decimated by a plague of vampires who are disfigured, mean and animalistic. In fact, in this film what we usually understand to be zombies seem to have merged with vampires to create a sub-division of mankind. At least the vampires still have to confine themselves to the night, though: the religious Brotherhood who control vast swathes of the land can rape, murder and enslave whenever they see fit. Along the way, the cold-as-ice Mister and his young companion rescue other drifters also trying to make their way to New Eden; a nun (played by the long-missed Kelly McGillis), a pregnant woman (Danielle Harris) and an ex-Marine, Willie (Sean Nelson).

Stake Land feels a lot like an apocalypse road movie, and I won’t be the first reviewer to mention its similarity to The Road (2009): the close bond between two male characters, an elder and a younger; the desperate journey in search of possibly mythical ‘safety’; gorgeous, bleak, hopeless landscapes reflecting what’s left of humanity, and the relentlessness of threat, even when things seem relatively languid. Stake Land is also a very brave piece of film in that it dares to dispatch the vulnerable, like children, and refuses to give us moral absolutes. Our ‘heroes’ make mistakes, or fail to help people. We’re reminded of the past humanity of the vampires too, such as when the Sister recognises one of the other nuns in a vampire state and insists she’s treated with as much dignity as possible. There are no clear answers here, just people trying to survive.

It would also be easy to assume that the presence of a dangerous god cult in the film means that Stake Land is a simplistic attack on religion, but it’s much richer than that. The Brotherhood are maniacs, but the Sister derives strength and peace from her version of (ostensibly the same) faith. Christianity can be a convenient banner to gather beneath, like a horde, or it seems it can allow people the strength to be self-sacrificing, even accepting of horrendous circumstances. Even characters who never give a hint of being religious will treasure religious icons they find along the way; conversely, the supposedly religious will trash or ignore them. What the film says is that in times of great trauma, people will cling to old markers which provided them with meaning – for good or ill. Some use these markers as a stick with which to beat others, and some use them as a crutch. The intensification of this split under the extreme conditions of the film’s setting makes for an interesting subtext – though by no means the only one.

The horror here is intense because it frequently bursts out of something rather calm. The process of travelling, finding safe shelter, avoiding the dark, meeting other, friendly communities – these will suddenly give way to fear and panic, and because you might have settled into the day-to-day details, they can come as a shock. Stake Land boasts one such attack scene which is frankly brilliant, and not like anything I’ve seen done before.

All of this is meticulously framed and shot; there is something extra to notice in every scene, and the film looks stunning – much more than you’d expect for the budget. The performances are excellent. Damici in particular communicates an inner life which his character never explains aloud, and both his and Paolo’s characters noticeably develop – taking on elements of each other’s, with Martin’s voiceover actually working very well as part of the film.

An ambigious ending only adds to the quality of this stunning film for me. Stake Land might not have invented a new genre, but what it does, even with recognisable plot lines, is impressive indeed. This was my film of the festival at May 2011′s Dead by Dawn and I expect it to be one of my films of the year.

Book Review: In The Blood by Miranda Luna

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

In The Blood is the first novel by Oregon-based author Miranda Luna: it’s been a while since I sat down to read horror fiction, much less horror fiction which takes the form of such a bloody love letter to the Goth subculture – and, with In The Blood, I was definitely pleased I’d taken a break from the film-watching.

The novel follows the fate of a novelist called Zoë Starr: existing both at the heart of the goth scene (as a popular writer) and on its periphery (as someone gradually pulling back from the world), Zoë is sinking into an oblivion of cheap-cut heroin and painful memories, despite the best efforts of those left around her who still care. She remains fixed in the here-and-now for one real reason – the welfare of her adopted daughter, Spider – but this, too, is problematic, and Spider obviously nurses a cool disregard for the ‘care’ she gets from her aunt.

But, for all the chaos and unhappiness, Zoë still thrives on her imaginative life – and finds herself more and more drawn to her old life in New Orleans, with her former love, Paris. They parted ways twelve years before, but Paris seems to be in the ascendant again – not just in her thoughts and dreams, though. He’s back in town, and this time he wants to see to it that their paths stay inextricably linked…

This is a novel which screams insider knowledge of the late 90s goth scene, particularly on its darker fringes – fetish, bloodplay, and so on. Scarred skin and bloodletting are constants here, and graphic depictions of self-harm and drug use are at the core of an understanding of the lead character – which may not be for every reader, though this seems born out of a genuine attachment to the subject at hand, rather than any wish to alienate. The novel is also very firmly-rooted in specifics of place, namely San Francisco and New Orleans. In fact, I think a few less markers – less specific mentions of subculture-specific bands, magazines, teeshirts, and so on – would have sufficed, because one of the strengths of the novel is that it feels like it belongs to its setting very early on. That said, in terms of the lead characters – Zoë especially – it was very easy to visualise them, and some of this is down to strongly-described appearances and mannerisms, as well as their internal worlds.

I also found it very easy to empathise with Zoë, because of that nicely-drawn internal dialogue. Even when her behaviour is damaging or desperate, it is possible to understand her motivations and accept her on her own terms. Luna also has a talent for depicting dream states and unreality in a convincing manner, and this is fundamental in making the plot hang together. There is also, as you might expect in a book themed around blood, flesh and lost loves, a fair amount of sex depicted – and mostly, these descriptions work (though not invariably; good sex is difficult to write and some of the descriptive terms start to trip over each other a little awkwardly in some parts of the story).

As for the ending – I wouldn’t spoiler anything, but I did wonder if it was left open to a degree…it would certainly be interesting to revisit these characters in future, or if not, an ambiguous close to the story fits in with the rather shadowy types of lives led by our protagonists.

So, some minor issues don’t prevent In The Blood from being an absorbing and heady story, with solid, interesting characterisation and evidence of a real love & knowledge of the realms wherein these characters dwell.

To buy a copy of the book, click here (Amazon.com)

Thirst (2009)

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Directed by Park Chan wook

I am a big fan of Park Chan wook’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ – with especial love for Old Boy (2003) – so I was avidly looking forward to seeing his take on the vampirism motif in last year’s film Thirst. I finally got round to seeing this yesterday and I adored it. It’s a very different animal to Old Boy in a lot of ways, though – gentler in places, more developed in others – and I think it’s his most accomplished film so far.

Catholic priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song, The Host, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) is a man of faith who, seemingly disillusioned with his everyday duties, volunteers himself to travel abroad for a – most likely fatal – medical experiment to help develop a vaccine for a deadly virus. The medical team there question him closely about his motivations, but he is determined. After being infected with, and later succumbing to, the virus, it looks as though Sang-hyeon has expired.

And then – miraculously – Sang-hyeon beings to breathe again, after receiving a final blood transfusion. His recovery prompts wonder in those around him; when he returns to Korea, he is mobbed by people demanding his prayers for their sick and dying loved ones. One day, as he’s attending a children’s birthday party to offer support to a terminally-ill child, a middle-aged neighbour whom he has known all his life, a Mrs Ra (Hae-Sook Kim) comes and bangs on the windows there. She desperately begs for his help, explaining that her only son is suffering from cancer.

A gentle, perhaps lonely figure, the priest agrees to visit Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and renews his acquaintance with the family. He is particularly drawn to Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim) – a woman who was taken in by the family as a girl and seemingly moved from her foster mother’s bed into the son’s bed just in order to have somewhere to live and a means to survive. Tae-ju is an unusual girl, quiet, self-contained, but irredeemably discontent: Sang-hyeon sees her fleeing the house at night to run barefoot through the streets, purely to get away from it all. When he stops her one night – and gives her his shoes to protect her feet – it seems he’s beginning to struggle with the pleasures of the flesh…

…And it’s not only sexuality which is leading him astray. Since receiving the transfusion, Sang-hyeon has developed an aversion to sunlight. And, without consuming human blood – which he covertly enjoys at the hospital where he lives/works – the disfiguring symptoms of the virus which nearly killed him return. Sang-hyeon is now pinioned between his growing love for a vulnerable woman who seems to need him, and his desire not to harm others. Like all good tragedies though, the perils of the flesh will take precedence…

This is a long, intricate film with fully fleshed-out characters whose development throughout is believable and interesting. Sang-hyeon’s wish for martyrdom and his subsequent ‘rebirth’ show him moving through all the emotional states he’s thus far avoided as part of his religious faith. His love for Tae-ju feels earnest and warm, and his lust for her acts as a catalyst, pushing him from one way of life fully into another. Tae-ju herself makes an almost polar character shift, from submissive drudge to villainness, and watching her do so provided me with a gamut of responses – from pity, to distrust, to dislike, and back to pity again. There are certainly sympathetic characters in Park Chan-wook’s earlier films, but I don’t think his storylines had this accomplished level of layering, despite being great movies in themselves.

This is a very carnal film, with a great deal of tenderness in its sex scenes and a sense of two people in love. These intimate, erotic moments find themselves upstaged at times by the nasty and the darkly comic, and the film uses dream/hallucinatory sequences which promote that classic Park-Chan wook attractive strangeness. It is always hard to adequately ‘genre’ his films and this is no exception, bringing as it does such a variety of elements into the mix.

The cinematography of this director’s films forms the lion’s share of their appeal for me and Thirst has a similar aesthetic style; from the opening shot, the predominant colour scheme of this film is blue. Only blood-red really interrupts this, and an array of close shots and carefully-choreographed scenes promotes a tangible atmosphere which overarches the film. This is one of the most artistic ‘horror’ films I’ve seen, and it really does do something different with this theme – here, vampirism is the key which transforms people’s lives in a decidedly non-straightforward way. There are no straighforward responses to vampirism here, as it is a catalyst to changes which are as important in themselves.

This is a long, densely-packed film which never felt it was either, and the ambiguity of the ending (is Mrs Ra going to join them?) together with another conflation of tender and grisly really concluded this beautiful movie in just the right way.

Let Me In?

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Hearing that quintissentially British horror studio Hammer were planning on resurrecting themselves after the supreme misfire that was From Beyond the Rave by releasing a remake of Let The Right One In struck me as rather wrongheaded. Everything about it set off warning bells; the re-titling, the American location and cast, and above all else ‘reimagining’ a very recent, and rather wonderful film so soon after its initial success.

However, I was undecided about going to see it. Part of me wanted to support it, and part of me was just nonplussed at the entire thing. The jury was out…

And now the jury is very much back in. I won’t be going to see this film. There are a few reasons for this…

  • The irritating viral marketing campaign. I dread to think how much money has been pumped into this, but every billboard and bus in my city seems to be bedecked with the poster. Many of the key horror websites are also being smothered with advertising which drops down to obscure every damn page I’m trying to read, and I’ve seen numerous television ads too. it’s complete and utter overkill, and – with my cynicism very much swinging into action here – I’m always slightly dubious about films which get given this full-on ad campaign treatment. A lot of the films which have been pushed very hard with adverts have turned out to be weak enough that they really need that push. It could be that this is a perfectly good film but the high-profile campaign has had the opposite effect to that intended on me.
  • Hammer itself (or whoever it is that runs their social networking sites) are furthering this approach with masses of posts and retweets from people smitten with the film. Of course, people who, like me, have their doubts, are being assured of a few facts which just come across as plain wrong.
  • Firstly, Hammer is getting tied up in knots about whether this is a remake, or a reimagining from the same source, or a bit of both. After all, says their spokesperson, all of their early successes were remakes. They basically remade Universal’s Dracula, for instance. Except this is absolute bunk! Hammer were terrified of being sued by Universal, and did what they could to make sure their Dracula differed from those existing films. Anyone who’s seen the Hammer artwork exhibition will have seen the early sketches of Hammer’s Frankenstein monster, and will also have seen that this design had to be changed because of its similarity to Karloff’s monster. Hammer were not remaking Universal.
  • Why is the remake issue relevant? Well, there have been a few quibbles about whether or not Let Me In is a remake of Let The Right One In. Ostensibly, the Hammer release is an interpretation of the original novel and not a simple remake of the Swedish film. However, from the scenes and spoilers I’ve seen, the shots are framed almost identically, although the title has been cropped, the pesky foreign language issue removed and the names Americanised. It sure seems like a remake to me – in the purest sense of the term – using the effective style of the first film version whilst rendering the film more palatable for an English-speaking audience. This issue has come up again and again and Hammer have tried to quell it again and again because other people think exactly the same thing – hence the backpeddaling, and trying to rebrand the studio’s entire remit as  ‘remakes’.
  • Hammer has proudly linked to a verdict from Stephen King which calls Let Me In ‘the best American horror of the year’. As I said above, I regard Hammer as quinissentially British, so it saddens me that this film is considered an American project. There are many fine US studios out there already; I do not think Hammer need to play away from home, and I would like to see them do what they always did best – making films with a palpable feeling of Britishness in their horror. I raised this on Twitter and the assurance I received was, ‘hey, it’s better than being the WORST American movie of the year!’ and more comforting still, ‘What, would you rather we made a fairly good British film than a really good American one?’ How about you make a bloody good British film!? Now that they are working on a ‘retelling’ of The Woman In Black, perhaps I’ll get my wish, although I was somewhat dismayed by this week’s BBC news feature on the studio – where new CEO Simon Oakes declared his intention to move away from things lurid and Gothic. Lurid and Gothic would actually make a pleasant change…

So, I won’t be going to see this one. I just don’t feel that I can support such a fundamental shift away from all the things I love most about the studio (as well as its move across the Atlantic): and no, I do not think Hammer should tread the exact same ground it did in the 60s and 70s, but I would like to see more of these types of elements in horror cinema.  Gothic still works brilliantly on screen and is now underrepresented – what better arena for a studio which originally made its mark with Gothic horror? I will just have to vote with my feet here.

Lesbian Vampire Killers

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Ah, the genre that is horror comedy. In recent years there have been some great horror comedies, with Shaun of the Dead as a sound example. Shaun of the Dead worked – where countless lame parodies of horror films failed – because writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have both knowledge of and affection for the horror genre. It’s apparent at every step of the way; the tongue-in-cheek in-gags, their playfulness with established conventions of zombie films, and above all a genuine pleasure in what they’re doing.

If zombies have become part of the cultural landscape in horror, familiar enough to most viewers – genre fans or not – that they can understand the references and jokes, then vampires should surely be a safe target for humour, particularly in a world where the renewed popularity of the vamp (via Twilight, True Blood etc) has spawned an interest in older representations of the bloodsucker, all the way from Nosferatu to the heaving bosoms and suave demeanours of UK horror mainstays Hammer Films. Magazines across the world have run features on the ‘Top 50′ vampires, old films have been re-released, and even academia has seen some renewed sniffing-around the theme (when a genre finally reaches the professors, it has reached a notable level of saturation).

The thing is though, that as much as the elder vampires seem eminently familiar, for many people they aren’t, not really. Many people know the stills; a lot of people recall seeing an old film or two; essentially many people are vaguely aware of the films and their motifs, but those vaguely-aware people are just not well-equipped to churn out comedies on the topic. If you want to satirise or parody something – ooh, let’s say Hammer horror – then you need to know your subject, or the jokes will fall flat.

And so we come to Lesbian Vampire Killers. Don’t be fooled by the poster – that’s as near as you’re getting to nudity. Oh, and the vampirism is impossibly anaemic, and the killing? Pretty absent.

Director Phil Claydon thought, as is evident from the extras on the DVD release, that he had made a completely different film to the one I watched. He waxes lyrical on the gory visuals (huh?) the hot lesbianism (buh?) and the creepy setting, with evidently not a clue how tame and derivative it all is. He’s incredibly proud of the appearance of comedians Matthew Horne and James Corden – of course, as the film would not have been made without the appearance of two actors currently enjoying huge popularity thanks to their TV work – although their roles in such a poorly-scripted film can do little, ultimately, to carry the film along.

The film does not work either as a comedy or a pastiche on horror, because it is evident from every element in the film that there is no love whatsoever for the horror genre from which many of the comedy elements are expected to derive. And ultimately, this has been done well already by Steve Coogan’s series Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible – funny, and warm, both to horror fans and non-horror fans, because Coogan is comfortable with his subject matter and can crack jokes which work.  There’s no affection for the Hammer horrors which Lesbian Vampire Killers rather aimlessly seems to look to, so we get no in-jokes, no sense of familiarity. This is a film which rather lazily tries to cash in on the vampire craze by half-remembering saucy elements from horrors of days gone by, thinking how easy it would to make something hilarious and lucrative along those lines, but falling at the first hurdle.

It is possible to combine laddish humour with horror – Jake West’s film Doghouse would be a lesson to the makers of Lesbian Vampire Killers, and criminally, it hasn’t received half the exposure that the latter has – so ultimately, the joke’s on us! Avoid this film like the stereotypical village in the woods. Nothing of merit lies therein.