Friday, November 30, 2018

Blood Of The Vampire



Blood of the Vampire (1958)
Dir. Henry Cass
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Vincent Ball, Donald Wolfit, Barbara Shelley, Victor Maddern



            In “Transylvania, 1874,” as the opening credits dubiously explain, “The most loathsome scourge ever to afflict the earth was that of the vampire. Nourishing itself on warm living blood, the only known method of ending a vampire’s reign of terror was to drive a wooden stake through its heart.” This little bit of trivia seems extremely pertinent almost immediately, as the movie opens with a stake driven through a shroud-wrapped body by a burly masked man, while a priest or authority figure or something looks on approvingly. And later, when some wall-eyed hunchbacked weirdo (Victor Maddern, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) sneaks up to murder the gravediggers and steal the corpse, you would be forgiven for assuming that this movie called BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE, which is set in Transylvania and begins with a bunch of text about vampires, was about vampires.

            Alas, you’d be wrong. While the most loathsome scourge to ever afflict the earth may well be the vampire, this movie will be dealing with, at most, the second most loathsome scourge ever to afflict the Earth, and to be perfectly honest, considering the small scale and relative local impact, if the source we’re dealing with here is even in the top ten most loathsome ever to afflict the earth, we’ve actually had a pretty easy go of it. I even have my doubts about if it’s the most loathsome scourge to ever afflict Transylvania in 1874, given that all the characters have a weird mix of German, British, and Latin names. Maybe there’s a lesser-known Transylvania in Germany?



Anyway, wherever the scourge may fall in the all-time rankings of loathsomeness, it’s certainly loathsome enough that I’m against it. And the person who’s going to discover it the hard way is one Dr. John Pierre (Vincent Ball, small roles in WHERE EAGLES DARE, A TOWN LIKE ALICE, MURIEL’S WEDDING, along with a lot of TV), a forward-thinking doctor who’s just been tried in “Carlstadt” * for murder, following a failed last-ditch attempt at a blood transfusion on a dying patient. The ignorant locals consider this basically one step down from witchcraft, and when his last-minute attempt to get a respected colleague to corroborate the medical necessity of his actions is strangely answered with condemnation, he’s packed off to the Penal Institute on Comboat (?) Island. This institution, as it turns out, is run by a sinister warden/mad scientist named Callistratus (Donald Wolfit, BECKETT[!], LAWRENCE OF ARABIA [!!]) who happens to have great need of a man with exactly Pierre’s skillset. Pressed into work in Callistratus’ secret basement laboratory, he quickly begins to suspect something sinister is afoot, especially when his fellow prisoners start to mysteriously disappear. OK, not so mysteriously; everyone knows Callistratus is killing them in his diabolical experiments. But can Pierre foil the dastardly villain and clear his name before he, or his devoted fiancĂ© (Barbara Shelley, the original VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and various Hammer productions) become the next victims of the madman?

1958 was still the very, very dawn of British horror cinema; CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which touched off the movement, was only a year old, and its follow-up, THE HORROR OF DRACULA, was barely even out of theaters by the time BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE came calling. But producers and longtime low-budget hustlers Monty Berman and Robert Baker of the also-also-also** ran Brit grindhouse studios Eros Films and Tempean Films (THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE TROLLENBERG TERROR aka THE CRAWLING EYE) already saw something of a formula brewing, and hired FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA scribe Jimmy Sangster pretty much immediately after DRACULA proved that its predecessor’s success was no fluke.



Sangster had only two produced screenplays when DRACULA premiered, but was already in hot demand: he had six produced screenplays in 1958 alone, which might explain why he was running a little low on ideas when he wrote BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE. I mean, I guess there’s a certain smirking cleverness to the idea that the “vampire” of the title here is not a supernatural bloodsucker, but rather a mad scientist who steals blood for medical transfusions to combat his rare blood disease. That is, however, more a matter of title semantics than a plot point the movies makes much of --or, in fact, comments on at all-- and alas, the movie is otherwise strictly standard mad science fair, with a castle, laboratory, hunchback, etc. In fact, despite the “Vampire” in the title, it differs in no particular from the Hammer FRANKENSTEIN movies that Sangster also wrote (there’s even a hunchback named “Carl”!), with the exception that even the lowest-rent FRANKENSTEIN film had at least some aspirations towards a high concept premise. BLOOD is more of a prison movie, where it matters less exactly that the doctor is up to (just trying to develop a treatment for his own blood disease) than that our hero escapes from him.

And to that end, it’s actually a pretty good story, as far as it goes! The fiendish  Doctor’s machinations are mostly unimaginative, but respectably diabolical (one might even say loathsome!), and our hero’s situation looks suitably hopeless. The script does a perfectly proficient job of methodically establishing the specific obstacles he must overcome to clear his name and defeat the villain, and consistently rolls out new complications to keep things from getting too repetitive. The hero himself is dull as dishwater, but at least the circumstances of the story lend themselves well to a nicely-build prison-escape-thriller. And the cast is proficient enough; Ball isn’t exactly explosively charismatic, but he imparts a prickly sense of contemptuous umbrage upon the character, which at least gives him more definition than the litany of bland pretty boys Hammer insisted on shoehorning into their movies for the next few decades. Wolfit is basically doing a low-level Bela Lugosi impression without the accent, which is fine enough, because after all, he’s quite right, this movie would be better if Bela Lugosi was playing the villain. Interestingly, the two least important characters are the ones who are actively good here: Hammer scream queen Shelley brings vastly more intelligence and agency to her role than is strictly required (Sangster, who does not exactly have a great history of writing meaty female roles, at least gets her directly involved in the action here, and Shelley runs with it every inch as far as the boilerplate damsel-in-distress trope will possibly allow her), and Maddern, through his one real eye, does a surprising and impressive amount of work to instill his non-speaking hunchback sidekick stereotype with some inner life. It’s hard to know what he’s thinking, exactly, and the screenplay offers very little that would help one guess, but it’s definitely clear from his performance that he is thinking, that he’s taking all this in and pondering it.



Indeed, while over the next decade or so Sangster’s scripts and plotting would sometimes get a bit loose (even the next years’ THE MUMMY and BRIDES OF DRACULA struggle with some basic narrative structure), BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE sports a perfectly sturdy construction. It’s a perfectly fine yarn, told perfectly adequately. And yet, for all that, it packs very little punch compared to its British horror contemporaries. Despite its gothic horror trappings (the “prison” might as well be a castle, it even has a drawbridge, towers, and posh living quarters), it feels much more akin to the mad science films of the 1950s than the burgeoning horror films which would define the 60s and 70s. Partly this comes from the somewhat anachronistic story itself, which is set up in every imaginable way to resemble something like THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) or, hell, even ISLAND OF LOST SOULS from 20+ years prior. But a bigger part is the production, led by director Henry Cass (THE GLASS MOUNTAIN), which is every bit as stagy and stodgy as the early Hammer films were vital and audacious. With its lengthy medium shots, drowsy editing, hammy theatricality, and corny under-dressed castle sets, it resembles the low-budget movies of twenty years prior more than their descendants just a few years later. Cass demonstrates not a whit of understanding about why the Hammer films were such a monumental leap forward in modern British filmmaking, and seems perfectly content recycling the same style as the films at the beginning of his career in the late 30’s. Even the addition of color film --Hammer was notorious for using the medium for bright red blood splatter-- makes no difference to a films whose primary palette consists of dirty grays and faded browns.

With a more forward-thinking production and a little more ambition, I think the film could have mustered more bite and been a little better. But ultimately not much better. Bottom line is, although it’s a competently assembled little tale, its most damning flaw is that it utterly lacks in anything remotely exotic or exciting. It’s about as standard as they come, hitting virtually every clichĂ© in the book without building off a single element in any kind of new or imaginative way. Even its mild nods to actual science (the protagonists study blood types and discuss transfusions) were a half-century old by the time the movie came out (though, in fairness, they would have brand new in the movie’s 1880 setting***). Other than the need to crank out a sixth horror script in a single year and to prominently feature the word "vampire" in the title, I can't think of much reason why anyone would have thought this was a tale especially worth telling. It’s fine as far as it goes, but without a little more imagination, “fine” was all it was ever going to be.



*Presumably they mean Karlstadt, Germany, a town about an hour East of Frankfurt, not Carlstadt, New Jersey. There’s also a Carlstadt which is a borough of Dusseldorf, though if that’s what they mean it seems unnecessarily specific. The only other potential contender is the Croatian city of Karlovac, which, apparently, is rendered in German as “Carlstadt.” Either way, none of these are anywhere close to Romania. It’s over 1,500 miles from Karlstadt to Transylvania, which is a 16 hour journey any way you slice it today, by car.

** Standard wisdom is that Hammer > Amicus > Tigon > Tempean > Harry Alan Towers, although there is certainly some variability movie to movie.

*** The opening takes place in 1874, everything else takes place “six years later.” I looked it up to be sure Sangster wasn’t incorporating new medical knowledge ripped from the headlines, but blood types were first discovered in 1900. That made me wonder if this was actually vaguely based on a true story, but if Nobel-prize winning biologist and physician Karl Landsteiner got the idea while being unjustly imprisoned by a imperious madman, they don’t mention it in his wikipedia page. Landsteiner made his discovery in 1900 and 1901 and got his Nobel for it in 1930, so even that was almost three decades old when Sangster wrote this script.

You can really see why they thought this image would bring in the kids.


CHAINSAWNUKAH 2018 CHECKLIST!
Searching For Bloody Pictures

           
TAGLINE
NO WOMAN IS SAFE from the MOST FRIGHTENING FIEND IN THE HISTORY OF HORROR! Which is blatantly a lie on a whole cornucopia of levels, most notably that actually almost every woman is safe, since the FRIGHTENING FIEND runs an all-male prison and the inmates are his primary victims. He does kill his maid, though, and threatens Dr. Pierre’s girlfriend, so those particular two women are not safe from THE MOST FRIGHTENING FIEND IN THE HISTORY OF HORROR. And yeah, about that last part...
TITLE ACCURACY
Technically vaguely true if you’re willing to accept that a guy who steals blood to transfuse it for medical purposes can reasonably be called a “vampire.” But blood definitely does play a key role here.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
No
SEQUEL?
None
REMAKE?
None
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
England
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Mad Science, arguably vampire
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
None
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Jimmy Sangster
NUDITY?
None, though Berman and Baker would become notorious for inserting random scenes of nudity into their later movies, as we discuss in THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Yes, poor Barbara Shelley gets assaulted by this one asshole, though she’s saved before things get too out of hand. And, thankfully, the movie agrees that the guy who did it is scum who deserved to get strangled by a Hunchback.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
Yes, there is a pack of vicious dobermans who are trained to kill anyone who displeases Dr. Callistratus or his sadistic guards.
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
No
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
None
EVIL CULT?
None
MADNESS?
Just mad science
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
None.
VOYEURISM?
None
MORAL OF THE STORY
Never practice cutting-edge medicine in Carlstadt.



Monday, November 26, 2018

Lost In Apocalypse



Lost In Apocalypse [sic] (2018) aka Mo Shi Ren Jian Dao
Dir. Sky Wang
Written by Sky Wang, Fei'er Zhao, Baiying Wu (story), based on the comics by Ruibo Cao
Starring Tianming Yang, Yang Yang, Yinan Zhang, Yuchao Wang



            On a whim, I sampled some modern Chinese (mainland, not Hong Kong) horror cinema last year with the infuriatingly terrible SINGULAR CAY, a film so absolutely bottom-of-the-barrel abysmal that I felt it was almost cruel to not give China a chance to redeem itself this year. Any country can have an off day, after all. What if I was a Chinese movie blogger and the only American horror film I’d ever reviewed was IT’S IN THE BLOOD? Wouldn’t be very fair. So when I saw that the AFI was screening LOST IN APOCALYPSE with this year’s annual Spooky Movie Festival, I thought it must be fate. 

           And maybe it was, but if it was fate, it was fate telling me not to bother next year, because LOST IN APOCALYPSE, while not as desperately miserable and inept as SINGULAR CAY, is pretty damn low on anything worth defending.

It is the tale of several people who are at some kind of ill-defined business meeting about a school (maybe it’s clearer what the fuck is going on in the original Mandarin, but the subtitles turn it into a completely inscrutable mystery) when a zombie outbreak happens (the kind with the running zombies). Most of these people are either complete cyphers or horrible assholes, so they argue and snipe at each other for a long time, pick up a recently orphaned little girl (Qianhua Chen, GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB), and eventually they pile in a car and drive to this big abandoned warehouse or factory or something. Again, it’s weirdly unclear what this place is, or who the guys in orange jumpsuits that seem to live there are, or what the connection is to any of the other victims. “Director Wu” (possibly Fengzhu Jia [THE CRAZY KELP], though IMDB doesn’t list the character’s name) seems to have some kind of business relationship with them, but I thought he was the head of a school? I don’t know if it’s just standard practice in China that every school “director” is also issued a dilapidated warehouse complex full of jumpsuited henchmen or what. But anyway, they go there, and the guys in orange suits obviously turn out to be even bigger assholes than the zombies, and they naturally want to rape the little girl.* So it’s up to the least unpleasant of them (Martin Yang, no other IMDB credits) to escape from an easily escapable death trap (thrown into a room with an angry zombie, but it turns out the room just has another door you can walk out of) and, I dunno, learn the true meaning of sacrificing yourself for the greater good or whatever.

Gripping, gripping stuff.
 So now you’re saying “OK, and then what?” And this is the trouble. That’s the whole thing: there is a group of generally obnoxious people that are first stuck in a meeting room, and then show up at a warehouse and get tied up and lightly menaced by some assholes before the zombies inevitably get loose again and the most tolerable guy fights the least tolerable guy and everyone else has to heroically sacrifice themselves to allow the women and children to get away. Roll credits. It’s all tarted up slightly with a spectacularly unnecessary shuffled chronology which starts in the middle and flashes back to the beginning, but that one run-on sentence handily covers every significant event in the entire movie. There are zero surprises here, nary a single frame in the whole thing which isn’t baseline standard zombie movie boilerplate. I mean, nothing. Not a single new concept, not one clever gimmick, not one imaginative twist, not a solitary memorable horror beat. It’s exactly everything you would expect at the bare-bones minimum for some low-budget zombie trash SyFy channel original movie, and absolutely nothing more. And fuck, even SyFy would want at least some kind of hook in there, like a zombie tornado or a Dractopus or something. 

            Such a punishing dearth of imagination would be a difficult, but by no means impossible, deficiency for a zombie movie to overcome; after all, plenty of perfectly fine genre movies have been content to play out the expected beats without tinkering with a good thing. In point of fact, many overly ambitious movies with eyes to reinvent the genre have managed to completely bungle a surefire formula. But LOST IN APOCALYPSE not only doesn’t offer anything fresh and imaginative, it just plain doesn’t offer anything. Zero good deaths, no gnarly zombie makeup, not even any significant gore! Heck, with the exception of a few translated curse words and the threat (thankfully never delivered) of child rape, you could easily play this unedited on TV with not a moment altered. As horror movies go, it’s a shockingly PG affair. 

This is about the most elaborate zombie makeup you're gonna get.

            This being a Chinese movie, of course, in place of that gore is: melodrama. I’m not a political scientist but I’m pretty sure it’s written in their Constitution that all movies, no matter how trashy and exploitative, must, by law, feature at least four scenes where sad piano music comes up and somebody flashes back to the time a sad thing happened to them, and then says something earnest and polite, and then stares into the middle distance sadly. This happens an intolerable amount in LOST IN APOCALYPSE, but unlike the Korean TRAIN TO BUSAN (from whence it cribs any plot elements not lifted from 28 DAYS LATER), the melodrama feels completely tracked-on and unimportant, and the characters, despite the punishing amount of time we spend listening to them explain their tedious life stories, are all dishwater-dull archetypes with one or less defining personality trait. Our hero, the most tolerable one, has only one thing about him, which is that he is embarrassed he dropped out of college years ago and is now a driver. That’s it, that’s his whole character motivation, and it feels like it must take 30 minutes of screentime to establish that, not that it ends up mattering one iota (in fact, it’s made even more insipid by the fact that a zombie apocalypse has recently rendered all quotidien social status utterly moot, a fact which appears to never once occur to the movie). So the biggest emotional turmoil in the film comes from shame over never getting a diploma which is wholly worthless now. And the rest of the characters are even less interesting than that.



            It's technically more competent than SINGULAR CAY, and vaguely more focused, but then again, it also doesn't have that movie's advantage of being fucking insane. It's just phenomenally undistinguished. It's the cinematic equivalent of a tepid glass of plain water. Maybe there's nothing terribly wrong with it, but surely anyone interested in making a meal ought to aspire to more. Fortunately, just as I was starting to really think Chinese cinema had completely disappointed me again, I remembered that, like most things in this world, when you look closely you’ll realize that it’s actually America’s fault. Director Sky Wang, as it turns out, was born in Shenyang, China, but “immigrated to the West in his formative years,” as his IMDB puts it. He’s lived in the UK, Canada, and the US, and has a degree from University of Columbia, Chicago. In fact, his two previous short films (from 2010 and 2012) are both in English, and this is his first Chinese credit of any kind. Which means that, damn it, this still wasn’t a fair shot for Mainland Chinese cinema. It’d be like judging John Woo’s career from watching BROKEN ARROW and PAYCHECK. Which means it looks like I’m doomed to try another one next year. Lost in Apocalypse indeed.



           Alternate Opinion: “Lost in Apocalypse" will trigger your mind to think in a twisted manner but then again it will align you in the path of truth, to acknowledge the anomalies of the human mind and to learn to accept it as it comes. If I had to sum this film up in one line, it would be "The Awakening of Human conscience albeit through acceptance." -- IMDB user “CultCriticMovieAwards” August 2, 2018. Looking at his comment history makes it apparent that he's some kind of shill who gets paid to give excessively positive reviews to crappy little movies no one has ever heard of, but you gotta appreciate his willingness to really swing for the fences on this one.

*   In fact, they really remind one of the asshole soldiers who do the exact same thing in 28 DAYS LATER (which in turn makes one ponder the many, many other purely coincidental similarities between the two movies), except this is made for a mainland Chinese audience and they damn sure aren’t going to be saying anything bad about soldiers.

Good question.

CHAINSAWNUKAH 2018 CHECKLIST!
Searching For Bloody Pictures

TAGLINE
None apparent. Come on China, you don’t get to be the world’s foremost superpower without upping your tagline game a little.
TITLE ACCURACY
I’m confused about the ungrammatical title, because most of the on-screen translation seems OK. Maybe it’s a metaphor, or it makes more sense in Mandarin?
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
Yes, supposedly adapted from the comic by Ruibo Cao, though a Google search reveals nothing whatsoever of the kind, and the only thing I can definitively find online attributed to a “Rubio Cao” is what appears to be a book of French cartoon erotica entitled (NSFW)“l'ombre et le feu 2.” EDIT: Oh wait, looks like it's an anthology and he did only one part, if the identified author "Cao R" really is the same guy. Anyway, the translated version of the French review from manga-news.com raves, "Once again, the program is varied while focusing on a refined eroticism. On the other hand, and it is a pity, clearly less historical references are given here." Sounds pretty classy.

Also WARNING, that link is just to amazon, but there are boobs on the front cover of the book, and you don't want to get fired by clicking on an amazon link for maybe a book written by the obscure author of a comic on which this crappy movie is allegedly based. Or maybe you do, hell, I don't know. You do you.
SEQUEL?
None
REMAKE?
None
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
China
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Zombie, Apocalyptic horror
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
None
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
None
NUDITY?
None
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
The threat of child rape, though it mercifully doesn’t ever actually happen
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
A decent surfeit of zombies
POSSESSION?
No
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
None.
MADNESS?
None
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
Just human into zombie.
VOYEURISM?
None
MORAL OF THE STORY
Like all modern Chinese movies trying to suck up to the government, there can really be only one moral: Really the most important thing in life is sacrificing yourself for the good of the group.