Sunday, July 4, 2010

"We're not related by blood...."

Can I let you in on a secret? Vampires can be kind of an assache. I thought it would be harmless trying to watch every revisionst vampire movie ever fucking made, something to do over Christmas in between shooting a movie, sorting out personal nonsense and shopping for gifts. Well I only did two of those things properly and vampires weren't one of them. I knew where I had to start but tell me if the prospect of watching a series of 30s vintage bloodless vampire movies all derived from the same boring motherfucker of a movie, Tod Browning's Dracula, sounds like something you'd drop everything to do? My only real hope was that there were a handful of B movies in there that I was looking forward to watching because I do believe that people like today's winning auteur Robert Siodmak should be remembered and prized above the people that Carl Laemmle thought worthy of a paycheck. Mostly however what we have are a pack of phoned-in cheats that pick up where their more famous predecessors stopped. And no I don't mean left off, I mean stopped. By now if you don't know how Dracula ends, then you're never going to, so I'll go ahead and spoil it for you: he bites it. So how do you deal with that in the sequel? Much like the makers of the Saw movies, Universal just made some shit up. Dracula's dead? Well....he's got a daughter no one knows about. And if we extrapolate that to some of the movies further down the road, Wolfman dead? No he's not. Frankenstein monster dead? Twice? Thrice, if you remember he's made of cadavers. No, he's not. He's alive enough to be revived in three different movies. Take that, logic!

Dracula's Daughter
by Lambert Hillyer
The film begins kinda where Dracula left off, except that evidently the set of that film was either gone or in use because this is clearly not where Dracula left off, even if it is when. Van Helsing (Ed Van Sloan, the only returning actor) is arrested for killing Dracula (somehow the police got wind of it....?). No one believes his story of vampires, natch! Remarkably, the one person who knows what he's talking about, the count's estranged daughter, countess Marya Zaleska and her hulking manservant, decides to get rid of the evidence in a hurry. She hypnotizes the guard watching the corpses of Dracula and Renfield, makes off with them and burns 'em up. She soon makes with the vampiring again because her plan (burn the body to stop her being a vampire which she's grown ever so tired of) didn't work. So, she sets herself up as a socialite and starts going to parties to cover up her drinking the blood of the poor. At one of these parties she meets Jeffrey Garth and his flirtatious secretary. Garth just happens to be Van Helsing's psychiatrist (and former student) who's been trying to get the old man out of trouble. Vampire and psychiatrist fall in love (sort of), much to the chagrin of the secretary, vampire hunter, and hulking man servant. Thinking the only way to be normal is to fuck Garth, she kidnaps his secretary and takes her back to Transylvania to force him into it. Everyone else follows him for the conclusion.

Other than the moments between Garth and his secretary, which have a distinctly light and romantic touch that put me in mind of much better films by, say Leo McCarey or maybe George Cukor, nothing that humourous but you get my point, Dracula's Daughter has very little to offer. The levity doesn't gel with all the SERIOUS HORROR that is neither serious nor horrific; but it is infrequent. Maria Zaleska is not a charismatic or threatening villain even with her hulking manservant backing her up (he's more a lovelorn lapdog, anyway). And as the few convincing moments between Garth and his human love interest make up about a 12th of the film's running time, that doesn't leave a lot to look forward to. To be honest I watched this film maybe two days ago and I already forget most of it. Dracula's Daughter feels like the lifeless, unplanned extemporaneous mumblings of a series of studio heads desperate for cash, directed by someone who averaged 6 movies a year and who couldn't have cared less how his movie stacked up in the eyes of the public and in fact is the only film in his staggering canon that's even vaguely remembered and only got there because it has the word "Dracula" in the title. I can't imagine why I get such a specific feeling from it but that's just the vibe it sends out. Frankly if Universal couldn't shell out the money, energy or care required to make a decent film, then why bother watching what happened?
But good news. Universal, evidently feeling that they'd shitchanged audiences with Dracula's Daughter, they hired a proper filmmaker, Robert Siodmak. Siodmak had emigrated from Germany a little over a decade before being asked to direct our next film and had spent his time churning out better-than-average B films. I like to think it was his handling of such a well-known commodity that led to his being given the chance to direct masterpieces like Christmas Holiday, The Killers and Criss Cross. Granted Son of Dracula, based on a story (read: idea) by his brother Curt, who wrote most of the big horror/sci-fi films back then including The Wolf Man, Black Friday, I Walked With A Zombie and the next two movies that Count Dracula would show up in, more on which in a minute, isn't nearly as good as Siodmak could get, but it's pretty goddamn good considering its precedents.

Son of Dracula
by Robert Siomak
The setting, blessedly, is not European at all but American, Louisiana if I don't miss my guess. The Caldwell family is preparing for a party. The group consisters of a patriarch, simply called The Colonel, as is customary of southern gents with a daughter or two (this might also have some kind of connection to the military, but I doubt it), who go by Claire and Kay, Kay's fiance Frank and their friend Dr. Harry Brewster. Wonder what role he's going to play... Anyway the party is in reception of one count Alucard (were people averse to logic puzzles in the 40s. Seriously it's not like Alucard even sounds Hungarian), who is noticably absent. His belongings, including a coffin-sized chest, have arrived, but the count's nowhere on the train that's supposed to have carried him. But the party must go on and it does to the point of the Colonel drinking himself into a stupor. He excuses himself, walks upstairs and is met by a vampire bat. They find his body a few minutes later. Clair is a little more distraught over this than her sister. Kay's been a bit too busy to pay her dad dead or anything much mind, what with all the visiting of swamp-dwelling voodoo priestesses and making the now-arrived Count Alucard feel at home. Really at home. So at home that she marries him in the middle of the night without telling anyone. She doesn't even tell her fiance. When Brewster shows up at the family estate (left to Kay in her father's will) and demands to hear it from her the count marches him upstairs and Kay delivers a rather disaffected explanation. It's almost like she's not in her right mind...

I suppose that's not entirely true. It was her idea to bring Alucard (actually a vampire, don't let the cape and widow's peak throw you) to her estate. She wants to be a vampire, you see. There's a bit of early feminism, for you. Why she didn't let him do so when she found him in Europe is really only a matter of plot convenience. Frank doesn't know it but she wants to make him a vampire too. All he knows is that his fiance turned cold, married a foreigner and won't speak to him anymore. That'd make me pretty mad, too. He decides a crime of passion is in order and shoots the count, which naturally does nothing and so begins Frank's descent into madness. Meanwhile Brewster, suspicious of the count, calls upon a Van Helsing by the name of Lazlo who fills in the blanks for the American. Lazlo, a Romanian, looks into things and discovers that there never was an Alucard, but he's the first person in the whole damned movie who figures out what that name is backwards. He shows up on the next available train. You'd think it'd be the two old men who get around to dispensing with the vampire but thankfully Frank pulls himself together just enough to go out looking for the vampire's coffin which, as Lazlo helpfully points out, needs to be destroyed in order to stop its inhabitant. And he's the only one mad enough to make the conclusion as thrilling as it needs to be.

Because of its atmospherics, setting and above all else it's ability to communicate normalcy, I was able to make it through Son of Dracula without realizing that the plot is essentially that of Dracula's but with one element altered. Instead of Dracula coming to Mina, Mina brings him to her. Though this was supposedly Curt Siodmak's idea but he didn't actually write the screenplay so who knows? It's a good one, regardless. But because Curt didn't write the script, the movie isn't quite as intelligent or horrific as it might have been. Robert was still calling the shots so for my money this is the best film Universal made with "Dracula" in the title. So what did he do so differently? Well he gave the film a personality that was a fourth of the way to the kind of thing Val Lewton's known for. The whole scene where the count finds Brewster in his basement and escorts him to Kay's bedroom is pretty excellent. Lon Chaney Jr. doesn't make for much of a vampire but his physical size is put to good use here and the way Louise Allbritton delivers her lines is perfect. When she absent-mindedly trails off remembering only to say "I'm fond of Frank...." it's pretty exciting. Furthermore this is one of the only Universal monster films I can recall where the director went out of his way to try and show the banality of pre-invasion times. In the hands of James Whale or Tod Browning we'd have toothless old crones and swarthy innkeepers strutting and mugging like a bunch of fucking roosters (see The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Devil Doll, etc., etc.). As in his later work Siodmak tries to create a sense of familiarity, of a routine and of people you see everyday. Whether it's gangsters or vampires, they do more damage when they enter a hopelessly average space which is why I like this film's climax so much. Lon Chaney, Jr. wasn't as commanding a Dracula as Lugosi but he at least seemed in control. When Robert Paige shows up at his resting place having suffered a whole movie's worth of hauntings, treachery and tragedy, he's had it up to here. The sudden shift in power, of Chaney realizing how fucked he is and Paige reveling in finally getting to stick it to the brutish interloper, had me going. And to cap it all off, Son of Dracula even has an even-handed portrait of blacks in the south, even if they are only allowed to play servants.
Return of the Vampire remains the high-point of first-wave Dracula rip-offs but Son of Dracula is a close second. If Curt Siodmak had been in charge of writing the script, things might have been different but he was busy on another corner of the Universal backlot writing a starring vehicle for the studios other big name monsters. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man was released a few months before Son of Dracula and though maybe they didn't know it, altered the fate of its starring character. A new trend was borne of the two movie's concurrent successes, that of cramming as many monsters as would fit into an hour and ten minutes. These movies would continue until Abbot & Costello killed off whatever power the monsters ever had to scare. They were nicknamed Monster Rallies. I hate Monster Rallies. Much like Michael Bay paying for remakes of 80s slasher films, the Monster Rallies wouldn't exist without the credibility lent them via name recognition, yet they disrespect the viewers by treating them like they'll watch anything. Today, as then, we will watch anything but I for one don't like being treated like an idiot just because the men with the money like it when they get to murder surrogate ex-girlfriends.

House of Frankenstein
by Erle C. Kenton
Now, House of Frankenstein isn't really about Dracula so much as it merely features him, but in order to understand House of Dracula and why both movies are insulting, we have to start here. Boris Karloff sets the bar for performances (which his co-stars are happy to not attempt to reach) as Dr. Von Niemand, a jailed mad scientist and semi-acquantance of the now dead Dr. Frankenstein. All he wants is a chance to prove his worth as someone who could successfully tamper in god's domain. Apparently fate wants him to as well because a lightning bolt strikes the jailhouse and the building crumbles. Niemand and his cellmate Daniel the hunchback escape and encounter a man called Lampini, a traveling huckster with the body of Dracula in his wagon. Niemand figures no one'd suspect a traveling performer so he has Daniel kill Lampini so they can take his place. They go to the town whose burgermeister sent Niemand to prison all those years ago and after discovering that Dracula's for real, exact their revenge. The problem is that Dracula has his own plans that include seducing a local, killing her father and kidnapping her. This is tips off the authorities and the police chase all three villains out of town. Niemand figures he doesn't really need the vampire anymore and derails his carriage. The sun rises before he can get back to his coffin....and so ends movie one.

Movie two has nothing to do with what we just saw. It's a retread of Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man that starts exactly where that film left off. Niemand and Daniel find the frozen remains of both monsters and thaw them both out. They then go back to Niemand's old lab and clean the place up a bit to get to the mad science. Like the hunchback, the Wolf Man just wants to be cured of his condition. Unlike Daniel, he's not in love with the gypsy girl who starts hanging around with the monsters after the hunchback saves her from her cruel boss. Between the girl falling for a werewolf, a jealous hunchback, an increasingly suspicious village and a mad scientist who plans on fucking everyone over for no real reason running the show, things are gonna go south but quick.

My problem with these movies is that they rely on the audience being just as wowed by the appearance of monsters as the characters. When Karloff meets the Chaney's Wolf Man for the first time he calls him by his first name, Larry Talbot. How the hell does a man who's been in prison for Talbot's entire life as a werewolf know his name? Or anything about him? They also expect that reverence from you while treating you and your knowledge of the monsters with no respect. Lampini talks about stealing Dracula's body from Transylvania but Maria Zaleska burned it in London. Larry Talbot died two movies ago and yet here he is. The producers don't like you...they just want your money and fuck you for thinking they cared. There's also that Dracula has no part in the story. Granted I buy John Carradine as a vampire a little more than I do Lon Chaney, Jr. but Chaney's back playing the same goddamned role he always plays in these movies, that of the tortured schlub. Once you've seen one of those performances you've seen them all; he's fine when he's the best actor in the scene; next to Karloff he's just no good.
One of the movie's few saving graces was Boris Karloff. The only time anyone in the cast had me interested was hearing Karloff talk about Frankenstein with such hungry admiration. Hearing and seeing him create a character he made famous makes for delicious dramatic irony. Whether we have Kenton, Curt Siodmak or Karloff himself to thank for this I don't know. Kenton does deserve a bit of credit for making House as watchable as it is. Kenton was a decent enough director (his Island of Lost Souls has some of the most effective scenes of horror the 30s ever saw) so at least House of Frankenstein looks decent. Kenton does a few suave things with his camera and creates decent spaces for his characters to wander around in. Actors are another story but House of Frankenstein certainly has more going for it on a technical and creative level than either Dracula or Dracula's Daughter. Kenton almost pulled that off on his next Monster Rally film but by this point I can't be bothered with the nonsense that gets us back in the company of monsters.

House of Dracula
by Erle C. Kenton
So, all the monsters are back and want to be cured, evil scientist can help get it. The only thing that I look on this movie fondly for is that this time the hunchback is a woman and Nina is the film's sole sympathetic character. When our scientist, this time a fellow called Edelman, finds himself in trouble (this time he's got a legit reason to be such a double-crossing tool) he holds onto his former self long enough to express his concern for Nina's well-being. He wants to cure her hunch and he won't let his condition get in the way. Beyond that the look isn't as memorable as House of Frankenstein and I'm having a harder time remembering it. They're entertaining enough, it's just....I don't know...the idea that the wolfman, who we saw gut shot at the end of the last film, is back and that somehow the Frankenstein monster, himself made of dead people, has somehow avoided decomposing while Niemand is naught but bones, really pisses me off. Maybe I'm being a touch unfair in my derision of these movies. I'll level with you: I hate these two films all the more because they paved the way for Stephen Sommers egregious Van Helsing, a movie that, beyond dying Elena Anaya's hair red, gets nothing right.

Van Helsing
by Stephen Sommers
Ok, so Van Helsing is not the puny windbag Ed Van Sloan would have you believe he is. He's actually an assassin for the Vatican who looks like an S&M version of a Sergio Leone villain. He's supposed to look like Vampire Hunter D, as many people have pointed out, but he's too baggy and strappy for that to work and that hat does him no favors. He speaks with an American accent and he fights monsters. First he kills Dr. Jekyll and if I were Twentieth Century Fox I'd sue the sweet fuck out of Universal because this is the same Dr. Jekyll who joined The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, even if Stephen Sommers has confused him with the Hunchback of Notre Dame. When that's done he goes to fight Dracula and his three brides who are using a werewolf and the Frankenstein monster to try and send life-ning to a bunch of vampire eggs and power a new vampire army. Van Helsing, a truly wasted David Wenham and a truly ignored Kate Beckinsale, have to who gives a shit.

Stephen Sommers is a bad director even as these piece of shit action movies go. At this point in my life as a reviewer of movies and pretentious motherfucker, I won't be cowed by "It's only a movie." Not to me it's not. Movies are my life and Van Helsing lacks even the craft evident in the worst Michael Bay films. It's incoherent, painfully unfunny, smacks of 80s-vintage misogyny and has no depth and so I can't, won't and don't care. Next to Bay, Stephen Sommers is maybe the most alienating action movie director of the last decade. The man directed G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra the same year Avatar came out for fuck's sake. If he gives a flying fuck about his audience he's doing a hell of a job pretending he doesn't. He doesn't even care enough to have real special effects in his films. It's like he thinks they're never going to age, that people aren't going to look back and think that building a movie around already dated special effects is a stupid idea.

Building a movie around already dated special effects is a stupid idea! The CG is fucking awful, there is no consistency to any of it, the vampires don't have nipples, the werewolves look like Scooby-Doo, and people needlessly climb walls like it's going out of style (I guess it had....ten fucking years before this movie came out). The script is no such thing: it's a collection of non-dialogue and one-liners to be delivered like a cartoon character. This film's sensibility wasn't even novel when John Millius and Tony Scott were at it and Stephen Spielberg was lampooning it for the first time. Everytime a one-liner came up, I still couldn't help myself from saying "Really? In this day and age?" I guess it was 2004 but I was around when Van Helsing was released and there wasn't any great need for this horseshit then, either. Even the music belongs in a bad 80s sword-and-sorcery movie. As then I feel it's not worth it pointing out everything wrong with this movie; that'd result in a post longer than my complaint list for Jennifer's Body. It's not even worthy pointing out the anachronisms. The idea that someone had a pump-action anything when this film is supposed to take place makes me way too mad, so I'll just skip it. Let's talk about something easier: the performances.

Hugh Jackman is just doing his Wolverine with less personality. Continuing the tradition of stage actors who'll turn up for any thing on film so long as there's a paycheck at the end, he yawns his way through the whole movie, perhaps sensing just how much Van Helsing sucks ass. Richard Roxburgh's Dracula has a distinctly camp flair to him, as if he were channelling both Gary Oldman and Guido Anselmi. Roxburgh is who you call when you Jason Isaacs (hello to Jason Isaacs) and Mark Strong turn you down and his performance is appropriately third rate. David Wenham has done great work; I guess he felt anyone who knew that wouldn't be paying ten dollars to see Van Helsing so like Jackman, he phones it in. Poor Kevin J. O'Connor remains Stephen Sommers favorite punching bag and gets stuck with inch thick prosthetics and a thankless idiot role. O'Connor's worked with Robert Altman, Bill Condon, Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson but never in roles large enough that he can turn down The Mummy or Flight of the Living Dead. He's a real actor and I really hate that he's stuck trading barbs with Kate Beckinsale's teeth. Thought I'd forgotten her, did you? Yes, Kate Beckinsale thought that by showing as much of her fangs as her skin, she'd pass for...well whatever she's going for. Her ridiculous accent makes her sound like Molotov Cocktease from The Venture Brothers. Having seen her in Laurel Canyon and Snow Angels it is truly beyond me why she stoops to appearing in shit like this and Underworld. If it's money, I guess I get it, but wouldn't a marquee role in Pearl Harbor just about send you and six children to Oxford? Seeing her catch a syringe thrown through mid-air while swinging and flipping between two impossible ropes a la Indiana Jones and hissing like a snake was the last straw. And this movie's lousy with last straws.
Fuck you, Universal.

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