Friday, November 13, 2009

Four Underrated Vampire Movies to Watch Instead of Twilight

Do you have an insatiable appetite to watch a really good, really original, vampire flick? One that takes the familiar, tired concept of the long-lived bloodsucker and twists it to new, subversive ends? (And by that, I don't mean tween romance...).

If so, I humbly submit this list of four bizarre, ghoulish, and off-beat vampire flicks that are certainly worth a second look, especially for the horror connoisseur.

Again, I'm leaving out the obvious examples of well-known vampire movies here (Let the Right One In [2008], The Hunger [1983], Near Dark [1987]] in favor of more obscure, more oddball titles that carry the vampire myth in new and daring directions.

1. The Addiction (1996) : This incendiary film by Abel Ferrara connects the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the atrocities of the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to vampirism and blood lust. "Our addiction is evil" declares grad student Kathleen Conklin (Lily Taylor) after vampire siren Anabelle Sciorra passes the appetite for hemoglobin onto her during a vicious attack on a New York street corner.
What follows this savage torch-passing is a cinematic meditation on philosophy, human nature and the face of evil. The film quotes Descartes, Jung, Sartre, Kierkegaard and William S. Burroughs. Lensed in stark black-and-white, The Addiction even features an extended cameo by Christopher Walken. He's a vegetarian vampire who quotes Naked Lunch and informs a vampiric Kathleen that "you learn, like the Tibetans, to survive on a little." This is advice she ultimately rejects, and there's a metaphor for self-actualization here; for finding a mentor figure, absorbing all of his or her knowledge, and then, in due time, utterly rejecting that which was given freely. Both a satire of modern academia and a commentary on human nature (we're all vampires...), The Addiction is one fascinating, thoughtful, and disturbing vampire flick.

2. The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998). Jude Law portrays handsome but cold Steve Grlscz, an urbane, city-dwelling vampire, in this underrated gem. Steve's body is rapidly breaking down and he needs the blood of women to hold it together. But there's a catch: Grlscz needs the perfect love of those women too, which means he must romance them -- must make them fall in love with him -- and then kill them. "Love is what I feel; what I eat," he explains.
Human emotions, you see, are carried in the blood, according to Grlscz, and he needs that love as a primary ingredient in his feasts. Cold, spare, and unrelentingly wicked, The Wisdom of Crocodiles envisions Grlscz as a kind of evolutionary throwback. Human beings have three brains, he confides in one lover, a human brain -- which is built upon a mammal brain -- which in turn is built upon a reptilian brain. Grlscz, it seems, in his coldness and emotional emptiness, has much of the crocodile in him. The Wisdom of Crocodiles even exhibits a great metaphor about the ultimate boredom of immortality; discussing the "agony of holding on," and the "wonderful feeling of letting go" in connection with Grlscz's childhood plunge from a tree. Can a crocodile (or a vampire) experience real love, real connection? Or does a vampire only cry crocodile tears so as to lure his next meal? That's the question this movie raises.

3. Blood Couple (aka Ganja & Hess) (1973):
This is an odd, inventive work that re-interprets vampirism in the context of the African-American community and experience. Written and directed by Bill Gunn, the story revolves around Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones), a black scholar investigating the long-dead culture of Myrthia in Africa. After he is stabbed with an infected ceremonial dagger from the long-dead civilization, Green falls prey to the same plague of vampirism that corrupted and destroyed that advanced society.
Before long, the noble Green reluctantly begins feeding on the "lesser" members of American (black) society, including pimps, junkies and hookers. The movie is about race loyalty and betrayal; about the way the upper class feeds off the lower class, and more. Even debating the role of Christianity in the black community, Blood Couple defines vampirism as essentially addiction; on the feeding off of others.
Critic Harry Benshoff captured well the film's essence in his essay "Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription," Cinema Journal, Volume 39, No. 2, Winter 2000, pages 43 - 45.: "At the heart of the film lies vampirism as a metaphor for capitalism and cultural imperialism, dramatizing in horror movie iconography how some human beings live off the blood, sweat, and toil of others."

4. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971): I've written before (at length...) -- here -- about this remarkable horror film from the disco decade. Let's Scare Jessica to Death depicts the travails of a woman named Jessica (Zohra Lampert). Only recently, she has recovered from a nervous breakdown. With her husband, Duncan (Barton Heyman) and a friend named Woody (Kevin O'Connor), Jessica relocates to a small town in Connecticut, a town haunted by the memory (and perhaps presence...) of a vampire woman named Abigail Bishop.

Directed by John Hancock, the film is beautifully photographed, and it captures hazy, dream-like images in a powerful way. One shot (of Jessica alone in a canoe by sunrise) calls up resonances of The Lady of Shallot. And the villainous Abigail -- a porcelain specter in diaphanous white gown -- is a contemporary Rappaccini's daughter who brings terror and death to anyone who falls under her spell.
The vampires of the film, other than Abigail, are all wrinkled old men and denizens of the town. At one point, the geriatric vampire brigade accosts Jessica in her bedroom -- a hungry mob -- and it's a freaky, disturbing moment. In Horror Films of the 1970s, I termed Let's Scare Jessica To Death a great example of "New England Gothic," and that's exactly what it is. There's an ancient evil, a town with a dark secret, a struggle with personal sanity ,and a coven of blood-thirsty, gnarled old vampires. The result is one of the most hypnotic, unsettling horror films of the decade.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dollhouse Canceled...

The AP is currently reporting the cancellation of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. The report reads, in part:

The Joss Whedon fantasy drama ends after its current 13-episode order, with the series finale scheduled to air Jan. 22, according to a person familiar with the show who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss it.

Well, given the ratings situation, this move is hardly a surprise. And actually, you can't really fault Fox either, at least this time. Granting the low-rated series a second season was a bold move in the first place, and I'm sad that it didn't pay off.

TV REVIEW: V: "There is No Normal Anymore"

Last week, I didn't have much complimentary to say about ABC's re-imagination of the 1980s classic V. The new series pilot was woefully flat; lacking in suspense, scares, visual distinction, and much by way of interesting characters.

The second episode, last night's "There Is No Normal Anymore," isn't much of an improvement. In fairness, the sophomore episode opens with a full-head of steam. We get signs that the Visitors are illicitly monitoring and intercepting earthbound 911 telephone calls, and also witness another Visitor seeker weapon in action (though it resembles a CGI version of the famous Phantasm ball...).

There was even one sequence last night that actually accelerated the heart-beat a bit. Specifically, the hunky, cussin' priest and Agent Evans were interrogated -- in separate settings -- about their individual encounters with the Visitors. The sharp cross-cutting here did a good job of building tension. At least until it was all bled away by the 20 minute mark...

But other than that aggressive start? The new V most decidedly lacks imagination and, perhaps more importantly, science fiction color. I wonder how long it will be before we get interviews with the producers declaring that V isn't supposed to be science fiction at all, because everything indicative of the genre is downplayed here to an alarming extent. For instance, there's been zero on-screen speculation about the Visitors' world of origin, their technology, or even the idea of parallel evolution, since the Vs apparently (on the surface...) so closely resemble human beings. Wouldn't someone on the 24 hour cable networks be talking about alien biology, alien ship design, anything?! How about civil defense matters in the case of a surprise attack?

Worse than this apparent oversight, our lead -- Agent Evans -- has apparently taken it entirely in stride that the Visitors are humanoid Lizards in men's clothing. She's very upset, you see, that her FBI partner of seven years is a traitor and possibly a terrorist. But she never expresses astonishment or horror that, gee, he's also a sentient reptile. In fact, nobody comments on that at all this week. It's almost like, behind-the-scenes, the makers of V are actually embarrassed by their very premise.

Damningly, the new V doesn't even seem to know what the Visitors are doing here on Earth yet, either. Perhaps the show is hedging its bets because of all the behind-the-scenes turmoil, but it means, in practice, that we get a lot of shots of High Commander Anna simply staring at underlings; possibly bemused; possibly sinister; possibly impatient. Your guess is as good as mine. But three or four of these shots an episode is just gilding the Lilly; at least until we have a better idea of what she's thinking.

Costs must be out of control on the new series too, judging by the dearth of effects shots and interesting sets in last night's show. In the original V, we saw more laser blasts, more alien make-up, more ship take-offs and landings, more mother-ship interiors in a single hour than we have seen in the first two episodes here. Again, there's just nothing in this re-imagination that remotely suggests "event" television or a sense of scope commiserate with the idea that aliens have arrived on Earth for the first time. Agent Evans declares "there is no normal anymore," but the problem with the new V is that, pretty much, everything is exactly as it was before. People still go to work; people still send their kids to school; everyone still watches 24 hour news and worries about TV ratings. The alien problem ranks about as high as illegal immigration, health care, or the winner of the next American Idol, it seems.

Honestly, if aliens hovered over our cities and wanted to open diplomatic relations, claiming to be "at peace, always," wouldn't our government (or the Chinese Government, or the Russian government...) respond: okay, space brothers, but in the meantime, how about vacating our sovereign airspace and backing the fuck off? If I were President, my answer would be: I would be happy to consider diplomatic relations with your people. Till I decide, all your ships and personnel are to remain in orbit around the moon. But the new V can't even imagine that the premise of the show is real, and thus the show itself doesn't feel like a thoughtful meditation on an alien arrival.

My gut instinct about the new V is that it is attempting for a fast, earthbound 24-vibe -- with aliens as terrorists -- but at the expense of the intelligent, science fiction allegory of the original.

Virtually by definition, that seems like dumbing down.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Happy 40th Birthday Sesame Street!

Since 1969, Jim Henson's Sesame Street has been a staple of American kid culture. It was "born" in '69 just a few weeks before I was, which means we both turn forty this year.

I always enjoyed the muppet-centric series as a kid, but as an adult watching it with my energetic three-year old son, I appreciate it even more. Joel's on the move all the time, but when Sesame Street airs, he stops everything to check out "Murray Had a Little Lamb" and "Elmo's World." If I manage to stay conscious on the sofa beside him, I watch too.

A couple of weeks ago, I caught a Sesame Street skit that satirized the Indiana Jones movies, entitled "Texas Telly and the Golden Triangle of Destiny" In a word, it was perfect; right down to the heroic musical overture and Telly's attempt to outrun a big rolling boulder...

I also enjoyed the Law & Order riff (replete with a Belzer muppet), the Mission: Impossible gag (with Cookie Monster in the role of Tom Cruise). Pre-School Musical, and the other myriad pop culture references. These movie/tv jokes go right over Joel's head, but as a stay-at-home dad spending 15 hour days with my child, I'm certainly grateful for the under-the-radar Gen X humor and an hour-long daily respite.

There's been a kerfuffle lately over Sesame Street and the Tea Baggers (hee hee...). They're upset because even Sesame Street has acknowledged the patently obvious; that Fox News is....trashy. On the series, Oscar the Grouch refers to the FOX News Network as POX News...

Anyway, I hope Sesame Street continues educating American kids about the alphabet, numbers, and right wing extremism for another forty years.

Just for kicks, take a look at this great video of Ricky Gervais giving Elmo a hard time...:

Sunday, November 08, 2009

There's Always an (Over-Sized) Vent Shaft When Our Hero Needs One

Back in September, the great Den of Geek's Martin Anderson posted a compelling essay (and terrific photo collection..) concerning the visualization of corridors in science fiction cinema history.

In Praise of the Sci-Fi Corridor included this commentary: "Corridors make science-fiction believable, because they're so utilitarian by nature - really they're just a conduit to get from one (often overblown) set to another. So if any thought or love is put into one, if the production designer is smart enough to realise that corridors are the foundation on which larger sets are 'sold' to viewers, movie magic is close at hand."

I couldn't agree more about corridors; and yet this interesting blog post got me thinking about the opposite. About bad production design; about bad writing; about a cheap device/design that can stall the conjuration of movie magic.

It was then that I recalled perhaps the great sci-fi convention in the history of the genre on film and TV: The Over-Sized Vent Shaft.

I don't know about your experience, but in my house, vents are actually pretty small. This is not true, however, of virtually all of the science fiction movies and TV programs featuring vent shafts. These movies and TV shows are often set in the future too; an epoch when (we hope...) technology would prove more efficient. And if history is any judge, "more efficient" means smaller.

Yet in genre productions. The vent shaft or "air shaft" is actually so roomy, so large, it can comfortably accommodate not just a single person, but hordes of people. Not to mention drooling xenomorphs...

A short survey of the genre vent shaft -- an easy escape route for an imprisoned hero -- reveals the myriad narrative purposes of this over-used cliche.

In Dr. No (1962), the first film of the long-lived James Bond series, an imprisoned 007 (Sean Connery) discovers a large rectangular vent shaft leading out of his jail cell in the Crab Key HQ of the villainous Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). The vent's convenient placement in a prison cell strains believability, of course, but at least Dr. No provides some precautions against tampering: the vent cover/grate is electrified.

Good for keeping prisoners trapped; not so good for routine maintenance.

In fact, this example remains one of the oddest vent shafts in film history. Once Bond actually crawls through the vent shaft, it fills with sea water...which nearly drowns him. Yet logically, if you consider the path of the vent shaft...that water would have led right out to the electrified grate...and into the prison cell. First what is sea water doing in a vent shaft anyway? And second, why is sea water being routed into a prison cell at all? Third, wouldn't the designer of such a vent system at least consider the idea that sea water and electrified grates don't , uh, mix?

The great Star Trek often made use of the over-sized vent shaft to get Enterprise crew out of trouble. The first season episode "Dagger of the Mind," set in the subterranean Tantalus Penal Colony (a rehabilitation center for criminals) is a notable example.

This colony is set up in the dialogue as a high-security, impenetrable installation. It takes a long elevator (turbo-lift) ride underground to enter the hermetically-sealed installation in the first place.

Additionally, the entire asylum is shielded from the rest of the civilized galaxy by a protective force field which prevents beaming. Finally, the prisoners inside the colony are controlled by a fiendish brainwashing device called a "neural neutralizer."

Sounds like quite the trap, right? Well, after Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is captured and brain-washed by the neural neutralizer, he is taken and held inside a locked ward room. Guess what should be conveniently located on the wall of his prison?

Yep, an over-sized vent-shaft with decorative wall-grate. And naturally, this vent leads to the control room for the installation's security force field, so Kirk's associate, Dr. Helen Noel, can de-activate it. Again, why go to the trouble of building a facility deep underground, of surrounding it with an impenetrable force field, and controlling your wards by mind-control devices if you're just going to leave high-security areas accessible from ward room vent shafts?

In Space:1999's final second season episode, "The Dorcons," the over-sized vent shaft comes in handy yet again. Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) has become trapped aboard the flagship of the Dorcons, the most terrifying military force in the universe.

Aboard the Dorcon ship, Koenig breaks free, climbs into a comfortable, over-sized vent shaft, and then uses it -- undetected -- to travel throughout the warship. He bypasses security, rescues his friend, Maya (Catherine Schell) and then manages to escape back to Moonbase Alpha with Maya in tow.

Again, you might think the most fearsome military force in the galaxy would have better security, and do away with those gigantic and oh-so-convenient vent shafts.

At least in this case, Koenig pays a physical price for the welcome convenience of the easily accessible, roomy vent shaft: the vent grate cuts open and bloodies his fingers when he shimmies it loose.

And here's an odd quirk of Space:1999. The Dorcons represent a super-advanced society and yet are equipped with man-sized vent shafts, right? Well, the much-less technologically-advanced Alphans (denizens of our 20th century...) have normal-sized vent shafts. In an earlier second season episode, "The Beta Cloud," we saw that Maya (a metamorphing Psychon) must transform into a cockroach to pass through the small vents of the man-made moon base...

Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) boasts an episode called "Fire in Space" -- an ode to Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno -- in which a Cylon kamikaze attack starts a raging conflagration aboard the imperiled colonial battlestar.

A group of off-duty humans, including Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr), Athena (Maren Jensen) and young Boxey (Noah Hathaway) are trapped inside a rec center as the fire grows hotter, and smoke inhalation becomes a deadly risk.

Fortunately, there's -- you guessed it -- a convenient vent shaft in the back of the rec center, and the robot daggit Muffit is sent inside it (he fits easily, of course...) to travel the length of the rather large battlestar and retrieve a bag of oxygen masks for the threatened Galactica crew. Along the way, Muffit also spots (and later rescues...) an injured fire crew worker.

Just look at that photograph of the battlestar vent shaft for a second. If Muffit can fit through it comfortably and his robotic fur coat is no badly burned (just a little singed...) in the process, why don't the trapped Galacticans just travel to safety through the vent shaft too, using ripped clothing as protection over their hands and knees?

The brilliant Alien movie series has also employed the convention of the vent shaft to resolve narrative issues or further the plot.

In Ridley Scott's original Alien (1979), Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) travels inside an over-sized air-shaft because the film's titular xenomorph is using it to move back and forth through the vast Nostromo.

The vent shaft in this film is actually a gigantic vent complex, consisting of multiple horizontal and vertical levels. The vent system features many spiral-shaped doors that open and close on command...yet has no internal lighting system, which means that overloaded Dallas (weighted down with a flame-thrower in one hand and a flash-light in the other...), can bump into the monster in the dark and not have a fighting chance. Oopsy...

In the sequel, Aliens (1986), the alien monsters are everywhere: inside the ceiling, in subterranean pipes...but not, at least initially, inside the over-sized vent shafts that connect buildings. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) escape a battle with the aliens by fleeing inside a vent shaft that Newt is already familiar with.

In fact, Newt has survived the alien threat by living inside these vent shafts for weeks. So, just to contextualize: in Alien (1979) the monster utilized the vent shafts of the Nostromo to get around. In the sequel, the aliens totally ignore vent shafts, and a little girl survives for weeks inside them.

Another question: if the vents connect buildings and areas of the terraforming complex, why does poor Bishop (Lance Henriksen) have to scoot on his belly through a claustrophobic, subterranean pipe to reach the communications center?

Make no mistake: I'm a huge admirer of all the productions discussed in this post. But the use of the over-sized vent shaft in each production is sure...convenient, and hackneyed.

Note to intrepid science fiction film and TV writers: the over-sized vent shaft -- always there when our hero needs it -- is a convention due for retirement.