Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ten things you should watch instead of Twilight

Okay, I flat out suck, people. It's hot, I'm feeling lazy and stressed and I'm about six days late posting an article that was my idea to begin with. I apologize, fellow Dollarbin Masochists for my indolence. Here are my ten alternatives to Twilight.

Top Three Vampire Movies

Horror of Dracula

I will not apologize for the glut of Hammer films on my lists. Dollarbin Massacre is committed to cultural diversity. If you look at the sampling of shit that’s been reviewed here, you’ll see that we’re pretty openminded. So, where are the Asian vampires, where is Rockula, Love at First Bite, The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t or (INSERT KITSCHY VAMPIRE TREASURE HERE)? Somewhere the fuck else, that’s where. I take vampires pretty seriously. They are a serious and nasty threat to our wellbeing and strongwilled, smokingjacketed heroes need to take up their stakes and crucifixes to put an end to the undead menace. The moment I knew this was so was at the age of five or six when I first saw Christopher Lee in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.

I remembered Dracula Has Risen from the Grave pretty loosely over the years, but there were images from it that stayed with me for some time, bodies in a churchbell, glowing red eyes and one tall, thin badass predator who will not take no for an answer. Dracula Has Risen From the Grave had quite an impression on me. Dracula was awesome. Dracula was something to be feared.

Weeks later, I saw an earlier Hammer Dracula that gave me another new lease on the world and a new perspective on the character. I cannot say enough how much I love Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Dracula. He is not a suave gentleman , he is a bloodthirsty barbarian, the man that Stoker said claimed to be a descendant of Attilla the Hun with pride. A hell of a supervillain. It would take a real hero to cross swords with somebody like that. It would take a wirey nerd who wore exquisite smoking jackets and jumped on the furniture. Horror of Dracula is amazing because it reminds us of something important. There are ruthless bastards with big fangs out there and they want to ruin everything, they want to take away our loved ones and poison the world with their malice. And it doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest nerd or fancypants on the planet, if you’ve got knowledge, drive and heart, you can stand up to it.

Mark of the Vampire

This movie has a lot of strikes against it. A lot of the acting is needlessly over-the-top, some of the set pieces are confusing, the dialogue is stunted and the less said about this movie’s absurd plot, the better. The central conceit of Mark of the Vampire is a truly idiotic one and the resolution of the film’s mysteries makes even less sense than an actual vampire attack would. So why is this masterclass in bad writing one of my top three vampire movies?

Three answers: history, atmosphere and Bela Lugosi. There are better Lugosi performances. Better by far. In The Black Cat, The Raven, Murders at the Rue Morgue, Son of Frankenstein and Island of Lost Souls, we see Bela’s best work, oozing with pain, torment and madness as well as malice. But those movies aren’t what people think of first when they think of Lugosi. They think of vampires and they think of somebody who defined horror acting. When we see Lugosi in this movie, we see a vampire, an angel of cold hunger, a haunting moving tableau from our collective Jungian haunted house. He barely appears, he barely says a word but Lugosi is more vampiric than he ever was as Dracula.

It would be a travesty of me to forget to mention the great Carroll Borland. Morticia, Ingrid Pitt, Elvira, that Goth cashier at the grocery store who you find yourself shyly staring at, admiring her dark clothes and neopagan jewelry...all of them owe a little something to Carroll Borland. She matches Lugosi, she makes him up his game and she proves a perfect complement to his role. She’s amazing to watch. And so is Mark of the Vampire.

The Vampire Lovers

Since I’ve breached the subject of great vampiresses, I must bring up this movie. Every time I watch this movie I find myself thinking “damn, I really don’t watch this enough.” If you have seen this, you know what I mean. This is not the first movie you reach for when you decide to watch a vampire movie or the first one you think of, but it’s a great one and it screams for your attention and asks you with sweet succubus whispers “why don’t you watch me more?”

Why not? Because this movie is too rich of a delight to take in often. Although each time you see it, it wants you to enjoy it more frequently, it is a bloodsoaked dessert, a rich plate of enchanted crackfudge that will own your soul. Its leads are gorgeous, its costumes both period and timeless and its visuals frequently surreal and haunting. There is lesbianism, there is blood, dancing with Hecate and Kali. Le Belle Dame Sans Merci shall have you in thrall. Ingrid Pitt is a sinister siren of the highest and the tender naifs she seduces exude a wideeyed vulnerability that seems to be coquettishly mocking the viewer. It’s sexy, it’s rich, it’s just about too much, it enslaves and captivates the senses. All you can do is succumb.

Honorable Mention

Black Sabbath

Mario Bava’s classic makes honorable mention solely on the technicality that only the second of the film’s three segments is about a vampire. But what a vampire it is! In Bava’s adaptation of the story the Family of the Wurdalak, Boris Karloff plays a patriarch coming home from hunting a traditional Slavic monster as one of them. In my opinion, he makes one of the scariest vampires on film. Incest, blasphemy and raw inhumanity fill his haunting words. If you want to see the true nature of the folkloric vampire, watch Black Sabbath and see the hungry revenant in its natural state.

Salem’s Lot

The childhood trauma train hath pulled into the station. I slept with a crucifix under my pillow for a week because of this movie. The German Expressionist inspired vampire makeup of this movie is very impressive, embodying the concept of vampirism as a plague. Salem’s Lot combines the talents of Stephen King and Tobe Hooper, coming together on their common ground and that common ground is America. Nobody captures the violence of the American psyche like Tobe Hooper and nobody does smalltown horror like Stephen King. It’s a match made in Hell and Salem’s Lot takes you right there.

The Wolfman

I was thinking I might find something to replace this because it’s also on Leza’s list. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to include this movie, no matter how many other times it might get mentioned. Like Horror of Dracula, this movie has a special place in my heart for personal reasons. My grandfather suffered from bipolar disorder. About as severe as it got. The kind of bipolar that enslaved Lord Byron and Virginia Woolf, a disease that turned a man into something else, as inescapable as old age, fate, death taxes. And I knew it was hereditary. When I saw Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolfman, I saw a kindred spirit, a man who through no fault of his own was doomed to lose control. I looked at him and I saw somebody who knew that every person’s a monster and every monster’s a person. I would be a liar if I said that this movie made it easy to deal with living with a person with a crippling mental illness and growing up with the same sickness (though thankfully less severe), but at least I knew somebody understood. The Wolfman is a beautiful movie about human nature and living with one’s inner darkness and it’s moving to see Claude Rains and Evelyn Ankers remaining faithful to this beast until the end, letting love conquer fear. A movie that captures the things we find running through the primeval forest of the psyche like few others can.

Curse of the Werewolf

Curse of the Werewolf is in some ways very similar to The Wolfman. Tragedy, confrontations with the beast within, a strange gothic landscape that feels oddly timeless. While it lurks the magnetism of Lon Chaney Jr., the anguish and concern of Claude Rains or the beatific tenderness of Evelyn Ankers, this movie has a lot going for it, enough to be in my top three even with similarities to a blatantly superior film. What Curse of the Werewolf has going for it that The Wolfman lacks is an edge that you could say Hammer films had over most Universal monster movies and that’s intensity. Certain Universal efforts like The Black Cat and The Raven can match Hammer in perverse subtext but these aren’t really spoken of in the same breath as The Wolfman and the Frankenstein and Dracula efforts. You might think that the only edge a werewolf movie made by Hammer would have over Universal would be the potential for bloodletting, which is something werewolves do in spades. But it’s not just gore.

Curse of the Werewolf begins with a palace maid raped by a lycanthropic drifter. Which is a little much for Universal. Not long after, we see that the bastard child of this union has been tearing up goats. That’s some intensity. Larry Talbot’s curse is bad and not altogether his fault, but Curse of the Werewolf takes it up a notch, to a meaner kind of predestination, a story of a young man that never gets a fair shake at innocence. The child grows up to be Oliver Reed. And we get an unpleasant upgrade from Larry Talbot. You take Larry Talbot’s pain and you heap rage, madness and a hint that this man dying inside that might just take everybody else with him. Larry Talbot shows it sucks to be a werewolf, Oliver Reed hints that it might suck to be human, too.

Monster On Campus

This is not a werewolf movie in the strictest sense of the word, but it’s about everything a werewolf movie is about, a man getting bitten by something and then entering a state of devolution, ending up cursed and unable to control his actions. The cool thing about Monster on Campus for me is how it’s a bridge between two different ages of Universal horror. Universal studios horror didn’t die at the end of Dracula. It stayed strong in the atomic age, as evidenced by Jack Arnold’s classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Like Creature, Monster on Campus is also a Jack Arnold movie, also concerns the missing link between modern and primitive man and is also great. The dialogue is cheesy and the characterization a little weak, but it makes a good statement about mankind confronted with its darkside and the caveman monster is very werewolf like.

Another cool thing about this movie is a pop culture connection that might be a coincidence or it might have been a very cool nod to an underappreciate sci fi gem. The scientist turned caveman hero of Monster on Campus is named Donald Blake, which is also the secret identity of Thor from the Marvel comics. Could it have been that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby saw this movie and subconsciously spotted a connection between their hero, a modern man that had become one with something ancient and deadly that would leave his life spinning out of control is it a weird coincidence? Possibly the latter. Either way, it’s a cool piece of geeklore.

Honorable Mentions

Werewolf vs. The Vampire Women
I’m putting this movie as my honorable mention because I’ve only seen a couple of Paul Naschy werewolf movies and this is my favorite of them. The gothic atmosphere and the makeup are almost comically intense, Naschy’s deadly serious disposition and often unwarranted angst made him an awesome camp actor who just plain brought it in the role of Waldemar Daninsky. He was just really cool.

Track of the Moonbeast

Even for an MST3K movie, this is bad, from its terrible opening during which a pretty straightforward practical joke involving hiding behind a mask is explained to death to its performance by brand x countryfried folkie Frank Larrabee. But, there are things to like about this too. Just as Monster on Campus hearkens back to Gothic themes with its atomic age werewolf story, so too Track of the Moonbeast, made in the 70s, hearken back to Jack Arnold’s and Ed Wood’s films and the idea of a weredinosaur, poorly executed though it might have been is great for your inner ten year old.

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