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Friday, July 20, 2012

Random Ramblings from the Vault...

  • So they say the younger generation has no interest in older films, and a recent post at John Morehead’s excellent blog Theofantastique seems to support this alarming development. However, while this may be the rule, there are wonderful exceptions, and parenting plays a major role here. It pleases me to report that my 10-year-old daughter Zombelina, without me present, took her mother to the video store recently and asked to rent the 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night, after having researched it on the internet. Warms my sepia-toned heart. See, folks? If we do our jobs right, these kids are open to enjoying all the classics we hold dear. As with anything else, they just need the proper guidance.
  • Speaking of the brood, I had the distinct pleasure of introducing the little ones to Psycho for the first time last week (don’t judge me). I can’t overstate how much of a thrill it is to watch a film like that, whose original chills and twists are so thoroughly known to us, through the eyes of people to whom it is literally 100% new. They never saw the whole mother thing coming, and I didn’t spoil it. In my book, that’s one of the joys of parenting right there.
  • A trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in store for the Solomon clan this weekend—and knowing us, this means an inordinate amount of time spent with mummies, Babylonian demon sculptures, and portraits of martyred saints. Because that’s just how we roll.
  • I’m tickled pink these days, thanks to a brand new app I’ve created for The Vault of Horror. You read that right—the Vault is now an app! Get all the latest posts, plus direct access to the VOH Facebook page, contact info and more, in one very spiffy mobile location. Works like a charm on smartphones, iPads or whatever other gizmos ya got. You can download it at this location, or just scan the QR code thingy:
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Why did I actually think, with a title like that, that the film could be good? Maybe I thought it had to be better, that it couldn’t actually be as laughably awful as the name would suggest. I’m here to report I was wrong. Unintentionally funny from beginning to end, and borderline offensive at that. Still, it’s not every day you get to see a movie in which a vampire throws horses at Abraham Lincoln.
  • Long-time readers of the Vault know I’m a great lover of ‘70s era Marvel horror comics, especially that ever-lovin’ muck monster the Man-Thing. I’d like to highly recommend the brand-new miniseries The Infernal Man-Thing. It’s based on an original script by the late, great ‘70s Man-Thing scribe Steve Gerber—a direct sequel, in fact, to his Brian Lazarus storyline from back in the day. Seems the folks at the House of Ideas took Gerber’s script and handed it over to illustrator Kevin Nowlan to finally finish after years of false starts. And while Nowlan’s unconventional work took some getting used to for this Marvel traditionalist, the finished product is a can’t miss for horror comic fans everywhere.
  • Speaking of horror and comics, I have to say that the Lizard, as adapted in the recent Amazing Spider-Man reboot, was one hell of a frightening villain. A little more Abomination than Lizard for my tastes, but hats off nevertheless for a chilling characterization brought to life for the silver screen. If only he had kept the lab coat on…
  • If you’re a fan of classic animation, as I am, than you probably have a special reverence for the UPA shorts of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of these were truly groundbreaking pieces of work, and for us horror lovers, included such gems as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Well, in case you haven’t heard, my favorite cable network TCM has made available a collection of classic UPA shorts called “Jolly Frolics”. I know I’ll be picking it up, to add to my vast collection of classic studio animation on DVD (for the kids, of course…)
  • I recently ran a poll to determine everyone’s favorite cinematic Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and I was surprised to find that Spencer Tracy won the race. For my money, he’s the least of the three classic J/H’s. And don’t get me wrong, I love Mr. Tracy. But in my estimation, John Barrymore’s original 1920 interpretation trumps all. With no monster makeup—nor any sound, for that matter!—he makes us believe he has transformed, through the sheer power of his formidable acting chops.
  • Looking back now it’s hard to imagine, but this October will indeed mark the 5th birthday of The Vault of Horror. And in case you’re wondering (yes, you), I do have something special in the works to celebrate. More than one something special, in fact. Stay tuned, Vault dwellers.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Village Invasion 3: The Hudson Valley Apocalypse Cometh

Striking a pose at the original Village Invasion.
Back in October 2010, I had the distinct privilege of witnessing something truly amazing in the horror community: The birth of a grassroots "cosplay" event that would eventually grow to become the Northeast's premiere zombie-themed extravaganza. It was the Saugerties Village Invasion Zombie Crawl, conceived and hosted by the one and only Captain Cruella of the Carnivorous Cadavers. I got to cover the event for Fangoria, and enjoy the proceedings with a little glimpse behind the undead curtain, if you will. In a word, it was thrilling.

And now, fast forward two years, and yours truly is officially a part of the event itself, as the 3rd Annual Village Invasion, like W.B. Yeats' rough beast, slouches toward the Village of Saugerties to be born. Things are moving quickly, as this unique event takes shape, and I've got a front row seat for it all.

So what is this Village Invasion, you may ask. 

Well, it happens to be an event which takes place every year in the heart of Saugerties in New York's Ulster County. Masses of zombie fanatics come dressed in their ghoulish best and mob the streets like a scene from Day of the Dead or any of your other favorite living dead opuses. Local businesses stay open all night, offering specials to the passersby. Live music, public readings...you name it. Take a pub crawl, add in zombies, expand it to the tenth degree, and you can begin to get a notion of what the Village Invasion Zombie Crawl is all about.

This year, the whole thing is literally bigger and better than ever--and that's not just hyperbole. The good Captain has an official sponsor this time--the Village Apothecary, located right in downtown Saugerties. It's owned and operated by Neil "Chip" Smoller, who has swooped in to help take the Invasion quite literally to the next level this year, with billboards, radio spots and more in the works. The newly minted Invasion board of directors also includes one Perri Naccarato, who has become known by Invasion partygoers for the vintage horror flicks he projects on the massive wall outside his store, The Computer Guys.

In fact, Village Invasion is now officially a non-profit organizaiton, and the whole shebang will be raising money to help rebuild and revamp Small World Playground, a local spot frequented by kids from the Boys & Girls Club and other tykes in the surrounding vicinity. In short, it's caring through sharing, folks, and what red-blooded horror fan wouldn't want to be a part of that?

So when is it happening?

Glad you asked. That would be Saturday, October 20, from 6 to 11pm. This year, the streets of downtown Saugerties will be closed off to automobiles, meaning the zombies will have free reign to roam like never before. And given the annual tradition of the costume contest, that means competition will be hotter than ever as these wannabe ghouls high-step it around town. Past years have given us some outrageous ghouls indeed, so I'm pretty curious as to what our costumed meatbags have in store this time around.

Nearby hotels will be filling up fast, so if you're looking to stay the night, start thinking about getting a room (the local Comfort Inn will actually be setting up a special event rate, so stay tuned for that.)

If you'd like to find out more about the Village Invasion, the brand new website is now live (though still being "fleshed" out.) There is also a new Facebook page, as well as an official Twitter feed you can follow. Check them out here:

Village Invasion Facebook page
Village Invasion Twitter feed

And as always, feel free to keep tabs on Captain Cruella herself through the various online domains in which she has her meathooks, from Facebook to Twitter to the Cruella's Crypt blog.

Thousands of people are preparing to descend upon Saugerties for the biggest zombie confab this side of the Monroeville Mall. It will be an event you won't want to miss--truly Bigger, Badder and Bloodier than ever. I'm honored to be a part of it, and I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nosferatu at 90: The Jew as Vampire

It's a perplexing issue. One of the most revered--and effective--horror films of all time though F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu may be, it is also tainted for many by the shadow of one of history's most persistent prejudices.

The notion that Nosferatu contains anti-semitic overtones is certainly not a new one. Critics and historians have debated the matter for decades. I submit that although the basis for the story and the characters does indeed come from Bram Stoker's 1897 English novel, the particular direction and slant its first cinematic adaptation chose to take was motivated at least in part by the time and place in which it was made: Weimar Germany between the World Wars.

Do I believe Murnau and his crew were necessarily virulent anti-semites and so chose to make a film to specifically carry a message of ethnic hatred? No. I believe that Nosferatu is, first and foremost, an adaptation (albeit a copyright infringing one) of Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, it is also foolish and naive to believe that it was not influenced implicitly by the cultural milieu of its time.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany's leader
during World War I.
Germany after the First World War was a place of great bitterness and national impotence. Soundly defeated and humiliated, the country was reeling after the fall of the Kaiser, before the Third Reich arose to give the nation a sense of vindication and purpose once again. The Reich came to power in part by playing off a rampant ethnic bias that had become more virulent than ever.

Contempt for Jews was certainly nothing new in Christian Europe. But by the 1920s, it had reached a modern high in Germany, where many blamed the Jews for sabotaging the war effort, even of secretly conspiring to use their supposed wealth and power to undermine Germany and hand it over to its enemies. In short, they were scapegoated, and it became more acceptable than ever to resent and mistrust them. This is the leverage that Hitler and his cronies would use to ascend to power, promising to rid the Fatherland of the vermin polluting it.

Four years after the Treaty of Versailles, and eleven years prior to Hitler's ascendancy to Chancellorship, F.W. Murnau directed Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror--the first vampire film, and arguably the pinnacle of German Expressionist cinema. The film is a masterpiece, but also a product of its time. And it can be no coincidence that this subject matter was chosen in particular, as well as the manner in which it was presented.

It is important to remember that at this time, the bulk of Germany's anti-semitism was directed at Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to their country in recent decades. There was a broad xenophobia at work--a fear of the other, of foreign menaces coming to weaken and dilute. It was in this environment that Murnau chose to adapt a novel in which a monstrous bloodsucker travels from the wilds of Eastern Europe and heads west to cause mayhem and destruction. Except in Murnau's version it would not be England that he targeted... but Germany.

As many have pointed out, Murnau’s version of “Dracula”, a.k.a. the repulsive Count Orlok, possesses many physical features commonly found in stereotypical caricatures of Jews at the time: A long hooked nose, long claw-like fingernails, bushy eyebrows, a large forehead with bald head, and a general feminization of his appearance which was also common. His appearance is not only comparable to anti-semitic imagery, but he is also made to look something like a rat, in accordance with the disgusting rodents he brings with him. This, in turn, ties back into the Jewish stereotype, as Jews were often equated with rats as well.

Orlok brings filth and plague with him—not unlike prevalent fears regarding Eastern European immigrants. It’s worth noting that this attitude was not just a German one, but could be found in many Western nations, including the United States. He is an outsider, traveling West to literally infect and suck the country dry.

Medieval woodcut depicting the ritualized murder by bleeding of a
Christian child at the hands of Jews.
The parallels between vampirism and European anti-semitism go back much further than Nosferatu, and were in fact part of the continental zeitgeist for centuries. Jews—as well as gypsies, another popular scapegoat target of post-World War I Germany—were often depicted as bloodsuckers, and some have even traced the vampire’s aversion to Christian imagery to this parallel. There was also a popular myth that circulated for centuries regarding the alleged Jewish practice of drinking the blood of Christian children.

Compared to the native German Jew, the Eastern European Jew was seen as more of an alien influence, dissimilar in dress, language and appearance. Like Nosferatu—and notably unlike later cinematic vampires—they stood out blatantly from the rest of the populace. They were obviously, visually “other”. And the indigenous populace responded with paranoia over being overrun, of their nation being transformed or infected, as by a disease. They were seen as parasites.

Taking all this into account, it is reasonable to assume that Murnau knew very well that his audience would understand the symbolism and underlying message implicit in the Dracula story that informed Nosferatu. I do not by any means descry Nosferatu as a piece of pre-Hitlerian anti-semitic propaganda; however, I do find it obvious that there is an element of that way of thinking which informs the film throughout. It is not the entire message or point of the work, but it is a component.

Anti-semitism had been popular in Germany throughout the 19th century, and was magnified to the tenth degree under the influence of the Nazi party. Bridging the gap between those two eras was the time during which Nosferatu was made. It was a time during which commonly held prejudices were being congealed and codified into something far more sinister and institutionalized, and the influence of that time period on a film like Nosferatu is undeniable. It is a work of its time, designed in part to play on the fears of its target audience.

It was these festering fears, which boiled over during the Weimar years, which allowed Hitler and his ilk to get the populace on board with their plans for a return to German dominance, and to cleansing their Fatherland of the alien influence which had, they insisted, weakened it and brought it low. The Jew—along with the gypsy, the homosexual and any other element deemed a threat to the purity of the Aryan race—would be routed out in a Final Solution more horrifying than anything Murnau, Stoker or any other purveyor of fiction could have imagined.

While far from a work of pre-Nazi propaganda, and I would never characterize it as such, I can see the influence of these nascent strains of thought on the picture, both as a Jungian product of social subconscious and also, it must be said, through conscious intent. Yet these tropes inform much of early vampire literature and film, and I cannot discount their merit or their power as works of art on that basis. There is nothing wrong with enjoying Nosferatu—it is certainly a landmark film worth cherishing. But there’s also nothing wrong with remaining open to understanding the culture and social mindset from which it came.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Tuesday Top 10: Favorite Haunted House Movies

You know how there are those horror fans who will go on and on about how the best horror comes from what you don't see, and that psychological dread will always trump blood and guts? Yeah, I'm one of those guys. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with gore, but I'll take the gothic over the macabre any day of the week, and I've always been more Poe/Lovecraft than King/Barker.

And when it comes to subtle, psychological horror, the most effective movies have always involved ghosts--particularly the ultimate distillation of that particular subgenre: the haunted house movie. Because we're dealing with the supernatural in its most ethereal, mysterious and non-corporeal form, it's hard to pull off a good ghost story. There aren't always a lot of bells and whistles, but the payoff is always worth it.

Many of my all-time favorite horror films are in the tried-and-true haunted house category. They've thrilled me, chilled me, and made me think twice about sleeping with the lights off. Here are a few of the very best...

10. Ghost Story (1981)
Largely underrated chiller featuring future Borg Queen Alice Krige as the spirit of a hot young chippie terrorizing a group of septuagenarians who accidentally killed her back in the 1920s. While not technically a “Haunted House” tale since the activities transcend location, it hits many of the familiar tropes, and hits them well. It also features the great Fred Astaire in his final role—although sadly, he doesn’t dance. Based on the 1979 novel by Peter Straub.

9. Poltergeist (1982)
Easily one of the most financially successful horror flicks of all time, this one had the backing of Steven Spielberg, and a “summer blockbuster” feel. And although the spectacle and Spielberg touch do soften the scares just a bit, there’s enough creepiness and genuine terror in there (courtesy of director Tobe Hooper) to get the job done. I particularly enjoy how the movie really gets at some primal fears and exploits them to great effect (see: Clown Toy and Face Ripping Scene).

8. The Others (2001)
The good old-fashioned ghost story gets ushered into the 21st century with this Shyamalan-esque (back when that was a good thing) period piece. The look and feel are rich and foreboding, generating an atmosphere of creeping dread. Plus, you’re not entirely sure of the nature of what you’re seeing until the final reel—and even if you see it coming, it’s one hell of an ending. (See my illustrious son’s movie blog for his own review of the film!)

7. The Uninvited (1944)
For years, this film was mystifyingly unavailable on DVD—but thankfully that situation has recently changed. In many ways, this movie became the prototype for the classic haunted house film—a mansion on a cliff; a deep, dark secret; plenty of things that go bump in the night… Plus, it even spawned a great standard: “Stella By Starlight”! Beautiful, funny and frightening at the same time.

6. Beetlejuice (1987)
Back when Michael Keaton used to exist, he was known for some memorable roles—but this one might be his greatest (Flying Mouse Guy notwithstanding). Birthed from the addled mind of Tim Burton, this was really the flick that set the course for the young director’s career, and became one of the greatest horror comedies of all time. Worth it for seeing Dick Cavett dance to the Banana Boat song, and catching Alec Baldwin before he mutated into a different person.

5. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Another one that stretches the definition of a haunted house film (I won’t spoil it for the newbies), but no list of this kind would be complete without it. Both producer William Castle and star Vincent Price are in top form here, and the result is one of the most rip-roaringly fun horror flicks of the Eisenhower era. I never get tired of the way this movie deconstructs the entire sub-genre with such glee. Plus, it happens to be my daughter Zombelina’s favorite movie (though she seems to be gravitating more toward Drag Me to Hell recently…)

4. The Woman in Black (2012)
Blasphemy to rank this one so highly? Mayhaps. However, I came away from it very, very impressed a few months ago, and found it to be one of the most effective mainstream horror films I’d seen in years—not to mention the best British horror film since the heyday of Hammer. A real gothic throwback, this movie restored my faith that a truly excellent haunted house film could still be made in the era of post-slasher torture porn.

3. The Changeling (1980)
A personal favorite of mine, and one the virtues of which I’ve been extolling for years. George C. Scott is superb (when is he not?) as a reclusive widower being stalked by the ghost of a murdered child. Perhaps it was because I first saw this at such a young age, but the sheer terror it inspired in me never truly left. One of the most restrained yet powerful horror films I have ever seen, and must-see viewing for any fan of ghost stories.

2. The Haunting (1963)
Speaking of restrained yet powerful, this stellar adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Robert Wise pulls off such a fine job that the experience of watching this film is almost like that of actually reading a really great haunted house story. There are moments in this film that have frightened me more than anything I’ve ever seen in any other horror film. The ultimate “pure” haunted house film. Plus, you get to see Richard Johnson pre-Zombi 2, before he got all sweaty and hairy.

And the number one haunted house movie of all time…

1. The Shining (1980)
This film is so stylized and surreal (like almost all Kubrick’s work), that you almost forget what you’re watching at times: An absolutely incredible haunted house movie. In this case, the house is the Overlook Hotel—and the haunting is of a nature that is never fully explained, although we know it has something to do with Native American burial ground and some very long-staying guests from the 1920s. One of, if not the greatest horror film of all time, and a masterpiece that never loses a bit of its power. Stephen King may have hated it, but what does he know—he once attacked a car with a chainsaw. This is supernatural terror at its absolute zenith.

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