Wednesday, November 28, 2007

nadja, by michael almereyda

This week for Film Club, I chose to keep going with the vampire theme that we've been on for the past two weeks. Last week's choice, Blood for Dracula, was pretty offbeat, so I chose to follow it up with Michael Almereyda's 1994 postmodern indie film Nadja.

If you were watching postmodern indie films in the mid-nineties, as I was, you'll be familiar with the work of Hal Hartley, who during that time was using the techniques of early Godard to tell the stories of New-York-area outsiders and outcasts. Nadja owes a lot to Hartley —it's got the semi-philosophical digression, the genre riffs, the emphasis on artifice, the cute girls—heck, it even borrows key members of his (nineties-era) ensemble. Any fan of Hartley's early work will recognize Martin Donovan, who plays our protagonist here:

And Hartley regular Elina Lowensohn's exotic / skeletal good looks make her a natural casting choice for the vampiric Nadja:

As a vampire story, Nadja hits many of the marks of Bram Stoker's novel—it includes, for instance, familiar characters like Lucy, Renfield, Van Helsing, etc. How much mileage you will get out of Nadja, then, depends squarely on how much you'd enjoy seeing a Hartley-esque revamp of Stoker's tropes, set in the East Village of the 1990s. It's not going to be to everyone's taste, but I think it mostly works. How can you hate Peter Fonda as Van Helsing, playing him as the sort of guy you might move away from on the bus, a crackpot babbling on about "shadow zones" and using ridiculous sunglasses as a vampire-detection technology:

Curiously, though, Almereyda almost entirely steers away from representing Dracula himself: as the story opens, Dracula has just been killed by Van Helsing, and the vampires the film focuses on are his two children, Nadja and Edgar. We see him a bit in flashback, but this is about as close as we get:

Other times we see him presented as icon or cliche, represented through brief snippets of found footage:

Or as kitsch:

By representing Dracula only in these oblique or pre-digested ways, the film is maybe saying something about the difficulty of fruitfully reinventing the Dracula figure (or denying us the pleasures that inhere in the cinema that surrounds that figure?). The gesture gets more provocative when Van Helsing describes Dracula as "like Elvis at the end. Drugged, confused, surrounded by zombies. He was just going through the motions. The magic was gone. And he knew it."

The parallel between Elvis and Dracula is intriguing: it establishes a certain kind of basic continuity between disparate cultural icons. Sort of simultaneously over-known and unknowable? (This might go part of the way towards explaining the next film project that Almereyda took on: Hamlet (the 2000 Ethan Hawke version, which is more fun than many people give it credit for)).

There's a lot more that can be said about this film (I'd specifically like to say something about what the film is or isn't saying about the tension between heteronormative marriage and vampirism / lesbianism / polymorphous modes of interpersonal relationships) but I'm low on time. Next week we'll be looking at another vampire film, 1994's Aswang, a tale of Filipino vampires feeding on the unborn? Sounds great.

Monday, November 12, 2007

blood for dracula, by paul morrissey

Continuing with the theme of offbeat films about the undead, this week Skunkcabbage chose Paul Morrissey's Blood for Dracula (1974). The gloriously weird Udo Kier plays Dracula, and as the film opens, he is (as the title might imply) desperate for fresh blood. This is a familiar enough vampire-film narrative device—it effectively does the work of setting up a basic conflict—but Morrissey uses it as an opportunity to have the narrative take an odd left turn right out of the gate. See, it turns out that the Romanian people have grown suspicious of Dracula, making it harder for him to get the particular kind of blood he needs (more on this later). The solution? Pack up the old coffin and head on down the road to Italy!

This makes just about no sense whatsoever—I'm not sure if it was just because it was easier to fess up that they were filming in Rome than to try to make a convincing fake Romania—but it does give them the opportunity to present Dracula as a kind of tourist. And as a tourist, Kier's Dracula is entertainingly moody and fussy, griping about the oil-heavy Italian cuisine, the weird vegetables, and the bad accomodations. See if you can spot two things that Dracula is going to complain about regarding this room:

Anyway, on this journey Dracula adopts the pretense of being a widower looking for a young Italian bride. The pretense is necessary so that Dracula can gain access to young girls—the particular kind of blood he needs is virgin blood. (This is part of why they choose Italy: because it's so religious the number of virgins per capita should, theoretically, be higher.)

Theoretically is the key word there. Dracula eventually settles on the Di Fiore family, an aristocratic family fallen on hard times and desperate to marry into a better lineage. They've got four young daughters, two of whom are in their prime marrying-off years:

Only problem is they've been sleeping, for some time, with the farmhand. Establishing this gives the movie plenty of opportunity to indulge in softcore episodes:

Dracula, of course, doesn't have access to these episodes, and so he spends the bulk of the movie fervidly machinating to get the girls alone and convincing himself of their virginity, only to drink their impure blood (a poison to him) and having to pay the consequences:

There's something ghoulish about watching Udo Kier vomit up stage blood, but also something comic about seeing Dracula presented so haplessly. In fact, at around this point the movie takes on something of the flavor of a sex farce, or even a dirty joke: did you hear the one about the vampire looking for a virgin? He goes to this farmhouse and meets these four beautiful daughters...

Just to add to the mix, the movie also throws in some elements of political allegory:

Yep, the farmhand is also a Communist. Since pretty much everybody else in the movie is an aristocrat, this gives him lots of opportunities to excoriate them, talking about how they'll all be up the creek once the revolution comes. This could pass for Morrissey's attempt to sneak in some radical prostelytizing if this guy weren't also presented as such a tremendous brute, seen again and again visiting violence upon the daughters:

So I don't know what's going on here. Either Morrissey is taking the same tack Robert Zemeckis took in Forrest Gump (1994)—where the radical male gets neutralized by also being a woman-hater—or he's guessing that the average soft-core filmgoer is going to identify with the male who is sexually dominant, and so making this figure the one who has the Marxist ideologies is actually intended a very, very sly bit of indoctrination. Your guess is as good as mine.

In conclusion: Blood for Dracula is a horror film that's not really scary, a sex farce that's neither funny nor particularly sexy, and a class-warfare allegory that has no coherent stance. So: a mess. But a unique mess, and worth seeing in that regard: I'm hard-pressed to think of another film like it. That said, Michael Almereyda's postmodern vampire film Nadja (1994) might give it a run for its money, so that'll be my pick for next week.

Friday, November 2, 2007

black sunday, by mario bava

Unscrambled decided to follow up last week's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with Mario Bava's 1960 horror film Black Sunday (also known as The Mask of Satan). Both deal with women accused of being in league with Satan, although they represent, uh, pretty different takes on the material. Lead actress Barbara Steel(e) plays the condemned Princess Asa, and, like Renee Falconetti's Joan, she's pretty striking-looking:

But when Joan's captors make their accusations, she turns the tables on them, claiming that they're the ones who are agents of the devil, sent in order to test her faith. Impolitic? To be sure. But then we have Princess Asa's response:—"Go ahead. Tie me down to the stake. But you will never escape my hunger nor that of Satan! The unchained elements of the powers of darkness are lying in ambush ... My revenge will strike down you and your accursed house. And in the blood of your sons and the sons of their sons I will continue to live, immortal!"—which makes Joan, by contrast, seem pretty much like, well, a saint. End of comparison!

The purple dialogue should give you some sense of the level of subtlety going on in Black Sunday's script, and there are a lot of ways in which this film is pretty much a piece of schlock. But I can also see why Bava generates so much adoration among aficionados of horror. For one thing, he's clearly the torch-bearer of a certain kind of dark ambience: the film's moody Gothic effects can be traced straight back to the the Universal horror films of the 1930s (and from there back to the German Expressionists). And as far as torch-bearers go, Bava's a pretty good one. He's got a real eye for creepy crypts:

And spooky woods:

And foreboding castles:

which are loaded with shit like with huge fireplaces with secret passages back behind them:

Etcetera. This kind of stuff lost a little bit of its cinematic force once Young Frankenstein (1974) came along and lethally parodied it, but Bava's not at a complete disadvantage: he's operating at a real transitional point between two types of horror. This is an early film (his first), and it's definitely a catalogue of old-fashioned High Gothic effects, but it's worth remembering that Bava is going to go on (along with Fulci and Argento) to be one of the influential Italian giallo directors, who are essentially going to invent the tropes of contemporary gore and slasher movies. And there are hints of that here: Black Sunday is a considerably nastier film than its forebearers were. There are some grisly proto-gore bits during Princess Asa's trial, and the film often lingers on the wet grue and muck of human decay. It's not a zombie movie, exactly, but people do rise from the grave in rather ghoulish fashion. Remember that these shots predate 1968's Night of the Living Dead by a comfortable margin:

As the linkage between two discrete modes of horror, Bava's an interesting enough figure, but the really unique (or, more likely, uniquely Italian) touch is the explicit eroticization of the grotesque. Princess Asa's resurrection is witnessed by a hapless academic; he finds her on a stone slab, writhing, breasts heaving:

His reaction, naturally, is to go for it:

He may be mystically compelled, but he might simply be taking his one shot to make it with an undead Satanic princess. This is the kind of sequence that if you watched it around the time of your sexual awakening it would fuck you up forever. Thumbs up!

Writeups from Unscrambled and Skunkcabbage are forthcoming. Next week: Blood for Dracula (1974), made by Warhol's protege Paul Morrissey.