Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Halloween 2017: October 18

Blood for Dracula (1974)

Frankenstein and Dracula are irrevocably linked. They are the first two classic horror stories everyone thinks of. The link is so ingrained in the public that, if a director puts a particularly distinctive stamp on one story, people immediately begin to wonder when they'll tackle the other one. So, after Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey did their campy and perverse thing with the Frankenstein story, they immediately set out to mess up Dracula. Initially released as “Andy Warhol's Dracula,” it would be re-titled “Blood for Dracula” later, presumably to match “Flesh for Frankenstein.” While the latter film's gory content would get it banned in the U.K., the follow-up was less controversial and generally better reviewed.

Morrisey's “Dracula” is a lot more focused than his “Frankenstein” film. In this version, Dracula is sickly and weak. He needs the blood of virgins in order to regain his strength. His manservant, Anton, suggests moving to Italy, assuming the largely Catholic country will be home to more chaste women. The vampire count moves onto the property of the Di Fiores, an aristocratic family whose fortune is crumbling. Dracula goes about courting the family's daughters, hoping to drain their blood. He's unaware that most of them have already been deflowered by Mario, a Communist working on the property. This ends pretty poorly for the Count.

“Blood for Dracula” is marginally better paced than “Flesh for Frankenstein,” though still far too much on the slow side for a monster movie. Morrisey even throws in some neat visual tricks, such as a cool tracking shot attached to the Count's wheelchair. Otherwise, the movies have a lot in common. Both maintain a highly campy, trashy atmosphere. Both are propelled by utterly insane Udo Kier performances. Kier's Dracula is a weakling. He's introduced applying make-up to his face, coloring his gray hair. His hunger for virginal blood frequently leads to him convulsing and freaking out, in various ugly ways. Kier's accent is even more ridiculous this time. Every time, he mispronounces “virgin” with a hard w sound. Once again, he's gifted with some memorably bizarre dialogue Like “The blood of these whores is killing me.” Joe Dallesandro is also back and so is his equally ridiculous Brooklyn accent. Dallesandro mispronounces words too. He over-emphasizes the first syllable of whores. So “Blood for Dracula” has as many laughs as “Flesh for Frankenstein.”

As a kid, I wasn't sure how you would make an X-rated “Frankenstein.” But an X-rated “Dracula?” That was easy to figure out. You just sex it up. Since this Count is so pathetic, it's up to Dallesandro to seduce the women. He beds practically every female in the movie, resulting in plenty of humping scenes. When that doesn't work, he more-or-less rapes them, which happens twice. Don't think there isn't any gore in this “Dracula,” though. The film ends with the Count having his limbs cleaved off, blood spurting everywhere. That's followed up with a double impalement. Though less gory, “Blood for Dracula” is just as gross as “Flesh for Frankenstein.” Whenever he drinks non-virginal blood, Dracula goes into an intense vomiting fit. The film lingers on Udo puking blood, sometimes for several minutes. Later, after Joe screws the last virgin, the Count is reduced to licking her deflowering blood off the floor. So there's certainly no shortage of trashiness here.

Another connecting fiber between Morrisey's monster movies is their political subtext. This is even more blatant in “Blood for Dracula.” The film is set in the early twenties. Dracula represents the aristocracy, which was loosing power all over Europe at the time. This is why the Count is so weak. His way of life is dying and so is he. Dallesandro, meanwhile, is a Communist. He even has a red sickle and hammer painted above his bed. Throughout the film, he espouses the workers' revolution which has already happened in Russia and will soon spread through Europe. So when he chops Dracula into pieces at the end, it's a rather literal depiction of a new political movement killing an older one.

“Blood for Dracula” is probably the better made film than “Flesh for Frankenstein.” It's certainly better written. However, I don't think I enjoy it as much. Udo's insane performances are the saving grace of both movies. I guess a ranting, necrophilic Dr. Frankenstein is probably a little more entertaining than a deathly, vomiting Count Dracula. Likewise, ridiculously over-the-top gore is more fun than lurid sex scenes. The two films have many of the same flaws, being too slow and too self-satisfied with their own edginess. Still, it is a pretty interesting duo of films. If nothing else, there's no other Frankenstein or Dracula films like them. [6/10]

The Loved Ones (2009)

I'm not sure what happened in Australia to prompt this but, beginning at the end of the last decade, the country became the new place for intensely violent, cutting edge horror. Following Greg McLean's “Wolf Creek,” this new wave of Ozsploitation would give us flicks like “Undead,” “The Reef,” “Bait” “Lake Mungo,” “Road Kill,” “Snowtown,” “Storm Warning,” a remake of “Long Weekend,” and would eventually climax with the brilliance of Jennifer Kent's “The Babadook.” Somewhere in there was “The Loved Ones.” The debut feature of Sean Byrne, the film would cause a minor sensation in 2009. It wouldn't take off the way some of those other movies did and would be consigned to cultdom, beloved by a small crowd of horror loving weirdos and considered obscure by everyone else.

It's been six months since Brent's father died, in a bizarre car accident. Brent was driving and blames himself. He has tried to move on, and has gotten some help from his girlfriend Holly, but the trauma still lingers on. Brent is so preoccupied that he barely remembers turning down Lola Prince's prom invitation. But Lola remembers him. Her father kidnaps Brent. He awakens tied to a chair in their kitchen. This is part of a yearly prom ritual for Lola. For years, she's been bringing boys back to her house, torturing them, and concluding the evening by lobotomizing them. Brent's friends and family quickly attempt to locate him.

A fair criticism of “The Loved Ones” would be that Brent is not the most active protagonist. Xavier Samuel is fine in the part. It's just he spends most of the movie tied to a chair. And it really doesn't matter anyway. “The Loved Ones” is most fascinating when focused on the disturbing world of Lola and her father. Lola's dad dotes on her, giving her everything he wants, including boys. Yet she's always disappointed, tossing each brain-dead loved one into the cellar. Though she's obviously a sadistic spin on spoiled rotten “princesses” – Lola's father almost exclusively refers to her as Princess – there's something sympathetic about her too. She constantly listens to Kasey Chambers' “Not Pretty Enough,” suggesting some dissatisfaction with her life. She's trapped in a world where nothing lives up to her standards, always destined to disappoint her. Who hasn't felt that way before? Robin McLeavy's performance is manic but nuanced, further helping matters.

Byrne's film is obviously indebted to “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Both film takes the audience into the homes, and minds, of murder-hungry families. The production design even plays like a weird inversion of Leatherface's lair, the dingy torture dungeon decorated in bright pinks, glitter, and paper crowns. Unlike Tobe Hooper's classic, “The Loved Ones” doesn't withhold the gore. The film borders the sadistic. Brent has stake knives hammered into his feet. Later, he's forced to dance, despite his skewered feet. Lola repeatedly threatens to smash his testicles with a hammer. She doesn't do that but she does carve drawings onto his chest with a fork. We see in intimate detail how Lola and her dad create the lobotomized zombies. It involves an electric drill and a bottle of bleach. Despite the extreme content, there's a level of humor here too.  Such as the deliberate contrast between Lola's girly exterior and her brutal actions. Or a victim flopping comically to the floor.

“The Loved One” is a compelling film when focused on Brent's situation, locked up and tortured by an insane family. For some reason, Byrne didn't believe this was enough to sustain the entire movie. The film frequently cuts away to Jamie, Brent's best friend, and his own prom date. He picks up a disaffected goth girl named Mia. They drink and smoke pot in a parked car. They slowly sway across the dance floor. They end up having sex in his back seat. The only connection this has to the main plot is that Mia is the daughter of the sheriff who eventually investigates Brent's disappearance. Otherwise, it's a completely unrelated digression. What was the purpose of these scenes? Were they comic relief? Meant to show a “normal” prom night, to contrast with Brent's nightmarish experience? Or was it just to pad the movie out to feature length? I have no idea.

Despite coming out during a booming period for Australian genre cinema, it would take Byrne another six years to make a follow-up. There might be a more pressing reason for this, beyond the general difficulty in securing funding for an independent film. “The Loved Ones” was linked to a real life murder in 2013. I could understand how that sort of thing would make a filmmaker question their decisions. All of that aside, this one mostly deserves its cult following. When “The Loved Ones” works, it's a fresh, funny, and brutal horror picture, with fantastic performances and some surprising insight. [7/10]

Broom-Stick Bunny (1956)

There have been lots of horror-themed Looney Tunes cartoons over the years but only a few directly about Halloween. “Broom-Stick Bunny” would be the second appearance of Witch Hazel, WB's standard witch character brilliantly brought to life by June Foray. In this short, the witch is especially concerned with her status as the ugliest woman in the world. As it's Halloween night, Bugs Bunny unknowingly stops by her house, dressed as a witch. Witch Hazel mistakes his costume for the real thing and invites him inside, eager to learn his ugly beauty secrets. Naturally, once she realizes Bugs is actually a rabbit, shenanigans ensue.

“Broom-Stick Bunny” is a solid bit of animated buffoonery. There's plenty of sharp gags are packed into its seven minutes. Every time Witch Hazel runs off, she leaves behind a collection of hair pins. A chase scene is interrupted when the witch grabs her sweeping broom, instead of her flying broom. Bugs later defers his fate by reminding the witch of her pet tarantula. The final gag, in which Bugs tricks the witch into drinking a potion that makes her beautiful, is worth a chuckle or two. It all leads up an incredibly goofy pun that is totally worth it. As always, Mel Blanc's delivery as Bugs goes a long way. The way he analytically decides staying in the cabin is dangerous, or tactfully admitting that Witch Hazel might be ugly but was once someone's baby, is highly amusing.

Chuck Jones directed this one. You can tell he really enjoyed the spooky setting. Witch Hazel's house is composed entirely of hard angles, bringing a certain Caligari-esque feeling to the short. Naturally, the movement of the characters are vivid and detailed. That's the true strength of hand-drawn animation, as you can see the obvious amount of work that went into making these characters seem so alive. “Broom-Stick Bunny” is rightfully regarded as a Looney Tunes classic. Enough so that it was essentially remade in the sixties, as “A-Haunting We Will Go,” with Daffy Duck in Bugs' place, to seriously diminished returns. [8/10]

The Haunted Castle (1896)

Over the years, as an experienced horror fan, I've often wondered about the genre's earliest cinematic offerings. What is the first horror movie ever made? It depends on how you define “horror movie” but “The Haunted Castle” from 1896 is widely cited as the first. It's an extended trick short – essentially magic tricks committed to film – from magician turned cinematic pioneer George Melies. The plot is simple. A demonic wizard practices his skills in an empty castle. Two men, royalty of some sort, enter. The wizard then proceeds to use his magic to mess with the guys. He makes skeletons, bats, ghosts, and witches appear. This goes on until the man drives the devil out with a cross.

“The Haunted Castle,” whose French title translate more closely as “The Devil's Castle,” is significant to the horror genre strictly because of its visual trappings. Rubbery bats, chattering skeletons, white sheet ghosts, and a devil in red pajamas are the hokiest of Halloween trappings today. In 1896, this kind of imagery had never been seen on-screen before. Even the sight of an abandoned building, home to a mad sorcerer performing arcane rites, is the barest backbone of the horror genre.

Otherwise, Melies' short does not intend to horrify. It's rather farcical, actually. The crude effects are often comical. People and things leap out at the man, resulting in frightful reaction. As with all of his shorts, Melies was mostly focused on seeing what he could do with the new toy of film. People frequently disappearing and reappearing, or changing shape into different objects or animals. Like many early films, the result is not just interesting from a historical perspective but enchanting from an aesthetic one. There's a pure, impish joy in Melies' work that is very evident here. The special effects are charming because of their home-made quality, not in spite of them. Even the moment when the paper thin set nearly falls down, after the man bumps into it, is pleasing.

Whether it's the first true horror movie or not is debatable but Melies' vision remains an ideal Halloween treat, even one hundred and twenty years later. (By the way, Melies actually would make a short entitled “The Haunted Castle” the next year. This one has nearly an identical plot but with one important difference: It's in color!) [7/10]

No comments: