Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Night of the Walking Dead / El extraño amor de los vampiros (1975)

"The sun shining in my dreams 
  The light is getting hot
  Saved by eternity
  I have seen death so close
 Away, awhile the angels crossed the sky
 But I'm condemned to stay here." -- Heavenly  

In his memoirs, Paul Naschy said he had referred Argentine film directing stalwart Leon Klimovsky to be director of his seminal Spanish horror classic La noche de Walpurgis, AKA The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), because one of the film’s financers wanted a quick and reliable director.

It would seem that Klimovsky was known for his fast shooting and workmanlike skills, and yet he managed to direct some real atmospheric classics of Spanish horror, often on low budgets and high pressured shooting schedules, and he introduced an oft-imitated technique of filming vampires and zombies in slow-motion, capturing a uniquely nightmarish plane of existence in the process.
Klimovsky’s vampire films are exceptional and interestingly varied, and they belong alongside the best of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. The aforementioned, The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman was a record breaking box office success that revived the Spanish horror fantasy genre. The other Klimovsky directed vampire films that followed were the epic The Dracula Saga (1973), the more grindhouse flavored The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1974), and the romantic, adventurous, and somewhat eclectic Night of the Walking Dead / The Strange Love of the Vampires, the topic for tonight

It is obvious that Night draws some inspiration from Roman Polanski’s brilliant horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), telling a different story in a similar setting, minus the snowy ambiance, even reinventing the memorable vampire ballroom dancing scene. The Spanish take, being memorable in its own, odd way, is an amusing, and Fellini-esque, party-scape with hedonistic, hyperactive vampires amidst candles and colorful balloons, really livening up some old decrepit ruins. These party scenes do end up being a lot of fun.

Although there are a few comical elements, particularly with the character of Mijai (Barta Barri), Night really isn’t a comedy. It is still quite a remarkable accomplishment with an impressive, poignant exploration of the immortality of a vampire, Count Rudolph de Winberg (Carlos Ballesteros), made most apparent by the bittersweet closing scene at the film’s end.

Both of its alternate contrasting titles could be said to have arisen from a peculiar duality in the film, as it offers two different styles of vampire lore in the same movie, that of the romantic more human vampire in love with a mortal (The Strange Love of the Vampires) and the more ghoulish vampires who rise from their graves at night (sort of like zombies) to kill villagers (Night of the Walking Dead). Both routes could easily make for their own separate movie, but they are nonetheless satisfactorily explored herein, at times running separately in different directions, momentarily being fused into one, and also running side by side with charming juxtapositions.

An interesting dichotomy that envelops the central story premise is the separate light and dark worlds presented in the film, the living and the undead, split in to two opposing cultures, with its lead Catherine (Emma Cohen), suffering from a terminal illness, being drawn from one side to the other by a gentlemanly undead count (Ballesteros) who has fallen in love with her. She falls for him too, but complications and conflicts inevitably ensue as both cultures are at war, with humans hunting vampires and vampires hunting, and converting, humans, leaving Catherine with an interesting decision as to whether or not to succumb to her terminal illness or become an immortal but cursed being in the world of the vampires and in turn forsake her father (Cristino Almodóvar) and become an enemy to her own kind. A vampire would normally be like a parasite to their victim, but thinking about it in a certain way Rudolph is more like a savior in Catherine’s case.

A little patience is required at first, as the movie takes its time developing its intriguing premise, first setting the stage of a superstitious nineteenth century village with a vampire problem, establishing the conflict between both species confined solely, with little regard to the outside world, to the small isolated village, its forested surroundings, graveyard, and castle ruins.

A despondent mood is established early on with Catherine being introduced at her sister’s (Amparo Climent) wake, where, per village custom, a stake is hammered through her chest, despite protests from the deceased’s mother (Tota Alba) and the village doctor (Lorenzo Robledo). It is mentioned in passing reference by the doctor that Catherine’s days are numbered as well, painting a depressing, dismal existence for the reclusive, frequently bed-ridden protagonist that is, like in Al otro lado del espejo (1973), another sad character role for Cohen, complimented beautifully by her naturally sad eyes. Furthermore, the nature of the movie requires a protagonist beautiful enough to soften the lead villain into something not so much like a villain anymore, and Emma Cohen has that beauty.

There’s this underlying feeling that becomes more and more certain that another world is calling out to the doomed protagonist. It is attracted to Catherine and is trying its hardest to attract her, developing a pathway, literally and figuratively, for her, ultimately creating an evolutionary change in Catherine from innocent to corrupt. Her misfortunes, such as her illness, her dishonest, cheating lover, and her sister’s death followed by her undead resurrection, make Catherine vulnerable to count Rudolph and what he can offer her.

The count is so gentlemanly; I admire his smooth remarks towards Catherine at the dinner table when they first meet. Some of the most interesting in-depth moments occur when she and Rudolph are connecting and having somewhat profound conversations, romanticizing the idea of death, at his castle late at night in his stylish and wonderfully lit chamber, while his hordes of vampire followers are in the background partying like its 1999.

I also sense a rebellious youth analogy, which can be detected after Catherine falls further for Rudolph, who represents a love interest that is at odds with her vampire-hunter father’s interests, as Catherine becomes ever more conflicted with her father and more affected by outside influence. He’s the un-approving father who only wants what’s best for his daughter, who is stubbornly disobeying him. Rudolph is almost like a substitute father figure who, in Catherine’s mind, can offer her more than what her real father can.

Catherine’s evolutionary change first becomes quite startling when she is given the opportunity by the count to make a personal decision as to whether or not to pardon her past unappreciative, unfaithful lover Jean, freshly captured and brought before her so she can either grant him forgiveness, sparing his life in the process, or deny him, dooming him to be communally drained by vampires. Her decision is most pleasing.

Her change reaches an apex when she seduces and kills the butler, after being put on house arrest by her father.

Aside from Catherine’s interesting dilemma, the film also plays out like a traditional monster movie, as well, with angry mobs--the kind seen numerous times--setting out in the name of all that’s holy to destroy the monsters.

A scene where a villager hammers a spike into the forehead of a sleeping female corpse/vampire is very realistic to the point of being uncomfortable. (I hope it wasn’t done with a real corpse. My guess is that it was a hallow spike that crumbled away from the bottom as it was hammered down.)

Night was filmed in Talamanca de Jarama, Madrid, Spain. With its old buildings and ruins, it feels steeped in history and makes for a terrific natural shooting location that adds a lot more impact to the film. One memorable and frequently repeated shot is of an old castle on a hill, with a legend behind it, that Catherine usually views from her bedroom window, which serves as the count’s lair.

(Stereotypically, being a count, having a castle, and a hunchback servant, Rudolph feels a lot like a very popular literary vampire character that has been and continues to be re-realized countless times in film, video games, comics, etc.)

It’s probably the most unusual out of the Klimovsky directed vampire entries, and it’s hard to determine if it's complex or just plain messy, but there’s a lot to like about Night of the Walking Dead. It’s full of excellent moments, and perhaps a few slow ones, but overall it’s surprisingly good, given how underexposed it is. There are some slightly comedic sexploitative elements thrown in no doubt for commercial reasons, but these are practically forgotten over the movie’s stronger points. The ending is unexpected and leaves one feeling impressed.

© At the Mansion of Madness

Images sourced from: NIGHT-OF-THE-WALKING-DEAD

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Shock / Beyond the Door II (1977)

Mario Bava’s final, full-length film as director Shock (AKA Beyond the Door II) is like The Amityville Horror (1979), Repulsion (1965), and The Shining (1980) combined into a progressive-rock tinged haunted-house Italian horror/mystery thriller that does manage to be scary. Bava again employs the vengeful ghost story, as in his child-themed Kill Baby Kill (1966), but keeps it in the family, creating a ghost story about marital vengeance, which was based on a true story that Bava weaved in to an already existing script, about a living house, he had co-written with Dardano Sacchetti several years prior. The end product is a slow-paced but ultimately exhilarating experience that succeeds at being one of the creepier Italian horrors. Bava’s son Lamberto Bava, who also contributed to the script, said they were influenced a little more by Stephen King and were attempting to make a modern horror film.

The film also has a possession angle that takes a few cues from The Exorcist (1973), which might have been in response to the success of The House of Exorcism (1975): producer Alfredo Leone’s revamping of Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973), with newly filmed possession scenes spliced in.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Mummy’s Revenge / La venganza de la Momia (1973)

When looking over the lengthy cycle of mummy movies, one in particular often goes heavily unmentioned, and that’s Spanish actor, filmmaker Paul Naschy’s take on the mummy myth, The Mummy’s Revenge / La venganza de la Momia.

Being somewhat of a tragic love story, The Mummy’s Revenge is rather faithful to the original Universal film and is also easy to compare to the 1959 Hammer reboot as well. What sets The Mummy’s Revenge apart is that it’s a Paul Naschy film, meaning it’s going to be a little more erotic, a little meaner, more fearsome, more violent, and more personal. There is also a sadomasochistic element too, with a number of maidens strung up for both amusement and sacrificial purposes.

The film is directed by Carlos Aured and is written by and stars Naschy. It is one of four collaborations between Naschy and Aured, with the other three being the seminal Horror Rises from the Tomb (1972), part of the Waldemar Daninsky Werewolf cycle Curse of the Devil (1972), and the Spanish giallo Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973). The Mummy’s Revenge is Naschy’s second, and more focused, take on the mummy, as the creature did appear in Naschy’s horror/sci-fi monster mashup Assignment Terror (1970), along with aliens, the werewolf, Frankenstein's monster, and Dracula.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Venomous Vixens: Aurora de Alba

At present, little is known about the European actress and dancer Aurora de Alba. Her film career is varied, although consisting mostly of rare, hard-to-find movies, with a handful of Spanish horror films being the most well-known and accessible. What little I could find out is that her name was Aurora Galisteo before being known as Aurora de Alba, and she is the cousin of famed Spanish dancer/actress Carmen Sevilla, who was born Maria del Carmen Garcia Galisteo. This would also make Aurora cousins with Spanish cinematographer Jose Garcia Galisteo. Aurora danced at the Venice Film Festival in 1953, from which a number of historical photos were made. She married Chico Scimone on June 23, 1954, in Taormina, Sicily, and later had a son, Gianfranco Scimone on March 11, 1955. She died February 24th, 2005.

Throughout the ‘50s, Aurora starred in a number of Spanish/Italian comedies and dramas, most of which seem to either have been forgotten or fallen into obscurity. As the Euro film industry shifted its output to different genres in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Aurora managed to land roles in Euro-westerns: Un hombre vino a matar (1967) and Su le mani, cadavere! Sei in arresto (1971) (under the direction of Leon Klimovsky); Euro-spies, Agente X 1-7 operazione Oceano (1965) and Top Secret (1967); and Euro-horrors La Marca del Hombre-lobo (1968), La rebelión de las muertas (1973), and La orgía de los muertos (1973). The three aforementioned horror films also starred Paul Naschy and seem to have been the most accessible. In addition, she was frequently directed by José Luis Merino. After starring in a line of comedies and dramas in the latter half of the ‘70s, her movie career seemed to have taken an abrupt halt at the end of the decade. What she was up to after that is probably anyone’s guess.

Some sources list her as an Italian actress, while others show her as a Spanish actress. Aurora is actually of Spanish origin, however she did get married in Italy and most likely lived there for a time. Another source lists her birth date as February 2nd, 1948; this cannot be true, however, because, as was mentioned before, she was married in 1954, and the following image of her below is from the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and looking to be somewhere in her early twenties at that time, it is probably not a far cry to assume she was born sometime in the ‘20s or ‘30s.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

City of the Living Dead / The Gates of Hell (1980)

City of the Living Dead is part of a high point in Lucio Fulci’s career that would make him synonymous with gore, zombies, and splatter and also cause him to be more generally regarded as a horror director, despite having worked in numerous other film genres. Being the first film in what has become known as The Gates of Hell trilogy, which also includes The Beyond (1981) and House by the Cemetery (1981), City feels a little rough around the edges, a step down from the previous Zombi 2 (1979) but at the same time a stepping stone or prototype to The Beyond, a film that masterfully embodies a dreadful but surreal atmospheric ascetic that I like to call nightmarish horror, which abandons logic to create a sense that anything can happen, usually something bad involving the eyes.

While there is an interesting Lovecraftian story (co-written by Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti) and plenty of dialogue and characters to fill it, City feels a bit like a compendium of gore scenes and set pieces, most of which exemplify Fulci in top form. It has its flaws and issues, yet it’s one of those films where you can talk just as much about what’s wrong with it as you can about what’s right with it, and what’s right is pleasing enough to supersede what’s wrong.

Despite having a dodgy narrative, a few silly moments, and somewhat shallow characters, who have grown on me with time, such as Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), the film is quite a macabre experience that has become known for its top-notch ambiance and gore FX (by Gino De Rossi), as well as succeeding as a horror film overall. It’s like a product of low quality that nonetheless continually hits the sweet spot throughout its runtime so that you just can’t help loving it. It’s almost the masterpiece The Beyond is.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Female Vampire / La comtesse noire (1973)

If you haven’t noticed, female vampires in movies have been a long-running theme I’ve enjoyed exploring with this blog. It’s an appealing aspect of fiction to me, and I just can’t get away from the archetypical idea of the vampiress: her gothic image, seductive power, hidden feral side, and deadly sexuality. Some time ago, around the time I reviewed The Blood Spattered Bride, I finally gave Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla a read and wasn’t too surprised at realizing how much Carmilla’s influence is felt in a large number of cult female vampire films. Although, there seems to have been a bit of a debate as to whether or not the perceived erotic subtext in Le Fanu’s novella has been misinterpreted by non-Victorian readers, yet many filmmakers have nonetheless taken the subtext at face value, taking whatever supposed eroticism is there in the writing of the book out of the implicit and into the explicit; and, for its time, Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (a.k.a. La comtesse noire, Bare Breasted Countess, Erotikill, and many more) has to be the most erotic lady vampire piece, even more so for the XXX version Lüsterne Vampire Im Spermarausch. (On the opposite end of the spectrum is perhaps, and also recommended, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death — a Carmilla influenced movie that hardly features any eroticism).

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