This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

"Shouldn't we build a barricade?"

"No, that would be bad tactics."

-Alfred and his teacher, Prof. Abronsius.

Just before he scored big time with Rosemary's Baby (1968), Roman Polanski made this horror-comedy which rounds out this month's vampire theme.

The title characters are Prof. Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski). They arrive in a village in Transylvania one snowy evening to investigate reports of vampires. Right from the start, we know these two aren't exactly like Van Helsing because, for one thing, Abronsius is so frozen by the trip to the village inn, Alfred needs to carry him off their carriage and thaw him out inside. Later in the film, they pretend to stake a vampire by having Alfred drive a stake into a pillow, only to have the hammer hit Abronsius's hand.

At the inn, Alfred becomes smitten with the tavern keeper's daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate). She is promptly kidnapped by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), which sends our heroes into action.

They promptly infiltrate von Krolock's castle and pass themselves off as vampires before all the guests see that they and Sarah are the only ones who have reflections in the gigantic mirror in the ballroom.

Our heroes escape, only for Sarah to bite Alfred, while Abronsius continues driving the carriage, unaware that he is now bringing vampires into the world.

Polanski made this film because he realized that people (even then) were laughing at parts of scary movies. So, he decided to make a film in which the laughs are intentional(the film even has the amusing subtitle Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck). Although the laughs aren't as prominent as, say, Young Frankenstein (1974), which will test the patience of some viewers, there are some good ones. For instance, Sarah has a need to bathe almost constantly and von Krolock's son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) proves that he desires Alfred by chasing him obsessively around the castle. There's also the vampire who isn't affected by crucifixes because he's Jewish.

The art direction is also first-rate and understandably reminiscent of the set design for the Hammer Dracula films, which were in theaters at virtually the same time.

However, my favorite part of the film is the animated title sequence which rivals the ones in the James Bond and the Pink Panther series as a (short) show in itself.

Sadly, MGM's edits of the movie (originally titled Dance of the Vampires) kept it from making much of an impression in 1967, although it has faired better in recent years in the aftermath of much of Polanski's subsequent work.

This film is also a wonderful and heartbreaking look at the talent and beauty of Tate. Although Valley of the Dolls (1967)-the textbook definition of a campy film- became her most famous movie, this one allows her to be sensitive, beautiful, charming, and even scary.

Hence, this movie reminds us of how far Tate's star may have risen had she been allowed to continue with her career.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Vampyr (1932)

"Come with me. We will be one body...death is waiting."
-Marguerite Chopin

Just one year after the release of Dracula(1931), Danish director Carl Dryer made this vampire flick. Like Bram Stoker, Dryer was a fan of the Joseph Le Fanu novel Carmilla. That story, about a female vampire's obsesssion with a woman, became the basis for Dryer's film.

A traveler named Allan Gray(Nicolas de Gunzburg) arrives at an inn for the evening. He is awakened that night when a man enters his room and leaves a packet with instructions for it not to be opened until his death. Gray takes the packet and journeys to a castle, where he encounters the village doctor (Jan Hieronimko). He is startled by what appears to be shadows dancing. Eventually, Gray sees the man again at a manor before he is killed by gunfire. Grey agrees to stay the night and is startled to find Leone (Sybille Schmitz), a daughter of the Lord of the Manor(Maurice Schutz), wandering outside, despite being gravely ill. After she collapses, she is brought back inside by Gray and her sister Gisele(Rena Mandel). They then find bite marks on Leone. Gray then remembers the packet the old man gave him and opens it to find it is a book on demons (known in the region as Vampyrs).

A doctor visits the manor, whom Gray recognizes from his journey to the castle. The doctor says that Leone needs a blood transfusion to survive and Gray volunteers. However, Gray is left exhausted by the procedure. He senses danger and finds that the doctor has taken Gisele and left. Tracking him to the castle, Gray discovers that a woman named Marguerite Chopin(Henriette GĂ©rard) is a vampyr. With the help of a servant(Albert Bras), they open her grave and drive a metal bar through her heart, killing her. The doctor makes his way to an old mill. The servant then activates the mill, burying the doctor in huge amounts of flour.

Dryer was known for bringing excellent work from actors who did not have much experience, and this film is no exception. For example, Gunzburg was a magazine editor who agreed to help Dryer with financing if he could have a part in the film(he was credited in the film as Julian West).

Vampyr was, however, his first sound film. Technical difficulties with recordings in different languages led to minimal use of dialogue in this film. Much like Nosferatu (1922), this film's greatness lies in its visual moments, such as Gray dreaming that he'll be buried alive.

Sadly, this film was initially a failure. As a result, Dryer wouldn't make another film until 1943 with Day of Wrath, a film about witchcraft. Chillingly, by that time, Dryer's native Denmark had been annexed by Nazi Germany, which could be seen as life imitating art.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Dracula (Spanish-1931)

"Soy Dracula!"

-Conde Dracula

I'm not exactly what you would call a fan of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, but I enjoyed both Twilight (2008) and New Moon (2009) and will no doubt see Eclipse (2010) if and when the urge to do so arises.

With the pending release of the first half of the saga's final chapter Breaking Dawn, I thought it would be appropriate to look at a trilogy of little-known gems from the vampire genre.

The first of these is one that has a direct link to the most famous vampire film of all-Dracula (1931). As I'm sure everyone knows, this film made Bela Lugosi a star with his take on the Count. It also became famous as the first Dracula film with sound. Lugosi, despite the typecasting that would later all but kill his career, was one actor who was able to make the transition from silent to sound pictures due to his distinguished voice.

Since sound movies were in their infancy in 1931, though, many films were filmed more than once in other languages (at least until dubbing became more practical). Laurel and Hardy made several of their films in Spanish and German, as did Buster Keaton. These name stars would usually be surrounded by newer casts who spoke the appropriate language in the non-English versions of their films. The stars would read their lines off blackboards.

Dracula, likewise, would have a version in Spanish to tap into the lucrative foreign market(although Universal executive Paul Kohner used this film as an excuse to keep Mexican actress Lupita Tovar in Hollywood; the two later married). This film used the same sets and script as the English version. The crew, directed by non-Spanish speaking George Melford, would work at night when the crew of the Lugosi film left.

This tactic gave them an advantage because they were able to look at footage from that film and determine how they could improve on certain shots. As a result, much of the camera work in this film is better than in the Lugosi film.

One of this film's greatest moments is when Renfield(played by Pablo Alvarez Rubio) first encounters Dracula (Carlos Villarias) in the Count's castle. In the Lugosi film, we clearly see the Count approaching before Dwight Frye's Renfield does (which, I suppose, is meant to be the classic "Behind You!" motif). In this film, though, we don't see Dracula until Renfield does; hence, we are as startled by the Count's appearance as he is.

There is, however, one moment which is superior in the Lugosi picture-when Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) reveals that he knows Dracula's secret by having him look into a mirror. In this film, Dracula slowly turns his head at the mirror Van Helsing is holding and then stares at it for at least three seconds before finally taking his cane to it. In the Lugosi film, though, Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing shows him the mirror and Dracula instantly smacks it to the ground with a murderous look on his face. That look still gives me the chills and is appropriate for someone who dislikes mirrors.

Another plus to this film is that the ladies are more appealing than those in the Lugosi film. Tovar's Eva is a more sensual female lead than Helen Chandler's Mina.

This version is also, shall we say, more explicit. For instance, we actually see the vampire marks on the ladies' necks here (that must have been tough getting past the censors at that time).

I do agree with the consensus, though, that the only thing keeping this film from becoming as embraced as its English-language counterpart is the lack of Lugosi as the Count. Villarias just doesn't hold a candle to Lugosi and, at times, is more laughable than scary; particularly when he's gritting his teeth.

This film is one of the few alternate language versions of a Hollywood film from the 1930s that is available today. It resurfaced on home video in 1992, which was, coincidentally, the same year that the great-looking but dramatically lacking Bram Stoker's Dracula was released.

Both the 1930s Draculas are now together on DVD. I'd say film historian (and Universal Horror expert) David J. Skal said it best(in the DVD's documentary The Road to Dracula) when he compared the Lugosi film to a familar house and the Spanish film to new rooms that were suddenly discovered in it.