31 October 2009

Happy Halloween . . . and November begins

October 31st has taken on a great double significance for me in the last two years.

First, the obvious: it’s Halloween. And even if it doesn’t always fall on a weekend night like this year and last year, it’s still my favorite single day of the year. It’s a holiday made for speculative fiction writers and readers, a day about the concept of “fantasy.” And it has the greatest decor and color scheme of any holiday.

Second, at midnight, it becomes National Novel Writing Month. Most of the writers in the event start at the stroke of twelve, or as close as they can manage after the clock strikes midnight. There’s a shivery anticipation during the whole day leading up to the moment when the novel writing starts.

I’m going to a party tonight in the valley, so I don’t know if I’ll be back home to start writing at midnight, but I will start as soon as I get home and can pull off my Nazgûl costume. I would love to write in costume, but the tatters of the outfit would get in the way. And the black-fabric mask. (I must have this obsession this year with Halloween costumes where I can’t see very well.) I’ll plow on for a few hours into the night, getting a good head-start on the thirty days.
My novel for this year was planned quite late, but it’s set in Ahn-Tarqa, so the background already exists from a year of development, and the novel’s plot comes out of events in a short story I wrote in September. The outline that I finished yesterday feels strong, and I finally bequeathed the novel a working title that I like. (For the last ten days, it had the thrilling title of Ahn-Tarqa Novel.)

My blogging during November will probably be sporadic, as I’ll be putting most of my available free time away from actual paying work writing the novel. There won’t be much opportunity for reviews, and even my free-time reading suffers. I will post updates about NaNoWriMo, and the widget at the right will keep track of my word-count total. (At the moment, it hasn’t activated—NaNoWriMo headquarters have been slow about getting this to work.)

Happy Halloween, everybody. If you aren’t doing NaNoWriMo, go watch your favorite horror movie at midnight and forget that the mundane world exists for a span—so you and I will be in the same place.

30 October 2009

Rorschach never compromises at Halloween parties

Really, I don’t have to add anything after the photo, do I?

Okay, I guess I have to. Tonight (or last night, it’s early morning right now) was the annual Haunted Halloween Ball at LindyGroove, for the past five years the best Halloween party I attend each year. I had my Rorschach costume on from the graphic novel and movie Watchmen. Most people knew who I was, although I got a few “Invisible Man” comments. Oh well. Not a bad idea for next year, maybe.

The people in Silk Specter and Dr. Manhattan costumes were happy accidents, not planned. The three of us ended up in the finals for the best costume. We didn’t win, but it’s the fourth year in a row getting into the costume contest for me, and considering the incredible outfits at this party, I feel pretty proud about that.

Here are some other photos from the night. And yes, it is me under that mask and heavy coat and scarf.
One woman who danced with me told me that it was a great “surreal” experience dancing with Rorschach. Now that’s a fine compliment.

29 October 2009

Frankenstein Apex: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Freddie Jones, Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson, Thorley Walters, Maxine Audley.

Hammer’s Dracula series reached its summit early, with the best films—Dracula / Horror of Dracula and The Brides of Dracula—coming first. Conversely, the Frankenstein series reached its peak in 1969, right when most of Hammer’s House of Horrors was dwindling. The fifth movie of the franchise, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, is not only the best of Hammer’s Frankenstein movies, but is also one of the masterpieces from the studio and its director, Terence Fisher.

Peter Cushing starred as Dr. Frankenstein in all the movies up to this point, although continuity vanished after the second, The Revenge of Frankenstein. The character softened from his villainous portrayal in the first film, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). But with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, he returned to his evil ways in a fury. The doctor is utterly reprehensible in this movie: murderer, rapist, thief, blackmailer. The man will stop at no depravity in his scientific quest to show that he’s just so much damn smarter than everybody else. Even viewers who know something about the more ethically troubled character of the Hammer series will find his actions in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed shocking and his manipulation and rudeness repulsive. And if you’ve just come from the two James Whale films of the 1930s . . . well, get ready to duck when that scythe comes whipping across the screen, with Dr. Frankenstein’s hand guiding it. It will take your head off as well.

Top 5 Halloween sequels

Today The Lightning Bug’s Lair features my contribution to the “Halloween Top 13: The Sequel” event: a list of five of my favorite horror sequels. I’m always happy to contribute to T. L. Bugg’s blogosphere projects, but it wasn’t easy to narrow down favorite sequels. Horror films propogate sequels like the rabbit population in Australia. I finally settled on these five, although I could have easily included so many others.

I tend to be the “old horror” fellow among people who comment at The Lightning Bugg’s Lair, and this list reflects that. (Bugg purposely paired my list with his review of a film substantially removed from my tastes, The Devil’s Rejects, as a nice piece of counter-programming.)

1. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
This is the only sequel that made my list of favorite Halloween films last year, but since it’s perhaps the greatest sequel made to any film, it would be ludicrous not to include it. It does what sequels should: deepens, expands, and questions the original to create a full and vibrant new experience.

2. The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher 1960)
I’ve already written substantially about this one. I haven’t changed my mind about it during the month.

3. Damien: Omen II (Don Taylor, 1978)
This is fairly dopey compared to the original, but it has a re-watchable charm because of the crazy deaths and the jazzed-up Satanic chorus score from Jerry Goldsmith. The elevator crash-n-slice of Meshach Taylor is a classic—especially if you really really hate Mannequin.

4. House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944)
It's a sequel to… everything! Therefore, I have to include it. I’ve also done a full review of this during the month, posted at Black Gate.

5. Alien3 (David Fincher, 1991)
Most people will put James Cameron’s Aliens here. (Indeed, it appeared on many lists in the Halloween Top 13.) I love Aliens, but it doesn't scare me like the original Ridley Scott Alien does. But Alien3 is one mega-bummer of a bleak horror show that I’ve loved since I first saw it. And let me tell you, it was lonely being a fan of this film in the early ‘90s, before it was reconsidered in light of Fincher’s career. Considering its poor original reception, I’ll take any chance to promote it. And we would never have gotten Se7en or Fight Club without it. (The movie also gives me an excuse to use the superscript HTML tag.)

Thanks to the Bugg for letting me be part of his great blog!

27 October 2009

A Cryptozoology Flashback: Monsters You Never Heard Of

Monsters You Never Heard Of
By Daniel Cohen (1980)

Halloween means “monsters” to me, and so in my continuing efforts to occasionally do reviews off the standard blog track (uhm, does my blog have a track?), I’ve returned to a childhood favorite of mine: a folklore book for juvenile readers about a passel of less well-known mystery creatures, or “cryptids.” The title uses a dangling modifier—try to avoid this, kids—but then Monsters of Which You Have Never Heard is the sort of pedantry up with which I shall not put.

I was an avid reader of books about cryptids when I was younger. I’m a skeptic now, but I still have an interest in these “real monsters” from a folkloric perspective. The author of most of my favorite books on the topic when I was a kid was Daniel Cohen, who has made a career of writing for juveniles about cryptolozoolgy, ghosts, the occult, UFOs, and the paranormal. From what I can tell from my research, Mr. Cohen is a skeptic himself, and reading over Monsters You Never Heard Of as an adult reveals that Cohen likely doesn’t believe in most of these creatures. He’s always willing to admit that most of the evidence for the existence of these monsters is anecdotal. When I was younger, I tended to miss the author’s more cautious language, and I imagine he wanted it that way. When I was eleven it was more fun to think that the Jersey Devil was real instead of a local superstition.

NaNoWriMo over at Black Gate

Wow, the start of National Novel Writing Month is a bit less than six days away. I’ve got my story, most of an outline, plenty of Monster energy drinks, and an Alphasmart NEO—I feel ready to go.

I’ve previously done a few pieces at Black Gate that touch on NaNoWriMo, but I’ve never dedicated a full post to event. That changes today, so if you want to know more about the this crazy creative writing event, beyond what I’ve told you here, click on over there.

25 October 2009

Movie Review: The Revenge of Frankenstein

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Michael Gwynn, Oscar Quitak.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was an enormous hit for Hammer Film Productions; it ignited the entire Anglo-Gothic movie cycle and made Hammer into the house of technicolor terror. A sequel was inevitable, although the studio first did their take on Dracula. The Revenge of Frankenstein was shot back-to-back with Dracula (you can spy many re-dressed sets) and again featured the successful creative team of director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster.

If The Brides of Dracula (1960) is an unusual sequel to Dracula, then The Revenge of Frankenstein is an equally unusual follow-up to The Curse of Frankenstein. Both sequels dropped an important figure from the first movie: Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster respectively. Peter Cushing continued as the lead character in both films. Christopher Lee would return in the next Dracula film and star in every entry except the last, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). The Frankenstein films, arguably the most consistently high quality of all of Hammer’s series, would star Peter Cushing in all but one of the entries, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), a horrible attempt at a re-boot. Each film presents an entirely new “monster,” often far-removed from audiences’ previous conceptions about Frankenstein’s Monster.

The real monster of the series is Dr. Frankenstein himself. The Curse of Frankenstein radically altered the misguided and short-sighted Victor Frankenstein of Shelley’s novel and the first two Universal movies into an ethically oblivious mad scientist who’ll gladly murder to achieve his ends. The doctor of The Revenge of Frankenstein is turned down a notch from the first movie; he doesn’t commit outright murder, but still has zero empathy for other people and is only concerned about his creation’s rampage because it might reveal his own identity to authorities. Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein isn’t a man who feels any guilt at all. He sees himself as a superior intellect, and to hell with all the small-minded folks who want to slow him down. Victor Frankenstein’s only regrets about the mayhem in The Curse of Frankenstein is that he didn’t do it better. For the sequel, he plans to do it “right.”

Since the previous movie concluded with the bad doctor on his way to the guillotine, the sequel has to address this in the first scene. Frankenstein marches to the scaffold, the blade rises up, and then a scuffle happens off-screen before the blade falls. When two grave robbers (classic Terence Fisher working-class Victorian-types, one played by the ubiquitous Michael Ripper) break open the Baron’s freshly planted coffin, they discover . . . the body of the officiating priest! Dr. Frankenstein arranged his escape and the priest-switch by making a deal with the executioner and a deformed prison-worker named Karl (Oscar Quitak, credited as “The Dwarf” in the end titles despite being of average height).

Three years pass, and Frankenstein sets up a new practice in the town of Carlsbrück under the name “Dr. Stein.” This may sound a touch transparent, but “Stein” is a very common German name. The doctor divides his medical practice between serving rich society women and charity work at a poor hospital that mostly serves the criminal dregs of the city. We all know that Dr. Frankenstein isn’t doing this work from the pureness of his heart, and another Carlsbrück doctor, young Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews) soon finds out the truth. Hans recognizes Frankenstein and asks if he can assist his work—with the hint of blackmail if Frankenstein turns him down. Oddly, this isn’t going where you think it might, with Frankenstein immediately finding a way to off Hans. He takes the young man under his supervision and shows him the ways of limb and brain transplants. Already, this is a much mellower doctor.

Frankenstein’s plan is to bring life to a perfect human body (played by Michael Gwynn) constructed from parts he has amputated and collected from the poor. He also has a willing live donor for the brain: Karl “The Dwarf,” who wants an escape from his crippled and paralyzed body.

The brain gets put in, the body is brought to life . . . and everything goes wrong, of course. Not only does the transplant not exactly “take” the way the two doctors planned, but the meddling of a society lady who works at the hospital (Eunice Gayson, soon to appear in Dr. No and be the first woman to coax the line “Bond, James Bond” from 007) frees the slowly-maddening Karl-monster onto the city.

Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster originally intended to have cannibalism play a major part in the story. One of the side-effects of the brain-transplant is that the new body develops a lust for human flesh. Dr. Frankenstein still talks about this, but it only gets hinted at in the action and never plays out. Hammer must have wanted to back away from going too grisly; they were already pushing the limits of 1958 with scenes of doctors tooling around with bloody brains and disembodied eyes and hands. The crazed actions of the Karl-monster instead seem like consequences of Karl’s original paralytic condition and his mental incapability to handle the body change. Michael Gwynn does a good job at contorting his face and limbs to show how his condition is worsening, but it’s never quite clear what is happening to him.

Many fans of Anglo-horror often consider The Revenge of Frankenstein the best of its series. I don’t agree; I prefer The Curse of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), another Terence Fisher entry that really pushes Dr. Frankenstein into vile villain territory. The Revenge of Frankenstein starts too slowly, not building up a clear danger until late, and then abruptly pulling away from it. But it’s always interesting, and with a performer like Peter Cushing leading the way it contains wonderful shades. The scene of the Karl-monster viciously fighting the janitor (George Woodbridge, another Hammer regular) at Frankenstein’s lab, and then later crashing into a society party to find his creator, are vivid moments showing Terence Fisher doing what he did best. The finale, a clever dark joke that makes the pop-culture confusion between the doctor and his creation into an actual merging, is also played superbly. If The Revenge of Frankenstein doesn’t completely succeed with me, it does impress me with its willingness to go outside expectations. And, as a very young Hammer Horror, it’s bursting with colorful visuals and great Gothic sets. As the British poster proclaims, it’s in “Supernatural Technicolor”—which sounds like a special process, but it’s just the usual vibrant Hammer movie palette.

Although The Revenge of Frankenstein concludes with a situation that seems ripe for a direct sequel, it didn’t happen. The next film the series, The Evil of Frankenstein, would appear eight years later, and although Cushing played the title role, the script created an entirely new backstory that has no plot connection to either earlier film. It’s also the only entry in the series with a monster that resembles the one from the Universal movies. I quite like The Evil of Frankenstein and its unusual “Dr. Caligari” angle, which puts me at odds with common opinion, but that’s another review entirely.

20 October 2009

A letter to a NaNoWriMo character

National Novel Writing Month starts in ten days. And already I’ve dropped my original novel concept twice for another one. The second drop occurred today—and it’s permanent. Which is all for the good, since I had to honestly assess that I didn’t yet feel energized about the concept I had worked on for the last month or so, and which I originally came up with back in February. I still think it’s a viable novel idea, but I need more research and more brainstorming to get it to a point that it begs, begs to be written.

Fortunately, something emerged today that really wanted to get turned into a novel next month. A short story that asked for a novel continuation, and in a setting I’ve already developed (and even managed to sell some stories set in it). To mark the moment, I did a “letter to a character,” a popular NaNoWriMo forum topic where writers pen out a missive directed to one of their creations. Here’s my letter to the heroine of my new novel for next month as she takes up the task of being a main character . . .
Dear Belde,

Hi, welcome aboard! Until today, you weren’t going to be the main character of my novel. In fact, the novel had nothing to do with you, it was a different genre in a different world. But today, I realized, I didn’t really want to write that novel. It was getting to be a burden thinking about it, and there’s no way I’m going through a month of hell on a premise that needs to be worked on more, thought about, and re-energized—and I don’t have time to do that now, with only ten days to go.

But . . . I have you! You see, I loved the short story that I wrote about you in Septmber. And one of my fellow writers at Black Gate magazine thought that you were the great start of a YA novel. He was right, I should have paid attention back then. You already have a great background, a motivation, and a huge adventure before you. Plus, I’ve already developed the setting over two years of short stories set around it, so I don't need much prep.

I’m already excited about letting you free on your quest to discover why you are so different from the rest of humanity, and finding that mysterious woman who saved your life on the day your parents were murdered. You’ve got a great sidekick in a dinosaur named Rint, and I think he balances you perfectly.

So, Belde, I’m putting trust in you. You've got energy + tragedy + goals. I think you can carry the book. I’m thrilled for our upcoming adventure. We don't have much of an outline, but we've got the background and the backdrop, and I'm certain you'll bring the plot with you.

Your author,

Ryan

19 October 2009

DC Comics goes back to the pulps

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The comic book superhero was born in the late 1930s, during the time when the dominant form of popular culture reading was the pulp magazine. During the next decade, the pulps would start their slow demise: wartime paper shortages that forced the publishers to cut back on the more risky material to focus on the steady sellers, the paperback influx competed on the genre scene and were popular with soldiers overseas, and the rise of the comic book took away much of the younger readers. That the comic book should play such a large part in the end of the pulp magazine industry is an ironic reversal, since the hero pulps fueled the creation of those first four-color superheroes. No Batman without the Shadow. No Superman without Doc Savage.

The comic book industry is now doing some payback to the long-vanished cheap paper fiction magazines. DC Entertainment Inc. has an upcoming project where they are going to let their characters revert back to the 1930s and turn into true pulp heroes once more. It’s an alternate universe version of the DC Universe with no super-powered characters, set firmly in the 1930s. And it will not only feature their own creations like Batman, but also genuine pulp stars Doc Savage and the Avenger, to whom DC owns the comic book rights. The first publication in the new setting is next month’s Batman/Doc Savage Special, written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Phil Noto.

That’s all you need to get my blood a’ rushing. I rarely buy DC or Marvel monthly comics, since I think their indulgence in crossover mega-events has reached a level of mania/boredom, but this… oh, I am all over this in so many ways. Just having Doc Savage back in comics is enough, but Batman is also going to get pulled back to the decade of his nativity. I love comic book superheroes (Batman in particular), but since my mid-twenties I’ve turned more toward the pulp characters (The Shadow in particular), and seeing them get a whole corner of the universe of one of the two big comic book publishers is like a five-Red Bull high. And behold the Bama-influenced Doc Savage on the cover!

18 October 2009

Rorschach Halloween costume

Sorry I’ve been a bit light on posting this week—I’ve been overly busy. However, please accept this photos of my Halloween costume for this year—Rorschach from Watchmen—as a substitute for an actual lengthy post.

I am very dissatisfied with the commercial Rorschach costumes available (I generally don’t like pre-packaged costumes anyway) so I put this together from various other pieces I already own. I already had the trench coat (from when I was the Punisher a few years ago, and it gets regular use as well) and the hat of course, I purchased a long scarf, and a stand-alone knit Rorschach mask that’s far better than the cheap one included in the costume packages. However, I had to attach black fabric over the eyes to block them out—it looks silly with the eyes completely exposed. The fabric comes from an old “faceless ghoul” costume from years ago, so I can see through it fairly well even though nobody else can see in.

12 October 2009

Movie review: House of Frankenstein

House of Frankenstein (1944)
Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Starring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish, Glenn Strange, Anne Gwynne, Elena Verdugo, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill.

“I was working in the lab, late one night…”

Ah, October. My favorite month. No other time is so ideal for exploring dark fantasy, the Gothic, the classic ghost story… and of course, Universal horror films. The monsters of Universal’s 1930s and ‘40s films have given the Halloween season its mascots, creatures that are as closely identified with the holiday as Santa Claus is with Christmas. And so there’s no better Halloween party flick than the wall-to-wall monster epic that was the original “The Monster Mash”…

In seventy-one minutes, House of Frankenstein brings you:
  • Dracula
  • The Wolf Man
  • Frankenstein’s Monster
  • A mad scientist
  • A hunchback
  • A torch-wielding mob of angry villagers
  • A laboratory full of Kenneth Strickfaden-influenced sizzling equipment
  • Brain transplants!
All this, plus the hat trick of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and John Carradine in the same film; roles for classic supporting actors Lionel Atwill and George Zucco; and sexy Anne Gwynne. Now how much would you pay?

09 October 2009

The Devil Rides Out—The Hammer Film

The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Niké Arrighi, Leon Greene, Patrick Mower, Sarah Lawson, Paul Eddington.

Well, if I reviewed the novel The Devil Rides Out, I certainly have to deal with the famous Hammer movie version, don’t I?

Performer Christopher Lee was the prime mover behind Hammer’s adaptation of The Devil Rides Out. The actor, one of Hammer’s principle stars, was a fan of Wheatley’s novel and knew the author personally. Lee had urged studio heads James Carreras and Anthony Hinds to tackle the material since 1963. The studio balked at the thought of a horror movie based on Satanism and black magic, fearing “ecclesiastical wrath”—until the end of the decade, when it finally seemed an interesting new path for the studio to take. Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher, was brought on, and Lee was cast as the heroic Duc de Richleau. U.S. author Richard Matheson (of Twilight Zone and I Am Legend fame) wrote the screenplay to replace an earlier draft that was deemed “too British.”

07 October 2009

The Devil Rides Out: The Novel

The Devil Rides Out (1934)
By Dennis Wheatley

Here we are in wonderful October Country, so how about a Gothic classic?

Dennis Wheatley was once one of England’s most popular writers of adventure and espionage novels. Today, when he’s read at all, his occasional forays into the supernatural are what receive the most attention. The Devil Rides Out, the second of his novels published, remains Wheatley’s most popular book, and was made into one of the greatest Hammer horror movies in 1968.

The heroes of The Devil Rides Out weren’t new ones when the novel came out: the exiled polymath Duc de Richleau, Englishman Simon Aron, and robust American Rex Van Ryn had already appeared in Wheatley’s 1933 thriller set in Stalin’s Russia, The Forbidden Country, and he had also written an even earlier novel featuring them, Three Inquisitive People, but that wouldn’t be published until 1940. The Forbidden Territory was a breakthrough success. Wheatley then took an interest in modern occult practices, did a little research (although he points out that he never attended any rituals himself), and proceeded to put Duc de Richleau and company from The Forbidden Territory into a dark fantasy thriller about Satanism in 1930s Great Britain.

05 October 2009

50th Anniversary of The Twilight Zone

Friday was the “official” fiftieth anniversary of The Twilight Zone, exactly five decades since the network premiere of the first episodes, “Where Is Everybody?” I had to wait until my regular Black Gate post today to provide my serious salute to the famous show, a survey of the first season.

Head over to Black Gate to read the whole lengthy tale of the first year in a dimension not of sight or sound but of mind.

04 October 2009

Movie Review: The Brides of Dracula

The Brides of Dracula (1960)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur, Freda Jackson, David Peel.

Bugg over at The Lightning Bug’s Lair is doing another Halloween Top 13 countdown, this time focusing on lists of horror sequels. I’ve already submitted my list to him for the countdown, and I’ll notify you when the list goes up near the end of the month. But I’m going to review one of the films from that list now since I’m in a “Hammer Dracula” sort of mood after Taste the Blood of Dracula.

02 October 2009

Twilight Zone: Nightmare as a Child

Yes, today is the the day. And right in time for the start of October Country, my favorite time of the year. Today is the official Fiftieth Anniversary of The Twilight Zone. The first episode, “Where Is Everybody?”, premiered on CBS TV on 2 October 1959.

My big celebration of the show, however, will have to wait until Tuesday, where I promise you at least 3,000 words about the first season of the show. But for today, I’ll review one of the first season episodes that I passed over during my summer retrospective. Bring on the Spooky Little Girl (and a Jerry Goldsmith score) in . . .
Episode #29: Nightmare as a Child
Directed by Alvin Ganzer. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Janice Rule, Terry Burnham, Michael Fox.

“Month of November, hot chocolate, and a small cameo of a child’s face, imperfect only in its solemnity. And these are the improbable ingredients to a human emotion, an emotion, say, like fear. But in a moment this woman, Helen Foley, will realize fear. She will understand what are the properties of terror. A little girl will lead her by the hand and walk with her into a nightmare.”

“Nightmare as Child” is one of the almost-greats of the first season of The Twilight Zone. It’s draped in an intense and strange atmosphere, it contains a trio of excellent performances, the suspense builds through the claustrophobic setting (the action is confined to an apartment and the stairway outside) . . . and then it abruptly peaks and falls off, never effectively tying together its supernatural appearance with its plotline. There’s something subtly disappointing about it all.

Helen Foley (Janice Rule) comes back to her apartment to discover a pretty but very insistent ten-year-old girl who calls herself “Markie” sitting on the stairs outside. Markie starts to reveal an unusual amount of knowledge about Helen, such as a scar from her childhood on her arm, and she also knows that Helen saw a man today that she seems remember . . . but not exactly from where. The performance from child actress Terry Burnham as “Markie” is impressive: she pushes, prods, and snaps at Helen in an antagonistic way remarkable for one so young.

Markie’s appearance is prologue to Peter Selden (Michael Fox, the reason a later actor had to put a “J.” in the middle of his name) knocking on Helen’s door. It seems that this smarmy Mr. Selden is the man whom Helen had seen earlier and thought perhaps she knew. Selden starts to explain that he was friends with Helen’s mother, and he seems inordinately interested in how much Helen can remember from her childhood and the night of her mother’s death.

Audiences will probably already figure what is happening before the actual “nightmare” of the title—a dizzying memory from childhood—and Markie screaming out the extremely obvious plot point. The story might have worked better if Markie never had to elucidate her identity; the photo that Mr. Selden provides is all that’s needed. And the episode further suffers from the lack of connection that the mysterious “Markie” figure has to the outcome; it would have happened the same way whether she had sat on Helen’s door at the opening or not.

The episode still leaves the proper residue of creepy. The echoing sing-song of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is the sort of aural cue that The Twilight Zone could do so perfectly, and Burnham is spot-on as a little girl who knows exactly how to freak you out. The limited confines of the episode work to its benefit, and Rod Serling put his play-writing background to good use. There’s also a subtextual sexual element: Peter Selden mentions to Helen that he “sort of had a crush on her” when he knew her earlier . . . which would make him a grown man and her ten years old. Ick. This makes me wonder what he would have done to young Helen when she was a child if her screams hadn’t brought the police.

This is one of Jerry Goldsmith’s finest scores for the series; it’s the opposite of the tender music from “The Big Tall Wish” and accents the mounting uncertainty perfectly.

Joe Dante, in his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, named Kathleen Quinlan’s character “Helen Foley” as a nod to this episode. (There are a ream of classic Zone name references in that segment.)

NaNaWriMo is live for 2009!

The website for National Novel Writing Month 2009 is now up. (And let’s hope there are no serious crashes in the first week, like happened last October.) The game begins—or, at least the countdown to the game begins. Go over, sign up, and get ready for the insanity of writing a novel during the month of November.

My updated profile with my new novel project information is here. If you sign up, please make me a “writing Buddy” from your profile.

01 October 2009

Movie review: Taste the Blood of Dracula

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
Directed by Peter Sasdy. Starring Christopher Lee, Linda Hayden, Anthony Corlan, Geoffrey Keen, John Carson, Peter Sallis, Ralph Bates, Isla Blair, Gwen Watford, Michael Ripper.

Wow, October is here already. Time to watch a Hammer horror flick.

Although the Dracula series at Hammer was one of their longest-running, it had a slow beginning. After the huge success of 1958’s Dracula (titled Horror of Dracula in the U.S.), a sequel was a given—but Christopher Lee was afraid of typecasting and didn’t want to play the bloodsucking count again. I’ve also heard that it was Hammer that turned Lee down, fearing he would ask for more money. This comes from IMDb trivia, which isn’t exactly the last word on accuracy. But if I were Christopher Lee, I would have asked for more money.

Well, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes… Hammer forged ahead, and used Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing as the star of The Brides of Dracula (1960). Although this is one of Hammer’s best movies, Brides didn’t do anywhere near the business of Dracula. Hammer wouldn’t make another Dracula film until they managed to coax Lee back into the cape. The result, 1966’s Dracula—Prince of Darkness, is disappointing, and Lee has no dialogue in it except snarling. Two years later came Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, which gave Lee a bit more to do, but still was a minor effort.

But 1970’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (eeew, no thanks) is the best sequel starring Lee, and shows Hammer trying to deepen and darken their vampire mytholgy that was starting to go stale in the late ‘60s. Director Peter Sasdy, a Hungarian émigré, crafted a movie that overturned the Victorian values of the earlier films, showing them as empty and nothing more than façades. In this setting, Dracula is the “bloody truth,” ripping the hypocrisy apart. It’s a surprisingly black-hearted film, and it stands out amongst the mediocre sequels.