Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice 2020: Movies 4 to 7 - Vampires!

Vampire time!
It's October 13 and I've only posted reviews of three of the movies I've watched so far, so it's time for some catch up posts.  Let's dive in with the best possible subject: vampires!

For me, vampires are the pinnacle of gothic glory.  In my last series of posts in 2017, I reviewed the movies: What We Do in the Shadows (my current favorite to start Halloween season), Nosferatu, Fright Night (the old one), and Let Me In (American version).  These are solid vampire flicks, and well worth a watch depending on what you are seeking, such as dark humor, film noir, 80's creepy camp, or maybe something truly disturbing.  I have a massive backlog of vampire movies to watch, so I'm glad to have this excuse to do that and then wallow in their gory glory.

SPOILERS!  LOTS!  (No really)

4.    Let the Right One In - 2008

If you are looking for "I want to be deeply rattled by a vampire movie" then this will probably do the trick.

As I mentioned above, in my first series in 2017, I reviewed the American remake of this movie (Let Me In - 2010).  It was one of the most disturbing vampire movies I'd ever seen.  I decided to revisit the story through the lens of the original film.  The remake is basically the same movie, but there are enough differences that comparing them reveals more depth to this depraved tale.

Both of these movies deliver a wallop of vampire horror that will leave you reeling.  Certainly the movies ask the viewer, "What makes a monster?" both in terms of how people become monsters, and how we define that word.  In spite of the American version being more outwardly violent, this original film is more emotionally brutal and unforgiving, showing the hideous truth of vampirism with an unflinching gaze. 

Oskar is a twelve year old boy whose life is rife with neglect and abuse, particularly from constant bullying at school.  On one hand, he seems sensitive, mild, and good-natured.  On the other, we see evidence that the cycle of bullying is already in motion, as Oskar, who is obsessed stories of murders, acts out pretend revenge with a knife.  In the remake, the same boy (Owen) does not appear so antisocial.

The vampire child Eli has a generally androgynous aspect, but wears dresses and appears to everyone to be a human girl.  She is cold to her henchman Hakan, ordering him about as she fixates on her growing interest in Oskar.  The remake shows the vampire (Abby) to have more apparent compassion for her henchman Thomas, although we cannot know if some or all of this is feigned.  The remake has removed other creepy content including a hoard of cats attacking a newly made vampire, and that same vampire intentionally allowing themselves to be set on fire by sunlight.

So while the remake shows us a vampire slowly exploiting the vulnerability of an isolated boy, the original shows us a vampire encouraging and exploiting a boy's already extant antisocial behavior.  Either way, each film ends with the disturbing certainty that history has repeated itself, and the vampire has once again successfully ensnared a human to become their murdering henchman.  So don't be fooled by reviews describing this movie as "sweet" or "romantic" or other total nonsense.  Eli is a merciless killer who dismembers children.  No amount of potential affection (and it's never clear if there actually is any) that Eli has for Oskar can outweigh her leading him into lifelong bloody servitude.  Overall, I prefer this original to the remake.  It handles greater emotional brutality with more subtlety, and the actress playing Eli is simply sensational in the role.  Definitely a must see for vampire fans, especially those looking for something new under the "sun."

5.    Queen of the Damned - 2002

If you are looking for "I want a vampire movie with cool music that's not otherwise demanding" this one fills the bill.

In spite of my vampire addiction, I've never been an Anne Rice fan.  I tried several times to read some of the novels and stories in her vampire universe, but I've found them kind of boring.  The characters are all so unrelatable that I never cared what what happened to them.  Lestat, the main vampire of most of the stories, is particularly useless.  He is utterly unsympathetic, and as I tried to read the stories I kept hoping he'd get immolated at some point.  Then realized he was going to be a main, continuing character; I lost interest.

So why did I bother with "Queen of the Damned?"  The soundtrack.  I found the soundtrack years back and added a bunch of songs from it to my gritty Halloween playlist.  I finally decided I'd just watch this movie and see if it had any redeeming qualities in addition to the music.

Well, there are a few, but not enough.  Lestat continues to be a literal pain in the neck.  The actor portraying him does a great job, and has the voice, the look, and the arrogance down pat.  It's just that the character itself is a classic depiction of spoiled white royalty; he's a whiny, privileged, mopey baby in a man's body and ... yuck.  But even more of a pain is the bait-and-switch of the promotional images.  The promos show the "Queen of the Damned," a black woman vampire, who is front and center with Lestat behind her.  She looks awesome and very not your typical vampire and I hoped she'd give Lestat the what-for.

Nope.  Instead this movie is sort of about Lestat deciding that mortal life is precious from an I-can-destroy-humans-whenever-I-want-to-and-isn't-that-beautiful view.  It does not make him more palatable.  The glorious Queen only shows up near the end of the movie.  She's looking for Lestat to take him as her King; a kind of consort-slave-trophy to enjoy as she dominates humans and vampires alike.  The actress is terrifyingly perfect, lithe, and lethal.  At a glance you know this thing is not human and only sees you as furniture, at best.  Once you see her, you realize she's the only real vampire in the flick.  

Sadly, at the end she's ganged up on and destroyed by wishy-washy vampires who prefer the skulking-in-shadows lifestyle.  This scene is appalling from a social-justice/feminist perspective - as it is mostly white men and women (vampires) destroying a black woman (vampire.)  No.  Just no.  The apex of all vampiric power has quickened as female, black, confident, carnal - and of course white patriarchy is like "we can't have that, can we?" and down she goes.  Any real vampire would worship her.  Our take-away is that these vampires are still human enough to identify more with their prey than this glorious Queen of wretched evil.  Bah.

I still suggest the movie if only for the one scene where she literally tears the heart out of another vampire and eats it.  She does not look angry or happy as she kills him - that would be too human.  Instead, she's entertained, and perhaps mildly pleased with herself.  But neither he nor the twenty other vampires she kills in that scene are worth a second thought to her.  She does not, as they say, even break a sweat.  The other reason to watch is in fact the soundtrack, which is indeed quite fine.  Otherwise, this movie does not work as either camp, or dark humor, or real scares, or an exploration of mortality, or parody, or an examination of the nature of humanity, or really anything at all ...

6.    Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter - 2012

If you "want a campy, action-movie-style vampire flick with cool effects" then this is one to check out.

I had a great time watching this movie in spite of its many problems.  I'll start with what I liked.  The special effects are pretty good, and the vampires look totally gruesome.  The scenes of the Gettysburg battlefield aren't realistic, but are impressive anyway.  Having Lincoln as an action hero with a classic tragic backstory puts you right into the comic-book plot of the film.  The training montage is over-the-top axe-wielding fun.  There are all kinds of fantastic moments where the bad guys get pwned with improbable, cheer-inducing magnificence.  The women in the film such as Harriett Tubman and Mary Todd are shown as intelligent, bold, and resourceful.  The surprise ending to the climax is actually quite satisfying, and I think for once I won't spoil it.

There was stuff in the movie that was both good and bad, in the sense that having it there both added and detracted at the same time.  The movie posits what might happen if vampires lived in slavery-era America.  The vampires see slavery as a means to obtain lots of disposable people, and they create empires in the south filled with slaves and the vampires that feed off of them.  That is plausible given the setup, but very problematic because it tempts us to dismiss the great evils of slavery as a product of demons, rather than of very real people in the real world acting demonically.  The movie takes an appropriately ethical stance in that it is certainly anti-slavery, but by conflating the evils of vampirism with the evils of slavery, it serves to potentially diminish the contributions of people like Tubman.  I mean, I love a good parody, but this movie can't decide if it's campy, vamp-killing fun or a serious commentary on the blood-sucking nature of slavery.

This leads us to the problems.  First, as noted above, the tone is totally inconsistent.  Is this a farce or a pointed take on civil-war America?  To be both, which is possible, one would need to apply a more nuanced hand than is given to this film.  I was getting whiplash trying to figure out what sort of roller-coaster I'd boarded.  The special effects as noted are cool overall, but the CGI stuff is overdone and not well blended.  The pace is slow then fast then slow then break-neck; the ride on this thing is uncomfortably unpredictable.

It's not unsurprising that I feel compelled to compare this movie to its parody, the 2012 "Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies."  I reviewed that one in 2017.  That is a movie that knows exactly what it is trying to do and hits the bullseye.  Plus the Abe actor is utter perfection.  If you are looking for camp-parody-dark-humor-fun and don't mind trading vampires for zombies, then go there.  If you want a bigger budget, slicker production, and a race-to-the-finish climax, then this vampire flick is where you want to be.  In spite of the issues, it's a great addition to the genre.

7.    A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night - 2014

If your mood is "I want a vampire film that feels brand new and yet timeless, that engages the brain and the emotions, that is dreadful without being overly gory" then give this one a try. 

Actually, it does not matter what mood you are in, you should give this a try because it is nearly flawless.

This film is so visually captivating that I probably should just post a pile of images here, rather than any words.  That would be consistent with the bare-bones dialog.  Everything is spoken in Persian, and the English subtitles rarely wrap to more than one line on the screen.  It's all in black and white, and every single shot is a tiny masterpiece.  This film is described by many as a vampire/ spaghetti-western, as it includes elements like violence, irony, anti-hero(es), a rough-and-tumble setting, deceit, lack of social order/stability, terror, and many of the visual cues and trappings of both of those genres.  

That categorization doesn't tell you anything, though.  And before I tell you anything I probably should watch it at least ten more times so I can figure out some of what the symbolism and imagery is trying to convey.  I mean, the cat for example.  The cat is a critical character in this film, even as it appears only a few times, but those times are pivotal.  Oh yeah, the cat is not mistreated and survives just fine, so you can feel free to watch this movie and see the humans get drained without worry.  

The setting is a fictional Iran, with a town so bleak it's called "Bad City."  A place where there is an open channel filled with bodies that never decay, and no one gives it a second glance as they walk by.  The strong prey on the helpless amid a town of squalor surrounded by desolation and oil rigs pumping endlessly up and down like vampires draining the ground of life.

The pace is slow, sometimes even literally slow-motion.  I can't usually sit still for tense scenes where I can't predict what might happen, but I was mesmerized.  This is a terrible beauty that comments on wealth, class, status, materialism, family, duty, revenge, feminism, power, age, desire, patriarchy, ambition, need, and most of the rest of life and death, too.  Just having the titular character skateboarding down a street with her open chador flowing out behind her like bat's wings is enough commentary to fill an entire book.

My favorite scene, although it's super hard to choose, is the one where our "heroes" meet by the power plant for a "date."  They've already spent the night together, but he has no idea who she is or if she's interested in him beyond that one-night-stand.  He's enthralled with her, and presents her with a pair of diamond earrings that he stole.  He notes her ears are not pierced, and says it's too bad she can't wear them.  She wordlessly (she almost never speaks) hands him a safety pin.  Surprised and also rather weirded-out, he does the job and she puts the earrings in.  You do not see her without them after that.  It's bizarre, tense, and feels utterly vulnerable.  It strikes me that this is their real "sex" scene.  This is the moment of consummation in their relationship.  

I could obviously go on and on about this vampire-art-noir creation, but it really would be better if you just watched it and enjoyed this refreshing and transformative take on the vampire genre.

Image Credits:  Wampire from publicdomainpictures.net.  Let Me In cd cover, promo pic, and movie still. Queen of the Damned dvd cover, movie still, and gif shot from ihorror.com.  Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter dvd cover, gif shot from horrorpix.com, and movie still.  A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night dvd cover and stills from the film.

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