Boys from County Hell (2021)

Much like with zombies, it’s easy to convince yourself that every possible angle on vampire lore has already been covered in movies, leaving no more room for novelty or innovation.  To its credit, the Irish horror comedy Boys from County Hell points to a pretty major oversight in that seemingly overworked genre, an obvious angle on the vampire movie as an artform that’s hard to believe hasn’t been covered before.  In practice, it’s a fairly standard indie horror about working class joe schmoes’ war with an ancient vampire.  However, its locally-sourced vampire lore predates the Bram Stoker Dracula novel that most other vampire movies pull direct influence from, clearing out the cobwebs of a now ancient genre to make its archetypal ghoul surprisingly fresh again.  Too bad its chosen POV & tone feel just as tired as the vampire mythos of the least-inspired movies it’s attempting to subvert.

Boys from County Hell is not at all shy about expressing its boredom with standard vampire lore.  The film is set in the small Irish town where Bram Stoker researched his genre-defining novel, using local folklore about a vampiric demon named Abhartach as inspiration for the broader details of Count Dracula.  As a result, the town has become a minor vampire-themed tourist attraction, drawing the most annoying of foreign backpackers to Abhartach’s grave and to the town’s only pub, The Stoker.  Local soccer & construction bros roll their eyes at the intrusion of outsiders, complaining between pints of beer that “Most people don’t even know Stoker was Irish” in thick, subtitle-necessary accents.  Of course, they’re eventually confronted with the “true” version of the mythical vampire once Abhartach’s grave is inevitably disturbed, unleashing an in-the-flesh bloodsucker on the unsuspecting working-class townies who’ve long dismissed the ghoul as an old wives’ tale.

To be honest, there isn’t much innovation or novelty in the movie’s actual vampire action once Abhartach is freed from his grave.  Sure, some of the long-established Rules of horror-movie vampirism are proven to be nonsense (re: sunlight, crucifixes, stakes to the heart, etc.), but much of the set pieces & iconography feel overly familiar for a movie that deliberately intends to upend its chosen genre.  Even Abhartach himself is designed to look like a Nosferatu type, recalling the equivalent ancient roommate in Taika Waititi’s own horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows.  The most the film really distinguishes him from Dracula is in his method of extracting victims’ blood, which is more as a kind of organic magnet than a direct suction technique.  That choice does lead to some stomach-churning rivers of blood that gush out of the undeserving townies—a truly horrific sight—but I wouldn’t say it’s enough to subvert the entire vampire genre in any substantial way.

I wouldn’t need Boys from County Hell to do more to reinvigorate the vampire movie’s basic tropes & imagery if there were anything else of interest outside those defiantly traditional scares.  The titular lads who guide the film’s tone & POV are total bores, the kind of one-dimensional bros that could only be worth following if they were also targets of parody.  Instead, the film is clearly aligned with their macho sensibilities, as reflected in its jocky soundtrack & humor.  There’s only one woman of note in the entire cast (Louisa Harland, the weirdo cousin from Derry Girls, in a minor supporting role), but there are sleazy guitar riffs a plenty.  As a result, I personally struggled to connect with this on any level beyond its direct commentary on the tired tropes of the vampire genre.  That academic commentary was just enough to make the film worth a one-time look, but I doubt I’ll be returning to it in the future.  I’ll save all my Irish horror comedy love for Extra Ordinary, a movie wherein women exist and truck-commercial guitar licks are rightfully mocked.

-Brandon Ledet

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Director Guy Maddin is a weird little cookie. Admittedly I’ve only seen a small sampling of his work, but I’ve yet to fall in love with another one of his features quite as hard as I did with his beer-themed black comedy The Saddest Music in the World. His films are always interesting, though, if a little exhausting. Last year’s The Forbidden Room was a beautiful set of interconnected, humorous vignettes that worked really well for me as isolated short films, kind of like high art sketch comedy, but were especially tiring as a full-length collection. Looking a little further into Maddin’s catalog, though, the director has plenty of full-length experiments dedicated to a single idea; his ballet horror Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, for instance, is a much more focused & disciplined effort that matches his trademark visual aesthetic to its most logical genre structure. By fully committing to a single narrative & matching Maddin’s deliberately aged visuals to a silent horror era aesthetic, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary proves to be a much more digestible exhibition of the director’s peculiar talents than any of his vignette-structured works. This is a film with extremely limited commercial appeal and it’s one that might take the full context of his career to fully appreciate what he’s doing with the material, but it’s just as beautiful and amusing and flippantly high brow as anything he’s ever accomplished. I love seeing him indulge a single idea at a feature’s length and Pages from a Virgin’s Diary exemplifies exactly why that kind of extended focus is ideal for his directorial style, even when the main conceit is so narrowly minded.

Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is not a ballet-themed horror so much as a horror-themed ballet. The film finds Maddin shooting a straightforward ballet production of the Dracula story in a cinematic context. Instead of hanging back to display the dancers’ full bodies & artistry, he cuts the frame in very tightly and adds silent film era intertitles to advance the plot instead of conveying story entirely through dance. The playing-to-the-back-row stage play expressiveness of the ballet works really well in tandem with Maddin’s style, though, which requires a broad physical performance to recall the vaudevillian days of early cinema. Often, Pages from a Virgin’s Diary plays like a high art horror comedy. It makes a weird joke out of the details of Dracula lore: drowning the frame in cartoonishly large piles of garlic, mirroring Love & Friendship‘s character introduction gags with details like “Eater of Bugs,” playing the bumbling hubris of men for humor (like when Van Helsing performs the most inefficient & smugly disgusted gynecological exam of all time on Dracula’s prime victim). Maddin’s sly humor is contrasted with the dead babies, decapitations, and sexual violence of the source material to make for a truly horrifying, but strikingly flippant viewing experience, one that’s sex jokes & vampire kills are made oddly delicate by its very nature as a ballet. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary might be the kind of high faulting art film pretension that rolls eyes & changes channels at first glance, but it’s also playfully subversive in its prankster humor & genuine horror thrills, making for a very worthy entry in the director’s catalog, despite its deceptively slight premise.

Of course, as with all Guy Maddin projects, the flashiest aspect of Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is the director’s dedication to visual craft. Deliberately degraded film, tinted color changes, a screen segmented into tight parallel lines: Maddin seems to be working in a digital medium here, but his trademark throwback to ancient cinema past matches the material exceedingly well, making me desperately curious about what a high budget version of this movie would look like. The ballet aspect of the film is the only dynamic that distinguishes it from a genuine silent horror, but that aspect does feed into Maddin’s aesthetic as a traditionalist. I also had great appreciation for the way he played with the film’s pacing, speeding up comedic bits to a movie trailer tempo for greater humorous effect and slowing down certain ballet flourishes for moments of lyrical contrast. You won’t find many horror comedies this visually interesting or poetically minded, with giant pipe organs spewing green gas & perverted sex demons filling the frame between subtle gags about modesty & desire. Even if it isn’t his best film, you also won’t find a much more concise argument for Maddin’s distinct talents as a director, as he transforms traditional mediums like ballet, silent film, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula into something entirely new & oddly fresh. I’d love to dig up more of his features that are dedicated to exploring a single concept for the entirety of their runtimes. He seems like a director who has too many ideas at once and too little time or funding to follow them all at length, so I should probably be exceedingly grateful for the times such as this, when he finds inspiration to break out of his usual short film format and follow one spectacularly weird idea (say, a traditional ballet shot as a high art horror comedy) to a feature length. It’s his best self.

-Brandon Ledet

A Snapshot of the Vampire-Crowded Box Office that Buried Innocent Blood (1992)

It’s difficult to say for sure exactly why our current Movie of the Month, John Landis’ vampire mafia horror comedy Innocent Blood, flopped on its initial release in 1992. Critics were lukewarm at best to the film, but similar opinions from folks like Roger Ebert about Landis’ An American Werewolf in London did little to stop that film from gaining a cult audience just a decade prior. Personally, and I know this isn’t a very popular take, I feel that Innocent Blood is pretty much on par in quality with An American Werewolf, especially in its horrific special effects & dark sense of humor. So, it puzzles me exactly why An American Werewolf hextupled its budget at the box office while Innocent Blood failed to gain traction.

Whatever the exact reason for the disparity in Landis’ only two horror comedy features’ financial successes, it could not have helped Innocent Blood‘s chances that the film arrived during a particularly active year for vampire cinema.  While An American Werewolf in London had only to compete with The Howling & Wolfen in 1981 (not that three werewolf movies in one year isn’t impressive), Innocent Blood shared a calendar year with no less than at least seven other vampire features. There were certainly vampire films that made a great deal of money in 1992, but among the dozens of similar works released in the late 80s & early 90s it’s still conceivable that a couple of good ones could’ve gotten buried by the crowded market, Innocent Blood being chief among them.

I’m not going to bore you with reviews of each of 1992’s vampire movies. I will, however, link you to the trailers for every one that I could find, just to give you an idea of how overwhelming the year’s onslaught of vampire media might’ve been. Innocent Blood was very much of its time & couldn’t possibly have been made in another era, and it’s that exact quality I believed contributed to its financial & critical downfall. 1992’s selection of vampire films are chronologically listed below along with their IMDb-provided plot synopses & dates of release to provide context of the crowded vampire market Innocent Blood was facing.

Sleepwalkers, released April 10, 1992

“A mother-and-son team of strange supernatural creatures move to a small town to seek out a young virgin to feed on.” [written for the screen by Stephen King]

Bloodlust, released April 23, 1992

“Three vampires wander the streets of Melbourne killing, screwing and taking drugs. They decide to carry out a heist, stealing three million and attracting the attention of various psychotics, who chase them through a blood spattered odyssey into the Melbourne underground.”

My Grandpa is a Vampire (aka Grampire), released June 8, 1992

“Sent on a trip from California to New Zealand to visit with his eccentric grandfather, Lonny discovers that his grandpa is a vampire. Unnerved at first, he soon discovers that his grandpa is a good vampire.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, released July 31, 1992

“A flighty teenage girl learns that she is her generation’s destined battler of vampires.” [written, of course, by Joss Whedon]

Innocent Blood, released September 25, 1992

“Marie is a vampire with a thirst for bad guys. When she fails to properly dispose of one of her victims, a violent mob boss, she bites off more than she can chew and faces a new, immortal danger.” [directed, of course, by John Landis]

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released November 13, 1992

“The vampire comes to England to seduce a visitor’s fiancée and inflict havoc in the foreign land.” [directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the most successful vampire picture of 1992]

Tale of a Vampire, released November 20, 1992

“Condemned to life without end, and to an undying passion for a lost love he can never find, a vampire stalks a beautiful young woman.”

Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, released December 7, 1992

“Alexander Hell, SCOTT SHAW, is a cross-dimensional mercenary. He rides his Harley out of the dark abyss to send ancient vampires back to Hell.”

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, 1992’s Innocent Blood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet