A Fool There Was (1915)

How can it be that “the first-ever vampire movie” was not a proper horror film and didn’t even feature a vampire? Misogyny, that’s how. Silent Era sex symbol Theda Bara stars in 1915’s A Fool There Was as a villainous character billed simply as “The Vampire.” The film itself is an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem titled “The Vampire,” which is quoted on title cards throughout (and was performed in-full by in-the-flesh actors hired for the film’s initial screenings). The poem is meant as a cautionary screed about the dangers of sexually promiscuous women who drain good men of their money & energy, as if they were real-world vampires. Of course, the literary moralizing of the source material did not chastely translate to cinema, which is a visually titillating medium by default. Theda Bara’s portrayal of a scandalous woman who drains wealthy family men of their life & resources for her own pleasure & amusement was not met as a villainous offense. If anything, it established Bara as one of cinema’s earliest femme fatales, directly inspiring the term “vamp” to describe a dangerously sexy woman. A Fool There Was is an age-old cinematic cliché in that way; it’s ostensibly intended to wave a righteous finger the in face of moral transgressions, but only as an excuse to indulge in depicting those transgressions in the first place. The Rudyard Kipling poem it’s adapted from uses the term “vampire” to play into a misogynist trope, only for audiences to fall in love with Bara as the ultimate sexy vamp. You gotta love the movies.

A Fool There Was opens with a heavenly ideal of wealth-class domesticity. A wealthy baker enjoys a day out in the garden with his loving wife & daughter, taking in the full tranquil pleasures offered by Nature & familial love (yuck!). This squeaky-clean reverie is thankfully broken up by Theda Bara’s homewrecking vamp, who’s just getting bored with her latest victim and is looking for her next plaything. At first, her reputation as a dangerous sex symbol is only subtly detectable. She arrives dressed like an old-timey goth on their way to the beach, complete with black lipstick & a Beetlejuice-striped skirt. She shows a little ankle as she lifts her skirt to get into her former lover’s car, but she’s far from a sexual bombshell in this initial introduction. Soon, however, she’s shown in her private bedroom, bending over at exaggerated angles to rummage through her lover’s things and, more importantly, to give the audience a peak down her scandalously loose nightgown. When she reads in the newspaper that the wealthy family-man banker will soon be going on a business trip overseas (unaccompanied by his wife, who is tending to an ill sister), she sets her sights on this new victim and the audience gets to see how the vampire works in action. The seduction part is easy, as the banker gives into her charms before their ship even reaches Europe. His moral & physical decline under her spell is a much more gruesome, gradual process; the banker seems to age 100 years after just a few months with his new life-sucking mistress, while his idyllic family looks on in horror, helpless.

As A Fool There Was is over a century old, most if its tawdry sexuality & filmmaking craft has lost its initial potency. Its early-cinema unsureness of how to fully exploit the medium can be charming – like in early shots where characters appear to be in a black box theater void or in endless title card character introductions that recall the sitcom-parody Too Many Cooks. It can also be off-putting, such as in the depictions of broad racial stereotypes among the film’s vast army of domestic servants. The value of its once-shocking sexuality has also faded in some ways, like the scandalous reveal of a bare ankle in public and the effect of the once-risqué title card “Kiss me, my fool!” Still, Bara makes the film perversely fun to watch. She’s essentially playing a dominatrix who is too good at her job, so that men are eager to implode their lives to serve her. The Vampire laughs openly as she leaves a trail of broken men behind her, unphased by their suicide attempts & the desperate pleas of their families. It’s a misogynist archetype that Bara turns into a femdom fantasy, merely because the camera loves her. Most of Theda Bara’s early pictures were lost in a Fox Studio vault fire in 1937, but her legend as the ultimate vamp persisted anyways, long after the Kipling source material was forgotten. A Fool There Was is a grotesquely regressive literary trope transformed into a perversely fun sexual fantasy through the power of cinema. Instead of waiting to drive a stake through the vampire’s heart, audiences fell hopelessly under her spell, dominated by the allure of the femme fatale.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Blade Trinity & Night of the Creeps (1986)

Welcome to Episode #67 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-seventh episode, Brandon & Britnee continue the crew’s month-long look at the superhero-horror subgenre by discussing all three films in the Blade franchise. Brandon also makes Britnee watch Fred Dekker’s sci-fi horror comedy Night of the Creeps (1986) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

I suscribe to the belief that British director Ken Russell was one of the most underappreciated madmen in all of trash cinema. Titles like The Devils, Crimes of Passion, and Altered States stand as immaculate works of over-the-top shock value provocation. Russell filtered the seedier sex & violence of schlocky genre films through the meticulous aesthetic of art house cinema. He operated as a kind of bad taste prankster who knew deep in his bones how to appeal to a more refined audience, but gleefully indulged in cartoonish violence & sexual humor instead. It’s difficult to say exactly which Ken Russell film would be the perfect introduction to his hyper-violent, oversexed, art house pranksterism (Crimes of Passion is a personal favorite of mine, at least), but his 1988 Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm is as good of a place to start as any. The film operates as a kind of crash course in his pet obsessions as a crude auteur: hallucination, transgressive sex, religious blasphemy, lethal women, etc. It’s by no means his classiest or his most formally precise feature, but it covers a lot of ground on exposing audiences to what makes his work exciting & worthy of reappraisal, while still making no excuses for how cheap & ludicrously ill-considered his personal brand of provocative trash-art cinema could be.

Russell admittedly plays loose with the plot details of Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm novel, reducing its atmospheric (and by all accounts incoherent) horrors into an erotic farce about reptilian vampires. He still shows more respect than that pulpy source material likely deserves, however, as it was written late in Stoker’s life when his mental facilities were fading and included many strange bouts of Dracula-rehashing & racial philosophizing Russell smartly excised. One major difference between the book & the movie is the choice of when to reveal the true nature of the villain. Stoker saves the revelation that the conniving female royal of his novel is actually a shapeshifting snake (“worm” is kind of a misnomer) until very late into the proceeding. Russell, however, wastes no time. Actor Amanda Donohoe’s shapeshifting reptile villain is costumed to look like a bipedal cobra in the film; she wears hoods, scarves, and cowls that immediately make her appear snakelike in her cold, ultra-modernist rural England mansion. She makes no real attempt to hide her reptilian nature from potential victims either: she steals a giant dragon-like snake skull discovered in the first scene for an occultist ritual; she invites visitors to her home to play a Snakes & Ladders board game; she boasts of going “snake watching” in the woods. Long before she reveals her comically oversized vampire fangs & spits hallucination-inducing venom, the audience is well aware that she’s some kind of humanoid “worm.” Russell spends no more time covering up that his villain is a monster than Todd Browning did in his Dracula adaptation. As soon as you see her, you know. The mystery, then, is what sexual, sacrilegious terrors she’s planning to exact on her villains.

Hugh Grant appears as a kind of Van Helsing archetype destined to defeat this reptilian sex villain as part of his family heritage. Peter Capaldi, Catherine Oxenberg, and Sammi Davis round out the cast, partly to maintain Stoker’s original story structure and partly to diversify Donohoe’s victims. Donohoe slithers around in high class dominatrix gear, sexually teasing & occasionally draining the blood of the entire crew and any horny teen boys who happen to wander into her lair. She flicks her tongue before lunging in for a kiss, like a snake surveying its prey. She spits a hallucinatory venom that triggers trippy, sacrilegious imagery pulled directly from previous works Altered States & The Devils. She occasionally transforms into a giant, Falkor-like snake puppet that recalls an especially demonic creation from Sid & Marty Croft. All of this torment & mayhem culminates in a demonic sex ritual that involves a deadly strap-on phallus and a bottomless pit where Donohoe feeds her almighty worm beast. The Lair of the White Worm is a hallucinatory free-for-all of sex, violence, and religious blasphemy, the only possible outcome of Ken Russell making what’s, at heart, a simple vampire picture. If you want to get a good idea of the director’s aesthetic as a madman provocateur, all you need to do is compare this reptilian, horndog monster movie to any stately Dracula adaptation out there (of which there are too many, whereas there’s only one Ken Russell).

Loving Ken Russell means disregarding any & all personal desire for subtlety. Very early on in The Lair of the White Worm Donohoe sensually sucks snake venom out of a hobbled cop’s leg while a cheese-coated saxophone wails on the soundtrack, matching the already porn-level acting of the film’s brayed line readings. In that moment, we know the nature & intent of the villain, the film’s disregard for coming across as erotica, and the exact tone of absurdist humor & violence Russell intends to amuse himself with. All three of those elements are only heightened & dragged further away from subtlety from there. The Lair of the White Worm may not be the director’s most carefully constructed or well-considered work, but it’s pure Ken Russell, something to be cherished by trash-gobblers & cinephiles alike.

-Brandon Ledet

Blood Bath (1966)

As a producer, Roger Corman’s tireless mission to miraculously make money out of scraps of garbage is legendary. He’d often reuse sequences from previous productions, purchase foreign films for American re-edits, rip off his own intellectual properties for self-cannibalized premises, and all other kinds of scrappy cinematic recycling imaginable just to sell a cheap genre picture for a tidy profit. I can’t argue that the 1966 Corman production Blood Bath is the pinnacle result of this kind of absurd, behind the scenes pragmatism gone mad, but it does deserve credit for gathering all of Corman’s penny-pinching schemes into a single project. Corman initially co-produced the Yugoslavian noir picture Operation: Titan with plans to reissue it as an American release. He then hired notable schlockmeister Jack Hill to direct new scenes to recontextualize the film for an American audience, which Hill did by transforming it into an oddly self-serious rip-off of the classic Corman comedy Bucket of Blood, a campy satire of beatniks & artist types. Unsatisfied with Hill’s treatment, titled Portrait in Terror, Corman then hired a third director, The Velvet Vampire’s Stephanie Rothman, who added an entirely new A-plot about a shapeshifting vampire to the mix. You’d think this cocktail of genres & premises would lead to an incoherent mess, which might partially be true, but the final version of Blood Bath Stephanie Rothman delivered is charming in the way that it’s blissfully insane. Corman threw every one of his tactics on how to cheaply scrap together a picture at the screen in a single go and the result is just as fascinating & amusing as it is creatively compromised.

The similarities between Blood Bath & Bucket of Blood’s basic plots are undeniable. A community of comically pretentious visual artists are disturbed when models form their community are reported dead or missing, then appear in the work of a colleague. Hill’s contribution to the film seems largely to be the Bucket of Blood-style humor of this arts scene drama, especially when the artists experiment with new processes for applying paint to canvas, such as shooting it out of a gun or directly applying it via a model’s face. According to Hill, Rothman “ruined” the picture with her vampirirc contribution, which shifts the work into a much more serious, psychedelic tone. If anything, she made it interesting & distinct, steering it away from a straight Bucket of Blood retread. Instead of the awkward bus boy Dick Miller plays in Bucket of Blood, Rothman crafts a villain that goes through Jekyll & Hyde transformations from passionate artist to centuries-old vampire with insatiable appetite. She maintains some of Hill’s humor, even including sequences that are essentially beach blanket parties with bikini babes. This humor is made to clash with a more serious, surreal tone, however, as her vampire/painter struggles with a classic Madonna-whore complex. He is romantically drawn to beautiful women, but transforms into a bloodthirsty monster whenever they make a pass at him, a dynamic that gives the movie a thematic point of view on top of a ridiculously fractured premise. I’m in love with the insane collage that emerges in the final draft of Blood Bath and that credit goes just as much to Rothman’s eye as it does to Corman’s machinations as a producer.

You’ll find very few films that can deliver this much movie in such a short amount of time. At just 60 minutes in length, Blood Bath is filled to the brim with seemingly incongruous, but oddly beautiful sequences: an underwater vampire kill, a rip-off of the carousel sequence from Strangers on a Train, surrealist scenes of women taunting the camera/killer from inside paintings & dreamlike desertscapes, interpretive dance, noir foot chases worthy of The Third Man, etc. Rothman & Corman’s mismatched film collage has no business even being watchable, much less as oddly fun & engaging as it feels as a “final” product (Corman later added several minutes of bikini-clad dancing to fill out more time for a TV-broadcast of the film). Jack Hill deserves some credit for lightening up the mood of the noir sequences with his own layer of beatnik-satirizing Bucket of Blood retreads, but it’s really Rothman’s surrealist eye & Corman’s insane production instincts that make Blood Bath so mesmerizing. Obviously, not all audiences are going to have a stomach for this kind of production-level incoherence, but I urge anyone interested in Corman’s weirdo decision making as a business man to give this picture an honest chance. Besides its easy-to-digest runtime and immediate appeal as an eccentric horror film, Blood Bath is also currently in the public to main and available to watch on Archive.org, so you really have no excuses to give this damned-from-conception Frankenfilm a chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Afflicted (2014), Unfriended (2015), and the Future of Found Footage Horror

After the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the horror market was flooded with found footage echoes of that pioneer work that diluted its legacy. Titles like [Rec.], Willow Creek, Paranormal Activity, and straight-to-DVD dreck too bland to even be named exhausted the possibilities of how the found footage gimmick could be kept fresh on the horror landscape despite the limitations of its form. There’s still an occasional success that follows a traditional found footage formula (The Visit & Creep both immediately come to mind), but for the most part that subgenre still feels oddly faithful to the roadmap laid out by Blair Witch almost two decades ago. For me, the most exciting developments in found footage gimmickry have been the instances where movies leave behind the handheld camcorders of Blair Witch entirely and switch up the technology of the devices used to record their horrors. Our current Movie of the Month, Unfriended, is my go-to example of how updates in technology can keep this genre alive. Framed entirely within the POV of a laptop screen during a deadly Skype conversation, Unfriended offers a new, novel perspective on found footage storytelling. It recaptures the “It could happen to you” verisimilitude of Blair Witch’s camcorder format without merely repeating the trick. The subsequent shift to smartphone POV (via Snapchat) in Sickhouse wasn’t quite as memorable, but at least offers hope that future technology jumps can keep this genre fresh. We can’t continue to produce carbon copies of The Blair Witch Project and expect them to remain effective. Its modes of “documentation” no longer reflect the way we film our lives, in supernatural thrillers or otherwise.

I believe Unfriended is the best technology jump I’ve seen among Blair Witch descendants, but it wasn’t the first. A year before Unfriended hit wide release, a much smaller indie horror titled Afflicted offered its own Blair Witch technology advancement in what could (reductively) be described as GoPro Horror. Written, directed by, and starring Derek Lee & Chris Prowse (who use their own names & old photographs in the film), Afflicted adapts vampire transformation horror to the format of a reality show-style travelogue. Two American buddies take a break from their daily drudgery as an I.T. bro (who’s suffering an aneurysm-causing brain disorder) & a low-level documentarian (who just wants to shake his bestie out of his medically-induced rut) to backpack through Europe in search for excitement, experience, adventure, and distraction. They document their every waking moment on a shared “video travel blog” titled Ends of the Earth. Things take a bad turn when the aneurysm-suffering tech bro engages in a one night stand hookup with a French girl and is unwittingly turned into a vampire. The bubbly self-promo energy of the reality show travelogue then slips away as the focus shifts to documenting the supernatural changes in his body, which range from the ailments & abilities of a superhero to those of a bloodthirsty monster. By the end of the film he’s a fully feral Nosferatu, wreaking havoc in the streets of Paris with wild abandon. Afflicted is an exciting balance of dirt cheap, accessible technology (most notably in its use of GoPro footage) and large scale CGI horror spectacle. The tension between those two aesthetics pumps fresh blood into the veins of two over-drained horror subgenres (the found footage horror & the vampire myth) while still maintain the feeling of two normal buds making a no-budget indie together. As the technology of its camera equipment becomes more obsolete, it might stand a chance as surviving as an essential cultural document, just as Unfriended captures what life online feels like in the 2010s (except maybe with less vampirism & ghost murders, respectively).

As much as I remain impressed with Afflicted’s use of new technology to revitalize the found footage gimmick, I do have to admit that its basic accomplishment have become less novel over time. Spring offered a much better version of the supernatural European vacation from Hell narrative (sans the found footage device). They’re Watching (although total garbage) was more fully invested in the reality show turned found footage horror format (which still has more room to be fully explored). Most importantly, though, Unfriended’s commitment to framing its entire story through a single Skype session has since made Afflicted’s only occasional use of GoPros seem a little half-assed in retrospect. At this year’s New Orleans Film Fest I saw a darkly funny, merciless drama titled Damascene that proved it’s possible to film an entire movie on GoPros without it inherently feeling like a Hardcore Henry-style first person shooter. Afflicted mostly saves its GoPro sequences for its final, action-packed stretch as our vampiric antihero is being chased by Interpol for his crimes against innocent Parisians. Most of the movie is seemingly filmed on handheld digital camcorders, which makes it more a direct Blair Witch descendant than the much more fully committed Unfriended. Still, an intense focus is placed on the technology behind the documentation, even including a scene where all of the documentarian’s gear is laid out & cataloged on a hotel room bed (chest-mounts, GoPros, zoom lenses, etc.). The movie also finds the technological novelty in its attention to the two buddies’ travel blog, especially in how they crowdsource information through the comment sections. Afflicted may be slipping in my estimation in how its GoPro horror gimmick is used to revitalize the found footage format, but it’s still endlessly impressive in how it punches above its weight by playing with the latest available technological tools.

Although Afflicted is not as fully committed to its employment of GoPro technology to revitalize found footage horror as Unfriended was with Skype or Sickhouse was with Snapchat, it’s still worthy as an early signifier that the genre will only survive & remain fresh if it’s allowed to keep up with the technology of its time. I’m not convinced that Afflicted would have been half as interesting as a vampire transformation narrative or as a found footage horror piece without its GoPro technology & travel blog documentation providing modern online culture texture to its basic aesthetic. Just a year later, Unfriended did the same for the traditional ghost story within a found footage context, although admittedly with a fuller, better-realized commitment to its gimmick. It’s unclear what the next technology jump is for the found footage genre (although it’s likely a return to the Sickhouse smartphone gimmick is likely what’s next for Unfriended 2, at least), but the further the genre moves away from the handheld camcorders of The Blair Witch Project the better. There’s no reason for the genre to remain stuck in the technology of 1999 and the more it makes an effort to keep up with the gear available to its characters in the era they’re terrorized onscreen, the more effective it will remain as a mode of true-to-life horror & a cultural document.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017), and last week’s discussion of our hopes for it just-announced sequel.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #41 of The Swampflix Podcast: NosferaToo & A Dark Song (2017)

Welcome to Episode #41 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our forty-first episode, we explore the enduring impact of the silent horror vampire classic Nosferatu (1922). James & Brandon discuss the original Nosferatu, its Herzog-directed remake, and two Hollywood productions that directly pull influence from its legacy.  Also, James makes Brandon watch the occultist indie horror A Darky Song (2017) for the first time. Enjoy!

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

The Reversal of Gendered Violence at the Start of Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow’s synth-scored vampire Western Near Dark is, like most 80s horror entries, a strictly style-over-substance affair. A coven of road-weary vampires comb through the quiet roads of the American Southwest for bloody, late night meals, only finding conflict in their internal squabbles over who should be allowed to join them for the hunt. The movie is most memorable for its Tangerine Dream soundtrack, the unhinged alpha male performance from Bill “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” Paxton, and the dive bars, oil rigs, and desolate motels that define its setting. Still, there’s a surprisingly potent moment of tinkered-with gender politics at the film’s beginning that lingers in its atmosphere, informing the surface pleasures that follow. If it weren’t for the opening sequence, the film would play like a romantic tragedy about two star-crossed lovers from irreconcilable worlds, like a vampiric Romeo & Juliet. Instead, it’s a thematically powerful genre film. Near Dark‘s opening is the strongest sequence in a movie that wouldn’t be half as good without it.

A group of tough guy townies greet each other with the masculine ritual of friendly, pantomimed violence, a kind of literal ribbing. As group, they ogle a female stranger who emerges, alone, outside a nearby dive bar. After arguing over which of the young, wannabe cowboys has dibs on approaching her, she’s flirted with by a farmer’s son, who’ll later prove to be our de facto protagonist. Licking ice cream like a child and being stalked like prey by young, sexed-up Western men, we immediately fear for this woman’s well-being. The townie talks her into his pick-up truck, which he uses to drive her to a nearby, isolated horse stable, despite her protests that she wants to go home before dawn. Flirtatiously lassoing her and hiding the truck keys in his pocket, the man is essentially holding this stranger hostage for “a kiss.” He’s in control of the scene and the never-ending history of sexual violence perpetrated against women by a “boys will be boys” rape culture prompt us to expect her to suffer a vicious attack in this moment of blatant vulnerability. Then, when the two strangers do kiss, the gendered power dynamics of their exchange shift. The woman’s vampiric fangs are exposed and it’s the man that’s made vulnerable, an provocative reversal of the dynamic the audience expects.

It’s difficult to say, exactly, how this opening affects the rest of Near Dark. After the strange couple exchanges their initial kiss, the woman shifting into the dominant position for leverage & sinking her vampire teeth into her victim’s neck, their power dynamics essentially remain fixed. The man, now a vampire himself, remains dependent on the woman who turned him, sometimes literally crawling towards her to be hand-fed blood. It’s tempting to read the film as a kind of allegory for sexual trauma after the violence of their initial exchange. The man limps away into the light of dawn and immediately starts smoldering in his contact with sunlight, like a sexual assault survivor left alone the morning after an attack. The trauma of being turned has caused him to fall out with friends & family, with no one to turn to for help except the uneasy camaraderie of fellow vampires. Like with many victims of violence, he’s also dependent on & forgiving of the women who turned him, remaining emotionally attached to his abuser. The strength of the film’s opening sequence is evident in the way its echo touches every exchange that follows, even though it’s only a few brief minutes in a much larger picture.

It’s unlikely that any of those direct, concrete metaphors about sexual assault trauma or domestic abuse were intended to carry on throughout Near Dark‘s runtime. What makes the gender reversal of the violence in its opening sequence so powerful is that it’s handled delicately, without a strict 1:1 metaphor in its vampiric disruption of gendered power dynamics. The breathing room that decision to leave its meaning ambiguous allows is essential to making the film’s following scenes, which are more focused on 80s stylishness, carry much more significance in a cultural, gender politics context. Bigelow appeared as an actor in the 1983 feminist D.I.Y. punk masterpiece Born in Flames. She’s the only female Oscar winner in the Best Director category, with no women even being nominated since her win for The Hurt Locker in 2009. Still, when I think of what her work in the Hollywood system signifies in a feminist context, I always think to the beginning of Near Dark. The way the physical language of the film’s opening scene evokes the power dynamics of a highly gendered social interaction between strangers and then flips the exchange on its head to shift power & vulnerability is tense, arresting stuff. What’s even more impressive, though, is how the inversion of that expectation then lingers in the film’s otherwise flashy atmosphere, turning what should be a fairly standard vampire romance into something much more socially & intellectually evocative.

-Brandon Ledet

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Real life is a total bore, which is why most “based on a true story” movies come across as fairly mundane in comparison to revisionist pieces that play fast & loose with the facts. There are few biopics & fact-faithful dramas that can stand up to the entertainment value of Sofia Coppola dressing up Marie Antoinette in Chuck Taylors & Siouxsie and The Banshees or Todd Haynes supposing that Oscar Wilde was a space alien who passed on extraterrestrial queer magic to glam rock gods/lovers “David Bowie” & “Iggy Pop.” These factual liberties always rely on the excuse that they are aiming for a greater macro truth larger in scale than the finer details of reality, but in a more practical sense they also make for better, more interesting art. The early 00s horror comedy Shadow of the Vampire, co-produced by Nic Cage of all people, dives head first into this playful style of historical revisionism in its retelling of the production of the 1922 silent horror classic Nosferatu. On one level, the film aims to capture a greater truth about the essence of Nosferatu, particularly that the film’s power lies in the illusion that its monstrous star, Max Schreck, is a real life vampire & a force of Evil, not just a great method actor in harrowing makeup. Mostly, though, the movie uses that conceit as an excuse to have fun with the setting & aesthetic of a silent film shoot, an excellent springboard for horror-themed comedic absurdity.

Besides its irreverent search for entertainment value over realism, Shadow of the Vampire largely excels based on the casting of its leads. Willem Dafoe’s vampiric estimation of Max Schreck & John Malkovich’s perverted/exasperated straight man visionary F.W. Murnau, the director of Nosferatu, are excellent foils for each other, so similar in their violently ambitious thirsts that the actors could have too easily swapped roles. Dafoe’s physical comedy as Schreck, particularly in the buffoonish rodent faces he makes between takes, somewhat disrupt his illusion of a dangerous monster by turning him into a horny goofball. Murnau’s fear of & exhaustion with Schreck’s antics, which take vampiric method acting to the point of real life murder & blood-drinking, are hilarious in their participation in a straight man tradition. He struggles in vain to maintain normalcy & complete the shoot despite his star (who may or may not be a “real” vampire) gradually murdering his entire crew. The movie has some fun with real-life Nosferatu lore, especially in the detail that it shamelessly ripped off Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, but mostly just has a laugh at the idea of method acting taken to a cartoonish extreme. There’s a pretty clear road map in that line of humor for a movie to make fun of Jared Leto’s behind the scene antics on the set of Suicide Squad, presuming anyone remembers that film in 80 years. Imagine a comedy about DCEU execs wondering in fear if Leto was just a pretentious ass terrorizing his coworkers with dead pigs & used condoms for no reason or if he was a real life murder-clown. Shadow of the Vampire already delivers that kind of meta movie-production humor, one that works especially well whenever Malkovich & Dafoe share the screen.

Even with its irreverent historical revisionism & violent screwball comedy antics, Shadow of the Vampire still impresses with its sense of visual style. With the intertitles, Art Deco stylization, and wood panel cameras of the silent film era, the movie has much classier stage dressing than what would typically accompany comedies this goofy. As an actor who had to survive Shreck’s vampiric thirsts, Eddie Izzard especially has fun with the vaudeville style vamping that defined the performances in most silent pictures. This is especially amusing in juxtaposition with the snootiness of Murnau’s sense of self-importance & the supposed prestige of black & white filmmaking. Shadow of the Vampire also frames this imagery with the drastic Dutch angles & color filters of a comic book movie to match its over-the-top tone, recalling touchstones like Burton’s Batman & Raimi’s Darkman. Unfortunately, this visual energy doesn’t bleed over much to the narrative style. Shadow of the Vampire is structured in a way where Nosferatu is shot in sequence so that the movie & the movie-within-the-movie can run parallel in their progress. It’s a clever structure that pays off well overall, but something feels frustratingly unrushed in the stretches where the production of Nosferatu is halted due to Schreck’s bloodthirsty ways. Whenever the Nosferatu film shoots are derailed, Shadow of the Vampire feels like a kind of hangout film, very much relaxed in delivering its horror & comedy beats. I don’t especially mind hanging out on these silent horror sets in this comic book vision of 1920s Berlin, but it’s rarely a good idea for a comedy to feel this unintentionally labored.

Most importantly, as an awkward workplace comedy where a madman pervert auteur struggles to maintain order despite his star actor (who may or may not be a vampire) murdering the rest of his crew, Shadow of the Vampire is damn funny. It pretends to deliver the sophisticated, well-behaved tone of a sober biopic, but everything about Dafoe’s squinched-up, bloodthirsty rat faces & Malkovich’s over-the-top exasperation is hilariously absurd. The odd thing is that this tone is just as true to the spirit of the original Nosferatu as the suggestion that Max Schreck may have been a “real” vampire. The actor’s 1922 performance is oddly tinged in slapstick humor, including one scene where he carries his own coffin under his arm that would have been considered “too much” if restaged here. It’s not difficult to see why he’s been resurrected as a half creepy/half goofy comedy icon in films like What We Do in the Shadows & Shadow of the Vampire, even if they had to tear apart the truth to get to his essence.

-Brandon Ledet

Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)

I don’t know why I’m suddenly fascinated by the schlocky career of William Beaudine. The only two films I’ve previously seen from the professionaly subpar director, The Ape Man & Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, both tested my usual unending patience for poverty row garbage starring Bela Lugosi, who I love dearly. Yet, there’s an undeniable draw to Beaudine’s schlocky frivolity, no matter how often the promise of his films’ premises fail to pay off. Take, for instance, his final two productions before retirement/death. Filming both titles in just eight days on the same Californian ranch, Beaudine capped off his career with the “Weird West” double bill of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. There’s no way either film could live up to the full schlock potential of their titles, thanks to Beaudine’s passionless workman sense of craft. Just the mere fact that films exist on the market with such preposterous titles is enough to draw me in as an audience, though, no matter how many times I’ve been burned before. In that way William Beaudine may just have been a movie/money-making genius.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Billy the Kid Versus Dracula is that it was filmed in 1960s color instead of 1950s black & white. Otherwise, it’s the exact unimpressive mashup of supernatural action & lackluster romance you might expect from the title. Billy the Kid is a real life historical figure, placing the prestige & plausibility of this work somewhere around the heights of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In the film, he’s posited as a retired gunfighter, an outlaw made good. His determination to live a quiet life is jeapordized when his young fiancee is hypnotized and quarantined by a vampire (never once referred to as Dracula in the script) who arrives in their small Old West town posing as her uncle. Everyone else seems to ignore the improbability that this oddly incestuous European man would be this teenage woman’s uncle and accepts him as her new guardian after he drains her parents of their blood. Only Billy the Kid senses that something is afoul and must murder the vampire invader in a way that both doesn’t arouse suspicion from the law and trades in his pistol-shooting tactics for a traditional heart-staking. It’s all very silly.

Unfortunately, the silliness at the core of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula has all the urgency of a Halloween-themed episode of Bonanza or Gunsmoke. When the vampire hypnotizes women he glows red and closely resembles an illustration of Satan. His bat form is also adorably shoddy, like a Party City decoration, and is used as silhouetted screen wipes during the opening credits. The rest of the movie is on the most boring end of cheap Western media, however, and it’s not at all surprising that this “Weird West” double bill was financed by television producers. I’m much more in tune with the campy pleasures of cheap horror than whatever people see in cheap Westerns, so maybe the Cowboys & Indians gunplay of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula would play better for audiences who never tire of grizzled men with six shooters who uniformly refer to Native Americans as “savages.” I guess since my interest in watching the film was only piqued during its few stray vampire attacks, I might have been better off watching a different Dracula film altogether, but I will admit the absurdity of the setting has an endearing novelty to it that a 70min feature can easily sustain while remaining moderately charming.

As tickled as I am by the Billy the Kid Versus Dracula‘s titular premise, the movie has no excuse to be as dull or as uninventive as it is, especially considering its mid-60s release date. I like to imagine an alternate universe where William Beaudine were more passionate about his absurdist schlock. A version of this film made in the 1950s by a fired up Ed Wood could easily have been an all-time​ cult classic, maybe even with Bela Lugosi in the villainous lead. Beaudine manages to reduce something so wonderfully outlandish to a by the numbers, television-esque work of supernatural tedium. I was only moderately entertained by it for a few isolated stretches, but I still can’t resist the urge to watch its sister film, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein‘s Daughter anyway. Who could pass up a title like that, no matter who’s behind the camera? I am my own worst enemy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Return of the Vampire (1943)

“The imagination of man at times sires the fantastic and the grotesque. That the imagination of man can soar into the stratosphere of fantasy is attested by . . . The Return of the Vampire.”

By the 1940s the major studio horror boom most notably typified by Universal’s Famous Monsters brand had all but dried up. This was bad news for many horror legends, including enduring cult icon Bela Lugosi, who had been consistently typecast as vampires and mad scientist types since he first struck gold as the star of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. Before heading into a long, dispiriting run of playing second fiddle or headlining B-pictures on poverty row, Lugosi had his one last gasp as a major studio leading man in the 1940s. Although he had played Dracula knockoffs before in titles like Devil Bat & Mark of the Vampire and Columbia could not secure rights to the Dracula name, The Return of the Vampire is widely considered to be an “unofficial sequel” to the Tod Browning film. It would by no means be Bela Lugosi’s last great film, but there is a certain class & production value to it that would be missing from most of his later works, so it’s an easy film to underestimate and, thus, be impressed by the ways it surpasses expectations set by its B-picture contemporaries.

The Return of the Vampire‘s narrative setting is split between the two World Wars. The Lady of a house being used as a makeshift infirmary to accommodate the casualties of that war is perplexed when a number of her patients appear to be suffering from anemia. Their only other shared symptom? Two small puncture wounds on each of their necks. This, of course, means there’s a vampire nearby, revealed to be Bela Lugosi’s Not-Dracula hypnotist. As he sleeps through the daylight, Not-Dracula keeps a werewolf on staff as a permanently hypnotized servant who does his bidding while he sleeps. Lady Jane and her own staff of medical academics recognize the signs of vampiric activity immediately and recite plainly for the audience rules like aversion to sunlight, stakes to the heart, lack of a reflection, the entire crash course. Their fight to slay the vampire & convert his werewolf servant back to his human form is a decades-long struggle that’s blatantly stated to be a Good vs Evil battle in the most traditionally Christian of terms. The only real variation to the way this story naturally plays out in the Dracula knockoff genre is in its wartime setting, which introduces a sense of chaos in its blitz-style attacks & air raids that frequently disrupt the flow of the conflict in a refreshingly inventive way.

The Return of the Vampire is a surprisingly classy, well-paced & well-funded production that relieves the sting of more degrading works Lugosi was paraded through in the 40s & 50s, titles like Zombies on Broadway & Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. There’s a little Ed Woodian use of wartime stock footage, the werewolf’s Shakespearean delivery veers perilously close to camp, and the film’s smoke machine budget appears to be wildly out of control, but otherwise The Return of the Vampire is surprisingly convincing as a legitimate Hollywood production. I was at first a little weary of its Christian moralizing about the power of Good versus the pitfalls of Evil (especially because it’s antithetical to what audiences would have gladly been paying to see), but even that tension leads to a nicely played, calmly bitter climactic showdown at a church organ that’s all solemn grimace instead of overblown moralizing. The whole film has a quietly menacing tone in that way, with an intense focus in the imagery of hypnosis, werewolf transformations, and women & children being attacked in their sleep through blown-open bedroom windows. The Return of the Vampire isn’t as prestigious as previous Lugosi pictures like Dracula or The Black Cat, but it does excel at what separates these works from the poverty row B-pictures he’d soon slip into: atmosphere. That heightened sense of spooky, vaguely lavish horror film atmosphere is well worth luxuriating in, as it would soon disappear from Lugosi’s career.

-Brandon Ledet