Saturday, October 22, 2016

Honourable Mention: Castlevania: Hymn of Blood

It might seem odd to some of you that I would give this an honourable mention rather than a review. However, despite some professional talent involved, this is a fan film that was originally released as a web serial and can now be watched as a complete film for free. So, notwithstanding the fact that it is actually better quality than some commercial releases, an honourable mention it is.

It was directed by Benji Gillespie and first released in 2012 and is based on the Konami game series. I have played a little of Castlevania (mostly Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, which I abandoned eventually as the ported keyboard controls for PC were, quite simply, horrendous) so know a little background but the film story was well laid out and knowledge of the games is not a necessity.

It begins in Dracula’s Castle and a woman, Isabella (Dimitra Jiova) is giving birth. A priest (Patrick Gorman, Crimson Throne) complains that there is not much time, much to the chagrin of the midwife (Jen Hogan), who realises that Isabella is bleeding too much. The child is born as the sun sets and we see a hand emerge from a stone sarcophagus.

Isabella dies
Isabella holds her child for a moment and names him Simon. There is a letter she has written for him to give when the time is right. In answer as to why they cannot do the ritual instead, the priest suggests to the midwife that the ritual contains and does not destroy the evil – only Simon can do that. The baby is smuggled from the castle and a still born from the village burned in its place. Isabella dies. Dracula (Eric Etebari, Kiss of the Vampire & Vegas Vampires) comes into the room and sees that his son and his wife are both dead. For their failure he feeds off the midwife and rips the priest’s heart out.

Reinhardt and Trevor
Jump forward a couple of decades (having not seen 12 members of the secret society the Brotherhood of Light perform the containing ritual) and we meet Simon Belmont (Rob Norton) who works on a farm with his brother and father and mother (he is adopted, of course). His father, Trevor (David M. Edelstien), was a member of the Brotherhood of Light but when his brother Reinhardt (John Henry Richardson) comes and suggests that the Brotherhood members who performed the ritual are being killed he is dismissive.

Marina Sirtis as Persena
That night General Thain (Michael Dorn, I am Weasel: I am Vampire) attacks the farm, killing Trevor and taking an amulet of blood he used in the ritual and also killing the brother. Leaving his men to finish the rest of the farm off, Simon is able to kill them and the next day his adopted mother gives him Isabella’s letter. He and Reinhardt go off to seek advice and to stop Dracula. On the way they meet a group of gypsies, led by matriarch Persena, played by Marina Sirtis (Vampire Riderz) who is clearly having a great time in her cameo.

Eric Etebari as Dracula
Visually, whilst there is clearly some green screen work, this is a notch above many straight to DVD and VoD commercial efforts. Some of the effects are a tad clunky (the werewolf effect is comparatively poor, for instance) but they are often much better than, say, SyFy Channel effects. The acting is generally above average – the benefit of getting professionals involved – and John Henry Richardson steals scenes whenever he is on screen.

Jim Tavaré as the Grey Man
The story needed some expansion, the development of Simon warranted more time. There is a Dracula backstory with him seeking immortality and finally being granted it by the Grey Man (Jim Tavaré) – with a hint of more nefarious doings by the Grey Man at the end of the film. The melee was perhaps a little tentative and could have benefitted from better fight choreography or perhaps just more proficient doubles, that said I have seen a lot worse.

The film is definitely worth your time – clearly a labour of love. It can be viewed in full on Vimeo and the imdb page is here.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Blood Reunion 2: Madeline – review

Director: Jim DeVault

Release date: 2015

Contains spoilers

I reviewed Jim DeVault’s Blood Reunion a little while ago and whilst it wasn’t the greatest film ever made, I did enjoy watching it.

Thus this “sequel” was anticipated as I expected the filmmakers to build on the foundation of the previous film. I put sequel in inverted commas as it is from the same universe as Blood Reunion (and features a family reunion) and I think that the unnamed vampire who triggered the events of the first film is the vampire Morgan Locke (Jim DeVault) from this film. However, beyond that they are unrelated.

Cierra Angelik sd Madeline
So there is a quote from Byron’s the Giaour, then the film moves to a car where a couple are making out as a storm rolls in. The bloke goes down on his woman (Carly Capra) and a young girl, Madeline (Cierra Angelik), appears behind her. She opens the door, pulls the woman out and drags her off before getting him. Two things struck me – the sound was bad, overpowered by incidental sounds, and the lighting wasn’t up to much.

shaky camera
The film’s worst moment of camera work, however, was over the opening credits as the camera tracked a mini driving along. Whether it was an interior shot where the camera tried to hone in on the rear view mirror – and bounced all over the place – or whether it just bounced as it tracked the rear of the car, it was awful camera work. Having been used for the establishing journey – as it were – it set all the wrong tone with the viewer, essentially telling us that this film was truly amateurish.

Bridgette and Victoria
The mini is being driven by Bridgette (Sarah Bell) and, now that her mother is dead, she is going to meet a side of the family she was estranged from. This was plot unimportant except for introducing a character who was initially unaware/ignorant of the other characters. She meets her Aunt Victoria (Lorraine Eubank, Blood on the Highway) and I was struck at how unnatural the dialogue felt between the two and at how Lorraine Eubank failed to make any form of eye contact with Sarah Bell, within the scene, making the exchange look altogether artificial.

Jynx and Bridgette
Anyway in the household for the annual reunion are Victoria’s husband Frank (Kevin Scott Fuller), Victoria’s daughter Jynx (Jessica Willis) and her partner Todd (Joshua Briscoe), Aunt Ethel (Nicole Holt, who was also in Blood on the Highway and played a different character in Blood Reunion) and her letch husband Walter (John Pinder), family friend Gaston (Steven N. Russell) and the household’s servant Martin (Rafeal Enrique Santiago). The fact that the servant was the only black character sent the entirely wrong message, the house they filmed in was – I felt – considerably smaller than the house they pretended it was and a sub plot about a peeper who has drilled a hole into the only bathroom (who just happens to be Martin, sending another negative racial message) went nowhere and was absolutely pointless.

Martin as a vampire
Anyway, Bridgette puts her foot in it by asking about Jynx’ sister and is told she was killed recently by a wild animal. Actually, unbeknown to Ethel and Walter she was turned into a vampire by ancient vampire Morgan Locke and was about to be killed by occult researcher/vampire hunter Gaston but the family intervened. She is now locked in the shed and fed captured animals. Walter stumbles on her and she drinks his blood, kills him and then slips her chains and escapes. We then get a take on Ten Little Indians – with the victims turning into vampires.

Vampire lore is that a stake will stop a vampire, but remove it and the vampire will up and around again. An older vampire can actually pull the stake out themselves, but even a young vampire must be beheaded and cremated to actually kill them. Vampires prey on their loved ones first and a bite causes turning, either straight away or after a short time period, when they die, if the feed is interrupted. Crosses can hold a vampire back – but it isn’t a constant and the vampire really would have had to have been a Christian in life. An older vampire can mojo a mortal, it would seem. Presumably vampires are very strong, as a little girl like Madeline can overpower a large adult male, and if you think too hard about how much blood she must have ingested (she drains several adults) and where it goes, well let’s just say that you’ll be left with questions…

Jim DeVault as Morgan Locke
All in all, this came across as more amateurish than the first film, rather than stepping up the game. The story was essentially Ten Little Indians, as I mentioned, but raises questions about the motivation of Morgan Locke that are at least intriguing (and presumably film number 3 will examine those). The staking effects looked quite good, as did the bite effects, given the budget. However, the dialogue was poor at times, the delivery not brilliant and whilst I appreciate they did their best to make do with the locations they had, better outside lighting and camera work – especially over the credits – were most definitely needed. Unfortunately, for me, this takes a step back from the first film. 3 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

American Horror Story: Hotel – review

Directors: Various

First Aired: 2015

Contains spoilers

I have to open this review with the admission that I have not been watching American Horror Story as a series. I watched the first couple of episodes of season 1 and just didn’t get into it, however, as this season (5) had vampires in it, it had to be watched. For those who know as little, or even less, than me, it is an anthology television series with each series self-contained (ish, I am led to believe that there is some crossover in this season with the first season and the third season).

So, vampires – and a haunted hotel, a serial killer, ghosts and demons it would seem. A cornucopia of horror tropes wedged into a series and it was probably this kitchen sink approach that made the season struggle.

Hotel Cortez
The Hotel Cortez is the hotel of the title, a building designed and built by industrialist, sadist and serial killer James Patrick March (Evan Peters) with a built in murder palace theme. March still rules the roost (or spectral roost, at least) as his ghost is trapped in the hotel like anyone else who died there. Corporeally, the top bod is the Countess (Lady Gaga) – born Elizabeth Johnson, later Mrs March and now a vampire who resides in the penthouse with her lover Donovan (Matt Bomer). Donovan’s mother, Iris (Kathy Bates), works at the hotel in order to be close to her son, who detests her.

from the mattress
The first episode sees two Swedish women book into the hotel, be terrorised by a creature in their mattress, then moved rooms whilst they wait for the police to come and interview them and then attacked by child vampires. By the second episode they are held in individual cages and forced fed good foods whilst their blood is syphoned for the children (who in turn are used to create the Countess’ special blood stock).

Liz with John
Also in the first episode we meet cop John Lowe (Wes Bentley, Underworld Awakening), who is working a serial killer case (the Ten Commandments Killer). He is called to the Cortez by the killer and then has a vision of his son Holden (Lennon Henry), who was abducted five years before. It becomes apparent that the killer might target his wife, Alex (Chloë Sevigny), and daughter, Scarlet (Shree Crooks), and so moves in to the hotel to create a distance for them.

on the hunt
Finally, in the first episode, we see the Countess and Donovan out on a hunt. With the strains of US band She Wants Revenge (and I’ll come back to soundtrack) they go to a graveyard showing of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. They attract a couple, take them back to the hotel and kill and feed on them during coitus. The entire thing has a feeling of the Hunger - not just through the Avant Garde style of the vampires and the method of pick up (albeit using a movie rather than a gig by Goth staples Bauhaus) but because She Wants Revenge remade the scene from the Hunger in one of their music videos. The later use of the Flower Duet by Delibes in the soundtrack underlined this reference.

Lady Gaga as the Countess
I haven’t mentioned in all the above the ghost Sally (Sarah Paulson), who is haunted by an addiction demon, or transgender barkeep Liz Taylor (Denis O'Hare, True Blood) both of whom play major parts in the season and both of whom are exceptionally well played – especially by Denis O’Hare as Liz. Let us talk vampires, however. They are vampires – I know there were articles when the season first aired asking if they were… the V word is explicitly used in the second episode. The Countess (who is not a countess) was born in 1904 and was a movie extra before being turned by Valentino (Finn Wittrock), who in turn had been turned by Murnau. In a twist on the plot of Shadow of the Vampire Murnau travelled Eastern Europe looking for the fact behind the myth before directing Nosferatu – the twist being he found vampires who were all beautiful creatures (rather than the monster of Shadow of the Vampire) and they turned him.

The vampirism is a virus and gives the vampires a hunger. Without feeding they will not die, but they will desiccate and become mummy like. They have no fangs – the Countess uses a glove with metal talons to slit the victims' throats. They can be killed via normal methods (a bullet through the brain will do it as much as a stake through the heart) but they generally heal quickly so a non-mortal blow can be recovered from.

child vampires
They avoid sunlight as it saps vitality, however it does not kill them, but cameras cannot capture them properly. There is a possibility of pregnancy for a vampire, the gestation period is greatly shortened, the only such baby we see is malformed and remains as an infant. In a strong condemnation of the anti-vax movement a child gets, and is dying due to, measles. Alex saves him using vampire blood. This leads to the child turning his class and attacking the teachers but the virus has mutated so that the kids also have measles and only blood clears the spots. Failure to feed causes them to die.

Angela Bassett as Ramona
So, as the season started I had the impression of a twisted version of Twin Peaks (if that is possible) where horror tropes were more plainly played out but undercut with imagery and atmosphere that would find itself at home within Lynch’s seminal TV series. More viscerally dark, though less psychologically engaging perhaps. I was also struck by the superb soundtrack with She Wants Revenge and the Sisters of Mercy front and centre in a strongly chosen set of tracks. However, as it went along I became a little disengaged. The storyline became almost soap-opera like despite the strong ensemble cast. I have already specifically highlighted two of the actors but Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett (who plays a Blaxploitation actress, Ramona, who was turned and later spurned by the Countess) and Lady Gaga also need specific mentions - all of them bringing something special to the party.

Iris and Liz
I watched to the end but as the plot twisted through the serial killer aspect (it became too obvious, too soon as to who the actual serial killer was), the ghosts and the vampires (not to mention a witch as well) I became more and more certain that the series needed more of a focus and a strengthened narrative. Take Holden – the Lowe’s son, taken by the vampires before the season's time-frame and turned. The motivation his discovery would have had on the two parents would have warranted different, and much stronger, reactions than the story allowed for. The measles-kid vampire story seemed to vanish for a while and then get resolved in a blink of an eye. All in all, this wasn’t terrible but could have been so much better. 5.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Honourable Mention: Faces of Schlock

Faces of Schlock was an anthology collection of absolutely Z grade horror shorts, and not a single one was vampire related. So you may be wondering why the Honourable Mention?

Quite simply for the hostess who appeared between the segments, dressed as a vampire she was named Slutpira (Izzie Harlow). Yes it was that subtle!

The segments were fluff and nothing particularly vampiric happened bar her baring fangs. The unfortunate side to that was that the actress struggled to enunciate because of the fangs.

Izzie Harlow as Slutpirs
As for the full film, it really was Z grade, so the sort of thing to watch only if Z grade films are your thing.

The imdb page is here.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Honourable Mention: ABCs of Death 2 ½

I like the ABCs series, but for those who are unfamiliar with the series I should explain that the first two films gave us 26 short films by different directors with each short being named for a consecutive letter of the alphabet and with a theme of death. Within these the first contained a vampire short (U is for Unearthed) and the second an aswang short (I is for Invincible).

This 2016 release is not ABCs 3 (which the title should make self-evident) but the top 26 shorts from a “Filmmaker Frenzy” competition and all the films are named for the letter M. It has its moments, most definitely (there are certainly two very worthwhile zombie shorts), and I did rather like the vampire short we are looking at here – entitled M is for Mailbox.

Trick or treat?
The Dante Vescio and Rodrigo Gasparini directed section starts with a trick or treater (Wallace Stuani) at the door of a house. Inside a man (Ênio Gonçalves) sits in his wheelchair as his wife (Iná de Carvalho) and adult daughter (Fernanda Gonçalves) answer. The trick or treater holds up a sack for his candy swag and the mother heads to the kitchen to get some sweets. The daughter asks the trick or treater is he is meant to be a vampire and he nods in the affirmative.

Wallace Stuani as the Vampire
Suddenly he has a blade and attacks the daughter, not just slitting her throat but decapitating her. He is then on the mother, revealing black eyes and fangs. The child truly is a vampire but what will the wheelchair bound father do? I won’t spoil that or the reason for the name of the short. The short is in Portuguese with English subtitles and hails from Brazil and the directors manage the difficult task of cramming a story into three minutes.

ABCs of death 2 ½ is available to rent and buy via Vimeo but M is for Mailbox is also on Vimeo for free.

The imdb page is here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

War of the Staffs – review

Authors: Steve Stephenson & K.M. Tedrick

Release date: 2016

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: The goddess Adois brings a powerful vampire warlock named Taza through the void to turn Muiria into a planet of evil using her powerful staff. Needing an army, he turns a race of dark elves into vampires, but Prince Tarquin is born to fulfil a prophecy to stop Taza.

The prince cannot do it alone. The Wizard Celedant sends him to the Borderers, an elite group of dwarves to learn how to fight, while the wizard begins his search for the Staff of Adaman, the only thing capable of thwarting Taza and Adois’ Staff.

War of the Staffs is the search for two pieces of the ancient Staff of Adaman to counter Adois’ plans. The darkness is rising and using the black power of the Staff of Adois and his army of dark elves, giants, and orcs, Taza will begin a reign of terror the planet will not soon forget.

The review: I like the merging of fantasy and vampirism as a concept and it is done all too rarely. Whilst there are impressive series like the Hendee’s Noble Dead series (which starts with the volume Dhampir) they are few and far between.

So the idea of an epic fantasy series with a main vampire villain was a real draw. The book itself hits the main fantasy notes that it should and even manages to peel away from the standard hero quest by having the young hero placed into a Dwarven army squad rather than out adventuring (though, of course, he rapidly rises through the ranks despite being the only human). However all was not perfect – and that was beyond my own inability to take a hero called Tarquin seriously.

If we take the scenario described above, the Dwarves speak in some oldee worldy dialogue that was distracting and yet all seemed to speak “common” rather than dwarvish. Given that it was a dwarven squad, in a dwarven army, in a dwarven city, the authors could have made ample use of language barriers within the narrative and the situation (despite being fantasy) felt unnatural.

The prose itself was rather simplistic. There was nothing essentially wrong with the prose, it just wasn’t really anything special and could have used a good deal of spit and polish to make it more evocative and less basic. There was a great deal less grit than I would have liked as well.

The vampirism was interesting in that there was a mystical fire in the vampiric blood that infected one who was turned. The idea of trying to build a vampire world steps away from a self-limiting creature and begs questions around food supplies etc.

However, the story is not incompetent and the whole thing is above average. 6 out of 10, but it didn’t rock my world.

Monday, October 10, 2016

World Vampire Congress 2016

I am a regular visitor to the Bram Stoker International Film Festival, held annually in Whitby. Indeed, I have been attending since its inception. This year the organisers have decided to do something a little different and host the World Vampire Congress 2016 on the first afternoon (Thursday 27th October 2016).

It was with an amount of (pleasant) shock that I received the email asking if I would participate in said event – doing a 20-minute lecture on anything vampire related. I agreed and will be putting together a little talk entitled Stoker and the Bat. It was common wisdom that Stoker put the transformation into bats into the genre but this lecture will look at pre-Stoker ideas of bat transformations and vampires becoming bats. They were rare, but there are examples out there.

The full lecture running order is:

Andy Boylan: 'Discusses Stoker and the Bat'
Dr Stella Louis: 'Twenty-one century vampires'
Dr David Annwn: 'Mysteries of the First Film Vampires'
Mr Kieran Foster: 'Presentation: Two Unmade Hammer Film scripts'
Katrina Stead: 'Bram Stoker meets Jane Stoddard'
Mr Stephen N. Farr: 'The Writing of Dracula in Whitby'
Dott. Mag. Debora Moretti: 'Witches and blood in Early Modern Tuscany'
Mr. Gavin Baddley: 'Fangs for Nothing: Putting the Bite Back in the Undead'

This will be followed by a screening of Nosferatu with Dmytro Morykit's new score performed live.

Tickets for the Congress and for the Nosferatu screening are available separately from full event wristbands.