Tag Vampires

Mr Vampire Part 3 (1987)

Mr Vampire Part 3 (1987)

The Taoist priest Mao Ming uses his ghost friends to trick people into believing their houses are haunted so he can go in and exorcise them. However, the two ghosts humiliate Chiang, an assistant of great Taoist Master Gau, who quickly captures them in a jar as punishment and warns Ming to follow the right path. Breaking into Gau’s house to save his friends, Ming opens the wrong jar and accidentally releases the ghost of an evil witch instead. With the witch and her minions causing havoc across the village, it is up to Ming to join forces with Gau to try and stop her.

 

After the disastrous attempt to move the Mr Vampire franchise into a modern day setting with more of a focus on the slapstick and silliness in Mr Vampire II, director Ricky Lau goes back to some of what made the original such a hit in the first place. The good news is that Mr Vampire Part 3 is marginally better than its predecessor. The bad news is that it’s still far too silly for its own good.

There’s no storyline to follow from the previous films and, as these Mr Vampire films are unconnected, it should make it easier for the writers to come up with interesting stories for the characters to venture through. But there is no semblance of plot to Mr Vampire Part 3 at all. It’s purely a collection of madcap cartoon-esque sequences involving kung fu, magic and lots of annoying gurning and mugging for the camera by the actors involved. I’m not even sure it looked good on paper as the narrative has too many sudden stop-start moments where the story suddenly heads off in a different direction. At least there is one, admittedly flimsy, thread to follow throughout the film, even if it doesn’t really hold everything together that well. The problem is that there are too many supporting characters to go around – both monks have their own helpers, and both sets of helpers serve the same purpose in acting as comedic foil. They’re all fighting for the same screen time which is probably why the story goes in all manner of directions, just to keep as many of the characters happy as possible.

Being back in a period setting helps Mr Vampire Part 3 massively. The magic and mystic aura works better in a Republic-era China than it does in a contemporary environment, with all manner of superstitions and occult practices just fitting better into a more ignorant age without the benefits of modern technology. The corny 80s special effects fit the bill perfectly here too, with weird laser beams and flashes of light working well to create a real sense of the supernatural, even if the sound effects sound like a video game boss fight. They don’t detract from the action and are merely little add-ons, something a lot of big budget films in today’s era could learn from.

There are some decent moments of action anarchy in Mr Vampire Part 3, in particular an early sequence where fraudulent priest Mao Ming, having freshly ‘exorcised’ his ghost friends in order to trick a wealthy businessman, suddenly realise that there are real ghosts in the house. But then other sequences drag on for far too long and rely on the same joke – there’s no sense of restraint. A scene involving the invisible ghosts messing around with a bumbling idiot inside a restaurant goes on forever, as does a scene involving a melted ghost stalking Mao King inside a spa room. Billy Lau (I wonder if he’s any relation to the director) was funny in the original but his screen time was lower and he was never the focus of the scene, rather a supporting participant in it for others to play off. Here, he seems to be the focus of many of the film’s cringey slapstick sequences and overexposure to his goofy character is to the film’s detriment.

Lam Ching-Yang reprises his titular role, playing it straight for the most part but not taking things ultra-seriously and he has the deadpan down to a tee by this point in the franchise. It’s easy to see why he became typecast. One of Mr Vampire II’s biggest mistakes was keeping the character off-screen for as long as it did before he was introduced. He pops up earlier here, though still a little too late given he’s the main character and is given some fancy moves in an action sequence in the forest. We sometimes forget that these are kung fu films as well as horror and comedy and this is rectified with some well-choreographed fight scenes early on. The energy on display during some of the specific routines is ridiculous, something the rest of the film does at least manage to capture. Mr Vampire Part 3 is rarely slow and quiet, which can get a little in-your-face at times, especially when the punchline or the gag has outstayed it’s welcome.

And sadly, despite the title, there are no hopping vampires to be seen here at all.

 

Mr Vampire Part 3 was a step back in the right direction for the series, albeit a baby step. It does a few things right in getting back to the series’ roots but there is still much of a focus on the goofy supporting characters and the balance isn’t quite right between the comedy, horror and action. This is meant to about Mr Vampire, not the goofballs mugging for the camera around him.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Devils of Darkness (1965)

Devils of Darkness (1965)

He’s a Vampire with a Cult Following.

A secret vampire cult, which has its headquarters beneath the cemetery in a town in France, searches for victims for its human sacrifice rituals. When English tourist Paul Baxter picks up a strange talisman, he returns to England unaware that it belongs to the cult who follow him across the Channel to begin their Satanic practices there.

 

An obscure British horror from the 1960s, Devils of Darkness is one of the few horror films to emerge from this era that was not produced by the big hitters Hammer or Amicus. Made by Planet Film Productions, who made a couple of sci-fi horror films during this time with Hammer director Terence Fisher at the helm (Night of the Big Heat and, one of my favourites, Island of Terror), Devils of Darkness does hold the distinction of being Britain’s first vampire film set in modern day, with Hammer keeping their fanged fiends firmly in the historical until the 70s. That’s about the only remarkable thing about this dreary vampire film which lacks any sort of engagement or excitement. It is by-the-numbers without the faintest hint of horror or terror.

Devils of Darkness tries desperately to pass itself off as a Hammer flick, with the lavish Technicolour details matched by some nice sets and general sense that a lot of money went into making this look good. However, the writing is so dull and boring and there is zero atmosphere from start to finish. There is no real sense of focus to the story and the plot shuffles along from scene to scene with no real direction or excitement. It’s almost like they had a beginning and finale mapped out but just winged it throughout. The main character, Baxter, spends too much time hanging around waiting for stuff to happen and then when he’s back in London, he spends his hours researching in the library. Whilst he’s doing this, the Count is simply shadowing him, waiting for a moment to strike. I mean come on, the guy is bookworming it 24/7 and all this Count wants to do is sit and wait until he’s finished? As a result, the ‘hero’ spends the bulk of the film simply skirting around the periphery of the story when he should be the main focus.  The talisman becomes the Macguffin of the story, with Sinistre desperate to get his hands on it for some reason (he seems able to do everything he wants without it) but then coming up with a convoluted way of slowly bewitching a woman in order for her to then slowly seduce Baxter and steal it off him. With a whole cult behind him, there are probably quicker, easier and more violent ways to get the job done.

Devils of Darkness has this massive problem of not really knowing how it wants to get to its end game because there is no real central focus to keep things glued together. For all stories, the finale is where the payoffs lie and how the audience will remember it long after watching or reading. Devils of Darkness doesn’t even build towards the finale well, so when it arrives and Baxter and the police gate-crash the cult about to sacrifice a woman, there’s literally nowhere for it to go. There’s no dramatic tension. No cliffhangers. No sense that anything is on the line. The film ends rather abruptly with a ‘we’ve only got ten minutes to shoot this so hurry up’ mentality that literally smacks the audience in the face. We’ve invested our time in this, unwisely on hindsight, so the least they could have done is provide a more satisfying ending. Still, Devils of Darkness is not alone in this and many of the British horrors from this period suffer from endings which leave a ‘is that it?’ sensation tingling all through the body. Not only that, but the finale kind of renders Baxter’s contributions to the story almost non-essential. Just what his purpose in the film if not to be the protagonist and the one to defeat the antagonist at the end?

French actor Hubert Noel is given the unenviable task of trying to pull off a suave and sophisticated vampire – by this point, Christopher Lee had nailed the role of Dracula to a tee and any other male trying to emulate was falling well short and simply coming off as an cheap imitator. Hammer found that problem when they featured other male actors as the main vampire: David Peel in Brides of Dracula, Mike Raven in Lust for a Vampire, Noel Willman in Kiss of the Vampire, Robert Tayman in Vampire Circus and John Forbes-Robertson’s ill-gotten attempt to replace Christopher Lee in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. They just failed to replicate the same gravitas and attraction to the role that made vampires so cool and popular thanks to Lee – Noel falls at the same hurdle. He looks like a dodgy wife-stealer but has little charisma or screen presence to hold the film. It would be unfair to single out Noel for criticism though: William Sylvester fares little better in the ‘hero’ lead role as Baxter (though ‘hero’ is using the term loosely here) and the females Carole Gray and Tracey Reed are little more than eye-candy. How this film ached for someone of the calibre of Peter Cushing or Barbara Shelley to liven up proceedings.

 

Incredibly dull and ultimately a slog to sit through, Devils of Darkness might be on your radar if you’re into obscure British horror from this golden era but it’s not exactly a shining example of the genre at it’s most energetic and satisfying.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Night Stalker, The (1972)

The Night Stalker (1972)

Las Vegas newspaper reporter Carl Kolchack investigates a series of murders believed to have been committed by an animal but that they are the work of a vampire. However, no will believe his theory as they are more concerned about the negative impact upon the tourist industry of so many murders.

 

The Night Stalker and it’s follow-up, The Night Strangler, were a pair of hugely successful TV movies in the 1970s which preceded Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a single-season TV series about a news reporter who investigates reports of the supernatural, monstrous, or things that can only be explained as science fiction. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was an excellent show which achieved cult status and, according to Chris Carter, was a tremendous influence in him creating the even better The X-Files over twenty years later – you can clearly see the similarities between both shows (in a nice nod to it’s origins, Kolchak actor Darren McGavin did appear on The X-Files for a pair of episodes).

The Night Stalker was the highest rated TV movie all of time upon its release in America in 1972 (54% share of the eligible viewing audience, an amazing feat) and it’s easy to see why, with the easy-going charm of the main actor Darren McGavin and its updated version of vampire lore giving audiences something fresh and exciting to get their teeth into (sorry!). Weaned on decades of cape-wearing, suave aristocrats stuck in chilly castles in Eastern Europe and all situated in period settings, The Night Stalker was one of the first films to bring the classic tale into the then-present day. No longer were the vampires stalking buxom serving wenches in taverns in small villages but prowling the streets of modern-day civilisation.

Writer Richard Matheson must take the credit for this. Known for his excellent science fiction writing both in literature and in television and film (I Am Legend being one of his novels), Matheson crafts a sharp script full of dramatic irony – the audience know well-full there’s a vampire on the loose before any of the other characters do and, thanks to years of vampire films, they know exactly how to deal with one. Matheson plays upon this a fair bit, having Kolchak run through the repertoire of vampire-killing techniques and establishing just enough legacy in the creature to make it menacing without being too familiar.

Having seen the TV series before I watched the pair of earlier TV movies, you’d be hard-pressed to tell which was which due to the almost identical production values. At seventy-four minutes, the film moves briskly enough and gets straight into the action. There’s no dramatic build-up, just Kolchak dictating to the audience about the chain of events that have led to the first bodies turning up. It’s a tactic used to good effect in the TV series to save time being unnecessarily wasted on exposition. The thing with these Kolchak stories is that they’re not very scary, focusing on the police procedural elements over anything else. So if you’re expecting to be bamboozled with blood and violence, then think again. There are some action sequences but given the constraints of the budget and the context in which they’re being shown, they’re about as effective as they need to be. Watching the vampire burst through a police cordon and take out lots of cops is one of the film’s highlights but you can tell it’s hardly cutting-edge stunt work. Likewise, the scenes involving the vampire and his victims are timid, even by the 1970s standards.

Darren McGavin is fantastic as Kolchak and this quickly became his signature role. His reporter could have come off as a really irritating, obnoxious nosey parker but McGavin imbues the character with enough likeable charisma, cockiness, wits and, above all, intelligence, to really get you behind him, even on the occasion when his decisions are a little controversial and life-endangering. Kolchak is a reporter, above all else, and his determination to get the story, rather than stop the criminal, is what keeps him going.

 

The Night Stalker is a breezy and efficient way to spend your time, with the film moving with pace from one moment to the next with one of the genre’s best characters, Carl Kolchak, and a fine performance from Darren McGavin to anchor everything. The legacy that The Night Stalker left upon the world of TV horror and science fiction far outweighs its actual end product.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mr Vampire II (1986)

Mr Vampire 2 (1986)

A professor and his two bumbling assistants find the bodies of a man, a woman and a child preserved in a cave. However, the bodies are really vampires and return to life when the prayers pinned to their foreheads are removed whereupon they proceed to cause chaos in the laboratory. The child vampire hops out into the streets. It is found and befriended by two children who take it home and hide it in the closet away from their parents. Meanwhile, one of the assistants has been bitten and goes to seek the help of the herbalist Lin Ching Yin. As Lin goes to help vanquish the vampires with his remedies, the reporter Jen, who desires Lin’s niece, determines to get photos of what is in the laboratory but instead unwittingly releases the vampires.

 

Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West. There is something lost in translation between the East and West, and I’m not just talking about the languages spoken and/or subtitles. Western audiences have never clearly taken to the Jiangshi, the hopping vampires of Chinese folklore, which look more like what we know as zombies than suave Counts with cloaks and fangs. But for those living in Asia who have grown up with these stories, Mr Vampire was a perfect blend of gentle horror, kung fu action and physical comedy. Following hot on the heels only a year later, Mr Vampire II attempted to strike whilst the hype was still high.

Despite the presence of the same director and same writer as the original, Mr Vampire II is a fairly shambolic attempt to replicate the same formula. It’s a sequel in all but name, as the story moves forward into the present day and doesn’t have anything to do with the original save for the inclusion of some hopping vampires. But it ramps up the silly comedy, tones down the kung fu and doesn’t really do anything scary in its eighty or so minutes of running time. There is no real plot to the film other than the synopsis mentioned above and the narrative just drifts from one ‘crazy’ set piece to another with no real progression or conclusion. The film opens with the professor and his assistants scouring tombs for things to sell and doing all sorts of ‘hilarious’ things, then proceeds to follow them back to their laboratory where they continue to do the ‘hilarious’ things. It’s not long before their antics cause the vampires to awaken and thus ensues more carnage and ‘hilarious’ goings-on, only with the hopping vampires now. I could understand this being in the middle of the film but there’s a big glaring issue with Mr Vampire II – where the hell is the lead character? It’s around forty-minutes into the film when we finally get to see the man of the title, ‘Mr Vampire’ himself Lam Ching-Ying and it’s ridiculous that it takes this long to see him. He’s virtually a supporting character in his own franchise, though Ching-Ying does what he can with the weaker material.

Mr Vampire II’s comedy is pitched at a lot lower level than its predecessor. Yes, there was plenty of slapstick and silly shenanigans in the original but the juvenile humour here is a desperate attempt to make the audience laugh. Take for instance the opening sequence in which a snake slithers up the trousers of one of the bumbling assistants – it’s something that little kids might get a chuckle out of it but they’re hardly the target demographic here. To add insult to injury with the juvenility, one of the three vampires is a child and so there are plenty of cute kid moments involving the vampire child and a human child forming a bond, like a perverse version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. You can tell how quickly this one was rushed out due to the unexpected success of the original as there’s so much thrown at the screen with the hope that something sticks. Almost everything that made the original such a mega-hit has been jettisoned in favour of childish antics.

The original was never truly scary but the film did have a nice cinematography to it, giving us that otherworldly feel to the reanimations and hopping ghosts. The ancient setting allowed for some effective atmosphere to be created, which the contemporary setting here doesn’t come anywhere near matching. The corpses look too human as well – no one seems to question why the bodies of the man and woman seem to be so fresh and lifelike when they pull them out of the tomb. Compare these to the decaying corpses seen in the original and films like Encounter of the Spooky Kind and even simple things which could have made a difference to the ambiance have been neglected.

 

It’s tragic to see such a quality horror-comedy as Mr Vampire get such an appalling sequel. The staggering drop in quality between the two films is ridiculous and Mr Vampire II becomes a real slog to get through. Keep that magic yellow paper slapped onto the vampires and let them be.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mr Vampire (1985)

Mr Vampire (1985)

Master Ko, a Taoist priest, is asked by a struggling businessman to oversee the reburial of his dead father in the hopes of rekindling his family’s good fortune. Ko’s two bumbling assistants stumble onto a bad omen before leaving the remote graveyard. Deciding to take the corpse back to the mortuary, Ko suspects the dead elder suffered a wrongful death. The priest and his students soon find themselves up against supernatural forces and a very powerful vampire.

 

If you’ve never heard of Mr Vampire then you’re missing a real treat, though actually getting access to it over in the UK is problematic. Like many Asian films which have been big successes in the Far East (Godzilla films, I’m looking at you), there doesn’t seem to be much interest in releasing them over here and whilst Mr Vampire did receive a DVD release a few years ago, the sequels and rest of the sub-genre that it spawned are nowhere on the radar. It’s such a pity as Mr Vampire is one of the best horror-comedies that the 80s put out and because it’s not Anglo-centric, it opens up a whole new world of mythology, superstitions, beliefs and magic that we, in the West, are totally unfamiliar with.

Sammo Hong’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980 had set the precedent for this horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid genre, but it is with Mr Vampire where this niche genre really struck gold. It’s a ridiculously madcap film that balances the slapstick comedy with plenty of frenetic kung-fu action and makes sure that the horror elements are not left on the back burner. The physical humour has not dated in the slightest, made more absurd by the crazy situations in which the characters find themselves facing. Nothing is lost in the translation between East and West – if anything, the film is all the better for having an element of the exotic and the unknown as it makes things more interesting than your generic Western horror-comedy. Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West.

Ko and his assistants have to deal with some Jianghsi. And if you don’t know what they are, then the film does a decent job of covering the bases. These Jiangshi, hopping vampires from Chinese folklore, are not like our Western vampires in the slightest (no dressing in smart suits with cloaks, changing into bats, being scared of garlic, etc). Some audiences may find the sight of the ghosts decked out in 1600s Qing dynasty era clothing, arms outstretched and hopping along in lines to be rather comical but there’s nothing funny about how deadly these things actually are. Whilst Mr Vampire plays up on the comedic aspects of the vampires, they can kill you in many different ways and are a lot tougher to beat than Count Dracula and co. It is this unveiling of Chinese folklore to those not familiar with it that will be one of the biggest appeals to Anglo horror fans – it adds unpredictability to the narrative. You’re not quite sure how the threat will be dealt with but are introduced to all sorts of magical papers, chicken blood recipes and sticky rice methods which are the Asian equivalents of your wooden stakes and garlic to a vampire.

It takes a good thirty minutes or so for Mr Vampire to really kick into action gear but it doesn’t stop from that point onwards. You could argue that the film is little more than a series of kung fu-comedy set pieces and I couldn’t really disagree. The narrative is a little wonky at times, with the main premise being too thinly-written to really stretch out over the whole feature length time. There is a slight deviation throughout Mr Vampire, no doubt to boost up the running time, featuring one of Ko’s assistants falling in love with a ghost and Ko having to break the curse. Whilst this doesn’t add anything to the narrative in the slightest, it isn’t an unwelcome side-track as there is plenty of comedy to be had watching Ko attempt to save his assistant. From then on, the madcap film just goes in a crazy ride through a number of sequences which perfectly blend some fantastic choreography alongside a number of real laugh-out-loud moments. Nobody seems to take a breath either

Lam Ching-Yang made an appearance in the aforementioned Encounters of the Spooky Kind but here he gets a leading role and makes it his own. Lam is fantastic in the role, trying to deadpan most of what is going on but getting bogged down in the madcap stupidity of his assistants in the process. He can handle the stunt work perfectly and has the role of the Tao priest down to a tee – it’s a role he felt typecast by, but the film gave him his big break and he starred in no fewer than eight sequels and knock-offs of Mr Vampire. Both Ricky Hiu and Chin Siu-ho are hilarious as his bumbling assistants and the three make for an effective trio. The stunning Siu-Fung Wong is also a nice addition to the cast as the ghost who bewitches one of Ko’s assistants.

 

If you’re worried about indulging in something as far away from the streams of watered-down Western horror-comedies as you can possibly get, then Mr Vampire is your answer – if you can obtain a copy. A relentless, hilariously entertaining mix of kung-fu, horror and comedy, made with real enthusiasm and zest, it’s definitely one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong. The fact that it is so little known in the West is both a travesty or a well-kept secret, depending on your outlook.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980)

Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980)

Hapless servant Cheung finds out that his wife has been having an affair with his rich master Tam. Wanting to get Cheung out of the way, Tam enlists the services of an unscrupulous priest to do the deed with black magic so that fingers can’t be pointed back to him. But Cheung turns out to be no pushover and he must battle the supernatural and the uncanny with the help of the priest’s more righteous brother.

 

Cult classics don’t come as any more clear-cut than Encounter of the Spooky Kind, an off-beat kung fu-comedy-horror flick which is sort of like Enter the Dragon meets The Evil Dead. Responsible for kick-starting a whole slew of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s, Encounter of the Spooky Kind is a crazy ride right from the opening scene until the classic showdown at the end. Mixing comedy, horror and martial arts in equal measure, director and actor Sammo Hung crafts a wonderfully ludicrous tale of hopping vampires, black magic and possession.

There’s something for everyone here and each of the different genres are treat well. The horror elements are mainly played out in the opening half. Being from a different culture than we are used to in the West, it may take a while to get used to the fact that the Chinese definitions of vampires are totally different to what we’re used to. Here, they look more like our stereotypical zombies and hop around in a weird trance-like state with arms outstretched. The crusty, decomposing make-up looks good though and there are maggots flying about too to reinforce the fact that these are undead beings. The historical period setting and lavish, colourful sets enhances the atmosphere and mood of the piece, giving it a few Hammer-ish vibes. In many ways, I was reminded of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a Hammer-Shaw Brothers production which laid much of the groundwork for this type of film to become successful. Despite the obvious low budget, Encounter of the Spooky Kind features some great make-up and the sets are excellent and the overall effect of the horror is, well, spooky.

With the horror flying around thick and fast to begin with, the action soon takes over in the second half and the kung-fu comes more to the fore. This leads up to a thrilling finale in which the forces of good and evil battle each other which is heavily dosed in Chinese folklore. Hung choreographs a number of impressive fight scenes, including between himself (and a possessed hand) and some policemen or two priests fighting it out with black magic. Playing out alongside both the horror and action is a nice comedic streak. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and there are some laugh out loud moments, particularly Cheung’s encounter with a reanimated corpse which copies his every move, right from taking a leak against the wall to slapping itself in the face.

Sammo Hung plays the role of bumbling oaf Cheung to perfection. You know that Cheung has a heart of gold but a brain the size of a pea and his reactions to the situations he’s thrust into are priceless. Hung demonstrates a Bruce Campbell-esque knack of convincingly portraying that part of his body has become possessed and is acting on its own during an amazing scene inside a restaurant which involves all manner of slapstick and high-octane martial arts. In fact, much of Hung’s comedy comes from physical slapstick and the larger-than-life actor utilises his size to his advantage in a number of hilarious scenes.

Lam Ching Ying also has a small role here as the police inspector. Along with Sammo, Lam was a major factor in this this surge of Hong Kong horror-martial arts and fronted the equally excellent Mr Vampire series until his untimely death. Whilst he’s not in his trademark Taoist priest role, he still manages to shine with a few moments of kung fu and comedy.

If there are quibbles with Encounters of the Spooky Kind, and believe me there are few, it is with the episodic nature of the film. Due to the fact that so many genres are all being blended together, the film does tend to become patchy and the framework linking them all together doesn’t really hold up, leading to long periods where the narrative dulls and the pace lags. You won’t have to wait too long before the pace picks up but the continual stop-start nature gets a little tiresome.

 

It’s hard to find a film which is as all-round fun and entertaining as Encounter of the Spooky Kind. If you have any sort of interest in any of the three major genres this film mixes together, then you should check this out. This, and many of its Hong Kong kung-fu horror comedies, aren’t exactly the easiest films to track down on the West but if you get the opportunity, take it!

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

Gory! Ghastly! Ghoulish!

Forty years to the day since the last manifestation of their dreaded vampirism, the Karnstein heirs use the blood of an innocent to resurrect the evil that was the beautiful Carmilla. Taking the name of Mircalla, she heads to an all-girls school to indulge in the blood of nubile victims. As the school tries to cope with the sudden surge in dead bodies, horror writer Richard LeStrange falls in love with Mircalla and tries to persuade her to forsake her vampire ways.

 

Starting with The Vampire Lovers and ending with Twins of Evil, Lust for a Vampire was the second of Hammer’s loose ‘Karnstein’ vampire trilogy featuring a female bombshell in the role of an undead bloodsucking menace which were based on the Gothic novel Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Basically a female Dracula, the first film set male pulses racing and censors into a frenzy over its frank depictions of lesbian vampires, extremely daring for its time. Desperate to tap into this new well of potential, Hammer decided to keep the ideas going and this infusion of softcore eroticism with their traditional Gothic approach was to continue. After all, it wasn’t like Hammer to milk an idea for all it was worth…… (Seven Frankenstein films, eight Dracula films and four Mummy films).

Dracula was old hat by the time The Vampire Lovers rolled out. Hammer began to realise that no one wanted to see some ever-aging old man (no offence to Mr Lee!) lust after and get jiggy with young women, not when the alternative was to witness smoking hot young lesbians lust after and get jiggy with young women. The stark sexuality of The Vampire Lovers was a clear decision to showcase what Hammer believed its audience was now craving: stunning young ladies in various states of undress sinking their bloody fangs into each other. Times were a changing but sadly beneath the sexed-up surface, Hammer had big problems.

Lust for a Vampire had a bit of a troubled pre-production. Original director Terence Fisher had to pull out due to a leg break. Peter Cushing withdrew when his wife became ill. And Ingrid Pitt, who shot to fame in the original as Carmilla, refused to return for whatever reason. So the potential of what may have been had these three talents been present remains to be seen. But In many ways, Lust for a Vampire is the embodiment of what was going wrong with Hammer in the late 60s and early 70s, with or without the presence of that trio of talent. Struggling to find new material which had the same impact of The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, the studio was recycling the same old stories time and time again. Changes were being made both in front of and behind the cameras, with the likes of the old guard of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher becoming side-lined in favour of newer, fresher talent trying to make the same impact as this trio had done when Hammer hit the big time (though Fisher was due to direct this until he broke his leg).

Despite the changes, Lust for a Vampire is little more than your typical Hammer vampire film. There’s a lot of nice eye candy with the lavish sets, colourful garbs and anatomically-pleasing actresses. There’s the usual music, the array of characters populating the background of the film and the Gothic vibe still flows freely. But it had all become very mechanical by this point, even a little cynical. I mean why set a film about lesbian vampires inside an all-girls’ school? Events happen just as you’d expect them to. There’s no unpredictability anymore and everything runs like clockwork, from the opening kill scene right to the angry villagers storming the castle at the end. A few scenes of decent atmosphere, including a fantastic resurrection sequence and eerie midnight romp in a fog-shrouded graveyard, are scattered throughout but on the whole this is been there, done that material.

Jimmy Sangster, was the man who wrote the screenplays for Hammer’s big three hitters from the late 50s, takes the helm for this one but can’t seem to rejuvenate the same tired formula. With pen in hand, Sangster did some amazing work but was unable to replicate this behind the camera. Also joining in the new guard is Ralph Bates who made a couple of appearances in Hammer films during the late 60s and early 70s, clearly being groomed as a younger, more dashing version of Cushing or Lee. Bates’ performance as the feeble-minded teacher is pretty good and the scene in which he begs the vampire to bite him and turn him into a servant (and thus pleasure him) is a highlight.

The real star of the show is the actress who took over the lead role from Ingrid Pitt. Yutte Stensgaard is just as easy on the eyes, if not more so, and is the archetypal image of the buxom Hammer leading lady from this era. The role involves her shedding clothes frequently (no complaints here), bearing some false vampire teeth from time-to-time and erm, did I mention removing her clothes? Stensgaard’s voice has been dubbed over and she’s not the greatest actress but could be pound-for-pound one of Hammer’s most sensual, exotic leading actresses. Her character is torn between her vampiric urges and the man that truly loves her and Stensgaard’s natural vulnerability is well-matched for this dual role. She was very much a one-hit wonder and I doubt too many other actresses made as an indelible impression as her in the vampire genre.

 

Lust for a Vampire is most likely the Hammer film most adults will have in mind if they’re asked to talk about the elements of the typical Hammer film and that’s mainly down to its stunning star. Overall, it’s passable entertainment, nowhere near as rampantly sexy as it’s made out and generally does what it has to do with minimum fuss, providing just enough of the good stuff to keep you ticking over.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Monster Brawl (2011)

Monster Brawl (2011)

It’s the fight of the living dead!

Eight classic monsters fight to the death in an explosive wrestling tournament set inside an abandoned and cursed graveyard.

 

That’s about as much story as you’re going to get from Monster Brawl. It’s an ill-fated film with a one-note idea – that of some sort of WWE-style professional wrestling organisation featuring classic horror monsters doing battle with each other – but it doesn’t work as a feature film in the slightest and seems to have been aimed squarely at wrestling fans. Quite simply, this has no real business being classed as a film and it’s more like watching a pay-per-view wrestling event with a handful of matches on the card.

The entire narrative is strung together by the two commentators who attempt to keep the film somewhat cohesive. But there are no character arcs to follow, no plot threads which unwind and no real centrepieces to the film. This gives Monster Brawl a very weird pace but again, it’s supposed to be aping a typical pay-per-view event so you’ll get the big attraction matches every so often with a load of filler build-up in between, as interviews and backstage clips of the competitors attempt to build the next match. Whilst it’s all done with a good heart, it doesn’t make for compelling film. Even the monsters are just there or thereabouts – nothing much is said about them, they have no real back stories or characters. It all makes for a very disjointed film which has no pace whatsoever and no real hook to keep the viewer interested.

To begin with, and the film’s biggest weakness, is that Monster Brawl requires wrestling knowledge, thus immediately alienating a lot of its potential fan base. I am a wrestling fan so it wasn’t rocket science to me to know what is going on but for novices or those with no interest in the ‘sport’ it’s going to be a bit of an ask to understand all of the in-jokes, references and actually give two hoots about what is happening. Plus there is the glaring fact that there is a lot of wrestling! Whilst a film series like Rocky managed to turn its boxing matches into exciting spectacles that non-boxing fans could watch without fuss, it also had characters and story driving them along. There are no characters here save for the two commentators and given the nature of the film, there is never any intention to develop them. Therefore the wrestling matches look just like those you’d seen on television.

The roster of monsters for the film reads as follows: Frankenstein’s monster, a vampire, a swamp monster, a Cyclops, a zombie, a wolfman, a witch and a mummy.The old fashioned monsters vary in their appearance, though one would question the inclusion of such ‘famous’ monsters as the Cyclops as a bit of a cop-out. Where’s The Gill Man? Or even the Phantom of the Opera or Quasimodo? Frankenstein’s monster looks pretty bad ass and the intimidating man under the make-up, Robert Maillet, was a professional wrestler before he switched to making movies like 300 (as the Uber-Immortal).

In fact all of the people playing the monsters were or are wrestlers in real life. So at least the wrestling matches have some degree of choreography and suspension of disbelief to them.  Given that the costumes range from the cumbersome to the silly, the matches work better than they should do, though anyone expecting a Savage-Steamboat classic (commonly heralded as the greatest wrestling match of all time from Wrestlemania III) should perhaps think twice. At times the matches get embarrassing and really hammer home the ‘wrestling is fake’ stigma that many fans like me just cringe at hearing.

Wrestling alumni Jimmy ‘The Mouth of the South’ Hart and Kevin Nash appear in small roles, presumably questioning just how low their careers have dropped since the glory days of headlining main events in WWF/WWE and WCW. And the referee is played by real-life MMA official Herb Dean. Ironically the most famous wrestler in the film, Nash, doesn’t even get chance to bust out any of his famous moves and Hart is literally hanging around the ring for name recognition only and contributes nothing to the film whatsoever. But then again, nothing much does.

Speaking of plummeting careers, Lance Henriksen lends his voice to the film, reciting a load of voiceover soundbytes that could have been lifted out of a Mortal Kombat game. At least he didn’t have to appear in it!

 

Monster Brawl would have worked well as a series of Youtube vignettes but as a film, it’s just a non-starter. These are the sort of low brow gimmicked wrestling matches you might see at a circus or carnival where the novelty value will keep you entertained for one match or so but not for the entire show. As a wrestling fan, this was a major disappointment.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Vampire Lovers, The (1970)

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Beautiful temptress …… or Bloodthirsty monster?

A countess and her daughter attend a ball held by General Spielsdorf. The countess is called away after the death of a friend and her daughter, Marcilla, is allowed to stay with the General and his daughter until she returns. Soon afterwards, the General’s daughter starts to suffer from nightmares, growing weaker by the day and eventually dying from vampire bites. Marcilla disappears and lodges in with Roger Morton and his daughter. Soon the same mysterious illness begins to strike Morton’s daughter, Emma. It turns out that Marcilla is actually Carmilla, a descendant of the Karnstein vampire clan, who have returned to quench their thirst for blood.

 

The Vampire Lovers was made at a time of change for Hammer. New faces were being brought in behind-the-scenes to replace the established old guard and with them came a new wave of horror films, more commercially-aware and which slowly ditched the restrained Gothic pieces of old, replacing them with heaving and more often than not exposed bosoms and greater quantities of bright red blood. The exploitative change in direction was a response to the more shocking European horrors that were beginning to emerge and many consider this the beginning of the end for the studio, which wouldn’t live to see out the rest of the decade. It was ironic that the studio which originally pushed the boundaries of the genre further than they had ever gone in the late 50s and early 60s was now being left behind and made to look out-dated just as they had done to their rivals. That being said, it’s during this period that Hammer produced some of their most interesting work. Proving that there was life in the vampire sub-genre away from Dracula, Hammer loosely adapted the 1872 novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (a novel which pre-dates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some time) and managed to milk it into a trilogy. The Vampire Lovers is the first of this bold new wave of Hammer films, sleazier and more gratuitous than ever before.

All I can say is…..phew! I needed a cold shower after this one. The Vampire Lovers is arguably the steamiest film Hammer ever produced. Compare the sexually-deviant vampires in this one with Christopher Lee’s now-stuffy (at the time) Dracula and the difference in tone is amazing within the space of a few years. Though the exploitative elements look tame by today’s standards, I can only imagine the outcry at such explicit sights of lesbian vampires back in the 70s. Nubile, innocent young women wear flimsy nightgowns, take them off for the camera and cavort and fondle each other in vampiric desire. At times the lesbian elements seem to overwhelm the film and with all of the cheap titillation, the viewer can forget that there is meant to be a serious horror film in here somewhere.

The subject matter lends itself to these exploitative elements but make no mistake about it, this is a Hammer film and their visual prowess was still here in force: mysterious mountain-top castles, fog-shrouded cemeteries, creaky mansions and superstitious villages. Costumes are bang on the money for the time period being portrayed and the film still has that Gothic gloss in everything it portrays. It’s just that this time there’s a whole load of saucy lesbianism running rampant throughout! The Technicolour horror elements are still as charming as ever, with fake fangs, neck bites and a rather weak nightmare sequence clearly stamping the date on the proceedings. But there are also a couple of great beheadings and a nasty staking too for good measure, which upped the ante for what the studio usually got away with.

The Vampire Lovers also introduces the horror world to Ingrid Pitt, who would go on to become one of the genre’s most noted actresses with the brief number of appearances she made in the genre. Ms Pitt’s thick Polish accent gives her character a nice exotic European charm to add to the Gothic vibe of the film and she manages to convey predatory evil and being sympathetically sexy at the same time. It’s her other, ahem, attributes that the film makes best use of it. There’s no denying that the late Ms Pitt had an amazing body and the film is happy to show it off at every opportunity. But the character is a tragic one, wanting to be with her young girl lover forever, only to give in to her primal urges and destroy that things she craves the most – love. Pitt’s sad dialogue after she has witnessed the funeral cortege pass by is as good as anything Hammer ever put to the screen.

All-round acting legend Peter Cushing gets top billing but his time was passing for Hammer and his role is more secondary than anything. Cushing is still on top vampire slaying form when he does show up, showing that he’s lost none of his touch when it comes to staking or beheading the creatures of the night. He’s just grossly underused and bookended into the prologue and finale, with little to do in between. Also of mention is the pretty and chaste Madeline Smith, who plays one of the objects of Marcilla’s affections. Smith has this ridiculous English rose natural beauty and quickly became one of my favourite Hammer girls in her few appearances with the studio.

 

The Vampire Lovers is one of Hammer’s most daring films and definitely their most sensual and erotic work, infecting the narrative with an almost dream-like quality. Though the frequently-naked ladies detract from the more serious moments, there is no question that the well-developed characters and progressive themes for the time (a lesbian vampire, there’s one for the feminists!) make this Gothic horror at its finest.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Waxwork (1988)

Waxwork (1988)

Stop On By And Give Afterlife A Try.

When a mysterious waxwork museum comes to town, the enigmatic owner invites two teenage girls to bring a few friends along to a special midnight screening of the exhibit. Once in the museum, the group split up to look at the exhibits but when they cross over the ropes to examine them closer, they find themselves actually in the horror scene on display. Forced to battle vampires, mummies, werewolves and more, the group realise that if you die inside the scene,  you die for real.

 

Ah the 80s. Only in this decade could such a frankly shallow premise have spawned such a gloriously over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek comedy-horror fest. Waxwork is like a warped cross between a slasher film, featuring a group of 80s caricatures being picked off one-by-one in a strange place, and a loving homage to the classic horrors of old. Never scary in the slightest and filled with so much camp, it would make a drag queen blush, Waxwork defines the 80s comedy-horror to a tee. And let’s face it, if you’ve ever been to a waxworks (especially a decent one) then the figures can look a little too life-like for their own good. It’s perfect horror material to mine!

Ok, so the plot sounds a bit daft and it’s a very sketchy premise which isn’t overly well-explained (like just who is the waxwork owner, Lincoln, and why is he out to destroy the world). But the beauty with Waxwork is that because the film is basically a series of short films interlocked by the MacGuffin plot about the exhibits coming to life, then every five or ten minutes a new ‘scene’ comes to life which keeps the film fresh and fast-moving. So if werewolves aren’t your thing, then sit tight because a few minutes later you’ll have vampires and then a bit later on some zombies or a mummy. It’s a ‘something for everyone’ approach which is reminiscent of the old Amicus anthologies and works, even if the lesser scenes are unfortunately dragged out longer than the more exciting scenes.

Each scene works on different levels. The zombie scene, with its black and white throwbacks to Night of the Living Dead, adds some much-needed sinister mood and some great zombie make-up but it’s all way too brief. The werewolf scene is well executed, featuring a pre-Lord of the Rings John Rhys-Davies as the man afraid of the full moon and providing some decent werewolf make-up effects as well as a whole batch of deliciously over-the-top gore.  I’ve never been a major vampire fan but the segment here works well, living up to the usual clichés of the sub-genre and featuring some silly comedy moments involving a man chained to a table with half a leg missing. It also stars the stunning Michelle Johnson as the target of the vampire’s affection so it’s easy on the eyes. The mummy scene does what you’d expect a mummy film to do – the numerous Universal Mummy sequels of the 40s proved that the limited narrative couldn’t stretch out too far – and provides the requisite stuntman-in-bandages and Egyptian curses come to life.

The most out-of-place segment comes when the virginal girl (Deborah Foreman of April Fool’s Day fame) enters the sadistic realm of the Maquis de Sade. He’s hardly known as an iconic horror character and the perverse nature of the scene involving sexual torture seems a bit of place with the comedy-horror throwbacks to the wolf man and the mummy. Foreman’s acting in this scene is mesmerizingly erotic but leaves a bit of a weird taste afterwards. It is Waxwork ‘s ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ finale that really spoils the film as ex-Avenger (not the Marvel superhero team but the old TV series) Patrick Macnee and his band of do-gooders storm the museum and engage in mortal combat with the wax exhibits that have come to life. The scene is in total disarray, with people doing what they like on camera and there’s no choreography or anything – just loads of extras fighting each other with anything they can lay their hands upon. It’s hard to keep track of what is going on and it’s almost as if the director just sat back and soaked in the chaos without a clue as to what was intended. All the while Zach Galligan, of Gremlins, has this dozy look on his face an seems almost bemused as the audience as to what is going on.

Waxwork looks to be a decent production though. The museum looks suitably creepy, the individual wax sets look top drawer on their own and then the individual scenes (when the sets come to life) look good as well. Gore is plentiful in that gratuitous 80s style so expect plenty of ludicrous squishy moments, including the mummy crushing a guy’s head under his foot and a werewolf ripping the head off an old man. The gore doesn’t take itself seriously so neither should you. And rounding off the madness is David Warner, who is dressed up like a sinister Willy Wonka and has a hoot as Lincoln, and his two servants: an Eastern European-speaking midget and a giant Lurch-like butler.

 

Nothing really makes much sense but then the film feels like a dozen films all rolled together anyway so just sit back and enjoy Waxwork, a great slice of 80s comedy-horror with a large side-order of ‘fun’ slapped into it. It’s an enjoyable cult film which is sadly hampered from total greatness by a weak plot and disappointing finale.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆