George A. Romero 02/04/1940-07/16/2017

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The death has taken place of George A. Romero, a true horror auteur whose Night of the Living Dead  (1968) extended the boundaries of the horror movie in some style – political and racial. And it gave zombies a voice!  He began his career as a gofer on the set of North By Northwest – not too shabby an introduction to the world of cinema. It would be another decade until he set the world alight – and he continued to make zombie films in a loosely affiliated series that he was going to continue as late as July 13th last when he released poster art for the forthcoming Road of the Dead, the first of the series he wasn’t going to direct. He had a lot of friends in the horror world, literary and cinematic, because they respected the tone of his films, his originality, his sensibility and his tenacity. He gave Stephen King his first screenwriting job in the anthology Creepshow, a Valentine to all those 50s comics that so influenced American writers and directors. Pittsburgh was of course home to most of his best known works and The Crazies and Martin remain minor classics. He was such an original and such a smart, conscientious filmmaker that it’s hard to qualify his contribution. Legend. Icon. Rest in peace.

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Vampyr (1932)

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Aka The Strange Adventure of David Gray, Not Against the Flesh, The Castle of Doom. One of those unique films that a film snob such as myself extols above all others. After the extraordinary Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer worked with Christen Jul on a more-or-less adaptation of Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly (mainly Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant) to come up with the story of Allan Gray, a dreamer (that old German trope) and student of the occult investigating phenomena in the village of Courtempierre, a place haunted by a vampire’s curse. For financial reasons, the film had to be shot in French, German and Italian, and this presented problems with dialogue so that was cut to the bone, with one of the financiers, Nicholas de Gunzburg, starring under the pseudonym Julian West. Sound was a new technology and French cinema was having trouble adapting so title cards were used where possible, contributing to the effect of the silents. The unique atmosphere is partly conjured by primitive effects, partly by the soft focus shooting style deployed by Rudolph Mate (returning from Joan of Arc) and the production design by Hermann Warm (ditto) and in part again by the ensemble of freaked-out weirdos populating the cast. If you ever wondered where that grain silo scene in Witness was lifted from, you have to watch the last reel …  Dreyer had directed his locations assistant to scout for “a factory in ruins, a chopped up phantom, worthy of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. Somewhere in Paris. We can’t travel far.” Except in the mind. To die for.

Grave of the Vampire (1972)

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My favourite TV show when I was a kid (and of all time…) was The Rockford Files. Except I hated all the episodes that had New Joisey mooks usurping Jim’s turf. What on earth were they doing in Malibu?! Who put them there?! David Chase, that’s who. Of course until he hit the big time with The Sopranos I had no idea of his deviant past. And here is more of it, writ large as the originator of the story (The Still Life) and harbinger of a bloodsucking vampire baby, born to Leslie, impregnated on date night not by her fiance but by the man who has left his coffin’s silence to bathe the world in blood. The baby, sustained with a regular supply of the red stuff, grows up to become William Smith (an exploitation staple whose finest hour was as villainous Falconetti in TV’s Rich Man, Poor Man) who tries to hunt down the man who ruined his perverted mom.(She just will not abort the parasite despite the doc’s best pleading). He fetches up in a college because night school is (logically) where a vampire hangs out, right? Michael Pataki is pretty impressive as the ghoulish Caleb Croft, walking this earth because the electrocution didn’t work and now plying his trade as a Professor. Forgive me if I seem compelling, he smarms to one ladyfriend, That quality is inspired by you! Hey, you had me at Hello!!! Wait for the seance! And, hey, genetics will always out … Good, evil, sheesh!

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

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This was one of THE cinema events of the 90s:  Anne Rice’s cult novel, which had been in development hell for years, was finally being brought to the big screen helmed by Neil Jordan – and she took out ads in the trades telling everyone how much she hated the project and the casting. Principally, Tom Cruise as her beloved Lestat. But she wrote the screenplay … and did an about turn upon its release. Brad Pitt plays vampish sidekick Louis and Christian Slater plays the role of the interviewer which should have been River Phoenix’ until his shocking death (the film is dedicated to him in an atypical incidence of taste). This is a tale of passions and tragedy and grand guignol. It turned into a folie de grandeur (or epic fail as the kids say) lurching from theatrical and baroque to camp and back again. The scenes with greedy little vampire Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) are particularly funny and make Lestat and Louis look like two especially inept gay dads. Antonio Banderas pops up for Olde Worlde authenticity. (It also boasts Domiziana Giordano, whose entire career appears to have happened due to having an amazing head of hair.) This is a whole lotta fun if you’re in the mood and if you’re a fan of N’Oleans, cher, then this could be the ticket. Which reminds me of my own trip into Rice country pre-Katrina and my experience in the vintage store run by her sister where I resisted the opportunity to buy the woman’s undies (with tag signed in purple ink by the authoress herself.) I got a signed book instead. The past really IS another country. But if Guns’n’Roses can get back together then anything goes (they sing the closing song, Sympathy for the Devil …)

Twixt (2011)

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Maybe it’s a twitch or muscle memory that makes him do it, but Francis Ford Coppola’s last release is hardly a sign of an aesthetic that needs to be exercised. Val Kilmer is the writer on a book tour selling his horror books from the trunk of his car to a dwindling audience when he arrives  in a small town where Edgar Allan Poe once stayed. A murder piques his interest and his dream leads him back to a personal tragedy.  The mix of visual styles, the supporting performances, the vampire conceit, all these suggest someone trying their hand at filmmaking for the first time – not a past master. Truly these are odd times.

Scars of Dracula (1970)

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The Dracula franchise was running out of steam and this was the last period episode in the Hammer series. Directed by a safe pair of hands in Roy Ward Baker, whose The Vampire Lovers was released just one month earlier, it was written by Anthony Hinds as John Elder, and he had exceptional form in the series’ history.  Hinds was a producer there for years (although he told his neighbours he was a hairdresser) and this is a competent, traditional spin on the old story. A man goes missing in the castle of the local vampire and his brother and new wife arrive to rescue him … It’s effective but hardly surprising except for the sight of Patrick Troughton as the vampire’s assistant, with Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley as the couple. Lee’s scars are quite horrible.

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

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This is one of the best Hammer Draculas in the series. Christopher Lee wouldn’t return so the satanic one was replaced with David Peel as Baron Meister, whose own mother (Martita Hunt – ie Miss Havisham!) hasn’t laid eyes on him in years and keeps him locked up for the good of the neighbourhood… when in walks Yvonne Monlaur on her way to start teaching at a local academy, misunderstands the nature of his ‘illness’, sets him free, and all hell breaks loose. Until a certain Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) shows up to teach them all a lesson. Deftly scripted by Jimmy Sangster with some apparent on-set adjustments made by Terence Fisher, this is pure, unadulterated, sharp genre filmmaking. Great stuff.