In 1958, Dracula would return in name but not with the familiar face of cinema’s best-known and most beloved Dracula, Bela Lugosi. Bela would return to the screen several times as a vampire, but never again as Dracula. So Dracula returned in Return of Dracula without Bela, and Bela returned in Return of the Vampire, without Dracula. Granted, Return of the Vampire pushes Bela’s character, Armand Tesla, as close to Dracula territory as it possibly can without getting slapped with a lawsuit, but that’s all part of the fun of vamping in the aftermath of Universal’s 1931 landmark Dracula, to say nothing of the need to occasionally satisfy/pay the estate of Bram Stoker. And Dracula or not, Return of the Vampire feels like the legitimate sequel to Dracula, even if intellectual property says it isn’t. Disentangled from all that, however, we are still left with an exceptionally enjoyable horror film with a unique setting and interesting lead character.
In New York City, you have a lot to watch out for as you walk around. This is unfortunate, as the necessity of keeping your eyes on the ground or around you prevents you from seeing the incredibly wealth of architectural curiosities staring at you from above doorways and beneath windows. I decided to organize a little walking tour one fine, chilly day so that we might get some exercise, get out of our usual stomping grounds, and have a chance to seek out some of this city’s gargoyles, demons, dragons, leaf men, and the other stone and terra-cotta creatures that watch over us without us ever knowing. Along the way, we hoped to also stumble upon a few other curiosity and city sights we didn’t expect.
She was the Paris of the East. And the Whore of Asia. Shanghai in the 1930s was a dizzying mix of glamour, seediness, decadence, intrigue, and political turmoil. A city divided up by conquering countries, where her own people were relegated to third class citizens. A city would-be adventurers and femme fatales came to make their mark or destroy themselves in those opulent dens of vice. Spies, warlords, gangsters, gamblers. And drifting through it all was the sound of Shanghai music driven by the voices of its divas. Vamps. Coquettes. The voices of a city whose name was synonymous with vice. The city, the country, the entire world was about to go to war. But in her smoky nightclubs and dancehalls, the sirens of Shanghai enchanted everyone.
Toei Movieland Studio hadn’t been on our official itinerary, but I convinced people to give it a try even though I was the only big Japanese movie fan in the bunch. Toei had given some of my absolute favorite sci-fi superhero shows, and the chance to see one of their studios was too good for me to pass up. After shelling out a rather hefty ¥2500 per person to get in (note: this was in 2001; it is probably more now), I quickly began to realize it wasn’t going to be as cool as I’d hoped. The entrance was was a museum of samurai and ninja articles, most of them from then upcoming movie Red Shadow. A large screen television played clips of various Toei samurai movies and histories of the studio. None of it was especially interesting, unfortunately.
It was a fine morning but looked like it might turn to rain by the afternoon. I found myself with the day to myself and no real plans, so even though it was a bit late to start such an excursion, I decided to go hiking. After leaving through a guide on my way to the car, I decided to try a hike called Stairway to Heaven, just south of Harriman State Park and the Hudson Highlands, on the New York-New Jersey border. It looked to be a fairly easy drive to a hike that, the trailhead being out int he middle of nowhere, probably wouldn’t be too terribly crowded.
In the wake of the success of Universal’s 1931 shocker Dracula, there were many attempts to continue and/or cash in on its success, but for one reason or another, Universal itself was never able to capitalize on Dracula the same way it did when it turned both Frankenstein and The Mummy (and later, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) into franchises. Even in the later monster team-up House of… films, Dracula was at best a supporting player, even when his name was in the title, and the vampire prince of darkness didn’t really interact with the other monsters (or the main storyline). The fact that Dracula was so closely identified at the time with Bela Lugosi, and that Lugosi himself never returned to the role (at least in an official capacity), probably hindered Dracula from becoming the same sort of series as did the other Universal monsters. But where Universal failed, others were ready to step in and try to hitch their wagon to the Dracula gravy train…err, or some metaphor like that. Dracula liked gravy, right?
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967’s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961’s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.
Morning mist was still clinging stubbornly to the ground when we pulled into the parking lot. My partner in crime rubbed the tiredness out of her eyes, which grew wide as soon as she realized what she was looking at.
“Did I lie?” I asked her as I pulled into a parking spot adjacent to the bottom row of chipped white concrete teeth that were part of the lower jaw of a gaping T Rex mouth that served as the entrance to White Post, Virginia’s Dinosaur Land. To our right were two more dinosaurs, one a brontosaurus, the other one of those two-legged beasts that, because no one knows exactly what it is, simply gets called an allosaurus. They were frozen in mid-menace of an Amoco gas station sign. To our left, just visible on the crest of a hill, was a giant octopus locked in mortal combat with a prehistoric shark. In front of us was a sign:
20′ Kong! 60′ Shark! 90′ Octopus! Christmas Shop!
Diamonds are Forever was a bit of a sightseeing vacation for our intrepid 007, a breather author Ian Fleming took in between more substantial books. From Russia with Love finds Bond and the Bond books back in top form for one of the best-loved stories in the entire franchise, films and books. From Russia with Love certainly deserves its lofty ranking, though to be honest, at the end of the adventure, we have another sightseeing excursion for Bond, who operates here as more of a supporting character along for the ride while everyone else does all the work.
It is fashionable, and has been for some time now, for Americans to dislike France. Our one-time close ally, the country that basically bankrolled the American Revolution, that gave the world Brigitte Bardot, Sophie Marceau, and Jean Reno — you surrender early in one little world war, and suddenly the US is holding a grudge against you for decades, exacerbated by your unwillingness to approve the occasional dubious war in the United Nations. Here, however, in this city of bon vivants and coquettes, we harbor no ill will toward our brothers and sisters on The Continent. They simply gave us and continue to give us too many wonderful things, including that statue I see in New York Harbor every day on my way to work.
And they gave us the risque magazine. Specifically, La Vie Parisienne, founded in 1863 as a guide to upper class and artistic life in Paris. Of course, anyone who knows anything about such circles both high and low knows that eventually a bared breast or naked bottom is going to find its way into the discussion, and before very long, La Vie Parisienne became the preeminent publication for those in search of a bawdy jest, juicy gossip, or investigative exploration of some manner of Bohemian life, preferably involving nudity. The magazine became hugely popular, and not just among the Parisienne libertine set. Imitators quickly sprung up, with titles like Le Sourire, Le Rire, Le Regiment, and Fantasio. It was not all about the coy mademoiselle or caddish gent, however, and like the early editions of its eventual descendant, Playboy, La Vie Parisienne also featured articles on style, finances, politics, the arts, and romance. So you could totally buy La Vie Parisienne just for the articles.
But if perchance your eye did stray and was drawn to those spicy illustrations, you would be inevitably greeted by a knowing smirk, a defiant liberty, and playful sauciness that became increasingly popular after the first World War and during the rise of the Jazz Age, flappers, and the tremendous sense of blowing off some steam and shedding inhibitions that did its best to lift the weight off the world’s shoulders during the 1920s. During the Great War, General Pershing himself warned American troops that under no circumstance should they submit their eyes to viewing such filth, which I’m sure resulted in a mysterious spike in sales for the publication. La Vie Parisienne continued to publish well into the 20th century, but with the rise of photographic magazines and increasing brazenness of the publications, the glimpse of stocking or artfully bared bosom from a loose Grecian tunic became quaint and then was surpassed and forgotten. In 1970, the storied and ground-breaking publication printed its final issue, though the name was sold and assigned to a new magazine in 1984, which continues publication now.
But for us here, as one would guess, we prefer the old days and old ways and the artwork of bold pioneers in sly sinfulness and mature mirthmaking like Georges Barbier, Gerda Wegener, Cheri Herouard, Georges Leonnec, Maurice Milliere, Sacha Zaliouk, Umberto Brunelleschi, Raphael Kirchner. There is such a…not innocence about their artwork, but an energy, a happiness, an idea that sexuality and playfulness and intellectualism were things to be loved, celebrated and enjoyed rather than demonized and shunted to the shadows of guilt and self-loathing. Such a joie de vivre. Without them, we might never have had…oh, who am I kidding? Nudie magazines were inevitable, since the first thing we do as humans with any new medium is use it to display each other naked. But still, we honor the magazine that started the ball rolling. So order yourself a French 75, put on some Francoise Hardy, and join us celebrating the magazine that dared celebrate our secret love of decadence and dandyism. On s’est bien amusé, darlings!