When it comes time to make a fairytale movie in the United States, we tend to either take a macabre old story and scrubbing it relatively clean of shocking aspects and trolls yanking the thumbs off a child and forcing the poor tyke to eat them (pretty sure that’s a real story), which are replaced with singing home appliances and household pests; or we go the “21 century gritty and edgy” route, where the picture itself is digitally filtered and color tinted, the costumes showcase a lot more cinched-waist leather and absurd weaponry (almost always a rapid fire “machine gun” crossbow), there is more gore and computer generated blood, and the dialogue is made more modern and peppered with a greater amount of foul or modern language. This is not to say that entertainment cannot be wrung from these sorts of films. Wearisome devotion to the same color alteration, leather outfits, and general tone aside, the modern “dark and grim” fantasy genre has produced some winners, or at least some films that were perfectly acceptable entertainment. But it’s much more impressive to unnerve, chill, enchant, and disturb the audience in the bright, cheery light of a sunny meadow full of flowers. And that’s exactly what is accomplished by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu), an allegorical Czech fantasy film which on the surface is about a teenage girl just trying to get a decent night’s sleep.
There is a moment in Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a relatively unimportant throw-away couple of seconds, where the nominal hero of the story catches sight of a couple of shadows — shadows with no physical source to cast them — creeping across a field. Either because of the particularly old source material or the specific intention of the director, the film is grainy, hazy, gauzy. And it captures perfectly the prevailing atmosphere of Vampyr and why I love the film so dearly. Ostensibly a vampire film — thus the title — the hypnotic power of the movie flows not from the more visceral terror of bloodsuckers and murderers, but rather it comes from a much vaguer, ethereal place, something to do with ancient beings glimpsed from the corner of the eye, from unnerving mysterious powers, from murky forests and glens that are at once idyllic and unnerving. There is something very pagan about Vampyr that places it, for me, not so much among the famous works of vampire film and fiction, but alongside stories like Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and films like The Wicker Man.
In 1971, audiences were delivered the message that the freewheelin’ sixties were over, and so were the innocent fifties for that matter, when long-legged Clint Eastwood stepped onto the screen as “cop on the edge” Harry Callahan in the groundbreaking crime thriller, Dirty Harry. Other tough-as-nails cops and private eyes followed in Harry’s cynical footsteps, including Shaft, Serpico, and a guy named Popeye Doyle. This new generation of cop film was a marked departure from past crime films, where guys like G-Man Jimmy Stewart would walk proudly through spotless backlots dispatching ne’r-do-wells with precision shots from six-shooters balanced on their wrist. They were a return to the hardboiled, world-weary detectives of the 1940s. Callahan and his compatriots were angry, disillusioned, and cynical.
I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
The first ten minutes of Vahsi Kan are perhaps the purest and most potent distillation in existence of the Turkish action film as interpreted by exploitation kingpin Cetin Inanc. They are also ten of the seediest, sleaziest, most hilariously lascivious and violent ten minutes you’re likely to see this side of the opening montage from Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive. It’s made even sleazier by the fact that, due to a crackdown on nudity by Turkish film censors — who had previously tolerated a surprisingly vast amount of perversion and decadence in the 1970s — there’s no actual nudity on display. Somehow, the simple honesty of a bit of gratuitous nudity would have made the opening minutes of Vahsi Kan substantially less dirty, which is the glorious blow back that often results from censors mucking up the works.
My odyssey through the strange world of Russian fantasy films began in earnest many years ago, when I moved to a prominently Russian and Ukrainian neighborhood and started prowling around the DVD stores of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Up until then, I’d caught glimpses of this strange and wonderful looking avenue of cinema in the form of dubbed and edited American versions of the films, where Ilya Muromets became The Sword and the Dragon and Sadko became The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. These movies made regular rounds on broadcast television back when I was a kid, and I loved them without having any idea they were Russian fantasy films tailored by crafty American distributors to become nationless adventure spectacle. They were colorful, they were full of monsters, and they had lots of guys with swords running at each other. When I crept a little closer to old age, I decided I wanted to find the original versions of the films — much as I did with Eastern Bloc science fiction films — not just to see what had been changed, but also to see them in a better quality than I’d enjoyed on independent broadcast television with rabbit-ear antennae reception.
Hong Kong stuntman-turned-star Lam Ching-Ying made a whole slew of vampire comedies following the success of his turn in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, and Vampire vs. Vampire is inarguably one of them. Coming on the heels of two official Mr. Vampire sequels, the film stands out for a couple of reasons, not the least being that it marks Lam’s debut as a director. But, to me, the most interesting aspect of Vampire vs. Vampire is the fact that it pits Lam’s character against a Dracula-like, Western style vampire — rather than the jiang shi, or hopping vampires, seen in the previous entries — and in doing so sets some choice gothic elements against the series’ familiar backdrop of Chinese folk magic.
Japan’s occasional flirtations with an interest in vampires are, like most things having to do with Japan and Western pop culture, a bizarre mix of revulsion and fascination with the foreign — a dichotomy that is almost certainly (in my eyes) born of the interests of the young simply not lining up with the prejudice of the old (something that is not unique to Japan, or to any culture). One portion of the Japanese population can import and read home-grown vampire fiction as cautionary tales about the corrupting influence of the foreign on Japan, while another portion of the population can read those same tales and simply walk away having enjoyed a fun horror story about strange creatures. The presentation of vampires as symbols for the threat of and infection by the foreign is hardly a uniquely Japanese trait. The very foundation of modern pop culture vampire lore, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is basically a cautionary tale about swarthy Eastern Europeans with weird customs coming to the “more enlightened” west of Europe and Britain to mess things up and steal women.
The first Hammer movie I saw was late one night at my grandparents’ house, back when horror double bills were a Friday night TV staple. Mostly these were old Universal flicks, but occasionally if I was lucky there’d be a couple of Hammer horrors. I found these much more exciting than their earlier American counterparts, in fact I still do; vivid colour, actual gore, and an undercurrent of sex that provoked definite interest in young Dave. Also, better acting (there, I said it) and none of those awful Hollywood cockney coppers, gor bloimey Guv’nor. From then on, I was predisposed to see any Hammer film that came along, but this was pre-DVD (it was even pre-VHS, which makes me feel very old) so opportunities were limited. A few years and one wonderful technical revolution later, I discovered a video tape in Dad’s not-too-secret ‘special’ pile. It was Countess Dracula, not exactly a typical Hammer film, but it introduced me to the vision of loveliness that was Ingrid Pitt. More importantly it introduced me to Ingrid Pitt’s boobs. That was it; I was lost.
Eight. Nine. Three. In the Japanese card game known as hana-fuda, it’s the worst hand you can get. Eight, nine, and three — ya, ku, and sa. Japanese organized crime families adopted the name “yakuza” because of this hand. Because you need to be lucky to be a yakuza. Because you’ve drawn the worst hand if you cross them. Because winning with a ya-ku-sa hand requires the utmost skill at reading an opponent. Others may claim it’s because it’s bad luck that leads to a life of crime, or because yakuza are born losers. Or because in the Edo period, when the yakuza first emerged on the scene, they might have evolved at least in part out of the tekiya and bakuto social groups.