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.
As a kid, I was a sporadic comic book reader at best, thanks mostly to growing up pretty far from just about anywhere. Within biking distance, as long as I didn’t tell my parents I was riding that far, was a Convenient food mart where my friends and I could exchange our hard earned chore money for the currency of American youth — baseball cards, squirt guns, superballs, and on occasion a comic book. As a monster kid who grew up staying up late and watching the classics on “Memories of Monsters” and the sometimes less-than-classics on WDRB’s “Fright Night” featuring The Fearmonger, my favorite comics weren’t the superhero fare upon which the industry was built. Instead, I always favored the monster comics like Marvel’s Frankenstein and Werewolf By Night. The closest I would come to superheroes was Dr. Strange, who occasionally tooled around in a dune buggy with a green bodybuilder in purple pants, a naked silver guy, and an elf in Speed-O’s. Easily my favorite comic above all others, though, was Tomb of Dracula.
In 1948, French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut, a phrase which became “outsider art” in 1972 when critic Roger Cardinal imported it into the English language. It referred to works of art created outside the boundaries of general culture. Specifically, it was art created by someone like an inmate in an insane asylum. Over time, the term was applied to a broader audience, but the key element remains that the art is a reflection of a mental state beyond that of even the average crazy guy. This is not the same as an established art movement that is consciously seeking to do something “outside the mainstream.” An artist can’t rationally decide to make art brut. As Dubuffet himself describes it, art brut can’t be created by anyone who functions as part of regular society, even regular art society, and so this form of fierce and feverish creativity remains the sole purview of madmen and terrifying backwoods hillbillies who make sculpture out of cat skins, metal drums, and human skulls.
The Cultural Gutter invited me and my monsters over for a cup of tea and a conversation about The Monster in Me, during which I wax philosophic about the history of horror film ghouls and the lack of “human” monsters in modern chillers.
God help me, I love Santo y Blue Demon contra los Monstruos. I love it like you love a three-legged dog. Sure, my love may be tempered by pity and mild derision, but I love it, nonetheless. And hopefully you do, too. Because, if not, we’re going to have a problem. Santo y Blue Demon contra los Monstruos marked the 23rd screen appearance by its star, a man who entered the world as one Rodolfo Guzman Huerto, but who achieved legendary status in the world of lucha libre as El Santo, the Man in the Silver Mask. Santo was in his early fifties at this point, but, despite his prime wrestling years being behind him, his iconic status in Mexican popular culture was undiminished. In fact, he was still fairly early in his screen career at this point, with another couple dozen films ahead of him.
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 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?
World, you spoil us. No matter how much we’ve seen — and we have seen a lot — you always have something else waiting in the wings to delight and make jaws hang slack. Martial arts films are especially fecund soil for stories that operate in the far margins of loony concepts, made all the stranger by the fact that the most surreal and outrageous scenarios are usually handled with the utmost banality of attitude, as if Chinese skinheads kidnapping Abraham Lincoln during World War II is the sort of mundane shit that happens every day. What’s more, there’s something so astoundingly crackpot in the sorts of weirdness with which these films confront the viewer that it’s difficult to fully grasp the sort of thinking that led to such ideas in the first place. This is an honest, sincere wierdness, not the same as, say, the sort of predictable, labored, and juvenile weirdness of a Troma film or one of the endless stream of Japanese splatter-comedies that plague the exploitation film market of that once proud industry. The sort of mind that dreams up, “how about she’s a naked schoolgirl, and then a chainsaw shoots out her butt?” I know people rank that high on the “what the hell?” meter, but to me it’s a very rote sort of goofiness, the kind of thing that any decently perverse or stoned teenager would dream up.
In 1982, cult film fave Tobe Hooper got his shot at the big time. He was already an infamous character and major figure in the horror film world thanks to his first film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He enjoyed some mainstream success as the director of the original made for television Salem’s Lot, a movie that made a whole generation of children afraid to look out a second story bedroom window. A year after Salem’s Lot, Hooper got a plum job directing a big-budget horror film to be produced by Steven Spielberg. Fans were excited to see what the king of survival horror could do with a Spielberg size budget. Unfortunately, whatever it was he was going to do never came to be.
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.