Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wendigo meets a Nollywood Vampire: VAMPIRE'S CALL (2005)

At long last, our tour of the Wild World of Cinema arrives in Nollywood -- Nigeria, land of what's reputed to be the world's second-most prolific national film industry. Second only to India, it reportedly produces at least 30 new feature films a week, or somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 features annually. Nollywood is the bane of African art cinema; mostly anglophone while the most honored African auteurs hail from francophone lands; largely if not entirely shot on video on short schedules and sold direct to DVD or other formats instead of playing in theaters; aimed squarely at the LCD of superstition and reactionary family values. While "Bollywood" has earned grudging respect for sticking to a distinct cultural aesthetic, Nollywood is widely reviled as the bottom of the cinematic barrel, except by the avid consumers who spend hundreds of millions of US dollars on the stuff and have made cinema the second largest employment sector in Nigeria, after government.

Accompanied by my intrepid friend Wendigo, I made my first foray into Nollywood by stumbling across Vampire's Call during a YouTube search for vampire movies available for free online. Wendigo proved willing to examine another culture's take on vampires, especially since the film would be in English. What we found was a sometimes compelling, sometimes repelling experience in many ways reminiscent of the lower rungs of U.S. exploitation in the Seventies and Eighties, at least in terms of story structure if not in gore or sleaze. It's hard for us to say whether Kasat Esosa Egbon's film is typical of Nollywood or whether it's above or below the norm, but we have learned that female lead Stephanie Okereke is one of Nigeria's more popular actresses, an award-winning performer who has since gone on to study film in the U.S. and write and direct a film on her own. Vampire's Call, however, does not appear on her IMDB filmography.

Okereke plays Lisa, a medical student returning from Britain to visit her grandparents in her home village. We learn that she's been having strange dreams that she suspects have something to do with the old country, and we note early that her avuncular elders don't want her to wander around the village after dark. A few years earlier, her cousin Vera had gone against that advice and had become one of many human and animal victims of a mysterious killer. The people have all been bitten in the neck and drained of blood, and no one in the village can imagine why.

Lisa's dreams are crudely spooky. She first encounters a CGI skeleton with a glowing heart. Later, she meets a man who grows telescopic fangs and causes the sky to grow dark -- and it seems that she's seen this person before. She dreams of dancing with the mystery man in a haphazardly red-draped, throne-furnished room fit for a low-rent Count Yorga. Awake, she finds her way to the actual room, and finds the man himself sleeping in an adjoining room. Who is he? Having lived in Britain and imbibed its pop culture and superstitions, she suspects that he must be a vampire; the idea seems to have occurred to no one else in the village, despite the teeth marks.

Lisa investigates a home-decorating atrocity in her native village.

Her grandfather (Justus Esiri) finally tells her a local legend that might explain her dreams, her discoveries, and all the recent deaths. Once upon a time, in the 18th or 19th century (the villagers have firearms), the community was plagued by a strange "wild animal". How strange? Well, it's one of the crappiest CGI critters we've seen in quite a while, with a sickly repetitive bleat to match; it wouldn't even pass muster for a video game.


Despite appearances, it's a frightening enough beast for the elders to call out all the able-bodied young men to fight it and promise the powerful village priestess, Atunma (Miltex Ogiri), to the man who slays it. A good sized band of fighters dances its way toward the creature's stomping ground, but only one wounded warrior, Chioke (Muna Obiekwe) survives the battle. He's nursed back to health by an outcast female, Chioma (Okereke) who slowly loses her resolve never to consort with men. Chioke persuades her to return to the village with him, where he intends to marry her. But that plan slights the fierce Atunma and offends the elders who arranged for her marriage to the monster-slayer. The modern-minded Chioke, determined to marry and live for love, decides to share Chioma's exile instead. Their idyll lasts until Atunma goads a gang into beating a pregnant Chioma to death, but the victim doesn't die until she's given Chioke a son. Atunma promptly curses the child, then kills Chioke when he seeks revenge for his wife's death....and somehow the boy survives and founds a line that carries the curse to the present day. The sons of Chioke will be vampires until a woman in Chioma's image will make a sacrifice of blood to wash away Atunma's curse.

The man of Lisa's dreams is Max (Obiekwe), the cursed, murderous descendant of Chioke and Chioma. The second half of Vampire's Call (it was released in two parts, adding up to approximately three hours total) is Max's Bram Stoker's Dracula/Beauty & The Beast/Phantom of the Opera/You Get the Idea courtship of the strangely enthralled Lisa. That courtship is complicated by the arrival from Britain of Richard, Lisa's fellow medical student, erstwhile boyfriend and aspiring Ralph Bellamy of Nollywood. Lisa is torn between two lovers, or is just plain fickle. Ultimately, however, Max means to force the romantic issue, though he's more reluctant to claim the blood necessary to lift his curse. He follows the couple to Lagos and spooks the hapless Richard away, but can't bring himself to take Lisa's blood. But when he resorts desperately to attacking a stranger at the wrong place and time, whether Lisa will live or not won't be his decision to make....

He's actually quite nice if you get to know him.

Objectively speaking, Wendigo has to say at the start that Vampire's Call is not a good film by any standard. He gives the creative team credit for ambition, but they simply lacked the talent to make their concept work. The most obvious problem with the movie is its obvious padding. To stretch the story enough to justify the two parts (Hollywood seems to be copying Nollywood lately) the director fills the film with extended scenes of people walking and watching local scenery that simply isn't scenic enough to hold our interest. The camera wanders occasionally, abandoning characters to follow a car that seems to have passed through randomly. The romantic scenes between Lisa and her two suitors go on far too long without actually evolving cinematically or building to anything like a climax. The big dance scene between Lisa and Max is interminable. A lot of these tricks reminded Wendigo of the way grindhouse exploitation films, or Seventies porn films, were padded -- but those films were padded to reach a minimal feature length. Doing the same thing to make a film three hours long is inexcusable. In some cases, he concedes, letting dialogue scenes linger long past their relevance, or showing extended folk dances, adds a feel of authenticity to the proceedings. But practically every scene rambles on longer than it should. Even worse, while Egbon wastes time on irrelevant stuff, he flagrantly omits some of the most potentially dramatic bits from the Chioke legend. We see the warriors dancing down the road, but we don't see them fight the monster. Instead of showing us the showdown between Chioke and Atunma, Egbon has grandpa flatly tell us that Chioke was killed.  Did his budget determine what he could and couldn't show, did censorship determine it, or did he simply make profoundly wrong narrative choices? It's hard for us to say. We will say that he lacks much sense of pace. That's proven when he breaks off Part 1 smack in the middle of one of Atumna's rants. Rather than give us a cliffhanger -- and it may not have been necessary, depending on how the two parts were marketed -- he doesn't even climb the mountain.

Wendigo found the first half better than the second because the slow buildup toward the revelation of the Chioke legend gave him an interesting puzzle to put together. The film succeeds somewhat in establishing the mystery of how the Chioke legend explains Lisa's dreams and the village murders, but it quickly loses momentum after the flashback ends. At its heart, Vampire's Call is a standard modern melodrama of reincarnated lost love and a reluctant monster, but Egbon found some interesting ways to transplant those motifs into an African setting. He does also manage a few effectively creepy moments in Part 2, especially when Max appears to be in two hotel rooms at once, holding separate chats with Lisa and Richard. By the time that scene happens, however, Wendigo worries that you may be ready to gnaw your arm off from boredom. The end may annoy some viewers since evil seems to go unpunished, even if it isn't evil anymore. It's almost as if Egbon forgot about all the murders he'd shown earlier -- it is a long movie, after all. Maybe he also thinks that Max isn't responsible for the killings because he'd been cursed -- but I'd like to see that defense tried in a court of law.

The acting is probably the best element in Vampire's Call. Both Okereke and Obiekwe succeed, sometimes in spite of the script, in creating two distinct characters in their respective dual roles, and Wendigo found Obiekwe as Max quietly menacing in a sometimes-unnerving way. As Chioke, the actor has a likable swagger as a man with attitudes ahead of his time. Even he's upstaged, however, by Miltex Ogiri as Atunma. She's built up as a formidable villainess, and you wish the writers had found a way to give the actress a character in the modern story, because she commands the screen in a way that really stands out. Overall, the actors (especially Esiri's likably grouchy grandpa) have a casual, natural style that makes some of the lengthy dialogue scenes somewhat more palatable. Some of the dialogue itself achieves a sort of poetry, e.g. Atunma's curse: "Chioke will seek tears, but they will not drop." Nollywood may simply have a more easygoing or patient approach to dialogue and character development. It's too bad that Egbon's technical skills are nowhere near the artistic level of his actors. Not only are the few attempts at effects uniformly awful, but the sound mixing may well be the worst we've ever heard in a motion picture. Library cues of howling wolves, tolling bells, crying babies are used to the point of abuse, and often drown out dialogue.

These technical shortcomings make Vampire's Call not bad in the cult sense of inspired stupidity, but simply amateurish. But while Wendigo can't call it a good film, and can't really recommend it to vampire fans, he did find it compelling enough to stick with the film to the end, despite the endurance test of Part 2. He doesn't regret the experiment with Nigerian pop cinema, and neither do I. Tourists in the Wild World of Cinema will probably find enough here that's odd, over the top, or simply strange to justify future forays into the Nollywood netherworld.

Monday, November 28, 2011

From you, I get opinions ...

In memory of Ken Russell (1927-2011).
uploaded to YouTube by Edentropy

uploaded by The Fantastic 48

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Koreyoshi Kurahara's signature film -- or so the curators of the Criterion Eclipse Kurahara collection see it -- has gone by numerous names over the years. In Japan, it's known as "Season of Heat." In the U.S., Radley Metzger released it as The Weird Love Makers before it acquired its DVD tag in a subsequent re-release. Since liner-notes writer Chuck Stephens wants to equate this film with Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, we could give the Kurahara a more suggestive and exploitative title -- "Brainless." That's not a knock on Kurahra and his film, but an acknowledgment that its main character, the ex-con shoplifter Akira (Tamio Kawachi) is an utter malevolent moron. Stephens characterizes Warped Ones as a triumph of style, and to an extent it is that, but it's also little more than the sort of juvenile-delinquent movie made in America at the same time. What sets it apart from the U.S. genre is the triumph it grants the punk at the end and the bleak message about Japan's future his triumph conveys.

Akira is alienated to the point of sociopathy. American jazz is his drug and his anthem of alienation. When someone abruptly switches off the jazz record playing at one of his hangouts, Akira goes berserk and is ready to slice the girl's face with a broken bottle before his black GI buddy stops him. Akira had earlier defended the soldier against a Japanese girl who said she didn't like "darkies." Blacks are the best, he says, because they invented jazz. After that, he goes on, the whiteys stole it, and now the Japanese imitate it. That proves to Akira that "We're the worst of all." Kurahara and screenwriter Nobuo Yamada seem to imply that Akira's enthusiasm for the American art form is an outgrowth of a national self-loathing. It is not part of any greater cultural sensibility. Akira is no beatnik, and his overall attitude toward avant-garde culture is contemptuously uncomprehending. The feeling is mutual between him and the actual would-be avant garde -- who seem more interested in classical music than jazz. The pretentious circles he travels through while seeking to get back at the reporter who got him arrested at the start of the picture regard him as a specimen rather than a person -- "What extraordinary Fauvism!" one exclaims. The others seem more civilized, but Kurahara and Yamada may consider them just as hopelessly alienated, or even just as addicted to the sensory overload that The Warped Ones tries to translate into cinema.
I don't know art but I know what I hate:
Tamio Kawachi is always a critic in The Warped Ones.

Warped Ones is highly regarded for its widescreen compositions and its frantic editing. It seems timed to the erratic rhythms of Akira's restless consciousness, but the overall effect is less a celebration of youth, or of style as an end unto itself, than a kind of horror of modernity. Akira may win in the end, for what it's worth, but Kurahara's strikes me as nearly as reactionary a film as those American B-movies that required delinquents to pay or atone for their crimes, precisely because Akira's victory means misery for others rather than any sort of liberation. But someone can probably watch it quite pleasurably without judgement, digging the unrepentant exuberance of Akira and his pals, taking it like the sort of pop drug they're hooked on. It's a fun film to watch and it is some kind of cinematic achievement, and even a sort of historic document -- but I expect Kurahara's thematic sequel (or remake), Black Sun, to top it. And as for equating it, even thematically, with Godard? Give me a break. Kurahara has a better chance of getting a fair hearing from movie buffs if we don't insist on pretentious comparisons. His boosters ought to have enough confidence in him to let new viewers watch him on his own terms.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A VERY PRIVATE AFFAIR (Vie Privee, 1962)

A week or so ago, as I was watching the Pre-Code Parade pass by, I caught a glimpse of Victor Fleming's Bombshell (1933), the ultimate Jean Harlow vehicle for many people because the story of a movie star hounded by hangers-on is thought to be partly a send-up of Harlow's own career. The film invites you to equate actress with fictional character by having Harlow's character star in Harlow's own earlier film Red Dust. Harlow gives every impression of being a good sport about it all, and why not? It's just a comedy, and often a fairly amusing one. I bring this up because Louis Malle's Vie Privee is conceptually very similar to Bombshell yet just about diametrically opposed in mood, unless I'm not getting the joke. Thirty years later the star imitating herself is the proverbial "sex kitten," Brigitte Bardot, and the identification extends to badly editing some poster art from Bardot movies to turn them into vehicles for "Jill," the character she plays here. In at least one scene, the disguise slips and Malle shows us a theater marquee blatantly advertising "Brigitte Bardot." Yet just as Harlow in Bombshell was reportedly playing an amalgam of herself, Clara Bow and other sex-symbols of her time, so Bardot in Vie Privee is playing a fairly specific amalgam of herself and Marilyn Monroe, the latter emerging when Jill falls for Marcello Mastroianni's Fabio, the "avant-garde lover," a magazine editor/translator/theater director standing in for Arthur Miller. The implicit commentary on Monroe veers eerily into prophecy as Jill spirals toward self-destruction in a film released in the U.S. in the summer of the real Monroe's demise but obviously filmed months before. The American title promises a frothy, salacious comedy (the original, "Private Life," is more austerely satiric) but delivers something else -- and takes a damned long time doing that.
Malle's film only gets going about halfway through, when Jill hooks up with Fabio, who'd been introduced much earlier in the picture. The first half, in the dubbed American version at least, is burdened with a dull, dry narration whose irrelevance is proven when it fades away past the midpoint. For the first hour, approximately, Vie Privee follows Jill's path from indifferent dancing to magazine modeling to sudden movie stardom with an utter lack of enthusiasm or wonder on the part of director and star. Everyone involved seems to take for granted that all they need to do is show Bardot to be halfway home. As a result, the film is front-loaded with padding to set up the actual story Malle and his writers wanted to tell: a kind of reversal of the making of The Misfits in which Jill's presence in Spoleto disrupts Fabio's spectacular outdoor staging of his new translation of a classic Kleist play. Fabio is jealous of every man's attention to Jill but also resentful of her upstaging of his planned triumph. Jill is torn by conflicting impulses, craving Fabio's attention, resenting the paparazzi but also resenting the boredom of isolation while hiding from them. All of this plays out in an almost operatically overwrought manner, established with a long tracking shot through the city's narrow streets as choral music plays and a chorus is revealed singing it -- the effect is regrettably reminiscent (or premonitory) of Count Basie's band serenading Cleavon Little in the desert. It culminates with Jill stalking the rooftops to watch Fabio's play from a godlike vantage. The predictable happens with Verdi's Requiem for a soundtrack, and in slow motion with an abstract backdrop and a sense that the supreme self-dramatizing moment has come for a character who hadn't really been shown with such tendencies before.

There are hints of satire in Vie Privee, but compared to Bombshell it seems entirely humorless. Even if Malle intended it as a satire, the finished product takes itself oppressively seriously. It's an invitation to pity the poor movie star that the Harlow film wouldn't dare. Harlow may have been playing a version of herself, but she was also playing her fans' fantasy of sudden stardom and liberation from Depression poverty. Who would want to be Jill? -- or on this evidence, who'd want to be Brigitte Bardot? If anything, besides being a grim prophecy of Marilyn Monroe's doom, the film is also a prophecy of the miserable, hateful person Bardot has apparently become in real life. It's such a personal film, even though she does no more than perform in it, that the mighty Mastroianni is little more than a flustered bystander.  But the Spoleto section of the film is riveting enough, and not necessarily in train-wreck fashion to nearly redeem the picture. Ideally it would have stood on its own, albeit as part of an anthology film like the Malle-Bardot segment of Spirits of the Dead.  That short and the 1965 comedy-adventure Viva Maria! at least prove that Malle and Bardot could actually entertain people together, as long as they made movies instead of movie-movies. Bardot herself could make a decent movie-movie, but while she's the star of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, she doesn't play a star. That might make all the difference.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

THE ROPE AND THE COLT (Cimiterio senza croci, 1969)

Actor-director Robert Hossein dedicated his western to Sergio Leone, but his film is no homage to the master. Instead, he honors Leone by making an original and uniquely bleak and deliberate variation on spaghetti-western motifs. It's a revenge story like many other spaghettis, but Hossein's tragic spin on the situation, the result of his disputed collaboration with Dario Argento and another writer, sets his film apart from the rest of the genre.

Hossein plays Manuel, a gunfighter living in apparent retirement and seclusion in an almost expressionist ghost town. We meet him after we've seen a man hounded and hanged in front of his own wife by the local bullyboys, the Rogers clan. The widow, Maria (Michele Mercier) makes a pilgrimage to the ghost town to implore Manuel, with whom she clearly had a past, to kill the Rogers men. He tries to beg off, claiming to have renounced violence and warning that revenge will do Maria no good, but she tosses a bag of gold at his feet as payment in advance. Inside his abandoned gambling den, he mulls over her request as he plays with the roulette wheel. Finally, he pulls on the leather glove that means he means business, stashes the money away in a cabinet where we see a photo of himself, Maria and the late Mr. Caine, and sets out on his mission.
Summoned from his ghost-town refuge (above), Manuel dons his shooting glove when trouble impends(below).

In town, Manuel waits for a chance to ingratiate himself with the Rogers clan, and gets it when another clan, the Valleys, threaten one of the Rogers men over cards. Manuel parlays his disinterested intervention into a job as a Rogers ranch foreman, which gives him an opportunity to bust open a corral and scare the clan's horses into the night. When the rest of the hands give chase, Manuel steals into the patriarch's house to kidnap the old man's daughter Diana (Anne-Marie Balin). He takes the girl to the ghost town, where he meets with Maria, who intends to collect a huge ransom. She intends more than that for Diana, it seems, when she lets two of her own goons into the old gambling den. As she and Manuel wait outside, Hossein stages something like the moral equivalent of a gunfight. He cuts back and forth between himself and Mercier, moving the camera closer each time as the gunfighter realizes that Maria's men are raping Diana. The scene plays out without dialogue, but Hossein's expression conveys his horror and disappointment, while Mercier seems to crumble from within while maintaining an implacable facade.

The avenger: Michele Mercier as Maria Caine.
The incident exhausts Maria's hunger for revenge, and she declares herself ready to leave the region with Manuel once they collect the ransom. But they learn too soon that they no longer control their destinies. The cycle of revenge takes on a life of its own as the Rogers clan strikes back at Maria and Manuel heads for a showdown with the Rogers men in the ghost town, only to face a surprise final antagonist....

Rope and Colt is an unusually pensive spaghetti western, a departure from the cartoonish tendency of the genre in its emphasis on guilty consciences and regret for roads not taken. It's as much a doomed romance as a revenge drama, a rare spaghetti in which a male-female relationship overshadows the feuds among men. Hossein and Mercier had been a romantic team in a series of films earlier in the Sixties, a fact that must have lent their tragedy here extra resonance for European audiences. Without knowing their on-screen history, I could appreciate their chemistry despite the dubbing because Hossein tells their story with as few words and as many meaningful looks and gestures as possible. In a bit of Coppolesque nepotism, Hossein's father wrote the score, and while it has the expected Morriconian theme and awkward English lyrics at the beginning it mostly succeeds at expressing the film's bleak sentiment, sometimes with near-operatic intensity. As a director, Hossein doesn't ape Leone's dynamic action or epic framing, but he invests his film with a strong sense of space and a good eye for landscape. In many ways it comes closer to an American "psychological" western of the 1950s than to a spaghetti, but Hossein's homage to Leone was not to make a spaghetti western, but to make a good one.
The next avenger? Anne-Marie Balin as Diana (or Johanna in the original language).

The film may be better known under the English translation of its Italian title, "Cemetery Without Crosses," but Rope and the Colt is how its presented in Timeless Media Group's The Best of the Spaghetti Westerns collection. This 20-film set is a twofold case of false advertising, being obviously not the best of the genre in the absence of Leone's films (though all are said to be "in the tradition of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), but in one respect the false advertising is a good thing. The box proclaims a "Full Screen Presentation," but never was box copy more happily wrong, as all the films I've sampled so far are letterboxed. I was fortunate enough to stumble across this set at Barnes & Noble, coincidentally at a 50% discount at the same time as the chain's last half-off sale on Criterion discs. If Hossein's film is typical of the set, this may prove the best bargain in the store.

Here's an Italian trailer, uploaded to YouTube by SWDBTrailer.

Monday, November 21, 2011


"The end of this story can only be written by you," Samuel Fuller writes, and it's a tall order considering that the story is set some ninety years before Run of the Arrow was released. But it's his unsubtle way of reiterating the contemporary relevance of his screenplay, though audiences might be excused for wondering where the relevance was. Fortunately, the film doesn't stand or fall on its relevance.

Fuller's protagonist is only ever known as O'Meara (Rod Steiger). He's a Confederate soldier who claims the distinction of firing the last shot of the Civil War, picking a Union lieutenant off his horse near Appomattox Court House on the morning of April 9, 1865. Claiming the horse, but finding the man still alive, he takes his prisoner to the rebel infirmary, nearer still to the actual court house, where he sees General Lee leave after surrendering to General Grant. Enraged, he resolves to shoot Grant, only to be told by the surgeon that Lee would most likely kill himself out of shame if O'Meara betrayed the truce. Back home, O'Meara remains unreconciled, despite his own mother telling him to grow up and become an American. The best that can be said of O'Meara is that, instead of becoming a terrorist, he lights out for the West. He hooks up with Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen), an old, alcoholic Sioux Indian scout who teaches him the language and some of the customs. Surprised by a renegade band led by Crazy Wolf (H. M. Wynant), Coyote gives O'Meara a fighting chance by invoking the "run of the arrow" challenge as an alterantive to death by torture or hanging. Forced to run barefoot with the renegades in pursuit, O'Meara takes advantage of their hounding of the dying Coyote, who'd meant to sacrifice himself, to find shelter in a friendly village where Blue Buffalo (a buff Charles Bronson) is the chief. Impressed by O'Meara's fortitude and his renunciation of allegiance to the United States, and in spite of his continued avowal of Christianity ("We worship the same god," BB assures him), the tribe adopts the Reb and marries him off to Yellow Mocassin (Sarita Montiel), the woman who had rescued and nursed him after the ordeal. The new couple adopts the mute boy Silent Tongue, for whom O'Meara's harmonica is a unique way to communicate that comes in handy later.

When paramount chief Red Cloud (Frank DeKova) negotiates a treaty with the U.S. Cavalry, he designates O'Meara to act as a scout to guide the troops to the site agreed on by both sides for a fort. His blunt honesty impresses Captain Clark (Brian Keith), but Lieutenant Driscoll (Ralph Meeker) is less impressed. A glory hound and Indian hater, Driscoll recognizes O'Meara's horse as the one the Reb took from him at Appomattox. O'Meara still carries the bullet the doctor extracted from Driscoll as a memento, inscribed as a gift from his fellow townspeople. He may have a fresh use for that bullet as Crazy Wolf's renegades harrass the cavalry and Driscoll spoils for an excuse to wage all-out war on the Sioux. When O'Meara captures Crazy Wolf, he forces his captive to play the run-of-the-arrow game, but when Driscoll tries to shoot the renegade, the Reb turns on the officer and takes Crazy Wolf back to Blue Buffalo's village. With Clark eliminated, Driscoll orders the fort built on a more provocative location, daring the Sioux to attack despite O'Meara's warnings. After a brutal, one-sided battle, Driscoll is turned over to Crazy Wolf for death by torture for violating the run, forcing O'Meara to an ultimate test of his principles and loyalties....

As I've already noted, Fuller leaves the ending somewhat ambiguous, and I'll leave it even more so by not describing it further. Suffice it to say that Fuller has some points to make about belonging and reconciliation, but those are complicated by his now-outmoded practice of making a Confederate his hero. As late as The Outlaw Josey Wales, a Reb could stand in for a generic rebel, and O'Meara is a hero in this sense only. Fuller isn't endorsing secession by any means, and he makes a point of having Capt. Clark denounce the Ku Klux Klan while not accepting O'Meara's excuse (actually perfectly valid) of not being involved in cross-burning or night riding. Even for Fuller, O'Meara is acceptable as a hero only insofar as he has no opinion whatsoever about black people. It probably was true that many rank and file Rebs weren't aggressive racists or believers in slavery, but audiences today hold anyone in gray accountable for the Peculiar Institution, and the omission of black-white relations from Fuller's agenda seems more glaring now than it may have been then.

Nor is Run of the Arrow an endorsement of a rebel or renegade lifestyle. Crazy Wolf is a counterexample of a purely destructive renegade, but on the other hand Lt. Driscoll represents the sort of asinine, overbearing authority figure who provokes rebellion. Fuller is neither for or against rebellion, except to say it's got to end sometime. Likewise, he intends no statement on "savagery" or "civilization." He neither idealizes nor demonizes the Sioux; Dances With Wolves this isn't. At the end, however, Fuller seems to acknowledge a cultural divide that O'Meara can't bridge. Until then, the Sioux had been just another nation with its own language and customs. But their insistence upon torture appears to alienate O'Meara from them decisively, and his obvious distaste for it alienates his own wife from him -- she recognizes that, no matter what he feels about Yankees, he remains essentially American. Yet one thing Fuller leaves to our imagination is whether Yellow Mocassin will stay with O'Meara or not; their cultural differences need not divide the multicultural family. But if we root for them to stay together, we should also root, Fuller implicitly insists, for the reconciliation of North and South, Natives and Whites -- and perhaps for their consolidation into something bigger and better than the sum of its parts rather than their common submission to some unworthy authority figure like Driscoll.

Fuller takes a chance by casting Rod Steiger as a leading man, but surrounds him with lots of capable character actors to play off. The tactic works: Steiger has a common man appeal instead of coming off like the archetypal tall Western superman, and his scenes with Flippen, Bronson, Keith and Meeker are great stuff. The best thing about the script is Fuller's transcendence of cliched Indian dialogue. His Sioux talk neither in me-scalpum pidgin nor in the stilted "noble" cadences of too many sympathetic Indians in Fifties Westerns. Instead, they speak an easy, conversational English, a cinematic translation of their own language that humanizes them rather than emphasizing their alien culture as subtitled native dialogue would do. The glaring exception to the high standard of acting is leading lady Sarita Montiel, who was reportedly dubbed by Angie Dickinson to no good effect. Visually, Run is outstanding. Fuller and cinematographer Joseph Biroc take full advantage of the full width and height of the "RKO-Scope" screen and their stark locations to create compositions of epic depth and sweep. Fuller's somewhat muddled message -- I'm still not quite sure to whom or what he expects O'Meara to be loyal -- can be disregarded in a movie fan's enjoyment of a colorful, rousing, violent yet humane adventure film.

Here's a trailer, uploaded to YouTube by skipjackturner.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

SAMURAI BANNERS (Fuurin kazan, 1969)

Promoted as "the biggest movie production in Japanese history," Hiroshi Inagaki's historical epic was produced by its star, Toshiro Mifune, who may have seen in the real-life protagonist a kind of antithesis of the Japanese Macbeth he'd performed for Akira Kurosawa in Throne of Blood. Mifune plays Kansuke Yamamoto, an important general of Japan's sengoku period (roughly the 16th century CE) whose ambition has shady origins but is ultimately more vicarious than personal. He's introduced in a black-and-white opening sequence in which he eliminates a creditor by convincing him to attack but spare an important daimyo as a demonstration of his skills. The film immediately shifts to full color as the incident plays out exactly as the creditor feared, with Kansuke following up to rescue the daimyo from the attacker by killing him. The shifty scarfaced ronin thus ingratiates himself with the rising Takeda (Kinnosuke Nakamura), who is quickly impressed by Kansuke's strategic acumen and his ambitious vision of Takeda's future. Kansuke persuades him to conquer a neighboring province with minimum fuss, with Kansuke himself conspiring under diplomatic cover to assassinate the rival lord. He discovers a kind of kindred spirit in the lord's daughter, Princess Yufu (Yoshiko Sakuma), who refuses to do the proper thing and kill herself. Her desire to live, even if that means becoming Takeda's concubine, strikes a chord in Kansuke, who has a similar desire to live at all costs. "I can't die, even if they kill me," he says at one point. That's because he's a visionary with an overwhelming drive to see his vision become a reality. That vision involves Takeda expanding his domain from coast to coast, at the very least.


Kurosawa's Shakespeare influence may have rubbed off on Toshiro Mifune, who delivers an ultimatum reminiscent of Henry V's Harfleur speech -- with serious props to back him up.

Strangely, Kansuke has no apparent ambition to usurp Takeda's domain; it'll suffice for him if someone achieves these great triumphs. But he'll manipulate Takeda as best he can to make him realize Kansuke's vision. Likewise, he manipulates the princess, for whom he feels strong yet repressed emotions, to make sure she bears Takeda a son -- whom Kansuke treats as his stake in Takeda's future. In an intense and disturbing scene, he takes the newborn from Yufu's arms and tells it that he, Kansuke, and not Takeda or Yufu, is the boy's true parent. For her part, Yufu has love-hate relations with both the men in her life, and probably with herself, and the film creates the impression that Kansuke has kept her alive by his own force of will, because she's part of his vision. But this samurai control freak can't master everything. In the literal fog of battle, when it looks as if all his plans will collapse, he throws himself into reckless action, charting his own course for fate separate from the outcome of war....

"I am your father!" The dark side of Kansuke's ambition doesn't exactly score points with Princess Yu(Yoshiko Sakuma, below)

Fuurin Kazan (the Japanese title is a sort of anagram of the four slogans on Kansuke's banners) is a big historical spectacle in the classical manner, and it has the air of a history lesson about it. Inagaki, who directed Mifune in the Miyamoto Mushashi trilogy of the 1950s, can handle the pageantry with ease, though his battle scenes lack the abstract clarity of Kurosawa's. He also throws in some impressionistic bits, including solarized scenes, to illustrate Kansuke's subjective consciousness and ambition. The psychology of Kansuke's vicarious ambition holds the film together, and Mifune makes the most of the acting opportunity. It's an intense lead performance from a period when he was starting to recede into distinguished guest-star roles and may be one of the last full-power performances he gave, down to what had become a stereotypical human-pincushion finish. At the same time, producer Mifune gives Yoshiko Sakuma every opportunity to make a strong impression as the princess, a woman who seems like Kansuke's soulmate, but is probably doomed for just that reason. By comparison, Nakamura is underutilized as a malleable authority figure, but his star power keeps Takeda from being blown off the screen and keeps Kansuke's singleminded yet self-serving subservience to the lord plausible.

Mifune biographer Stuart Galbraith IV reports that Fuurin Kazan was "mildly successful" at the box office but already regarded as old-fashioned even within Japan. It seems analogous to the period spectacles that were losing loads of money in the U.S. at the same time, but Samurai Banners doesn't seem like a failure to me. You might be able to imagine the greater film Kurosawa may have made of the Kansuke story (had he been willing to work with Mifune again), but Mifune had enough of a sense as a producer of his strengths as an actor and star to make the film an impressive personal vehicle and a compelling, personality-driven historical drama.

Bad Movie Alert: SATANWAR (1979)

New to YouTube this week, as I learned while randomly browsing for videos, is the one and only film written and directed by Bart LaRue, a voice actor for most of his career and most recognizable in that capacity as the voice of the Guardian of Forever in the "City on the Edge of Forever" episode of Star Trek. LaRue's two lead actors made their only screen appearances in Satanwar, and that kind of singularity often means something special. In fact, "Bart LaRue's Satanwar" is a sublimely inept attempt at an Amityville Horror rip-off, a 76 minute movie with approximately an hour of plot, followed by a 15-minute Mondo-style presentation on the satanic elements of voodoo. The film proper is introduced with narration explaining that Satan's demons target not just the general population, but Christians as well. This is demonstrated through the sad "true" tale of Bill and Louise Foster, whose new home is so ghastly -- I leave the kitchen wallpaper to your imagination -- that haunting seems redundant. But when did that ever stop the Evil One. No sooner have the Fosters hung their wedding cross on the wall that the powers of darkness struggle to turn it upside down. So impressed is Director LaRue with the special effect that makes this possible that he repeats the cross stunt several times during the picture.

Jimmy Drankovitch and Sally Schermerhorn gasp at the military might of Satan.

Other demonic manifestations include smelly brown gunk that boils over on the stove, smelly white gunk that seeps out of the refrigerator and cabinets, and invisible hands that grope Louise in the kitchen one morning. She's terrified at first, but later she and Bill can joke about it. It might not be bad having another man around the house, hubby suggests, if he shares in the housework.

Louise: I'm not going to be molested day and night just so you don't have to take out the garbage.
Bill: Just tell him that rape, sex and molestation are my department.
Louise: ...He did have nice hands.

Satan also hits Louise in the leg with a stop-motion animated chair, sets Bill's newspaper on fire, and, in his ultimate stratagem, sends a hooded guy into the house with a knife. A timely combination of cross and revolver repel the intruder, but he's enough to convince them finally to quit the place so LaRue can cut to the voodoo. "Thus the oldest war in the universe carries on to its eternal conclusion," the narrator narrates to close this riveting empty film. It has a badness on every level that lends it a kind of inimitable authenticity. Too many people make self-consciously bad movies, but this kind of bad can't be faked. Satanwar doesn't seem to be very well known, but the GialloGrindhouse channel on YouTube is out to correct that, and you can watch Bart LaRue's definitive cinematic statement right here -- if you dare.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: MARIE DRESSLER Double Feature

She is nobody's choice for Pre-Code poster girl, but Marie Dressler was one of the most popular actresses of the early-talkie era, and by virtue of dying in 1934, the year of Code enforcement, she is more a creature of that era than many of the more characteristic personalities who carried on under the Breen Office. Dressler arguably had the greatest "second act" in Hollywood history, having long ago starred in the first-ever American comedy feature, Mack Sennett's Tillie's Punctured Romance, for which Charlie Chaplin took second billing for the last time in his career. That was the peak of Dressler's first sojourn in moviedom, but the advent of talkies at the end of the 1920s demanded veteran stage actors with proven voices, and so she began a comeback around age sixty. She had high-profiled featured bits in films like The Girl Said No and nearly stole the "Garbo Talks" showcase Anna Christie from its star before hitting paydirt in George Hill's Min and Bill, which won her the Best Actress Oscar. From that point she was a top-billed star in her own right with an established persona as a lovable old battleaxe willing to go to extremes for her friends and loved ones. For all that Pre-Code emphasized sex, youth did not rule theaters unchallenged in those days; Dressler's peers among Hollywood's star elders included fiftysomething Will Rogers and fellow sexagenarian George Arliss. Age was accepted as a source of wisdom, and sometimes even wit, and also as an object of pathos. Dressler could serve up a double-dose of pathos when needed because she had not aged gracefully, and back then people still went to movies who could identify with her. Based on her movies that I've seen, these were folksier audiences with small-town values. There's little "Pre-Code" content in those movies, but they have something in common with the more sensational stuff, and that's a commitment to relevance, as the one-word titles of the following films make clear.

Charles Reisner's POLITICS (1931) makes Dressler a reluctant leader of a female-led reform movement and an unlikely candidate for mayor. Galvanized by the death of an innocent bystander in a gangland shootout outside a speakeasy, her Hattie Burns attends a mass meeting of women and steals the show by relentlessly questioning the condescending mayor about lax law enforcement until the beleaguered official finally flees the hall. She hadn't been as politically active as her more assertive pal Ivy Higgins, so it comes as a surprise to both women when the meeting spontaneously nominates Hattie, not Ivy, for mayor. Political and gender lines become one and the same as the men of the town, including Ivy's comedy-relief husband, try to compel their wives to quit politics and return to their housework. As it turns out, their most effective threat is to announce that they're all going out to get drunk. Doing that causes virtually all the women to abandon Hattie's first big rally, leaving her standing alone abjectly on the platform. She's not licked, though. Her counterattack is straight out of Aristophanes. She convinces the women to go on a household strike, refusing to perform any of their wifely duties until their husbands relent. Her strategy tips the balance of political power until some melodramatic complications kick in, most notably the fact that her own daughter is harboring a handsome, repentant and wounded young gangster under Hattie's very roof.

Politics goes against the Pre-Code grain by making heroines of women who demand more rigorous enforcement of Prohibition, but the gender angle makes it seem like anything but a reactionary film. In fact, the final drive for women's suffrage and the drive for Prohibition pretty much went hand-in-hand; suffragists sought the vote, in many cases, in order to play a greater role in defense of public morals. Politics is a reminder, at a time when Prohibition was on the ropes with many progressive-minded figures, of women's potential as political as well as moral leaders of society. As a film it's mildly amusing. Dressler could mug like any comic but she could also deliver dialogue in an understated, naturalistic fashion that makes her a likable actress most of the time, and films like this one make her appeal obvious. Compared with the next film, this is a modestly-scaled comedy-drama, but that's because the next film is somewhat berserk.

Sam Wood's sardonically titled PROSPERITY (1932) opens, just as sardonically, with an instrumental of "Happy Days Are Here Again," a tune certain to be recognized by the film's original initial audiences as Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign song. Prosperity was released in the month of FDR's election, so most people probably heard that song in a "perhaps, but not yet" frame of mind. In any event, Prosperity is about anything but, unless you count the opening segment set in 1925, "when money still talked." Politics apparently made Dressler credible as an authority figure, for here she plays a widowed bank president, Maggie Warren, who hands control of the family business to her son John (future director Norman Foster), who proves less savvy at finance. Of course, the Depression doesn't help things. The Warrens' troubles are compounded by their in-laws. John's wife (Anita Page) is pleasant enough, but her mother Lizzie is an abomination. And here we must discuss the strange career of Polly Moran.

M-G-M's big thinkers apparently believed that their star comics needed sidekicks. Fans of Buster Keaton recall this with rue, for it resulted in Keaton being teamed with Jimmy Durante, whose fast-talking aggression seemed to suck the air from the already-declining silent legend. In Dressler's case, the studio teamed her with Moran, starting with the presumed-lost 1930 film Caught Short. Moran played Ivy Higgins in Politics but was (in retrospect) relatively restrained, much of her comedy confined to Ivy's banter with her stuttering husband. For Prosperity, however, the writers unleashed a human nightmare. Lizzie Praskins is surely one of the most hateful creatures ever to be deemed comedy relief in a moving picture. A lifelong friend of Maggie Warren, Lizzie can't help feeling or saying that John Warren isn't good enough for her daughter. Her pathological sniping at John continues even after the Warrens are compelled to move in with Lizzie after a bank collapse that Lizzie helped instigate. Due to some asinine misunderstanding, she'd removed her savings from the Warren bank, creating the impression that the bank was unsound. That provoked a bank run played by Wood for all its slapstick potential, from pushing and shoving people to cars crashing into one another outside. Meanwhile, Lizzie and Maggie resolved their dispute and Lizzie re-deposited her money -- only to be told by another depositor that she'd been lucky to withdraw her money before the run started. It hadn't occurred to her that she'd caused the run, so she panicked and withdrew her money again, exacerbating the run to the point that Maggie had to sell all her property to meet the demand for money. With John reduced to being her boarder along with Maggie, who has to return to work as a grocery clerk to raise money toward re-opening the bank, Lizzie still berates him as a failure until he leaves the house and his young family, with Maggie not far behind. That's the character of Lizzie Praskins, and on top of that Polly Moran's sole purpose as an actress is to be obnoxious as possible, no matter what the circumstances. This imperative reaches its climax as Prosperity threatens to slide from comedy-drama into farce-tragedy.

Near the end of his rope, John gets involved in a shady bond deal in hopes of reopening the bank, only to chase down a train in his car to reclaim the bonds before they can be used to ruin him. Foster does a remarkable stunt here, driving alongside the track, then ditching his car while it's still running and dashing onto the accelerating train in one take. Meanwhile, at the end of her rope, Maggie contemplates suicide in the expectation of a $10,000 insurance payout to her son. John manages to recover the bonds, but since Maggie isn't picking up the phone in their apartment he has to call Lizzie and ask her to tell Maggie that he's saved the day. Somehow he convinces her, and Lizzie promptly shows up to tell Maggie the news. But if you're contemplating suicide, probably the last thing you want to see or hear is Polly Moran chattering away at you. Assuming that Lizzie can have nothing helpful to say, Maggie urges her to leave. Having noticed a gun in the room, any human being would drive it into Maggie's head by any means necessary that she doesn't have to kill herself. But Lizzie is so stupid that she can't convey the necessary information; the most she can do is drive Maggie with her hectoring into another room where she can take poison -- right at the point where movie audiences are urging Dressler to take that gun and annihilate Moran. But there's no need to worry! Lizzie has saved the day without even knowing it! Earlier in the picture, she'd taken offense at Maggie leaving a bottle of poison within reach of their grandchildren. Her solution was to dump the poison and put the "Poison" label on a jug of prune juice. In a payoff of a gag from half the picture ago, it's that juice that Maggie drinks in mortal despair. Needless to say, however, John reaches home with the good news, Maggie gets to play a death scene, Lizzie finally straightens her out about the jug, and the picture ends with a bathroom gag. And "Happy Days Are Here Again" reprises.

Prosperity leaves you reeling, and yet it probably is a better film than Politics, and more certainly a more entertaining one, precisely because of its roller-coaster mood swings and Moran's demonic performance. It may be no accident, though, that it was the last Dressler-Moran pairing. Dressler still had three pictures in her, including her now-best-known turn in Dinner At Eight, so it's not as if there was no opportunity for Moran to work with her. It may well be that audience hostility to Lizzie Praskins drove Moran's career into a decline that only accelerated after Dressler's death. Despite all I've said, Moran's work in Prosperity has a "it's horrible, but you can't look away" quality that makes the film an appallingly compelling artifact of its time -- but she still didn't steal the film from Dressler, though the star probably needed to milk the tragicomedy for all it was worth to stay ahead. It took her long enough to regain stardom, and she kept on earning it to the end.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Claude Chabrol's second feature film is almost a bizarro-world version of his first, Le Beau Serge. In the earlier picture, Jean-Claude Brialy played a sheltered college boy who returns to his small home town to find his childhood buddy, played by Gerard Blain, a drunken loser. In Les Cousins Blain plays the idealistic small-town relation -- the "country mouse," as the trailer puts it -- hoping to make good in the big city but led astray by Brialy's decadent student. Cousins could almost be Serge's sour-grapes fantasy of what might have befallen him had he followed up on his academic ambitions. As it is, the role reversal is a self-conscious showcase for Chabrol's two stars, though Blain's persona in both films has something of the loser about him. Still, his is a more sympathetic turn, while Brialy gets to chew the scenery playing what Americans in 1959 would probably have recognized as a beatnik, whether the French recognized that category or not. They would have seen Brialy's Paul as a pretentious slacker, a pseudo-intellectual exhibitionist more interested in partying and making a spectacle of himself than studying for his exams. He's the guy who puts the lights down at a party, puts Wagner on the record player, grabs a candelabra, dons a Nazi officer's cap, and parades around intoning pathetic nothings in German. He's also the sort who resents it when he ceases to be the center of anyone's attention, especially when erstwhile girlfriend Florence ("revelation of the year" Juliette Mayniel) falls for cousin Charles the bookworm.

Cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) doesn't keep a low profile on the road or at home.

Les Cousins picks up steam as Paul asserts his dominance and Charles approaches a breaking point. The situation grows intolerable for the studious "Carolus" as Paul keeps on partying while flaunting his intimacy with Florence. The agony of intimacy, however you define the term, becomes the main subject of the second half of the film, as Charles struggles to study while Paul and Flo play in the shower in the next room, and keeps on cramming the night before the exam while Paul celebrates his miraculous success on his own exam with the biggest blowout of all, complete with a singing strongman and the "Ride of the Valkyries" bombarding the apartment with portentous sound. Anyone who's shared living space with people without fully sharing their interests or friends will feel excruciating empathy with these scenes, and the Wagner music invites us to wait patiently for Charles to snap. He's as trapped as anyone in a psychological thriller, if only for economic reasons, and yet there's something masochistic to his endurance, while it lasts.

When Charles fails his exam, you feel certain that the countdown has begun as he wanders through the city and trashes his academic documents. You may have wanted him to stand up to Paul or kick his ass before, but now a sense of dread builds as you anticipate a reprisal well beyond ass-kicking -- and it's here that Chabrol really starts earning the reputation for suspense that earned him the "French Hitchcock" tag. The ending, however, reminded me less of Hitchcock than of William Wellman since Les Cousins closes, like Wellman's The Public Enemy, with a record  -- Wagner, of course, -- spinning to its end. But while the needle gets stuck at the center in Wellman's film, and somehow seems aptly representative of death, the automated needle arm of Paul's modern stereo simply lifts up and retreats to its rest, aptly representative of mechanical fate. There's a sense of fatedness to the story because it's really a fable of the City and the Village, just as much if not more so than Le Beau Serge. That may be strange to say of two films that heralded the French New Wave of auteurial sophistication, but that's how I see them. In any event, Les Cousins is a clear improvement on an already strong start, and the two films effectively established Chabrol as a director to watch for the next fifty years. I've only seen a handful of his later films, and now I'm looking forward to the rest.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wendigo Meets SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)

Those of you who saw us use a quote from E. Elias Merighe's movie as an epigraph for our review of the Spanish-language Universal Dracula probably figured that it'd just be a matter of time before we got to Shadow of the Vampire itself. So here we are, re-watching Merighe's alternate-universe account of the making of F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Wendigo and I agree that we shouldn't take the film within the film as the Murnau movie we know, nor Merighe's movie as a reflection on the historical Murnau. Once Merighe and writer Steven Katz came up with the high concept that the legendary and mysterious Max Schreck was an actual vampire (Willem Dafoe), there was no point to further fidelity to the history of Nosferatu. Thus, all "Schreck's" scenes are filmed at night when the real Murnau probably shot not a frame of film after sunset. The big "gimme" also licenses Shadow's creators to invent their own Murnau (John Malkovich), Albin Grau (Udo Kier) and cast of actors, so that their film is hardly about the making of Nosferatu, or even the mystique of Murnau's film, but some strange satire of their own art.

This isn't your great-grandfather's Nosferatu; 'outtakes' from Shadow of the Vampire.

Wendigo would say that Shadow is really a movie about movies, a meditation about the mystique of the director and the obsession moviemakers have with making movies. There's a certain narcissism to it that alienates Wendigo, who happens to be unimpressed by Katz and Merighe's implicit psychological self-criticisms. He's not much more impressed by their equation of moviemaking with vampirism, a theme announced by Greta Schroeder's (Catherine McCormack) complaint that the movie camera sucks the life out of her. The Shadow Murnau is a monster if not a metaphorical vampire, a pretentious Weimar degenerate (if not also a proto-Hitler) willing to sacrifice cast and crew for the sake of his dubious art. If anything, he even vamps the vampire, or tries to. The film's sadomasochistic Murnau gets some thrill from the power game he plays with "Schreck," who we learn was a decrepit survivor of vampirized Slovakian nobility. The main thread of the film is Murnau's struggle to dominate Schreck, rather than the vampire's ravaging of the Nosferatu crew. When I first saw the film, I took offense at a seeming insult to F. W. Murnau, but Wendigo realized before I did that Shadow is less about the real Murnau than some abstract caricature of the autocratic director, presented by Katz and Merighe with questionable sincerity.  Does Merighe really see himself, as a director, that way? Does he see directors in general that way? You have to wonder.

Above, 'Herr Doktor' Murnau in action; the implication that film directors are mad scientists probably isn't accidental.

What's in it for Max Schreck? Katz leaves a lot implicit, but Wendigo noticed two main motivations. The most obvious one is the vampire's obsession with the actress Greta Schroeder, which itself requires some explanation. He recognizes the woman in Jonathan Hutter's locket as Schroeder and breaks "character" to identify her. How does Schreck know her? It's one of the film's most fascinating questions. I assumed initially that Schreck had to have gone to the movies, but Wendigo suggests that Murnau might have shown Schreck a picture of the woman while recruiting the vampire, and that the photos might have been enough to leave Schreck smitten.

"I'd like some makeup."

More interesting to Wendigo is Schreck's overall interest in cinema, illustrated in a charming scene when the vampire putters with a film projector on an abandoned set. Wendigo speculates that Schreck's real interest in moviemaking is the possibility of making a permanent record of himself. Over centuries the vampire has forgotten many details of his existence, but film promises not just a permanent record but a kind of immortality that might persist beyond his eventual demise. If Merighe's Murnau is the archetypal autocrat director, his Schreck is the archetypal obsessed fan. Shadow is a tale of interlocking, codependent obsessions, in which Shreck's smittenness ultimately overcomes his survival instincts and undercuts his physical dominance of Murnau. This vampire is fatally caught in the beam of the movie projector; the sun is almost redundant.

Willem Dafoe is the first actor to be nominated for an Oscar for playing a vampire. Wendigo was impressed by his elaboration on a physical impersonation of Schreck, the additional touches Dafoe created like Schreck's nervous habit of clicking his long fingernails together, as well as the rare moments of groping memory ("It was woman" who made him a vampire) and introspection, like his critique of Dracula we quoted last month. Since he's not playing the real Max Schreck, Dafoe is licensed to create a character almost from scratch, and he makes the vampire a more complicated character than Malkovich's somewhat-typical weirdo. Dafoe doesn't have Shreck's facial structure, and under the makeup he sometimes looks more like Alexander Granach's Knock, Nosferatu's bozo-haired Renfield surrogate, but most of the time the makeup evocatively establishes Schreck's alien nature. Still, Wendigo ultimately deems Dafoe a derivative shadow, however talented, of the uncanny, irreproducible original. Neither Dafoe nor Merighe is really aiming for the pure frightening effect that Murnau and Schreck achieved, but the modern creators' greater sophistication doesn't make Dafoe's Schreck a better performance than Schreck's Orlok. As for the other notables, Malkovich is simply bad, while Udo Kier lends surprising gravitas to any scene Albin Grau is in. Given his wacky past, Kier is setting a new standard for aging gracefully.

Overall, Wendigo likes Shadow of the Vampire a little less after the latest viewing. Greater familiarity with Dafoe's performance and his makeup makes them slightly less impressive now, and Katz's pretentious satire of moviemaking rang more false for both of us. It's still a singular high concept that's worth a look from vampire fans, though since it's more a movie-movie than a vampire movie, it may not satisfy everyone. I've seen it as a variation on King Kong, with Merighe's Murnau in the Carl Denham role, while Wendigo would include it in a broader category of movie-movies that would include Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead. These have in common a character's obsession with moviemaking taken to impractical and unrealistic extremes. Wendigo has a hard time imagining that people pursued by monsters or witnessing atrocities would keep a camera rolling no matter what. He sees the point that the directors of the actual films want to make, but he doesn't really believe it. And he wants me to say that Malkovich's Murnau is more a Jack Black Denham than a Robert Armstrong.

To repeat, Shadow of the Vampire may not please every vampire or movie-movie fan. Perhaps the sequel of my imagination would work better. I'd like to see Werner Herzog make a film in which he claims, first, that Klaus Kinski was really a vampire and, second, that he's never seen or heard of Shadow of the Vampire. Better still: all of this, but with an actor playing Werner Herzog, down to the accent, while Herzog's still alive. I don't know whether Herzog would kill me out of rage or envy....