Horror Films 101: 5 vampire films you may not have seen.

The beautiful Delphine Seyrig stars as the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory in Harry Kümel's "Daughters of Darkness" (1971).

1. The stylish Daughters of Darkness (1971) from Belgian director Harry Kümel continues to be one of my favourite indulgences when it comes to eurotrash vampire films. I’ve already dedicated an entire blog post on Kümel’s film, but a recently discovered quote from “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia has reminded me of my great admiration for this lesbian-vampire classic:

“A classy genre of vampire film follows a style I call psychological high Gothic. […] A good example is Daughters of Darkness, starring Delphine Seyrig as an elegant lesbian vampire. High gothic is abstract and ceremonious. Evil has become world-weary, hierarchical glamour. There is no bestiality. The theme is eroticized western power, the burden of history.”

— Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press, 1990, p. 268.

Vincent Lannoo's mockumentary "Vampires" (2011).

2. Yet another Belgian vampire film, although the ‘found-footage’ hand-held camera-style of Vincent Lannoo’s Vampires (2011) could scarcely be more of a departure from Kümel’s meticulously crafted film. Touted in the media as “Spinal Tap meets the Munsters”, Lannoo’s mockumentary delves into the culture of contemporary Belgian vampires, all with a wonderfully deadpan, blacker-than-night sense of humour. After several unsuccessful attempts to document the vampire community — as the film crews kept, um, getting eaten — the crew that purportedly filmed Vampires manage to locate an amenable vampire family that allow them to document their daily routines. Even though the found-footage schtick has grown very, very tired in the horror genre, I found myself enjoying the detailed accounts of vampire customs and culture.

Director Larry Fessenden plays Sam, a world-weary bartender in "Habit" (1999).

3. The low-budget indie film Habit (1999) was written, produced, directed, and edited by genre fave Larry Fessenden. This is a grungy and unglamorous revisionist-vampire film that uses vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Fessenden plays Sam, a world-weary bartender who struggles with alcoholism and the recent death of his estranged father. When Sam meets the mysterious Anna at a friend’s party, things eventually go from bad to worse. While this film offers little in terms of fanged neck-biting, it has an effectively moody atmosphere and some fairly erotic sex scenes.

4. Cronos (1993), written & directed by Guillermo del Toro, was the cinematic debut of the Mexican filmmaker better known for his later film Pan’s Labyrinth. A fairly unique treatment of the vampire mythology in which an ancient and mysterious mechanical device is used to transmit the virus of vampirism. An old antique dealer unwittingly discovers the scarab-shaped device in his shop and becomes infected. Fans of del Toro’s work will recognize his characteristic black humour and fondness for grotesquery.

The priest Sang-hyun saves his dying love interest Tae-ju by rendering her a vampire in "Thirst" (2009).

5. Another clever twist on the vampire legend is Chan-wook Park’s Thirst (2009). Sang-hyun is a devout Catholic priest who, for all intents and purposes, opts to martyr himself by subjecting his body to some radical medical experiments. When these medical experiments result in vampirism, the priest wrestles not only with a heightened desire for carnality, but also a thirst for human blood.

Horror Films 101: Summer viewing suggestions from Lady Lazarus.

The dog days of Summer are now upon us, but don’t let those increased hours of daylight discourage our mutual reveling in the dark & macabre.  Summer is the perfect time of the year to relax, disengage your critical thought and wallow in the raunchy, gory, completely tasteless absurdity of horror & exploitation films. For the bookish crowd, there are “Summer Reading” lists offered annually by media sources such as Toronto Life and CBC Radio. Now, don’t get me wrong —  I do love to curl up with a good book whenever the opportunity presents itself. Film geek that I am, however, I derive greater enjoyment from seeking out and viewing obscure, bizarre and, um, not-exactly-high-brow films — such as the films I list below. If your taste in film is rather like mine, then track these films down as a “Summer Viewing” project. You probably won’t find these titles in your local Blockbuster video store, though. If you’re successful in locating any of these, then cue the DVD, pull the curtains, and embrace their insanity. Then tell me what you thought in the Comments section at the end of this post.

Valerie embraced by the 'Polecat' vampire-like creature, who's also the town's high priest and possibly her father (??!!) in "Valerie and her Week of Wonders" (1970).

1. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Czech: Valerie a týden divů) is a 1970 film from the former Czechoslovakia, directed by Jaromil Jireš. This is the most “artful” of the films that appear on this list and, even though the print I viewed was of very poor quality, the stellar cinematography clearly stood out. The film is a dark, coming-of-age fairytale as only the Czechs could envision. The titular heroine, 13-year-old Valerie, grapples with her burgeoning sexuality, as well as the many priests, vampires, men and women who attempt to seduce and/or kill her. Fortunately for young Valerie, she possesses magical earrings which, when placed in her mouth, rescue her from impending death — which happens with great frequency throughout the film. Disjointed and surreal, you’ll hurt your brain if you try to make sense of the proceedings. Characters often change appearance and, as in the case of the ‘Polecat’, occupy shifting and ambiguous roles. Is he a priest? A vampire? Valerie’s father? A weasel? All of the above? Yes. Don’t worry about it, just enjoy the many beautiful images and the hazy, dreamlike pace of this film.

Christina Lindberg stars as Frigga, the vengeful one-eyed prostitute in "Thriller -- A Cruel Picture."

2. Thriller — A Cruel Picture (Swedish: Thriller – en grym film, also known as They Call Her One Eye, Hooker’s Revenge and simply Thriller) is a 1973 Swedish exploitation film. The film follows the typical Rape-Revenge formula: the heroine suffers tragedy and physical degradation until the latter half of the film, when she exacts bloody revenge on those who’ve abused her. (Read my earlier post on the Rape-Revenge film for my thoughts on this exploitation subgenre.) The teenage Frigga — who has been rendered mute by the childhood trauma of sexual abuse — is kidnapped by the local pimp and forced into both heroin addiction and prostitution. When she is initially non-compliant, Frigga has one of her eyes cut out with a scalpel in a brief but grisly scene that reputedly employed an actual cadaver as a body-double. From then on, she silently endures abuse from her clients while she saves up her portion of the financial transactions. She packs her Mondays (her one day-off work) with karate class, rifle-shooting and driving-really-super-fast class, as she secretly plots her revenge. Montage after long montage, she finally dons a black leather trenchcoat, matching eye-patch, and a sawed-off shotgun, and pays a slow-motion visit to each of her (soon to be former) clients.

The film was marketed as the first film ever to be completely banned in Sweden, although the one that actually was first was Victor Sjöström’s The Gardener from 1912. It has received a cult following and was one of the inspirations behind Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, specifically the character of Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). In Daniel Ekeroth’s book on Swedish exploitation movies, Swedish Sensationsfilms: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema, it is revealed that the producers took out a huge life insurance policy on star Christina Lindberg, as real ammunition was used in the action sequences, and that she was asked to inject saline solution during the drug scenes. — from Wikipedia.

There's no joy in being dead, not even 'living death', as evidenced by the melancholic Catherine in Jean Rollin's "The Living Dead Girl" (1982). Oh, the existential angst of it all.

3. The Living Dead Girl (French: La Morte Vivante) is a 1982 campy classic from French fantastique director Jean Rollin. Reanimated by the spillage of a toxic waste goop on her corpse, the aristocratic Catherine discovers she has a new-found taste for human flesh. Like all of Rollin’s films, the aesthetics play a much more crucial role than the story or, indeed, the acting. His films are as gorgeous as they are completely ridiculous. The absurd plot devices — toxic goop dumped on (surprisingly well-preserved, two-year-old) corpse interred in family crypt — exist only to furnish Rollin with an excuse to create his signature erotic-grotesque imagery. Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl is splatter gore-meets-arthouse, served up with a little Jean-Paul Sartre on the side. The existentialist exchange that occurs between Catherine and her childhood friend Hélène is thoroughly hilarious:

Hélène: You were never dead. The dead don’t come back to life. You were put to sleep, drugged, driven mad or I don’t know what. I don’t understand. I never saw you dead, Catherine. They put an empty coffin in this crypt.

Catherine: No. I’m dead, Hélène. I know I am. Don’t you understand? I know I am!

Catherine and Hélène discuss the finer points of existence in "The Living Dead Girl."

Heady stuff, people. Heady stuff.

Horror Films 101: Harry Kümel’s “Daughters of Darkness” (1971)

Delphine Seyrig channels Marlene Dietrich in her portrayal of the infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you are already familiar with my admiration — one might even say, obsession — for European horror films from the 1960’s and 70’s. What these films often lacked in budget, they more than made up for with stunning visuals and style. Of course, when you have a 1000+ years of art and culture sitting at your doorstep, it’s difficult not to look fabulous. Such is the case for Harry Kümel’s highly stylized erotic vampire film Daughters of Darkness (1971). From the architecture of the grand hotel on the Belgian seafront, to the shimmering sequins of Delphine Seyrig’s evening gown and the blonde waves of her 1930’s bob hairstyle, everything and everyone looks beautiful.

Author David Chute wrote an elegant summary of Daughters of Darkness for the recent Blu-Ray release of the Kümel classic which accurately captures the mood of the film:

Art-movie goddess Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) slinks through the plush Eurotrash settings as the deathless Elizabeth Bathory, Vampire Countess, in Harry Kümel’s minor Dutch classic of lesbian erotic-gothic. Blood mingles with water during the languorous shower scenes. Set at an upper-crust seaside resort, the 1971 film recounts Bathory’s plot to replace her current consort (Andrea Rau) with a fresher specimen, an abused newlywed whose brutal young husband is an inconvenience waiting to be eliminated. Although both the bi-sex and the neck-biting violence are tame by today’s standards, the film has a graceful, gliding sense of pace that gets under your skin; something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen. It never quite does, but the mood lingers. See it with someone you love–or would like to. –David Chute

Stefan (John Karlen) gets all hot and bothered as he and Elizabeth recount the many tortures inflicted upon the victims of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory.

The phrase “…something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen…” instantly leapt out at me when I first read Chute’s summary, as this echoes my own experience with the film. If David Lynch had been making Eurotrash vampire films in the 1970’s, he’d probably make a film much like this one. From our first glimpse of the Countess, as she glides out from the backseat of her Bentley and up to the desk of the hotel concierge, there is an unmistakable atmosphere of kink. The camera tightly focuses on the gleaming patent leather of her high black boots as she steps from the car, an image that says fetish more than it does vampire. It is quickly apparent that the relationship between Elizabeth and her “secretary” Ilona has little to do with typing memos, and the scene in which Ilona crouches obediently at Elizabeth’s feet clearly establishes their dominant/submissive lifestyle arrangement. Of course, a bisexual female vampire with a taste for BDSM isn’t an entirely uncommon entity in the realms of horror fiction. The true wild card in Kümel’s film lies in the character of Stefan, the secretive husband prone to fits of violent rage. His rather prurient interest in sexual sadism becomes apparent when he recounts the legend of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory, writhing with erotic pleasure as he describes the tortures inflicted upon her victims. Later in the film, he savagely beats his wife Valerie with his belt. And then there’s the whole matter of his “mother,” whom he’s mysteriously reluctant to introduce to his new bride. The scene below, where Stefan gives his ol’ Mum a call, is gloriously creepy:

My favourite moment of that scene is when the butler kneels down before Mother, and “Mother” reaches out to pet his bald head in the way one would a family dog. The butler reacts, but only mildly, before he walks away in silence. Kink abounds, but its only ever hinted at.

As the film nears its finale, the body count predictably rises. Ilona slips in the shower and falls upon a straight razor. The abusive Stefan gets his final comeuppance by way of a glass fruit bowl. Yes, fruit bowl. The Countess herself meets her end impaled on an unfortunately located tree branch as she is pitched from her crashing car. The sole survivor Valerie keeps the Báthory legend alive by donning Elizabeth’s fetching black PVC cape — complete with bat-wing trim and campy-vamp high collar — and seductively sidling up to a young couple.

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part III.

The Lesbian Vampire.

Theodora: Is this another one of your crazy ideas?
Eleanor: I’m not crazy!
Theodora: Crazy as a loon! You really expect me to believe that you’re sane and the rest of the world is mad?
Eleanor: Well why not? The world is full of inconsistencies. Full of unnatural beings, nature’s mistakes they call you for instance!

The text above is dialogue from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963) in which Dr. Markway, a researcher into paranormal activity, has assembled a group to investigate the reputed haunting of the gothic New England mansion Hill House. Amongst the group are the clairvoyant Theodora, a bold, outspoken woman who exudes worldly sophistication, and Eleanor, an awkward spinster who’s spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother. In spite of their differences, Theodora befriends the mousy Eleanor, and there’s even the hint of romantic interest — however unlikely — emanating from Theodora. Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding conceived of the Theodora character as lesbian, which would be one of the earliest appearances of a queer character in cinematic horror. Of course, the social climate of the early 1960’s meant that references to Theodora’s sexual orientation were all very codified and subtle, but Eleanor’s accusation of  “…unnatural beings…” and “nature’s mistakes…” allude not only to Theo’s preference in romantic partners, but they clearly establish homosexuality as an indication of deviance and ‘unnaturalness’.

Claire Bloom stars as Theodora (far left), Julie Harris as Eleanor (centre) and Rosalie Crutchley as the stony and gloriously creepy groundskeeper Mrs. Dudley in Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (1963).

As was discussed in my earlier post on gender & the slasher film, queerness and the fluidity of gender identity in horror fiction is frequently a sign of mental illness. The cross-dressing serial killer — Norman Bates, for instance — and the homicidal, lovesick lesbian from Aja’s Haute Tension are examples of blurred gender boundaries being symptomatic of mental instability. While the character of Theodora in Wise’s The Haunting is not portrayed as violent nor mentally ill, her lesbianism marks her as ‘unnatural’ as the haunted Hill House in which the drama unfolds. This notion is certainly ironic given that it is the socially-awkward Eleanor, and not Theodora, who stands out as “the one who doesn’t belong” within the group.

“Hey! That’s not my neck!” Vampire love bite from “Twins of Evil” (1971).

This takes us to the third most common female trope in horror fiction: the Lesbian, and specifically the Lesbian Vampire. Why vampire, you ask? Simple. This trope has its roots in Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) about the predatory love of a female vampire for a young woman. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Bram Stoker’s Dracula — which it predated by 25 years — but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the female vampire. (See my post on The Vampiress for more on this topic). The reason for the popularity of the Lesbian Vampire seems fairly straightforward: titillation, pure and simple. Wikipedia sums this up neatly:

This was a way to hint at or titillate with the taboo idea of lesbianism in a fantasy context outside the heavily censored realm of social realism (Weiss 1993). Also, the conventions of the vampire genre — specifically, the mind control exhibited in many such films — allow for a kind of forced seduction of presumably straight women or girls by lesbian vampires.

In the early 1970’s, Britian’s Hammer Studios created the much beloved Karnstein Trilogy, a series of lesbian vampire films very loosely based on Le Fanu’s novella: The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971). I’ve only seen the first film, which stars the iconic ‘Hammer Girl’ Ingrid Pitt and is quite giggle-worthy. File under ‘guilty pleasure.’

For the most part, the Lesbian Vampire is more softcore than horror, and bears little resemblance to the gender-bending serial killers mentioned earlier. What they do have in common, however, is the demarcation of Otherness — even the racy, breast-biting vampire of Twins of Evil is ultimately portrayed as ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant.’

In Part IV of this series of posts, I’ll address the Rape-Revenge Girl.

Next post –>

Walerian Borowczyk’s “Contes immoraux”: The bloodthirsty Countess meets European softcore cinema.

A bevy of naked beauties in Walerian Borowczyk's "Contes immoraux" (1974).

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who was, in the early years of his career, the creator of astounding stop-motion animations. Nightmarish and surreal in nature, animated short films such as Renaissance (1963) and Jeux des anges (1964) brought Borowczyk critical acclaim in the rarefied world of avant-garde filmmaking. Commercial success, however, eluded him until his venture into live-action cinema with his infamous art-house-meets-softcore films of the 1970’s. A consummate provocateur, Borowczyk challenged his audience with Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) — films which some critics derided as “contentless pornography” due to their wholesale preoccupation with nudity and sexuality. While the charge of “pornography” is not entirely unwarranted, I would maintain that Borowczyk’s meticulously-detailed set design, careful art direction and signature surreal style elevate films such as Contes immoraux from mere “sexploitation” to softcore cinema with considerable artistic merit.

Now, don’t get me wrong — from a straightforward “is this movie good or not?” perspective, Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux is not an especially good film. What dialogue there is — and there’s mercifully little — is completely inane. The action is glacially slow, due in part to a camera that lingers incessantly over the bushy nether regions of naked girls. It is ironic, then, that as a purely softcore film Contes immoraux also falters. By the standards of contemporary pornography, Borowczyk’s film is rather too tame to satisfy current erotic appetites. It’s all breasts, bums and bush, and precious little sex. Thus, we are left with a paradoxical film that is neither artful enough for the art-house, nor raunchy enough to function as pornography.

Film still from "Contes immoraux". Paloma Picasso stars as Erzsébet Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly bathed in the blood of young women as a means to preserve her youthful appearance.

What the films of Borowczyk do possess, however, are stunning visuals that perfectly synthesize elements of the erotic with the grotesque. Given his early animations, which were bizarre and nightmarish, it is not at all surprising that Borowczyk would continue his exploration of the grotesque in later work like Contes immoraux and La bête. A primary example of this is the Erzsébet Báthory segment of Contes immoraux, the third and most accomplished segment of his four-part erotic anthology. Set in 1610, this segment stars Paloma Picasso (the daughter of Pablo) in the role of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian noblewoman legendary for her cruelty and sadism. Amongst her many reputed atrocities were the infamous ‘bloodbaths’, in which the Countess would soak in her victim’s blood in order to retain her youth and beauty. Borowczyk downplays the savagery of the Báthory legend, and instead offers up a positively demure Countess. The segment opens with the round-up of the nearby village girls by the Countess’s henchmen. The next several minutes are dedicated to extended scenes of the girls bathing and generally frolicking in the shower stalls of the Báthory castle. There’s virtually no dialogue, focusing all of our attention on the sumptuous colour palette and beautifully-composed camera shots. After the frivolity of the showers, the naked girls are lead en masse into a large bedchamber. Elizabeth Báthory reappears, wearing a gossamer white dressing-gown, adorned with lace and pearls. The crowd of girls approach the Countess and stroke her pearl-encrusted gown admiringly. Rapidly, however, the scene transforms from sultry to savage, as the girls begin to violently tear at the dress, ripping it to shreds. They fight amongst each other over the pearls that fall, and the once sexy scene of nubile young girls turns into a bloody, animal rampage.

The 'bloodbath' of the Countess.

The scene quickly cuts to a close-up of the bloodbath of the Countess. The white limbs of Paloma Picasso fill the screen as she luxuriates in her bath, twisting back and forth in the frothy red. The heightened aestheticism, with the rich, vibrant red blood against white skin, cleverly undercuts the grotesque/horror aspects of the ‘bloodbath’ and the mass-murder that occurred (off-screen) in the previous scene.

The films of Walerian Borowczyk are not widely available, but cinephiles and film geeks can likely find these in the better “alternative” video stores or at midnight screenings in rep cinemas.

Horror Films 101: Movie moments that traumatized my childhood.

A still from the animated film version of “Watership Down,” showing the last, terrified moments of a rabbit’s life.

1. The destruction of the rabbit warren and wholesale slaughter of its occupants in the 1978 film adaptation of the Richard Adams novel Watership Down. The filmmakers did not shy away from the darker shadings of Adams’s novel,  and the violence contained in the source material appears, quite graphically at times, on screen. The scene of the warren destruction is rendered in an abstracted fashion, but is nonetheless effective in conveying the horror of the rabbit massacre. Walt Disney, this ain’t.

The ‘demon face’ was that of Eileen Dietz, who also starred in Happy Days and General Hospital. Oh, what a little make-up and effective editing can do.

2. The freaky demon face that flashes on-screen in William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. In the (far superior) original theatrical release of the film, this ‘demon face’ only appears twice: once, during the nightmare sequence of Father Karras, where he envisions his elderly mother standing at the top of a stairway leading down to the NYC subway; and lastly, during Regan’s exorcism. Each time, the face only flashes on-screen for mere seconds — just enough time to burn onto your retina and torment you for the rest of your days. According to the trivia section of imdb.com, the ‘demon face’ was supplied by the actress Eileen Dietz, who also stood in as a body-double for Linda Blair in a couple of scenes. In the  director’s cut of the film (released in 2000), the face appears with considerably greater frequency, diluting its impact.

“Let me in, Mark…screeeetch….screeeetch…let me in…”

3. The vampire kid scratching on his friend’s bedroom window from the 1979 made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot. Director Tobe Hooper, best known for his masterpiece of the macabre The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, fully understands the dark, seedy underbelly that lies just beneath the surface of small town, white-picket-fence America. Few directors — other than, perhaps, David Lynch — have as great an insight into the ‘suburban Gothic’. The vampire of Hooper’s film is not a romantic seducer but, in keeping with the German Expressionist tradition of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, he’s a ghoulish, hideous monster with a taste for the blood of children. This scene with the undead child paying a nighttime visit to his former playmate scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a kid. It was, in part, the awful sound that his fingernails made as he scratched the glass, beckoning to his friend to open the window.

4. Ben Gardners’s head suddenly appearing through the smashed hull of his sunken boat in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece Jaws. Even though, as an audience member, you know exactly what Richard Dreyfuss is about to stumble across, I betcha it’ll still make you jump.

5. The terrifying tale of Large Marge from Tim Burton’s 1985 Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. No, seriously. It’s a creepy — and classically Tim Burton — moment. Just tell ’em Large Marge sent ya.

Lady Lazarus’s Halloween List: Top 10 Best Horror Films of the 2000s.

The past decade of the 2000s — or the Naughts, if you prefer — were an especially good one for the genre of horror. On television, we were treated to blood-soaked series like Dexter and True Blood, and in the movie theatres, the vampires and zombies ran amok. As is customary this time of year, I like to compile a film-geek list relating to horror. Halloween shall soon be upon us, my deadlings. Let’s revel in the macabre and spooky.

Below are my picks for the past decade’s best offerings in cinematic horror.

Shauna Macdonald in “The Descent,” a horror film by Neil Marshall set in the Appalachian Mountains.

1. The Descent (2005). Directed by Neil Marshall. An exceptionally attractive team of female ‘extreme’ spelunkers are coerced by one of their members to venture into a series of previously unexplored caves. So begins the ill-fated journey of The Descent, one that starts with squirm-inducing claustrophobia and eventually leads to the discovery of something much, much more sinister — and deadly.

2. Låt den rätte komma in (2008). English title: Let the Right One In. Director: Tomas Alfredson. Have not seen the recent English-language remake of this stellar coming-of-age vampire story and, quite frankly, I don’t feel the need. This one got it right. From its very first frame, you can feel the tangible ache of loneliness in the main characters, as well as the relentless cold of the Swedish winter.

3. [REC] (2007), Directors: Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. The first two-thirds of this film were somewhat underwhelming for me. Sure, it was a serviceable, well-crafted ‘documentary’-style zombie film, but I’d seen many of its kind before. And then, the main characters unlock the door to that mysterious, (supposedly) uninhabited penthouse apartment. At that moment, this film transformed from a decent zombie-flick into something almost sublime.

The main character Alison is harassed by a vengeful (and apparently indestructible) Gypsy woman in Raimi's 'Drag Me To Hell.' Someone call the Roma People's Deflamation League.

4. Drag Me To Hell (2009). Director: Sam Raimi. A thoroughly enjoyable, gross, hilarious and, at times, truly scary film from the master of the comedy-horror, Sam Raimi. Watch for the scene with the animatronic goat. Hysterical.

5. Ichi the Killer (2001). Director: Takashi Miike. Just when you think that the saturation point for bloody splatter-gore has been reached, along come Japanese directors like Miike to push the limits beyond all previous imaginings. This film, along with Miike’s 1999 offering Audition, is completely unhinged. My major misgiving with Ichi the Killer is its graphic and highly sexualized violence toward women. Misogyny is a regrettably common characteristic in many of this genre’s films — particularly from countries such as Japan. All the same, I would recommend this film to the seasoned horror fan, simply on the basis of its insanity.

The character Kakihara admires the handiwork of Ichi in Miike's 'Ichi the Killer'.

6. À l’intérieur (2007), English title: Inside. Directors: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. This past decade has witnessed the growth of a strong horror-film industry in France, a country not previously known for films in this genre. Dubbed by some in the media as ‘New French Extremity,’ films such as Maury and Bastillo’s À l’intérieur confront the viewer with images of intense ‘body horror.’  The alone and heavily pregnant Sarah battles with an insane, homicidal intruder wielding impossibly-sharp — and profoundly effective — tailor scissors.

7. Ginger Snaps (2000). Director: John Fawcett. The mythology of the werewolf gets a modern feminist overhaul in this Canadian horror franchise. The hormone-induced lunacy of puberty is cleverly aligned with lycanthropy when the titular Ginger begins menstruation around the same time as she’s bitten by a ‘big dog’ in the forest surrounding her suburban home. It’s hard not to love a film that has as it’s tagline: “She’s got the curse.” Incidentally, the sequel Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004) was surprisingly good. The third installment, Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning should be encased in cement, tossed down a mine shaft, and buried for eternity.

One of the feigned 'death scenes' staged by the Fitzgerald sisters. Kids these days.

One of the feigned 'death scenes' staged by the Fitzgerald sisters in 'Ginger Snaps'. Kids these days.

8. Ju-on (2003). English title The Grudge. Director: Takashi Shimizu. Hands-down, my favourite amongst all of the J-horror films I’ve seen over the past decade. And I’ve seen quite a few. The English-language remake is laughable by comparison. Avoid it and seek out the original Japanese film.

9. El orfanato (2007). English title: The Orphanage. Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. With contemporary French horror-film directors so successfully flooding the cinema with blood and viscera, it’s a rare treat to view a relatively subtle, classic ghost story like Bayona’s El orfanato. One of the very few horror films at which I openly wept. The ending is heartbreaking, and wonderful.

Autocannibalism + feminism combine in Marina de Van's disturbing 'In My Skin.'

10. Dans ma peau (2002), English title: In My Skin. Directed, written by and starring Marina de Van, this is a strange, atmospheric and generally overlooked gem of New French Extremity. The main character Esther develops an erotically-charged, cannibalistic fixation with her own body after being disfigured in a freak accident. Ponderously slow in parts, it does offer a unique and interesting premise.

Honourable Mentions:

1. Pontypool (2009). Director: Bruce McDonald.

2. Død snø (2009). English title “Dead Snow.”

3. Bakjwi (2009). English title “Thirst”. Director: Park Chan-Wook

4. Grindhouse Presents: Planet Terror (2007), Dir. Robert Rodriguez.

5. 28 Days Later (2002), Dir. Danny Boyle.

Horror Films 101: Favourite death scenes.

For the past three years, it’s been a pre-Halloween tradition of mine that I compile a geekish list relating to horror films. I’m presently working on 2010’s Halloween list. Doubtless, you are all aquiver with anticipation. Just to whet your ghoulish appetite, here’s a repost of the list I originally created on Facebook last Halloween listing my “Top 5 Favourite Death Scenes from a Horror Film.” Enjoy. Note: NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH.

5. The death sequence that appears in the first 15 minutes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria is fantastically operatic in its baroque excess. Argento blows his cinematic load early, though, as the rest of this cult classic is fairly lacklustre. The music provided by the Italian prog-rock outfit Goblin, however, is wonderful and fittingly creepy.

4. The death of Captain Rhodes in George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead. This character was such a tightly-wound military jerk-off that you couldn’t help but cheer when the zombies finally got a hold of him.

3. Udo Kier plays a pale, sickly Count Dracula in search of “wergin” blood in Paul Morissey’s adaptation of the legendary vampire story, the Andy Warhol produced Blood for Dracula. Dracula meets his final comeuppance at the end of Joe Dallesandro’s axe in a scene of hilarious, way over-the-top gore. Couldn’t find the entire scene on Youtube but here’s a nifty mash-up with the Pixies that features the end sequence.

2. Final death scene in 1958’s The Horror of Dracula. I adore the films of Britain’s Hammer Studios, a.k.a. the “Hammer Horrors.” Christopher Lee stars as Dracula and Peter Cushing as his earthly nemesis, Van Helsing. Many a Saturday afternoon of my youth was spent watching these classic horror films. The video clip below is of regrettably poor quality, but it’s a fantastic sequence.

1. John Hurt births an alien at the dinner table in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Oh, c’mon, who hasn’t seen this famous sequence?

Horror Films 101: The Vampiress.

Carmilla, illustration from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872

The vampiress. The very word itself is seductive. From its first syllable vamp we arrive at the image of the aggressively sensual woman, the predatory femme fatale. Then, as if to underscore her dangerous nature, the word ends with an echoic warning: esssssss. The hiss of a snake.

She’s lurked in the shadows of our collective unconscious for just under 150 years. The legend of the female vampire, as we presently know her, began with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla, a story that predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-five years. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Stoker’s masterpiece, but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the vampiress. Much like her male counterpart, the female vampire is a captivating creature possessed of unearthly powers and the ability to shape-shift into various forms. Almost invariably, she is lesbian or bisexual. It is this latter characteristic which makes her an especially compelling figure. Embodying the male heterosexual fantasy of the ‘femme’ lesbian, her predatory seduction of women is inevitably thwarted by the male hero wielding a pointed, and most assuredly phallic, stake.

OK, I’ll spare you my feminist/queer politics tirade. We’re all grown-ups here. Let’s leave the sexual politics aside — though it does warrant a passing mention — and check out some of my all-time favourite films featuring the female vampire.

1. Roger Vadim’s 1960 vampire film Et mourir de plaisir (translates literally to ‘And to die of pleasure’ but released under the considerably less evocative English title Blood and Roses) is perhaps one of the most stylish and artful treatments of the Carmilla story. Impressionistic and dreamlike, it’s impossibly convoluted plot and bevy of look-alike Gallic beauties make it a gorgeous mess of a film.

2. Britain’s Hammer Studios released The Vampire Lovers in 1970 during a period of increased competition in the market, prompting some film studios to add more graphic content in order to attract an audience. They found it in this softcore account of female vampirism. The cheekbones are high and the bosoms heaving in this campy classic. Ingrid Pitt stars as the sultry Marcilla and Peter Cushing cashes a paycheque in this slap-n-tickle vampire romp.

3. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is chaste by comparison to The Vampire Lovers. The emphasis of the film rests on story and atmosphere rather than bosoms or gore. Contrary to its title, it’s not especially scary. It does, however, have one memorably creepy scene that involves the female vampire emerging out of a lake.

4. Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) opens with a near-perfect sequence that interweaves an eventful trip home from a Goth nightclub with Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy and a violent monkey attack in a research facility. Stylish and profoundly erotic, it’s a clever update to the mythology of the female vampire. Oh, and it features David Bowie. And Susan Sarandon’s breasts.

5. Although she’s only an ancillary character in Dracula (1979), the appearance of Mina as a vampire is an effectively creepalicious moment in this otherwise lacklustre version of the Dracula story. This scene also boasts Donald Pleasence and Laurence Olivier (??!!) in the role of Van Helsing.