TV Good Sleep Bad, episode 14: “Bottom & Kindred: The Embraced”

Elwood and Lackey explore the bowels of British comedy and the depths of obscure American drama in the latest horrific episode!

From the depths, it rises…its awakening foretold by a plethora of fart jokes and clunky exposition. It’s the horrific fourteenth episode of TV Good Sleep Bad, horror-themed as is appropriate for the season!

Bottom: "Terror"

In this episode, we discuss:

Bottom season 3 episode 2, “Terror” (1995): Richie and Eddie want to hold a Hallowe’en party and meet women to have sex with, but they have no money, so they go trick-or-treating with an electric cattle prod and attempt to sell their souls to the Devil.

Kindred: The Embraced episode 1, “The Original Saga” (1996): San Francisco police detective Frank Kohanek’s investigation of crime boss Julian Luna takes a bizarre turn when Luna’s bodyguard suffers a bizarre death at the hands of Luna’s rival Eddie Fiori. This in turn leads to a startling revelation: Luna is the leader of a secret society of vampires that also includes Fiori—and Kohanek’s girlfriend Alexandra.

Next month: Two episodes of Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” and “White Bear.”

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

An engrossing, richly-realized pulp landscape, destined to be regarded as a future cult classic.

United States. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014. Starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mashall Manesh. 99 minutes. In Persian, with English subtitles. 

Bad City: a decaying ghost city populated by restless loners, lost souls, and exploitative creeps. Arash works his fingers to the bone for years to buy a vintage hot rod, only to lose it to a crime lord who claims it as payment for his junkie father’s debts. Atti, an aging prostitute (if 30 counts as “aging”), dreams a dream of escape that seems more ephemeral with each passing day. Party kids dose heavily and lose themselves in swirls of dance and EDM. And in the shadows, she lurks, the hijab-clad vampire girl, prowling the streets at night.

Adapted by director Ana Lily Amirpour from a graphic novel she wrote, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night styles itself “the first Iranian vampire Western.” If it’s a Western, it’s in the same sense that many John Carpenter films (such as Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York) are Westerns, with the Girl standing in for the outsider/avenger. Amirpour places Bad City in Iran, but the location work trades so heavily on the familiar iconography of the rotting industrial wasteland that the one can’t help but read one’s own experiences into the imagery, a sort of Rorschach blot test. (For the record, Amirpour actually shot the film in SoCal.)

But that’s not all. The stark monotone photography and soundtrack selections–a bit of Tex-Mex guitar here, a band that sounds like a cross between Echo and the Bunnymen and the Rapture there–create a spooky, gothic mood. The sparsely populated environment gives the viewer a sense of the postapocalyptic. (It’s taking me all the self-control I have to not describe A Girl Walks Home as science-fiction.) In Bad City, Amirpour delivers a richly-realized pulp landscape. It ain’t subtle–the villain of the first act has the word SEX tattooed on his neck–but it’s never less than engrossing.

This is less of a story to be told and more of an experience to be, well, experienced, but the environment engages the audience and carries it along for the ride. The characters function on the level of archetypes and don’t require extensive development, just enough to get senses of longing, sadness, tragedy. The film requires the cast members to prioritize the physical aspects of their performances, and all of them deliver strong work. However, Sheila Vand (the Girl) shines in particular, able to communicate a universe of contradictions in a single glance. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for someone so slightly-built, standing what seems not much more than five feet and maybe a couple of inches, to loom with such menace.

Normally I shrink from making predictions, but I can say with full confidence that future commentary will regard A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as a cult classic. If you’re interested in genre filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to see it.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night poster

What We Do in the Shadows

An expert dissection of the modern gothic supernatural romance, taking Twilight to its logical, and hilarious, extreme.

New Zealand. Directed by Taila Waititi & Jemaine Clement, 2014. Starring Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh. 86 minutes.

Vampires are people too: vain, petty, condescending, and occasionally prone to not washing the dishes for five years. That’s the central theme of What We Do in the Shadows, a riotous mockumentary co-written and co-directed by Jemaine Clement (one-half of Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi.

A (mostly) unseen camera crew films the daily routine of four vampires sharing a house in the New Zealand city of Wellington. The foppish Viago (Waititi) pines after a mortal woman he loved so much, he followed her from Europe–but since his familiar didn’t put the proper postage on his coffin, he arrived a year and a half too late, only to find his beloved married someone else. The pretentious Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who prefers to drink the blood of virgins “because it sounds cool,” copes with a petulant and incompetent servant who doesn’t put enough time and effort into fulfilling her master’s desires. The cruel Vladislav (Clement) broods over his defeat by his arch-enemy, the Beast. The ancient and monstrous Petyr (Ben Fransham) mainly stays in the basement and drinks from chickens.

Clement and Waititi expertly dissect the modern gothic supernatural romance. The culture of Wellington’s supernatural community resembles high school cliqueishness as much as it does Elizabethan or Victorian high society. The anger over being passed over as guest of honor for the annual society ball causes Vladislav to literally rot; the vampires consistently try to bully a pack of (admittedly somewhat nebbishy) werewolves led by Rhys Darby. It’s Twilight taken to a logical but uncomfortable extreme.

However, thousands of internet wags have proved that it’s too easy to simply mock handsome Byronic monsters who can pull off sexy but not dangerous. What We Do needs to be funny to be memorable. Thankfully, it’s not just funny, it’s consistently and excessively hilarious from its first scene (in which Viago’s hand emerges from its coffin to turn off his alarm clock) to its post-credits sequence. Barely a minute goes by without the film delivering a hearty belly-laugh, and much of the dialog should work its way into your day-to-day conversation. (“We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves!” “If you’re going to eat a sandwich, you’re going to enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” “You might bite someone and then, you think, ‘Oooh, those are some nice pants!'”)

The performances are universally excellent, with each actor and character getting a chance to shine; in addition to Clement, Waititi, and Brugh, other standouts include Jackie van Beek as Deacon’s bitter servant and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer as a recently turned vampire; Darby makes the most of his two or three brief appearances. Clement and Waititi also provide excellent direction and a lovely visual aesthetic, effectively contrasting “ancient and decaying” with “shiny, urban and modern.” The effects work is remarkably good for a film with such a low budget ($1.5 mil).

I’ve run out of synonyms for “hilarious” to describe What We Do in the Shadows. Suffice it to say it’s a brilliant and essential horror-comedy and a future cult classic in the making.

What We Do in the Shadows

Queen of Blood

A flawed film, yet with an unmistakeable vision that shines through.

United States. Directed by Chris Alexander, 2013. Starring Shauna Henry, Carrie Gammell, David Goodfellow, Nivek Ogre. 78 minutes.

I could apply any number of adjectives to Queen of Blood, the latest effort from filmmaker (and Fangoria editor-in-chief) Chris Alexander. Among those adjectives are “haunting,” “visionary,” “singular” and “challenging.” Shauna Henry plays the titular Queen, a vampire who emerges from a river and proceeds to leave a trail of victims across the American Frontier. Her destiny is intertwined with a pregnant widow (Carrie Gammell) and itinerant preacher-slash-serial killer (Nivek Ogre, best known as the frontman of legendary industrial band Skinny Puppy).

Unfortunately, one of the adjectives I can’t apply to Queen of Blood is “coherent.” The film is entirely silent, featuring no audible dialogue and only a few vocal effects. Nor are there any captions or dialog cards. It’s entirely up to the audience to work out what’s going on from the pictures alone. I am still in the dark about what Alexander intended the connection between the Queen and the preacher to be. Ogre gets the second-most amount of screen time after Henry, but ultimately his actions are of little consequence. Nor do I understand exactly what happens between the Queen and the widow. What little plot exists isn’t enough to sustain seventy-seven minute running time, and the film moves at a glacial pace.

To be fair to Alexander, however, I can’t imagine that the plot was much of a priority. Queen of Blood is more of an impressionistic art piece. The visuals are nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful, even if the cinematography is occasionally betrayed by the cheap look of consumer-grade DV. Alexander’s primary aesthetic influence seems to be the films of exploitation-era French director Jean Rollin; in particular, it’s hard not to watch the ghostly Henry stride across the lush landscape in her flowing white gown and not be reminded of Françoise Blanchard, who did something similar in The Living Dead Girl. (One point in which Alexander deviates from Rollin is in his portrayal of the erotic: while many scenes have sexual undertones, “undertones” is as far as it goes. Rollin’s work, on the other hand, relies heavily on gratuitous nudity).

In a film like this, it’s hard to truly judge the performances. However, I must say that both Henry and Ogre have strong presence, with the former often seeming ethereal and not-quite-entirely-there, and the latter radiating real menace. The performances do seem unnecessarily exaggerated and theatrical. A great example is Henry’s walk, which is probably meant to be deliberate but too often resembles a bride slowly approaching her wedding altar.

Ultimately, you’ll either “get” Queen of Blood or you won’t. Sadly, I didn’t–the pictures are pretty, but I tend to value storytelling and characterization, neither of which are the strong points here. However, while I found it very difficult to like, I also found it quite easy to admire. Despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Chris Alexander has an unmistakeable vision and while the film has its flaws (at least in my estimation) that vision shines through. I hope an audience exists for a film like this, and that it will reach that audience.

Review originally published by Cinema Axis.

Queen of Blood poster

All Cheerleaders Die

I expected more from a Lucky McKee movie than hot chicks and fun kill scenes

United States. Directed by Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson, 2013. Starring Caitlin Stasey, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Brooke Butler. 89 minutes. 4/10

At the end of her junior year, Mäddy Killian (Caitlin Stasey), interviewing her fellow students on video for a class project, asks her childhood friend Lexi if cheerleading really is the most dangerous high school sport. Lexi insists it is, and proves it by dying in a fall during a botched toss.

Three months later and senior year is about to begin. Lexi’s boyfriend Terry (Tom Williamson) is now dating Tracy (Brooke Butler), the new cheerleading squad captain. Mäddy, having ditched her girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) and the rest of her geeky peer group, surprises everyone by trying out for the varsity squad…and shocks everyone by making the cut.

Mäddy has an agenda: she resents Terry and Tracy for hooking up so quickly after Lexi’s death, and wants to destroy their relationship by spreading rumors and seducing Tracy. But she doesn’t expect to develop a genuine affection for the cheerleading captain…and her plot goes awry when violence erupts between Terry and Tracy at a party. The car chase that ensues results in an accident that leaves Mäddy, Tracy and sisters Martha and Hanna (Reanin Johannink and Amanda Grace Cooper, respectively) dead.

Enter Leena, who resurrects the dead using a pagan ritual that links all five girls together in a supernatural bond. Mäddy and her friends find themselves possessed of unnatural powers–and an unholy thirst for human blood. They resolve to take vengeance on Terry and his buddies.

In 2001, Edward “Lucky” McKee and Chris Sivertson, fresh out of film school, made their first film, a low-budget horror movie called All Cheerleaders Die. It got a limited release and garnered little attention. McKee went on to write and direct acclaimed genre exercises such as May and The Woman. Sivertson had the misfortune to make I Know Who Killed Me during a period of time when everybody hated Lindsay Lohan. All Cheerleaders Die developed a small following, but remained more heard-about than actually seen.

But everything old becomes new again, especially when it comes to horror movies. And so Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson have remade All Cheerleaders Die. Should they have bothered? W-e-e-e-e-ll…

It’s not a bad little movie, not really. It’s well-directed and has a lot of funny moments (such as Leena leading the vampire cheerleaders into school on the first day, all of them with rock-star swagger, even Hanna in her mascot costume). It always nice to see McKee working through his pet obsessions: lonely, awkward outcasts, male-on-female cruelty and, of course, lesbians. Butler steals every scene she’s in, even when she’s not clad only in her undies, and Williamsons’ unhinged performance towards the end is a joyous thing. And, of course, attractive young cheerleaders in cheerleaders’ uniforms–can you tell I’m still bitter over Cheerleader Massacre?

And yet, as a rabid Lucky McKee fanboy (I’m not much familiar with Sivertson’s work), I can’t help but be disappointed.

The characterization simply isn’t as strong as I expected. The press materials refer to Mäddy as a “rebel,” but the writing doesn’t do much to develop that (other than the pretentious heavy metal umlaut in her name) and Stasey never really sells it. Johannink and Cooper barely seem aware that they’re supposed play each other when a (rather pointless) subplot involving Martha and Hanna body-swapping manifests. I found it hard to sympathize with girls who constantly call each other “bitch” as a sign of affection, or to buy a virgin so stupid he actually thinks women are (literally) cold inside during sex. (Although I can almost forgive that last one because it leads up to the “sweet, sweet freezebox” line.)

The storytelling also isn’t entirely up to snuff. A third-act revelation comes out of left field, as if McKee and Sivertson decided late in the writing process that Mäddy’s motivation wasn’t strong enough, and the script never seems to know where it’s going. While there aren’t any bad performances, the only cast member other than Butler and Williamson who distinguishes herself is Smit-McPhee.

But for me, the biggest disappointment was how typical it all was. One of the best things about McKee’s films is how distinct and quirky they are, even when they’re at their darkest; and, although I had a lot of problems with Sivertson’s adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Lost, at least he nailed the mood and feel of a Ketchum novel.

On the other hand, All Cheerleaders Die is…well, it’s just another teen-scream horror movie. There are too many teen movie clichés in play here and the filmmakers don’t put much effort into subverting them or even poking at them. The film needs the bite of Heathers, but ends up feeling like a third-rate episode of Buffy or Charmed.

To be fair, sometimes you want to watch a movie with hot chicks and fun kill scenes, something you don’t want to think too much about. And if that’s what you want, All Cheerleaders Die is a whole lot better than most. It’s just that, at the very least, one half of the filmmaking duo is capable of a lot better.

All Cheerleaders Die poster

Only Lovers Left Alive

Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the YA set

United Kingdom/Germany. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013. Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska. 123 minutes. 8/10

Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the Young Adult set, and Jim Jarmusch proves it with his latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a pale, willowy woman who haunts Tangier. Reserved and aloof, she observes her neighbors from a distance, her only real friend an elderly gentleman (John Hurt) who claims he’s Christopher Marlowe.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a moody musician living in self-imposed exile in one of Detroit’s less savory neighborhoods. He’s not impressed with the accomplishments of humanity, and lives a reclusive life, preferring his music to the companionship of others. His only regular visitor is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a local youth who procures rare instruments–and other strange objects, such as a bullet with a wooden slug–for him.

Eve and Adam are vampires; they are also longtime lovers, although they have not shared each other’s company in nearly a century. Worried about Adam’s metal state, she travels to Detroit to try to snap him out of his depression.

That’s the basic gist of Only Lovers Left Alive; it’s not a story with much of a plot. Eve and Adam are ordinary people, as ordinary as vampires can get, and they live ordinary unlives. There might have been a time when they influenced, and drew inspiration from, the likes of Poe, or Tesla, or Joe Strummer, but that was long ago. Now they’re content to just spend time together.

And Jarmusch is more than happy to sit back and let them do their thing, throwing the occasional obstacle in their way to see what they’ll do, and what repercussions arise. It’s more like watching real life than a three-act story. The pace is languid, but the film never drags.

The overriding mood is one of dark romance, not of terror. This is not a conventional horror film or vampire story. Jarmusch certainly seems to have little time for the standard fittings of such things. Vampires tend not to drink directly from the source, preferring to work through dealers such as Kit Marlowe or a sardonic blood bank employee played by Jeffrey Wright. They do so not out of compassion for humans, but because they’re concerned about their supply’s purity. Bad blood is bad news for the drinker. When they feed, it’s from brandy snifters and hip flasks instead of the exposed throats of willing (or unwilling) victims. (Everybody knows that vampirism is a symbol for oral sex, but it’s also often an allegory for drug addiction, and Jarmusch visually portrays the effects of blood-drinking in terms of a drug high.)

Jarmusch twists other tropes ever so slightly. In his hands, the idea of immortality being a curse becomes an existential malaise, genuine angst instead of emo whining. The conflict between cautious, restrained vampires versus a more hedonistic breed (represented by Eve’s “sister” Ava, portrayed by Mia Wasikowska) is pragmatic, not moralistic. Ava feels no sense of superiority from being a vampire; rather, she’s a bratty child.

Jarmusch writes the characters well, and the actors all put in outstanding performances. The film belongs to Swinton, radiant and alluring, and Hiddleston, justifying his current status as the thinking woman’s heartthrob. The chemistry between the two is phenomenal. Wasikowska is adorably dangerous, Yelchin eagerly sycophantic and simultaneously likeable, and Hurt…well, John Hurt’s always great, isn’t he?

With his location and camera work, Jarmusch creates indelible environments. Detroit, decaying and tragic, is as romantic in its way as exotic Tangier. Adding to the mood is a dense psychedelic score provided by Dutch composer Josef van Wissem in collaboration with Jarmusch’s rock band SQÜRL. Between the visuals and the music, this is a film to lose oneself in.

Working masterfully with all these elements, Jim Jarmusch gets to the heart of the vampire’s appeal: the demon lovers whose pull we are unable to resist. Cast aside the likes of Kiss of the DamnedOnly Lovers Left Alive is vampire romance done right.

Only Lovers Left Alive poster

Thanks to Victoria.

Twins of Evil

One of Hammer’s weaker Gothic vampire films.

Beautiful twin sisters Maria and Frieda Gellhorn have traveled to a distant village to live with their uncle Gustav after the deaths of their parents. The pious, devout and strict Gustav is the leader of a vigilante group, the Brotherhood, dedicated to stamping out the evil of witchcraft in the region, mostly by organizing burnings of suspected witches. Politics prevents Gustav from acting against the decadent Count Karnstein, a libertine who indulges in Satanic rituals–but enjoys the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor. But the Count’s activities bring him to the attention of his vampiric ancestor Mircalla, who transforms him into one of the undead. Soon, the Count turns his gaze to the Gellhorn sisters, particularly the rebellious Frieda. Can Maria save her sister from the vampire’s ministrations, or is her soul already damned?

The “ruthless witch hunter” horror sub-genre popular in the late ’60s (Witchfinder General, 1968) and early ’70s (The Bloody Judge and Mark of the Devil, both 1970) offered opportunities for filmmakers to indulge in period settings and erotically charged psychological set pieces. So right now the question going through your head should be, “So surely Hammer Film Productions would have made one of those movies at some point, right? With added vampires?” And the answer to that question is, of course, “Yes.”

1971’s Twins of Evil is the final entry in Hammer’s “Karnstein Trilogy,” a loose series of films based on (read: “borrowing character names from”) J. Sheridan le Fanu’s Gothic novel Carmilla. You don’t need to be familiar with its predecessors (The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire) to understand what’s going on here; indeed, Mircalla Karnstein–the primary antagonist of the first two films–is little more than a sideline here.

Twins isn’t as strong as Hammer’s other vampire films of the period. Largely this is due to the characterization: most of the characters simply aren’t particularly memorable or well-drawn. This is somewhat to be expected when it comes to the “good guys,” which include the virginal Maria, the twins’ aunt Katy, and Anton Hoffer, the choirmaster at the local girls’ school. But Freida and the one-dimensionally evil Count suffer from this as well. Uncle Gustav should provide an interesting source of moral ambiguity, but instead makes a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from baddie to reformed baddie halfway through the third act; there’s no real “redemption arc” here. And I was personally disappointed that screenwriter Tudor Gates didn’t use his premise to comment on the gender and generational issues of the time.

The films’ other major weakness comes with its stars, Mary Collinson (as Maria) and Madeline Collinson (as Freida). The Collinson twins were Playboy’s Misses October 1970, and their performances are pretty much in line with what you might expect from former Playmates. The fact that they can’t consistently keep their German accents going for more than a few words at a time could become the source of a drinking game. Indeed, one wonders why they’re bothering with the accents at all, considering no one else is. The lack of acting skill is less of a problem for Madeline (who’s given little to do but vamp) than for Mary, who’s got an actual character portray. Still, at least they look great in cleavage-enhancing corsets.

Despite a limp script and unconvincing leads, Twins does have a bit going for it in other departments. The supporting cast, particularly Damien Thomas (Count Karnstein), Peter Cushing (Uncle Gustav), David Warbeck (Anton) and Kathleen Byron (Aunt Katy) are excellent. Director John Hough isn’t quite as much of a stylist as his contemporaries at the studio, but the direction is solid. The production design is gorgeous and the photography lush, two Hammer trademarks, and several of the effects sequences are better than you might expect from a film of this budget and vintage.

Still, one can’t quite shake the feeling that Twins of Evil doesn’t quite live up to its potential, and can only be recommended to diehard Hammer fans. For everyone else, it’s significantly less than essential.

Starring Peter Cushing, Madeline Collinson, Mary Collinson, Kathleen Byron, Damien Thomas, David Warbeck. Directed by John Hough, 1971. 87 minutes.

TWINS OF EVIL poster