Archive for July, 2012

The Karnstein Trilogy Part 3: “Twins of Evil”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 18, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Twins of Evil poster (1971).

“Twins of Evil” is the last installment of the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy”, by Hammer Films. It bears little resemblance to the series’ original source material, J.S. Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” but rather seems to try to portray a sort of “prequel” to the infamous tale. Despite its place in said series, it is actually a slight improvement over its predecessor, “Lust for a Vampire”, which was arguably risible. What saves it is an interesting plot concept and good supporting actors. Well, that and of course the Collinson Twins.

October 1970 issue of Playboy featuring the Collinson Twins.

Madeleine and Mary Collinson are identical twins from Malta whom, jointly, had made a splash as Playboy’s first twin Playmates of the Month for their October 1970 issue. Apparently, producer Michael Style saw their layout in said issue and approached writer Tudor Gates about changing their Current project, “The Vampire Virgins” (a/k/a “Village of the Vampires”, a sort of Witchfinder-General-meets-the-Karnsteins story) and convinced him to tailor the script to include the twin sisters.
What we end up with is an interesting juxtaposition of the evils of deviltry and debauchery compared to the evils of austerity and religious zealotry. The story opens with Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing in the most intense role of his career), a sort of Witchfinder General and leader of a band of Puritan zealots in nightly raids where they accost young women on the roads at night or invade the homes of people whom they deem as devil worshippers (i.e., mostly unmarried women who are sexually active) and “…purify their spirits so they may find mercy at the seat of the Lord—by burning them!”

Lobby-card for “Twins of Evil” (under its Stateside title of “Twins of Dracula”) featuring a young woman being “purified” by Weil and his band of miserable men.

The one person they cannot seem to touch and yet want the most is the Count Karnstein, who is openly debauched and defiant but is protected by the emperor. He is also a descendent of the great cacodemonic Karnstein clan (try saying that quickly three times in a row!) and pines for the bygone days when his ancestors were worshiping Satan and wreaking havoc on the land with impunity. His manservant, Dietrich, tries unsuccessfully to find amusements for his “Excellency”, but always seems to come up short.

Ultimately, he presents him with a faux-satanic ritual, which is interrupted by the Count himself, who denounces it as a charade and the participants as charlatans then sends them all away, minus the sacrificial peasant girl whom he sacrifices for real in an off-the-cuff oblation to the Lord of Darkness, after giving Dietrich a quick verbal lashing and family history lesson about the infamous depravity of his ancestors before dismissing him for the night.

Initially, his offering seems to go unrecognized, but after he gives up and retires to sit by the hearth, he is visited by none other than his foremother, Mircalla (a/k/a Carmilla) Karnstein, who makes love with him (does that make her an “in-cestor”?) and turns him into a vampire then disappears from the rest of the movie. This cameo role was offered to Ingrid Pitt who so notably portrayed Carmilla in the first entry in this series, 1970’s “Vampire Lovers”, but she refused it, which is a shame, as I believe that she would have given it a gravitas that actress Katya Wyeth does not seem able to impart to the role, brief though it is. Even so, the scene depicting her transmogrification from wisps of smoke rising from the sacrificial slab into the shrouded specter which assails the dejected and unwary Count is quite effective.

A shrouded Mircalla Karnstein is sent in response to her descendent’s entreatment.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town…

Gustav Weil comes home from a night of burning innocent women to be greeted with the sight of his fashionably attired nieces (the Collinson twins, with vocal overdubs—their Maltese accents were apparently too thick for Hammer’s liking– as Maria and Frieda Gellhorn) who have come from Venice to stay with him and his wife Katy (actress Kathleen Byron, who is renowned for her role as the insanely jealous Sister Ruth in 1947’s “Black Narcissus”, taking things down a notch for this role as the worrisome aunt) since the death of their parents. Upon seeing them in their matching green velvet dresses and feathered hats he says “What kind of plumage is this…for birds of Paradise?” After which he proceeds to admonish them for not showing more respect for the memory of their recently deceased parents, reminding them of the 4th Commandment’s advisement to honor one’s parents. Maria, the gentler of the two is obviously hurt by the whole incident, but Frieda is defiant setting up the dynamic for the rest of the film. Essentially, Frieda quickly tires of walking on eggshells around her overbearing uncle and decides to seek out Count Karnstein and live the wanton life she hears her Uncle Gustav railing against to Aunt Katy in the kitchen at night, whilst sweet and demure Maria cowers under her bed sheets.

Mary confronts Frieda upon her return from Karnstein Castle.

Frieda gets what she wants and becomes a vampire and runs amok with Count Karnstein draining everything that crosses their paths but keeps her conversion a secret from Maria and gets her to lie for her when she is found to be away at night. Maria even pretends to be Frieda and gets two beatings (one intended for Frieda and one for letting Frieda sneak out). Eventually, once Weil gets wise that one of his nieces is a vampire, Frieda tries to swap places with Maria so that she can keep from being executed but the village schoolmaster/heartthrob, Anton, falls for the sweet Maria and tries desperately to tell Weil that not only does he have the wrong girl, but he is going about things the wrong way…

“Burning purifies!” shouts Weill.

“Not if you know anything about vampires!” counters the schoolmaster, before schooling him on the varied ways to dispose of the undead.

Gustav takes Frieda’s head.

Eventually, Weil takes his advice when he confronts Frieda, the Count and his mute bodyguard, Joachim, and although he does seem to have a moment of clarity near the end of the movie, neither he nor his most dedicated cronies get away scot-free with all of the suffering they caused with their witch hunting.

All in all, the movie is successful as an entertaining Gothic yarn if not entirely as a sequel to the original “Karnstein” franchise and especially not as a historically accurate account of the era. To my knowledge, there was no notable Puritan community in Austria, as they were British in origin and were marginalized after the Great Ejection of 1662. Puritanism was alive and well at this time, however, across the Atlantic, in New England, where Cotton Mather (of Salem Village) was unsparingly sending convicted “witches” to the gallows.

However, if you can suspend your belief for the duration of the 90 odd minutes it takes to get through this final entry in the Karnstein Trilogy, I am betting you will have a fun time marveling at the Collinson Twin’s coy portrayals as the very embodiment of Sigmund Freud’s Madonna-Whore Complex, and the overall Gothic atmosphere of one of Hammer’s last great films before they fizzled out a few years later ere the close of the decade. Synapse Films has just released a handsome Blu-ray/DVD combo with a restored and remastered print of the movie which is full of extra goodies and for you folks that like to read your movies, in 2011 British Horror writer Shaun Hutson wrote a novelization of the screenplay, which seems to have gotten some decent reviews.

Synapse Films Blu-ray / DVD combo set for “Twins of Evil”.

 

Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on July 3, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Dark Shadows 2012 banner

Yesterday I watched the recent Tim Burton remake of “Dark Shadows” and, much to my surprise, actually enjoyed it. I had seen a snippet of the opening sequence online and was intrigued enough to want to see it on the big screen, so the following day I hunted it down and found that it was still playing at a bargain theater not 20 minutes away from me.

Dark Shadows original series cast

Mind you, I used to watch the original series with my mother back in the 70’s, which probably explains my fixation with Gothic imagery; and after a brief re-acquaintance with the show in the early 90’s, I have been a fairly devout fan ever since, following it’s various incarnations and adaptations through its brief rebirth in the 90’s and beyond. So,when I finally saw the much anticipated trailer for the Tim Burton version, I was horrified to see what seemed to be a wacky irreverent spoof of my beloved show. I was so upset by this that I vowed that I would not only not go to see it, but that I would swear off of Mr. Burton’s future endeavors until further notice. So, imagine my surprise when I found myself rushing to get to the $3 theater to catch an afternoon showing of the very movie I had vowed so vociferously not to see.

For starters, the trailer that was released to the public is very misleading. Although the movie is presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek, the humor is a (mostly) more subtle than the non-stop laugh fest portrayed in the trailer. In fact, many of the jokes were things I might  have written into one of my stories, save for a couple of blatant gags like the love making scene between Barnabas and Angelique, which started out kind of fun, but devolved into slapstick special effects overkill. Even so, Tim Burton’s stylized Gothic vision really delivered the proper ambiance, especially in the supernatural scenes, and the well advertized Alice Cooper cameo was not so gratuitous as I had originally imagined it would be. One thing that was missing, however, was the Dark Shadows theme song, which would have helped set the mood for the die hard fans. Although the pop tune selection was fun and appropriate to the time period, Danny Elfman’s orchestral score was forgettable and could have taken a cue from the original show which had several memorable themes that the fans would have instantly recognized and appreciated.

Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman in Night of Dark Shadows (1971).

That being said, the cast was great and composed mostly of inspired choices; I say mostly because I felt that Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of  Dr. Julia Hoffman was a bit lacking. Dr. Hoffman’s character in the TV series was a little more complex than the shallow lush depicted by Ms. Bonham Carter; but this is probably more due to a weakness in Seth Grahame-Smith’s script rather than in the actress’s talent. Another issue I had was that so much time was spent on Angelique and Barnabas’s toxic love/hate relationship that when it came time for Barnabas to interact with Victoria Winters, I felt their “true love” was a bit milquetoast in comparison.

Barnabas has post-coital regret in Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” (2012).

On the other hand, I did like the way they reconciled the duality of the Victoria Winters/Maggie Evans character, which was a bit sloppy in the original show, and the mystery of who she was and where she came from, which didn’t have time to play out in the initial series before actress Alexandra Moltke bailed to have a baby forcing her storyline to be grafted onto Kathryn Leigh Scott’s character, Maggie Evans. In Burton’s version, Maggie Evans, charmingly portrayed by doe-eyed actress Bella Heathcote, grew up being able to see dead people. As a little girl, her parents once witness her engaged in a lively conversation with a ghost they cannot perceive so the have her committed. After years of being locked away in an asylum, she escapes and is directed by her ghost gal-pal to answer an ad for a governess for a “prominent family”; on the train ride from New York to Collinsport, she sees an ad for a ski resort in Victoria and comes up with her new name.

Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters.

Most of the rest of the movie is fun and the cast in great.  and Eva Green is alternately scary, funny, sexy and pathetic in her portrayal of the witch, Angelique Bouchard. Michelle Pfeiffer is weary but strong as materfamilias, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. Conversely, Jonny Lee Miller’s Roger Collins is reduced to a philanderer and negligent father to sweet and vulnerable David Collins, sympathetically played by young Gulliver McGrath–a vast improvement over the overbearing brat he had been interpreted as by past actors. I was not sure how to react to the choice of Chloe Grace Moretz as Carolyn Stoddard. I enjoyed her very much in both “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In”, and do not doubt her talent, but I was curious as to why someone so young was chosen to portray the spoiled daughter of Elizabeth, who in the series used to carouse in bars and embarrass her straight laced mother no end. Although she wasn’t quite party girl the original character was, she was definitely smoldering  as the frustrated teen who was waiting to turn 16 so she could move to New York City and live the bohemian life. My only complaint with her character was the last minute revelation of her supernatural curse, which wasn’t even hinted at throughout the rest of the film.

“House of Dark Shadows” movie trading card featuring Nancy Barrett as Carolyn Stoddard rising from her grave.

Jackie Earle Haley is sufficiently creepy as the estate groundskeeper, Willie Loomis and, lastly, there is his master, Johnny Depp’s Barnabas Collins. His is not as subtle as earlier renditions of Barnabas Collins who could pass for human when not vamping out. Depp’s Barnabas looks like a cross between Nosferatu and the blanched, sun-shy phase of Michael Jackson. Much time is spent on gags demonstrating his antiquated notions and perceptions, some amusing, like when he is mesmerized by a lava lamp, believing it to be “pulsating blood urn”; others a little cloying, like his attack on the “tiny enchantress” in the television set. Even so, Depp’s straight-faced dry delivery works with his overwrought antediluvian dialogue, particularly when used as a preamble to a horrible event like when he tells a group of young hippies that he must regretfully kill them all.

All in all, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot better than I expected it to be and I’ll probably pick up the DVD for my collection when it comes out.