Blacula (1972)

Obviously, Blacula is a blaxploitation film.  It is about a vampire of African descent. The movie is all right at first, but then it goes stupid. The detective knows he is after a vampire, and he knows all the rules about killing vampires with sun exposure or a wooden stake through the heart, and he knows that a cross will make a vampire cringe. But when he goes to the place where he suspects that Blacula keeps his coffin, he goes with cops who are armed with nothing but pistols, which are ineffective. So cops get killed left and right. But the detective has a cross for himself, of course. Oh well, it could have been worse. Blacula could have been played by Christopher Lee in blackface.

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It Follows (2014)

When it comes to atmosphere and creepiness, It Follows does such a good job that one can only be dismayed by the inclusion of a couple of unnecessary absurdities.

Jay is a young woman in college who has sex with a guy named Hugh.  Then he chloroforms her, takes her to a remote location, and ties her up to a wheelchair.  Eventually, a slow-moving, zombie-like ghost appears, heading in their direction.  Hugh explains to Jay that this ghost will follow her unrelentingly until it catches her and kills her.  She must avoid it until she has sex with someone else, thereby passing the curse on to him.  The only people that can see this ghost are those who are presently being pursued, like Jay, and those who have been pursued by it in the past, like Hugh.

Needless to say, it is an act of evil to pass this curse on intentionally, so at first one wonders why he didn’t just have sex with Jay and then leave her to her doom.  The reason, as Hugh explains, is that once it kills Jay, it will then go back to the previously cursed person and follow him.  So, Hugh wants Jay to know what is happening so that she will avoid being caught by this ghost long enough to pass the curse on to someone else.  In other words, he wants Jay to stay alive and pass it on for his own selfish reasons, not out of any concern for her.

The first absurdity in all this is the whole chloroform-and-tied-to-the-wheel-chair bit.  Hugh could have had sex with Jay and then explained what he had done to her while waiting for the ghost to show up without bothering to drive somewhere else. Since the ghost was already on its way to him anyway, there would not have been much of a wait.  Furthermore, he must have known that Jay was sure to tell the police after being abducted, whereas if he had simply told her the story and let her see the ghost, the police would have ignored her had she repeated it to them.  There would have been less risk for him that way.

Those unnecessary melodramatics aside, the next absurdity is Hugh’s encyclopedic knowledge on the subject.  In the novel Dracula and in many vampire movies based on it, there is a Van Helsing character, a learned professor who, among his many accomplishments, happens to be an authority on vampires.  He explains all the rules, the ones involving crosses, mirrors, sunlight, and wooden stakes.  So informed, the characters in the movie and we in the audience know what needs to be done.  The question is, how did Hugh become the Van Helsing to this ghost that follows people around?  How does he know all the rules?  In particular, how does he know that if Jay dies, the ghost will start pursuing him around again?  Later, Hugh, whose real name turns out to be Jeff, says he caught the curse from some woman he picked up in a bar whose name he didn’t even know.  So, how did he know that sex with her was the cause of his troubles?  Did she chloroform him and tie him to a wheelchair too, perhaps bequeathing those items to him, saying, “Here, you can have these things now, I won’t be needing them anymore”?  And for that matter, why didn’t Hugh/Jeff pass these items on to Jay?  After all, when she gets through passing the curse on to some hapless fellow who just thought it was his lucky night, won’t she need to chloroform him and tie him to a wheel chair too?

If the curse is passed on through sex, there must have been a first person who acquired it spontaneously and not through sex, otherwise, we would have an infinite regress.  There is no reason to think this first person would have known the rules, even if he had lived long enough to pass it on, which seems unlikely, since no one would have told him why some slow-moving ghost was walking toward him, especially since no one else could have seen it.

There was no need for the abduction scene, and there was no need for Hugh/Jeff to have Van Helsing-like knowledge, only what he had acquired from personal experience, which need not have been much.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

In Eyes Without a Face, mad scientist Docteur Génessier, whose specialty is transplanting tissue from one person to another, is working to overcome the tendency of the recipient to reject the foreign tissue.  He also has a practical purpose, which is grafting a new face on his daughter, Christiane, who was disfigured in an automobile accident that was his fault.  His Igor is Louise, played by Alida Valli, whose disfigured face was restored by Génessier, for which reason she is extremely loyal to him and willing to aid him in his evil doings.  In particular, Louise picks up young women who look the way Christiane did before her disfigurement, takes them to Génessier’s house so he can remove their faces and transplant them onto Christiane.  Unfortunately, he has thus far been unsuccessful, the result of which is that a bunch of dead women’s bodies without faces keep turning up, all of whom seem to be of the same physical type.  In fact, we see Louise dump one such woman into a river at the beginning of the movie.  One way in which all the women are similar is that they all have blue eyes.  Now, this makes no sense, because Christiane’s eyes are fine, hence the title:  she has the eyes; what she needs is a face.  So why the women whose faces are being removed have to have blue eyes is a mystery.

Génessier identifies the woman found in the river as his daughter so that people, including her boyfriend Jacques, a doctor who works in Génessier’s clinic, will think she is dead and not wonder where she is, for only Génessier, Louise, and Christiane know of her horribly burned face.  In the meantime, Christiane wears a mask around the house so as not to gross everyone out including herself.  The mask is an immobile version of what she used to look like.  One of the amazing things about this mask, which allows us a clear view of her eyes, is how expressive her “face” is.  We have all heard the expression, “The eyes are a window to the soul.”  This movie really demonstrates it.  We get a good sense of what Christiane is feeling and thinking as she walks around the house owing only to the expressiveness of her eyes.

Louise’s next victim is Edna.  She tricks her into getting into the car with her, and the next thing you know, Edna is strapped to the operating table having her face lifted, so to speak.  We actually get a glimpse of her face after the skin has been removed, squarely placing this film into the category of Grand Guignol.  At first the transplant seems to be a success, but eventually it becomes necrotic and has to be removed again.  Back on goes the mask.  For some reason, Génessier keeps Edna alive, as if he is doing her a favor, but she leaps to her death.  Adding to the creepiness of this movie are all the big, howling dogs Génessier has locked up in small cages to be used for his transplant experiments.

One of Edna’s friends reports her missing.  She tells the police about the woman that Edna said she was going somewhere with, but all she can say by way of identification is that Edna said the woman wore a pearl choker (Louise wears a choker to hide the scar on her neck).  Later, Jacques receives a strange phone call from Christiane, who misses him terribly.  She only utters his name, but he recognizes her voice.  He goes to the police, and when Inspector Parot mentions the pearl choker in passing, Jacques thinks of Louise.  As a result, she and Dr. Génessier become suspects.

A woman named Paulette, who fits the profile of missing girls, blue eyes and all, is picked up by the police for shoplifting.  Parot and another inspector threaten her with prosecution unless she acts as a decoy.  She agrees to go to Génessier’s clinic and fake an illness.  And here is the point in the movie where police incompetence becomes so absurd that it is laughable.  Do they have a plainsclothes officer watching the clinic to see what happens to her when she is discharged?  No.  And so, when Paulette is released late at night and walks down the street to get a bus, she is offered a ride by Louise and accepts.  Too bad nobody is around to see her get in the car.

Jacques calls Inspector Parot to let him know Paulette has left the clinic.  Parot concludes that this puts Génessier and Louise in the clear, since they obviously did not kidnap Paulette, but let her leave the clinic instead.  However, Parot decides to make sure she got home all right.  Gosh!  She never got home.  So the two inspectors drive out to Génessier’s clinic just to be sure.  They ask Génessier if Paulette was released from clinic.  Yes she was, he tells them.  The inspectors shrug and go home, concluding it was just a false trail and the choker was just one big coincidence.

Before Paulette’s face can be peeled off, Christiane releases her from the table, stabs Louise in the neck right through the choker, and releases the dogs, who then go after Génessier, ripping half his face off.  Christiane wanders off into the woods with one of the doves she also released perched on her hand, just to give the movie a little symbolism.  You see, this is a French film, so you can’t expect it to make sense the way a Hollywood production would.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu has the most horrible looking vampire of any movie ever made. It is hard to believe that when they made Dracula in 1931, they just picked Bela Lugosi and let it go at that. The connection between the Black Death and vampires, which antedates this movie, is emphasized. It suggests either that vampires were a supernatural explanation for the plague or that deaths from vampires were dismissed as being the result of disease. This combines ominously with the movie’s suggestion that there is a connection between the vampires’ need for blood and sexual desire, in which case vampirism might be a metaphor for syphilis. Count Orlok (Max Schreck) gets very excited when he sees a picture of Ellen (Greta Schröder) and speaks of her beautiful neck. The fact that she is a “sinless maiden” makes her especially erotic, so much so that she is able to keep Orlok drinking from her neck when he knows he should be getting back to his coffin where he will be safe during the day.  As a result, he gets caught by the rising sun and is destroyed.

A point of trivia: this vampire casts a reflection in the mirror, unlike in Dracula, for we see his reflection while he is drinking Ellen’s blood.

Repulsion (1965)

In Repulsion, a movie written and directed by Roman Polanski, Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a woman with some kind of psychological problem concerning sex. She lives with her sister, whose sexual relations with her lover disturb Carol. Carol is very much upset that her sister is going on a two-week vacation. During that vacation, Carol descends into madness. A man who has been harassing her and stalking her breaks into her apartment because he just had to see her. She bludgeons him to death. Then the landlord stops by to get the rent and decides to rape her as long as he is there. She slices him up with a razor and he bleeds to death. Then her sister returns to find the corpses and a catatonic Carol. In the very last scene, we see a photograph, previously alluded to from a distance, of her family taken years ago. In it, we see everyone smiling and looking at the camera, except for a pre-adolescent Carol, who is looking with dread at a man to her left, presumably her father. In real life, such a picture would mean nothing, but its emphasis in the movie after what we have seen tells us that she was molested as a child, which further explains why she was so upset that her sister was going away. As a child, she would have been safe from her father as long as her sister was around.

The idea that Polanski, having made this movie illustrating the terrible consequences of child molestation, would then go on to molest a child himself is ghastly. Having made such a movie, he doubtlessly had thought the matter through. For him to molest a thirteen-year-old girl when he believed that such an act could produce consequences like those in this movie is especially disturbing.

Re-Animator (1985)

There are two mad scientists at Miskatonic University, and that is one too many.  First, there is Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), a member of the faculty, who is motivated by lust, fame, and power. Not unsurprisingly for a man driven by such strong passions, the principal goal of his research is the location of the will in the brain.

The other mad scientist is Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a medical student. West is dedicated to the truth, and cares nothing about women or fame. The principal goal of his research is reanimation, bringing dead people back to life, for which he has a reagent. Hence, he is the title character in Re-Animator, the movie based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. West is so cold and devoid of sympathy that he is indifferent to the pain he causes when he reanimates the dead, supposing himself to be doing them a favor.

West is openly contemptuous of Hill, whose intellect he regards as inferior to his own. Hill finds out about West’s reagent and tries to coerce West into letting Hill get credit for it. While Hill’s back is turned, West chops his head off. Then he reanimates the separated head and body, all in the name of scientific research, of course. The body knocks West out while he is examining the head, and then it picks up the head and the bowl it is in, which is filled with the reagent. All this leads to a final struggle between these two mad scientists, with Hill in control of reanimated corpses from the morgue. The movie is replete with hilarious horror and gore, including Hill’s body holding Hill’s severed head so that it can violate the Dean’s daughter, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton).

It is unfortunate that the director’s cut resulted in many deleted scenes that should have been left in. First of all, these include scenes that make it clear that Hill has mesmeric powers. It is fitting that the man whose research focuses on the location of the will in the brain should have the power to control the will of others. More importantly, it helps us understand why Hill has so much influence over Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson); we understand how he can control his own body with his severed head; and we understand how he can control the corpses he has reanimated in the morgue. Without these scenes of mesmerism, we don’t fully understand how he can do these things.

Second, several of the deleted scenes further develop West’s character. Both in his physical appearance and his manner, he reminds me of Dean Stockwell’s portrayal of Judd in Compulsion. Judd, of course, was that movie’s version of Leopold in the notorious Loeb and Leopold case, in which two psychopathic geniuses decide to commit the perfect crime in order to prove they are Nietzschean supermen. Without seeing the deleted scenes, I might not have made that connection.  It may be that the director, Stuart Gordon, never intended such a connection, but he should have, because it fits perfectly.

Third, there is a great scene where West is discussing with Dan (Bruce Abbott), his roommate, what they are going to do about Dr. Hill. West seems to be bothered in some way, and he lurches to the bathroom. When Dan goes to see what West is doing, he finds him with a syringe of reagent, about to mainline himself. West assures him it is just a weak solution, just enough to keep the brain sharp, so he won’t have to sleep. Dan helps his shoot up, after which West is all pumped up and ready to go.

Gordon said he deleted these scenes because he felt that they slowed down the pacing, and that is a shame. The scenes are included in the second disk of the DVD, and it is worth making the effort to watch them. Not every deleted scene should have been kept in, of course. The dream sequence, in particular, does not belong in the movie, and its deletion was appropriate.

It is still a great movie, but with some of those deleted scenes left in, it would have been greater still.

Jaws (1975) and Poltergeist (1982)

In producing the movie Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg employed the structure that worked for him in Jaws. In the latter movie, there is an Everyman, Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), and his family, corresponding to Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) and her family in the former. The shark is a monstrous creature terrorizing Amity Island just as the demons terrorize the Freeling household. In Jaws, we have the mayor who lets the expected revenue from tourism jeopardize the safety of those who plan to swim in the ocean, while in Poltergeist, Steve Freeling’s boss jeopardizes the safety of the Freeling house and the entire neighborhood in an effort to save money by not moving the bodies of a cemetery before building houses on top of them.

Once the shark proves to be too menacing to ignore, a scientist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), is called in from the Oceanographic Institute, just as three parapsychologists are called in to investigate the weird happenings in the Freeling house (one gets the feeling they inspired the movie Ghostbusters (1984)). But science alone cannot do the job. Therefore, someone with personal, practical experience is needed. In Jaws, this takes the form of Quint (Robert Shaw), an old salt who has been a sailor all his life and has dealt with sharks many times. In Poltergeist, we have Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), a woman with psychic powers, who knows how the other world operates.

Ultimately, however, it is Everyman Brody who kills the shark, when science and practical experience fail, just as Diane must save her children herself after the parapsychologists and the psychic have failed to completely do the job.

Unfortunately, the final attack by the demons after everyone thinks it is safe is a little too much. It would be like having the shark make one more attack after Brody thought he had finally killed it.