The scariest night of the year is here, although, compared to my horror flight on United, it shouldn't be that bad. Stay tuned to the foot of the page for my own contribution to the fright-night genre. Meanwhile, here's a monster mash-up of various creature features from recent decades:
Let's start with a wolf - specifically, Wolfman Jack. Where would New Yorkers be without Vermont to go and find themselves in? Back in Baby Boom, Diane Keaton, a big-town ad exec elbowed aside by ambitious tyros, scrams to Vermont, starts up a line of Country Baby products and fleeces the yuppies back in New York. In Mike Nichols' Wolf (1994), Jack Nicholson, a big-town book editor elbowed aside by ambitious tyros, heads for Vermont to see an author, runs over a wolf, stops the car to check the animal's condition, gets bitten and returns to Manhattan to swat the competition aside as a beast of the boardroom, a corporate carnivore, a literary lycanthrope, hirsute among the hardbacks, putting the fangs into the fiction list.
The vampire/werewolf myths fit comfortably into Eastern Europe because they're about horrors which lurk within, ferocious animal rages deep inside the blood that must out. Look at the genital-severing and breast mutilation in Bosnia round about the time Wolf was released; lycanthropy's almost the most rational explanation.
America has its own horrors, of course, but don't blame the animal kingdom. When Jack gets back to town to take revenge on upstart slimeball James Spader, he tells his secretary, "The worm has turned and he's packing an Uzi." Those dumb Carpathian werewolves just wanted to tear you limb from limb, but here's a wolfman for the corporate backstabbers: every sense is sharpened — smells, sounds; good grief, even his reading's more satisfying. Who's afraid of Virginia, wolf? Not me, snarls Jack.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, incidentally, was Mike Nichols' first directorial assignment. Three decades on, he's lost four words and lost for words. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were hairier and scarier than anything here. Wolf, as is the fashion in our times, is a psychological horror film, about coming to terms with the animal inside. After a night of passionate wolfing, Jack declares, "I feel good" — the standard talk-show formulation and also how President Clinton, round about the same time, described his feelings after bombing Iraq. Maybe the casting's too neat. After all, Nicholson earned those "Wolfman Jack" headlines years ago. The grin, the leer, the flash of the teeth, the insatiable sex drive: been there, done that — on-screen and off. When we first see him, he's a gentle, rueful, bookish loser with failing eyesight — or rather, he's an effortlessly sexy leading man trying to be a gentle rueful loser. These days, we tend to laugh at the old horror boys — Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi — with their funny names and freaky looks. But that's the point: they always did exist in a sad marginalized celebrity, trapped by a narrow specific stardom that seemed as much a prison as being a vampire or werewolf and which gave them great pathos. Jack's got the fangs, but he can't quite cut it.
As to the other effects, it's mostly down to terrible sideburns which make him look like an Elvis impersonator. Now there lies a true American horror story: Driving through the Nevada desert one dark and stormy night, a traveling man from New York is mysteriously bitten by a fat guy in a spangled catsuit...
In lieu of Bela Lugosi, how about, er, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise? Before the present adolescent vampire craze, there was Anne Rice. Neil Jordan's Interview With The Vampire (1995), adapted by Miss Rice from her own novel, appears to be a sort of vampiric version of Heather Has Two Mommies. This time round, Claudia has two daddies: They're a couple of feudin', fun-loving bachelor vampires: she's ten years old, with ringlets like Shirley Temple and incisors like Lassie. In this crazy new family sitcom, everyone's a pain in the neck!
Conventional vampire movies open with, say, a wench from the local tavern ill-advisedly walking back home on Walpurgisnacht and hearing rather more rustling in the trees than usual; her milky bosom begins to bounce through the forest more urgently... This film opts for something even more gruesome: Brad Pitt (Louis) seizes his unsuspecting victim and then forces him to — aaaaagh! — interview him in his apartment for two hours as he looks back over his many years in the bloodsucking business. The interviewer is Christian Slater rather than Ellen DeGeneres, but otherwise we're in standard celebrity reminiscence country: no one actually says "Fangs for the memory", but you get the general idea.
A novel that's an interview is — or, at any rate, was in 1976 — reasonably novel; in film, it's something of a hoary, clunky exposition device. You sense Jordan's faintly embarrassed by it, and that he's trying to detach himself, saving himself for his little moments. The opening sequence is terrific, as his camera offers a vampire's eye view of the bustling city streets, savoring the sea of faces as if it's an All-U-Can-Eat salad bar. But then the narrative device takes over and he seems to shrug "Oh, well. It's her book..."
True, he's dressed the film — especially the scenes in New Orleans scenes (where I chance to be this Halloween) — very nicely in rich, ruby-red ornate furnishings, like the ruched drapes in my hotel room. But, with Pitt and Cruise flouncing about like two bitchy old queens, it's like La Cage aux Folles with teeth. Instead of homoerotic, it's homeowner neurotics, as the pair kill a couple of centuries or so in non-stop domestic bickering. Pitt thinks Cruise is turning the place into a pit; Cruise thinks Pitt ought to come out and cruise. Squeamish about drinking human blood Pitt prefers to stay in with his Cajun cookbook; Cruise would just as soon grab something to go. Pitt reckons Cruise sucks; Cruise reckons, "Puh-leeze! Get a life!" Halfway through, just when restless movie-goers are beginning to stand up and ask. "Is there a Doktor Van Helsing in the house?" they acquire the kid, and presumably an endless supply of tasty Louisiana social workers. It's less vampire, more camp ire: Louis and Lestat emerge from the kitchen to find little Claudia licking her lips over the drained body of the latest home help. Lestat pouts, puts his hands on his hips and tuts mockingly, "Now who will we get to finish your dress?"
After wolfmen and vampires, what of the greatest man-made monster of all? In Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, in order to demonstrate that his monster is a sophisticated, civilized being, the Doktor has him sing and dance "Puttin' On The Ritz". In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), Kenneth Branagh goes one better: as Doktor Ken and his virgin bride prepare to consummate their union, from the depths of the night they hear the monster (Robert De Niro, of course) playing on the flute what sounds suspiciously like "Moon River". Herr Doktor is thrown completely off his stroke; he's got it, but he can't flaunt it with that damn flautist.
Unlike Brooks' version, Branagh's isn't supposed to be funny. But it is, and sometimes hilariously. And not just because, as the monster, Robert De Niro just staggers around doing his well-known Robert De Niro impression. Branagh saws off choice cuts from your favorite movies, and pop videos, and fashion shoots, and TV commercials, and stitches them into an alleged intellectual re-assessment of the legend. Despite the title, Mary Shelley would be hard put to recognize her Frankenstein in any of this: she would wonder why the family home has no furniture, being unfamiliar with the minimalist design style favored by the then fashionable metropolitan hotels where Branagh and his producer Francis Ford Coppolla stayed while cooking up this project; she would wonder why the sweeping staircase has no bannister, in direct contravention of the Geneva Municipal Building Code of 1781, and indeed why the story requires a monster, given that, long before he could throttle the life out of anyone, most of the family would have perished trying to get up the stairs after dark; she would be puzzled by the crazed Doktor von Branagh's substitution of the creature's ornate 19th century locutions for Oprahfied victimological psychobabble: "You gave me these emotions — but you didn't tell me how to use them!"
Branagh tries furiously to knit his shambling creation together — just like the Doktor: a stitch in time saves, nein? But not always. We get lavish, lyrical Alpine vistas, and sudden jump-cuts and edits: The Sound of Music for the MTV crowd. When the delirious Doktor recovers, he's greeted by sunlight filtering through the vast cathedral gables of his dusty laboratory and, at the far end, Helena Bonham-Carter tickling the ivories — like an upmarket perfume commercial. Outside, meanwhile, the scenic views get ever more extreme. The monster improbably demands a meeting on top of an Alpine glacier, and then sends Branagh over the edge: Fantastic! A fabulous multimillion dollar recreation of the old variety gag:
"How do you make a Swiss roll?"
"Push him off Mont Blanc."
The kindest interpretation of this picture is that it's a parable. Here's Branagh, intelligent, scholarly, Shakespearean, and his then consort Helena Bonham-Carter, the lovely English rose with the Merchant-Ivory complexion and the living embodiment of delicate refinement. Yet he forsakes her to live in a hovel with a howling, unintelligible Robert De Niro. Hmm. Maybe the whole picture's an allegory for the British movie industry.
~Also in a Halloween vein, following his spooky interpretation of a 1970s rock classic last year, Mark thought he'd try something even scarier for this All-Hallows Eve. He's always wanted to do one of those 1980s rock videos - moody, menacing, monochrome, full of smoke and guitars. So click below and stand well back:
With a tip of the hat to Tweety, Sylvester ...and Sting.
For the backstory, see here.
For more, see here.