Count Dracula (1977)

I thought I’d round off what has been a vaguely vampire-flavoured month at Mewsings with a look at my favourite adaptation of Dracula. I first saw it at school, bizarrely enough, shown over a couple of English lessons, though I don’t know what work we did in association with it. (This puts it in the same category as The Man Who Would Be King, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and a play-for-today adaptation of Z for Zachariah — which, along with a frankly gratuitous school viewing of Threads, served to convince me that the next winter was most likely to be a nuclear one).

So what makes it the best, for me?

Firstly, it’s understated. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was visually interesting in hallucinogenic moments, but so overblown (not to mention unintentionally comic in the awful stiffness of some of its British accents), it’s better treated as an overlong pop video than an attempt to tell a story. This 1977 adaptation, though, is horror done as a BBC costume drama. The fantastic elements are secondary to the characters, and the actors aren’t doing melodrama, they’re doing serious drama. Mina (Judi Bowker) is a perfect English rose; Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) a wildflower of a brasher, brighter, ultimately less hardy variety; the Count (Louis Jordan) is darkly foreign, charming, mysterious and coldly commanding — very believable as the supremely suave sociopath that Dracula is. The English reticence so vital to the novel is here entirely believable (as it isn’t in Coppola’s superheated lay-it-all-bare version). So, Jonathan Harker notices the Count’s hairy palms, but is too polite to comment on them; and Lucy’s fangs, when they start to emerge, are obvious for all to see, but no-one mentions them, either, because why would they? No-one expects her to be turning into a vampire, and besides, it would simply be impolite. The result is so much more convincing as a human drama, and therefore as a horror story.

Secondly, I like its visual style. I have a Doctor Who-grown fondness for the look of 70s BBC drama anyway, with its muted colours, murky videoed interiors and grainily-filmed exteriors (in actual English settings — Whitby, here, is the real Whitby, where of course Stoker went on holiday prior to writing the novel). The few visual effects are mostly used to create a mood than convince you you’re seeing something fantastic — so we have a blood-red and silver shot of the Count when the hunger’s on him, and Lucy dancing in her nightgown in one corner of the screen while the rest shows her being quietly vamped (perhaps representing how one sane corner of her mind has cut itself off from what’s happening to her body). There are some “convince them it’s real” visual effects, and it’s true these have not only dated, but probably never worked in the first place (I’m thinking of one particularly pathetic bat-on-a-string), but they are minor & brief, and can be forgotten (in the way you train yourself to do if you love watching old Doctor Whos — even Genesis of the Daleks has its giant clam scene).

Perhaps all this is possible because it’s a TV mini-series, and so has a chance to linger on character moments in a way that a film, being shorter, can’t. All the same, I can’t imagine a similar mini-series being made today, when usually the slightest hint of fantasy or horror is enough to unleash every make-you-jump cliché and make explicit every possible level of erotic interpretation, however much its power in the original relies on restraint. In the novel, the Count is only as successful as he is in England because people keep all their dreams and fears to themselves; in a sense, it’s only when Mina initiates a free-for-all bout of reading each others private diaries and journals — sharing everyone’s secrets like a touchy-feely vampire hunter’s support group — that the Count loses so much of his power, and is ultimately defeated.

Count Dracula is available on DVD, where it’s divided into two parts. I usually can’t help myself but watch both in one sitting.

40th Birthday Giveaway!

To celebrate my 40th birthday, I’m doing a bit of a giveaway. I’m producing 40 booklets of a Poe-esque gothic mellodrama poem I wrote sometime last year, called My Vampire Bride.

Yes, I know vampires have been over-popular of late, but when the undead pay you a visit, you can’t ignore them! My Vampire Bride isn’t a vampire of the Twilight sort, nor even of the reconstructed Anne Rice variety, but goes back to something far more Hammer Horror-ish, all wispy flowing nighties and misty nighttime graveyards. But enough excuses. Nosferatu don’t make no steenkin’ excuses!

The booklet is A6, with card covers and eight internal pages. You can request a free copy, sent anywhere in the world by bat-wing courier, by filling out this form. As I say, I’m only making 40 available; once all 40 have been requested, the form will disappear like a vampire at sunrise!

The Terror & Drood by Dan Simmons

Two books I enjoyed recently, both by Dan Simmons, are The Terror and Drood. Both are set in the 19th century, both feature elements of supernatural horror against a strongly-researched historical background and some good, convincing characterisation. Both are pretty big books, too, but more than justify their length — they’re the sort of novels you want to dwell in, just to linger in their very real-feeling worlds.

The Terror is about the Franklin expedition to find a northwest passage through the arctic, which set out in 1845 and, after last being sighted on the 26th July in Lancaster Sound, was not heard from again. The expedition consisted of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror — fitting names considering the grisly end they came to, as subsequent missions to at first rescue, then simply find out what happened to the expedition, uncovered hints of cannibalism after the two ships became icebound in a vicious Arctic winter. To this already taut mix of dwindling food supplies, freezing temperatures, treacherous weather, scurvy and other diseases, not to mention the very real threat of mutiny as the situation becomes increasingly desperate, Simmons adds a supernatural element from Inuit mythology — a demonic creature out there in the frozen wastes, preying on the explorers more out of a need for vengeance than food. At times, this supernatural element can seem superfluous, considering the hell Simmons is already putting his characters through, but towards the end of the novel it becomes increasingly central.

I knew I’d like The Terror from the start. Like Alien, and (even more) like a 19th century version of Carpenter’s The Thing — both films I love for their tense, bleak, claustrophobic atmospheres — it’s about an isolated group of human beings in hostile surroundings facing a dreadful, demonic threat. Simmons conjures the harshness of the environment, the desperation of the situation, and the arrogance of the age brilliantly, thus making the supernatural element all the more believable.

Drood, on the other hand, is set in more civilised climes — the London of Charles Dickens, to be precise — though parts of it prove to be anything but civilised. Narrated by Dickens’s sometime friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins, it addresses the enigma of Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Drood (in Simmons’s Drood, not Dickens’s) is an almost supernatural figure, somewhat like the Phantom of the Opera in appearance, and, like the Phantom, he lives underground — in the catacombs, sewers and cellars beneath London, where an equally Dickensian sub-city exists. But the real focus of the book (though for the most part in a gently simmering subtext) is Wilkie Collins’s barely friendly rivalry with the effortlessly superior Dickens (it was Simmons’s description of Wilkie Collins as Salieri to Dickens’s Mozart that got me wanting to read the book).

Both novels are evidently highly researched, but whereas the wealth of solid detail in The Terror only ever made the setting and story more concrete and believable, sometimes the need to stick to the actual events of Dickens’s well-documented and necessarily complex life diffused the purity of Drood‘s central story for me (though this was perhaps because I didn’t know that much about Dickens’s life). Although, as narrator Wilkie Collins is an opium addict who has frequent encounters with perhaps hallucinated, perhaps real supernatural beings, it’s difficult to see how the book could have worked as well if it were tightly focused. Its edge-of-control messiness may well be an inseparable part of it.

I enjoyed both books a great deal — The Terror a shade more, perhaps, because its story was a little tighter, but the way Wilkie Collins’s narration surrounds you in his very real, sometimes feverish world pretty much made up for that, and, of the two, it’s Drood I feel I’m more likely to re-read, simply because of its appropriately Dickensian messiness.

LA Noire

I’m playing LA Noire at the moment, and it’s just starting to grow on me. As usual with me — particularly in a game with a lot of controls to remember, like this one — the main barrier to my enjoying it is that I’m still getting use to which button does what, which means that, even though I’ve been promoted from uniformed cop to traffic to homicide (“This is the big time, Phelps!”), I’m still a danger to the good citizens of LA while simply driving at low speeds from location to location (and a lot of this game involves covering the eight square miles of 1940’s LA streets that makes for its backdrop), let alone when giving high-speed chase. And when faced with a genuine armed perp, I’m as likely to jump out from behind cover and start frantically re-loading my fully loaded gun as I am to actually shoot the guy. (So far, all the gun-wielding perps have been guys, but there have been some pretty shady dames…) The thing is, there’s always a few controls you get used to more quickly than others — moving around, picking up objects to examine them for their clue-potential — while others, usually the more emergency-oriented ones, like taking cover when being fired at, or blocking a punch, or applying the brakes in a moving vehicle(!), you only need to use in situations of dire emergency, so you don’t get used to them till you really need them. But that’s just me. I’ve never been a power gamer and never will be. As I’ve said before, what I play games for are immersive stories.

LA Noire‘s big selling point is its “revolutionary new facial animation technology”, by which actors’ expressions have been used to program the reactions of suspects to the questions you fire at them, and you then have to use their body language (alongside the evidence you’ve gathered) to judge whether they’re telling the truth. So far it’s not been too difficult. If, after answering a question, the suspect looks you in the eye with a relatively placid expression, they’re telling the truth, but if they immediately start looking at anything but you, they’re lying. (Though I did upset a female clerk in a shoe shop by calling her a liar when she was probably just upset her boss was lying in a bloody pool on the pavement outside.) The thing is, they keep doing their reaction while the game waits for you to make your choice of truth, doubt, or lie, so it’s not like you’re checking for telltale micro-expressions. What this aspect of the game hangs on is the realism of the faces, and I’m happy to say that I find the faces believable enough to react to as faces, rather than the weird things you found looking back at you in games from only a few years ago (those starey bubble eyes in Oblivion always made me a bit uncomfortable).

So far, LA Noire has been pretty forgiving of my kack-handed way with the controls. I haven’t been kicked off the force for the not inconsiderable amount of injuries to pedestrians and car prangs I’ve caused while heading to the next location. Also, if you fail an action sequence (such as a chase, car-tail or shoot-out) three times, you’re given the option to skip it at no game-cost. So far, I’ve only skipped one, and that was accidental because, the first time I was given the option to skip it, I didn’t read the message properly. (One annoying thing about all these lush new immersive games coming out at the moment is they really need you to have a big, preferably HD, TV. On my old CRT one, the tiny text is often near-indecipherable. I’m beginning to feel a bit technologically outmoded.)

It’s got me thinking about interactive stories, though. There are two ways interactivity can add to your enjoyment of a story. One is that, through your actions, you can change the outcome, and that’s usually seen as the holy grail of interactive storytelling. The other is that, because you get the chance to explore and examine the environment at your own pace and in your own way, you really feel as though you’ve stepped into the game world, and so feel much more involved in whatever story you’re being guided through. And really, it’s the latter I prefer. As far as the former is concerned, I think a story has a pretty fixed structure, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Influencing the outcome is okay for minor changes, but usually there’s one correct way through a story, and you either hit that or you fail. I’ve never really been fussed by that sort of game, anyway. (Perhaps because I’m not much of a re-player.)

LA Noire — so far at least — has been pretty well structured in terms of its stories. After all, these are crimes that have been committed and there’s only one correct way to see them through, which is to arrest (or kill) the criminal responsible. (I’m not sure at this early stage if it’s possible to arrest the wrong person, yet. But certainly there are a few shady characters who don’t get arrested, even if you feel they should.) It would be nice if the investigations themselves were a bit more free-form — at the moment, you’re pretty much guided to each succeeding location or suspect till you’ve gathered all the necessary evidence, but I’ve a feeling things will be getting more complicated as the game progresses. (Hopefully, I’ll have figured out the difference between the punch and drop-your-guard buttons by then.)

And, of course, it’s the setting which is a big part of the fun of playing LA Noire. LA in full, sunny colour isn’t really a very noire-ish place (you can play the game in black and white if you want, but what you really need are stark shadows and shady personalities, and they’ll come through equally well in colour or mono), but the cynicism is certainly there. It’s an immersive world of forties slang, seen-it-all-before detectives, glamorous broads and drunk no-hopers, sleazy bars and cheap hotels, fading starlets, dodgy vice squad officers, drugs, blood (a lot of blood), corpses, fast-talking wise guys, strong-arm dumb gangsters, dodgy psychiatrists and an awful, awful lot of waiting at goddamned never-changing red traffic lights.

Trouble is, I’m just too honest a cop to use my siren except when it’s a real emergency. But as soon as I do, you get to see mailboxes, street lamps, and even innocent pedestrians fly!