The Goddess is a busy hellspawn, as I’m sure you all know by now. For the past couple weeks, I’ve been running my little cloven hooves off, doing promotional radio shows for The Mammoth Mountain Poltergeist (such as here and here), researching and writing an upcoming book I’m collaborating on with parapsychologist Steve Mera about one of his poltergeist cases, formatting and uploading ebook versions of some of my other books (here, here, here, and here), as well as doing my regular full time job and all the other freelance graphic design and club promotion stuff I do. In short, minions, I’m tired, and I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming three-day weekend, over which I have ambitious plans to simply lie around like a slug, eat copious amounts of food that’s bad for me, and occasionally rouse myself, put on pants, and go out to dance and drink myself silly until the wee hours. I’m going for the gusto here, folks.
But I didn’t want to go into the long weekend before posting a little something something on this here blog, and since it’s been a week or two since I did a “Scary Silents,” that seemed the logical choice. However, since it is also Friday and I’m really antsy to get the party started but also kinda bummed out that the air conditioning in the Hellfire home busted last night and won’t be fixed until Thursday (and we live in central Florida, y’all, so this is a horrible tragedy and even though you’d think that I’d be all about the heat, being a minion of hell and all, you’d be WRONG, I’m a motherfuckin’ COLD demon, dammit, so don’t question me), I wanted to choose a silent film that would fulfill the requirements for the series but wouldn’t be too taxing on my overworked and overheated brain. Enter The Haunted Castle.
Released in 1896 (!!!), directed by the über-famous George Méliès, and considered the first horror film ever made (even though it’s more funny than scary), The Haunted Castle (French title Le Manoir du diable, ooh la la) was a massive influence on early horror films, particularly the German expressionist classics and the subsequent Universal films in the 1930’s. Even though audiences of the time had probably seen similar effects performed live on a stage, I’m thinking that seeing the same thing in a moving picture must have blown their minds in an OMG MAGIC TECHNOLOGY kinda way. The fact that the movie is only a little over three minutes long doesn’t lessen its importance or influence, and here I’d like to give a shout-out to the New Zealand Film Archive, which located a copy of this film in 1988 after it had been presumed lost for decades.
The film opens, obviously, on a static set of the cavernous halls of a haunted house. A huge bat comes sailing into the frame and flaps around a bit before poofing into a fabulous caped figure, who has a cool top hat kinda thing and some wicked Peter Pan shoes and a sweet Van Dyke beard. This is Hipster Mephistopheles, bitches. With a wave of his eeeevil hand, he materializes a big-ass cauldron at center stage. Then he produces a wand from somewhere in his dance belt, draws some Satanic-ass shit on the floor, and another poof reveals his sidekick, Imp Boy, who proceeds to stoke the flames under the cauldron, causing smoke to pour out the pot.
And from the smoke emerges: VOILA! A LADY! She has a flowy white outfit on like a Greek cauldron bitch, and she’s all TA DA, and then Mephy (that’s what I call him, we’re tight) magically edits her to the floor. Then he puts his hand on her shoulder and tells her some shit, and kinda pushes her into the closet so she doesn’t embarrass the guests he has coming over or something. Greek Cauldron Bitch has a tendency to get handsy when she drinks, that’s all I’m saying.
Then he goes to the imp and sorta pets him on the head like he’s a faithful bull terrier, and Mephy’s all DO THAT THING, so then an open book appears in the imp’s hands, and Mephy writes in it. “Dear Diary: Today I made a cauldron and my imp appear in a puff of smoke, and then materialized a Greek goddess out of the cauldron and shoved her ass in a broom closet. LOL. Productive day.”
Then the imp disappears again, because he’s an imp so he has to go chill in another dimension when his services aren’t required, and then Mephy prances a bit and HUZZAH makes the cauldron disappear again. Then he’s like listening for something, and seems to hear what he expected, because he puts his cape back on and disappears. And then, sure enough, two of the three musketeers come sashaying into the castle, pointing around the place and talking between themselves like they’re assessing the property for “Flip This House,” all OOOOH, GIRL, CHECK OUT THAT WAINSCOTING, OOPS, SORRY I BEANED YOU WITH MY BITCHIN’ BELL SLEEVES THERE and then the imp poofs back with a big forked stick and starts poking them in their fey asses. They’re both looking around like WTF but the imp keeps disappearing before the musketeers can see him, so presumably they’re each thinking that the other musketeer has butt-poking feelings for him that he has not revealed until this point. I ONLY LIKE YOU AS A FRIEND, PORTHOS, GOD.
The musketeers quibble and argue and shove each other, and I may be imagining some sexual tension here (BOW CHICKA WOW), until finally one of them is all FUCK THIS SHIT, I’M OUT and the other one’s like GO THEN, YOU ASS-POKING FREAK, THE HELL WITH YOU. And then the remaining musketeer is all OOH, LOOKIT THIS BENCH, IMMA TAKE THIS FANCY SHIT ON ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, and then it disappears because Mephy doesn’t want his furniture turning up on PBS for everyone to gawk at, for heaven’s sake. Musketeer is all K THEN, I’LL JUST PARK MY ASS ON THIS OTHER BENCH OVER HERE but then POOF that one disappears too! Mephy is all about spreading evil through minor inconvenience, you see, all de-apparating the chairs you were just about to sit on. Dick.
Musketeer is all exasperated, but then he turns around and the first bench is back, and he doesn’t even find this particularly strange, he’s just OH THERE YOU ARE, GET READY BENCH, YOU’RE FIXING TO GET GRACED BY ATHOS ASS, and before he sits he points at the bench like NOW DON’T YOU GO ANYWHERE, and it doesn’t go anywhere this time, but just as Athos settles his legging-clad shanks on the bench, a skeleton appears there and he scoots booty right into a bony pelvis. FACE!
And then, because Athos is clearly a paragon of rationality, he whips his sword out of its scabbard, all IMMA SLICE THAT SKULL LIKE BUTTA, but when he swings the sword, the skeleton turns into the giant bat and flaps at him while he puts his sword back into its sheath all like K, I’M DONE WITH THIS WEIRD ACTION, but then he reconsiders and grabs the bat, and POOF, it’s Mephy again! Athos is all SHIIIIIIIT and backs away, and then Mephy conjures up more smoke in which the imp makes a repeat appearance. And Athos seems like he’s scared, but also kinda like HUH, WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT.
Mephy points the imp to the floor, where he does a kinda tumble and disappears YET AGAIN, in a way that kinda makes it look like an accident. OH, THAT’S RIGHT, I FORGOT I CAN’T TUMBLE THAT WAY, THAT SENDS ME RIGHT TO THE OTHER DIMENSION. DAMN.
And then Athos, looking very put out, attempts to stomp like a manly man away from these devilish shenanigans, but ALAKAZAM! The way out is blocked by four white-clad babes! Instead of being all LLLLLADIES, Athos falls to his knees and begs them not to touch him with their ovary cooties, but they just push into him like an impenetrable wall of vampitude, and Athos JUST CAN’T EVEN and passes out. The ladies, their job done, disappear.
Mephy jumps over the prone Athos and then wafts his hands at the guy, and Athos acts all histrionic like he’s been blinded maybe, and then Mephy reaches into the closet and brings out Greek Cauldron Bitch. Athos is all WELL HELLO THERE and sorta bows to her and takes her hand, then gets down on one knee and kisses the hand, the whole schtick. But as soon as he kisses her hand, ABRACADABRA, she turns into…um…someone else? Another lady in a long white gown and maybe white angel wings, and she seems to be holding a staff. Athos is perturbed about this for some reason, and is all LET’S GO, ANGEL HO and he draws his sword again, but angel-woman raises her staff, and then a bunch more ladies appear beside her. Athos is all UH OH, but then apparently Porthos has recovered from his butthurt because he returns and starts helping his fellow musketeer fight the woman-wall. And I guess they’re supposed to be witches, because a bunch of them have brooms. The witches run around in a circle and then go out the door, but then troop back into the room through another entrance, like some kind of Wiccan conga line. Porthos has had enough and runs from the room and leaps over a railing with a hearty WHEEEEEE while Athos is back there all WTF MAN YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE HELPING ME, BROTHERS IN ARMS MY ASS.
The ladies kinda feint at Athos, and he just doesn’t know what to do, but then the witches kinda circle again and crouch down to the floor and disappear. I feel like Mephy is just messing with the musketeers at this point, and all because Athos and Porthos were considering renovating Mephy’s sweet infernal castle into a charming bed and breakfast. (Lake views, full buffet meals, and just a hint of Stygian atmosphere, all for very reasonable rates.)
Athos searches the ground where the witches disappeared as if to say WELL, I CAN’T FIGURE IT OUT, even though all he’s seen so far in this joint is magical appearances and disappearances of various non-human entities, so at this point you’d think he’d just be going with the flow. Finally he’s like WELL, I’M DONE and makes to leave, but of course Mephy is still there in the doorway and makes laser-finger gestures at Athos while Athos cowers and chews scenery. Then Athos pulls the old HEY, LOOK AT THAT DISTRACTING THING UP THERE and he climbs up on the bench and pulls down a big wooden cross that was conveniently hanging over a doorway. Now, not to judge, Mephy, but why on earth would you decorate your house with crosses when crosses are anathema to a diabolical being such as yourself? Maybe it isn’t Mephy’s castle after all. Maybe he’s just house-sitting for Cotton Mather or something.
Predictably, Athos wields the cross at poor Mephy, Mephy does the old OH WHAT A WORLD, WHO ARE YOU TO DESTROY MY BEAUTIFUL WICKEDNESS routine, and then the movie abruptly stops. Christianity wins, Mephy scampers back to Heck, and Athos buys the haunted castle for a song and razes the whole thing to the ground to build a Super WalMart. The end.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Scary Silents, and I hope you have a lovely Memorial Day weekend. Don’t forget to grill a nice rare steak for the Goddess, and keep it creepy, my friends.
One of the main underlying themes of a lot of these blog posts is an examination of why particular moments in horror film, literature or music made a lasting impression on me while others did not. Why, for example, was I terrified by the bubbling cauldron sound at the beginning of “The Monster Mash”? Or the schlocky scene in My Bloody Valentine where the homicidal miner pops out of the closet with the pickaxe? Or the part in Fright Night where Amy reveals her horribly wide terror-mouth? I still have no idea, but it’s been fun reliving all this stuff from my wayward youth and trying to find some kind of perspective on it, or contemplating the threads that might tie all these disparate things together.
The next scene I want to discuss is another one of those that, for whatever reason, has stuck with me for 35 years, even though I don’t remember much about the rest of the film. The scene itself was only a couple of minutes long, but I can still vividly remember the heart-stopping shudder that traveled through my body the first time I saw it, and further recall how I studiously covered my eyes during the scene on subsequent re-watches of the movie.
Before I get to the main feature, allow me another short commercial break. I still have a Patreon campaign going to fund my writing work, and there are lots of neat rewards just for pledging a few bucks a month, so check it out, won’t you? Thank you. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
John Badham’s version of the classic Dracula (1979), starring Frank Langella as the titular Count, came out around the same time as a few other vampire films, notably Werner Herzog’s elegant remake of Nosferatu. Badham’s adaptation wasn’t horribly reviewed, but apparently audiences were experiencing some vampire fatigue, and it only did so-so business at the box office. I was only seven when it was released in theaters, so I didn’t catch it until it ran on television a year or two later; in fact, I’m fairly sure it was the first of the major Dracula film adaptations I ever saw, even before the more-famous Bela Lugosi and Hammer versions.
Like the 1931 Bela Lugosi film, Badham’s Dracula was based on the stage play rather than the novel, and followed a lot of the tropes of the Universal version. For example, Dracula is portrayed as a seductive, romantic figure rather than a ratlike monster as in the book, and the entire first part of the novel (where Harker is kept prisoner in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle) is scuttled, allowing the movie to start with the Count’s arrival on English shores. Something the Badham film does that I thought was odd, though, is that it reverses the characters of Lucy and Mina; Mina is the first one attacked and vampified by Dracula, for example, while Lucy is Harker’s fiancée, and is attacked later but ultimately saved when the vampire is staked. The film also portrays Mina as the daughter of Van Helsing and Lucy as the daughter of Dr. Seward. These changes don’t ruin the story or anything, but they also don’t really add to it, so I’m not sure why they were made. Perhaps because some characters were eliminated for brevity (like poor old Quincey Morris, who hardly ever gets a part in these adaptations), the screenwriter thought it would increase the drama and emotional coherence of the characters to make them all related somehow, but I’m just speculating about that. Still doesn’t explain why Lucy and Mina were reversed, but whatever.
As I said, I don’t remember a great deal about the film as a whole; I remember enjoying it, and being quite taken with Langella’s graceful performance as the Count, but even though I saw the movie several times when I was about nine years old, very little of it made a lasting impression. Except for that one, very brief scene.
If my quick Google search is any indication, I’m not the only one that has had this scene burned into my memory for more than three decades. I’m not entirely sure why the scene is so memorable; it could be simply because in the context of the film, it is so shockingly unexpected. This version of Dracula, after all, was marketed more as a supernatural romance than a horror film, and played rather like a staid English parlor drama (with fangs). There was little to no gore that I remember, and nothing that was outright frightening. But then this happens:
The lovely Mina (Jan Francis) has been exsanguinated by the foxy Count one night while her friend Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is out tramping it up with Jonathan (Trevor Eve). It makes me feel weird to even type that, you guys. It’s like they were cheating or something, what with the character reversal and all. Though now that I think about it, how great would a Mina/Lucy catfight scene have been? Anyway. The next morning, Mina is pale and gasping for breath, and dies as a horrified (and guilty) Lucy looks on. Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance) has no idea what could have killed Mina, and summons Dad Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) to help solve the mystery.
No slouch, Van Helsing immediately jumps to the most obvious conclusion, that eine nosferatu is running loose in the vicinity. As an aside, though, this is Van Helsing we’re talking about. He probably blames a vampire every time one of his socks disappears from the washing machine. Sure, he was correct in this case, but even a stopped clock, yadda yadda.
Anyhoo, Seward and Van Helsing visit Mina’s new grave in the cemetery, and find that her coffin is not only empty, but contains a ragged hole where she presumably dug herself out. The hole leads underground into some old mining tunnels, and they crawl down there to investigate, pretty sure of what they’re going to find. As they peer into the darkness, visions of the beautiful Mina probably uppermost in their minds…
…they begin to hear a shuffling sound coming toward them. They raise their lamps or candles (I can’t exactly remember which, and can’t find the scene on YouTube to check), and there, emerging from the darkness, is this horror, reaching for them and begging for a kiss:
This shit scared me SO BAD, you guys. And in this sense maybe it was a sound storytelling idea to make Mina Van Helsing’s daughter, because the tragedy of the scene is very apparent here, and underscores the horror with great effectiveness. The figure of the undead Mina is terrifying but also heartbreakingly pitiful, and the viewer really feels it when Van Helsing has to put down the monster his daughter has become. The rest of the film isn’t nearly as powerful, but that one scene is a stunner.
Keep watching this space for more of my horror-related wanderings, and news on my upcoming poltergeist book! Until then, Goddess out.
Though Dracula and Lestat are far better known today, modern vampire literature owes a great deal to Polidori’s Lord Ruthven. The original article I wrote can be found here.
Born John William Polidori in September 1795, the creator of the earliest English vampire story actually trained as a physician, obtaining his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh at the age of nineteen. But his true wish was to be a writer, and with a view to realizing that dream, he took a post as personal physician to Lord Byron, a position that thrust him into the very center of the vanguard of literary romanticism. According to letters and diaries written by acquaintances, Polidori was apparently roundly disliked, but his lucky association with Byron would open up a wealth of opportunity and ensure his minor legacy.
Villa Deodati and the Haunted Summer
Like several other significant works of the period — most notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — Polidori’s vampire story had its genesis in the infamous “haunted summer” of 1816, when Lord Byron invited a handful of luminaries to spend time with him at his villa on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Polidori soon found himself in the company of the freethinking poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was also Byron’s lover. The unconventional writers evidently took some delight in teasing Polidori for his uptight nature and literary ambitions; Polidori was so stung by the mockery that he challenged Shelley to a duel, which never came to fruition.
In the by now well-known scenario, Lord Byron challenged his guests to each write an original ghost story. Mary Godwin’s, of course, was later published as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Shelley, Byron, and presumably Clairmont each wrote fragments of poems or stories, some of which were later fleshed out and published. Byron’s novel fragment, which he quickly lost interest in and abandoned, was picked up by Polidori, who used it as the basis of his own story, which he called “The Vampyre.” The vampiric character of Lord Ruthven, in fact, was very obviously based on Lord Byron himself.
The Vampyre Published…and Misattributed
Lord Byron had never felt that warmly toward Polidori — by his own admission, he found the doctor silly, pretentious, jealous and insecure, and once threatened to give him “a damned good thrashing.” Tensions between the two men came to a head shortly after the summer of 1816, and Byron dismissed Polidori from his post as physician.
The following spring, “The Vampyre” was published in the New Monthly Magazine, but without Polidori’s permission; worse, it was attributed to Lord Byron. Publisher Henry Coburn had evidently obtained the story through unknown channels and thought slapping Byron’s name on it would help sell more copies. Polidori protested and threatened to sue; Coburn paid him £30 and republished the story as “related by Lord Byron to Doctor Polidori,” but the damage had mostly been done, and Byron would be credited with writing “The Vampyre” for many years to come, even after he had published his original novel fragment, the one that Polidori had based his own story on.
The Vampyre Finds Fleeting Success
Perhaps due to rumors that Byron was its true author, or knowledge that the vampire in the story was based on him, “The Vampyre” was a rousing success, with five editions printed in 1819 alone. Critical opinions of the tale were a mixed bag; some derided it as “trashy,” while no less an authority than Goethe claimed it was the best thing Byron had ever written. Whatever its literary merits, though, the gothic tale of the vampiric and debauched Lord Ruthven traveling the continent with a young man named Aubrey in his evil thrall was unquestionably the very first English-language vampire tale, and hence the dark godfather to every fictional bloodsucker that followed — from Dracula to Lestat to Edward Cullen.
The Tragic End of John Polidori
Polidori continued his medical practice, using his literary notoriety as leverage to woo high-society patients. His ministrations were often fatal, however, and he later abandoned medicine to go into law. His writing impulse never left him; in 1819 he published a novel called Ernestus Berchtold which sold less than 200 copies, and two years later produced a Byronesque poem called The Fall of the Angels which likewise garnered scant attention. The thwarting of his ambitions led to a depressed gambling spree, and with debts spiraling out of control, Polidori committed suicide by taking prussic acid, a month shy of his 27th birthday.
Polidori has turned up as a character in several films and novels, many of which revolve around Byron, the Shelleys, and the summer of 1816. He is nearly always portrayed negatively, as a vain, talentless hanger-on with pretensions that outstripped his abilities. But his legacy lives on as the seed out of which all of modern vampire literature has sprouted.
Davenport-Hines, Richard (1998). Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. North Point Press. ISBN: 086547544.
Hoobler, Dorothy (2007). The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. Back Bay Books. ISBN: 0316066400.