Review: Count Yorga, Vampire

Screen Shot 2019-01-27 at 5.39.52 PM.pngCount Yorga, Vampire / The Return of Count Yorga

Count Yorga and its sequel were an American attempt to ape the Hammer Horror aesthetic.  On the surface, they more-or-less succeed in that goal; but dig deeper and you’ll find none of the style or depth that made their British counterparts legendary.

When I say the Yorga films look like those from Hammer; I don’t mean the great Hammer films, but the later ones that take place in the ’70s, like The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  Hammer, of course, was at its best when it was doing period pieces.  The studio mastered the art of Gothic horror, and typically stumbled when it reached into the future; because characters like Dracula and Frankenstein are Gothic in origin, and that’s where they fit best.

But I’m supposed to be talking about Yorga, or Iorga, as the title card reads.  Yorga is Dracula.  I don’t know why they didn’t just call him that.  Maybe there was a competing film at the time, or maybe they just wanted something they could trademark; either way, there’s nothing unique to set Yorga apart from the other count.  Actually, there’s nothing defining about Yorga at all.  He doesn’t seem to have any larger goals beyond sucking off a few women.  He’s boring, with a stilted speech pattern and no visible emotion.  He mentions that he’s from Bulgaria, but we don’t see his homeland, nor are we told how or why he came to America.

Most of the story in the first Yorga movie is lifted directly from Dracula.  Yorga is a mysterious foreigner who installs himself in society and targets its ladies one by one.  One of the women is slowly drained over the course of the movie (just like Lucy Westenra), complete with in-home blood transfusion and a doctor who hazards the word ‘vampire’ and is scoffed at.

The second movie is a little better.  According to the film trivia, this one was supposed to have a lot of nudity, but the star, Robert Quarry said no.  It’s still the same set-up.  Yorga arrives at an orphanage, and installs himself in its society (the staff and clergy).  But then, Yorga creates a small army of vampire ladies and one brainwashed boy to do his bidding (whatever that is; he still doesn’t have a purpose in life).  The extra help leaves Yorga time to sit around watching TV (no, really).  Ironically, what he watches is The Vampire Lovers, a Hammer Horror film which is far better than Yorga’s outings.  It seems gives the film a meta-fictional element; where neither the star, nor the audience is particularly interested in what’s going on in the film.

The Count Yorga films capture the superficial elements of Hammer Horror; but leave behind everything that makes them great.  Yorga himself is a painfully dull character.  He does virtually nothing, and yet Quarry still finds a way to over-act the part.  The plots are equally shallow, with no real direction or reason.

Review: Slumber Party Massacre

826663148244.pngThe Slumber Party Massacre

The Slumber Party Massacre had an odd conception.  It was written by a feminist author to be a parody of slasher films, but was then produced by Roger Corman, the king of sleazy exploitation, who turned the film into the very thing it was mocking.

Parodies draw a lot from their targets, but when you take the parody element away, all you’re left with is a derivative collection of cliches.  Indeed, SPM takes a lot from other slasher films, most notably Halloween.  It starts with an escaped mental patient stalking our hero during the day, a party after school with our hero stuck babysitting a few houses down, and the one-by-one gruesome killings ending with the scream-filled flight for survival.

One of the elements to survive from the feminist script was the killers weapon: a large, phallic drill.  While dubious as a weapon, the drill does illustrate the dynamic existing between victim and prey, at least in the eyes of the killer.  It’s his symbol of superiority that he waves around at waist-level.  The drill is also used to great effect in the final battle, as the would-be victim takes control.

One of the big changes from the original script is the addition of nudity.  In one of the extras on the disc, the director (also a woman) talks about being ordered by Roger Corman to include some nude scenes, so she filmed them as clinically and blatantly as possible, to illustrate just how exploitative and pointless they were.  The best example of this is a shower scene, where the camera starts on a girls head, then pans down her body and back up again while she’s talking, for no reason what-so-ever other than to show her naked.  Ironically, or perhaps by intention, it ends up seeming a lot sleazier than it would have if she had filmed it straight.

The making-of documentary on the disc was directed by an obsessed fan of the film.  It starts with a home-movie of the director as a child of 13 or so getting the movie on VHS for Christmas and going crazy with excitement.  I wonder if his parents knew they were getting him softcore porn?

The kills aren’t too graphic.  He mostly slashes people with his drill, which I don’t quite understand, and then a splash of fake blood.  There are a lot of corpses with some pretty unconvincing drill holes in them, as well.

As a generic ’80s slasher movie, Slumber Party Massacre hits all the beats you would want it to, though it doesn’t particularly excel at any of them.  The faint echos of the film’s feminist roots give it a slightly different viewing angle; if not outright parody, it’s at least a little more self-aware than most.

The new Blu-ray looks great.  The video is sharp, with vivid colours.  The making-of documentary was carried over from the original release, so the only thing missing is the ho-hum sequels.

Photographing the Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku, Japan

The Robot Restaurant, located in Tokyo’s red light district and nestled between numerous massage and pachinko parlours has become one of the top tourist destinations for foreigners visiting the city.  If you’ve looked up ‘Things to Do in Tokyo,’ you’ve no doubt seen the pictures; likely because the restaurant encourages photography (but prohibits video).

After buying a ticket across the street, you head into the restaurant’s ridiculously ornate bar to watch the warm-up acts.

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You are then led down to a sub-sub-sub basement where the stage is located.

The show consists of a series of skits and dance numbers in which the cast wears colourful costumes that draw a lot of inspiration from Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.  Apparently, Robot Restaurant began with more sexy / burlesque type numbers, but it has cleaned up its act in recent years for the tourist market.

The skits are broken up by short intermissions where they draw for prizes based on seat number as well as sell drinks and souvenirs.

Robot Restaurant-35

For my visit to the Robot Restaurant, I brought my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the 25mm f/1.2 Pro lens. Since the lighting quality is spotty and there’s a lot of fast movement, I opted for Shutter Priority Mode and set it to 1/250 s.

Shutter Priority (the S on the mode dial) lets you choose the shutter speed you want, and then has the camera adjust the aperture and ISO to get the best results.

Shutter speed is the amount of time that the shutter stays open to allow light into the image sensor. If the shutter speed is too slow, the subject might move while the shutter is still open, which will cause motion blur.

The downside of a fast shutter speed is that it lets less light in, which can make the picture darker.  To compensate for this, the camera will adjust the Aperture (the size of the opening that light travels through), and the ISO (the image sensor’s sensitivity to light).

The camera kept the lens at its maximum aperture, f/1.2, and set the ISO to 1600.

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The E-M1 Mark II performs well, even at that ISO setting.  The pictures turned out sharp, and it did a good job of preserving the many and varied colours.

The biggest problem I ran into was that the room was relatively small, and the seats were close to the stage.  Having a wider angle lens would have helped to capture more of the scene,  though the lower maximum aperture in Olympus’s wide angle lenses would have created other problems.

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It’s a cool show, and well worth seeing.  We didn’t try the food (and didn’t hear anything good about it) but there are plenty of great restaurants in the area. (And despite by talk about this being the red light district, it’s actually a safe area; as long as you ignore the people trying to call you into a back alley bar.  (Pro tip : Legitimate establishments don’t need people to drag in customers).

Review: Trick ‘R Treat

trick r treat.pngTrick ‘r Treat

Halloween is a night of traditions whose meanings have been largely lost to time.  As Rhonda says in Trick ‘r Treat, “Samhain, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, also known as Halloween. Pre-dating Christianity, the Celtic holiday was celebrated on the one night between autumn and winter when the barrier between the living and the dead was thinnest, and often involved rituals that included human sacrifice.”

Trick ‘r Treat consists of five inter-connected short stories that combine the ancient traditions of Halloween with the more modern ones.

The first story involves a couple, Emma and Henry, returning home from a party.  Emma blows out the candle in their jack ‘o lantern, despite Henry’s cautions that it violates tradition.  This is the shortest of the five stories, and thus isn’t developed that far.  But it does set the tone, and the conflict between the old traditions and the modern world.

The next story is about Principal Wilkins.  He’s a play on the old urban legend of the man who puts poison or razor blades into candies and hands them out to children.  This segment does a great job of taking a common Halloween story and elevating it into effective horror.  It also has some comedic elements involving his pestering son and nosy neighbor.

The third story involves a group of kids and a ghost story, kind of like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but with a lot more murder.  Four kids, led by a girl named Macy, take the local weird girl, Rhonda, down to an old rock quarry with the intention to terrify her.  The quarry was the site of a school bus crash that killed eight ‘disturbed’ children on Halloween many years ago.

Story four stars Anna Paquin as a 22 year old virgin, Laurie, whose friends (all dressed in sexy Halloween costumes) are pressuring her to pick up a guy for their party that night.  I can’t say much more about this one without spoiling it, except to say that it heavily involves one of the other stories in the movie, and that its a play on defied expectations.

The last story is about old Mr. Kreeg.  It a bit like a Halloween version of A Christmas Carol.  Kreeg is mean, he runs children off his property and steals their candy.  He’s soon visited by Sam, the small person with a burlap sack over his head who has been seen throughout the movie observing the other stories, who takes retribution on the old man for violating the traditions of the holiday.

All the stories are simple, a quick set up then the twist.  They also tend to have an element of justice to them; bad things happen to bad people.  In that way, Trick ‘r Treat is very reminiscent of the classic horror comic anthologies like Tales from the Crypt or Vampirella.  Indeed, the opening an closing credits are presented over comic art, so the connection was likely intentional.

Trick ‘r Treat does not just rely on old monster stories.  It uses the new traditions of Halloween: trick or treating, ghost stories, and slutty costumes, to weave something new, and yet still intrinsically tied to the base elements of the holiday.

Review: Halloween (1978)

Halloween Blu-ray.jpgHalloween

One of the things that sets Halloween apart from many of its horror compatriots is that its antagonist, Michael Myers, is simply a man.

A man that can take six bullets and walk away, yes; but a man never-the-less.

There’s a scene leading into the climax that I think really illustrates this point.  A lot of horror relies on shock moments.  The protagonist is creeping along some empty house, she knows the killer is somewhere near by, and then, boo! The killer jumps out and scares her and the audience.  Halloween has a few of those moments, to be sure, but the more effective ones are those that show the killer as a person.  The scene I referred to was when Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) runs back to the house she is babysitting in, and then looks back to see Michael Myers following her on foot.

The fact that she can see him coming, but can do nothing to stop him, makes him a far more imposing and threatening figure than he would have been if he had just disappeared from sight and popped up beside her on the porch.  Because Michael isn’t a mythical monster, he’s a man that could show up anywhere.

Even his back story plays into this concept.  He wasn’t possessed by a demon or exposed to toxic waste; he wasn’t even abused as a child (don’t believe the Rob Zombie remake).  Michael was just a kid that came out wrong.  He’s dead inside; as personified by the blank expression on the Captain Kirk mask he wears throughout the film.  There’s no reason for his evil, and that makes him unpredictable.

The violence is non-graphic, just a lot of stabbing towards a body and bloodied clothing left in the aftermath.  Halloween puts the emphasis on the anticipation of violence, rather than the act itself.  The villain is genuinely threatening, so the horror works on an emotional level, and not the visceral one which gorier movies rely on.

Halloween re-invented the slasher film for the modern age; consequently, you can look back and see that most of what it did has become cliche; however, few if any films have managed to find the perfect balance in the formula that this one did.