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: Countess Dracula

Countess Dracula.jpgCountess Dracula

Countess Dracula is a Hammer Horror film based somewhat loosely on the story of Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian Countess who, in the early 1600’s was accused of torturing and killing between 80 and 650 young girls.  It was said, though not confirmed, that she bathed in the girls’ blood in the belief  that it would restore her youth and beauty.

Countess Dracula centres on the blood bath story, suggesting that not only was it true, but that it was also genuinely effective.  So effective, in fact, that the widowed Elizabeth has to masquerade as her daughter to explain her now youthful appearance.

The film opens with the funeral of the Count.  His death doesn’t bother Elizabeth that much, as she has been carrying on a secret affair with the castle’s steward, Captain Dobi.

From the very beginning, we see the contempt the nobility shows to its people.  As the Countess’ carriage rides to the castle, a poor man runs along it, asking for a job and is knocked down by Dobi in response.

This goes a long way to explaining the ease with which Elizabeth starts to kill.  She first discovers the curative powers of virgin blood as she violently reprimands a servant girl for filling her bath with overly hot water.  They are essentially property to her.  When the mother of the servant girl expresses concern for her missing daughter, she’s told not to worry because she still has five more (in other words, the servants are cattle).

The Count leaves his prized stables and horses to one of his war buddies, Imre Toth.  Toth is relatively young, and the Countess, in her rejuvenated body, lusts after him.  He feels likewise, and they begin a relationship.  However, the effects of the blood are short lived, and Elizabeth finds that she must keep killing to continue her relationship with Toth.

Dobi is bitter.  First because he didn’t get the stables (receiving only old weapons and armor, instead), and second because the woman he loves his now with another man.  To add insult to injury, Elizabeth orders Dobi to procure victims for her; victims whose blood is fueling her new relationship.  Being treated with little more respect than the girls he’s ordered to kill does not sit well with him.

Despite being a horror movie, the crimes of Elizabeth are greatly toned down from the ones she is actually accused of.  Of course, it was made it 1971, long before the rise of torture porn; also, Hammer was always more interested in atmosphere than they were with shock or gore.  Most of the violence is off screen, but Elizabeth is an sufficiently villainous monster to keep a horrific tone over the film.

Reivew: The Woods

The Woods.jpgThe Woods

Shortly after her arrival at the all-girl Falburn Academy, Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is given the un-affectionate nickname ‘fire crotch’ by the school’s resident bitch, Samantha, on account of her natural red hair.

It’s not quite what you’d expect from a story set in 1964.

It’s very hard to create effective witches in a horror film; magic spells are inherently ridiculous, so making them scary is quite the task.  Further, their representation usually falls into either the ugly old crone, or the sexy witch categories, cliches which make them even harder to take seriously.  What director Lucky McKee and writer David Ross have managed to do with The Woods is craft a form of witchcraft that seems almost natural.  The trick is that it’s indirect.  The witches don’t chant spells or mix potions themselves, but instead call on the forest surrounding the school to do their bidding.  It’s true that an evil, moving forest presents its own believability problems; but the way the witches are grounded in reality almost makes up for it.

Heather is sent to the mysterious private school after setting fire to the woods around her home.  This appears to be mostly at the behest of her mother, while her father (played by horror legend Bruce Campbell) is just acquiescing to his wife’s nagging.  Heather is immediately targeted by the school’s bully, which is odd, seeing as she’s a ‘bad girl’ herself, and you’d expect them to be natural allies.  Instead, Heather befriends the school’s other outcast, Marcy; and the two spend countless hours listening to Marcy’s radio together; in particular, the Leslie Gore song, ‘You Don’t Own Me.’  The song, about a woman telling off her controlling boyfriend, is representative of Heather’s personality and rebellious nature.

A number of girls start disappearing from the school, leaving only a pile of leaves in their place.  Heather is the only one who cares; as the school’s officials try to cover it up, and the other students are too afraid to challenge them.  There’s something very classic about the way this film presents its horror.  There is some graphic violence when needed; but for the most part, it relies on mood and atmosphere.  A pile of leaves isn’t something you’d expect to be scary, but it works so well in creating a tone that it ends up being far creepier than a pool of blood would have been.

The main drawback to The Woods is the ending act, in which all the things that were suggested or hinted at suddenly become too literal.  It’s like the director was fighting the whole way against making a traditional horror film, but then couldn’t think of a good ending and fell back into the old cliches.  It’s not a horrible ending in its own right; but it’s not as good as the build up.

That said, the film as a whole more than makes up for the shortcomings with its ending.  The Woods is a beautifully shot film with a genuinely creepy feel that has rarely been seen in a horror movie for the last 50 years.

Review: The Monster Squad

Monster Squad.jpgThe Monster Squad

In much the same way the protagonists of The Monster Squad are obsessed with monster movies, I, as a child, was obsessed with The Monster Squad.  I rented it every single time I went to the video store, and had all the best moments and lines memorized.  It wasn’t the monsters that excited me, it was the fantasy of fighting them.  Watching Horace blow a hole in the Gill Man made me think, ‘I want to do that.’

The titular ‘monster squad’ existed before the arrival of the monsters.  It’s a loosely knit club for classic monster movie aficionados, who spend their time drawing monsters and debating whether or not Wolf Man has nards.

Sean is their leader, he’s the brash son of a cop whose parents fight a lot.  He pushes the squad into fighting the monsters, perhaps because it is a simple problem of good vs. evil that gives him a sense of control and order that he is lacking in his home life.  His sister Phoebe is the ‘innocent,’ who befriends Frankenstein monster’s.

Rudy is supposed to be the ‘cool kid.’  He wears a leather jacket and intimidates the bullies in town, and yet he spends an inordinate amount of time hanging out with younger kids.  Patrick is Sean’s friend; he’s pretty much just the straight-man who’s there to tell everyone how dumb they’re being.  Lastly is Horace, the Fat Kid who has been bullied all his life, and is now forced to stand up to something.

The monsters are about as two dimensional as can be.  They just kind of show up one day, and Dracula’s only motivation is evil for evil’s sake.  There’s a few cliched elements tacked on, like the idea that Frankenstein’s monster is really just misunderstood, and the Wolf Man desperately wants to be freed of the curse so that he can stop killing, both of which were taken from the 1940s Universal monster movies about those characters.

The plot is likewise simple.  There’s a magic crystal that can either banish the monsters for ever or ensure their rule, and it’s only active once every hundred years.  And wouldn’t you know it, it just so happens that tomorrow night is the big night.

There isn’t much depth to The Monster Squad, but there are many wonderful and memorable moments.  This movie, much like The Goonies, is pure fantasy fulfillment for children.