Dark in August: three vampire films at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center
by Richard von Busack
There was a time when vampires didn’t suck: once they were frightening figures instead of big haired, emo-drunk metaphors for teen angst. “Dark in August,” this weekend at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, recalls the impact of the ancient myth in angles ranging from the solemn to the deliberately ridiculous.
When Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for The Hurt Locker, many felt that it was overdue recognition for her brilliant 1987 film Near Dark (Aug 26, 7:30). The first image—a mosquito having its bloody dinner—placed the vampire myth on solid rational ground. If anything, the remaining 94 minutes of horror and actionmake the myth more plausible.
In the prairie states, a boy and girl are on the lam in a Winnebago with black painted windows; they’re part of a group of undead hillbilly rejects (one of whom had worn a grey uniforms in the Civil War) harvesting humans as they cut a swath through honky tonks and gas stations. Bigelow’s film is another one in that small category of movies where, if you think you’ve seen it, you haven’t: you’d remember the drawn face of Lance Henriksen, as the group’s ancient sire, or the 1980s’ toughest screen woman Jenette Goldstein in the role of the seemingly merciless moll Diamondback. You’d recall Bigelow’s unique blend of macho action techniques and strong, economical character sketches.
Cirio H. Santiago’s 1978 Vampire Hookers—aka Ladies of the Night, aka Night of the Bloodsuckers aka Sensuous Vampires (Aug 27, 7:30) may well be getting its first revival in San Francisco since it played first run at the long-demolished Geneva Drive In. It’s set in the Philippines of the diabolical Marcoses (quite forgotten today, the squat Ferdinand, as well as his loathsome spouse Imelda, a sort of living Shoe Pavilion). It seems possible that director Cirio Santiago, a long-time exploitationer with a fragrant roster of titles, was getting a little national pride back; Vampire Hookers satirizes the obnoxious Yankee sailors who blew into Manila looking for beer and babes.
A pair of our gobs turn up in the Philippine capitol (“The Paris of the Orient!”) The more amusing of the two is Trey Wilson, later unpainted furniture magnate Nathan Arizona from the Coen Brothers movie. In port, the Navy men are bamboozled by she-males, beaten by bouncers, and submitted to the ordeal of the balut (a regional delicacy. Don’t ask.)
Tracking down a buddy, they end up in the domain of a wordy vamp in a planter’s suit (John Carradine) and his three heavily accented and probably Hungarian daughters: all living in a Styrofoam crypt and hungering for “some red-blooded Americans.”
There’s a very dull five minute long soft-core orgy (sans Carradine, thank God) in which the girls follow strict kung-fu rules, one attacker at a time. The cheesecake roster fulfilled, John “Man of 1000 Movies” Carradine is allowed to inject Hamlet’s soliloquy into the dialogue. “You’re out of your mind!” says one soon to be tapped victim, “And now, it’s time for you to shuffle off your mortal coil,” purrs the elderly actor.
Santiago deserves credit as a patron of the arts for allowing Carradine to extemporize various other tags from Shakespeare, particles of Leaves of Grass, Baudelaire’s “The Metamorphoses of the Vampire” (self-translated by C himself, I suspect) and Southey’s “March to Moscow.” Of Robert Southey, Carradine says “He was a pompous bastard…”.
Despite the “sailors fighting in a dance hall” that David Bowie once identified as an essential component of bad movies, Vampire Hookers has some irreplaceable stuff. Carradine’s repeated insistence that “Shakespeare was a vampire!” takes it into a different and weirder range, as does the antics of the film’s union-suited, flatulent, burlap-caped Igor named “Pavo” (Vic Diaz); see this movie and a week later, you’ll likely be bleating “Pavo want fangs!” to your fellow cineastes.
Vampyr (1932) (Aug 28, 7:30; Aug 29, 4:30) by Carl Th. Dreyer is another order of film. Based on a tale by the Irish contemporary of Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu (also the author of the primal lesbian-vamp story Carmilla) this slow but utterly bewitching film occupies a space in between sound and silent film, just as its images seem to take place inbetween day and night. Allen Gray (Julian West,”a lookalike for H. P. Lovecraft,” said my pal Mike Monahan) is a student of the occult drawn to a half-dead riverside village. There he encounters mysterious residents in thrall to an undead creature: a stately, aged man/woman in a starched ruff.
Only about a shotglass of blood is spilled and yet Vampyr survives as particular dream of dark and troubling images that reminds one, more than anyone, of David Lynch. Here, as in Lynch, is the alternation of the hypperreal and the unreal, and the out of nowhere horror sequence (a premature burial, seen POV from the coffin).
Here, as in Lynch, are significant glances in place of dialogue. Here is the triumph of the inexplicable, as in a grave undug by the living shadow of a gravedigger: a horror version of the masterless shadow in Peter Pan. And lastly, as in Lynch, there is here an emphasis on uncanny carnality: the frighteningly lewd grimace of a young girl (Sybelle Schmitz), alternating with her shame and disgust for a compulsive appetite for blood.
The movie is all moonlight, a silver gloaming captured by photographer Rudolph Mate. Yet it has its spine, and even a Logical Explanation of why vampires are staked: to “nail a horrid soul to the earth.”