Vintage Movie Monday: Vampire Circus (1972)

These days, I mostly talk movies on The Film League podcast.  But some slip through the cracks or don’t get the time they deserve.  That’s the case with this gem of a Hammer film from 1972. It was directed by Robert Young, who is perhaps best known for directing the first series of Jeeves and Wooster, based on the P.G. Wodehouse novels and starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

But Vampire Circus is about as far from a comedy of manners as you can get. Instead, it revels in its Hammer horror style, packed full of lush but probably inaccurate set decorations, nudity, and lots of fake blood.

Set in a 19th century Austrian village named Shtetl (that’s Yiddish for town, or maybe it’s “Städtle,” German for “little town”), the film concerns the retribution taken on the villagers by a traveling circus of vampiric predators.  They’ve come in the middle of a plague quarantine, promising to entertain the residents with their carnival acts.  But the carnival turns into a rather more literal “farewell to the flesh” when the vampires begin preying on town children, using the blood to awaken the vampiric Count defeated by the townspeople 15 years earlier.

The circus proves too tempting a distraction for the quarantined town, who flock to see the show night after night.  They are astonished, but perhaps less surprised than they should be, at the strange and magical performances.  Caged animals transform into human dancers and acrobats, and a funhouse mirror becomes a deadly portal.

Soon the whole town is embroiled in the twin dramas of the mysterious murders and the suspicious performers.  The ensemble cast of this film is truly a joy to watch—despite minimal screen time for most of the actors, they convey rich and lived-in experiences.  Multiple small storylines play out amongst them, even as the carnage swells and takes over.

The town is saved, in the end, by a pure and devout teenaged couple who wield crosses against the unholy evil.  Dora defeats their dopplegangers, twin vampires who feel each other’s injuries, while Anton kills the revived Count.

Vampire Circus is streaming on Netflix right now, and I highly recommend it.  The movie is probably my new favorite Hammer film, as it successfully elevates the form above its too-campy elements and manages to elicit powerful sympathy for the large cast of characters.

Depravity in the Quaker City: George Lippard’s Monks of Monk Hall

George Lippard’s The Quaker City; Of The Monks of Monk-Hall is a strange and lurid entry into the subgenre of Philadelphia Gothic.  It is, in part, an homage to Matthew Gregory Lewis’s 1796 Gothic novel The Monk: A Romance.  Lippard does his damnedest to out-shock readers of it and other controversial, graphic, and even offensive novels of the time.

Its sprawling, sensationalistic plot hinges on the evil denizens of a secret club, The Monks of Monk Hall, who gather every night in a decrepit-looking mansion in Southwark. But inside the walls of this house lurk all the horrors of the modern age: vice and crime, rape and murder, perpetrated on a nightly basis. Within Monk Hall is a tower with three levels below its ground floor, including a crypt formerly used by a real monastic community that occupied the house in the 18th century, and, deepest of all, a dark pit, into which bodies fall through trap doors, never to be seen again. Lippard takes all of the conventions of the gothic novel — a decaying castle/mansion chock full of secret, labyrinthine passages, trap doors and underground pits for prisoners, cackling torturers, sorcerers, innocent damsels about to be ravished, evil “monks”— but doesn’t give them the usual medieval setting of a gothic novel. Instead, he drops them right down in the midst of an urban Philadelphia in 1842. — Edward Pettit for Citypaper

The novel, published in 1845, is based a murder trial and considered the first muckraking novel:

The Quaker City is partly based on the March 1843 New Jersey trial of Singleton Mercer. Mercer was accused of the murder of Mahlon Hutchinson Heberton aboard the Philadelphia-Camden ferry vessel Dido on February 10, 1843. Heberton had seduced (or raped – sources differ upon this point), Mercer’s sixteen-year old sister. Mercer entered a plea of insanity and was found not guilty. The trial took place only two months after Edgar Allan Poe‘s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story based on other murder trials employing the insanity defense; Mercer’s defense attorney openly acknowledged the “object of ridicule” which an insanity defense had become. Nonetheless, a verdict of not-guilty was rendered after less than an hour of jury deliberation, and the family and the lawyer of young Mercer were greeted by a cheering crowd while disembarking from the same Philadelphia-Camden ferry line on which the killing took place. — Wikipedia

Lippard knew his lineage well; he dedicated the novel to the memory of Charles Brockden Brown, the author who arguably originated Philadelphia Gothic.  But Lippard’s depraved monks outpace anything Brown’s wandering young protagonists ever dreamed of.

Archive.org has a fascinating version of The Quaker City, with illustrations and extensive marginalia, available to read for free online.  There are also partial annotations available, with lots of interesting Philly details.

Lippard also wrote Paul Ardenheim, the Monk of Wissahickon, which injects his luridly Gothic style into a local legend about a brotherhood of cave-dwelling monks in the woods outside Philly.

The City as Labyrinth: Brown’s Arthur Mervyn

If we’re talking Philadelphia Gothic, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Charles Brockden Brown’s other 1799 novel, Arthur Mervyn.  While Edgar Huntly skirts the city boundaries, this one plunges you right into the nightmare of its urban setting.  Philadelphia becomes a labyrinth of terror as an outbreak of yellow fever spreads among the inhabitants.

Brown knows the city well, as he lived on Second Street, about a mile from Broad Street and what was then the edge of the city.  The yellow fever plague is itself based on fact; an outbreak swept the city in 1793.

Using the PhilaGeoHistory map overlay, it’s possible to get an idea of the city’s layout, and actually trace Arthur’s walk from the bridge over the Schuylkill to Front Street.  It’s actually quite a hike.

I was almost unmindful of my way, when I found I had passed Schuylkill at the upper bridge. I was now within the precincts of the city, and night was hastening. It behooved me to come to a speedy decision.

Suddenly I recollected that I had not paid the customary toll at the bridge; neither had I money wherewith to pay it. A demand of payment would have suddenly arrested my progress; and so slight an incident would have precluded that wonderful destiny to which I was reserved. The obstacle that would have hindered my advance now prevented my return. Scrupulous honesty did not require me to turn back and awaken the vigilance of the toll-gatherer. I had nothing to pay, and by returning I should only double my debt. “Let it stand,” said I, “where it does. All that honour enjoins is to pay when I am able.”

I adhered to the crossways, till I reached Market Street. Night had fallen, and a triple row of lamps presented a spectacle enchanting and new. My personal cares were, for a time, lost in the tumultuous sensations with which I was now engrossed. I had never visited the city at this hour. When my last visit was paid, I was a mere child. The novelty which environed every object was, therefore, nearly absolute. I proceeded with more cautious steps, but was still absorbed in attention to passing objects. I reached the market-house, and, entering it, indulged myself in new delight and new wonder.

I need not remark that our ideas of magnificence and splendour are merely comparative; yet you may be prompted to smile when I tell you that, in walking through this avenue, I, for a moment, conceived myself transported to the hall “pendent with many a row of starry lamps and blazing crescents fed by naphtha and asphaltos.” That this transition from my homely and quiet retreat had been effected in so few hours wore the aspect of miracle or magic.

I proceeded from one of these buildings to another, till I reached their termination in Front Street. Here my progress was checked, and I sought repose to my weary limbs by seating myself on a stall.

— Charles Brockden Brown, Arthur Mervyn

If you just can’t get enough of this particular brand of Philly Gothic, Brown’s other works are worth reading as well.  Ormond uses the same 1793 yellow fever plague as a starting point, while Wieland is set on a farm on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Vintage Movie Monday: The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited is a solid entry into the haunted house film subgenre.  It’s less scary than spooky, but the moody atmosphere and psychological mystery at its center make it a great Halloween watch.  I caught it on TCM this weekend, and I’m glad I did.  It reminded me of Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca, for several reasons, but I would actually say that this film is more gorgeously shot.

Though it’s an American film, the plot revolves around a brother and sister who move from London to the English seaside when they fall in love with a big old house.  Stella, the granddaughter of the house’s owner, initially tries to keep them from buying it, but they move in and befriend her.  Strange things start happening at the house, and Stella gets caught in the center of a battle between supernatural forces and her family and new friends.

According to Wikipedia,

The Uninvited was among the very first Hollywood feature films to portray a haunting as an authentic supernatural event. Previously, ghosts were often played for comedy (The Ghost Goes West, 1936; Topper, 1937) or revealed to be practical jokes (Blondie Has Servant Trouble, 1940) or subterfuge to obscure an illegal activity (The Cat and the Canary, 1939; Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost, 1941).

The old house, filled with disembodied crying sounds, phantom perfume, and a wealth of untold family secrets, makes this one of the more truly Gothic films to come out of Hollywood.  It has a great deal in common with British Gothic novels like Wuthering Heights, perhaps because the film is based on Dorothy Macardle’s 1942 book, Uneasy Freehold.

The film was quite popular, and was nominated for ab Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography.  Its score also spawned a hit jazz song, “Stella by Starlight.”

Hocus Pocus was really formative for me

Halloween is among my favorite holidays, and not because I love to dress up.  I have a deep and abiding passion for the monstrous, the creepy, and the outright terrifying.  Nothing makes me happier than to spend October curled up with the scariest books and movies I can find.

Previous years’ favorites have included Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” this true life account of a night in a haunted house from Southern Literary Messenger, “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” and “The Wrong Grave” by Kelly Link, John Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, silly/sublime tv show The Vampire Diaries, Neil Gaiman’s “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire” and The Graveyard Book, and Guillermo del Toro’s tremendous film El Espinazo del Diablo, just to choose a few.

It’s been rough trying to squeeze in a month’s worth of horror between classes and work, but I’ve still managed to dip into a few things.  So what am I loving this year?

The Wolfman, which is an enjoyable remake of the 1941 original that deposits all of our contemporary quirks and weirdnesses on the Victorian setting. I liked it primarily because I always like stories in which the supernatural gets all up in your science and rationality and sends it straight to hell.

Edith Wharton’s After Holbein.  Okay, I’m not done reading this yet, but Wharton is big around Skinny House these days, so we’re including it.

The Halloween episode of Community, quite possibly my new favorite episode of the show. Star Trek + zombies = forever win.

(And I will tell you what I did not love: Jennifer’s Body.  I was ready for the feminist horror to film to end all horror films, a complete revolution in the genre, and the positing of ultimate female power, finally, at last.  Instead I got a lurid display of female jealousy and the same old chicks-are-totally-crazy bullshit.  Serious disappointment, to say the least.)

And now that we’ve carved pumpkins and gotten a taste of serious autumn chill, we’re ready for trick-or-treaters and then the rapid descent into winter depression.

But first!  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention All Hallows Read, a new tradition in the making, in which we all give each other spooky books on or around October 31.  I gave my mom The Graveyard Book this year, but as it’s my signed first edition, I’ll be asking for it back.  Still, I think this could be much fun in the years to come.  (Don’t know if you could tell, but I can never get enough of sharing scary books.)

Happy Halloween, y’all!