The concept of vampires or vampire-like beings — undead who return from the grave and exist by stealing the “life essence” (flesh or blood) of the living — has existed in the folklore of virtually all cultures for centuries. In earliest times, these blood-stealing beings were considered spirits or demons, but they have always been some of the most terrifying paranormal creatures to stalk mankind.
The vampire most familiar to many of us originated in southeastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and counted among its reviled membership suicides, revenants, people accused of practicing witchcraft, people suspected of being possessed, or anyone who might have rebelled against Christian doctrine or Church teachings. During the Age of Enlightenment, “belief in vampires increased dramatically,” and many rituals were developed to both identify and protect humans from these undead creatures, including hanging wreaths of garlic on doors or windows, blessing people, rooms, and houses with holy water, and staking or decapitating corpses to prevent the bodies from returning.
800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with iron rod, via Wikipedia
Not only did these undead creatures harm and kill the living in order to maintain their own existence, they often appeared in their human form, albeit slightly changed in complexion and dental work, and lured their own loved ones to the grave. In the 18th century, vampire superstition in Europe sometimes reached mass hysteria, causing corpses to be staked or beheaded to ensure that they couldn’t rise from the dead to seek out more victims.
Originally, vampires were dark, gruesome beings: unattractive and undeniably otherworldly. In the early 19th century, with fiction, vampires changed, becoming less gruesome and more… shall we say, attractive.
The charismatic and sophisticated vampire of modern fiction was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori; the story was highly successful and arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel and provided the basis of the modern vampire legend. The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century, with books, films, and television shows. The vampire has since become a dominant figure in the horror genre.
Though vampires have long been a feature of the horror genre, there’s a strange trend in contemporary vampire fiction, and the dramas based on them, including Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series. Vampires, despite needing the blood of living humans or other animals to survive, have been romanticized to the point of being almost totally non-violent. Some of the vampires in these contemporary novels are even more humane and virtuous than most human beings, which may be the point since the novels in which these vampires appear are romances and love stories. It’s a sweet interpretation of vampires: if they love you, they won’t harm you.
The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897
But part of the terror of really great vampire stories is that the vampires can harm or even kill you, despite their caring about you. Maybe I’m prejudiced because my earliest introduction to vampires was the dreaded Count of Stoker’s classic Dracula, and horror films where vampires, be they Dracula or not, were dangerous and monstrous creatures that would kill you even if they liked you. I agree with film critic Roger Ebert when he points out that vampire stories, whether books or films, are inherently “tragic” and “brutal.”
It’s not all fun, games, and Team Edward. No lifestyle depending on fresh human blood can be anything but desperate. A vampire, like a drug addict, is driven by need. After a certain point, all else is irrelevant, and the focus is on the craving.
The horror film Let Me In (2010), a remake of the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, returns the vampire story to horror in its most horrifying manifestations. Though some critics describe this film as “romantic,” it is more a coming-of-age story than a romance, and it is a brutal coming-of-age tale. Despite the fact that several of the characters in the story love each other, most devotedly, Let Me In is a tale of isolation, alienation, brutality, helplessness, and the desperate will to survive by any means possible. These themes set this vampire film far above its contemporaries. It isn’t pretty or romantic to be a vampire or associated with a vampire in Let Me In. Instead, it’s downright lonely and scary.
In a fictional version of Los Alamos, a small village in New Mexico, a string of grisly murders causes the community to lock its doors and become uncommonly wary. Twelve-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely social outcast, neglected by his divorcing parents and bullied by his classmates.
Owen becomes friendly with his new neighbor Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), who lives in the adjoining apartment with a man that Owen assumes is her father (Richard Jenkins), and who seems to have some unnatural, even pedophiliac feelings for Abby.
Owen and Abby communicate by tapping Morse code on the walls at night, and they become extremely close to each other, if only because each is a loner: each is isolated from everyone else at school, and each seems to have a distant relationship with the parent figure in their lives. Though Owen and Abby like each other, Abby’s father-guardian doesn’t want her to spend any time with Owen.
As the bullying against Owen increases and gets more physically violent, he confides in Abby, rather than in his own mother. Abby encourages Owen to stand up for himself, to retaliate against the bullies, and, most important, vows to protect him.
When Owen becomes violent, in self-defense, to the boys who are bullying him, the story of the local murders and of his own coming-of-age combine: the detective (Elias Koteas) investigating the murders has begun investigating Abby.
After Owen sees Abby do something violent, and she asks for his help, he is forced to re-evaluate his own morality. Owen has formed a profound and protective bond with Abby, but he must now consider the possibility that she may be responsible for the gruesome killings that are terrorizing his small community.
“[Very] close to the much-loved, critically acclaimed” Swedish original Let the Right One In, and equally critically acclaimed itself, Let Me In is a coming-of-age story about isolation and loneliness, about alienation and a need to connect, about brutality and the primitive need to exist. It’s a coming-of-age story with a paranormal twist. Featuring great performances by the child-actors, and a completely unexpected ending, Let Me In is available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon,YouTube,iTunes,GooglePlay, and Vudu.
Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was filmed in black & white, by a television crew, on a small budget, because Paramount had already rejected the project, claiming its subject matter was “too repulsive… and impossible” for film. Hitchcock, who had already optioned the novel, then financed the film himself. According to film critic Roger Ebert,Psycho (1960) “remains the most effective slashing in movie history, suggesting that … artistry [is] more important than graphic details.” Because Hitchcock was answerable to no one but himself, he succeeded in creating one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made. At the same time, he created an art film classic.
The story begins as if it were a crime mystery. Marion (Janet Leigh) is having an affair with Sam (John Gavin), and she is distressed that they cannot marry because of his debts. Later that afternoon, when she returns to work, Marion is asked to take a substantial cash deposit of $40K to the bank. Instead, Marion absconds with the money, hoping to use it so she and Sam run away together.
That night, in a thunderstorm, Marion stays at an isolated and mostly unoccupied motel, managed by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Though handsome, Norman is gawky, and he has an odd hobby: taxidermy. The room where he serves Marion dinner is filled with dead and stuffed birds of prey.
From the spooky house overlooking the motel, Norman’s mentally ill mother can be heard berating him, and this elicits Marion’s sympathy for him. It also makes her re-evaluate her own crime, which would hurt not only her employer but his client as well. Marion takes a shower, symbolically cleansing herself of her evil intentions since she has apparently decided to return the stolen cash, when…
You may or may not know about the most famous shower scene in all of cinematic history, but the rest of the story becomes an intense murder mystery as the audience’s sympathy is shifted from impulsive criminal Marion to horrified son Norman as he desperately attempts to protect his dangerous mother.
In a move that, even now, is considered outrageously audacious, Hitchcock directs the film’s viewing audience as much as he did its actors: about a third of the way into the film, he takes all the viewers’ attention away from the ostensible protagonist — played by the film’s star power, Janet Leigh — and focuses the story on the newly introduced Norman. “I was directing the viewers,” [Hitchcock] told [fellow director] Truffaut in their book-length interview. “You might say I was playing them, like an organ.”
As Norman is feverishly working to protect his violent mother from discovery, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) is desperately worried about Marion, who has disappeared. While asking Marion’s lover Sam about her whereabouts, the pair is approached by a detective (Martin Balsam), who has been hired to retrieve the stolen money. Sam and Lila encourage the detective to search for Marion, confident that some mistake has been made concerning the missing funds, which they assume Marion will be able to explain.
Even if that means they must break into the spooky old house where Norman’s mother is obviously keeping watch over everything that happens down at the motel.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh, and Best Director for Hitchcock, Psycho is considered one of Hitchcock’s best films. Marred only by the final scene with the psychiatrist — which appears before the classic finale with Norman and his mother — Psycho is a classic thriller, with enough realistic spookiness to keep you up at night.
Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this film, which some say was inspired by Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, isn’t really like the book. In The Turn of the Screw, a governess at an isolated estate with two young children in her care claims that she sees ghosts. Further, the governess becomes convinced that the children already know about the ghosts even if they never admit to actually seeing them. Because the governess is completely psychologically unreliable, and because viewers’ perspective is limited to that of the emotionally vulnerable woman, we never know if there are actually any ghosts roaming about the old mansion or whether the governess is losing her mind.
The Innocents (C)
Some film buffs prefer the 1956 Deborah Kerr version of The Innocents to Alejandro Amenábar film The Others because they say the former is closer to James’ book, and The Innocents is a fantastic suspense film. But for a suspense film that I want to watch over and over, give me Nicole Kidman and the stunning child actors in The Others (2001), written and directed by Amenábar, which is a combination ghost story and psychological suspense thriller. Like the governess in Turn of the Screw and The Innocents, Kidman’s character is alone in an isolated mansion with two young children, and strange things begin to happen. Strange things that make her character wonder if she’s losing her mind. But unlike either the novella or the earlier film, what’s really happening in The Others is even more horrifying than anything the isolated woman might imagine. You’ll have to watch the film several times to see all the clues you missed the first time, but you won’t mind because The Others is one of the best suspense films ever made.
All the servants have deserted the house, without warning, so Grace and her little family are very anxious and alone. When three servants mysteriously appear, Grace somewhat reluctantly accepts their help. Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) assures Grace that, though they did not come specifically in answer to Grace’s advertisement, the trio has not only been in service, but that they have preciously worked in this very house.
Besides the mysterious arrival of the servants, there are some other strange things going on in this lonely house. The children Anne and Nicholas suffer from Xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare genetic disorder in which the body’s ability to repair damage caused by ultraviolet light is deficient. To protect the children, all the curtains have to be kept closed in any room through which the children might pass.
To prevent the children from getting horrific burns caused by accidental exposure to sunlight, the doors to each room must be closed and locked before another door is opened. Mrs Mills is not the only one to think things are… well, odd in the house.
Because of the War, or the children’s “condition,” or both, Grace home-schools Anne and Nicholas, though she sometimes forces her own Catholic beliefs on them when they clearly have formed their own, contrary opinions about God, the afterlife, faith, and Bible stories.
Besides the “returning” servants, the spooky fog that always surrounds the house, and the children’s “condition” which makes almost total darkness and locked doors a necessity, there’s something else really scary and nerve-jangling going on in the old house.
Noises, knocks, bumps in the night, crying, voices, weeping… Grace thinks the children are playing pranks on her. Then she thinks the servants are just being downright unprofessional by making such a racket. But then, slowly, she begins to suspect that there is something even more frightening going on.
More frightening than Mr Tuttle’s covering all those graves with dead leaves, which Grace doesn’t even know about yet.
When her daughter Anne begins to insist that she’s heard — and seen — other people in the house — a little boy named Victor, in particular — Grace gets terrified. She’s not afraid that she’s losing her mind, however: she’s more convinced that the house has somehow become haunted, and that, furthermore, the ghosts are determined to hurt her children.
Author. Prizes and awards include New York Times Book Review "Notable Book" & Top 100 Books of the Year, University of Rochester's Kafka Award, University of Cincinnati Elliston Poetry Prize, Centennial Review Poetry Prize, UKA Press Grand Prize, Santa Fe Writer's Project Literary Awards finalist, Writer's Digest Non-Rhyming Poetry Honorable Mention. SexAbuse and CSA survivor. Writer @ The Mighty and @ Migraine Mantras.
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