With the exception of the Western, the vampire movie may just be the most durable of all genres. It's produced everything from cinematic masterpieces like Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932) and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) to indelible pop-culture classics like Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) to lesser interpretations without number.
Just about every conceivable take on the material has been made--romantic, sexy, psychological, science-fictional, satirical and all combinations of the above. Is there a vampire movie that hasn't already been made?
In 1992, the remarkable young Mexican director Guillermo del Toro made Cronos, which, though flawed, did show that movies hadn't sucked dry thevampire myth yet. If two new pictures, Michael Almereyda's Nadja and Robert Rodriguez's FromDusk Till Dawn, aren't quite as successful in finding fresh veins, they at least demonstrate the amazing range of the genre: The former is an artsy boutique item, while the latter is a gory, gonzo actioner. But they both play by the rules of bloodsucking flicks.
Almereyda's black-and-white fantasy is like Hal Hartley's idea of a horror film, and it employs several members of Hartley's repertory company. The title role, played by that devastating, cruel-faced eastern European beauty Elina Lswensohn (of Hartley's Amateur), is the daughter of none other than Count Dracula himself--played, in flashback, by none other than Bela Lugosi himself, in public-domain clips from 1932's White Zombie.
Nadja is up to her old man's tricks--including the seduction of a young woman named Lucy (Galaxy Craze)--in modern-day New York City, where she is stalked by a hippie-longhair version of Van Helsing (Peter Fonda). She's even attended by an unusually calm and composed Renfield (Karl Geary). Her brother Edgar (Jared Harris) is in a semi-invalid state, apparently malnourished. He's cared for by a forlorn South Dakotan nurse (Suzy Amis) who met him on a dinosaur dig and has fallen in love with him.
Nadja has no real chills, but Almereyda probably wasn't trying to scare us. His deadpan style is a little too self-consciously hip--it's not as if he's the first filmmaker to use these ideas.
The very first sequel to the original 1931 Dracula, Lambert Hillyer's Dracula's Daughter of 1936, has lesbian undertones youcan cut with a knife, and Roy Ward Baker's TheVampire Lovers of 1971 made this theme overt. In1974, Andy Warhol's Dracula and an obscure rock-horror version of Son of Dracula (starring Harry Nilsson!) dealt, respectively, with vampiric malnutrition and the tribulations of inheriting the Count's legacy.
None of this makes Almereyda a plagiarist--ifhe is, then so is almost every other filmmaker. But it does make the gushy critical reaction to Nadja--as if it were something new and different and "postmodern"--seem a bit much.
Here, as in other films, Lswensohn is used in toolow-key a manner to tell if she can act. But there's no denying that she's an amazing presence. The visual beauty and eroticism of much of Almereyda's direction are also undeniable.
What Nadja proves above all is that with vampire films, there's very little new under the, er, moon.
From Dusk Till Dawn: Directed by Robert Rodriguez; with Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Cheech Marin, Fred Williamson, Salma Hayek and John Saxon. Rated R.
From Dusk Till Dawn, likewise, has plenty of forebears, among them Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark and Richard Wenk's Vamp. But the film is such a cheerful, unpretentious piece of junk that I didn't mind.
It's really two films in one. The first--and the better of the two--is another of those hyperbolically violent, blackly comic crime yarns by which both the director, Robert Rodriguez (Desperado), and the screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), are known. The second is a pulpy vampire shocker.
Two brothers, one a handsome, capable bank robber (George Clooney) and the other a manic, twitchy sex offender (Tarantino), are making their way across Texas, leaving a trail of hostage bodies and blown-up liquor stores behind them. They kidnap a lapsed, widowed preacher (Harvey Keitel) and his kids (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu), forcing them to use their RV to help them slip across the border into Mexico.
This done, they wait at a strip bar called the Titty Twister for Clooney's contact to take them to a safe zone. But while they wait, watching a stripper called "Santanico Pandemonium" (Salma Hayek, the scrumptious heroine of Desperado), they become aware that the bar is a hangout for blood drinkers. At this point, the film shifts from raw, bracing, pitiless, action melodrama to silly, high-tech gore fest, and, oddly, it isn't nearly as scary. In part, this is deliberate--Rodriguez aims for a farcical, sick-slapstick tone. But it's also partly because splatter has maxed itself out. Peter Jackson's 1992 grue-farce Dead Alive took the splatter approach so far over the top that further efforts are irrelevant.
The backlash against hot young filmmakers such as Rodriguez and Tarantino--especially the latter--should be starting any time now. From Dusk Till Dawn is enjoyable enough, but it also carries the distinct whiff of having nothing new to offer. Not too long ago, I heard Siskel and Ebert admonishing Tarantino not to spread himself so thin, to concentrate on making his own movies rather than on the distraction of appearing in other people's.
I doubt that Tarantino looks to Gene and Rog for advice, but I think it's poor advice. He might want to continue carving himself a niche as a reliable character actor and funny talk-show guest. It'll give him something to do in coming years, if he can't come up with anything fresher than From Dusk Till Dawn.
Last Summer in the Hamptons: Directed by Henry Jaglom; with Viveca Lindfors, Victoria Foyt, Melissa Leo, Martha Plimpton, Roscoe Lee Browne, Roddy McDowall, Ron Rifkin and Holland Taylor. RatedR. (At Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.)
The current Jane Austen vogue is proving lots of fun, so here's hoping that the quieter resurgence of interest in Chekhov takes off in the same way. Michael Blakemore's Country Life and Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street were both Uncle Vanya redux, and the latest gab fest from writer-director Henry Jaglom, Last Summer in the Hamptons, takes off from The Cherry Orchard.
Jaglom's film is about the final season spent by a famous theatrical family, along with the members' various lovers, friends and hangers-on, at a country estate that is soon to be sold. The matriarch (the late Viveca Lindfors), a movie star long since turned acting teacher, stages a workshop each summer at the estate, featuring her students and kin, and helmed by her son-in-law (Andre Gregory), an avant-garde director. The final summer's production, appropriately enough, is to be The Cherry Orchard.
Along with preparations for the show and the visit of a young movie star (Victoria Foyt), other crises and tizzies, some lighthearted and some darker, arise and interweave. The film never reaches the level of Eating, Jaglom's minor classic of sad, funny, muckraking naturalism.
On the other hand, Last Summer in the Hamptons seems far less pointless, listless and self-indulgent than Jaglom's previous two films, Venice/Venice and Babyfever. The scenes depicting acting "exercises" and other modern theatrical pretensions are painfully funny because they're accurate--anyone who has worked in the theatre will laugh and wince.
Best of all, the movie provided a swan-song star part for Lindfors, that superb, perennially underrated actress, who here seems like a serene old priestess in the final hours before she's to be made into a goddess. For this performance, if for only a little else, we can be grateful to Jaglom for the film.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Ever and unjustly treated as the poor cousin of the fiction film, the documentary feature gets showcased in a new ASU West Film Society series, starting Friday at 7:15 p.m. with Michael Apted's 1985 28 Up, and running weekly (except March 15) through May 3. Featured are more than a dozen films, all but one of them (Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will) from within the past 20years.
The selections range from Michael Moore's cheeky Roger & Me (March 22) to Barbara Kopple's towering Harlan County, U.S.A. (February 23), two very different films about labor struggles; and from Errol Morris' riveting The Thin Blue Line (February 2) to Ira Wohl's heartwarming, Oscar-winning Best Boy (March 8). The list is studded with must-sees. More info can be had by calling 543-2787.
Michael Almereyda; with Elina Lswensohn, Peter Fonda, Martin Donovan, Galaxy Craze, Jared Harris, Suzy Amis and Karl Geary.