Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

Step Right Up: The Carnival in Horror Movies

Although the days of the circus and management of their menageries are fast becoming a thing of the past, the carnival or fair coming to town is still something many look forward to and enjoy — especially in summer. That these collections of spectacle and play bring out the kid in many of us is no surprise. What is curious, however, is how often the carnival is depicted in horror movies as places of great danger or dread. And how often a wide variety of filmic tropes are served by a carnival setting.

PULL BACK THE CURTAIN: THE HORROR REVEALED
Caligari at the Fair
Dr. Caligari acts as barker to have the carnival audience gather to see Cesare. Photo from The British Film Institute.

“Hereinspaziert” (“Step” or “Walk” “Right In”) reads the intertitle as the titular doctor invites onlookers to see the somnambulist Cesare in 1920’s CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI. It’s a beckoning not only to the people at the fair, but also to us, the audience, to witness the sideshow attraction that is the sleepwalker. It is the first time we get to see Cesare, as he emerges from a box on a stage. The importance of the carnival or fair (as it is referred to in the German) is thus made apparent: in CALIGARI, at least, it’s where the horror is first revealed. And in this revelation that the carnival is firmly established as a place where horror dwells. CALIGARI may, in fact, be the first instance in horror films that the carnival takes on such an association.

SYMPATHY AND REVENGE

Jump 1932 and pre-code Hollywood: only two days separate the release of MURDERERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (in theaters February 10 of that year) and the notorious FREAKS (released February 12). In the former, Doctor Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), is both a carnival sideshow entertainer and a scientist: one who exhibits Erik, an ape. In FREAKS (prodcued by Todd Browning, once a carnival barker), the sideshow is front and center.

Cleopatra (Olga Baklanova)
Cleopatra (Olga Baklanova) from Freaks (1932)

In both, two common tropes are at work. There is the grotesque, which elicits both our sympathy and fear. Then there is the hand of vengeance — with Erik ultimately killing the mad scientist Mirakle; and the freaks of FREAKS getting revenge: first on Hercules the strongman with whom trapeze artist Cleopatra has an affair; then on Cleopatra herself. Her sin? She not only cuckolds her husband, Hans (Harry Earles), a little person, but also tries to poison and kill him. She mocks the members of the sideshow, and openly humilates her husband. Thus, her internal ugliness is shown as greater than the grotesquery of the “freaks.” Their ultimate revenge is uncomfortable to watch, but we feel for them. These are people, despite their deformitieis. And there is sympathy in the grotesque.

MAD DOCTORS

The tropes of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and FREAKS, however, aren’t present (and may even be inverted) in 1940’s somewhat absurd THE APE. Written by Curt Siodmak (of WOLFMAN fame), THE APE serves up a cruelly treated, sympathetic circus ape as the catalyst that leads to yet another mad doctor (Boris Karloff as Dr. Bernard Adrian) running amok — donning the beast’s flesh to murder townspeople for their spinal fluid. The “ape” is summarily shot in an unsatisfying end, despite a good performance by Karloff.

House of Frankenstein
Klarloff (left) ready to ressurect Dracula in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN

1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN finds a carnival owner in possession of the skeleton of Count Dracula. Again, it is a mad doctor that forwards the plot. Gustav Niemann (again, played by Karloff) has his hunchback assistant kill the owner, as he then proceeds to remove a stake from Dracula’s heart. Thus resurrecting the vampire, Niemann commands the Count to kill those who had the doctor sent to prison. The hand of vengeance is again at play, only put to nefarious ends. And unlike any other Dracula film, the vampire is first introduced like a waxed figure or horrific diorama on display, reducing him to mere sideshow attraction until he is brought back to life.

Dracula once again surfaces at a sideshow attraction in the much different (and maligned) DRACULA  VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) — a movie so bad that it’s good. Here, we find the mad scientist (J. Caroll Nash) working with Dracula to revive the Frankenstein monster in a secret laboratory hidden behind the “Creature Emporium,” a haunted house exhibit located on a boardwalk amusement park. It’s a carnival atmosphere, with some really bad acting with even worse special effects.

THE OTHER
Serena, the tiger woman, from VAMPIRE CIRCUS
Serena, the tiger woman, from VAMPIRE CIRCUS

Vampires of a different kind — along with a dwarf and a gypsy woman — show up in the traveling roadshow that is Hammer’s VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972). Here, there are acrobats, actual bats, and even a dancing woman painted up like a hippie tiger. It is a menagerie of characters that serve a somewhat uninteresting revenge plot involving yet another aristocratic vampire (of which we have so many in the genre). But that’s what makes the circus performers much more interesting — as they (literally) take center stage.

In VAMPIRE CIRCUS, all characters other than villagers are truly outsiders — the “other” as such characters are often referred to in psychological interpretations of film. And here, we know from the very title alone that danger awaits the “normal people.” Tying that danger to the circus seems natural. By the nineteen seventies, it would seem the carnival as trope in and of itself was firmly part of the language of film.

WAS IT ALL A DREAM?
Carnival of Souls
Strange visions at THE CARNIVAL OF SOULS

What’s overt in VAMPIRE CIRCUS is somewhat subverted a decade earlier in 1962’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS — a film where horror isn’t so much in front of you as it is inside. As possibly the most unqiue film explored in this post — part b-movie and part new wave — CARNIVAL OF SOULS expertly captures the strange dreamlike quality of the carnival. Its plot is essentially the surreal experience of a woman whose car accident finds her frightened and confused, wandering around an abandones carnival. In the same way the angular German expressionist backgrounds of CALIGARI make the carnival much more the stuff of dreams than reality, the sparse sets and eerie quiet of CARNIVAL OF SOULS suggests something born of the subconscious. (So as not to spoil the movie for those who haven’t see it, I’ll leave it at that. Knowing that dreams are involved won’t ruin the somewhat telegraphed but nonetheless satisfying ending of the film.

THE HORROR FILM AS CARNIVAL

Since the silent age, horror films have been carnival-like in and of themselves. Spectacle. Grotesqueries. Thrills. With elements of the circus, the vaudeville, and the burlesque.

From THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI to 2014’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW, it is no wonder then that the carnival is a setting used by many horror movies and television shows. Location truly serves the story.

The horror film, after all, is a carnival or sorts. And we are beckoned by trailers, posters, and all forms of publicity to “step right up” and “step right in.”

 

Bad Things Come in Threes: The Weird Sisters of Dracula

Three Fates. Three witches in MACBETH. Three brides in DRACULA. Omne trium perfectum. Everything in threes is perfect or whole. The primary colors. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Three little pigs. Of course, celebrity deaths also come in threes. Christ was tempted three times in the desert. And in WWI, lighting three men’s cigarettes on one match meant death for the third man, as it would likely draw the fire of an enemy sniper. Then in rhetoric, there’s a rule of three. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Veni, vidi, vici.  Stop, drop, and roll. Sets of three just seem to make sense to us. We’re hard-wired to respond to them.

Greg Hildebrandt's The Harem
Greg Hildebrandt’s gorgeous illustrations for DRACULA include this one entitled “Johathan (sic) dreams of the vampiresses” (Unicorn Publishing, 1985)

That Bram Storker deliberately chose to put three vampiresses in his 1897 novel DRACULA has been written about many times before. Some scholars point to the power of three, finding ancient symbolism in the number, or a mirroring of Lucy Westenra’s three suitors (Holmwood, Morris, and Seward) in the attraction Jonathan Harker feels toward them.  Some even argue that the vampires that tempt Harker represent an inversion of the Holy Trinity. But the truth behind Stoker’s choice to have three female vampires tempt Jonathan Harker may be as simple as this: Stoker worked in the theater.

SISTERS, DAUGHTERS OR BRIDES?

Introduced in the third chapter of DRACULA, the vampire brides, as they have come to be known — but are never mentioned in the novel as such — are referred to in the fourth chapter as “those weird sisters” (from Jonathan Harker’s Journal, June 29). Two are dark (hair presumably?), with “aquiline noses, like the Count.” The other was “fair as fair can be, with great wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires.”

As Leonard Wolf questions in his annotated edition of DRACULA, one wonders if the resemblance to Dracula of the first two suggest they may be related to him (sisters? daughters?). Of the three, the blonde, his apparent favorite, may be his wife. After all, the other two defer to her for right of first bite: “Go on! You are the first,” says one of the dark-haired sisters, “and we shall follow; yours is the right to begin.” Is she Dracula’s wife? Are the others his children? Is the Count a polygamist!

That they are called sisters by Harker (and later in the novel by Van Helsing) is telling. Nowhere in the book are they referred to as brides, though in popular culture, they have become to be known as such. In the taking of blood (or exchange, as when a transfusion of Holmwood’s blood temporarily aids Lucy), perhaps Stoker was suggesting a type of husband / wife relationship. Or a perversion of traditional marriage, perhaps.

This much is certain: the sexually suggestive aspect of the vampire that may well be born of the repressed fantasies and insecurities of an Irishment writing in the late nineteenth century certainly finds its most open expression of sexuality in the films of the twentieth.

AT THE MOVIES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

Filmic versions of the novel definitely suggest Dracula having a sexual relationship with the vampire women. Perhaps it is from the movies that the term “brides” comes. But the vampire women of Todd Browning’s 1931 production are definitely not the source of the label. These vampires are uncredited. And they are more ghostly than provocative. Ethereal. Creepy. Sexual in suggestion. But not in action.

In both DRAKULA ISTANBUL’DA (1953) and Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), the sex is there, but there are not three vampire women. Only one in each of these adaptations. And neither is called a bride.

Valerie Gaunt, in the latter, is credited only as “Vampire Woman.” And though Hammer would go on to make a sequel entitled BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) — originally scripted under the more appropriate title “Disciple of Dracula” — there are only two, not three, vampire women: Greta and Gina. Over a decade later, Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973) — though bearing the title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE upon its release in America in 1979 — credits not three but four “vampire girls.”

Vampire Brides of COUNT DRACULA (1977)
The Brides — credited as such — of BBC television’s COUNT DRACULA (1977). Susie Hickford, Sue Vanner, and Belinda Meuldijk

Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, would reinstate the three brides in his made-for-television adaptation of the novel in 1974, with the three vampire women referred to as “vampire wives.” Close, but not exactly brides. Of course, none of them are referred to as “sisters” either. It is not until 1977’s production COUNT DRACULA starring Louis Jordan that we may have the first instance in film or on television where the vampire women are actually credited as “Brides of Dracula.”

The Three Sisters
The Brides of Dracula are referred to as such in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). From left to right are actresses Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu

Perhaps more famously, Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) also refers to the vampire women as brides as the end credits roll. It is in Coppola’s film that the brides are very definitely highly sexualized, and made to appear like women in a harem more than the ghostly figures of earlier productions. Florina Kendrick, Monica Bellucci, and Michaela Bercu are exotic, alluring, and layered deep with eastern-European garb and language.

As for Frank Langella’s turn at the titular Count in Universal’s 1979 “remake,” the vampire women aren’t even there (as it is based upon the Balderston / Deane stageplay).

STOKER, THE STAGE AND MYTHOLOGY

Regardless of how the label “brides” came to be, there’s still the issue of why Stoker chose to call the vampire women “sisters,” or, specifically (for Harker) “weird sisters” in the first place.

Working for the famous actor Henry Irving since 1878, Stoker would have been familiar with his employer’s repertoire ten years on. That year, 1888, saw Irving (who some suggest inspired certain aspects of the character of Dracula) purchase the Lyceum Theater. Among the first of performances was a revival of his Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters of Macbeth
G.J. Bennett, Drinkwater Meadows, W.H. Payne as the witches (1838) from the Folger Shakespeare Library

In Act I, Scene 3, the first of the witches that go one to prophesize Macbeth’s rise and fall, asks of the seocond: “Where hast thou been, sister?”

It might be as simple as that. Borrowing from the Bard, Stoker may have been intentionally drawing comparisons of his vampire women to the witches of Macbeth.

And Shakespeare? He most likely drew his inspiration from  Greek mythology: the Moirae — Lahkesis, Atropos, and Clotho — who dictate the destinies of humankind by spinning, drawing out, and cutting the threads of each life.

BACK TO THE POWER OF THREE

None of this is to say that the Greeks, the Bard, or Stoker didn’t subconsciouly make the choice of three women because the number itself holds some sacred or semiotic significance.

Across cultures, the number three is of undeniable importance. That it is applied to a group of vampire women is thus no great surprise. Literary critics have noted numerous supposed subconscious drives that led to Stoker to his choices — including the three vampire women. Whether it is us that only see the connections to the power of three, or Stoker (knowingly or not) who found significance in numbering his “sisters” as such, is immaterial in the end.

It would seem that putting anything together in sets of three is only natural — or supernatural — as the case may be.