Category Archives: film

Movie reviews. Genre commentary.

Shadows, Reflections, Mirrors and Vampires

Like having fangs, transforming into bats, or turning to dust in the rays of the sun, not showing up in mirrors is a trait of the vampire that most people take as gospel. Whether it’s Bela Lugosi slapping a the small, mirrored-lid cigarette box out of Van Helsing’s hands in Universal’s DRACULA (1931), or the Count casting no reflection in an enormous ballroom mirror — in both DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995) and VAN HELSING (2004) — pop culture has cemented the belief / trope that vampires just don’t show up in mirrors.

First edition of Dracula, 1897
Dracula, by Bram Stoker. First Edition cloth cover, 1897. From British Literary Board (public domain photo).

The publication of DRACULA in 1897 is perhaps the best and first known instance of a vampire not appearing in a mirror. It occurs early on, in Chapter 2, on the 8th of May, when Jonathan Harker doesn’t see Dracula’s reflection in his shaving mirror. No vampire of folklore ever seemed to have this problem. Various creatures over many cultures and centuries appeared from and disappeared to the shadows, but none had particular issue with a looking glass. Until Dracula.

NO LITERARY PRECEDENT

Lord Byron, the infamous poet on whom his personal physician John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven — arguably, the first true literary vampire — was based curiously had no mirrors in his residence on the isle of Lesbos (see “Extract Of A Letter, Containing An Account Of Lord Byron’s Residence In The Island Of Mitylene,” published along with THE VAMPYRE in 1819). But this was Byron, and one residence otherwise sparsely furnished. And despite what his physician may have thought, Byron was no vampire (OK, maybe a psychic one).

There’s no mention of mirrors or reflections in VARNEY THE VAMPIRE (pubished as “penny dreadfulls” 1845-1847). Neither does Le Fanu Carmilla seem to have a problem with them (1872). They are stealthy, shadowy figures, but reflections aren’t a problem.

There’s an interesting us of shadows in Alexander Dumas’ “Vampire of the Carpathian Mountains” (also known as “The Pale Lady”) — a short story from 1848 that is easily overlooked by fans (and critics) of Gothic tales. This last section of his collected THE THOUSAND AND ONE GHOSTS (1849), does include a vampire, but one that oddly shows ONLY its shadow.

Nosferatu casts shadow
Nosferatu’s Count Orlok cast a shadow. And eagle-eyed watchers of the 1922 film have spotted him reflected in a mirror during his death scene.

Upon Hedwig, the narrator’s encounter with the vampire of Dumas’ tale, she writes: “Je regardai dans la direction de sa main, et je vis en effet l’ombre d’un cheval et d’un cavalier. Mais je cherchai inutilement les corps auxquels les ombres appartenaient,” which translates as “I looked in the direction of his hand, and I did indeed see the shadow of a horse and rider. But I searched in vain for the bodies to which the shadows belonged.”

A shadow is cast. But no figure is seen. And still, no mirror.

None before Stoker.

Not in Uriah Derick D’Arcy’s BLACK VAMPYRE: A LEGEND OF ST. DOMINGO (1819). Nor in Ernst Raupach’s WAKE NOT THE DEAD (1823). Not the case with the wurdulak of Alexander Pushin’s MARKO YACUBOVICH (1835). Nor in THE FAMILY OF THE VOURDALAK from Tolstoy (1839). Throw in the aforementioned Varney and Carmilla, and you find nary an undead figure with a problem with mirrors.

MIRRORS, SILVER, AND SHADOWS

One wonders, then, where Stoker got the idea from? And like much of the supernatural in DRACULA, some find that the answer lies in folklore and superstition. The Japanese Kitsune, for example, shun mirrors as they fear being exposed by their reflections. But it’s almost certain that Kitsune were not something known to Stoker. They show up nowhere in his notes for the novel or other writings.

Victorian Covered Mirror
In the late 19th century, mirrors were often covered at funerals (and a window left open) so the soul of the deceased would not be trapped.

There was a beliefs among many Christian and some spiritualists of the time (of which Stoker was ostensibly one, having been a member of the Society for Psychical Research) that mirrors captured souls and/or acted as portals to other worlds. Why else cover them at funerals? Fear of the spirits of the recently dead getting trapped in a mirror would certainly put a damper on getting to the promised after-life. But the undead? What would they care? They are already dead. And their spirits don’t get sucked in by mirrors so much as their corporeal bodies simply do not show.

Others have posited a theory that silver backed (and silver-gilt) mirrors of the day may be the reason vampires are repelled by the “foul bauble of man’s vanity” (as Dracula puts it). But nowhere else in Stoker’s novel are vampires afraid of silver. There’s a silver-plated brass candle-holder Van Helsing takes with him to Lucy’s grave. But it’s just the better to see her with. There’s a silver whistle, but it’s for Van Helsing to scare aware rats. And yes, while there’s a silver crucifix among the weapons the heroes take into battle at the end of the novel, it’s the crucifix, and not the silver, that seems to work on vampires. The silver itself is never explicitly mentioned as having any power. In folklore, though, silver is associated with the moon and as having purifying qualities, so perhaps it can kill a supernatural creature? The Brother Grimm did have a silver bullet kill a witch in one of their tales (“The Two Brothers” [1812]). And it was reputed that the eighteenth century Beast of Gévaudan was felled by a silver bullet. But, as it turns out, this was an addition made by an author writing in 1946 (Henri Pourrat’s Histoire fidèle de la bête en Gévauda). That’s four years after Universal’s THE WOLF MAN, where screenwriter Curt Siodmak invented the notion that silver kills werewolves.

Why then does Stoker have Dracula not show up in a mirror?

Plain and simple: having Dracula not appear in Harker’s shaving mirror is a great plot device.

There are many ways Stoker could have introduced Dracula as a vampire lusting after blood. And many ways that Harker could have been startled by the vampire’s presence in his room in Dracula’s castle. But the mirror provides the author with a way to dramatically shock Harker, and the reader, with Dracula’s ability to move stealthily, and strike, should he choose — without setting off (at least two) normal human sensory means of detection.

FROM STOKER’S PEN

Here is the whole passage:

I started, for it amazed me that I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me. In starting I had cut myself slightly, but did not notice it at the moment. Having answered the Count’s salutation, I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken. This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror! The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself. This was startling, and, coming on the top of so many strange things, was beginning to increase that vague feeling of uneasiness which I always have when the Count is near; but at the instant I saw that the cut had bled a little, and the blood was trickling over my chin. I laid down the razor, turning as I did so half round to look for some sticking plaster. When the Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away, and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him, for the fury passed so quickly that I could hardly believe that it was ever there.

“Take care,” he said, “take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country.” Then seizing the shaving glass, he went on: “And this is the wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!” and opening the heavy window with one wrench of his terrible hand, he flung out the glass, which was shattered into a thousand pieces on the stones of the courtyard far below. Then he withdrew without a word. It is very annoying, for I do not see how I am to shave, unless in my watch-case or the bottom of the shaving-pot, which is fortunately of metal.

And that’s the world’s introduction to a vampire not showing in a mirror. If anyone could show a literary or folkloric precedent, it would have been put forth in the 125+ years since the novel’s publication as critics and scholars have painstakenly poured over every aspect of the work and the vampire of folklore that inspired it for at least fifty years (there was a time when studying vampires in the halls of academia was scoffed at).

FUN WITH THE TROPE

In his seminal vampire novel I AM LEGEND (1954), Richard Matheson counts not appearing in mirror among aspects of vampires that even those infected with the “vampire plague,” themselves believe because of peopular culture. But they do. Cast reflections, that is. As do Anne Rice’s vampires, Nosferatu, even the vampires of the Twilight books and movies.

Why? Because writers and filmmakers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have fun playing with the trope. It makes vampire more flesh and blood, so to speak, to show up like the rest of us do in mirrors. All the better, they can admire how they haven’t aged if they can see their reflection, and who among us would at least hope that immortality comes with forever looking good to one’s self. Personally, I hate mirrors.

In the end, it’s clear that some aspects of vampire lore were picked up by Stoker to play to an audience familiar with tropes and lore. Others simply served his story, and oddly, retroactively, became associated with the undead as a given. Something ancient. Something born of old Translyvanian beliefs. But even then, it might surprise some to know that that the inventive Irishman behind DRACULA never set foot in Transylvania, and originally thought of setting his novel in Styria (in southeast Austria).

But that’s a blog entry for another time.

Before Amicus: Milton Subotsky and City of The Dead

Belgian poster for the film, renamed HORROR HOTEL for US and other international audiences

Before Britain’s Amicus Productions was officially formed by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg in 1962, a horror film entitled CITY OF THE DEAD was released in September, 1960. Co-produced with a story by Subotsky, it did poorly at the box office in the UK — even more so in the U.S. where its title was inexplicably changed to HORROR HOTEL. But with its fog smothered sets standing in for a small New England town, and a fine performance by Christopher Lee (along with a talented British cast trying to do American accents), the movie has become something of a cult classic. While it highly sensationalizes the 17th century witchcraft mania in the then American colonies by merging it with bloodthirsty satanists who somewhat comically chant Latin in monks’ robes, CITY OF THE DEAD managers to capture in its lean 78 minutes an entertaining modern gothic — quite different than the better known period pieces of the time made by Hammer or Roger Corman.

Subotsky (who would go on with his  Amicus Productions to produce many famous portmanteau horror films (like TORTURE GARDEN [1967], THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD [1971], and ASYLUM [1972])), grew up in New York City and began his career in television.  He would go on to make the movies ROCK, ROCK, ROCK in 1956 — for which he wrote nine songs! — and another rock n’ roll film, JAMBOREE, in 1959). CITY OF THE DEAD — made after Subotsky moved to England — was thus quite a departure. And it is actually quite a good gothic tale (perhaps the result of his fondness for writers like Robert Bloch  — who actually wrote the three aforementioned Amicus films!).

Subotsky’s knack for spinning a good horror story is really no surprise. A man of many interests — and much energy — he was like a sponge, absorbing so much of the pop-culture (and pulp fiction) of his time. Stars like Lee, Peter Cushing, and Vincent Price all admired him for his dedication to filmmaking (on the cheap!), He undoubtedly had knowledge of the work of other studios at the time (like Hammer), and was known for his tireless efforts to keep many movies in production at once.*bosomed

But CITY OF THE DEAD is quite unlike anything else in Subotsky’s body of work.

Venetia Stevenson
Venetia Stevenson in a promotional still from 1960’s CITY OF THE DEAD (AKA HORROR HOTEL)

The film opens with Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson), a student of history in a class taught by Professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee), anxious to learn more about satanism and witchcraft in New England — so much so that she takes her professor’s suggestion to travel to the town of Whitehaven in Massachusets in order to work on a paper exploring the topic. Driscoll recommends that she stay at the Raven’s Inn, an establishment run by Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel) — secretly (to all but the audience) the reincarnated witch, Elizabeth Selwyn, who cursed Whitewood, and is the leader of Whitewood’s coven!

Barlow is soon dispatched with on Candlemas Eve, leaving her brother (Denis Lotis), her boyfriend (Tom Taylor) and Whitewood’s antiques dealer, Patricia Russell (Betta St. John) — who had loaned Nan a book on witchcraft to help her with her studies — to solve the mystery of co-ed’s disappearance. Why Russell thinks nothing of this in a mysterious town where her own grandfather, the town’s blind pastor, warns all he can about the lingering evil in Whitehaven is part of the film’s charm. The endless fog and zombie-like townspeople isn’t a giveaway that something is amiss in Whitewood? Suffice to say that Driscoll is (unsurprisingly) revealed to be part of the coven, Newless / Selwyn burns like she was supposed to in 1692, and good triumphs over evil.

The witch Elizabeth Selwyn and dasardly Professor Driscoll (with some third guy) about to offer their sacrifice to Satan.
The witch Elizabeth Selwyn and dastardly Professor Driscoll (with some third guy) about to offer their sacrifice to Satan.

For all of its themes of witchcraft, devil worship, and sacrifices to Satan, CITY OF THE DEAD is a surprisingly tame film. There’s no blood on screen. Unlike PSYCHO (also released in 1960), a descending blade is only shown here for a moment before a humorous cut to a woman slicing up a birthday cake. And unlike many of Hammer’s offerings, there are no big bosomed women in diaphanous gowns. Stevenson, for example, is buttoned up and fully clothed throughout the picture (except for one brief change from a robe into a party dress [exploited by the studio, however, in a famous promotional still for the film]). But even then, it’s only cheesecake. As for gore, there’s very little; the burning witches at the end aren’t much more than lightly charred. And the skeleton at the end? Borderline comical.

It is by no means a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking. Nor particularly unique, as it may be just too much of a coincidence that CITY OF THE DEAD has plot elements similar to three other films released in 1960. There’s a reincarnated witch in Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY. The shadow of a cross burning the undead as in Hammer’s BRIDES OF DRACULA. And the (at first) lead character, an attractive blonde, murdered in the first act just as Janet Leigh’s character is in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (based on a novel by Robert Bloch!).

Director Freddie Francis, actor Christopher Lee, and co-producer / writer Milton Subotsky on the set of Amicus’ DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965)

Was Subotsky aware of these other films — each in theaters earlier in the year than CITY’s September release date? It’s impossible to know — not only because we’re not sure what the original script contained and when exactly it was written, but Subotsky had a reputation for being aware of what others were doing, working fast, knowing what sold, using the same actors as other studios, building on existing well-known stories (see Subotsky’s “Wish You Were Here,” a take on “The Monkey’s Paw” in his TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)… even recycling sets (as did Corman, Hammer, and many filmmakers, to be fair).

This is not to say Subotsky wasn’t an original. If anything, his approach to making a movie was uniquely his own. And it would serve him well in the horror anthology movies on which Amicus would build its reputation well into the nineteen seventies. His is a story as interesting as Corman’s. His production company more than mere shadow of Hammer. And CITY OF THE DEAD stands on its own as a cult film to be enjoyed and admired.

*Brian McFadden’s book about Amicus is a great read for more on Subotsky and the films he made.