Review of The Castle of Otranto

castleofotrantoI’m willing to bet that the following themes are all too familiar – Kingdom vs. Kingdom. A despotic Prince.   Underground passageways. A fleeing princess. Knights on the hunt. Dire prophesies.  A castle haunted with phantoms. Have I listed enough clichés?

All of these motifs are found in Horace Walpole’s novel “The Castle of Otranto”. But let’s give the guy a break. After all, he wrote this piece back in 1764.   Long before George R. R. Martin had his Game of Thrones, sooner than J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, previous to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, prior to Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolfo, Walpole wrote this fantasy novel about a time long ago (even in 1764 it was a period piece); a time of knights and kingdoms, princesses and perils, all wrapped up in a story that is sprinkled with ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. Mind you, he had his predecessors. Shakespeare was writing of kingdoms and ghosts and the 16th and the stories of King Arthur and The Knights of the Roundtable date back to the 11th and 12th century. However, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is credited as the very first gothic novel.

What does it mean to be the first “gothic novel?” Well let us see what the with the fine men and women of wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, the novel, establishes:

“many of the plot devices and character-types that would become typical of the Gothic: secret passages, clanging trapdoors, pictures that begin to move, and doors that close by themselves.”

But what makes this novel standout among other fantasy and frightful novels of its time is its unique method of blending the fantastic with the mundane. Supposedly in the late 1700s, stories of the supernatural were considered “old school” (They probably had a different term for it, but you catch my drift).  Modern tales of romance and adventure were allegedly devoid of such supernatural themes and focused more on believable foes and realistic conflicts.  By mixing the two literary strands, Walpole establishes what has come to be a defining theme for Gothic literature – traces of the past making their way into the modern world. Looking at the gothic haunted house stories that come later, this theme bears out over and over –  curses born in the past that claim the lives of future generations, justice for sins committed long ago coming for the heirs of the original sinner; ghosts returning from the graves to haunt the living.

Wadpole, a British politician, was a fan of the ancient medieval period, so much so that he had a castle built to replicate a palace of yore. It’s called Strawberry Hill House and it still stand today, although it has gone through much renovation. In writing “The Castle of Otranto,” Wadpole tried to imitate the style of speech from the medieval era. In its initial publication, Wadpole included a preface that made is seem as if his tale was an ancient one, written in the sixteenth century.

Fascination for the ways of yore, nostalgia for periods of we never knew – this is at the heart of Gothic literature. What are ghosts but fanciful beings from times long gone!

So, how much of this novel is dedicated to ghosts and other things that go bump in the night? I’d say there is a smidgen of these elements. Maybe more.   Phantoms and other mysterious things pop in and out of this story. Lord Manfred, a ruthless tyrant, arranges a marriage between his son Conrad and the maiden Isabella in order to unite two kingdoms. However, before the marriage is to take place, a giant helmet falls from nowhere and crushes him. Paranormal event #1.   Lord Manfeld then takes it upon himself to have Isabella as his own. But not if she can help it. She flees through an underground passage. Lord Manfeld chases her while the painted image of his grandfather flees the portrait and interferes in the chase. Paranormal event #2.

More story follows, but I’m not going to go into much detail. There are battles. There is a love story, and there are more supernatural events; inhabitants of the castle see a giant foot that occupies an entire room, a specter in dark clothes kneels before an altar. Some of these occurrences are rather bizarre to say the least.

As to the claim that this tale deposits the supernatural into “realistic situations”, I don’t really see it. I’m not saying that this isn’t happening. It’s just that I am so far removed from the writing style of the eighteenth century and I’m a complete novice when it comes to the “ordinary, day to day life” of the royal classes of medieval society. Therefore, I’m not attuned to the supposed “realism” that is going on here. “Realism” to me is a Stephen King story, where there might be a guy in a baseball cap chomping down on a Mars candy bar at gas station and sipping his bottle of Dr. Pepper, all while speaking in local slang.   In Wadpole’s work, the characters speak in a theatrical style.  Formal, long-winded salutations seem to invade nearly every sentence of the dialogue.  The heroes and heroines always have the noblest of intentions.

I can’t say that this novel thrilled me to death. The story is fair. However, I did learn a lot from reading the book and doing research for this article. I have a better understanding of the foundations of gothic literature and I have learned a great deal about the evolution of literary styles. For this I am thankful. And onward I will go, digesting more works within the Gothic genre. Some I will like, others not so much. But I look forward to the rewarding experience. You too can have such an experience. Just pick up a book and read, read, read!

 

Beauty and The Beast – Enchanted Castles VS Haunted Castles

BBLast Sunday I spent a fine afternoon at the movies with my wife. We took in the charming, live action film Beauty and the Beast which is based off of  Disney’s 1991 animated film of the same name.  I was delighted to hear Emma Watson sing and I enjoyed her performance as Belle, a.k.a Beauty. I got into the love story and the whole “beauty is within” message.  I was pleased with the fanciful display of CGI. Ohh it was all so precious! And through it all I kept asking myself “Can I consider this  a haunted house film?”  At one point myself replied, “What? ‘and they lived happily ever after’ Disney film = a haunted house story? Are you nuts?”  Later on, “myself” gave in a little. He said “Okay, some of these scenes revolving around the Beast’s Castle are a bit scary. But still – no. No Haunted Castle for you!”  Finally when cups, dishes, clocks and candelabras came to life, “myself” met “I” half way and said “Maybe. Maybe this is a Haunted House film and maybe it isn’t.”

Allow me to argue on behalf of “I” , The Beast’s castle is huge and creepy with foreboding towers and sharp pinnacles.  It has cavernous passageways and a dark dungeon.  The grounds surrounding the castle are quite terrifying.  It is hidden away in a cursed section of a forest where it is always winter. Dangerous wolves roam about on these trails.  Defiled BBCastleGroundsgrounds and the creatures that inhabit them often surround the haunted houses of lore (See my article: Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature).  When our heroine Belle enters the castle, she is greeted by moving candelabras, magical wardrobes, and self playing instruments – all of which can talk, sing and dance!  These objects warn Belle not to venture into the east wing of the castle (or is it the west wing?  I forget).  The Beast tends to spend most of his time in this wing, and it can be dangerous for Belle to rummage around in there!  Haunted wings, forbidden rooms and walled off passageways are staples of haunted house lore.

In the novel “Dracula”, the mysterious Count warns visitor Jonathan Harker  not to go roaming around the castle (See Dracula’s Castle .)  In the house that is the subject of the book. The Ghosts of Ravencrest, there is “a wing that is locked away – for there are strange things afoot in this side of the building.”  Finally, the villagers who enter this castle and witness these strange goings-ons declare the place to be haunted.  If you can’t trust a villager, who can you trust?

“I” has made some very good points. But alas, “myself” retracted his “maybe” and eventually “I” saw things from his point of view. All the beings inside my head have come to an agreement: The castle of the Beast is not haunted.  My colleague helped to properly explain the condition of the castle. He said, “It’s not haunted, it’s enchanted.”

Throughout these reviews and articles, I struggle to define the term “haunted house” (or haunted castle, haunted inn, haunted flat, you get the idea).  I have perhaps contradicted myself from time to time as I have written out various themes concerning what a haunted house is or isn’t.  This is all part of the learning process, and the goal of this blog is just that – to learn, to discover.  Therefore, perceptions can change along the way.

Let me continue by offering some definitions of the word “haunt.”  Borrowing from Merriam-Webster , haunted can mean  “to stay around or persist.” But it can also be defined as something that is “inhabited or frequented by ghosts” (via dictionary.com). A house with ghosts is haunted. However it does not have to have ghosts in order for it to be haunted. It can be haunted by tragedies or sins of the past, by curses that play out again and again, or by lingering sadness.  The Fall of the House of Usher and The House of Seven Gables are examples of such ghostless haunted house stories.

Now, let us see what the dictionaries have to say about the word “enchant”  From dictionary.com:

under a spell;bewitched;magical

or

utterly delighted or captivated; fascinated; charmed.

As per the context of this story, the first definition applies. The second definition is more appropriate for the castle that stands at Disney World.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Beauty and the Beast, a witch who is refused entry into a handsome Prince’s castle on account of her haggish appearance curses his household. The Prince is turned into a beast while his staff is transformed into objects (the candelabra, cups, etc.).  If the Prince can find a woman to love him despite his beastly appearance, the curse will be removed. The beast can become handsome again and the BBObjectsstaff can once again regain their humanity.  This is the story as per Disney writers.  I have never read the original book by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (and later abridged/rewritten by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) But when I skim the synopsis per wikipedia, I see no reference to the bewitching of the staff.  Could it be that Disney created these household object characters in order to have a silly and cutesy cast of animated creatures; creatures which are prevalent in most Disney cartoon movies?  Perhaps, but at the same time, these things are downright uncanny and freaky – a nice touch for the lovers of the bizarre. I am a lover of the bizarre and I love this whole concept of living people becoming a part of the physical castle.  In many haunted house stories, the physical becomes the spiritual (In The Shining, The Inn itself manifests the ghosts).  Here the reverse is true.The fact that the servants transform into these objects shows that this curse not only plagues the people but it also infects the castle itself. Thus it can be said that the castle is enchanted.

As freaky as these object-things are, they are not ghosts. Nor are they objects possessed by ghosts or demons. They are regular people that have been bewitched and transformed.  In this story, the theme pertaining to visitations from the past does not exist.  The curse that subjects the household to take on these cruel forms is not a phenomenon that reoccurs from generation to generation (as with the curses of The Fall of the House of Usher and The House of Seven Gables). They are damned not to the past but to the awful present of never-changing appearances. For these reasons, The Beast’s castle is not haunted.  {By this criteria, I realize that the strange supernatural houses in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales would not be considered haunted. I had written that they were. (See H.P. Lovecraft Article 1 and and H.P. Lovecraft Article 2) Oh well!}

Beauty and The Beast is a dark tale. Perhaps I can make it even darker. I can recreate the tale so that the castle is both enchanted and haunted.  Again to quote my colleague, this would be an “enchaunted castle”

The beginning of the story will be the same: an old crone desires entry to the Prince’s castle in order to escape the cold and the rain. At first sight, she is the object of The Prince’s cruel scorn. His servents laugh at her as well, but not to the same extent as their Lord. Suddenly she becomes ill and The Prince laughs even more as she succumbs to tics. Right there in front of him and his staff, she dies. Her spirit rises from her body. It is a beautiful spirit and The Prince and his servents turn away in shame, feeling unworthy to behold such beauty.

The spirit says to the Prince.

“The soul is where true beauty exists. It will take you many painful centuries to learn this. For I curse this kingdom!”

From that moment, the Prince is trapped in his own body, which suddenly becomes deformed and hideous. But he is damned to remain in this body until he finds a woman to love him for what he possesses on the inside.  Throughout the years, his body decays and rots until he resembles a zombie. Alas, he cannot die.

The staff, being a lesser evil than the prince, is struck dead. However, their souls will be bound to the castle. They will haunt it until The Prince finds love and is freed from his despicable body.

For centuries, this zombified Prince will roam about the castle. The bitter spirits will  BBCastle haunt him from time to time, blaming him for their fate. After many many years, he will finally find love. Her kiss will be the kiss of death. When her lips press against his, he will die but his soul will be free. The spirits of the castle with join their lord in this freedom.

So – how does that story sound?  What’s that? You think it is better to stick with the original? Fine!  No “enchaunted castle” for anyone! Go on loving those enchanted castles for what they are and continue admiring those haunted castles for what they have to offer.

 

 

 

 

Review of Haunter

Hey, have you ever seen the film “Haunter”?

(I think you mean “The Haunting”.  There’s the original 1963 film by Robert Wise and then there’s- )

No, I don’t mean “The Haunting”.  I mean “Haunter”

(Oh!!! You mean that 1995 film with Kate Beckinsale.)

NO!! That’s “Haunted!”  I’m referring to “HauntER!” “er!” “er!” er!” “er!”

(Hunter? )

Oh never mind!!

 

Truth be told, I had never heard of this film either (until I found it on Shudder.com a  Hauntercouple months ago) It premiered in 2013, but according to Wikipedia, this Canadian film had a limited release in U.S. theaters. Released on video in 2014, it only took in $129, 477.  Suffice it to say, it didn’t get much exposure. Equally disappointing are the lukewarm reviews.  Fifty-four percent of professional critics cited on Rottentomatoes  rated this film positively – a slim majority. But there are plenty of professional critics that panned the film.  Rex Reed of the New Yorks Observer writes that the film is “A dull, confusing movie for which nobody provided a script” Meanwhile, only forty-two percent of the non-professional critics (audience) view the film favorably.  IMDB gives this a rating of 5.9 stars out of 10.

All this is sad to me, because I think this is an underrated film that is too good to be hidden from the masses. It is NOT dull. In fact, it is quite the opposite; I was drawn in immediately. It only took a few scenes before I had dissolved into the mystery of the house that is at the heart of this story.  Is it a confusing movie?  Perhaps at times. It is  complex but in a captivating way. It is non-linear.  Characters weave in and out of various timelines. They tunnel into different dimensions; the dimension of the living and the dimension of the dead. There is a lot packed into this 97-minute film. There is layer upon layer of awesomeness. And yet, the film doesn’t feel rushed. Nor does the plot feel oppressive and burdensome.

It is difficult to explain the plot without giving away spoilers.  On all of the major review sites, a spoiler sticks out in the very first lines of the synopsis.  I understand the reasoning behind its inclusion: the heart of the story beats according to this revelation. But I swear, for the first 15-20 minutes of the film, the revelation is not immediately apparent. Having read the various synopses, I knew what this revelation was before beginning the film, and yet I let myself flow freely in the directions that the plot was taking me, so much so that I nearly forgot the surprise.

In some of my reviews, I do post spoilers. Normally I warn the reader about this.  Depending upon what I want to achieve with the article, I sometimes need to give things away. If I’m doing an analysis of major themes, for example, it is sometimes necessary to reveal key plot point and twists.  For The Haunter, I wish to give nothing away. I am even omitting things that major review sites list freely. I want this to be a surprise from start to finish. I want it to be like the roller coaster that it is; with exciting twists and turns.

I’ll close this review by starting a new subject, hopefully to be continued in the future I consider “Haunter” to be a post-modern film. It’s non-linear and it lacks a center, so to speak.  Some other haunted house stories that fall into this category are The House at the End of Time , a film and House of Leaves, a book.  So I ask, are there commonalities across all post-modern haunted house stories that are limited to its genre?  Are there certain themes that are begging to be discovered and analyzed?  I don’t know. This would be an interesting avenue to explore. And that’s what we do here at the Haunted House Poject – drive down avenues that behold such wonderful houses of haunts!

 

 

Review of House

house3I was there.  Back in 1986, I saw the movie House at the Norridge Theater in Norridge, Il. Norridge Theater is nearly ten years gone.  But this film lives on…barely.  It’s been on and off of youtube. It might be hiding in the back of the $1.99 shelf at the DVD store. I saw it again Friday night via Shudder. But I was there for its incarnation!  At fifteen years of age, I watched this wacky film on the big screen. I freaked at the corny, carnivalesque demons. I laughed at the oddball humor.   I walked out of the theater thinking, “Wow man, that was cool!”  And I wasn’t even stoned! Thirty one years later, I find myself watching it a second time.  My how time flies…and excitement fades.

IMDB categorizes the film under the genres of comedy, horror, and fantasy.  To me, however, it seems genre-confused.  I will explain more about this genre identification crisis later. But for now, here is the plot in a nutshell. Author Roger Cobb has been having a rough life as of late. His publisher has been pushing him for new material, but he’s been having a tough time writing ever since his young son went missing.  This tragedy leads to the dissolution of his marriage.  When his old aunt passes away, hey takes over her large, gothic-style house. His aunt was his sole guardian when he was young, so this is also the house he grew up in. It’s also the house that claimed his son. Apparently he had lived there with his wife and son for a time being. In any case, the House is haunted. Obviously.  That is why I’m reviewing the movie!

This film smacks of the 1980s.  It’s colorful, simplistic, goes for appearance over depth,  house–it’s  a glam punk of a movie. As mentioned, the things that haunt this place look creepy, insane and ridiculous.  They looked as if they are mummy wrapped in Hefty bags.  But perhaps this is part of the humor; the style!  George Wendt, A.K.A, Norm from “Cheers” stars as the funny guy neighbor who likes to drink beer while Alan Autry A.K.A. Captain V.L. Bubba Skinner of “In the Heat of the Night” stars as a serious cop that comes to the house to investigate some shenanigans. It’s nice to see two beloved television actors reprise their characters in this film (not quite though, as In the Heat of the Night TV show came later. Ahhh but they are so similar).

This film is an exercise in genre experimentation, whether it is conscious of such an experiment of not.  Throw in some camp, stir in in some Gothic horror, toss in the absurd, add a bunch of comedy, mix it up with some psychology and put it all together, make a movie and let us hope it all fits together in the end.  And the result is….it doesn’t fit so perfectly. It’s like a puzzle where the connecting ends of the pieces just won’t go into the given slots. But if you push real hard (GRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!), it can sort of fit.

Take for instance, the war scenes. (What? War scenes? How does that fit into this plot as you have so described it?)  Roger decides to write about his experiences in the Vietnam War. As he writes, we the viewers “see” his experience.  These battle scenes; I’m not sure what Director Steve Miner had in mind. I sure hope it wasn’t intended as a mimicry of Platoon, because the soldiers don’t resemble the well rounded warriors of Oliver Stone’s epic film. Instead they are like the soon-to-be-slaughtered teenagers of any slasher film.  They are mannequins in soldiers’ uniforms.

I guess my tastes have changed since 1986.  I had forgotten most of the finer plot points.A year later I saw Evil Dead 2 in the theater. In my opinion, Evil Dead 2 does a better job with its stylized camp while remaining true to the horror genre. In the end, House is an entertaining film. But that’s about all it is. It’s sort of like the crap rock I used to listen to in the 1980s; (Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, etc.) before discovering good rock (The Who, Led Zeppelin).  The crap is enjoyable but not worthy of a spot in the hall of greatness.  So it is with House.  Shudder also has House 2. I’ve never seen the sequel.  Should I watch it?  I just don’t know.

Review of The Haunted Castle (1921)

hauntedcastleThere’s an old saying that goes something like, “No expectations, no disappointments.”  There is great wisdom in this adage. It offers its adherents healthy attitudes toward the unknown. It can even bring forth pleasant surprises.  It is beautiful.

Yeah, but I didn’t follow the advice of this adage. I had all these expectations for The Haunted Castle by F.W. Murnau, even though I knew very little about the film. What I did know was that it was a silent film, and it was really, really old! (1921).  Based on some of the silent horror films I have seen, I was expecting to see ghostly images in the form of dancing white sheets. I was preparing for special effects so rudimentary as to be almost magical; things appearing and disappearing (dissolves), choppy animation (stop motion), and more. I wanted to see a distressed person making his/her way through corridors at a comedic speed.  I was expecting various haunted house props; skeletons, knight’s armors, bats.

Haunted Castle has none of these things.

What I wanted was some of this: (see video.)

This is Le Manoir de Diable (The Devil’s Castle) by Georges Melies. (1896). It is said to be the very first horror film. Melies is most known for the film,  Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon).  “Le Manoir de Diable” has the skeleton, bats, and the “now you see me/now you don’t” effects.

Perhaps I wanted something like this: (see video)

This is The House of Ghosts  by Segundo De Chomon. (Even though the video names this “The Haunted House,” imdb as it as “The House of Ghosts. I trust imdb) It has the sheeted ghosts. It uses stop-motion animation to present the illusion that objects are moving by themselves. It also has a scray looking, witch-like woman.

These two films are shorts: one is a little over three minutes and the other is just past the six minute mark. They were made, I believe, mostly to experiment with visual effects and film making in general. After all, film was a new art during their time of conception. Imagine what it would be if there was a silent haunted house film of feature length that incorporated the style of these two films and added a full story plot! Well I have to keep on imagining because Haunted Castle is not this kind of film.

The movie takes place in a castle, but it’s not haunted.  Several men gather at the palace for a getaway; a ducking hunting excursion. One of the guests is the Count Oetsch. He is suspected of murdering his brother, so the other guests shun him. It doesn’t help any that he looks and acts kind of creepy.  Soon to arrive is Baroness Safferstat, the widow of the murdered man. She has a new husband. In short, this film is a murder mystery. Except for one or two scenes, there is not much horror going on here.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I should judge a movie for what it is and not for what I incorrectly assumed it should be, right? I hear ya. Still, I’m not a big fan of this film. There is too much dialogue; too many intertitles. While I understand that these intertiles are necessary in the silent era, I prefer a film that uses them sparingly and instead focuses on movements and actions.  Many of the scenes are simply… well, “boring” for a lack of a better word. There are long scenes of men at tables drinking and playing cards. There are facial shots that go on too long. Too often we are forced to watch the baroness’s morose and motionless face as seconds go by, more seconds, and….still more seconds.

Please don’t think I am picking on silent movies. Three pre-talkie films have made my Top 50 horror movie list.  They are:

I find the imagery and style of these three films preferable to the look and feel of “The Haunted Castle”.  But “The Haunted Castle” isn’t all blah and boredom. In fact, there is an interesting twist at the movie’s end.  Still, it’s not one of my favorites. But I’m sure there are many of you who will find this film delightful.

Dracula’s Castle

draculabandn2I am a sucker for those hard cover, classic-bound books that are published by Barnes & Noble. I have several, and last autumn I purchased another – Dracula and Other Horror Classics by Bram Stoker. For the first time, this sucker (me!) finally read about the most noteworthy “sucker” of all (bloodsucker that is!)  – Dracula, the most famous of all vampires.  I enjoyed the novel considerably, especially the first four chapters. I relished them in the same way a vampire relishes blood! For it is in these chapters that the reader is lured into the vampiric crypt of Dracula’s Castle. I went down into this crypt ever so willingly!  But first things first.  Vicariously, I began my trip to this malevolent fortress.  Through the wooded Carpathian Mountains I rode with Protagonist Jonathan Harker via horse and carriage. I took in the chilling surroundings; the high mountains, the dark trails, and the glowing lights.  I listened to the howling of the wolves. Finally, there it was – The Castle of Dracula, off in the distance, challenging the heavens with its height.  Soon I would be inside its domain! I couldn’t wait.  I went inside and the excursion was only beginning!

This piece you are reading is not a review of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”  Instead, the focus will be on Dracula’s Castle as it exists in both fact and fiction.  I will examine the characterisics of this castle along with the themes that arise from its stories. In the end we will be left with a setting that is saturated with delicious gothic gloom!

(So then, why not just write a review of the novel, or even the Dracula movie, and in that review, describe this “gloom”?) 

Good question.  The answer is: I am not sure if Dracula’s Castle qualifies as a haunted house. (All the reviews are of haunted house stories, afterall.) There are no ghosts in this tale. Likewise, there is nothing supernatural about this castle aside from the creatures that dwell within. Remove these creatures and the castle is just another fortress of stone and relics. For the most part, the history of the Castle (in the fictional story) is hidden from us. We can only guess at any ghastly misfortunes that might have played out inside this domain over its many years of existence. If the “spirits” or “disembodied emotions of past dramas” still cling to the castle, they do so only vaguely at best; there are no details that describe such “spirits,” certainly not enough for one to say that the castle is haunted by them.

And yet, Dracula’s Castle cries out for special recognition. It stands among its peers (i.e. other famous haunted houses and castles) proudly, and in some cases towers over them. Its influence on the haunted house genre is great. Likewise, it has made a huge impact on popular culture.  There are many haunted attractions worldwide that have borrowed its title.

(Here for instance. https://www.queensland.com/en-us/attraction/draculas-haunted-house

And here http://www.darkinthepark.com/Niagara/niagara4.htm)

It has spawned many movies, television stories and novels , not to mention video games. Castles in Eastern Europe are in competition as to which one can rightfully claim to be the “real” Castle of Dracula. They are open to tours and on some occasions, they welcome overnight guests.

Now that I have established the literary and cultural relevance of Dracula’s castle, let’s begin our examination of its finest, most ghoulish elements. We’ll start where the preceding paragraph ends – with the real Dracula and his castle (or castles.)  The vampiric count of Stoker’s novel is based on Vlad Tepes, a fifteenth century voivode (or ruler) of impaleWallachia, an historical region in what is now Romania. He was also known as Vlad III, Vlad Dracula, The second son of Vlad Dracul (or Draculesti). However, his most famous and notorious alias is Vlad the Impaler. According to wikipedia:

“Vlad the Impaler is said to have killed from 40,000 to 100,000 European citizens, (political rivals, criminals, anyone he thought to me “useless to humanity”) , mainly by impaling…… Impaled up to 100,000 Turks.”

According to Sparknotes.com, Stoker discovered Vlad while studying Romanian history.  He chose to name his villain after him, and even suggested (in the novel) that Count Dracula is a descendant of Vlad.

Vlad’s reigns of terror occurred in the late Middle Ages, but even these “late” medieval rulers had their castles.  Vlad resided in Poenari Castle in the region of Wallachia. draculascastle.com claims this to be the “real” Castle Dracula, since it was the domain of the real historical ruler.  However, Stoker did not have this castle in mind when he wrote his novel.  Sources contend that it was Bran Castle , also in Romania, that captured his attention and inspired his vision for the fictional castle.

From the Washington Post:

“Images of Bran Castle supposedly reached Bram Stoker, the 19th-century Irish author of “Dracula,” who drew inspiration for his famous work from travelogues and sketches by British diplomats and adventurers in what was then Wallachia (modern-day Romania).”

Today, Bran-Castle is a tourist attraction. Recently, arranged by AirBnB , Bran-Castle opened its doors to guests for an overnight getaway. This was not an average bed and breakfast affair. Guests were treated to a carriage ride, dinner, and nice snug sleeping arrangements – inside coffins!

Watch the promotional video:

Take a virtual tour of the castle here:

http://bran-castle.com/

Pictures outside and inside the castle.  Pictures are from  dailymail.co.uk :


So far, I have presented an historical context for Dracula’s Castle and have offered pictures, along with links to videos and websites. Let us hang on to this knowledge and retain these images in our minds as we reexamine the castle through a prism of Gothic horror. By the light of his vivid imagination, let’s unlock the palace doors and tour “Stoker’s castle.” Let’s navigate through a darkness that’s irresistible to fans of horror fiction.

Bram Stoker did not invent the gothic haunted castle. He followed in the footsteps of many of the greats. (Like Horace Walpole, for instance, author of 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, which is said to be the first Gothic novel). But he was a great asset to his genre. As sparksnotes points out, his work “spawned countless imitators, and scores of horror films owe a debt to the simple but powerful repetition of Stoker’s “doors, doors, doors everywhere.”

When reading the “doors, doors, doors everywhere” phase in full context, the effect is incredible.

“The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests. But I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit. The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!”

Stoker effectively instills a scene that is both picturesque and horrific. He lends to us a feeling for what it might be like to be locked inside such a towering structure; to be above such a beautiful yet isolating landscape.

Some time ago, I wrote an article called Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature. In the article, I explain how the external environment of haunted houses is significant to the stories within this genre. It gives the reader a sense of place, sets the mood, and can even reveal key plot points. Stoker is quite generous when it comes to describing such an environment. From the cultural accounts within this foreign region to detailed descriptions of the darkened landscape, Stoker transports his readers into a chilling world, all while preluding to a terror that will unfold at the Castle.

We first learn of Count Dracula and his gloomy castle from the journal of Jonathan Harker. He is a lawyer from London and he makes his way to Transylvania in order to do buisness with The Count. While London in a triving urban center, Transylvania is a region insulated from modernization; it is a land of superstitious mountain people.  On the road toward the castle, he hears the warnings of these people as they cry out in their language, “Satan! Hell! Witches! Vampries! Werewolves!”  He heeds not their warnings and goes deep into the wooded Carpathian Mountains.  His coach driver seems uncanny and mysterious.

As they make their assent, they travel through tunnels of trees. The wind is wild and tree branches are “smashing together.” Harker is quite unnerved.  He hears the howling of wolves. There are mysterious blue flames here and there among the trees.

Finally they arrive in the courtyard of the castle. Harker has some telling notes in his journal:

“In the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.”

“I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone.”

“A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the door swung back”

The Count greets Harker politely. He is carrying and antique lamp from the days of yore. Its flickering flame casts scary shadows on the wall. The Count carries Harker’s bags, and they travel up a flight of winding stairs; a trope for many haunted house stories yet to come. In these stories, characters are climbing to unknown heights all while tension is escalating. The same thing is occurring here.

They travel through many stone passages. The echoes of their feet fill the halls. Adding to this sound are the songs of the wolves that creep in from the outside.

Soon they arrive in a set of rooms that are, perhaps, almost comfortable for Harker. There is a warm fireplace, a table with food and Brandy. There is a library with books on all subjects; history, geography, politics, political economy, law, botany. The curtains and upholstery are centuries old.

In short, The Count makes Harker feel welcome. He is a well-read man of great knowledge. The two have interesting conversations. But soon a sense of unease will take Harker over. Fright is not far around the corner. The Count’s startling eccentricities are beginning to show.  He is absent during the daytime, never to be found. One evening, he has some rather bizarre things to say about the castle.

“Let me advise you, my dear friend – nay, let me warn you with all seriousness that should you leave these rooms you will not by any chance go to sleep in any other part of the castle. It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely.”

Here are some of the vague references to the history of the castle that I had alluded to earlier in the essay; to the “spirits” of dramas past. But these aren’t ghosts that the count is warning Harker about. There are others living with the Count in the castle; other vampires.

In the daytime, Harker wanders the corridors and finds many locked doors. The main doors to get outside are locked as well. He is trapped in this dreadful castle. Once a man who was comforted by The Count’s hospitality, Harker is now fretful, afraid of his own shadow.

Sparknotes sums up this transition very well:

The tone of Harker’s journal changes with amazing rapidity as his stay in Castle Dracula progresses. In the course of a single chapter, Harker feels stripped of the robes of honored houseguest and considers himself bound like a prisoner. Here, Stoker demonstrates his mastery of the conventions of the Gothic novel: evoking the ruined castle, the beautiful but overpowering landscape, and the mounting sense of dread.

From Harker’s own words:

“I am beginning to feel this nocturnal existence tell on me. It is destroying my nerve. I start at my own shadow, and am full of all sorts of horrible imaginings. God knows that there is ground for any terrible fear in this accursed place!”

Harker thinks he has found relief when he stumbles upon a somewhat enchanting room. He discovers it via a secret passage that leads to a staircase that takes him to a lower floor.  Hidden passages – another staple of gothic and haunted house lore. If the story is suspensful, the reader anxiously awaits to discover where it leads and what it reveals.  Stoker writes with suspense, very effectively so.

The room he finds relaxes him. It smacks of a woman’s touch. There he falls into a trance-like sleep. He awakens to the sight of three young and very pale women that seem to materialize right out of the moonlight. They descend on him, and Harker experiences this attack as if he were in a dream. He thinks he sees The Count behind them commanding them to retreat. The next thing he remembers is waking in his own guest bed back in the wing he had left.

Harker wanders again and discovers a stone passageway that leads to a circular stairway. Down, down down he goes – to the crypts!

From Harker’s journal:

“At the bottom there was a dark, tunnel-like passage, through which came a deathly, sickly odor, the odor of old earth newly turned…….as I pulled open a heavy door which stood ajar, I found myself in an old, ruined chapel, which had evidentally been used as a graveyard.”

There he finds fifty gray boxes – coffins! In one coffin lays the count, immobile, eyes wide open.

What becomes of Jonathan Harker? Does he escape the castle?  Read the novel and find out.  Read as Jonathan looks out the window and watches The Count descend the outer walls of the castle as if he were some kind of reptile. Read as Jonathan, from the same window, sees the pale women out in the forest below hunting for blood.

Only the first part of the novel is centers around Dracula’s Castle. But it is by far my favorite section of the story. How can a Haunted House guy like me not relish such chapters?


How about the Movie?

There are crypts below the castle. Smoke rises from the earthen ground. Rodents hide behind coffins, of which there are several. A rat crawls inside one and hides amongst the bones. Three ladies creep out of three of the coffins. They walk slowly toward their master – Count Dracula.  draculamovie4

This scene occurs early on in the 1931 Dracula  film, before the protagonist enters the castle. Grisly foreshadowing at its finest! The scene lets the viewers know that Count Dracula’s (played be Bela Legosi) visitor, Redfield, is about to walk into a snare.

The movie and the book differ on many points. I prefer the book. In both platforms, my favorite chapters/scenes center on Dracula’s Castle. So let us now examine the Castle through the eyes of the camera.

It is a foggy coach ride toward the castle. Eventually, Renfield arrives at the castle and stands before its giant door. It opens on its own accord with an unnerving creak.

The room he enters is humongous. It is old, dark and gray. The ceiling is propped with pillars. There are stone chards on the floor. And there are spider webs. They freely blanket every platform in sight. There are bats fluttering about outside of the windows.

Renfield notices a wide, L-shaped staircase. He watches as Dracula descends the staircase. He is holding a large candle. It is the only light in this dismal place. He welcomes Renfield draculamovie and instructs his guest to follow him – back up the stairs. Wolves are howling in the background and Dracula comments “what beautiful music they make!”

There is a wall of cobwebs crossing the stairway. Whereas Dracula is able to pass through without destroying it, Renfield must slash it apart with his cane. A huge spider runs for cover.

Dracula leads Renfield to a dining room. There is a candelabra, a knight’s armor and a fireplace. In the background, a door is opening and closing with a moaning creak.  Dracula excuses himself and makes for the door. It opens on its own accord.

Renfield is alone now. What is to become of him?  See the movie and find out.


 

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Dracula’s Castle – an icon of horror, one of the most frightful fortresses of lore. Although, due to some minor technicalities, this castle might be cheated out of the title “Haunted,” it is nevertheless one of the most terrifying castles of literature and cinema. Borrowing from the most brutal tales of times past, Stoker created Dracula, the world’s most famous vampire.  Since every great villain needs a lair, he gave him a castle which he took from the pages of history. He reassembled it inside his novel and filled it with bats, coffins, and other creepy things.

Both in fact and fiction, the “Castle of Dracula” is legendary. It has earned its respect. So I came to the conclusion that I needed to pay homage to it somewhere inside this blog.

The scope of its influence extends outside the pages of literature and beyond the frames of film. A mere review of the book or movie would not suffice. Therefore I gave it its own theme; its own article. I hope I have done it justice.

Review of The House By the Cemetery

housecemetaryItalian Horror. How I want to get to know thee!  I have heard some great things about you. You have style, so I’m told.

To be honest,  we have gotten together a couple of times.  Our first date was Suspiria by Dario Argento. Aside from a few minor issues, I thought it was a good film. And I witnessed that “style” that I was told to look for. All in all, it was a good first date.  Our second meeting was Demons by Lamberto Bava but produced by Argento. This date wasn’t as good. Yeah the style was there, but there was a lot missing.

Let’s talk about our most recent date; The House by the Cemetery by Lucia Fulci.  It went horribly, didn’t it?  And I so wanted for us to have a good date.  It didn’t have to be a great date, just good.  But it wasn’t.

I really did want this to like this film. I was hopeful for about 10 minutes.  But on the eleventh minute – down, down down goes the film.

Here’s a quick summation of the plot. Dr. Normal Boyle moves his family into a house in New England. There he will continue the research of his colleague who had committed suicide.  Turns out, this colleague was researching a notorious killer referred to as Dr. Freudstein.  And yes, Dr. Freudstein will do some killing in this film. Meanwhile, the ghost of a little girl appears to little Bobby, Boyle’s son, warning him to stay away from this house.

So what’s wrong with the film?   These things.

  • The language dubbing is terrible. I would rather there have been English subtitles while the characters spoke Italian.  The voices sound canned and unnatural
  • While this house is by a cemetery, the cemetery has very little to do with the plot.
  • The character actors – the characters they play come off as a bit strange.  The thing is, I never knew if they were supposed to be weird in order to arouse suspicion of if they just ended up being odd due to bad acting/overacting. The latter turns out to be the case.
  • There are more plot holes in this film than there are pot holes on Chicago streets.
  • There are all kinds of hints at secrets to come. But these secrets don’t materialize. Maybe the writer, Elisa Briganti, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0108978/?ref_=tt_ov_wr just forgot that she put these “hints” in there!
  • Poor story continiuity in terms of the most elemental aspects of realism.   The boy is trapped in the basement with the killer, door is locked. He screams, cries, and the killer almost gets him. The next scene he is in his bed upstairs, slightly sad, a little scared. Just a bad day. Meanwhile the killer remains in the basement.
  • This is a terrible incoherent film through and through.

 

There is a lot of gore in this film. This neither thrills me nor upsets me. It is just there. house-by-the-cemetery-2

Is there anything good about this film? Sure!  The atmospherics are damn good!  The house looks scary on the inside and out.  Establishing shots of the house are excellent. In fact, there is a lot of decent camera work and photography direction. There is a scene of a little girl looking out the house window. The camera zooms and we the viewers realize that we are looking at a painting of the house. They pull off these effects very well.

In sum – good filming in and otherwise bad film. But guess what? I’m still going to court Italian Horror. Maybe I’ll stick with Dario Argento for now. Sadly, I don’t think he has made any haunted house movies (but I could be wrong).  But I’ll just appreciate him for the general thrills and scares.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Ju-On: The Curse 2

ju-onthecurse22What should I say about Ju-On: The Curse 2?  Let’s see…what did I write about Ju-On: The Curse, the first film of the series? Let me go back in the archives and read.  Hmm.  Uh huh.  Yup. Okay. I’ll just do a Copy and Paste, place that review here and then I’ll be done!  Good day folks!

On second thought, I won’t do that. But the two films are similar is so many ways that they are almost identical. As reviews on Rotten Tomatoes point out, the first thirty minutes of the film replays the final scenes of the first film.  When I started the film, I found myself wondering, “Did I put on the wrong movie?”  “Am I once again watching the first film?”  Both movies are divided into several parts, or “vignettes.” Since the stories of the first film do not flow in sequential order, I couldn’t remember which scenes began or ended the film. This is partially why I thought I was at the beginning of the first film, when in fact I was at the ending of the first film, when in actual fact I was at the beginning of the second film. Oh the confusion!  But at least the stories in the second film are shown in chronological order, unlike the first film. At least I think they are.

Both films feature the “Ju-On”, or “The Curse-Grudge”;  a transmissible phenomenon involving murderous spirits that strike from beyond the grave. The Saeki house once again serves as the catalyst of this curse. It has a violent past, and the spirits of murdered victims wreak havoc on the living; especially those who enter the premises. Even if they survive, they are cursed. When leaving the Saeki house, the curse follows them and the vengeful spirits can then murder them in their own homes.  Then their homes are haunted and the curse can spread to the occupants of their home.

The creepy spirit of Kayako Saeki is back; along with her little creepy boy Toshio, who likes to open his mouth and release a wicked sounding cat’s mewl.  Both films are 70 minutes long, and both were made for Japanese television.  Perhaps, in this second installment, Kayako is a little bit creepier? Maybe?  Her ghostly body certainly contorts in ways that it hadn’t in the first film. And now she has the power to duplicate herself!  When all those ghostly hands (all belonging to her) attack those windows – yikes-a-roni!

I can’t decide which film I prefer. But remember, for me, these films are simply prerequisites for the film that I really wish to review: Ju-On – The Grudge, the first feature film in the Ju-On series. But of course you already know this, since you’ve memorized all that I have said in my review of the first film. I have already seen it and I do like it better than its predecessors. But I needed to see these in order that I present a well-researched review of Ju-On – The Grudge. And I will…soon.  Until then, enjoy the “Ju-On Curse” films.  They’re not bad. They’re okay.

 

Review of The Haunted Doll’s House

dollhouse Ready for a bonus Christmas Ghost story review?

Toward the end of my article Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses, I wrote a preview concerning up and coming reviews of Christmas related haunted house stories. I was to review A Strange Christmas Game by J.H. Riddell and Smee by A.M. Burrage. I have fulfilled those commitments. But the Christmas/holiday season continues to roll along, so I said to myself, “By golly, I have time for one more!” I then discovered how much I enjoy talking to myself, so I continued on with the conversation I was having with yours truly, and I said, “I would be remiss if I do not at least touch on the work of M.R James, after all his name is synonymous with The Christmas Ghost story.”

Unfortunately, this touch amounts to a small nudge, because I am not actually reviewing his writing. Rather, I am reviewing a short film that is based on one of his stories. The film is The Haunted Doll’s House by Stephen Gray, and an interesting film it is!

Christmas festivities are usually not the subjects of M.R. James’s ghost stories. But, they were stories that to were read out loud on Christmas Eve. This is an old English tradition, and you can read about it here.

The Haunted Doll’s House has nothing to do with Christmas. Unless, one thinks of a doll house as a Christmas gift for a young girl, but this is a bit of a stretch. According to literature.wikia.com,  it was first published in 1923 for the magazine Empire review, it later became part of anthology titled “A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories”

Now fast forward ninety years to 2013, and we have Stephen Gray’s film version of the classic story. (I’m sure there were other incarnations somewhere in the ninety years, but oh well to them.)

According to www.thin-ghost.org,  this film was made with “no budget.”  It is minimalism at its finest!  There is live action along with some creepily effective animation.

All I’m going to say about this plot it this: a man purchases an antique dollhouse. The dollhouse is haunted. Want more details? Watch the film.

How does this film stack against James’s original story? I don’t know. I still haven’t read anything from M.R. James. That is my bad and I promise I will do so soon.

For now, enjoy the film. Watch it here:

http://www.thin-ghost.org/dollhouse


 

Betcha thought I forgot about the third Christmas promise I made! I didn’t.  In addition to promising Christmas Ghost story reviews, I said that I would write my own Christmas Ghost Story. And I have. But now I’m checking it twice. I want to make sure it’s both scary and nice!   It will be up soon!