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R.I.P. Christopher Lee


Sir Christopher Lee passed away last weekend at the age of 93.

Oof. This one hits me really hard. I feel as though Christopher Lee has been a part of my life forever. I started watching British horror movies when I was quite young, thanks to weekend TV syndication, and Lee was in so many of them (along with his frequent on-screen collaborator Peter Cushing). He played the monster in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, and the reanimated Kharis in 1959’s The Mummy. He was Sir Henry in The Hound of the Baskervilles (with Cushing as Holmes — a role Lee himself would get to play not long after in 1962’s Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace), and Professor Karl Meister in The Gorgon. He was Lord Summerisle in 1973’s unforgettable The Wicker Man, a role he often pointed to as his favorite, and the ghostly Kurt Meliff in Mario Bava’s trippy, S&M-tinged 1963 horror movie The Whip and the Body, which I first saw on Commander USA’s Groovie Movies under its hilariously imprecise US release title: What! — exclamation point included. He was the master assassin Scaramanga in the 1974 James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun, playing opposite Roger Moore and, incredibly, Hervé Villechaize from Fantasy Island. He guest-starred twice on one of my favorite TV shows, The Avengers, most memorably as Professor Frank N. Stone in the remarkably creepy and sfnal 1967 episode “Never, Never Say Die,” in which Stone is killed over and over again throughout the episode until it’s finally revealed that it isn’t Stone himself who keeps breaking out of the morgue but a cyborg replica he created. I loved Lee’s every movie and TV appearance so much that my heart leapt with joy when I saw his unexpected cameo as the burgomaster in 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. Younger audiences know him as Count Dooku (that name!) in the Star Wars prequels and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, of course, but to me, even after appearing in so many great films, he’ll always be indelibly linked to a single role. Count Dracula.

Say what you will about Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance as the vampire, but Christopher Lee was my Dracula. He portrayed a handsome and romantic Count, although not in that modern, urban fantasy sense of playing the role of boyfriend or lover. His hypnotic seductions of women led to savage bites on the neck, not make-out sessions. And yet there was still something undeniably sexy to it. There were a whopping nine films in his Dracula series, with Lee appearing in all of them but two (The Brides of Dracula, which is a shame, and  The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, which he was wise to skip). My favorite is probably 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but really I like all of them until 1972’s Dracula AD 1972. Once Dracula time-travels to the present, the series jumps the shark in a major way. After all, the Gothic sets and atmosphere of the first six films in the series went a long way toward making them as iconic as they are. Nobody did old stone castles, horse-drawn carriages, and twisted, leafless trees like Hammer!

One of the remarkable things about Christopher Lee is that he never stopped working. His IMDB page says he played 281 roles, and it appears he was working steadily right up until the end of his life. (And that’s not even counting his two heavy metal albums!) But to me, despite that impressive list of roles, Christopher Lee will always be Dracula. Rest in peace, Count. You gave us all so much.

It Follows


When I first heard the plot of It Follows, the new horror film written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, featured a sexually-transmitted curse, I thought it sounded cheap and exploitative. When I saw the first still from the film, which showed a young woman in her underwear tied to a chair (above), I thought, Yeah, I know pretty much everything I need to know about this movie. Not for me. But then the reviews started coming out and friends whose taste I trust started talking about the film, and they were all calling it a thoughtful and sensitive horror movie. Suddenly I was interested.

Having seen It Follows last night, I can tell you those reviews were right. I liked this movie a lot. The concept was handled a lot more creatively, originally, and sensitively than I thought it would be. The script was smart. There were lots of creepy and disturbing scenes that will stay with me for a long time. But most of all, the cast was amazing. Maika Monroe as Jay Height, the young woman who contracts the curse from her new boyfriend, is as much a revelation here as Jess Weixler was in 2007’s Teeth. Her performance is unforgettable. In fact, all of the cast is pretty damn good, which is not something one can often say when the actors are mostly teenagers or in their early twenties.

One of the things I really liked about It Follows is that the young adults weren’t your usual horror-movie young adults. There was no “mean girl” or “bully” or “jock” or “the sassy one.” Jay and her sister Kelly, and their friends Paul, Yara, and Greg, are all very supportive of each other and kind to each other. They aren’t types, and there’s no forced conflict between them. They aren’t hyper-verbal in that Joss Whedon/Diablo Cody mode. They’re just people, and it works wonders. The film feels much more realistic because of it, and makes the audience care about them a lot more than if they were just the usual cannon fodder.

The curse itself is terrifying and relentless. It literally just wants to find you and kill you. There’s no explanation, which in this case is a good choice. Any explanation wouldn’t be good enough and would only service to defuse the fear. The curse is slow — it walks everywhere — but it doesn’t give up. As one character says, “Wherever you are, it’s out there walking right for you.” It takes the form of people you know in order to trick you, but it also takes other forms, the forms of strangers, some of which are remarkably creepy. It was only much later that it occurred to me these other forms might be those of people who previously contracted the curse. (Perhaps not always through consensual means, either. The “woman” in Jay’s kitchen definitely looks like she had the curse forced upon her.) The only way to rid yourself of the curse is to pass it on to someone else, but even then you may not be safe. If that person gets killed by the curse, it circles back to you.

The sex scenes are presented intimately and realistically. These aren’t the acrobatic sex scenes of 1990s erotic thrillers. In fact, there’s nothing erotic about the film, despite sex being both the curse’s catalyst and its possible remedy. I tend to prefer my stories to be sex-positive, and It Follows is pretty firmly in the sex-negative camp, at least in terms of unintended consequences. (It’s actually quite positive about the emotions involved.) I joked with the friend I saw it with that It Follows is the first horror movie about herpes, but ultimately that’s a little too reductive. Yes, the curse is a stand-in for sexually transmitted disease (although one could also make a case for hints of unwanted pregnancy as part of the metaphor, and sexual regret, and sexual trauma, and and and..), but the movie goes beyond such easy symbolism into true creeping, otherworldly dread. There’s often a nightmare logic to it: parents are mostly absent, the city around them is mostly deserted, no one seems to know or care where these young adults go or what they do. It all adds up to a truly creepy atmosphere, enriched significantly by Disasterpeace’s fantastic electronic score.

It’s not a perfect movie, of course. No movie is. For one thing, It Follows goes on too long past what should obviously be the climax (although I did love that somewhat ambiguous final shot). Said climax involves a plan that could backfire so easily that I’m surprised the characters didn’t take that into account. The curse definitely seems to take longer to walk to some places than others, even though the distances don’t seem all that different. There isn’t much moral debate about consigning strangers to death to try to save yourself.

But I definitely feel the movie’s strengths are greater than its weaknesses, thanks mainly to the script, the direction, and the astonishingly strong cast. It Follows is one of the best and most interesting horror films I’ve seen in a while. Highly recommended.

The Great VHS Cull

Goodwill still accepts donations of VHS videotapes, so I’m bringing in 40 tapes this morning. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. I have over 100 VHS videotapes I don’t watch anymore that need to be donated. They’re horror movies, mostly, but also a lot of mainstream films I enjoyed like Goodfellas  and Schindler’s List. This is going to clear out a lot of room in the closet where I’ve been storing them!

It’s funny, looking over all my VHS tapes, I realize I only watched most of them once. Kind of a waste of money and space. But I was big into collecting videos for a long time. I’m not sure why. Psychological reasons? I’m far less concerned with collecting these days. It’s a money issue, and a storage space issue, and just not as much of a compulsion.

But you can’t sell VHS tapes these days. No one wants ’em. So it’s off to Goodwill with them!

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy


Leonard Nimoy passed away this morning at the age of 83. Like most science-fiction nerds my age (or even not my age), I knew him best as Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek. Those weekend reruns during my youth, as well as the late-night reruns during my high-school years, were vastly influential, helping me turn my imagination toward otherworldly creatures and strange planets with eerie red skies (they almost always had red skies on Star Trek).

As with every young person who was an emotional basket case, I gravitated toward Spock because he seemed like he had his shit together. He didn’t, of course. Every season included at least one episode where Spock would lose it and put his hand through a wall or another person. Then someone would remind him he was half-Vulcan, and he would pause, stand a bit taller, and straighten the hem of his uniform shirt. That resonated with me, too. It helped show me that it was possible to let myself feel uncomfortable or painful emotions and still come out the other side okay.

Spock was such an influential character that each subsequent iteration of Star Trek tried to have its own non-human, semi-emotionless character, with diminishing returns the further we got from the original: Data on The Next Generation, Odo on Deep Space Nine, Tuvok and Seven of Nine on Voyager, and T’Pol on Enterprise. None were Spock. None matched Spock. Arguably, only Data became something greater than the Spock-sized hole he was supposed to fill, although I do have a soft spot for Odo as well.

Back to Leonard Nimoy. Although Star Trek was a big part of my youth, it was not my only exposure to Nimoy, who showed up on my TV screen quite a bit. He was in a couple of seasons of Mission: Impossible (it was always a thrill when Nimoy showed up in whatever rerun I was watching because I already knew him as Mr. Spock then). He hosted In Search Of…, a weekly paranormal exploration program that fired up my imagination as much as Star Trek, if not more so. He also hosted another program I watched religiously in the early 1980s: Standby: Lights! Camera! Action!, a behind-the-scenes Hollywood docuseries that frequently focused on special effects and makeup in movies, resulting in many, many segments on monsters and aliens. It was right up my alley. Later, there was the “Marge vs. the Monorail” episode of The Simpsons, which is still one of my favorite episodes more than twenty years later. (IMDB tells me he also guest-starred on an episode of Get Smart, another favorite from my youth. I wish I could remember that episode, called “The Dead Spy Scrawls,” but my memory fails me.)

In films, I knew him from the Star Trek movies, of course, but also, perhaps most importantly, from Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which I’d argue is one of the few examples of a remake being better than the original (and I love the original). He doesn’t get the best scenes — Donald Sutherland gets most of them; Brooke Adams and Veronica Cartwright get a few — but Nimoy’s presence is enormous.

It always was, in everything he did. He was a big, instantly recognizable part of my formative years, and his passing leaves me deeply saddened. Rest in peace, Mr. Nimoy. You were, and always shall be, a legend.