APES ON FILM: KARLOFF — The Quiet Maniac

Posted on: Jan 3rd, 2023 By:

By Lucas Hardwick
Contributing Writer

 

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny.

 

 

 

MANIACAL MAYHEM: THE INVISIBLE RAY, BLACK FRIDAY, and THE STRANGE DOOR — 1936, 1940, 1951
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Charles Laughton, Richard Stapley, Sally Forrest
Director: Lambert Hillyer, Arthur Lubin, Joseph Pevney
Rated: PG
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
Region: B
BRD Release Date: October 17, 2022
Audio Formats: English: LPCM 2.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Run Time: 230 minutes total
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

Anytime the name Karloff is blasted across a film’s title card in big, scary letters, audiences can pretty much count on a degree of the macabre to grace their forthcoming entertainment.

“Karloff” is such a fitting name to correlate with horror, it seems strange that it was devised before the fame of Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN came to Boris Karloff. If it weren’t for the name belonging to the actor, “Karloff” could very well be its own title for a horror film; in fact, it is sometimes seen before or bigger than the titles of the films it’s featured in. The name evokes the exotic and mysterious, and is strange enough to warn viewers that they’re not in Kansas anymore. The name so easily rolls off the tongue that it seems a miracle of marketing; a perfect conceit designed to transmit its associations exactly.

William Henry Pratt chose the Boris Karloff pseudonym at the beginning of his acting career with the very intent to assert an exotic sensibility. The name Karloff is said to be derived from the Pratt family’s Slavic roots; however, this is just one of many theories regarding the moniker. At any rate, “Karloff” was good enough for Universal to bill the actor for several years so garishly. The final instance of Karloff’s singular label occurred in 1936 with the movie THE INVISIBLE RAY, which is the first of three Boris Karloff films in Eureka Entertainment’s new MANIACAL MAYHEM collection.

[Invisible Ray]

THE INVISIBLE RAY is the textbook mad scientist tale of Dr. Janos Rukh who is intent on harnessing the power of an ancient element known as Radium X. Rukh invites a group of colleagues to his gothic laboratory, and using a powerful telescope and the ancient light rays of the Andromeda galaxy, demonstrates that Radium X exists in the form of a meteorite that crashed in southern Africa millions of years ago. There are probably less convoluted ways to go about discovering an ancient radioactive element, but where’s the fun in that?

Once Rukh is able to exploit the power of Radium X, he’s not only melting rocks and scaring the local natives, but he’s also glowing in the dark and losing his temper. Rukh’s precarious condition becomes compounded by a little IP infringement and good-natured infidelity, sending him into a murderous mindset. Upon pursuing his colleagues to a conference in Paris, the maddened doctor becomes hellbent to use his rock-melting ray gun to dispatch the expedition team that did him so wrong.

As if “Karloff” alone wasn’t enough to get asses into seats, Universal doubles down in THE INVISIBLE RAY and casts Bela Lugosi as Rukh’s contemporary, Dr. Benet. Playing against type, Lugosi’s Benet is cool and collected and only wants to help his comrade. Benet is one of Lugosi’s most reserved and mature performance, demonstrating what he could be capable of aside from the usual demented heavies and crazed monsters. And despite being equipped with the kitschy traits of a Batman villain, Karloff never takes his performance over the top, but does convey an elevated sense of the maniacal. He’s frantic and harried, but never as nutty as rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the next step of his scheme. Rukh comes across more troubled than downright evil.

[The Invisible Ray]

With more plot than the story needs, THE INVISIBLE RAY is a brisk account of too much science in the hands of an emotionally driven individual, which is usually bad for characters but great for entertaining. And showcasing just the right amount of weirdness with impressive special effects, this Karloff vehicle is a thrilling entry in Eureka’s MANIACAL MAYHEM collection.

The title BLACK FRIDAY may evoke some sort of interstitial holiday-themed horror about a bloodthirsty mob of Christmas shoppers. Instead, the 1940 film is a switcheroo tale that has little to do with the penultimate weekday aside from an unfortunate accident involving a carload of gangsters and a literature professor occurring on a Friday the 13th.

Karloff is Dr. Ernest Sovac, seen at the very beginning of the movie being escorted to his execution. On his way to the chair, Sovac shares his final notes with a newspaper reporter, retrospectively permitting the audience to learn how the good doctor arrived at this mortal predicament.

Essentially told in flashback, BLACK FRIDAY is more a story about Sovac’s colleague than Sovac himself. The doctor’s journal reveals the tale of how his friend, literature professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) suffers severe brain injuries after being on the business end of a carload of gangsters

in hot pursuit of rival thug Red Cannon (also Stanley Ridges). Cannon and Kingsley are both injured in the accident, and Sovac being the doctor on scene, tends to the two men.

Once Sovac learns that Cannon is privy to a hidden pile of cash to the tune of five-hundred thousand bucks, the doctor starts daydreaming about the kind of laboratory that amount of money could buy. This, of course, steers Sovac into concocting a little surgery, transplanting the good parts of Cannon’s brain into the dying parts of his friend Kingsley’s in hopes that the mixing of minds will reveal the location of the gangster’s secret stash.

Sovac’s procedure saves Kingsley’s life, but before long, the dweeby, good-natured professor begins to exhibit unsavory proclivities. Sovac gets more than he bargained for as Cannon’s personality sporadically takes over Kingsley and sets about exacting revenge on the group of gangsters that ran him down. From this point on, Sovac is not only desperate to achieve his original motives, but he’s at the mercy of a gangster gone wild. And much like Dr. Frankenstein, Sovac has created a monster.

[Black Friday]

Karloff basically plays second fiddle to Ridges for the rest of the film, which unfolds like a Jekyll and Hyde story. There’s hardly any redeemable characters, especially since Karloff’s motives are so misguided to begin with. He doesn’t perform crazy experimental brain surgery to save his friend, he does it in hopes to uncover a gangster’s ill-gotten gains. What’s more, is Sovac had to anticipate some degree of identity crisis in order to learn where Cannon hid his money. This puts Sovac in an even more diabolical role for risking his friend’s mental state. Yet, somehow, the film seems to want to audience to sympathize with Sovac. Sure, he’s in a mess, but it’s a mess of his own making under the guise of a really troubling rationale.

BLACK FRIDAY pairs Karloff with Bela Lugosi in the credits once again. This time, Lugosi is one of Cannon’s adversaries and never really engages Karloff in the sense audiences might expect. The role of Sovac was originally written for Lugosi, but Karloff showed interest, so the part went to him instead. Lugosi, however, may have been better suited as Sovac considering the scheming nature of the part. Lugosi’s Marnay is a pretty stale character, and doesn’t demonstrate the actor’s strengths. Lugosi is fine in the role, but any actor would have been just as suited for it.

BLACK FRIDAY is another example of science gone mad; however, the film doesn’t know quite know what it wants from its audience. It’s easy to sympathize with poor professor Kingsley who never asks for anything that happens to him. Meanwhile, Karloff’s reserved disposition doesn’t villainize him, yet his dubious motives are the driving force of conflict in the film. And while Karloff and Lugosi may be enough to get the audience’s attention, it’s Stanley Ridges’ cracking performance as he darts between the mild-mannered Kingsley and the disreputable Cannon that viewers won’t want to miss.

The third and final film in Eureka’s collection is the 1951 gothic period thriller THE STRANGE DOOR. Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door,” Universal’s adaptation stars Karloff in a supporting role next to the scene-devouring Charles Laughton who portrays the film’s heavy.

[The Strange Door]

In yet another story of elaborate revenge, Sire Alain de Maletroit (Laughton) entraps local high-born scoundrel Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) in a barroom brawl that stages him as a murderer. Beaulieu makes a break for it, and in his escape from the pursuant mob, he happens across the de Maletroit estate secured by its “strange door.” Beaulieu finds more than the refuge he bargained for inside, falling right into de Maletroit’s trap.

In the spirit of big gestures, it’s revealed that Alain’s snare is part of a much larger, longer grudge against his brother Edmond (Paul Cavanaugh) who he’s secretly locked up in a dungeon for the past 20 years. The duplicitous Alain intends to force his niece Blanche (Sally Forrest) into marrying de Beaulieu as an insult to her father Edmond, with the underhanded arrangement of holding the couple prisoner on the de Maletroit estate. This is all part of Alain’s over-baked revenge directed at Edmond for marrying his unrequited love who died giving birth to Blanche. It’s a lot to process.

Karloff plays the family servant Voltan, who spends most of his time tending to Edmond and sneaking around the mansion peeping through holes in the walls. At one point, Edmond asks Voltan to kill de Beaulieu, but de Beaulieu isn’t quite the scum everyone thinks he is, and he and Blanche eventually fall in love causing big problems for Alain’s once air-tight plans for vengeance.

THE STRANGE DOOR is a wonderful show of excess on several fronts, with a scene-chewing Charles Laughton leading the way. Laughton picks this film up and runs away with it; it’s a shame he didn’t have a mustache to twirl to make him all the more devious. From sets and costumes to Laughton and his band of bloused bullies and their meticulous scheming, this movie is a delightful cartoony extravagance that will give viewers a heart-racing case of the wim-wams in its final anxiety-inducing moments.

Eureka Entertainment presents these three Universal horrors in high-definition as an exciting two-disc, Blu-ray set, packaged in a limited-edition slipcase. Special features include three chatty and insightful commentaries from film historians Stephen Jones, Kevin Lyons, Kim Newman, and Jonathan Rigby, along with three radio adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door.” A limited-edition booklet with new essays from film writers Andrew Graves, Rich Johnson, and Craig Ian Mann is also included in the first 2000 copies.

Invisible rays, a gangster with two brains, and a ruthless patriarch, MANIACAL MAYHEM never falls short of deranged individuals making everyone’s life a living hell, yet Karloff’s performances throughout evoke a quieter madness: something more troubling that greed or revenge. These films boast Karloff’s subtle abilities as a performer, oddly with roles that are seemingly more fit for an over-the-top talent. This Eureka collection offers a revelation of Karloff as he taps into the internal, tortured aspects of these disturbed characters, and conveys the unspoken human elements of maniacal movie monsters.

 

 

 

When he’s not working as a Sasquatch stand-in for sleazy European films, Lucas Hardwick spends time writing film essays and reviews for We Belong Dead and Screem magazines. Lucas also enjoys writing horror shorts and has earned Quarterfinalist status in the Killer Shorts and HorrOrigins screenwriting contests. You can find Lucas’ shorts on Coverfly.Related: slDxB, voPT, EeQV, mFVBRj, sfu, tBFB, wgoBd, xLyb, wOXiYk, tMsV, HTHQv, jdl, ZvmSP, RZm, fTiG,

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

APES ON FILM: [DOUBLE-FEATURE] – Good Guys -AND- Vampires Wear Black

Posted on: Dec 28th, 2022 By:

By Contributing Writers
John Michlig and Anthony Taylor

 

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny.

 

 

GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (SPECIAL EDITION) – 1978
5 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Chuck Norris, Anne Archer, James Franciscus, Dana Andrews, Lloyd Haynes
Director: Ted Post
Rated: PG
Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics
Region: A (Locked)
BRD Release Date: August 20, 2022
Audio Formats: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Run Time: 95 minutes
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

There are a certain set of expectations when cueing up a Chuck Norris film that GOOD GUYS WHERE BLACK does not live up to, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Norris’s role in GOOD GUYS WHERE BLACK is the debut of the persona he would eventually make famous. His previous film and debut as star was 1977’s BREAKER! BREAKER!, which was not at all in the vein of the eventual stoic martial-arts-hero-doing-helicopter-kicks character he would portray for the balance of his career. However, one of the reasons this film is genuinely entertaining is the fact that Norris hasn’t yet latched onto the simpler “fighting fury” cartoon his subsequent roles encompassed.

After an intriguingly long and eerie opening credits sequence (the ’78 version of “hi-tech visuals”–and all that implies – accompanied by a soundtrack that still haunts me) the film opens in Vietnam, circa 1973, where we meet a wise-cracking dressed-in-black special ops crew – the Black Tigers – and get to know them well enough to be deeply disturbed when we witness a POW rescue attempt gone wrong (and, as made clear on the 2K Master, very obviously shot day for night ). Also disturbing is Chuck Norris, who portrays Major John T. Booker, parading around without his signature mustache or beard.

After that tragic sequence of events (the failed rescue, not the facially bald Chuck visage), we fast-forward to 1978, where we see Booker racing cars. From the track, he goes directly to a small classroom where he is a professor teaching a class on the Vietnam war.

See what they did there? Our guy is an intellectual, sure – but he also races cars, so we know he hasn’t shed his adventurous side and gone all egghead. That’s not all; Professor Booker is openly critical of the Vietnam war and America’s role in the conflict, which is pretty darn forward-looking for a late-seventies adventure flick.

He meets Margaret (Anne Archer), who stays behind after his lecture and says she is a reporter digging up information on his unit’s failed raid in ‘Nam and possible government complicity in the disaster. At the very same time, it appears that members of Booker’s Black Tigers team are being eliminated one by one. As per adventure film guidelines, Booker “gets with” Margaret, culminating in a truly rare – but entirely period-accurate – shot of Norris in “tighty whities.” Their coupling is not entirely arbitrary however, as it provides an opportunity to show Booker enduring night sweats as he relives wartime nightmares.

GOOD GUYS WHERE BLACK is Norris’s breakout film, but it’s surprisingly – and refreshingly – free of the action-drenched, by-the-numbers formula that made up his subsequent films. This may be attributed to the direction by Ted Post, who helmed HANG ‘EM HIGH, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, MAGNUM FORCE, GO TELL THE SPARTANS, and NIGHTKILL.

After the opening Vietnam sequence, the film becomes more political thriller than the patented Norris martial arts blur of combat that became his trademark (James Franciscus is a perfect smarmy politician). Good Guys is a film that Norris constructed and pitched, not a vehicle he merely climbed aboard. We get a peek at some elements of the Norris-to-be, particularly when he watches a plane, in which newfound bedmate Margaret is a passenger, vaporize soon after takeoff, and we never hear her mentioned again in the film.

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray presentation includes energetic and genuinely entertaining commentary by Mike Leeder and Arne Venema, a “making of” featurette, an interview (curiously unedited) with director Ted Post, radio and TV promotional material, and theatrical trailers.

Revisiting this film for the first time in many years was a real pleasure, and it’s highly recommended for both Norris fans and action/thriller lovers. Get to the chopper!

John Michlig

 

 

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE – 1935
3 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Jean Hersholt, Carroll Borland
Director: Tod Browning
Rated: Unrated
Studio: Warner Brothers Archive Collection
Region: A
BRD Release Date: October 11, 2022
Audio Formats: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p HD
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Run Time: 60 minutes
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

A remake of director Browning’s most infamous lost film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE lands wide of the mark, missing the bullseye by a fairly wide margin while remaining a stimulating viewing experience.

Though Lionel Barrymore (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, KEY LARGO) is ostensibly the star of the picture, the real attraction for modern viewers is the tantalizing glimpse of what LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT might have offered, as well as Lugosi’s first revisit of Dracula under the guise of Count Mora. Also of note is the introduction of Carroll Borland as Mora’s daughter Luna, who provides the original visual pattern for multiple generations of Goth girls – inspiring not only Charles Addams’s Morticia and Wednesday Addams, but Lily Munster and the likes of television horror hosts Vampira and Elvira as well.

In 1927’s silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, Lon Chaney played three different parts, as assayed in this film by Barrymore, Atwill, and Lugosi – much more a tour de force performance one would assume without being able to actually see the film, which was by many reports no more successful creatively than this talkie remake. Lugosi would go on to play similar vampire roles in THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE, and finally returned to the role that made him world famous as Dracula in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in 1948. What sets this film apart is the feeling that Lugosi – having been a major horror film star for four years at this point – is letting it all hang out as Count Mora, playing the role of Dracula as he would like to have played him 1931. More toothy, less verbose (he has almost no dialog whatsoever), and really leaning into the campiness of the stereotype he provided in Dracula. This performance almost plays as a parody of Count Dracula, and it’s enjoyable because he was embracing his destiny to be the go-to visual for vampires in media for time immemorial. Likewise, amateur actor Borland is really only in the film as set dressing, but she is unforgettable and iconic as the vampire girl Luna. In two possible cinematic firsts, she provides a performance embracing female-on-female vampire activity as well as the first recoil and hostile hiss by a vampire – something that has become de rigueur for night walkers when faced by a cross or holy water in subsequent genre films.

Where MARK OF THE VAMPIRE fails is at a story level. The convoluted screenplay produced an original edit of the film that ran twenty minutes longer than the version released to theaters, which hints at a lot of subplots and scenes that were ultimately deemed superfluous by the studio. Whether they might have made the farfetched plot more palatable is hard to say – as it stands, the plot isn’t difficult to follow, but it’s not even remotely realistic – but should that matter in a film about “vampires” that looks this gorgeous? Art direction and set design far surpass that of Universal’s DRACULA, with MGM a latecomer to the horror film, throwing money at the latest box-office-darling genre. Cinematography by L. William O’Connell and John Stumar set the mood well, and acquit the story with appropriate gothic panache.

Warner Brothers Archive Collections presentation of the film was sourced from a new 4K scan from the original nitrate negative, and the results are impressive. Picture density, film grain, detail, and contrast are all the best I’ve ever seen for this title, and absolutely worth the purchase price. Supplemental features include a legacy commentary by author/critic Kim Newman (Anno Dracula) and writer/editor Stephen Jones is entertaining and informing, as it’s more of a conversation between two film loving friends than dry historical annotation. Also included are “A Thrill for Thelma” – a 1935 featurette unrelated to the film, as well as a Harmon-Ising cartoon, The Calico Dragon and the film’s original trailer. Only the feature is in HD.

Though the production history and performers and creators of this film are of more interest than the film itself, I still recommend grabbing a copy. For a film with this much historical significance to Lugosi/Browning completists as well as vampire lovers, this disc is worth picking up.

Anthony Taylor

 

*Anthony Taylor is not only the Minister of Science, but also Defender of the Faith. His reviews and articles have appeared in magazines such as Screem, Fangoria, Famous Monsters of Filmland, SFX, Video WatcH*Dog, and many more.

*When he’s not hanging around the top of the Empire State Building, John Michlig spends his time writing books like It Came from Bob’s Basement, KONG: King Of Skull Island, and GI Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action. Read more at The Fully Articulated Newsletter and The Denham Restoration Project.

 

Ape caricature art by Richard Smith.

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week: From a Star-Crossed Lover to a Blood-Thirsty Vampiress, Alessa Rogers of the Atlanta Ballet, Dances Her Way into a Town of Lost Souls in Helen Pickett’s Ballet Adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real”

Posted on: Mar 18th, 2015 By:

by Melanie Crew
Managing Editor

Alessa Rogers as Esmeralda - Camino Real - Photo Credit: Charlie McCullers

Alessa Rogers as Esmeralda – CAMINO REAL – Photo Credit: Charlie McCullers

Alessa Rogers, professional ballet dancer with the Atlanta Ballet, will be dancing her way into a “dead-end place in a Spanish-speaking town” in a ballet adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1953 stage-play, CAMINO REAL,  sharing the role of “Esmeralda” (a character derived from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) with fellow company dancer, Tara Lee. The world premiere of Williams’ “lost classic” of love, redemption and courage has been adapted and choreographed by Atlanta Ballet’s choreographer in residence, Helen Pickett, with sound and original score by Peter Salem (get a taste here), which will be performed live with the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra. The Atlanta Ballet’s CAMINO REAL premieres this Friday, March 20, with a red carpet opening night, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, running through March 22. For ticket information and performance schedule, please click here.

Alessa is currently in her seventh season with the Atlanta Ballet, the “oldest continuously performing ballet company in the United States.” She began training with Daphne Kendall, leaving school at 14 to pursue her dancing career at the North Carolina School of the Arts, which led to her spending one season with the North Carolina Dance Theatre II before her journey to Atlanta and the Atlanta Ballet. Alessa has danced across the country having been a guest artist at the National Choreographer’s Initiative in California (See video of Alessa detailing her experience at the NCI here) and at the Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance in Asheville, NC.

Alessa has filled the dancing shoes of many strong female characters since she began her dancing career, but her favorite roles include “Juliette” in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s ROMEO ET JULIETTE; “Margaret” in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s “The Exiled”; “Lucy” in Michael Pink’s adaptation of DRACULA; “Ophelia” in Stephen MillsHAMLET, “Lover Girl” in David Bintley’s “CARMINA BURANA; and “Princess Irene” in the world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s THE PRINCESS & THE GOBLIN.

Photo Credit: Charlie McCullers

Photo Credit: Charlie McCullers

ATLRetro caught up with Alessa for a quick interview about her trek into the dancing world; fully immersing one’s self into a character; her take on Helen Pickett’s ballet adaptation of Williams’ CAMINO REAL; and the sweet, sweet smell of vampires.

And while you’re taking a peek at our little Q&A with Alessa, get a taste of her transformation into “Juliette” in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “ROMEO ET JULIETTE here, which premiered this past February.

ATLRetro: What drew you to Atlanta Ballet?

Alessa Rogers: I came to Atlanta without much forethought simply because my older sister was already here dancing with the ballet. At the time I thought it would be a transition year between my first professional contract when I was 17 (with North Carolina Dance Theater second company) and figuring out where to go next. Now that I’ve been here for nine years, I’d say it’s been quite a long and wonderful transition!

How does it feel to be a part of Atlanta Ballet founder and dance visionary, Dorothy Alexander’s dream of bringing quality ballet to Atlanta?

You know so much has changed in the dance world since Dorothy Alexander opened Atlanta Ballet over 80 years ago. And even in the nine years that I have been here we have gone from being what could be described as a regional dance company into a world-class organization that has gone on international tours and consistently brings in the world’s greatest living choreographers. So it’s been a really amazing experience to be a part of that

Maillot's Romeo et Juliette - Photo Credit: Charlie  McCullers

Maillot’s ROMEO ET JULIETTE – Photo Credit: Charlie McCullers

growth and to be able to grow myself within that. I think the most gratifying part of my job is when someone who has never seen dance before comes to a show and realizes that it is completely unlike the stilted, inaccessible performance that they had anticipated. You might be surprised at how much even the most jeans and baseball-cap wearing of people can enjoy a night at the ballet. (You can even come in your jeans, by the way!)

We see that you just recently wrapped your role as Juliette in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s ROMEO ET JULIETTE. What was it like to play the part of one of the world’s most well-known literary female characters?

Juliette was the highlight of my career so far. Having so recently finished, it is hard to imagine ever having that profound an experience on stage again- but of course I have to hope that another ballet that special will come along again. To portray a character that everyone is familiar with, I actually had to throw all my preconceived ideas out the window. I had to forget everything I thought I knew and had been told about Juliette so that I could start fresh, with no one else’s interpretations in my head; and be able to discover her for myself again as if for the first time. That’s what I tried to do at least.

What was it like playing “Lucy” in Michael Pink’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA? Anything fun about that performance you’d like to share with our readers?

Lucy” was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had on stage. She is such a complex character and it is almost always more fun to be the dark character than a sweet, vapid heroine. It’s something I hope to be able to do more in the future- the villain role. In the ballet DRACULA, the blood is made from corn syrup and everything gets drenched in it; so my pointe shoes, my hair, the whole backstage smells sweet. Every time I smell corn syrup now I think – vampires.

"Lucy" in Dracula. Photo Credit: Charlie McCullers

“Lucy” in DRACULA. Photo Credit: Charlie McCullers

Who or what influenced you to become a dancer? Any intriguing stories about how you got started?

I saw my sister’s dance recital when I was four years old, and in it there was a piece with bumblebee costumes. I decided right then and there I had to start ballet so that I could get one. (Full disclosure: Still haven’t gotten one!) And basically since I was four years old, I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer. I remember my sister and I once thinking it’d be a great idea to sleep in a split the whole night. The next day I couldn’t walk, but these are just the things we did (And we weren’t even the crazy ones!) I had lots of ideas growing up about what to do after I retired (dancers retire in their 30s generally) but I knew I’d have to be a dancer first. I don’t know that I ever made a conscious decision about the matter – it was just something I took for granted would happen.

"Esmeralda" - Camino Real - Photo Credit: Charlie  McCullers

“Esmeralda” – Camino Real – Photo Credit: Charlie McCullers

If you could be any character in any ballet or adaptation that you haven’t played before, who would it be and why?

Hmm. I don’t know that I really have any dream roles, per se, though I do have a lot of choreographers whose work I would love to do: Alejandro Cerrudo, Nacho Duato, Marco Goecke, Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, to name a few. My favorite roles are acting roles, so any chance I have to inhabit a character is always a fun process for me. I think you learn so much about the human experience when you put yourself into the skin of someone other than yourself. There are some great works of literature that I would love to see adapted into ballets – JANE EYRE, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, THE MISTS OF AVALON.

But actually, now that I think about it- when I was 11 or 12, I went to see the ballet THE RITE OF SPRING choreographed by Salvatore Aiello. I brought my book with me to the show because back then I was very bored by ballet. But as soon as the curtain went up everything changed. I had never seen a ballet like that before – there was nothing pretty about it; no tutus or buns or pink satin ribbons. It was raw and physical and scary and I loved it. It changed everything for me about my perception of what dance is capable of. At the end of the ballet the lead woman is stripped down to her underwear and covered in paint and is sacrificed – that’s a ballet I’d love to do!

Can you tell our readers a little (without giving too much away) about your role as “Esmeralda” in Helen Pickett’s adaptation and world premiere of Tennessee Williams’ stage-play, CAMINO REAL?

I am sharing the role of “Esmeralda” in our world premiere next week. The play is inhabited by characters from literature, like “Don Quixote” and “Casanova.” “Esmeralda” has her roots in Victor Hugo’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. She is a young gypsy girl who is held captive by her mother and is sold as a prostitute. Not a role I’ve had too much experience in playing fortunately!

Tennessee Williams’ CAMINO REAL, first performed in 1953, was one of the first American plays to break the fourth wall. Do you and the company

Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real"

Tennessee Williams’ CAMINO REAL

have anything special planned for this exciting three-day performance? Will there be additional runs?

I don’t want to give too much away, but there are a lot of firsts in this ballet. I think the audience will be surprised by a lot of what they see – many of the dancers (me included) actually have speaking roles which has been a challenge for us. There is an original score, original costumes, an original set and they are all amazing. The collaborative nature of this ballet has been so exciting. Just being in the same studio with all these talented, creative designers and artists who are working so hard (I’m pretty sure some of the production team has just been sleeping at the studio in order to get this massive ballet built.) has been so cool to watch. I just can’t wait to get into the theater and see it all come together and come to life!

Who are some of your favorite vintage and retro dancers and why?

I grew up in Charlotte (for the most part) and North Carolina Dance Theatre (NCDT) dancer Kati Hanlon was my hero. I think more than her being an amazing dancer, which she was, she was a really kind person. That affected me a lot as a young dancer – having someone who was so down-to-earth and approachable to emulate, as opposed to an icy, photo-shopped, perfect cut-out who couldn’t be bothered to smile at the clumsy kid who idolized her. Actually Kati was the lead woman in the production of THE RITE OF SPRING that I spoke of earlier. Eventually she became my teacher and then my co-worker at NCDT. It was one of my first magical stage moments the first time I shared a stage with her as a co-worker.

Nowadays, it is the people who I am surrounded by on a daily basis who inspire me the most. Atlanta Ballet dancers like Rachel Van Buskirk and Jackie Nash who can be so powerful and so soft at the same time. It’s interesting because those two have a very different style of dancing than I do. But I love to watch them and cheer them on and learn what I can from them.

What’s next for Alessa Rogers?

A show a month until our season ends in May and then guesting with the New Orleans Ballet Theater and Wabi Sabi in the summertime. I hope to be able to keep dancing until they drag me out of the studio when I’m around a hundred and then after that…I have some more plans!

Can you tell us something you’d like folks to know about you that they don’t know already?

In my spare time, I like to relax by rock climbing!

What question do you wish somebody would ask you in an interview but they never do and what’s the answer?

Q: Would you like some ice cream? And my answer? Yes, yes I do!

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Kool Kat of the Week: Film is NOT Dead! Ben Ruder of Enjoy the Film, Dishes out a Series of Retro Creature Features this Halloween Season, with “Monsters in Black and White”

Posted on: Oct 21st, 2014 By:

BRuder - archive - Resized
Enjoy the Film presents Monsters in Black and White; Cinevision Screening Room (visit the event page for address and directions); All tickets $10 (Atlanta Film Festival members save 20%).

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951); Dir. Robert Wise; Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe; Thursday, Oct 23 @ 7:30 p.m.; Tickets here; Trailer here.

DRACULA (1931); Dir. TodBrowning; Starring Bela Lugosi, HelenChandler and David Manners; Thursday, Oct 30 @ 7:30 p.m.; Tickets here; Trailer here.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (in 3-D) (1954); Dir. JackArnold; Starring Richard Carlson, Julie Adams and Richard Denning; Saturday, Nov 1 @ 7:30 p.m.; Tickets here; Trailer here.

by Aleck Bennett,
Contributing Writer

Halloween has once again swept in, carrying along with it a nostalgia that evokes childhood memories of ghost stories, trick-or-treating, dressing like monsters or simply watching them on the screen. It’s the perfect time for projectionist extraordinaire Ben Ruder to team up with the Cinevision Screening Room to bring us Monsters in Black and White: a series of films celebrating not only the monsters of old, but the formats that brought them to us. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and DRACULA will be presented in gorgeous 35mm, and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON will screen in a restored Dolby Digital 3-D projection. All three will, of course, unspool on the screen in glorious black and white! the-day-the-earth-stood-still-1951-everettEach screening will be introduced by a very special guest (check the Enjoy the Film website for up-to-date listings), but the night before Halloween will see Kool Kat Shane Morton, also known as, Ghost Host with the Most—Professor Morté of the Silver Scream Spookshow—materialize with a bevy of bloodsuckers to deliver Bela Lugosi in DRACULA!

Ben Ruder has been a constant fixture of Atlanta film screenings for close to a decade now. A former projectionist and manager at the Plaza Theatre, he now runs free 35mm screenings for Emory University’s Cinematheque (which sources its pristine prints from the UCLA Film & Television Archive) and hosts special film events at the Cinevision Screening Room through RuderMedia and Enjoy the Film. I recently asked him about this month’s film series, the importance of presentation, and the futures of both film and digital as media.

ATLRetro:Celebrating the 35mm format is certainly bucking the trend in Atlanta, with so many venues converting to digital projection. But at the same time, it’s a huge topic of conversation in the nationwide film community, especially this month with Quentin Tarantino‘s recent takeover of management of the draculaNew Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. What fuels your passion for the format, and your efforts to keep it alive?

Ben Ruder: I really enjoyed showing movies and running theaters in the mid ‘90s in St. Louis. When I returned to the world of movies in the mid-2000s, running film and then managing the Plaza Theatre for Jonny & Gayle Rej, the bug really stuck and I have been involved in it ever since. Both analog and digital formats have their place and it’s really the quality of the product and presentation that’s important. The film prints that were exhibited should still be seen if they can be done well, but for many reasons they no longer exist or the quality is bad. New prints happen on occasion, but are very expensive and rarely see much of a run. Movies can be accessed in countless forms these days, but they are really intended to be seen on a large screen with an audience.

On a related note, what are your thoughts on the push for digital archiving? There are currently a lot of back-and-forth talks between Kodak, Fujifilm and the major studios about keeping archival film in use, with the studios pushing for digital.

It’s extremely complicated, of course, and it comes down to business decisions as funds are limited. The US has produced so much great film art and puts so little behind the preservation of it in comparison to countries like France, Germany, Norway just to name a few. Here, a lot of the work is up to private organizations and institutes such as the UCLA Film & creature_from_the_black_lagoon_xlgTelevision Archive.

What went into choosing which films you were going to showcase at these screenings? Were they personal choices, or technical ones?

These films were chosen because of the Halloween season, of course, but also because they have all screened in that room before and we know how amazing they look and sound. The presentations will be in a room designed for technical performance, and unfortunately mass audiences don’t get the showmanship or quality that they deserve in many venues. I want to show how much the presentation factors in to seeing a movie. The multiplexes are no longer filled with scratched & dirty film prints, but still can suffer from dim bulbs and misaligned 3-D equipment. The Dolby Digital 3D that will be shown is not seen in very many venues, but will really show off how well 3D can look when done right.

What do you think the future holds for film in the motion picture world? Do you see a developing backlash against digital or will film be largely relegated to repertory screenings and the like? Or do we face a future where digital becomes the accepted new format?

Digital is the accepted new format. I wouldn’t want to see a new action blockbuster on film that was shot and processed with digital in mind. Special films like the upcoming INTERSTELLAR 35mm & 70mm shows may lead the way for unique events. We just need to make sure that passionate and educated staff are taking care of the presentations and equipment.

Are there any other screenings or projects in the works for RuderMedia and Enjoy the Film? Any future stuff we oughta know about?BRuder - emory-205

I am working with the team at Cinevision on a four-feature series for January and we are seeking out groups that want to see all kind of genres on the big screen. Whether it’s horror, foreign, film noir, action or just titles that don’t get an Atlanta date. We want to show people movies in the best possible way and make each show special. During the winter months, I’ll be focusing efforts on producing a documentary series about the passionate exhibitors & preservationists that I love talking to and heading to Germany to interview some film veterans there. I can also be seen this fall up in the booth projecting 35mm at the free Emory University screenings.

So there you have it. Come out to the Cinevision Screening Room to catch three retro creature features the way they should be seen: on the screen, with an audience and with experts handling the projection for the best possible viewing experience. For a film geek like me, it’s a means of presentation that has yet to be bettered.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

All photos courtesy of Ben Ruder and used with permission.

 

 

 

 

 

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RETRO REVIEW: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE! An Alluring But Controversial Lugosi/Browning Classic Haunts the Big Screen Once More the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: May 26th, 2014 By:

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935); Dir. Tod Browning; Starring Bela Lugosi, Carroll Borland, Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan; Friday, May 30 (8:00 p.m., 9:45 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.), Saturday, May 31 (8:45 p.m.) and Sunday, June 1 (5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Tickets $5.00; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

As part of the Plaza Theatre’s week-long celebration of Bela Lugosi starting Friday May 30 (full preview here), one of his greatest—and most controversial—motion pictures gets a rare screening: his final collaboration with director Tod Browning, 1935’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE!

Prague, 1935. An aristocrat is found dead, drained of blood, with two puncture wounds on his neck. The locals believe that vampires—in the form of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), whom they believe haunt the nearby castle—are responsible for the murder. Police inspector Professor Zeren (Lionel Barrymore) is skeptical, however, and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery behind the mark of the vampire.

Tod Browning was in need of some luck. He’d had a stellar career making deliciously twisted silent features, most notably starring the incredible Lon Chaney. He was hired by Universal Studios to direct 1931’s DRACULA starring Bela Lugosi (with whom he’d worked on 1929’s THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR). Despite the film’s success, Universal was unhappy with Browning’s work, and he moved to MGM to direct 1932’s FREAKS. That film proved so scandalous and controversial (and commercially unsuccessful) at the time that Browning’s career came to a screeching halt. So, when MGM accepted his proposal to helm a remake of his 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (now considered a lost film, with the last known print destroyed in a 1967 fire), he was determined to make the most of it.

And he nearly pulled it off. Despite the film’s more unsavory aspects being removed (implications of incest between Mora and Luna, which resulted in Mora’s suicide and the pair condemned to an eternity of living death) and the film’s trimming from 75 to 61 minutes, the film works like gangbusters. Up to a point, that is.

You see, in the realm of classic horror, few films are as debated as hotly as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. All of the ingredients of a Golden Age classic are there: a menacing, wordless performance by Bela Lugosi as Count Mora; Carroll Borland as his daughter, Luna, establishing a visual template followed by Maila “Vampira” Nurmi and Morticia Addams; and the deft, atmospheric direction of Tod Browning.

So, what’s the deal?

It’s the twist ending that provides the film’s payoff. It’s an ending that negates everything that came before. Things we have seen with our own eyes are now established as having been impossible. It’s a cheat. Even Bela thought it was ridiculous and pleaded with Tod Browning to change it. A much better ending (that even kept the light tone of the original’s) was suggested, and Browning refused to change course. I’m not going to spill the beans by detailing what happens, but it’s really impossible to talk about MARK OF THE VAMPIRE without bringing up the fact that many see the twist as a crushing disappointment.

And I’m right there with them. It’s such a blow to the film because the rest of it is so good. It’s largely the film that DRACULA could have been if Browning hadn’t been hamstrung by Universal’s budget-pinching measures. (The studio had recently sunk a lot of money into THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and was facing financial difficulties due to the Great Depression. Unconvinced that the horror thing would pay off, DRACULA had many elaborate scenes scrapped and wound up hewing closely to the play in staging the film.) MARK OF THE VAMPIRE’s sets are sumptuous. The effects scenes are brilliantly pulled off, with Luna soaring on bat’s wings and Count Mora materializing out of mist. The photography by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe is glorious. The performances of stage/screen legend Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan are rock-solid and ground the film firmly. The supporting cast (especially Lionel Atwill as Inspector Neumann and Donald Meek as the timid Dr. Doskil) is delightful. It all comes together so beautifully, only to be sold so short by an ending that aims for cleverness and lands in clunkiness.

If you can forgive the film its ending, there is so much there to enjoy. Just discount what you see happen on screen after the mystery has been solved, and imagine that Lionel Barrymore’s Professor Zelen receives a telegram saying something like “Sorry, can’t make it. Train held up at the station. Hope everything works out,” and you’ll walk out of the theater a happier person. But to miss the film on the big screen is to miss one of the best—yet one of the most unheralded—vampire pictures ever to come out of Hollywood’s classic era. Or at least 90 percent of one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Kool Kat of the Week: Under Heidi S. Howard’s Helm, Seven Stages Throws a CD Release Party for DRACULA, THE ROCK OPERA

Posted on: Feb 13th, 2014 By:

Dracula and his wives in DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA at 7 Stages; L-R: Jessika Cutts, Rob Thompson, Naomi Lavender, Madeline Brumby.

Forget a red heart-shaped box this Valentine’s weekend, and go straight for the heart, the bloody heart. The CD of DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA is finally out (watch for our Retro Review soon), and 7 Stages is throwing live concert to celebrate its release with three shows, February 14 and 15. [Ed. note: 8 p.m. on Fri and Sat. The Thurs. Feb. 13 show was canceled due to weather, and a new show has been added at 10:30 pm Sat]

It’s been a year and a half since the curtain last went down on DRACULA. As ATLRetro said in our Review, “DRACULA THE ROCK OPERA melds JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR with Grand Guignol in a production that not only rocks hard and delivers a horrific, non-twinkly Nosferatu, but also is surprisingly true to Bram Stoker‘s original novel.” That review marks the only time a full cast and crew have earned Kool Kats of the Week, and we added that the production not only broke the bounds of community theater expectations but blew them out of the water. We felt like we were “discovering HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY ITCH off-Broadway in 1998 or THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW in a tiny upstairs theater in London in 1973.” We wish everyone who missed it could see the full production, but hopefully the music being available on CD will help convince skeptics that something this crazy original can happen outside the Big Apple. All the main creators/cast members of the Little Five Points Rock Star Orchestra will be back, including Rob Thompson, the mad mastermind behind the sinister shebang; Naomi Lavender (Muleskinner MacQueen Trio), Mina with a voice to make Kate Bush blush; Rick Atkinson, America’s hardest rocking Renfield; and more.

Since then, Heidi Howard has assumed the helm as creative director of Seven Stages. She’s a mighty Kool Kat for taking on one of Atlanta’s most innovative and daring theater companies, following in the footsteps of founders Del Hamilton and Faye Allen, who both are local legends here. Here’s what she has to say about the concert and CD, as well as what’s next for DRACULA and 7 Stages!

Heidi S. Howard. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.

It’s been a year and a half since the curtain dropped on the last performance of DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA. While the vision started with Rob Thompson, it was also an amazing collaborative effort with Del directing and many of the musical cast contributing to the composition. Can you talk about that aspect of the production and how it relates to the music we’ll be hearing this weekend?

I remember sitting in the basement over four years ago, listening to the first notes composed and encouraging Rob to propose the production to Del. I have often called theatre a collaborative sport; we have to work together in order to make great things. Over the years, the relationship with 7 Stages artists and Little Five Points Orchestra has grown to something really impressive. This process specifically was created to encourage everyone’s ideas to be heard and to merge the music and theatre styles. By including Shane [Morton]’s knowledge of Dracula and encouraging the composer’s possibility of the music style, we were really able to expand the overall sound of the story.  There is such a diverse style of surprising music from true rock in “The Castle” and “Dracula’s Opus,” to jam in “Van Helsing’s Teachings,” even to rockabilly sounds in “Lucy’s Proposals,” that make it accessible to many.

We have chosen to highlight the different styles and favorites in this concert while still saving some of the best to be heard on the CD. Even today I am inspired by hearing everyone’s ideas and implementing the best of them, as well as the group’s way of working through a decision together.  The Drac Pack is a very intense gathering of strong-minded rockers and artists, each with passionate dedication to what we have created together.  7 Stages has the unique environment of engaging the individual and really supporting who we have in the space.  We are a people’s place and make opportunity for those that are here and willing to collaborate and become better. This process is a testament to engaging and supporting those who are present.

While it’s not the complete production, will characters be in costume and what else is the company doing to recreate the horrific ambiance?

We are sticking to a concert presentation style, keeping the production elements as simple as possible while still creating an intimate environment.  While really celebrating the music and engaging the community, we are keeping the work present in the minds and bodies of our audiences. We are creating a lobby installation of the costumes and some of the scenic elements used in the production. Instead of using the video projections there will be images, many from Stungun Photography, who captured beautiful moments of the production. We did not want to create the expectation of a full production and staging elements, because the goal is to celebrate the music itself. Also, it is important to note that not all of the performers were available for this gig, and so Rob and others cover some of the vocal roles.

What’s your personal favorite song in DRACULA and why?

Oh my goodness, I tried hard to pick one to answer this question, but I just can’t. The music is so rich with diverse styles, and I like many different types of music. “Diary and Mysteries is up there because of the simple beauty of Naomi’s voice and the build of everyone’s layered voice in as the song builds. I love, love, love when there are all of the layers of voices and music changes in many of the Act 2 songs. “Alone in Transylvania” really speaks to everyone’s fear of being lonely, and it always brings chills to my body.  “Van Helsing’s Teachings” is so much fun, and Jeff nails it every time. I wake up singing “The Chase”…. And the list continues. It is so good, and I get so overwhelmed each night in rehearsals, I am literally sitting in the theatre rocking out, feeling so lucky and thankful.

7 Stages is one of Atlanta’s most acclaimed theater companies for serious plays. Why do something as seemingly pop-culture as DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA, or is it pop-culture?

Traditionally DRACULA productions have been poppy, and with our production we really focused on sticking to the Bram Stoker’s book and creating music and a production that answered the desire of these artists.  7 Stages has always had a mission on supporting new work and encouraging artists to expand their craft.  For me, I was really interested in the process of merging the music and theatre scene, creating a space to develop high quality storytelling and offering both the musicians and theatre folk the best of both worlds so that we could learn best practices and become better artists overall.  This production is a fusion of pop and rock culture, and while it is a break from the serious heavy topics, we are creating a seriously great rock opera. 

Heidi S. Howard. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.

There have been many stage and screen adaptations of DRACULA. Why do you think this one worked so well and was so popular with audiences?
We stuck to the book in composing the lyrics, many of them being directly taken from the text. Many other productions stray away from this and tell “popular” vampire stories because of the trend. There are so many Dracula mythos out there, and we really stuck to Stoker’s mythos as opposed to others such as Anne Rice’s, TWILIGHT or other modern pop culture mythos.  We used the wave of what was popular for marketing purposes but wanted to stick to the original tale.  We wanted to celebrate the strength of the musicians and performers with high quality production values.  Also, it was a direct goal of Rob’s to do “something that doesn’t suck!”  There is a Little Five Points Orchestra following, as well as those that support 7 Stages who have really encouraged our relationship to grow over the years of producing the Krampus shows [and] involving the musicians in our production of HAIR a few years ago.  Ultimately, we are answering the demand of our community.  The show is fun, involving, intimate, and so surprising that all want to be involved.

So many of us wish there would be full-out performances of DRACULA again. Any chance of that or of it going on the road to other cities?

We would love to do the full production again, taking everything to the next level, send it on the road, sell it to other producers, etc… it deserves to be out there.  That is a large reason for producing this concert version, in addition to celebrating the CD release.  But, it takes money.  Lots of money so that we can pay the artists for their time and work, as well as pay for all that it takes to make a production including blood, effects, blood, costumes, scenery, blood, video, blood, etc.  We want to keep the music and possibility present in our community and continue to push it out there.  

Heidi S. Howard gets the Shane Morton treatment. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.

How are you feeling about 7 Stages now that you have a few years under your belt. How are you feeling about taking the plunge? What do you think is the company’s biggest success under your helm? And what is its biggest challenge?

Absolutely fantastic.  I love my staff, the artists, and all of the amazing people that walk into the space.  I stuck around 7 Stages all these years for the people and am always inspired by the involvement of those people. I am having a lot of fun with our Home Brew series.  We have always supported the development of new work, but by formalizing it into a program and inviting audiences into the process, the support and understanding for the process becomes very clear. The Navigator was a great success as we took our work outside of our space, and at the same time we were the first organization to be allowed to perform on MARTA with Mass Transit Muse [full production to premiere in May].   But honestly, we have stayed open; we are extremely focused on becoming financially stable.  This is both a success and an ongoing challenge.

Next up is THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE. That’s a book that many people read in school. Why should they want to see it performed live through the lens of 7 Stages?

7 Stages’ new adaptation of RED BADGE uses puppetry, live actors, projected animation and a dynamic soundscape to create an immersive world of battle. Our version uses contemporary techniques to achieve the intense atmosphere of war and the spinning viewpoint of our naive young soldier. People who have read the book will find new nuance and perspective on it, while those unfamiliar will leave the theater itching to read!

What else is 7 Stages up to that you’re excited about for the rest of this season and into the next?
As mentioned above, our work is not just focused on the serious. We are sticking to our social, political and spiritual mission. It is my goal to expand the knowledge of what we do. We like to have a great time with our work. While it can be serious, it can also offer Atlanta a really good time. Today the work has a lot to do with reflecting and representing our community and expanding it – internationally and locally. I am gearing up to jump into rehearsals again for Mass Transit Muse, which is another process that will merge mediums, and Jed Drummond will be a feature, which is always a plus! It’s a wonderful experience to work with your friends, who happen to be amazing artists. I’m looking forward to sharing their talents, engaging with our community, and creating art that surprises, engages and inspires Atlanta.

Heidi in front of 7 Stages' spider float at the L5P Halloween Parade. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.

You do a lot of work with youth through Youth Creates, the Playmaking for Girls program, etc. Can you talk a little bit about those pursuits and why you are so passionate about working with young people.

By listening to the youthful mind, I am allowing voices to be heard.  As a young person, I was continually challenged by not being heard or not knowing how to express myself. As Education Director, I was able to create a place for young people to connect their everyday life to creative process.  While working on professional productions at 7 stages, training under the world-renowned directors and artists that we brought in, I was able to structure the education programming around the needs of our ongoing programming. It has been obvious to me that we can answer each others’ needs by answering the desires and needs of our community by offering the community opportunities of professional development, while offering hands-on experience in the professional field of creating art.

Finally, tell us something about you and what drew you to the theater life that we don’t know.
I worked at Disney while I was in college and loved playing Timon, the meerkat from THE LION KING, because I could flirt with the girls and no one would know.

Is there any question did I not ask about 7 Stages, DRACULA or you that I should have, and what is the answer?

7 Stages doors are always open. Come on in, grab a coffee or drink from Java Lords, hang out in the lobby / gallery, check out the library upstairs, create with us, see all of our shows, give us feedback, pop in and say hi to us in the office. As I said, I do this for the people I get to meet and create with each day.  There are always amazing things happening here that will surprise and inspire.

CDs of Dracula the Rock Opera are at Java Lords now and will be available at the show. For advance tickets, visit www.7stages.org.

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER by Seth Grahame-Smith: The Novel Is Better Than You’d Think, and Maybe That’s the Problem

Posted on: Feb 12th, 2013 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER By Seth Grahame-Smith; Grand Central Publishing. 384 pages.

If the forecasts of the end of publishing as we know it, and the end of the novel as an important art form, prove correct, what will we be left with?

Well, one thing I note when I go into a bookstore is that though there’s not as much of what I personally want any more, there’s an ever growing abundance of at least one type of product. The product is remarkably adaptable to our all-too-instantaneous culture, and so deeply committed to vacillating fashions, that though the books are individually ephemeral, they are collectively eternal. I refer to novelty books.

Each is quickly produced, and just as quickly forgotten, yet the space they occupy is never empty. And if you return to that space over and over again, you will see that our impulsive and unconsidered consumption of facile distraction represents a continuum, demonstrating evidence of the hive mind and proof of a certain form of reincarnation. Moreover, within these novelties, maybe sometimes there is the possibility of a slightly substantive literature.

Both of Seth Grahame-Smith’s two most famous novels, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE WITH ZOMBIES and this one, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, were commissioned for gimmicky series dreamed up by his editor at Grand Central Books. In both cases, he was the only novelist engaged who was able to play with the gimmicks (rewriting classics with monsters, reimagining historical figures with monsters) in a way that received significant positive critical attention. Grahame-Smith has a rare gift (or compulsion) to infuse some artistry to a throwaway idea. His literary career is distinguished by focusing on some ersatz absurdity, applying a sharper intelligence than many would think the subject deserves, and then keeping his one-note-joke buoyed by imaginative wit and exceptional attention to telling detail. He knows how the mechanisms of the B- and exploitation-movies make a narrative move, and he knows how to toss in just enough brain candy so that we don’t feel as guilty while reading his work as we did that time when Mom caught us flipping though the pages of a dirty magazine. (I should throw in, his first book was THE BIG BOOK OF PORN, a modestly seriously-minded history of the porn industry.) Here we have (as Gina McIntyre put it) “a great SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch” transformed into a full-blooded, even epic novel.

In classic “high-concept” style (who the hell coined “high-concept”? It’s deliberating misleading as it inevitably targets the lowest common denominator!), the title says it all. I expected it to be fun, and it was, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. And there in lies the rub – it was good enough to disappoint. When I saw what Graham-Smith was capable of doing, he raised my expectations, and then I found myself disappointed he didn’t do even more.

No one reading ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is expecting either a real biography, or something comparable to the truly timeless historical novels like WAR AND PEACE. This is a populist fiction about a President we like a lot more in myth that reality. Rather than comparing this book to Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s TEAM OF RIVALS (the basis of the Steven Spielberg movie LINCOLN) or Leo Tolstoy, we are more in the territory of the movie YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, that sentimental piece of heliography that made Henry Fonda a star back in 1939 (directed by John Ford, written by Lamar Trotti).

Well, like YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, only with more a lot more blood and a much higher body count.

But then Grahame-Smith surprises us with a Lincoln who is many times more believable than Fonda’s. This Lincoln is strongly sympathetic, and though frequenting engaging in super-heroic antics, he’s neither a paragon of some ideal (Superman) nor an invitingly unoccupied vessel for the reader to fill with over-textural identification (most private eye heros). Clearly, Graham-Smith learned a few things from comic-book pioneer Stan Lee’s formula. In the past, Graham-Smith has collaborated with Lee, and here we see that the student far has excelled the master.

The novel begins in 2008, with a fictional version of Seth Grahame-Smith deep in a writer’s funk as he watches President Obama’s first inauguration. At this historically appropriate moment, he is offered a confusing, disturbing, perhaps dangerous, but also irresistible commission: to edit and flesh-out a long rumored of, but never made public diary which represents nothing short of a secret history of the Civil War, and by extension, America’s development and the whole of Western Civilization. You see, vampires are real, and the diary was Abraham Lincoln’s own record of his war against them.

The novel that follows switches back and forth between Lincoln’s secret dairies, which are, of course, fiction, woven seamlessly in with Lincoln’s letters, which are real, and Grahame-Smith’s omniscient third-person narrative, which is based on the testimony of surviving (undead) witnesses and a great deal of material pulled directly from more respectable historical sources.

The novel starts in Lincoln’s childhood and shows his development in a rich and thoughtful in a way that too little genre fiction has much patience for. Deftly sketched is Lincoln’s complicated family tree, the challenges of his humble beginnings, his strained relationship with his father, his enormous personal drive, his insatiable intellectual curiosity, and how his life’s trajectories were guided by a series of early tragic losses and economic reversals. Lincoln’s famous battle with depression is woven throughout the book, but treated with an appropriately light touch, because Grahame-Smith instinctively knows that had the depression truly been crippling, Lincoln would’ve never become Lincoln. It is somewhat removed from the “cult of Lincoln” of popular myth and somewhat closer to a figure historians would recognize.

At least up to a point.

The “up to a point” part is the crux of the novel, because in 1820 Lincoln realizes his life is being shaped by the capricious whim and insatiable hunger of supernatural entities that are stronger, faster, more experienced and more skillful than he. In 1820, he launches a one-man covert-war against their evil.

The novel is at its strongest when addressing Lincoln’s early days. Rich in the biographical detail of years that many, even Civil War buffs, are not fully familiar with, this part of Lincoln’s life is the era in which this kind of keyhole narrative can most easily be integrated into historical realities. The young Lincoln rambled widely, living and working in several states and trying out several professions, giving any adept writer abundant opportunity to paint the landscape vividly and imaginatively and still remain in the context of the verifiable. When Grahame-Smith puts words in his fictional Lincoln’s mouth, he displays a fluid style that is often lacking in like-pastiches, for example, when the diary recounts what Lincoln witnessed at a slave auction:

“I saw a Negro girl of three or four clinging to her mother, confused as to why she was dressed in such clothes; why she had been scrubbed the night before; made to stand on this platform while men shouted numbers and waved pieces of paper in the air. Again I wondered why a Creator who had dreamt such beauty would have slandered it with such evil.”

By this point in the narrative, Lincoln has already allied himself with a group of not-so-evil vampires who call themselves the “Union” –  get it? – against the other more powerful group who dominated Southern politics and society. His political career which would start not long after and be shaped by that association. The contrasts in which the story revels rest on this foundation, largely historical content vs. horror-movie scares and comic-book action scenes.

The horror/action content is fast- paced, hugely entraining and often quite funny. In one episode, Lincoln, now a lawyer, is bruised in court with the loss of a civil suit; that evening he goes out on a vampire hunt. To his surprise, it turns out that evening’s monster is none other than his client from earlier in the day. Just as they are about engage in their death duel, the demoness hisses contemptuously that Lincoln better hope that he’s a better fighter than an attorney.

Grahame-Smith’s historical fidelity grants his hero a more interesting character arc than most pulp heroes. When this fictional Lincoln, mimicking the real one, falls in love, marries, has children and enters politics, he does something few action heroes ever do, but most men of accomplishment accept as an inevitability. He puts aside childish things (in this case, his axe) and creates a more stable and sustainable life, integrating himself into new venues, and pondering how he can apply the lessons of his youth to the realities of maturity.

This radical turn in the narrative allows the pulp novel to be shaped by more-complex-than-average relationships. Lincoln profoundly loves his wife, who is treated with a lot more respect here than in most dramatizations of Lincoln’s life, but  still he turns his back on her in her hour of greatest need. After losing a second child, she spirals into mental instability, but by then he is President and in the midst of the ultimate national crisis. I also liked the handling of his long-rivalry, and occasional allegiance, with Stephen Douglas, who in most Lincoln dramas is regulated to a single footnote incident.

The novel leans heavily on mano-a-mano combat up to this point, and as the more complex history unfolds, Grahame-Smith repeatedly interrupts it with more breathless action-episodes. During the build-up to the Civil War, the retired vampire hunter reluctantly accepts one last vital mission from his Union allies.

So the hero’s reluctantly dragged out of retirement for one last vital mission. Yeah, we all know how well those generally work out, don’t we?

This situation leads to a wild scene where Lincoln and his two assistant vampire hunters, Joshua Speed and Jack Armstrong (both historical characters), are hopelessly trapped in a burning plantation-manor-house, surrounded by an army of vampires, while Jefferson Davis, in classic melodramatic villain style, gives a smug speech about the superiority of his cravenness over Abe’s naive virtues. It would not have been out of place in the recent film DJANGO UNCHAINED.

As entertaining as all this interplay is, it also is evidence of the difficulties of taking a story that was one thing and trying to mutate into another into another. This problem is demonstrated even in the number of pages the book devotes to this subject or that. A full 187 pages are required to get us to the year 1843, when Lincoln hangs up his axe. After that, a mere 146 pages is left to get him into Congress, then the White House, guide the nation through the Civil War, and fall to an assassin’s bullet (by the way, John Wilkes Booth was a vampire).

Joshua Speed.

However, Graham-Smith, making vampires the primary drivers of the slave economy and the secret force behind the South’s mad, headlong rush into war, has stumbled across a near perfect metaphor. Vampires, since Dracula, have represented hold-over superstitions trying to keep the shadows deep and dark in the face of the light of reason and modernity, and they are simultaneously the aristocracy and the parasite. They have been exploited to make political points not only in fiction but presidential campaign rhetoric (anyone remember the “Romney is a Vampire” TV ad?). The metaphor has rarely been utilized as forcefully as here, but unfortunately it isn’t used to dig as deep as it could. Having set the stage so deftly, Graham-Smith fails to utilize his fantasy to illuminate real themes in history as historical fictions are generally expected to do.

One thing almost every Lincoln drama gets wrong is how slowly his positions on slavery evolved. From his earliest years, he found slavery morally repugnant, and his abolitionist rhetoric was fiery in even his earliest political speeches. But even well into the Civil War, his policies regarding the institution were, in fact, quite moderate (and from a 21st century perspective, reprehensible). Preservation of the Union was his number one priority, freeing the slaves was way down the list. It would not be much of a stretch to say he’d have been satisfied to institute a handful of reforms that maybe could have been utilized by others later, and that he was okay with the possibility that the end of slavery was something he didn’t personally live to see.

The first step in seeing someone as human is fully recognizing them as real. There’s little reason to think that black slaves, who did move Lincoln’s heart when he saw them suffer from a distance, were ever close enough to him that he was forced to see them as real as his friends and associates, or even as real as his bitter enemies. There’s little or no record of Lincoln having substantive encounters with blacks during his formative years in rural Kentucky. Working on a flat boat on the Mississippi, he wasn’t likely to be invited into the homes of slave owners, nor to encounter the minority of black freemen in his day-to-day labors. Though Lincoln married the daughter of a prominent slave-holder, he was not close to his in-laws, and he and his wife settled in a free state. I’d wager that it’s not likely he had a conversation with a black person longer than 10 words before went to Washington in 1846, maybe not until he entered the White House in 1861, and maybe not even until his memorable meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1863 (which isn’t included in this particular book).

Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg's LINCOLN. Dreamworks/20th Century Fox, 2012.

Moreover, not only was Lincoln not a liberal by today’s standards, he was a man of a time when it would’ve been almost overwhelming intellectually challenging to conceive of blacks as fully of the same species as whites. He was quite articulate in expressing his belief that blacks were inferior to whites. Lincoln’s moral evolution was a long road that most dramatists don’t want to admit he had to travel. Nor do they want to acknowledge that his eventual abandonment of comfortable, if reprehensible, moderation and his heroic embrace of a righteous stand was something that he was burdened with, in part, by the Confederate madness.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER doesn’t misrepresent Lincoln’s relationship with slavery, but having built so a fine bridge of fantasy to this true subject, it side-steps it rather than crossing it.

The novel is better in evoking the madness and hopeless of the Southern cause, but even here I find fault. We see the relentless spiral towards war through Lincoln’s eyes in the first-person entries. But Graham-Smith also availed himself of the third person omniscient, yet didn’t utilize it when it was most needed. It should’ve been said that the South had a smaller population, a limited industrial base, and significantly no cannon factories. The Confederate strategy was to strike first in the months between the election and inauguration and then dig in so that the Federal Government couldn’t respond. When Lincoln chose the course of military engagement, the South inevitably was doomed. Yet almost four years and more than 600,000 lives were forfeited to this pointless exercise. Even to that last moment, the firing on Fort Sumter – hell, even after that last moment – the South had so many other options, but they acted with the kind of irrational absolutism that we now associate with only the maddest of despots or the presumptuousness of the divine (read: supernatural) right of kings.

According to a 1973 study by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, had the South ended the institution of slavery by buying and freeing all the slaves instead of going to war, it would’ve cost them about $2.7 billion 1861 dollars. True, it is hard to imagine the political will to execute such a plan could’ve ever been mustered, but what were the costs of turning their collective backs on any compromise or accommodation? On the Southern side alone, the most often-cited figures are $1 billion in property destruction, $1.5 billion in loss of human capital, $767 million for war expenditures, and an appalling 258,000 dead young men. To this, Goldin added a net economic difference of $10 billion between an imaginary South without rebellion and the one we got, in which wide regions wallowed in near continuous recession for the next 80 years. This is the kind of clarifying extra that the fictional narrator Graham-Smith could have provided us with, but that the fictional diarist Lincoln couldn’t have been reasonably expected to.

Poster art for the movie of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012).

And not for nothing, the real Lincoln, who couldn’t have done Goldin’s math, wasn’t insensitive to the idea. In an 1862 letter Lincoln wrote, “Less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per head … [and] less than 87 days’ cost of the war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky and Missouri.” (This letter is not cited in this particular book.) In fact the Federal government did buy back the slaves within the confines of the District of Columbia. (This fact is also not cited in this particular book.)

Once the war starts, the novel engages the reader mostly because of its effective and exciting compression of what actually happened, while the vampire metaphor, suddenly under-exploited and under-explored, loses much of it bite (pardon the pun). Lev Grossman puts it well in TIME Magazine, “Once the connection is made, it feels obvious, and neither slavery nor vampirism reveals anything in particular about the other. One could imagine a richer, subtler treatment of the subject, in which the two horrors multiply each other rather than cancel each other out.”

Yet as Lincoln fictions go, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER has more to say than most. Maybe it communicates something about our culture that a deliberately ridiculous, axe-wielding, vigilante super-hero towers over most more easily respected works. Allegedly realistic fictions have been full of myth, while the myth-shaped novel presents a sharper picture. One measure in how the novel succeeds is revealed in a words of a withering critique of the Timur Bekmambetov’s film based on this novel. Historian Vernon Burton enjoyed the book but hated the movie, and spoke volumes of the pitfalls of fictions that prove incapable of grasping the real historical issues they grapple with (from an article by Tierney Sneed in US News and World Report):

“‘Slavery was our national sin,’ said Burton, who said the connection works in that ‘the nation sucked the blood out of Africans for its wealth.’ However, in posing vampires as the villains behind the crime of slavery, the film risks ‘letting the South and the United States off,’ freeing it from blame for the practice.

‘The book did some clever things,’ said Burton. ‘I was excited to see the movie. The book had potential.’ He said the film version was oversimplified, and he worried viewers would make too much of what he and other historians often call the ‘Oliver Stone school of history.’”

That, at least, is one trap the novel didn’t fall into.

Robert Murphy is 47 years old and lives in New York City. Formerly employed, he now has plenty of time to write about movies and books and play with his cats.

Category: Really Retro | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tis The Season for a Love Bite: 10 Tantalizing and Terrifying Reasons to Take Your Valentine to the Atlanta Ballet’s DRACULA

Posted on: Feb 11th, 2013 By:

L-R: Mina (Nadia Mara), Dracula (John Welker) and Lucy (Rachel Van Buskirk) in the Atlanta Ballet's production of Michael Pink's DRACULA. Photo credit: Charlie McCullers.

Last Friday night, ATLRetro had the phantasmagoric pleasure of experiencing the Atlanta Ballet‘s production of Michael Pink’s DRACULA, which plays through Feb. 16 at Cobb Energy Centre. The ballet has now become almost as much of a Valentine’s Day tradition for the company as it’s performances of THE NUTCRACKER are quintessential to an Atlanta Christmas.

Like Seven Stages’ DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA, (which we reviewed here) this version hues surpisingly close to Stoker’s novel, especially in the first act (Harker’s seduction by Dracula’s three brides on a bed will be familiar to rock opera attendees) and even reinstating the American cowboy character of Quincey, though it keeps the characters in London for the climax. In the Atlanta Ballet’s version, however, Dracula runs a fine line of both sexual predator and charmingly seductive, appropriate for a Valentine’s production of a vampire story. Yes, we admit getting being much more hot and bothered when the Count seduces Mina in an electrifying erotic dance than we ever have been seeing a glittered-up Robert Pattinson sinking his teeth into a perpetually bored Kristen Stewart.

So in celebration of this now-Atlanta tradition, we asked the Atlanta Ballet if it could unbury a few behind-the-scenes secrets…

1. Michael Pink’s DRACULA had its world premiere in September 16, 1996, in Bradford Alhambra, England by the Northern Ballet Theatre in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s novel.

2. Production has been seen by over a half a million people worldwide since the world premiere.

3. Atlanta Ballet presented the North American premiere of DRACULA in 1998, and the production broke Atlanta Ballet box office records. The record was then broken again the following season when the company restaged the work for an encore presentation.

4. Dancers who portray Dracula receive additional pay for performing stunts of extraordinary risk.

Dracula (John Welker) and Jonathan Harker (Brian Wallenberg) in the Atlanta Ballet production of Michael Pink's DRACULA. Photo credit: Charlie McCullers.

5. Dancers in the production wear hand-tied wigs costing over $2,000.

6. It takes at least an hour and a half for the dancer performing Dracula to get in costume and makeup, and at least 15 minutes of work after each performance to remove the makeup and wig.

7. Artistic Director John McFall performed the role of Renfield in the Company’s original production in 1998.

8. David Grill, lighting designer of Michael Pink’s DRACULA, has designed the lighting for numerous Super Bowl halftime shows, including Beyonce‘s performance at this year’s showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.

9. Nick Dudman [blood] is the “drink” of choice for Atlanta Ballet’s Dracula. Dudman Blood was created by costume and special effects director Nick Dudman whose film credits include the HARRY POTTER series, STAR WARS V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, BATMAN, ALIEN 3 and INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE.  It’s apparently the most realistic blood on the market.

10. There are about 40 dancers cast in Atlanta Ballet’s production of Dracula.

BONUS 11: “My favorite scene is the Dracula and Harker part at the end of Act 1,” says Brian Wallenberg, who plays Jonathan Harker in Cast A. “Whether I’m dancing it or not, it’s just one of the best parts of the Ballet. It’s the most fun experience that a character goes through.”

To find out more and purchase tickets to the Atlanta Ballet’s DRACULA, click here.

Category: Tis the Season To Be... | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Retro Review: WHITE ZOMBIE Walks Again in the World Premiere of an All-New Restoration at Atlanta’s Historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Jan 16th, 2013 By:

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932); Dir. Victor Halperin; Starring Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, John Harron and Robert Frazer; World premiere Friday, Jan. 18 @ 8:00 p.m. hosted by Prof. Morte (scary details at end of story), and Jan. 25-31; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Long before George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD forever redefined “zombie” in the public mind as “undead, flesh-eating ghoul,” the Halperin Brothers first brought the Haitian legend of the zombie to the screen with 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE.

The movie finds young couple Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron) reuniting in Haiti to be wed at the plantation of their friend Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Beaumont’s secret love for Madeline drives him to visit local voodoo master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) in order to enlist his help in winning Madeline’s hand. Legendre provides Beaumont with a potion that will transform her into a zombie, robbed of her will and love for Parker. He complies with Legendre’s instructions, but soon finds that the villainous voodoo master has plans of his own for the young beauty.

In 1932, America was in the midst of a newfound fascination with voodoo due to New Orleans’ emergence as a tourist destination. Interest was further fueled by authors such as William Buehler Seabrook. Seabrook was a well-traveled journalist, explorer, occultist and Georgia resident who had gained renown by documenting occult practices across the globe, including some of the only objective contemporaneous reporting on Aleister Crowley. Seabrook’s interest in the occult led him to spend considerable time in Haiti researching voodoo and the Culte des Morts. This adventure resulted in his 1929 book THE MAGIC ISLAND, which introduced the concept of the “zombie” to American audiences.

Producer Edward Halperin and his brother, director Victor Halperin (along with screenwriter Garnett Weston) capitalized on the nation’s interest in voodoo by borrowing liberally from both Seabrook’s work and Kenneth Webb’s 1932 Broadway play, ZOMBIE, and crafted an atmospheric masterpiece. The Halperins enlisted Bela Lugosi, fresh off his success in Universal’s 1931 smash DRACULA. It’s unclear as to Lugosi’s reasons for choosing to immediately follow a major studio hit with a micro-budgeted independent film, but he may have seen it as a way to stretch his creative muscles in a low-risk venture. Although he was paid little for his role (reports vary from $500 to $5000), his co-star Clarence Muse reported that Lugosi rewrote portions of the script, restaged some of the scenes and even directed portions of the film. His personal investment in the end results may be why Lugosi considered WHITE ZOMBIE a favorites among his own movies.

It could also be because it’s just a damned fine film.

The film deftly balances the legendary with the actual. While Legendre’s zombies are the reanimated corpses of Haitian lore (their look provided by Universal’s maestro of makeup, Jack Pierce), the film also depicts his use of a poison that emulates death and results in the victim’s deathlike trance and subsequent subservience to a bokor or sorcerer. Though this method had long been suspected, a pharmacological explanation for the zombie phenomenon wouldn’t be confirmed until ethnobiologist Wade Davis’ explorations into Haiti in the 1980s.

Beyond the film’s knowing mixture of fact and fiction, it benefits from the collaboration of Victor Halperin, cinematographer Arthur Martinelli and music superviser Abe Meyer. Together, they take what may have read on the page as stagebound and stodgy and create a dreamlike vision that mirrors Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR (also 1932), echoes elements of contemporaneous Universal horrors and anticipates Val Lewton’s exercises in atmosphere and sound design. Constantly inventive staging and camera work—taking place on sets borrowed from DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME—operate in sync with native drumming, chants, ambient noise, eerie rearrangements of classical works and original music by Xavier Cugat to deliver a palpable sense of creeping death under the oppressive hand of Murder Legendre.

And in the role of Legendre, Lugosi becomes the embodiment of evil itself. No other role—not even Dracula—fully utilizes his mesmeric power and hypnotic presence. From the opening scene, when his eyes are superimposed on the landscape of Haiti, his presence is felt in every frame of film; this is the power of his performance as Murder Legendre. The Halperins attempted to recapture the magic of this film with a sequel, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, but made the mistake of attempting to replace Bela with Dean Jagger. It’s no small wonder that the subsequent film failed.

For years, WHITE ZOMBIE only circulated on washed-out transfers of faded 16mm prints, mastered for public domain VHS and TV broadcast. In 1999, two rare 35mm prints were used to create the restored version released on DVD by the Roan Group. However, those prints were hardly in pristine condition, displaying evident damage and dropped frames.

Left to right: Bela Lugosi as voodoo master Legendre, a mesmerized Madge Bellamy and a concerned John Harron in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

In recent years, Los Angeles-based Holland Releasing had heard that a previously unknown complete 35mm print was rumored to be in the possession of an aged film collector. Thomas W. Holland (a previous resident of Roswell and Marietta) spoke about the efforts to track down this elusive print and its owner. “I heard a rumor about an old fellow who claimed to have a superb, original 35mm print and that began a worldwide search to find this aging, eccentric film lover and convince him to let us acquire the film for a full restoration.  People think I’m joking when I say I had to go through a friend of a friend of a friend to contact this man.” When the print was found, Holland was stunned at its overall condition. “It must have been removed from theatrical service early on, or been set aside as a special studio print.” The Holland Releasing group then set about restoring the film.

AlgoSoft-Tech USA, based in Bishop, Georgia, was hired to return WHITE ZOMBIE’s image quality to its original standards. AlgoSoft’s president, Dr. Inna Kozlov, a famed mathematician in her native Russia, took on the project with great excitement. “We arranged to have the vintage 35mm print scanned, frame-by-frame, at a very high resolution so as not to lose any information.” From that point, Dr. Koslov and her technology developer, Dr. Alexander Petukhov wrote customized software to correct any imperfections in each frame. “Our goal was to return the film’s visuals to how they looked in 1932, the way a vintage carbon arc light source would have glistened through a silver nitrate print of the era.”

Another Atlanta firm, Crawford Media Services, was chosen to do the final re-assembly of the motion picture which included intensely detailed color-correction. “Being a black-and-white film, WHITE ZOMBIE required far more expertise and patience than a typical color feature to get the light levels correct,” says producer Holland. “This film is a gothic masterpiece, and we wanted it to look exactly the way it did when audiences first saw it.”

Once the Georgia image work was completed, the master was sent to Chace Audio by Deluxe in Burbank, California. Using a variety of sources, Chace remastered the film’s faded audio tracks to restore the sound to match the quality of the restored image. “Early sound films had a tremendous amount of inherent hiss, clicks and pops,” Holland says, “but Chace was able to give us a new audio track that greatly reduced this. We weren’t looking to make a hi-fi version of the WHITE ZOMBIE track, just a cleaner, clearer representation of how the movie originally sounded in theaters of the ’30s.”

Of course, any restoration invites an amount of controversy, and WHITE ZOMBIE is no exception to this rule. The Holland restoration, which has been licensed for use on an upcoming DVD and Blu-Ray release by Kino/Fox Lorber, is already attracting its share of debate from advance reviews. (The release offers two viewing options for comparison: the Holland restoration and a “raw” transfer of the print used prior to AlgoSoft’s restorative work.) However, without actually being able to see an arc light-projected silver nitrate print of WHITE ZOMBIE, it’s impossible to say that the Holland restoration is an inaccurate representation of how the film looked in 1932.

What is most exciting, though, is the chance to see WHITE ZOMBIE on the big screen once again as the restoration makes its world premiere at the Plaza Theatre. The Plaza is making this night a grand event. Hosted by Professor Morte of the Silver Scream Spookshow (aka Shane Morton) and Blake Myers (Atlanta effects artist, filmmaker, Buried Alive Film Festival programmer and ATLRetro Kool Kat, whose credits include THE WALKING DEAD and V/H/S), the film will be preceded by the vintage Betty Boop cartoon “Is My Palm Read?” and followed by the 1932 short subject “An Intimate Interview with Bela Lugosi.” Following the filmed entertainment, the team behind WHITE ZOMBIE’s restoration will take part in a question-and-answer session. And attendees will have a chance to win a lifetime all-inclusive ticket to the Plaza, original Plaza seats and T-shirts and monster masks from event sponsor Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse.

Following its premiere on January 18, the film will be showing at the Plaza for a full week, running from January 25-31, and will be shown on a one-time-only basis in theaters across the Unites States and Canada. But you can be there first and see WHITE ZOMBIE brought back to life at its world premiere in Atlanta.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week: Chuck Porterfield Calls the Punches for a Pop Culture Nightmare Before Thanksgiving at Monstrosity Championship Wrestling This Friday

Posted on: Nov 14th, 2012 By:

Bummed that Halloween is over and scared that Christmas will be here way too soon? Never fear, our BFF blog WrestlingwithPopCulture.com and the Silver Scream Spookshow’s Professor Morte are stirring together two Retro standards, classic monsters and wrestling, for the ultimate Monstrosity Championship Wrestling (MCW) showdown this Friday Nov. 16, starting at 8 p.m. at Club Famous, inside Famous Pub in Toco Hills. MCW made its debut at the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse in 2011, and the creatures clashed again at Wrestling with Pop Culture’s one-year birthday party in March and June’s Rock n Roll Monster Bash.

In addition to the monster mayhem, the eerie-inspired event will also feature live music by the Casket Creatures; body painting by Neon Armour; fiendish freebies and devilish drink speciuals courtesy of Cayrum Honeys; a raffle with such phantasmic prizes as a bag of edible body parts from Pine Street Market, a Dead Elvis flask from Diamond*Star*Halo and more. We can’t wait to raise a “To Hell You Ride” cocktail to Jonathan Williams, the creator of Wrestling with Pop Culture for his well-deserved Reader’s Choice Award for Best Local Blog in Creative Loafing’s Best of Atlanta 2012. [ATLRetro was too humble (well, busy) to court your votes this year, but watch out Wrestling with Pop Culture, we’ll be in the ring fighting for your title in 2013!]

To find out more about the spooktacular spectacle, ATLRetro caught up with ultimate monster movie and wrestling nerd (and proud of it!) Chuck Porterfield, who will be calling the action while monsters, maidens, and madmen go at it in toe-to-toe mayhem!

ATLRetro: I know you’ve been into both wrestling and monster movies, so I assume that’s what made you so excited about MCW.

Chuck Porterfield: Personally, I’m excited because it combines my pure adoration of monster movies, as well as seeing a lot of the INCREDIBLE athletes from Platinum Championship Wrestling (PCW) together. The Washington Bullets, probably the best tag team in the state of Georgia will be there, as will the Pound-For-Pound, Toughest Woman in Wrestling, Pandora. Also, my man, the “Demigod” Mason will show everyone why he’s the hero of PCW’s current homebase, Porterdale, Georgia!

This isn’t the first bout of Monstrosity. Are there any old scores from previous fights to be settled?

The match garnering the most attention is the return of Dragula, the most fabulous blood-sucker in wrestling as he takes on The Kentucky Wolfman!

Chuck Porterfield gets down with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Photo courtesy of Chuck Porterfield.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved weirdo pop culture! I remember watching KING KONG on WGN one year on Thanksgiving, and my love of monsters was then inescapable. Hours of MUNSTERS and ADDAMS FAMILY reruns, Adam West as BATMAN and pretty much any wrestling I could find on TV defined my youth.

So your passion for wrestling goes back to childhood, too? 

I don’t remember the first wrestling I saw, but I watched any and all then-named WWF programming I could find. There weren’t many kids in the neighborhood so I’d jump off my sofa onto the cushions. Or at least I did until I undershot it and hit my head on my dad’s pool table!

How did you get into professional wrestling?

My first entry into professional wrestling was with Southern Extreme Championship Wrestling. For a couple of reasons, that didn’t really work out so well so I left to pursue other interests. I never stopped thinking about the wrestling business, so when I saw that PCW had brought wrestling back to Atlanta I knew there could be an opportunity with them. Stephen Platinum chose to take a chance on a guy he knew nothing about, and I think things have worked out to be mutually beneficial. Along with guys like Penn Jillette and Herschell Gordon Lewis (2000 Maniacs), I consider him to be one of the most influential people in my life.

What is it like collaborating with Wrestling With Pop Culture mastermind Jonathan Williams? It seems like his blog (our BFF blog) has really upped local coverage of wrestling and is helping to fuel the scene.

Jonathan is a tremendous supporter of independent wrestling in Georgia and the success of his blog speaks for itself. I wouldn’t ask him about his altercation with The Jagged Edge outside of the steel cage though…

You used to work at Video Store, one of Atlanta’s best psychotronic video rental stores in Little 5 Points [owned by Matt Booth, who now runs the super-cool Videodrome]. Do you ever miss those pre-Netflix/streaming days when a guy like you could be a salvation for local movie buffs?

With the exception of independent powerhouse Videodrome, it’s true that Atlanta is basically a video store graveyard. Part of me misses the days in college of going through the aisles of stores, particularly the dearly-missed Blast Off Video in Little 5 Points, but I also just see it as a reflection of life itself. None of us are promised a single day, a single smile, and I just try to be grateful for the days and opportunities I have. I try not to dwell too much on what is lost and think about what’s out there to be created.

Photo courtesy of Chuck Porterfield.

Who are your favorite monsters?

My favorite monsters? You’d think this would be a hard one because I love so many, but hands down it’s Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the big monkey himself, Kong! But from a purely sexual attraction level, no one can match the Bride of Frankenstein and Morticia Addams! Some crushes last with you forever…

What else are you up to?

Right now I’m working with Blake Myers, director of the heart-stirring gem of a documentary DISABLED BUT READY TO ROCK [Ed. note: read our Kool Kat interview with Blake here] to make a space fantasy web series called SASS PARILLA CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, that is ambitious to say the least. It’s going to take a LOT of time and energy to get it right, but I think it’s custom-made for fans of this blog. In fact, if there are any investors out there with a love of psychotronic movies and skepticism, we’re the guys you want to talk to!

Thanks so much for being our Kool Kat of the Week!

Thanks, Atlanta Retro! You’re the keenest, sexiest and coolest blog around! XOXO

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