Found-Again Friday: Bram Stoker’s Dracula—The Coppola Film

Why Found-Again? When I said a few weeks ago I was adding the 2013 Dracula TV series to my Netflix queue, I didn’t wait around. (Capsule review: it’s not perfect, but I never in my life thought I’d sincerely utter the words “I want a Renfield,” either. Wow. Mad Science! Steampunk! Impalers and Van Helsings colluding together! Mass hysteria!)

That said, the show seems to owe a great debt to the 1992 film adaptation, especially in the turning of subtext into opulent text.

The Premise: You’re kidding, right? No? Okay: Slightly dim but decent Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves, hitting the first part of that description rather hard) unwittingly brokers one hell of a real estate deal when he sells an English abbey to Count Dracula (Gary Oldman), who in no time goes from elderly nobleman to hot young technophile thanks to the fine English climate and a constant supply of human blood. Sadly for Dracula but fortunately for Britain, he is eventually thwarted by Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins)—though not before the Count and Mrs. Harker (Winona Ryder) have fallen in love.

If you enjoy the kind of excess this adaptation revels in, it’s quite good. That sounds pejorative, I suppose, but I don’t mean it that way: as a viewer of Dracula movies, there are times when I like to watch a rich, Victorian-Decadent riff on the legend of Vlad Tepes and Stoker’s book, and there are times when I’d just like to see a guy in a cape who owns a spooky castle. (There are also times I’d just like to see George Hamilton and Arte Johnson spoofing the whole enterprise, for that matter; I’m kind of omni-Dracula that way.) The beautiful visuals in Coppola’s film mitigate its cheese factor—the old Count’s double-bun hairdo, slutty Lucy, Van Helsing chewing more scenery than his nemesis ever did necks—and so does its all-star cast.

The Verdict: I was a purist teenager when I saw this in the theater, but I think the Dracula story may be one I’ve grown less cynical about as time goes by. As I said, it’s not always my cup of tea when I need a Count fix, but it’s a very worthy entry among its peers. And Tom Waits as Renfield is not to be missed.

Might go well with: Steak; wine; the Frank Langella Dracula movie from the ’70s. Oh, and garlic bread!

 

 

Next time: Mondays are going to be no less weird on this site. They might be a little less pretty, though.

 

Found-Again Friday: The Secret of Terror Castle: Three Investigators #1

Why Found-Again? Like many bookish kids of a certain time period, I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew novels (I was hard on books, so if you could see them, you’d think I meant that literally) and the Hardy Boys, supplemented by the occasional T.A.C.K. puzzle-mystery collection. But my favorites were the Three Investigators mysteries, so this week I’m taking a look at the first book in that series.

Not the edition I used to have, but my library had the ones with these psychedelic covers. Mem'ries....
Not the edition I used to have, but my library had the ones with these psychedelic covers. Mem’ries….

The Premise: Inquisitive youngsters Pete, Bob and Jupiter (…yeah) start a detective agency by organizing Jupiter’s family junkyard into an office and a series of brilliant secret passages and by blackmailing Alfred Hitchcock—clearly the best way to do almost anything. For their first case, the three look into the mystery of a vanished old movie star and his spooky mansion. Along the way they have to cope with rivals from school, a menacing ex-manager, and mounting evidence that the darned house may actually be haunted.

I mean it in the best possible way when I say that this one’s a Scooby-Doo episode—a connection I never made when I was watching the Scooby Gang as a kid: maybe I thought everything was like that when I was eight. As explained Gothic goes, though, it’s quite atmospheric, with no amount of explanation quite able to quell the characters’ fright.

The thing about mystery novels for kids is that they center intelligence as the most important quality the character can have—at least, that’s my theory for why I loved these books so much and idolized two of the three main characters. I have clear memories of begging my father to help me move old farm equipment around to make secret passages like The Three Investigators (he refused, thus passively saving me from a series of encounters with various poisonous snakes).

The series is not without its own mysteries, though. Unlike Nancy Drew, who seems to be forever college-aged, I can’t quite figure out how old Bob, Pete and Jupe are supposed to be. They’re too young to drive, but their kid nemesis is not, which makes me think they can’t be younger than 12. And shouldn’t their kid nemesis be interested in girls by now?

The Verdict: This was a surprisingly fun reread, despite being written in what might be called Kids’ Adventurese, with the bowdlerized swearwords and the wholesome protagonists. I suspect a few more of these will be added to the Found-Again archive as time goes on: at the very least there’s still my favorite, The Singing Serpent, yet to go.

Might go well with: popcorn, a glass of milk, envy that you never owned a printing press when you were approximately twelve years old.

 

Next time: It’s Highlander: Endgame, and probably the end of me writing about Connor MacLeod for a while.

Found-Again Friday: The Mark of the Moderately Vicious Vampire/The Kent Montana Books In General

This may be the first time I’ve been able to use that quote about tragedy and farce about…well, anything.

Why Found-Again? As I worked my way through ‘Salem’s Lot two weeks ago, I kept finding myself repeating the same cycle of thoughts:

This is better than I remembered…

sort of…

but on the whole, give me the parody.

My misspent youth.
My misspent youth.

I was in high school when I picked up The Mark of the Moderately Vicious Vampire, the fourth of five books in “Lionel Fenn”/Charles L. Grant’s series about Scots baron/unemployed soap actor/adventurer Kent Montana. The books, which are largely standalone, put their hero through his paces in a number of standard horror plots: Montana variously faces aliens, swamp monsters, an invisible man, the Elder Gods, and, yes, a peeved vampire named Lamar de la von Zaguar.

The Premise: Kent Montana likes his vacation home in a tiny town in Maine, at least until a mysterious nobleman moves into the big mansion on the hill and the locals turn to Montana for a little noblesse oblige and a lot of vampire hunting. Along the way, he’s helped—sometimes “helped”—by a local lass, an old salt, a clergyman with a weakness, law enforcement, a feisty funeral director, and an occult-expert dandy with an ultracompetent assistant.

I feel the need to issue a sort of warning about these books: they are very silly (if you remember my post about Cast A Deadly Spell, put these books into the same category). They’re rife with slapstick, puns, dialogue lifted straight from songs (I still remember hearing “Diana” playing on the radio in a Denny’s and suddenly understanding an entire conversation in MotMVV years after the fact), and in at least one book, a villain whose name is an anagram of another writer of humorous fantasy fiction. If digging those details out isn’t your thing, the books might not be, either.

The Verdict: Anything that can take ages to fully tease apart like this is my kind of book (see also the Butterfly’s speech in The Last Unicorn: it’s like a scavenger hunt for English majors). Besides which, the books are just plain fun. They’ve been out of print practically since I got them, but used copies can be found at Amazon and elsewhere, and I highly recommend giving them a try.

Might go well with: Scotch, junk food, old horror movies.

Next time: Is there a patron saint for good grammar?

Apropos of Nothing: A Non-Exhaustive List of Things That Will Buy My Goodwill in Movies/TV/Books

  • The dog doesn’t die. It barely matters what dog or why; I just assume that any canine on my screen or in the pages of the book I’m reading has a large target on its back, and I enjoy being wrong about this.
  • Mummies (animate, French-speaking mummies a plus, as I mentioned last Halloween).
  • The Loch Ness Monster. I have watched some incredible crap just to see a few seconds of CGI Nessie. The same could be said for dragons.
  • A small, informal list of actors I would follow to cinematic hell and back (in some cases literally: are we ever going to get a third Hellboy movie?). When I say informal, I mean even to me: until quite recently I thought Tim Curry was on it, yet my Wiseguy DVDs go unwatched.
  • Spy crap. Any spy crap, really.
  • Architecture. I didn’t like Numb3rs much at all, but stuck around far longer than I should have just to see the house.
  • “They’re romantically involved, and they solve crimes!”
  • Owls. There’s no good reason. I just like owls.
  • Homages to film noir. Oddly, I often enjoy these more than the bona fide noirs themselves.
  • Mythology/folklore: I was going to narrow this down to actual mythology/folklore, but the first season of Sleepy Hollow was so gut-bustingly funny in its zeal to make things up that I’m going to leave this a broad category.
  • Any included reference to 1) Sherlock Holmes, 2) The Pirates of Penzance, 3) poetry, preferably Victorian, or 4) art.

So there you have it, just as I realize this list could in most respects be retitledMy Love For Castle Explained, Plus Owls.”

Found-Again Friday: ‘Salem’s Lot (The Book)

This week I’ll sink my teeth into a little Stephen King.

Why Found-Again? Every so often, I’ll get an idea for Found-Again Friday that I think is the essence of the project: picking up things I very deliberately put down a long time ago to see if I was too harsh. Some of it has worked out brilliantly (Mister Frost)…and then there’s Altered States. So what could be more appropriate than the book that caused me to stop reading Stephen King novels for a decade or more?

As I mentioned in my very first post here, I’ve had a weird relationship with Stephen King’s work, beginning when I had the crap scared out of me by “The Cat From Hell” in an anthology at age ten. A few years later, my parents accidentally acquired a copy of The Dark Half; I read it and did with it what I tended to do with horror novels in those days, which was put them away in another room where I wouldn’t be tempted to reread them at night, then sneak them back out again once a week anyway. Intrigued, I picked up Thinner from the library; the combination of fewer likable characters and my familiarity with strawberry pie made that a bit of a non-starter for me, as did finding an old Cornell Woolrich short story that was essentially Thinner but with voodoo.

So my King readership was on the bubble…but I did like vampires. I was in college when I first picked up ‘Salem’s Lot at the library, and other than the writing, I found nothing to like about it. I despised every character, I despised the exponential spread of the vampires, and I wasn’t too fond of the movie adaptation, if it came to that. And so I abandoned the author as a whole, give or take reading a short story or two and having cable during the years The Shawshank Redemption was viewable nearly on a loop.

(I don’t like The Shawshank Redemption very much either. I am probably a terrible person.)

In recent years, a few things have happened to persuade me that I ought to give Lot a re-viewing. One, of course, was The Shining, which I started reading with the lowest of expectations and which is now one of my favorite books. It’s possible, I thought, that I had finally matured into appreciating King. The other is Haven, the loosely Stephen King-based TV show about a small town with troubles both capital and lowercase. I love all the characters in the town of Haven: perhaps I’d been too hard on the residents of ‘Salem’s Lot way back when.

The Premise: A writer returns to the small town that was the locus of his boyhood terrors, just in time to find out his boyhood terrors were only the beginning: A vampire named Barlow is set on making ‘Salem’s Lot his own.

The Verdict: It’s just possible that I am improving as a human being, because I was much less judgmental about the town’s denizens—those who weren’t bullies or abusers, anyway, which seemed to be around 40% of them—this time. I no longer think of Barlow as a fitting plague sent to wipe out the Village of the Asshats. And I am more astute in my old(er) age at picking out the themes about the squalor of evil juxtaposed with the grandeur of vampire myth. I get all that.

But I still don’t understand the actual plot. Why would a vampire want to make an entire town full of competition? Or, if that’s the normal rate at which vampires (who presumably have to eat regularly) reproduce, how did the world ever make it to 1970-whatever with its human population intact when Barlow has been nibbling around since before Christ? The book does feature one scene of blood exchange, but otherwise, vampirism seems to spread sort of like Amway. I did like the book better this time, but I just can’t get over that, even though King literally leaves room to say the Devil made Barlow do it.

Might go well with: Red wine, raspberry sauce, Fright Night.

 

Next time: Going to church with Highlander!

 

Found-Again Friday(ish): Holiday Edition—You Can Go Home Again, But Maybe Don’t

So far I have driven nearly flooded roads, permanently cut a relative from my life, and slipped and fallen on an icy safety ramp: Christmas, and parts of my tailbone, are a bust.

My old favorite bookstore is still here, though, so I am celebrating Pendergastmas instead.

Ordinarily, this seems like it would be more dangerous than mere Christmas...
Ordinarily, this seems like it would be more dangerous than mere Christmas…

Found-Again Friday: Nancy Drew # 59, The Secret in the Old Lace

Today we return to the bookshelf for a look at Nancy Drew.

Why Found-Again? Before I got my hands on The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook or met up with Jupiter Jones and his friends (who I hope will feature in a later Found-Again Friday), this was my favorite mystery book even among my Nancy Drews, competing hotly with The Ghost of Blackwood Hall.

The Premise: With a cache of long-lost jewels at stake, Nancy and her friends travel to Belgium to solve mysteries past and present that involve secret messages, spies, and a cowboy. Yes, in Belgium.

Rereading a childhood classic can have its problems, and The Secret in the Old Lace is no exception: when I think about this book, I remember the European locale, secret messages and lacemaking. I don’t think about the stuff that happens to launch the mystery—Nancy spends time with her dull boyfriend Ned (who kind of beats up a suspect, but somehow still remains boring)! Nancy is waylaid by street toughs!  Nancy is menaced by a guy named, I kid you not, Matey Johnson!

However,  since there was always a certain class of adult telling child-me that she should stop reading trash, things I learned when I read this book as a kid:

  • The existence of Belgium
  • How lace is made
  • A small amount of European history
  • French pronunciation (from asking my mom how on earth you say “François Lefèvre,” anyway)
  • And applicable to all Nancy Drew books generally, who the hell Titian was and why he was really attached to red

The Verdict: It was a lot of fun reading this book again, especially once it becomes a treasure hunt with attached love story. On the other hand, I think I’m about 25 years to old to read anything G-rated involving a “Matey Johnson”; I have difficulty viewing that character as anything more than a sailor on the S.S. Innuendo.

Might go well with : Chocolate, Remington Steele reruns.

 

Next time: The Highlander vs. the cops.

 

Found-Again Friday: Bloodlist—Vampire Files #1

Remember when vampires weren’t polarizing?

That isn’t quite accurate: they were, but in a horror-nerd-versus-mundane-person kind of way. There were no sparkling vamps outside of Anne Rice’s novels, no one had any overwhelming interest in Dracula as a media property, and the renaissance of the horrific, Nosferatu-style demon-faced predator everyone knows from Buffy and the like was slow.

This was the world I grew up in, fascinated by the fanged few from the moment I saw the Count on Sesame Street. But when you’re a squeamish horror fan, you have to choose your hobbies carefully, and it was with trepidation I picked up the first little paperback with what looked like a Dashiell Hammett vampire on the front. The book was Bloodlist, the first in P.N. Elrod’s series about 1930s reporter-turned-vampire detective Jack Fleming.

How much did I love these books? I went on about them at length in my college interview, to the point that it was mentioned in a speech about the diverse interests of the incoming freshman class, that’s how much.
I wonder if that lady from admissions ever picked up the books?

Why Found-Again? You’d think that after all that, these books would be on my yearly reread list, but I always forget. There are probably a lot of factors playing into that: it’s hard not to feel saturated on the whole vampire idea at this point, and there have even been a few vamp detectives since Bloodlist came out in 1990  (*shakes fist at Forever Knight, but somehow not at Lacroix*—it seems especially fitting that Vampire Files author Elrod went on to collaborate with actor Nigel Bennett, given that he portrayed the only character on that show who didn’t make me want to throw garlic at my television).

The Premise: Former reporter Jack Fleming awakes in Chicago with a newly developed taste for blood, but no memory of the murder that put him among the ranks of the undead. When mortal detective Charles Escott discovers Jack’s secret, they join forces to solve the crime—no mean feat when it turns out to be mob-related.

It’s always interesting when reading a vampire book to figure out what kind of a vampire you’re dealing with, and Jack could perhaps be described as a modified Dracula type: yes to stakes, home soil and turning into mist, no to garlic, crosses and holy water.

The Verdict: A thousand times yes! It’s got action, humor, vampire lore, lounge singers, a fun noir sensibility, and a detective named (presumably*) after one of Sherlock Holmes’s pseudonyms.

 

Might go well with: Torch songs, The Thin Man, Bloody Marys

 

 

*I haven’t read the later book where we find out more about Escott’s past. Pleasepleaseplease let that be his name for a reason.

 

Next time: Leaving the scene of the crime, immortal-style.

 

 

Three Kinds of Complicated Relationships With Books

This post comes with a couple of caveats: the first is that I am not, by using specific examples, trying to say that any book I mention here is bad. When I am trying to say that, I will leave you in no doubt.

The second is that the title probably doesn’t mean what you think it means: there’s been a lot in the media lately about the perils (if any) of liking things that are problematic in terms of, say, race, gender treatment, violence, etc. But this isn’t about that. This is living-room stuff.

 

1. The Masochist Read

Three things I find unnerving: frogs, eyeballs, the end of the world.

One thing I love: Hellboy comics, in which characters I adore are basically wallowing 24/7 in the entire list above.

These are the books you keep going back to and it sort of torments you, not necessarily because of the kind of problematic material I mentioned above but because, strictly considered, reading them is not you. You don’t read the book where they kill the dog for a cheap scare. You don’t read the romance where it’s A-OK for the heroine to end up with someone who appears to be an alcoholic. You don’t read the techno-thriller with details so transparently flimsy you start mentally adding scare-quotes to the narrative. Except you do.

2. That Series Book You Hate

The very first Terry Pratchett novel I ever read was Small Gods. My least favorite Pratchett book: also Small Gods. In theory, one of the marvelous things about the Discworld novels is that the world of the series is big enough for readers to only follow the characters they want to, but try telling that to Me Circa 1994–2004, who just couldn’t bring herself to stick the book in the Goodwill bag. For series readers, completism can be like a sickness, and you end up giving shelf space/device memory to things you’ll never read again.

3. Discreet Dalliances

Now more than ever, e-books have made it possible to hide away the books you don’t want anyone to see you reading: the pop-lit, the young-adult books, the steamy romances, the improbable thrillers with equally improbable heroes. (15 days till the next Pendergast novel comes out, but don’t say I’m the one who told you). In some ways, this one is the opposite of number 2 above, in that shame is causing you to not use bookshelf space. Wouldn’t want anybody seeing that you have Roger Moore’s autobiography, would we?

 

What are the books you have complicated relationships with?

 

Next time: A seasonal meditation on two-movies-on-1-DVDs…because I have no non-horror two-movies-on-1-DVDs.

 

Introduction/Navel-Gazing

Welcome to Our Cynical Omelet, the site that’s been rebooted so often I might as well have named it Dracula.

Yesterday I began rereading Stephen King’s The Shining. This is something I do perhaps quarterly, but this time lines up with the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. I read The Shining maybe twenty years later than most bookish people my age—they tended to devour everything up to Tommyknockers, whereas I kind of liked The Dark Half, wasn’t fond of Thinner, and hated every single character in ‘Salem’s Lot so much that I gave up long-form King for years. So finding out The Shining is an amazing book was both a relief and a glorious surprise when I finally tucked into it.

The book is also, I’m sorry to say, a favorite of mine because it echoes a lot of the problems in my own family, which is why I found myself getting ready for work this morning and thinking, “The Overlook would have got to my dad much faster.” My father was almost certainly an honest-to-god narcissist, an idea I had trouble with until the night last year when he called to yell at me for spending too much time with my mother on Mother’s Day weekend. I thought, till I began doing research on the subject, that to be one of those you had to be a high achiever, and Dad had spent my whole life—maybe not his, I hope— as a schemer on the level of maybe Daffy Duck.

Shortly thereafter, I tremulously took this new-gathered information to my mother, to friends who knew him, and was met with a resounding “Duh!” I was literally the last to know. Perhaps when you grow up being called “little [Dad’s name]” when you get in trouble, it’s harder to think that big [Dad’s name] might be broken in some fundamental way.

After the funeral, my friend said, “I’ve never seen anything like it: nobody cried.” It was true: all his friends from the old neighborhood, all his old tennis buddies, even his reluctant child, all had Dad’s number at last.

Which is why, when I say I read The Shining and am reminded of my own family, I don’t wholly mean it in a bad way. Jack Torrance clearly loves his wife and child; he just can’t resist the voice that tells him they’re standing in his way, the voice that tells him he’s too special for all this boring stuff.  And that reminds me that Dad probably couldn’t either.

 

Next Time: Gosh, anything more cheerful than this.