Saturday, February 7, 2009

Journey into Darkness

Left Munich at 8.35 p.m. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pest seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East.

- BRAM STOKER,
Dracula (excerpt from "Jonathan Harker's Journal")

If you have been following this blog for a while, you probably know that I'm a horror film buff. I've always loved horror, especially when it blends with kink (or vice versa!). I've written here about the sexually charged films of David Cronenberg and about sadomasochism in Lovecraft movies.

Another mixture I like is horror and travelogue. The two genres go well together, and it's easy to see why: both deal with encounters with the unfamiliar. Horror explores fear, and we tend to fear that which is alien and unknown to us. At the same time, we (or at least some of us) feel an irresistible attraction to it - the primordial, adventurous human desire to face the unfamiliar and our fear of it. It is from this duality of repulsion and attraction that the horror genre derives much of its appeal.

The same is true, on a slightly different level, of travlogue. These stories not only stir our imagination because they describe strange and wonderful places. They also resonate with us so deeply because they are told from the point of view of a traveller - a narrator with whom we identify, someone who is a stranger there, just like we are! An outsider who feels thrilled by the alien environment, but also, from time to time, a little out of place and uneasy. Just like we would. Again, there is attraction mixed with latent fear.

Some horror films take these similarities all the way, as they are road movies in their own right, like The Hitcher, The Forsaken or Wolf Creek. But you can find travel and exotic locations as important elements in many other horror stories, including the classics. Just think of Bram Stoker's immortal tale "Dracula". As everyone knows, the famous vampire count hails from Transylvania, which at the time when Stoker wrote the novel was one of the least known and most mysterious regions of Europe (it arguably still is). The book - an epistolary novel combining various fictional diary entries, letters and telegrams from the main characters - opens with the journal of Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor on his way to Transylvania to meet a new client, the eccentric count. Large parts of it are typical 19th century "adventure travelogue".

There are numerous movie versions of "Dracula", some trashy, some brilliant. If I had to pick a personal favourite, I would have to go, after a bit of soul-searching, with the 1992 film by Francis Ford Coppola. Despite some flaws (including Keanu Reeves as a rather wooden and forgettable Harker), I think it is by and large the most consistent and artistically successful adaptation. It is also the most faithful to the book, both in terms of plot and feel.

Coppola evokes a spellbinding Gothic horror atmosphere with his usual flair and technical wizardry. In his hands, the shadows, fog and flickering lights which we have seen countless times before somehow look fresh and delightfully scary again - he assembles all the old vampire movie cliches and then transcends them, which is quite a feat. Moreover, he properly emphasises all the barely repressed sexual metaphors of the blood-sucker myth in general and the Dracula tale in particular. The results are lavish, captivating and at times quite dark and sexy, with just the right hint of camp. Well, except for Anthony Hopkins as Dr. van Helsing, who is totally and utterly in camp territory! But he is just having fun, and I had fun watching him...

Hostel is a more recent example of the "Meet your doom in remote, backward lands!" horror travelogue film, about backpack tourists kidnapped and tortured to death by sinister forces in Slovakia. Actually, you can find numerous parallels with "Dracula": both stories feature young, middle class protagonists who are preyed on by the rich and decadent - a Transylvanian nobleman here, wealthy "torture club" customers there. Both stories are steeped in sex, and the horrible fate of some of the characters is basically the punishment for having been too sexually driven. Both stories are set in remote countries that just sound familiar enough to provide a grounding in the real world, but are so unknown to the average reader / viewer that you can basically fill them with horror and fantasy elements at your leisure.

The "Slovakia" we see in "Hostel" bears as little resemblance to the real world as Bram Stoker's Transylvania - none whatsoever. It's a fantasy land, the name merely serving as a projection space for all sorts of "backward Eastern Europe" stereotypes and scary urban legends. A poor, uncultured and dangerous place inhabited by criminals, street gangs, prostitutes and corrupt policemen! The men are thugs and the women are sluts! And all of them are out to rob and kill you!

Understandably perhaps, the Slovaks of the real world weren't too thrilled about this portrayal of their country. With the impeccable sense for involuntary satire that only politicians possess, some officials expressed fears that it would be bad for tourism. Hey, as we all know, nobody goes to Texas anymore since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hit the theaters in 1974!

Ah well. They should have realised that the joke is not on them, actually - it's on the audience.
I especially love the movie scene where the guy luring the backpackers to Slovakia with promises of sex and excess says: "There is so much pussy and because of the war there are no guys!" Beg your pardon? What war is he blabbering about? The rather peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia perhaps? Or are the filmmakers just counting on the fact that the protagonists (and large parts of the audience) are too dumb to know the difference between Slovakia and former Yugoslavia?

Let's go back to the horror travelogue theme, though. It's quite interesting to compare the travel scenes from "Dracula" (the 1992 film) and "Hostel". The journey into darkness, if you will. See the attached video clip. The styles contrast: gloomy, supernatural Gothic horror with sumptuous effects against the much more down-to-earth approach of modern, "reality based" shock horror.

But again, the parallels between the two scenes are obvious: the journey has to be by train, because that is arguably the most captivating form of travel, and well-suited to the genre. Afterwards, there is a second part, by carriage in "Dracula" and by taxi in "Hostel", to emphasise the distance and duration of the journey. It's important that the protagonists have no part in steering the vehicle, that they are taken - passively - to their destination. And it is essential that we get a premonition of the horrible things that wait there, a feeling of uneasiness and impending danger: the ominous line "For the dead travel fast!" and the weird carriage ride in "Dracula", the encounter with the creepy businessman in "Hostel". Great stuff. I love these buildup scenes.



At the end of the day, though, no medium is better suited for immersive horror travelogue than the written word. A couple of days ago, I started to read "Dracula" for the first time. I've seen all the movies and I know quite a lot about the novel from secondary sources - the plot, the style, the background, Stoker's historical inspirations, et cetera. But like so many others these days (even horror fans!), I've never actually read the damn thing. So I am filling that gap in my education right now. I'm still in the first part, "Jonathan Harker's Journal", and needless to say, I enjoy the little travel report details - where he talks about the train being late or what kind of local food he had for supper. It's mundane, but it fills the story with life. And it contrasts nicely with the not-so-mundane things that are already creeping in.

I also love that the book starts in Munich, the city where I live. How cool! Well, actually, Harker makes his first journal entry in Bistritz, a town in what is today Romania. But he writes about how he left Munich a few days before.


It will make for stimulating reading later this morning, when I leave Munich on a train journey of my own. I've packed my things already and after finishing this blog post, I will be on my way to the central station. Fittingly enough, I will follow the old Orient Express route, just like Jonathan Harker - from Munich to Vienna and then onward to the East. My final destination is a spanking movie shoot, which I will be attending as an intrepid underground reporter. I dare not disclose the name of the company at this stage, for fear of discovery. Suffice to say that no one has written a behind-the-scenes report about them yet (and if you re-read the opening of this post, you can make an educated guess about their identity, anyway).

If I make it back alive, you will hear all about my adventure next week. If not, let this journal entry be my final farewell to you.

4 comments:

Niki Flynn said...

LETTER, MISS NIKI FLYNN TO HERR LUDWIG

Dude, never read Dracula??? Wussup with THAT? Admittedly, the blood transfusions that make up the middle third get a bit samey, but Dracula remains the only vampire story I really and truly love. And Coppola's film is by far the best version. A visual feast!

I hope your journey is without incident and I hope your destination provides many occasions for weird and wonderful discovery. I look forward with great interest to reading your account.

You must remind me on your safe return to show you the strange marks I've acquired on my neck. Most peculiar indeed!

Till then, goodbye my friend.

Yours ever faithfully,
Niki

John said...

What an atmospheric mood you have conjured up, my good sir!

J

Karl Friedrich Gauss said...

Ludwig, love your posts on horror movie themes. I'm linking to them with added material on Spanking Scouts: http://chross.blogt.ch/forum/read.php?2,962,1276#msg-1276

Ludwig said...

Thanks for the mention, Karl. Even though my piece about Cronenberg wasn't really about "Crash", as you say on that forum, it was mostly about "Videodrome". That said, I'm a big fan of "Crash", too. These two and "Dead Ringers" are among my favourite Cronenberg films. But he has made so many others that are great, too, it's almost impossible to choose...