The one thing that I love about winter is being inside. While this may seem to be a ridiculous statement, why not just say that I hate winter, but hear me out. It’s not so much being out of the cold that I enjoy, as much as the feeling it invokes. No, not warmth. It’s more of a cloistered, secure feeling that comes from being able to be completely unaffected by what’s happening outside. What could be better than gathering a stack of movies and binge watching them on a cold snowy day. For me it’s akin to curling up by the fire with a book and a hot cup of cocoa.
Ironically, my favorite films to watch when it is snowing are films which take place in bad weather, particularly winter weather. It’s almost as if while I am watching them I am being reassured of my security and warm by participating in their lack there of. So as New England prepared to for the blizzard of 2015, I began to compile a list of films that take place in winter. As the weeks progressed this list became useful as we have had a major storm dropping snow on us at the beginning of almost every week since that blizzard.
I found the films on my list to be predominantly horror. Not just because I enjoy the genre but also because of its relationship with winter. Nothing spells doom like snow, wind chill, ice storms, and cabin fever. Cold itself even denotes some connotation of death. Related to this, one of my first films to make the list was Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (1967). As I began to watch this film I started to think about other gothic or gothic like vampire films that have a similar cold theme to them. I came up with a couple I would like to discuss here. Firstly Hammer’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), then Mario Bava’s Wudurlak section of Black Sabbath (1963). Warning Spoilers
Released in January of 1966, Hammer’s Dracula Prince of Darkness is the sequel to Horror of Dracula (1958). Although Hammer released other vampire films prior to Prince of Darkness’s release, such as Kiss of the Vampire (1963). They couldn’t bring to the screen what Christopher Lee did. Prince of Darkness picks up where Horror left, actually giving the viewer a “last time on Dracula” type of introduction. We see Van Helsing destroy Dracula. As he turns to dust and blows away. Only his ring remains. Flash forward ten years, a group four travelers are on a grand tour passing through the Carpathians. Charles and Diana Kent, along with Charles’s brother Alan and his wife, the prudish Helen. At a local tavern they meet Father Sandor, who has just been reprimanding the locals on their continued use of garlic to ward off the “boogieman”. The father warns the group not to visit Carlsbad. When Helen insists that they stick to the schedule, the father warns them not to go near the castle.
Along the way they’re kicked out of their carriage when the driver refuses to go any further, even pulling a knife on them to get his point across. So where does that leave them? Stay in a hut or go to the castle. The women decide it would be better to stay in the hut. When along comes a carriage with no driver, what luck!! The four of them hop into the carriage with Charles at the helm. But with great dramatic music the horses will only go one way, to the castle. Our first shot of the castle entrance is dark and cold. Snow covered obelisks tower over the frozen moat. The wind blows swiftly as the men decide whether or not to go inside. Helen doesn’t want to go inside. “Eerie” she says. Perhaps she will be proven right. Charles agrees sarcastically after he has already open the doors. After which, Diana waltzes right in and notices the table is set. Charles figures he needs to check the place out. This is when Helen mildly flips insisting that they leave.
Charles finds their things in one of the rooms, Helen screams, and we are introduced to Klove. Klove fills everyone in on why he is there. Creepy breezes and Helen’s fears fill the hall during the toast to Count Dracula. Before going to bed, Helen warns Alan of the evil of the place. Oh if they only listened to nit picky Helen.
During the night Helen wakes up insisting that Alan has called her name. They hear and noise, which is Klove lugging a chest through the hall. Alan goes to investigate. And so we say goodbye to Alan in what may be the best Dracula resurrection in the Hammer franchise. It's a bloodbath. At least he won’t have to hear Helen say “I told you so”.
So what does Helen do as soon as she finds out her husband is dead? Hook up with a new beau, Dracula. He doesn’t even have to say a word, he is simply mesmerizing.
The next morning, Alan and Helen can‘t be found. So Charles and Diana decide to head into the village to get some help. Charles insists on returning to the castle and leaves Diana alone, where she is picked up by Klove. Alan meanwhile finds a body stuffed in that trunk Klove had the night before but fails to see Dracula sleeping in the open coffin next to it. Diana enters the castle and I quickly locked in by Klove. To Diana’s surprise there’s Helen, but she’s changed. Dracula has unleashed something inside her. Gone are her tight fitting clothes and hair in a bun. She is woman, hear her roar, or bite. Helen and Dracula’s little plan to get a piece goes bad with the aid of a cross. Charles and Diana escape with the help of Father Sandor.
Once at the monastery, the good father fills Charles in on the details about vampires. Wherein Charles decides that he must now kill Dracula in order to avenge his brother’s death. Father Sandor assures Charles that they are safe in the monastery, since vampires have to be welcomed into a place. Enter Ludwig, the poor man’s Renfield, who lets Drac into the place along with the now seductive Helen.
As both Helen and Dracula make their first attempts to capture Diana, Helen is caught. Charles is forced to witness Father Sandor tame Helen’s wild womanly ways with a stake. And with the help of Ludwig, Dracula gets Diana. From then it is a race to save Diana before Dracula can get her back to is castle. In the chilly ending Dracula and Charles are battling on the frozen moat. Charles is only saved the quick thinking of Father Sandor, who breaks the ice by shooting it. Dracula is killed by the icy waters. As Father Sandor noted earlier, running water kills vampires. Which doesn’t make sense, because why then would Dracula have a moat with running water in it? Wouldn’t he be worried that one night in a blood filled stupor he slips on some ice to his doom?
What I like about this film the most is the death of Dracula. Not only for implausibility, but for its inventiveness. I’m not saying that all other Dracula kills are plausible. Just that I don’t buy the Drac popsicle scenario. The film’s gothic atmosphere is a staple of Hammer and is one of the aspects of Hammer films I love. Atmosphere is contrived from set pieces, staging, dialog, camera movements, etc. The aspect of atmosphere that particularly interests me are the materials that make up set pieces. The materials used, or not used tell a part of the story. The intricacy of these can bring out things subliminally to the audience. The cold exterior of Dracula’s castle, with its frozen moat really gives it the added element of cold death. However the interior set design of the castle has something lacking. The blankets are thin and there are no fireplaces in the rooms. The castle is well lit. There is no sense that this castle is drafty. Although it seems obvious that you would want a castle to be warm and cozy, in reality castles are notoriously drafty, damp and cold. I really wanted Dracula’s castle to give me a sense of this and it did not.
Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath or I tre volti della paura (1963) consists of three separate stories, The Telephone, The Wurdalak, and The Drop of Water. For this post I will be concentrating on The Wurdalak segment of the film as much as it pains me not discuss the other stories in this film. Maybe someday I will do a post about Bava films, but I don’t think there is much to say that Tim Lucas hasn’t already expressed. The Wurdalak opens with Vladimire (the personable Mark Damon) riding through the countryside. He comes across a body by the river which has been decapitated. In the chest is an ornate dagger. Talk about overkill. Vladimire removes the dagger from chest of the dead man and puts him on his horse. As night falls and the cold winds pick up Vladimire comes to a house and proceeds to go right in without knocking. As he looks around he notices a definitive space a wall where the dagger he picked up once hung. As if the matching dagger hanging on the wall wasn’t enough to indicated a pair, there is a nice dusty tracing of the missing dagger’s shape. Perhaps these daggers are only reserved for special occasions like decapitation. Vladimire has cause to believe someone from this house killed the man draped over his horse outside.
This is when Giorgio comes down the stairs wondering what this man is doing in his home. Giorgio tells Vladimire that dagger belongs to his father, Gorca, who has been gone for almost five days. This amount of time is significant as we shall see later. As Vladimire goes to show Giorgio the decapitated man outside he realizes the man is gone. This is when we are introduced to Pietro, Giorgio’s brother, who has taken the headless horsed man and is running a sword through his heart just for good measure. If Gorca taught them anything, it’s overkill.
They return inside as Giorgio is trying to explain to Vladimire why his brother is so insistent with the overkill. Apparently the man who was killed was an infamous murderer named Ali Beg. Ali Beg however, was no longer a man but a wurdalak. And Gorca had set out five days earlier to kill the man/wurdalak. Vladimire is introduced to the rest of the family. Giorgio’s wife, Maria, and their son Ivan. As well as the lovely Sdenka, of whom Vladimire falls for immediately upon seeing her. Sdenka posses Diana’s (Dracula Prince of Darkness) innocence with a bit more seductive appearance. She is a single lady after all. Gorca has given instruction that if he should come home after five days that they are to kill him because he will not be himself. It just so happens to be almost midnight of the fifth day.
Gorca’s return is one of haunt anticipation. His entrance is as slow as his walk towards the house with his face revealed in a sudden jarring camera zoom. He is injured from his encounter with Abi Beg. Gorca’s appearance is that of a man under some sort of distress. His face has a slight gray pallor to it. After questioning the family’s curious looks, he asks to be fed. Over which he regales the story of the encounter with Ali Beg. Vladimire tells Gorca that he was the one who discovered the body along the riverbank. Gorca reveals a special treat he has in his bag, the head of Ali Beg. He tells Giorgio to hang head outside so that all may know who it was that killed Ali Beg. There is an awkward tension in the room. It is obvious that Gorca is not himself. After a strange grandfather cuddle moment Ivan is pulled away from Gorca and they all retire to bed.
As they sleep the winds are blowing hard outside. Gorca is lurking around outside and peering in windows. He slowly creeps upstairs taking Ivan from his bed. This is seen by Vladimire who wakes everyone, but it is too late. Giorgio chases after Gorca. We also see Gorca’s first victim, Pietro, dead at the table. Ivan doesn’t make it, but this doesn‘t stop him from missing his mommy. Mainly because Maria refuses to let Giorgio stake and decapitate him. When he comes back looking for his mommy, Giorgio tells Maria its just the wind, which is still wiping outside. Ivan is screaming that he is cold. Giorgio falls under Maria’s knife in his attempt to stop her from opening that door to let the young wurdalak Ivan inside. When she does, surprise, surprise, it’s Gorca at the door and not Ivan.
Meanwhile Vladimire has convinced Sdenka to make their escape. As they find shelter from the cold in a ruined castle, Vladimire tries to persuade Sdenka she’s made the right choice. She is convinced she is cursed, that she can not escape her fate. While they sleep the other family members come to visit Sdenka. Vladimire wakes up alone. He races back to the house to find Sdenka alone in her room. She is bed, her dress is off. She tells him she had to come back and urges him to come closer. Her eyes are dough like, fully dilated. She brings Vladimire close to her, and moves slowly for his neck. Then segment ends. Like that of Helen, we see that Sdenka has shed her coy domineer after being transformed into a wurdalak. She is no as wild as Helen. Her clothing has not changed, it’s simply gone missing. She is alluring, hypnotizing Vladimire.
Bava’s use of light on the exterior of house along with fog give it an eerie depth. The interior scenes are lit with warmth. Completely blocking out the cold. The sound design adds to the feeling of cold, with the wind constantly blowing throughout the entire segment. It is a desolate place to live. During the film the main door of the house opens completely and on occasion is left open. I find myself saying “close the door, you’re letting out the heat”. Again, as in Prince of Darkness, the vampire is associated with that cold. Gorca stalks the house outside while everyone is asleep. The cold temperature outside is associated with almost every wurdalak transformation in the film. Pietro is laying on the table bitten with the candle out from the open door. Ivan is outside screaming “I’m cold, let me in”. Maria recoils in fear from the open door as the cold, and Gorca overtake her. Sdenka is among the ruins when she turned. Only the last turning of Vladimire do we see cold overpowering turn to warm seduction.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) begins, after some animation, on a snowy road somewhere in the mountains of what is most likely eastern Europe. Professor Abronsius and his assistant Alfred are traveling by sleigh on a cold night. The narrator is giving the viewer a bit of a back story about the good professor. During this time a group of wolves or dogs come up to the sleigh in an attempt to attack the two men. Only Alfred is aware of this, and the dogs get away with an umbrella. When they arrive at a local inn, the professor is frozen stiff. They make a hurried attempt to revive him by doing among other things, rubbing snow on his ears. Which apparently was at one time thought to prevent frostbite. He finally comes to while soaking his feet in a tub of hot water. Immediately he notes the large amount of garlic throughout the inn. A fact he points out to Alfred in an attempt to reiterate the theory of garlic as a vampire deterrent. The professor inquires about a castle located within the area, which everyone except the village idiot denies exists. They settle in for the night. Alfred is also introduced to the beautiful Sarah, the innkeeper’s daughter, through an accidental bath room encounter.
The next day the two vampire hunters are enjoying some breakfast and the view. When in comes Koukol, the hunchback, looking for some candles. The Professor tells Alfred to follow him. Alfred hitches a ride on his sleigh, only to be dropped after an encounter with those dogs from earlier. Later that night Sarah comes in looking to take a bath because she likes to keep clean. Alfred helps her prepare the bath. Fighting off the urge to peep on her through the keyhole, he finally does only to see her being attacked by Count Von Krolock. The Count has managed to break in through the skylight, in the only room that isn’t covered in garlic. The beautiful Sarah is up to her neck in bubbles when it begins to snow on her. She is almost in awe of it, when she realizes that this is not a good thing. The cold has made its way into the inn. Her father, Shagal, rushes in attempting to climb out the window. He then makes his way out into the night.
In the morning Shagal is found frozen outside the inn. Unlike that of the professor, Shagal can not be revived via snow ear rubbing. After inspection, it is determined by the professor that he has been bitten by a vampire and must be staked. Much like Maria in the Wurdalak, the innkeeper’s wife Rebecca refuses to stake Shagal. This has multiple repercussions. One of these is that he gets loose. The two hunters trail him to a castle. At the castle the hunters finally meet Count Von Krolock, who is gracious enough to let them stay for the night.
The next morning they begin to search the castle for the location of the count’s resting spot. They encounter Koukol guarding the crypt. But with some investigation they find a small window opening. After some climbing of the snow covered castle walls Alfred makes his way into crypt where the Count and his son Herbert are sleeping. Needless to say, he can’t go through with the deed of staking. With the sun setting and the Professor stuck in the window they must call off the vampire hunting for the day. It doesn’t help that Alfred is sidetracked by the singing which turns out to be Sarah. She is taking a bath of course. Apparently there is going to be a ball that evening and she is getting ready. Professor Abronsius and Alfred won’t be attending the ball though. Because the Von Krolock has caught on to there intentions and is saving them for the dinner portion of the evening. The dessert being Sarah. Alfred and the Professor eventually crash the party almost escaping with Sarah unnoticed if not for a mirror. They hop in the sleigh, but are pursued by the Koukol in a coffin repurposed as a sled. The three make is safely out of the grasp of the Count. But end up victims anyway. Just as we saw with Sdenka, Sarah is able to persuade Alfred to let her have a nibble.
This whole movie leaves the audience out in the cold. It is not only a love letter to, but a spoof on Hammer films. The atmosphere of this film is therefore much like that of a Hammer film. But with some colder touches. All of the sets in this film are cold. Snow covers every inch of the exteriors. The cold creeps its way into the interior set pieces as well. The windows are iced up. All of the beds have thick heavy blankets. The characters wear night shirts and stocking caps. In the castle has a fireplace roaring in every room. Yet there is a dampness to the castle that is almost felt. Even the characters have red faces, chapped from the cold air. Just as in the Wurdalak, we see characters who are vampires or turned by vampires associated with the cold. Count Von Krolock comes into the inn through a window, letting in the weather with him. Like that of Gorca, he is seen lurking out in the night air waiting for his opportunity to strike. Shagal is also found in the cold. He also break into the inn through a window. All of the vampires who attend the ball come from a snow covered graveyard.
Much of the tone of these three films is conveyed through the cool atmosphere. Whether it is the bleak unavoidability of fate or the comedic folly of two would be hunters. We see in Prince of Darkness a cold castle juxtaposed by the warmth of the monastery. The tone is serious, even if the ending is rather silly. These four English travelers have been duped by Dracula. But there is hope, provided by the knowledge of Father Sandor. Although as we see in the other two films, knowledge does not always mean success. Both the Wurdalak and Fearless Vampire Killers are bleak. However comedic Fearless Vampire Killers is, it still has a chill to air. The vampire killers, as fearless as they are, will not actually kill any vampires. And that Sdenka can’t run away from her fate. Family is forever. Blood is thicker than even frozen water.
Ah, it warms the heart...
For your viewing pleasure, the trailers for Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Black Sabbath, and Fearless Vampire Killers. You get to see almost the entire scene of Alan biting it I mentioned earlier in the Prince of Darkness trailer.
The Distracted Blogger
I watch movies. I write about them here. I watch more movies. I get nothing else done.
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