Digital Damsels of Distress: Daniella (Haunting Ground/Demento)

In the previous installment of DDoD, I discussed the underrated brilliance of the protagonist of Haunting Ground, Fiona Belli, who was flung into the deep end of an insidious and existentially terrifying state of affairs with a bit of social commentary and paganism peppered in for good measure.

Now it’s time to discuss her analogue, the self-proclaimed ‘Perfect Woman’, actual damaged lunatic-cum-broken bird, Daniella (superbly voiced by Moira Quirk channeling Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca), the maid of Belli Castle who also has the distinction of being one of the most disturbing and sympathetic digital villainesses ever; at least in my grimoire.

From the moment the player lays eyes on Daniella, they are simultaneously struck by her striking appearance (that hair!), somewhat inappropriate for work but dreamy for cosplay uniform and her cold, automaton bearing. With her dulcet, monotonous tone and unnaturally graceful movements, she doesn’t seem to so much see Fiona, but sees THROUGH her, as if the young woman is nothing but a piece of glass. A phlegmatic air of hostility emanates from the frosty beauty, but she does not present an immediate threat to Fiona… to begin with. For a while, Daniella appears completely oblivious to Fiona’s presence as the young woman navigates the expansive estate, cleaning various nooks and crannies, completely contained in her own mental realm, that is until she (very intimately) informs Fiona that dinner is… served.

Ohhh gee.

After having been an indifferent background feature, Daniella cooks Fiona a hearty spread of something… questionable and stands by to watch the other woman consume her efforts as she lacksidasically explains something akin to a truncated biography; that she was created by her ‘Master’ to be the ‘Perfect Woman’ and she isn’t wrong; she is a Waterhouse beauty made homunculus flesh, a manufactured creation made in the name of perfection. As a result of this, she also admits to being anhedonic- the incapacity to experience pleasure or happiness.

If you thought this exchange wasn’t uncompromisingly uncomfortable enough, later, when Fiona sleeps, Daniella hovers over her reposing form, her pale, long-fingered hand overs narrowly above Fiona’s body as she looks intently at every part it surveys; her face, her throat, her breasts, her stomach and finally between her legs. After a moment, with look of frighteningly ardent intent, her hand presses squarely against Fiona’s clothed vagina, causing the girl to wake up in a fright. Daniella holds her gaze several moments more; one can’t decide if the look is supposed to be seductive or malign before she walks across the room to a mirror and, well… that’s when things get UGLY.

Daniella is SUCH an interesting character for multiple reasons; she is clearly mentally unstable, in fact, I would love to see a psychologist do a full profile of the various afflictions Daniella appears to harbor, and while there is little doubt she is terrifying, she is also a cautionary and tragic tale against the toxicity of the unchecked quest for the perfect when it comes to women and their bodies.

You can see where I am going with this, yes? Good, because this is a crucial part of Daniella as a character and her role in the game.

Fiona represents everything Daniella is not; she is human in every sense of the word. Daniella meanwhile is Galatea; an imitation. A beautiful imitation, but an imitation nevertheless. For all of her initial apathy in the first part of the game before she becomes a primary threat, she is a statue in motion obsessively, tirelessly attending to her role of complete servitude all because of harmful patriarchal desire.

Daniella was created specifically to unerringly, unquestioningly obey and undoubtedly to be a target of violent exploitation by two particular denizens of Belli Castle, which I won’t go in to for fear of spoilers and I don’t believe my own words can do the whole foul truth justice. However, as the story goes, a dog can only be kicked long enough before it bites back. Unfortunately in Daniella’s case, having met Fiona and undoubtedly detecting the younger woman’s significance with regards to her Azoth, something inside of her snaps. Daniella craves the ability to feel, she wants the ability to create, she wants to live… she wants to be a WOMAN and the only way to accomplish this is to eliminate the female threat.

In her demented mind, Fiona is the embodiment of her desires and frustrations, but rather than endeavor a treatise with Fiona, or find it within her to feel compassion for Fiona’s plight, her only solution is to kill the girl and take the Azoth for herself as she believes if she does, she too will become a ‘complete’ woman.

Or will she?

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The twist? The tragic, terrible twist?

She will not.

Daniella is inferred in game to have always been a woman, born, not created.

From an early age, Daniella was abducted and molded by the Belli Castle denizens to a life of slavery among other things. So powerful and destructive was her conditioning, she accepted the fact she was a forgery. While there is little doubt that some alchemical force had deprived her of sensation and emotion while exaggerating her aesthetic appearance, she was utterly convinced that she was what she was shaped to be. Daniella’s life had been effectively ruined by the concept of perfection being taken to harmful degrees with no say in the matter. When she finally realises the architecture of her existence, it is far too late for her to reconcile or even hope to find a way of taking back her agency, another reason why she pursues Fiona so viciously.

Seven years bad luck are the least of your troubles, lady.

I’m gonna square up with you. I sincerely feel Daniella is an exaggerated take on the female misogynist.

While men tend to take the cake statistically in the more visible arena of misogyny, an alarming number of women are misogynists too. In fact, women use misogynistic language more frequently than men do because it can insidiously be passed off a ‘harmless’ gossip just as sexist conversations between men are insistently regarded as ‘locker room banter’. Like their male counterparts, female misogynists are driven by irrational hate, fear of or contempt for other women. Daniella is a clear representation of this demographic due to how she behaves and reacts throughout the game. While she ultimately hates herself more than anybody else, she projects her hatred upon Fiona, resorting even to slut-shaming the young woman for no justifiable reason. For all of her external beauty, she possesses an ugly interior and because of this, she can’t look into a mirror, both literally and psychologically, which leads to her inevitable destruction.

Additional aside: There is an unspoken convention in storytelling about coding a character’s sexuality via the use of colour. In the case of Daniella with her luxurious purple locks, flawless complexion contrasted by her vaguely sexualised green and white ensemble, one can’t help but associate that particular palette with genderqueer and asexuality. General definition of genderqueer denotes a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders. Many interpretations about Daniella’s sexual identity spawned from just how obsessively fixated the character becomes with Fiona, and not only that, the stalk segments involve her literally coming out of a closet with a long, jagged glass blade to surprise and penetrate Miss Belli.

That being said, Daniella appears to identify as asexual. While Daniella looks distinctly feminine with her vaguely fetishistic fantasy maid’s outfit and supermodel appearance, she does not show any hint of having authentic sexual desire. While some cut scenes suggest an eerie sense of sexual tension, it is clear she does not see Fiona as a potential romantic partner but a boon and a bane to her existence to be extinguished and utilized for her own means.

(Note: I could be reaching here, but usually woman-on-woman action is seen as something of a fetishistic fantasy by heterosexual men, but here it is splendidly inverted. I wonder if this was the intention of the creative crew?)

There is so much about the character of Daniella to admire, but I had to sum up why, I feel the best explanation I can provide is that despite her more exaggerated aspects, she is the best sort of villain; one with understandable motives that are visible in our own society… motives we can relate to. The unhealthy pursuit of perfection is a venomous thing as it completely undermines what the human experience is all about and take away what it truly means to be human; to be flawed, to accept our differences. This does statement does not account for every facet of our existence, but the moment we impose our notions of what we perceive as superlative on another person, and not only that, but pay heed to, that is when we lose sight of and deny who we truly are.

We become… incomplete.

By the way, take a listen to her stalking theme. It marvelously embodies the character.
Disjointed, disturbing yet tragic, like a robotic swan choking on it’s blood.

Digital Damsels Of Distress: Fiona Belli (Haunting Ground/Demento)

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First, please permit me to say this, Capcom; please have the Azoth to re-release OR give this game the loving remake treatment it so richly deserves as it is far too valuable to allow to tumble into obscurity!

Haunting Ground, known in Japan as Demento (デメント), was a PlayStation 2 survival horror which truly was far ahead of its time. Perhaps one may argue, a little too far ahead of its time.

After the blustering failure of Clock Tower 3, Capcom’s studio developed Haunting Ground. While technically not an official Clock Tower game, it still heavily consisted of ties to the Clock Tower series as a spin-off spiritual successor of sorts as it was created with many of the team members who worked on the third game.

In addition, Haunting Ground also bears many similarities to the Clock Tower series such as depraved stalkers who wanna KILL! KILL! KILL!, a panic system, unconventional inventory objects, hiding places and multiple endings dictated by how you elected to play the game. In perhaps the most surprising (but not really) twist, it has also been revealed that it was originally intended to be a Resident Evil game before that idea too was scrapped.

Upon release, Haunting Ground received poor sales due to extremely limited marketing as well as the SMALL fact that an obscure little game known as Resident Evil 4 had been released around the same time.

Yeah, it kinda never stood a chance.

Despite the initial disappointment however, the game received a faithful cult following including yours truly because of the game’s brain-tickling puzzles, intellectual story which plays with the convention of Gothic horror, soundtrack and truly fascinating characters not to mention the very impressive AI for Hewie, intriguing atmospheric aesthetics, respectable facial animation and mocap, effective voice acting, innovative game mechanics, and decent replay value.

So, enough about that, let’s talk about our Damsel.

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Haunting Ground delves into the story of soft spoken, thoughtful and gentle teenage college student, Fiona Belli, who becomes trapped in her familys’ monstrous castle full of unthinkable, forbidden terrors and hostile residents who want to devour, kill, impregnate or do far worse.

In order to survive and hopefully her ordeal, she must befriend and utilize the white German Shepard companion Hewie all the while building up a solid foundation of mutual trust and respect with the Good Boye (one of the best game mechanics EVER!). Along the way, Fiona and the player discovers many truths, involving themes and affairs pertaining to legacy, philosophy, psychology, sexuality, alchemy and the perverse nature of belief.

By the way, what other Good Boye does Hewie remind you of? 😉

Haunting Ground is a pointedly feminine game and a tremendously psychologically reflective one at that.

Fiona is hurtled into many predacious and insidious situations, all of which involve the goal being the claiming of her body, or specifically, the essence of what she carries inside of it. Fiona has inherited the alchemical Holy Grail known as the Azoth, the power to create and manipulate life. Fertile, ripened with youth and completely unaware of the gift residing within her, she is encroached on all sides by these people who wish to take it from her, regardless of how she feels and how much she knows despite the fact this Gothic castle belongs to her.

This may be her home, a seat of power for her family, but everywhere she turns, her aggressors seek to rob her of that power and self-determination.

The psychopaths do not see her as a fully-realised human being capable of thought with personal needs and desires, nor do they care. To them, she is but simply the means to an end of their own desires, one such looney is the only other female occupant of the castle, Daniella the maid, which further compounds the intense stakes of the game and its perverse and demented implications.

Throughout most of the story, Fiona makes her way through the castle dressed in an outfit that one many ordinarily consider ‘cheesecake’; a pandering ensemble which thoroughly emphasizes her voluptuous figure, but upon second blush, this isn’t necessarily mere fan service, but a strong and almost accusatory statement of Fiona’s plight.

For every jiggle of her generous bosom, the game surreptitiously causes the player to adapt and indulge in the gaze of her aggressors, inviting you to feast your eyes on her luscious figure and lean in closer to the screen to watch how her ample breasts move in her abbreviated outfit. You are seeing her as the object that the stalkers are, and when your realise just how thorough this manipulation is, it adds further to the fact that Haunting Ground is preying on a fundamental female fear. The disturbing notion doesn’t come from the fact that Fiona is clearly a beauty, but how quickly the game draws you in to viewing her through the lens of the very villains who wish to do all manner of unspeakable things to your avatar. It’s so personal, so penetrating and unflinchingly, boldly confronting.

Positively GENIUS.

Now, granted all human beings regardless of identity fear being exploited, undermined and being robbed of their autonomy, but it is no secret that women tend to hold this fear specifically given the confusing and frustrating standards they can be held to, most of which can be traced back to their physical appearance. The concept of physical beauty and desirability has shifted throughout history, but the notion of expectation has always remained the same. Even today, this argument continues back and forth between various communities which in turn sends mixed messages to everybody else who is listening.

While most games tend to fall back on a typical interpretation of a Strong Female Character (TM), Haunting Ground doesn’t take that route by placing Fiona’s involvement as a true pacifist who does not at any time pick up arms to fight. A lot of the time, Fiona is highly reactive to the horrors taking place around her, can only run and hide when threatened, never has a formal Enough Is ENOUGH Moment (TM) and cannot for the life of her give or take a punch. She abhors violence so much so that it genuinely nauseates her.

And I bet some of you thought “OMG, she is so LAME.“.

Remember what I said earlier about Haunting Ground being psychologically reflective? What if I told you that your knee-jerk reaction to Fiona’s noted lack of overt and expected proactivity says a lot more about how you think as a person opposed to the character herself?

Something which has always bothered me about central female characters is how unless they are visibly showing any semblance of strength, they are written off as burdens fit to be mocked if not downright reviled. While there is no doubt there are quite a few game characters who follow this trope, in Fiona Belli’s case, her true power comes from within; she is a compassionate, emotionally intelligent young woman who makes it a habit to think before she takes action, regardless of how big or small the undertaking is.

For all of her previously sheltered upbringing and naiveté, this crucible of terror summons forth a mentally fortified individual who is keenly observant and relies on her wits to get out intense situations. In fact, if one were to go a little further, she could actually be seen as a version of the Triple Goddess.

The Triple Goddess is an archaic pagan belief which focuses on the feminine aspect through the depiction of a trio of female deities; the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. The Maiden represents innocence and beauty, the Mother is the figure of maternity and nurturing (the concept of motherhood is not always literal, mind you) and the Crone is the personification of wisdom and experience. Throughout the story, Fiona uncovers revelations with regards to her familial history, where she came from and what she is capable of. Fiona effectively undergoes a version of this very transformation as she endures every one of her tribulations, even if it is not entirely obvious or mentioned in-game.

A lot of the games’ intimate subtext regarding Fiona’s internal fire comes from her building a close and loving bond to Hewie which is perhaps the most visible and relatable manifestation of Fiona’s positive attributes. We are not often given the opportunity to step into the shoes of a Good Girl character because the trope is consistently written off as being ‘boring’ and ‘regressive’. Fiona is NOT regressive, nor is she remotely boring. Capcom created a character which deliberately goes against the grain and that is what gives Fiona that much more agency. To dismiss her would once again just prove the point that the game makes.

While the romance of the blood-splattered, unhinged and survivalist Final Girl cannot be denied, there is no place for it in Haunting Ground because what enables Fiona to prevail and survive this cruel and unusual series of events goes far beyond a shotgun, a barrage of sassy one-liners and the ability to physically throw down. Haunting Ground is at heart a game about the benefits of kindness, emotional maturity, empathy and above all, the power of love and friendship. What truly endears Fiona to the open-minded player is her capacity for goodness, warmth and her consideration for the ramifications of her actions, regardless of how big or how small they may initial appear. It is because of this she is able to escape the nightmare with a stronger psychological constitution and confidence without having to sacrifice her own fundamental integrity.

A remarkably satisfying and unique character journey if there ever was one.

And the valuable assistance of a Very Good Boye doesn’t hurt either.

Digital Damsels Of Distress: Women of Horror Introduction

HULLO, LOVES!

 

This is an announcement post for an upcoming series I have planned devoted to the diverse heroines AND villainesses of horror games, some you may recognise, others you are most certainly glad you will meet while others you wouldn’t want to in a darkened alley… or castle.

To me, there is something Erebusianally magical about horror as far as women are concerned.

While the genre undoubtedly speaks to all and mirrors very particular aspects related to identity, sex and orientation, horror is a particularly cathartic experience for women as it not only allows us to safely indulge in a delicious and varied array of taboos and power fantasies while fostering deep introspection, but most importantly, for every exaggerated stab of the knife there is a home truth which, if you ask any woman, they will be able to tell you they have experienced something akin to it.

It could also be due to the fact that it has the primal root to menstruation, when the female body bleeds in order to maintain it’s balance and order… however that species of discussion is best reserved for another occasion.

And I love gaming, so there’s that.

So, who is the first lucky lady?

Let’s just say this Digital Damsel has inherited not only a bountiful fortune, a Gothic castle and voluptuous, jiggly genes, but also a hideous familial legacy she never even knew she had.

She also has a very good boy to help her along.

 

 

My Favourite Characters: Lieutenant Ed Traxler (Quickie Edition)

James Camerons’ slasher science fiction classic The Terminator is highly regarded by many, each reason as viable as the next. Arnie being the monosyllabic cybernetic mechanical beast, Michael Biehn’s justified instability and heroic competence as Kyle Reese and the forced awakening of untapped inner strength as beautifully portrayed by Linda Hamilton. On top of that, we get some dazzling visual effects (though obviously some don’t quite hold up, but what can ya do?), memorable set pieces (dat Tech-Noir shootout gives me goosebumps every time I watch it), a banging and expressive soundtrack by Brad Fiedel and a beautiful grindhouse cinema aesthetic which transcends the surface and dares to dive deeper without becoming masturbatory or pretentious. It has fully earned its standing as one of the most important and influential films by the Library of Congress in addition to the adoration it has garnered by legions of fans.

However, one aspect I find gets overlooked is the films’ third hero; Detective Lieutenant Edward Traxler played by the late and criminally brilliant Paul Winfield.

Traxler

Traxler is an honest, hard-working cop with a hard nose for bullshit with a wisely compassionate heart. While most times laconic, particularly towards the media who are trying to muscle in on his investigation in early scenes, there is little doubt in your mind that this guy is more than able enough to clean up the mean streets of Los Angeles circa 1984 with a wire sponge, especially when he finally crosses paths with Kyle and Sarah who have been taken into custody after their thrilling first encounter with the Terminator.

(Note: An awesome detail here is that this takes place after the aforementioned Tech-Noir massacre where a concerned Sarah first made verbal contact with Traxler over the payphone.)

While the film primarily focuses its attention on our two leads who are destined to create the savior of humanity and the muscle-bound mean machine, it is a wonder that one of the greatest character arcs in the film can be seen in Traxler. Although rightly skeptical of the insistent warnings of Kyle Reese about their pursuer being a cyborg sent from the future to slay the mother of a living legend, he doesn’t dismiss the possibility that this indestructible menace exists in the form of the sort of serial killer he has undoubtedly come to loggerheads with in the past. In the scene when Sarah, Traxler, Detective Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) and professional shit-snarker Doctor Silberman (Earl Boen) watch a VHS play back of Silberman’s interview where Reese raves about just what the Terminator will do to Sarah involving reaching down her throat and ripping her heart out, while his colleagues have a good laugh at the dishevelled lunatics’ expense, Traxler is deep in thought.

He isn’t laughing, high-fiving or even letting slip the ghost of a smile; he is thinking critically. The guy cussing on the playback may not possess the soundest of minds and their powerful aggressor may not be something as fantastical as a killer robot, but the traumatised woman by his side is in serious danger and as a cop, it is his responsibility to uphold his obligation to the system.

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In the following sequence, Traxler gives Sarah his own rundown of what may actually be happening by his professional understanding and it works… for a time.

Armed with a cup of tea and the soothing voice of sagacious fatherly reason, Traxler consoles Sarah by saying the Terminator is not a impervious cybernetic transhuman abomination, just a very dangerous man who is wearing a particularly fortified bulletproof vest, similar to the one he shows Sarah (followed by Henriksen’s hilarious suggestion of PCP, lol). Additionally, he goes out of his way to grant her a private room so she may rest, assuring her that not only is she perfectly safe but she will be sleeping on the most comfortable couch in the station.

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Later, when the Terminator decides to pay a quaint visit to the LAPD and the place erupts into a bloodbath reeking of gunsmoke and nihilistic terror, Traxler jumps into the fray as you would expect, armed with his expertise and a fuck-off shotgun. Tragically, like every other cop in the shop, he is mowed down without a second thought by the Terminator, but in a deleted scene, Traxler is found by the fleeing Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. In his dying moments he urges Reese to keep Sarah safe and implies that he believes Reese. Unfortunately, this beautiful moment was cut only for the sake of pacing, but it draws a satisfactory conclusion to a marvelously grounded character arc in a narrative of mayhem.

Now, while I am not saying this was Camerons’ or even Winfields’ intention, I find this entire element of the film bears a resemblance the episode of Doubting Thomas from the Bible. In general terms, the moniker of a Doubting Thomas was inspired by the Apostle Thomas who refused to believe in Jesus’ resurrection until he felt the wounds the Son of God attained whilst suffering upon the cross. In regular circles, it is still applied to a heavily skeptical individual who refuses to believe without direct and tangible evidence. In the King James Bible Book of John 20:24–29 the long and short of the tale is as follows;

“24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: [then] came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace [be] unto you.

27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust [it] into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed.”

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“Not so hard!”

While clearly not as cut and dry an allegory in the literal sense, Traxlers’ journey from understandably incredulous policeman who applies the logical to the illogical to somebody who ‘sees the light’ even as he is embraced in the darkness of death and riddled with bullets (an inverse stigmata?) is an amazing one. Thanks to a combination of writing and performance, the character of Detective Lieutenant Edward Traxler should not be overlooked during a conversation involving this film.

What a stud.

 

Quickie: Spring-Heeled Jack

Who doesn’t love a good cryptid that also serves as a paragon of the importance of Leg Day?

Philistines.

Luckily, I know that’s not what you are, dear reader so cheers for taking the time to read this exceptionally brief fluff piece about one of my favourite boogeymen, Spring-Heeled Jack.

A brief overview; Spring-Heeled Jack thrived in and haunted the nightmares of those who lived in Victorian era during the First Industrial Revolution in the form of folk tales and the ever so sensational realm of the penny dreadful. The First Industrial Revolution was a monumental time in history which saw the production of goods that had once been painstakingly crafted by hand come to be produced in mass quantities by steam-driven machines in factories, thanks to the introduction of new devices and techniques in textiles, iron making and other industries. In addition to this technology, the topic of worker’s rights, equitable wages and safety policies were being discussed, disputed and deployed into the industry giving those of low means a better work environment and better pay. Of course, this road was not a smooth one and rarely without some source of bloodshed as revolutions tend to be.

However, despite this, as with any season of change there came the inevitable human reaction of fear. Being afraid of change is absolutely nothing new as it has always been the opposing force to any progressive idea proposed throughout history and it continues to be a major aspect of every society. With the workers, seeing these new machines being brought in, they most likely felt threatened, perhaps deep down they felt existential horror; if these hot and metallic monstrosities were the future, did that mean they were the distant past? That they could cease to be once these contraptions had filled up the warehouses? Change is not only necessary, but it is always perceived as a monster of the unknown by those not willing to embrace it, which brings us to my man Jack.

We all know the concept of the boogeyman is the direct fruit which is the result of human paranoia and anxieties, regardless of the epoch. Fairytales once acted as allegories to enforce the obedience of children, Godzilla’s genesis was being the avatar of the indisputable  unharnessable power of nuclear destruction while Freddy Kruger represents not only the disparity of communication between the older generation with the new, but also how the sins of one dynasty will heavily impact the next. No matter where you look, the true boogeyman resides in you, me and everybody else.

In the case of Spring-Heeled Jack, he is a clear allegory for this anxiety brought on by the First Industrial Revolution in all of those who worked and/or profited during the time of strictly human-based labor. Spring-Heeled Jack was mostly described by people who claimed to have seen him as having a frightful appearance, with diabolical physiognomy, clawed hands, and eyes that “resembled red balls of fire”. One report claimed that, beneath a black cloak, he wore a horned helmet and a tight-fitting white garment which appeared to be an oilskin. (Note: Oilskin as you may probably know is used as a waterproof garment which was originally manufactured for the use of sailors in the 1700s.)

Many stories also mention a distinctly Christian Devil aspect. Other testimonies noted he was remarkably tall with a lean, sharp face, with the appearance and outward bearing of a typical Victorian gentleman while some even stated that the fiend liked to disguise himself in multitudes of garb so he could pass by the masses unnoticed on his way to his next victim. Several reports mention that he could breathe out burning hot blue and white flames and that he wore sharp metallic talons at his fingertips. At least two people claimed that he was able to speak comprehensible English.

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Although Jack liked to hassle many people, he tended to favor the low-level folk the most, with a particular predilection for women (because OF COURSE), with one of the most prevalent testimonies being that of Mary Stevens.

While Mary was walking to Lavender Hill after visiting her parents in Battersea, she was accosted as she crossed Clapham Common by a strange figure who leapt at her from a dark alley. After immobilising her with a tight grip of his arms, he began to kiss her face, as he ripped at her clothes and touched her with invasive iron claws, which were, according to her deposition, “cold and clammy as those of a corpse”.  Thankfully, the girl screamed loudly which caused her aggressor to rapidly flee the scene. The commotion brought several concerned residents who immediately launched a search for the aggressor, but he could not be found.

The following day, the fiend was reported to have selected a different victim near Mary Stevens’ home which inaugurated a method that would reappear in later reports: he jumped in the path of a passing horse-driven carriage, which caused the coachman (who was clearly scared shitless) to lose control, crash, and severely injure himself. Although he lived, he no longer drove a carriage after that event in fear of it happening again. Several witnesses to the incident claimed that the attacker had escaped by jumping over a nine foot (2.7 meters for those of you who use metric) high wall while cackling with a high-pitched, shearing and maddening laughter (shearing… like metal on metal?) which rang in the ears of everybody assembled for time to come.

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”Fiddle-dee-dee, you can’t catch meeeee!”

Firey eyes. Infernal breath. Metallic clawed hands. Cold, inhuman grip. Unnaturally high-pitched laughter. An unstoppable creature wearing the clothes of a man but with an inhuman counternance making a mockery of society without regard for law and decency.

Spring-Heeled Jack is arguably the personification of the fear which rode in with the First Industrial Revolution with not only his lurid appearance, but also his behavior; powerful and unpredictable, just like the unusual apparatuses which had begun to dominate the workforce. Spring-Heeled Jack was the exaggerated response to the immortal human terror of change which makes him so compelling to me.

Speaking of which, although there have been a few films which have featured the cheeky son of a bitch, none of them have been worth a damn which makes me tempted to do something about that because the possibilities for the character are endless.

Ya reckon I should?

 

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Dracula Untold: A Defense You Never Asked For

**** Disclaimer: I originally intended to write this at the tippity-top of 2019 but I got waylaid due to a combination of being a lazy c-star-star-t and something called work, but hey, better late than never, right?***

Forgive me for commencing this article in such an unorthodox way, but I feel a little awkward composing this article in the form of a critical defense that was not requested or broached by anybody else. Essentially, I guess one could say I am arguing against sock puppets, but permit me to state for the record that I am a fan of Gary Shore’s underrated Dracula Untold which was supposed be the official start of Universal’s Dark Universe.

Let me start with this question; can it and should it be measured against the likes of Citizen Kane? The answer is a is a colossal NO.

You see, when it comes to ranking and appreciating films, some people tend to match them all on equal footing without taking into account each products’ own aesthetics and demographics. Is it acceptable to directly compare the likes of Batman Returns against The Crow? Apart from the Gothic tones both features hold, no, because they are very different stories with their own diverse themes told by two different directors who had their own personal visions. Is Dracula Untold on the same level as Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola? On a surface level perhaps, but there is only so much blood we can draw from that stone before we come up snake-eyes.

In the situation which surrounds Untold, it is completely unfair to compare it to any given popular and well-loved classic because that is not the movies’ aspiration. Dracula Untold is a comic book film through and through with kind regard given to the bygone era of the Universal classics with a generous splash of speculative obfuscous fantasy. 

It was originally intended to be an origin story for a character who has been re-purposed to be an anti-hero of sorts in the form of Vlad Dracula using elements from the real life figure of Vlad The Impaler as well as the fictional equivalent birthed by Bram Stoker. In short, this movie makes no pretenses about being a factual historical drama or a conventional Dracula yarn and opts for something a little different. While one may argue its’ success, Dracula Untold never lied about what it was, right down to the trailer which tells you exactly what sort of film you are in for. Unlike other theatrical trailers, Untold is perfectly straight forward and those who went into the film were expecting anything different, well, that was their problem.

So, let me plead my case by saying that Dracula Untold is not the unforgivable dearth people have made it out to be and has more clout than it is given credit for.

Exhibit A: Luke Evans (and others)

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Okay, yes, let’s get it out of the way now; the man is beautiful.

It goes without saying that Shore wanted a sexy Dracula with a mortal soul and he got it by casting the Welshman Who Could. Evans has the ability to look smoldering, soulful, sinister and seductive (all at once in some cases, THAT takes talent) but also you can buy him as a regal, dignified warrior king who ultimately just wants to protect his family and his people.

We first see Prince Vlad of Wallachia comfortably stationed as the ruler of the people, a reputable strategist and most importantly, a loving family man to his beautiful wife Mirena (the luminous Sarah Gadon who provides additional heart to the story) and young son. While he has come to terms with his dark past serving in the court of the sultanate in the Ottoman Empire as a Jannisary, he nevertheless vows to right the savagery he committed by being a better, temperate man of power. He is not one to approach conflict readily or eagerly and is more inclined to utilize intellectual measures to get what he wants. It is only through necessity that he chooses to fight and even then, he does not see it as a pleasure, but as a duty.

(Note: If you feel so inclined, read up on the Jannisaries and be astounded by their badassery.)

When faced with inevitable war against the Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper, all snide and cocksure) and with all of his peaceful options exhausted, he takes on the burden of finding an alternative means to protecting all he holds dear, even if it means sacrificing his principles. When he meets Charles Dances’ decrepit Vampire Master (or Caligula, as it is revealed in the credits) and is offered the opportunity to save his people and his family, he takes it as his cross to bear, knowing it will cause him to suffer… a lot. After consuming Caligula’s blood, it reinvigorates and enhances Vlads’ capabilities, but it also reawakens the ruthless beast he once was and it is these two aspects of his identity which fight for his very soul throughout the rest of the film. Not once are we given the opportunity to objectify Vlad as a straight forward malevolent bloodlusting demon with no regard for life, but a man with principles in conflict with himself who ends up paying a heavy price.

And man, does Evans look marvelous in the Order of the Dragon armor.

Exhibit B: Vampire Lore

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While I will readily admit the whole ‘Three Days’ narrative trope is as well done as Charles Manson’s corpse in the Seventh Circle of Hell, if the story is consistent, I do not see it as a negative so long as the execution is sincere. In the case of Dracula Untold, the catch this time is that if Dracula does not give in to the thirst for blood in three days, he will retain his powers and his humanity. Easy, right?

LOLNOPE!

Given Vlad has taken up arms against Mehmed and is staring bloodshed square in the face, the base desire to cut loose and throw all to the wind is constantly there. One of the key elements of the concept of vampirism is that of temptation, the id, and in times of upheaval and disorder such as war, there are few sensations more potent than to tear through one’s enemies and bathe in their blood with no regard for their humanity. Untold plays with this relatable angle by applying it logically to not only Vlads’ plight, but also, though not as directly, to Caligula’s. Given Caligula is obviously the infamous Roman Emperor who positively thrived on excess and various gluttonies, seeing this filthy, vile and degenerate creature existing (not living) in his cave can be interpreted as further commentary as to what vampirism does to it’s victims. It turns you, isolates you, breaks you down and when it is done, you are but a husk. Ultimately, there is nothing worthwhile or glamorous about being undead; it’s an incomplete death sentence.

Secondly, I fully enjoyed how Dracula’s traditionally portrayed ‘evil’ abilities are portrayed in a more charitable light for a change, but never losing it’s potential as a threat. His mastery over the manipulation of nature was wonderful to watch, especially when it came to facing off against Mehmeds’ horde during the finale, one such moment being below when he literally BECOMES a bat man.

So. COOL.

 

Exhibit C: Aesthetics

While the film can hardly boast a wholly original artistic and flawless vision on the same level as say Frank Herbert’s Dune, in addition to having a very good looking cast, Dracula Untold is still a very good looking film which manages to balance the expected Gothic romance one commonly associates with Dracula and maintaining its comic book and fantasy-based integrity without becoming too steeped in an excess of style or the over-used Grim/Dark formula. On top of that, you are given the opportunity to fully take in every significant moment without having to worry about squinting or contracting whiplash from frenzied camera movements because it understands the importance of permitting the audience to breathe and soak in all of what they are witnessing on screen.

Exhibit D: That Ending

While it is tragic the cliffhanger the film ends on may never see a continuation given the current affairs of the Dark Universe, I nevertheless loved the set up of Dracula living in contemporary society and seeing the physical reincarnation of Mirena who is, of course, named ‘Mina’.

Rather than turning into a predator as one may expect however (with a nice little fake out to suggest this would be his approach), he pleasantly chats with her and draws her in with his own natural charm as opposed to his supernatural abilities. There is a sincere sensation of romance during this exchange rather that predator luring in prey.

They walk away, engaged in conversation… only to be followed by a far more vital-looking Caligula who oozes as only Charles Dance can “Let the games begin.”.

 

Exhibit E: This Trailer

As I mentioned at the top of this article, the trailer for Dracula Untold is unpretentious and direct. You gotta admire that, and I still get chills from the use of Lorde’s incredible rendition of Everybody Wants To Rule The World. In fact, I find it is absolutely mandatory to watch this trailer before you sit down to watch the film itself.

 

So, what were your thoughts on Dracula Untold? Liked it? Hated it? On the fence?

Netflix’s Dracula: Death and Toxic Masculinity

There were plenty of things about Netflix’s Dracula as a whole I thoroughly enjoyed critically, despite short-comings I am not blind to, yet the final scene held particular resonance with me which is being dismissed as a cop out though for what reason I do not quite comprehend why.

Let me explain.

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For my part, Dracula being shown to himself by Agatha/Zoe (who we shall refer to as Zogatha for distinction) was a good deal more satisfying than a stake-in-the-heart finale. As with much to do with this last installment, there wasn’t enough leg work undertaken that allowed the fullest and, therefore, proper execution of the matter, but it seemed to me that the idea itself was intuitive enough to permit the viewer to pick up the slack, although, one rather wishes that that wasn’t necessary.

Zogatha finally caught Dracula out when she identified his inadequacies (as he perceives them) not as monster, but as a man: raised in a cultural milieu that valorised the performance of manhood through martial violence and meaningful death on the battlefield (“you were a warrior”), he has been unable to satisfactorily follow this trajectory because of (what was, presumably, unlooked for) immortality.
He had effectively internalised this shame with such conviction and severity, that a full and meaningful death had become to him an abject fear of mortal demise in any form that is neither useful to him nor, literally, to his taste.

As we have come to realise, internalised controls become beliefs become externalised behaviours: Dracula found he could not disobey the legendary interdictions because he thought, believed, he could not. It was the weaknesses which added to his self-perception of legend. 

In other words,  I found this to be a rather direct metaphor for fragile and toxic masculinity.

Zogatha, at long last, broke that cycle of destruction for him but he was incapable of fully embracing it for he, like Zoe’s health, was too far gone.

A traditional story which possesses a romantically inclined woman to be the source of a male character’s unearned self-development and/or “rescue” is cliché, trite and hangs everything on shifting emotional labor onto the shoulders of the woman. However, I don’t think this was the case Dracula was making,  in fact, I believe it was the antithesis, despite how problematic Moffat’s writing has a tendency to be.

Firstly, it didn’t seem to me that Dracula was rescued or redeemed: he remained ultimately selfish, taking what he wanted from another person in order to serve himself. He used Zogatha’s body to commit suicide, even though she effectively saved him and in all honesty, it required very little further effort on his part. On the surface, this may seem like a one-sided victory but truthfully, Zogatha was the one who prevailed due to the fact she forced Dracula to come to terms with his weaknesses and folly, but at a heavy and unavoidable price.

Contrariwise, the writing team really needed to sort out the rules and regulations of vampire lore: an insistence on the inability to commit suicide was overturned here as one might infer that all rules are null, including that of self-destruction, but this doesn’t quite hold up. For example, there was no adequate explanation as to why Lucy should have been trapped in her burnt state. Why could she not feed and regenerate, as Dracula had done, when both age and injury caused damage to his body?

This is one of the messy technical elements that required greater consistency, I won’t deny.

Secondly, their relationship wasn’t romantic in the slightest, at least, not in the way we ordinarily perceive romance.

Neither Zoe nor Agatha were friends to him, nor were they lovers. They were/she was a nemesis about whom he came to experience some sensation of care through his intellectual intrigue about her. His observation about her being in pain and the lingering gaze of the Dracula-focalised camerawork on her person in the last scene were signposts that he had come to think (somewhat, at least for him) conscientiously about her. His conversation with the abused housewife at the top of the episode was also, I’d conjecture, a demonstration that Dracula was, or was at least becoming, capable of articulating a potential connection between violent action and altruistic outcomes – even if at that stage, altruism had no authentic purpose for him. His glimmers of self-reflection (pardon the pun) were vague glimmers of change in him. Were they enough to change the course of his and Zogatha’s fate? Absolutely not, but a cautionary tale doesn’t need to be completely bleak.

Zoe, notably, was less contemptuous, less confrontational, and more desirous of seeing humanity in him than Agatha, and this was what made Zoe necessary. His submerged but increasingly apparent form of care for her/them, however, was, as many things, rushed. He was ready to kick the bucket from beneath Agatha’s feet and watch her choke in the second episode; his turnaround in the final installment is explicable but rather precipitate.

In any case, it is for the first time that Dracula engages in a transaction that isn’t entirely a one-way deal. He uses the erotic dream-state one last time, not as a weapon, but as a salve. Zogatha was dying with or without his intervention, and so he called a halt to her pain. Eroticism is characteristically a misdirection, and, crucially, in this situation, an anaesthetic.

Remember when Dracula told Agatha that the vampires’ kiss was an opiate? Opiates are used for patients in palliative care where comfort is key, no longer the cure.

This is also the only scene in which Dracula had literally been naked since the extremely memorable convent gate spectacle: he had been stripped/had willingly permitted himself to be stripped, and only Zogatha could have done it.

She taught him to meet death with the calm acceptance she had long held before he; the implication of her accusation of him showing cowardice was that he had been unconsciously self-governing through an outdated form of masculinity.
To my self-admitted dismay, this scene didn’t chase that down, and a conversation about change, about his relationship to time, his understanding of himself could have occurred, given that as he asserted on the liminal Beach of Blood, somewhat ironically, as it turns out, that his age means he is used to the ebb and flow of alteration. Given his self-aware fin-de-siecle campiness in the first episode particularly, he has not, presumably, always been thus.

All discrepancies aside, the true essence of the story turned out to have been about Dracula and Agatha (and latterly with Zogatha) all along and fittingly, it ended where it truly began; an infinite of complexities between two minds. 

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