Thursday, October 23, 2014

Once bitten...

As promised, here’s the story of my history with vampires. It’s pretty funny, I’d daresay, except it wasn’t for me (at the time) and it wasn’t for my parents (and still isn’t to this day).

I was 5 or 6, something like that, and the wild imagination I’ve possessed pretty much from the womb was well up and running by that point. Also, I’d been raised on scary movies. One of the local TV stations (we only had 3 back in those days, one for each of the 3 networks) used to run old monster and Horror movies on Sunday mornings. “Science Fiction Theatre,” it was called. I’ve searched in vain for some record of that weekly program in the annals of local television lore but have always turned up empty-handed. The only trace of this beloved and oh-so-important introduction and indoctrination for me into the world of spooky cinema lies permanently imprinted in my memories. The first movie I can remember seeing was King Kong (the original, of course), and I can well remember the anticipation I felt when my mother told me that the next week’s offering would be Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster. Some others I remember seeing are Blood and Black Lace, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, and Mighty Joe Young. As these were old movies, they were “clean” and thus safe, and my parents quickly figured out that when they parked me in front of the TV set with one of these monsters or spooks to entertain me I’d sit quietly and rather harmlessly for the 2 hour duration. They loved Science Fiction Theatre almost as I did, I think, for that reason. They got peace. And I was in heaven. My love of Monster movies and the Horror genre was born of those Sunday mornings.

Knowing I’d watched plenty of scary movies and, instead of having nightmares, had found them entrancing, they thought nothing about it when the miniseries Salem’s Lot came on television one week and I wanted to watch it. This adaptation of Stephen King’s novel has both its admirers and detractors, but it will forever remain for me the scariest movie I have ever seen.

Remember the sitcom Alice? It was about a diner owner named Mel and several of the waitresses who worked there. I remember it, though not as clearly as I wish I did, same as with so many things from my earliest childhood. Alice got a spin-off series, called Flo, wherein the popular character from the original series went off and opened her own restaurant. (You may remember Flo for her trademark line, “Kiss my grits!” I have wondered if this character, played by Polly Holiday of Gremlins fame, may have been the inspiration for the Progressive Insurance spokeswoman of the same name.) Okay, so, Flo starred Geoffrey Lewis in a supporting role as a character named Earl. We always watched Flo, and I knew Earl well. But I failed to recognize Lewis as one of the vampires in the miniseries Salem’s Lot. Guess I couldn’t get past the glowing eyes and the fangs.

There comes this scene wherein vampire Earl is sitting in a chair, and he turns his head to look at the camera. Speaking to another character, it looks as if he is speaking to the viewer, i.e. he seemed to be speaking directly to ME. “Look at me!” he hisses. I almost climbed the back of the couch. Actually, I did climb the back of the couch. I ALMOST climbed up the WALL. “But that’s Earl!” my mother tried to reassure me. “You’re not afraid of Earl, are you?” Oh, hell yes I was. My mother intuited that it was now time for me to go to bed. Too late. That image was branded into my mind for eternity.
I would have been fine, though. I had no bad dreams that night. I would have forgotten about Earl the vampire with his glowing eyes; only we went to the grocery store the next day.

Remember that imagination I mentioned? It’s important. I was also in some ways a precocious kid. I knew, even at 5 or 6, that the news was real, whereas movies and TV were not. If it was on the nightly news, it was true. Likewise if it was printed in a newspaper. I think this was driven home to me on the day Elvis died. My mother cried upon hearing the news. I was confused, as she didn’t usually cry when someone died on TV. She explained to me, in language I could grasp, that those other deaths were fictitious. But Elvis had REALLY died. Thus the evening news was always real to me. Or more real, anyway.

(I also remember being terrified over coverage of the Atlanta Child Murders. Atlanta was a long way away, I knew, but I didn’t know HOW far, and what was to stop the killer from getting in his car and driving to MY house to get ME? That I was a white kid living way out in the countryside of rural Alabama, and thus probably in no danger from the Atlanta kid killer, that didn’t register.)

I did not, at that young age, understand what a tabloid was, or that tabloids are different than newspapers. They LOOKED like newspapers, didn’t they, especially the ones in black-and-white, like this one was, the one with the big bold headline VAMPIRES ARE REAL!!! And then in smaller print underneath it, VAMPIRES ARE ROAMING OUR STREETS—AND THEY ARE THIRSTY. Yup. That did it. A newspaper had said it; ergo it had to be true. Vampire Earl was REAL. Vampire Earl could come into MY bedroom window and get ME on any given night.

What followed were several WEEKS of me living in mortal fear of vampires. Lots of sleeping with the parents. I would cut little crosses out of cardboard cereal boxes, reinforce them with masking tape, and affix them to the walls of the house with thumbtacks. Not just in the bedroom I shared with my little brother, but all over the house. I would sharpen sticks to use as stakes. I had this one large piece of wood, about a foot-and-a-half long, sharp on one end, that I drew crosses on to lend it extra efficacy against the undead, and I actually slept with the thing! (I sure wish I’d kept it. I’d love to have it today.) And as if I wasn’t traumatized enough, somewhere in the midst of all this hysteria, either my parents weren’t watching or I snuck behind their backs or something. Anyway, I also saw DRACULA for the very first time. Because, y’know, vampire Earl wasn’t scary enough, with his orange eyes and hissing and all that. Noooo, I needed to top that, reinforcing my phobia by replacing vampire Earl with a far scarier, far more threatening Bela Lugosi.
When they’d focus on him, with his face largely in shadow but the light zeroed in around his eyes to make them seem to glow, and he would stare right at the camera, right at ME…Oh, snap.

Weeks beget weeks. My parents drew the line when I wanted to hang garlic up over all the windows.
“He ain’t never watchin’ another g*ddamn scary movie!” my father cursed.
“Well, YOU let him watch it!” my mother reminded him.
“I didn’t now he’d pull this $#it!” my father retorted.

Neither of them thought to blame the tabloid as much as, or more than, the movie. I’d taken one look at that headline and felt THE FEAR. You’ve all had the experience. It’s a primal, animal reaction to fear, this cold feeling that goes shooting through you. Left brain or right brain, I can’t remember which, but I’ve read about the sensation. It’s common to all human beings. You all know, it isn’t pleasant. You might feel it when you’re in a car wreck, right before you hit. That tabloid headline did it to me. And vampire Earl. And Bela Lugosi. I had a Dracula action figure, released in the early 80s, comparable in size to the original Star Wars action figures and doubtless intended for play along with them. (Drac and Darth Vader teaming up? Now THAT is scary.)
I took the action figure and destroyed it. Just LOOKING at it reminded me of my fears. I also threw away a copy of Marvel’s Dracula comic book I had in the house, and this kids’ magazine about monsters that featured Dracula. Yes, I was genuinely THAT disturbed.

Time passed. My parents relented soon enough. I went on to watch other scary films. None of them bothered me. My fear of vampires remained, though, for some YEARS. Then the most curious thing happened. As I grew older, that terror I had felt somehow became transformed into affection, then into love, a passionate love, for vampires in particular and for Dracula specifically. As profound and powerful as had been my fear, equally so, and moreso, became my love and devotion. I went from living in mortal fear that a vampire would come tapping on my bedroom window some night to a fervent desire that one would. Today, I’d give ol’ vampire Earl a hug, as a small child would embrace a teddy bear. And my love for the Count, the King of all vampires, is so intense that I went out a few years ago and got myself a Dracula tattoo. I wear a Dracula prop ring, an exact replica of the one worn by Bela and by Christopher Lee in the movies. I won’t even go into how many Dracula action figures I have (Yes, I replaced that one from my childhood. He stands now on top of my computer.), how many books I’ve read about him, how many of the movies I’ve seen. I wore a Dracula T-shirt and movie prop medallion to an awards banquet a couple of years back, where I won an award for my original play DRACULA: LORD OF THE VAMPIRES—which I dedicated to Bela Lugosi.

It explains a lot about me, doesn’t it, how I became warped in such a peculiar and wonderful way? I owe vampire Earl and Dracula a lot. And my parents, for being dumb enough to let me watch Salem’s Lot. (AT least when I saw Dracula, it was shown during the day. That fact may be the only thing that kept me out of an institution.)

These days, I hang welcome signs outside my windows instead of garlic. No, I’m not “Goth.” I don’t sleep during the day, believing myself to be, or playacting as, a real vampire. I don’t crave or drink blood. (Ugh. Gross, much?) And while I am all about freedom, and believe that what is done between consenting adults is patently their business, I’m not at all interested in the practices of real-life “vampires,” though I have met a few, and they seemed like nice enough people. But not until one of them turns into a bat or rises from the dead will they command the kind of fascination for me that does the vampire of Myth.

Note the use of the capital M for the word, there. To understand the difference between “myth” and “Myth,” check out the writings of Joseph Campbell. Myth is something profound and primal, as primal as that left brain or right brain stimulus of fear I described above. A “myth” is a made-up story. “Myth” is potent. Myth can bite you. It sure bit me.

And boy am I glad that it did.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I've been crazy busy with Evil Cheez business, as I said. This past weekend we closed my show THE BELLES OF WHITECHAPEL (I am pleased to announce it was a big success, both in terms of attendance and in audience reception) and I immediately went to work on our annual October fundraiser. This year we're doing a live reenactment of a certain George Romero classic; we're calling it NIGHT(S) OF THE LIVING DEAD, and I'm hopeful it will be worth the effort it's taking to put it together. Safeguarding an historical site from a zombie rampage is a lot of work! The rest of my week will be consumed with the task.

I did get a chance on Indigenous Peoples Day to go see DRACULA UNTOLD. Those who know me know all about my thing with the Count. He's my all-time favorite (semi) fictional character (tied maybe with Batman and with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan), my most beloved of the classic monsters. I've studied in great detail both the fictitious vampire and the real-life monster who inspired him, Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, surnamed Dracula and often called "Tsepish," the Impaler. (Note: The real Drac was WAY scarier than the literary one.) Thus a movie attempting to fuse the historical with the fantastical, to give the world's most famous vampire an origin story, was certain to have me salivating, all quivering with anticipation. Also, it was guaranteed to have me worried. Would it do Drac justice? Would it measure up? Would I find it WORTHY? My expectations and requirements for a Dracula movie are pretty damn high, after all. As high as that victim Vlad had impaled on the highest stake, so he would be above the smell of all the rotting corpses he'd complained about.

What did I think, then, of DRACULA UNTOLD?

I freakin' LOVED it. Luke Evans is a worthy successor to the great actors who've portrayed Dracula in ages past. And the cinematography is magnificent. My only complaint? I wanted more. Editors did a hatchet job on this film. They completely cut out the subplot, which really needed to be there. Maybe we'll get those scenes put back in for the DVD, but still. Beautiful Samantha Barks of Le Mis fame as that infamous witch of Russian folklore, Baba Yaga? Gone. And the "lord vampire" guy, the beast in the cave, with whom Drac strikes his unholy bargain? Did you know that guy was the mad Roman dictator Caligula? Probably not. But you would have, if they'd left that revelation in the movie. (Caligula provides the creepiest parts of the movie overall. I would've liked to have seen more of him.) I loved the movie in spite of the atrocious editing; Maybe it would be more accurate to say I loved all there was of it. But it felt incomplete. How much more would I have loved it had I been served the complete meal and not just the appetizer? Blame it on the short collective attention span of the typical audience today, overdosed of video games and smartphones and other sparkly whatsiwhosits, unable to follow a narrative if there aren't bells and whistles every few seconds. Or blame it on the simple-minded studio execs who try to predict the exact brevity of that paltry attention span and then try to cow to it. Whatever. I don't want this post to turn into a indictment of the Hollywood moviemaking machine. That would take me a while. Too long. Suffice it to say that DRACULA UNTOLD still remains partly untold, and that's a shame. Because what they DID bother to tell us was awesome.

(Drac and me have an interesting history. Me and vampires in general, really. I'll tell you about that next time. Right now, still too busy. Gotta run. Zombies calling!)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Catching Up

It's been a bit longer since my last post than I would've liked, but I've been crazy busy as of late. This past weekend saw the premiere of my newest play, THE BELLES OF WHITECHAPEL: THE VICTIMS OF JACK THE RIPPER SPEAK. I'd say it was a success, maybe even a resounding success. Opening night we had a relatively small crowd, but they were a good crowd, and I'd take a smaller audience that's really into the show than a full house of apathy ANYtime. Saturday night we had an audience both relatively large in number (relative to our venue, which is smaller in size) and totally into what they were seeing. And Sunday we were near capacity with our largest crowd yet, and they were digging the show in a major way. Needless to say I am pleased, and looking forward to this coming weekend and our three remaining performances.

I'd hoped people would like the show, and kinda figured they would, based on reactions I've gotten to previous events done in a similar vein. But I hadn't really expected it to affect folks quite as much as it did. All three shows, we had several people in the audience in tears. One lady told us, "It was so much more touching than I had expected." This was the best of compliments to me, second only to the fact that a couple of folks came back to see the show a second time. If you get repeat customers, that means they liked it, they really liked it.

I'm always looking for gratification as a writer first and as a director second. When I get accolades for both, well, that's Christmas morning for me. It's especially pleasing to me in that I seem to have succeeded at giving the "stars" of the play, the victims of Jack the Ripper, individual voices. The number of women murdered by the killer (or killerS, plural) colloquially called "Jack the Ripper" in the slums of London in the year 1888 is debated by scholars to this day. Of all the characteristics they shared, however many of them there were--all prostitutes, all alcoholics, all poor--they also have in common that few people not intense students of the case (dubbed "Ripperologists") could actually tell you their names or anything about them. They are just "the victims." Supporting players to the star of the stage, Gentleman Jack himself. Nameless, voiceless, important only in that their deaths and subsequent mutilations are what made ol' Saucy Jack so famous, a celebrity.

But they weren't unimportant, though. They were, each one of them, somebody's mother, somebody's daughter, somebody's sister. There were people who loved them. These women deserve to be remembered as more than mere paper doll cutouts with numbers affixed in red ink, the order of their designation, names attached to dates and spots on a map. They should be known for more than just their being murder victims. I tried to make each of them real. I did my research. I believe I've gotten as close as is possible to depicting their real personalities. There were spots missing in their histories, yes, but they were small spots, and these I filled in with guesswork and the type of characterization I would try to lovingly instill in any fictional character I'd created. The fact that I got so many compliments regarding the unexpected poignancy of the case, and elicited so many tears from patrons, tells me that I got it right. And that makes me feel really good.

Of course I realize that I couldn't have done it without my performers. As I told them, all my words were just ink on paper until they brought them to life. I like to think that I, and they, did the ladies, the real Belles of Whitechapel, proper honor. Gena Rawdon, Amber Dickey, Tanja Miller, Sue Hassett, Rebecca England, Marcie Jay, Melissa Braswell, Sandy Federico and Nina Soden--take a bow, ladies. Again. You have my gratitude. Perchance you have the gratitude of the real Belles, too. I'd sure like to think so.

(I'd also be remiss not to give kudos to my able Assistant Director, Jeremy "Sass Master Flash" Woods, who brought his A game to this, his first directorial project. One would find it hard to believe that Jeremy, who possesses a depth and introspective maturity that belies his mere 31 years of age, hadn't been doing it for a long stretch already.)

Final scorecard, then:

Number of performances so far: 3

Number of audience members who cried: Hard to say. I'd estimate at least 20.

Number of people who walked out: 4 (If SOMEbody didn't walk out of one of my shows, I'd start to lose faith in myself. It could be the patrons in question had something come up that required them to leave, rather than them being offended at the subject matter. There's no cussin' or such in the show, but the subject of murder is too much for some delicate sensibilities, I reckon. If any of those 4 did leave for that reason, I wonder if they were expecting something different, a romantic comedy, say. (You'd think the words "Jack the Ripper' in the title would have tipped 'em off, right?)

Number of people who came back for a second performance: 2 (Makes up for half those who left, at least. Nah, it makes up for all 4 of 'em.)

Number of people who thought that some of my actresses were really British: 3 (Good job with the accents, girls!)

Number of performances left: 3

Number of regrets the Director has about doing this show, and the writer has about writing it: 0. And I reckon that's about as good as anybody could ever hope for.

Come check out THE BELLES OF WHITECHAPEL this weekend, if you're in the neighborhood. Unless you're expecting a Rom-Com, I think you'll like it.

But maybe you should bring some Kleenex. These ladies are pulling no punches.